Mahdist State

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Independent government formed in the northern Sudan from 1885 to 1898.

The Mahdist state was established in the Sudan in January 1885 by Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdullah, the self-declared mahdi (the expected divine leader of Islam), after he routed the Turko-Egyptian government and armed forces. He died 22 June 1885 and was succeeded by Muhammad Turshain Abdullahi, who ruled as Khalifat al-Mahdi (successor of the Mahdi) until 1898. Abdullahi, the Mahdi's closest lieutenant since 1881, commanded the army, treasury, and daily administration during the rebellion. A member of the Taʿaysha tribe, he led the troops of the baqqara (cattle-herding) nomads of the western provinces of Kordofan and Darfur.

Khalifa Abdullahi transformed a tribally based, religious-nationalist uprising into a centralized bureaucratic state that controlled most of the northern Sudan. From 1885 to 1891, his rule was contested by the Ashraf (relatives of the Mahdi) and their supporters in the tribes that originated in the Nile valley (awlad al-balad). The Khalifa, whose troops controlled the capital of Omdurman and the corn-growing Gezira, prevented the Mahdi's kinsman Khalifa Muhammad Sharif ibn Hamid from being named ruler and deposed most of the military and administrative leaders of the awlad al-balad army. The Khalifa also feared losing control over the baqqara forces and even his Taʿaysha tribe and therefore, in March 1888, ordered them to march to the capital and serve as his standing army. There, the Taʿaysha had to be placated by massive supplies of food and gold, and their presence exacerbated the Khalifa's rift with the awlad al-balad. When the Ashraf attempted a final rebellion in November 1891, the Khalifa destroyed their military and bureaucratic power.

Natural calamities in 1889/90 led to famine and epidemics, which were exacerbated by the limited administrative capacities of the government and the food requirements of the troops. The exodus of the tribal forces also reduced grain and cattle production in the west while overburdening the Nile valley. Meanwhile, the Khalifa regularized the operations of the state treasury and reintroduced the taxes and administrative methods of the Turko-Egyptian period. Moreover, he organized a 9,000-person bodyguard, commanded by his son Uthman Shaykh al-Din. Called the Mulazimiyya, that half-slave force superseded the Taʿaysha tribe as the principal military support for the regime. The Khalifa thus isolated and destroyed any alternative power centers and consolidated his control over the state apparatus.

The territorial limits of the Mahdist state encompassed most of today's northern Sudan. Its control of the Nile river route through the south was tenuous: it only ruled Bahr al-Ghazal in 1885/86, and Belgian and French expeditions began to penetrate the south in the mid-1890s. The Khalifa controlled Darfur from 1887 to 1889, but the border region with Ethiopia remained contested and British troops controlled Suwakin port on the Red Sea. Seesaw battles with Ethiopia helped to open the way for Italy to consolidate control over Eritrea and to capture grain-rich Kassallah, and for Britain to capture the Tukar region south of Suwakin.

The Mahdi had envisioned that his revolution would spread throughout the Muslim world. But the Khalifa's effort to march on Egypt was crushed at the battle near Tushki on the Egyptian frontier, 3 August 1889. (The Khalifa had sent messages inviting Britain's Queen Victoria, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the khedive of Egypt to submit to the Mahdiyya.) The Khalifa then focused on consolidating his administration at home, rather than attempting to spread the message abroad.

The Mahdist state fell in 1898, not as a result of internal disintegration, but at the hands of the superior power of the Anglo-Egyptian army led by Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener. His forces entered the Sudan in early 1896 from Egypt and constructed a railway system as they moved south. In April 1898, three thousand Sudanese died in the battle at Atbara; eleven thousand died in the battle of Karari, north of Omdurman, on 2 September 1898, which marked the end of the Mahdist state. The Khalifa escaped to the west, dying in the battle of Umma Diwaykarat, near Kosti, 24 November 1899.

The Mahdist movement was based on a blend of religion, social discontent, and antiforeign sentiment. In its short time span, the Mahdist state became bureaucratized and lost its religious aura. Although the tribes resented taxes and the controls imposed by government, the increasingly complex administration and judiciary stabilized the regime and enabled it to rule over wide expanses for its thirteen years.

see also abdullahi, muhammad turshain; ahmad, muhammad; ansar, al-; kassallah; khartoum; kitchener, horatio herbert; sudan.


Holt, P. M., and Daly, M. W. The History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam the Present Day, 5th edition. Harlow, U.K., and New York: Longman, 2000.

Shebeika, Mekki. The Independent Sudan. New York: Speller, 1959.

ann m. lesch