The Ansar (in Arabic, the Helpers or Followers) had three components during the Turko–Egyptian period in the Sudan: the religious disciples of the Mahdi, who joined him on Aba Island in 1881 and followed him on his hijra (holy flight) to Kurdufan that summer; the baqqara (cattle-herding Arab) nomads of Kurdufan and Darfur, who traditionally opposed the authority of the central government and one of whose members, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, succeeded the Mahdi as ruler; and members of the Ja'aliyyin and Danaqla tribes of north Sudan who had been dispersed to the southwest where they became traders. Others also joined the Ansar from the Nuba tribe in southern Kurdufan and the Hadendowa (Beja) near the Red Sea. The Ansar thus joined the Mahdi for a combination of religious and material motives: the belief in him as the heir to the prophet Muhammad; and the benefit derived from him against government control and taxes.
When the Turko–Egyptian government was defeated in January 1885 and Abdallahi succeeded the Mahdi as ruler in June 1885, strains appeared among the Ansar. Those reflected tensions between the tribes that originated in the Nile valley (awlad albalad) and those from the west (awlad al-Arab). Moreover, they reflected the tribes' resentment that the new government imposed taxes and control in a manner not dissimilar to the previous regime. Nonetheless, Abdallahi ruled the Sudan until 1898, when Anglo–Egyptian forces defeated the Ansar and Abdallahi died.
The Mahdi's posthumous son, Sayyid Abd alRahman, gradually regained authority in the traditional Mahdist areas during the 1920s and 1930s. Even in 1908, the Anglo–Egyptian government permitted him to cultivate land on Aba Island, the Mahdi's original stronghold. During World War I, he won contracts from the government to supply wood from the island for river steamers and, in the early 1920s, he won government contracts to supply materials to construct the Sennar Dam. The government also allowed him to cultivate substantial areas distant from Aba Island. Ansar from Kurdufan and Darfur worked on those projects, generally without pay. They received food and clothing from Sayyid Abd al-Rahman, who also conferred his blessing upon them. The economic and religious blessings were mutually reinforcing and helped provide the basis for his subsequent political strength.
The British authorities supported Sayyid Abd al-Rahman because he served as a counter to the nationalist politicians influenced by Egypt. He founded the Umma Party in 1945, which pressed for the separation of the Sudan from Egypt. The Ansar underlined his power: When the Egyptian president came on 1 March 1954, for example, to inaugurate the parliament in Khartoum, 40,000 Ansar demonstrated and the ceremony was postponed. When the Egyptians relinquished their claims to rule the Sudan, Umma participated in the first independent government (January 1956).
Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi died on 24 March 1959 and was succeeded by his son Sayyid Siddiq al-Mahdi as head of the Ansar and the Umma Party. When he died in September 1961, his brother Sayyid al-Hadi al-Mahdi became imam (leader) of the Ansar and his son Sayyid al-Sadiq al-Mahdi headed the Umma Party. That bifurcation weakened the movement, since al-Sadiq al-Mahdi challenged his uncle's authority. When Jaʿfar Muhammad alNumiri seized power in a coup d'état in May 1969, he determined to destroy the power of the Ansar. After clashes between the army and the Ansar in Omdurman and Aba Island, Numiri launched an attack by the air force on Aba Island on 27 March 1970. Hundreds of Ansar died, Imam al-Hadi was killed as he attempted escape to Ethiopia, and alSadiq al-Mahdi fled into exile. Numiri confiscated the Mahdi family's holdings, to undermine their economic power.
Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi was a leader of the exiled opposition to Numiri and mounted a major attempt to overthrow the regime in July 1976. When he and Numiri reconciled in 1977, he returned to the Sudan and slowly rebuilt the economic and religious bases of the Ansar. When Numiri was overthrown, the Ansar-based Umma Party won 38 percent of the vote in April 1986, and al-Sadiq al-Mahdi became prime minister. He, in turn, was overthrown by a coup d'état on 30 June 1989. By then, Ansar was no longer a formidable paramilitary force. Its 1 to 2 million members provided guaranteed votes for the Umma Party but were not the cohesive movement that they had been in previous years.
see also abd al-rahman al-mahdi; mahdi.
Holt, P. M., and Daly, M. W. The History of the Sudan, from the Coming of Islam to the Present Day, 5th edition. Harlow, U.K., and New York: Longman, 2000.
Niblock, Tim. Class and Power in Sudan: The Dynamics of Sudanese Politics, 1898–1985. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
Shebeika, Mekki. The Independent Sudan. New York: R. Speller, 1959.
Ann M. Lesch