Mahdist State, Mahdiyya

views updated


The Sudanese Mahdi became known in the eastern Sudan (bilad al-Sudan) in June 1881 when he began to dispatch letters to local leaders proclaiming himself the Expected Mahdi. He was Muhammad Ahmad ibn ˓Abdallah and about forty years old. He had been a member of the Sammaniyya sufi tariqa in the north of the country, but due to dissatisfaction with one of his teachers he moved to the Nile River island of Aba, south of Khartoum. There he established himself with a small band of followers, among whom was his future successor, ˓Abdullahi ibn Muhammad.

The Sudan was then an Ottoman-Egyptian colony, and the regime was known locally as the Turkiyya. By the 1870s, however, the colonial state was thoroughly neglected by the rulers based in Egypt, creating opportunities for revolt. The administration and significant sectors of the colonial economy had substantial European participation right up to the level of governor. A few Sudanese were part of the government but most of the indigenous peoples resented their foreign rulers. The exclusion of Muslim Sudanese from leading roles in the colony, but the inclusion of non-Muslim Europeans, also disturbed pious Muslims such as the Mahdi. Slavery was under attack by the British, and abolition threatened the livelihoods of many northern Sudanese slave traders. These slave-traders threw their weight behind the mahdist movement.

The Mahdi came to address what he and his followers thought was an oppressive authority, and one that was contravening Islamic precepts. They challenged this situation and believed that a movement would emerge throughout the land to overthrow the regime. The Mahdi's calculation, however, that a countrywide revolt would follow his calls was never realized. This political failure was offset by success in the sphere of religious influence. Much support for the Mahdi was based on the belief that he was a divinely inspired figure. The religious dimension of his mission was perhaps more significant than its political impact.

The Mahdiyya was an indigenous northern Sudanese phenomenon, but the Mahdi modeled himself and his movement on the early Islamic community of the Prophet of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. His followers were called ansar (helpers), just as the Prophet's supporters in Medina were named. The Mahdi preached jihad against the infidels, collected zakat (tax on wealth) instead of the range of colonial taxes, and strove to impose shari˓a prohibitions and punishments. His successor, who was appointed when the Mahdi was on his deathbed, was given the title khalifa (caliph), as was the Prophet's successor. Indeed, Khalifa ˓Abdullahi was named khalifa al-Siddiq, the latter term usually associated with the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr.

For the first two years of his mission, the Mahdi was confined to the province of Kordofan, but soon his forces began to spread slowly to the north along the Nile River. Thereafter his supporters increased and brought large parts of the west and east of the country under their control. Important towns such as El-Obeid, the main city of Kordofan, fell in January 1883, and the defeat of the expedition of Colonel William Hicks at Shaykan in September of the same year bolstered the movement tremendously.

The already weak government in Cairo was unable to do much to stem the tide of the Mahdi's success, and the British, who had recently occupied Egypt (in 1882), were hesitant to act. When General Charles Gordon was dispatched to the Sudan, he was sent with contradictory instructions: to restore "good government" and to evacuate the colony. When he reached Khartoum he wrote to the Mahdi, offering him the sultanship of Kordofan. The Mahdi rejected the offer, for he had much bigger ambitions that transcended mere political authority, especially when that authority was confined to an isolated province.

In October 1884 the Mahdi arrived on the banks of the Nile River opposite Khartoum and laid siege to the capital. In January of the following year Khartoum fell to the Mahdists. Instead of installing himself there, the Mahdi established a new capital, called Omdurman, opposite the old one. There he died in June 1885. His body was buried and a tomb was built over his gravesite. But the Mahdi's tomb was destroyed, and his body disinterred in the reconquest of the Sudan by Sir Herbert Kitchener in 1898.

The reign of the Mahdi's successor, Khalifa ˓Abdullahi, opened with the new state's armies engaged on multiple fronts: in the west to pacify the state of Dar Fur, on the Ethiopian marches against the Christian state, and on the Egyptian border. Against the Ethiopian fighters the Mahdists were successful, but elsewhere they met defeat. The Khalifa also had to deal with a number of pretenders, "false mahdis" who sought to claim his position. Furthermore, internal schisms surfaced between various layers of supporters who were dissatisfied with the Khalifa's policies. The ashraf, from the Mahdi's own kinsmen, were dissatisfied with the hegemony of the Ta˓aisha, the Khalifa's clan. There were also a series of ecological challenges, including bad harvests and epidemics that led to famine between 1889 and 1990. As a result, by the early 1890s the Khalifa's armies were easily beaten in numerous engagements. Their final defeat came at the hands of Lord Kitchener, beginning in August 1897 and continuing until the last battle at Karari, outside Omdurman, in September 1898. Thousands of Sudanese fighters were killed or wounded, whereas the Anglo-Egyptian losses numbered fewer than fifty dead and four hundred wounded.

This was the end of the Mahdiyya, but its influence did not end there nor in the Sudan. Rather, it spread throughout the Bilad al-Sudan. Right into the late 1920s the new colonial state had to deal with smaller mahdist revivals undertaken by local spiritual leaders (called fekis in the Sudan), often done in the name of ˓Isa (Jesus). The religious idea in these uprisings was that nabi Isa (prophet Jesus) would appear after the death of the Mahdi, to herald the end of time.

In its short history the Mahdist state was able to put in place the foundations of a coherent and workable administration. There was a judiciary, and judgments were based on the classical Islamic methods of juristic thought, although the Mahdi also sometimes relied on his own intuition as the Mahdi, a man with divinely inspired authority. There was a bayt al-mal (roughly, a Department of Finance or Treasury) which kept detailed records, taxed the subjects, and distributed wealth. The state minted its own coins for the local economy. In addition there was the military.

Under the Khalifa, the administration that had been put in place by the Mahdi lost its reputation and drifted into corruption. The Khalifa, for instance, acquired a private army for himself and a separate share of the bayt al-mal. However, the state under the Khalifa was not as wholly corrupt as it has sometimes been judged, although it did divert from the strictly puritanical path of the its founder. The Mahdist state relied on local personnel and expertise and generated a huge body of correspondence, declarations, and other written material that has made it possible for historians to study this rare example of an African Muslim millernarian movement and state.

See alsoAfrica, Islam in ; Islam and Other Religions ; Mahdi ; Muhammad Ahmad ibn ˓Abdullah ; Zar .


Holt, P. M. The Mahdist State in the Sudan 1881–1898: AStudy of Its Origins, Development and Overthrow. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1958.

Holt, P. M.; and Daly, M. W. A History of the Sudan: From theComing of Islam to the Present Day, 5th ed. Essex, U.K.: Longman, 2000.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in the Sudan. London: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Shamil Jeppie