Founder: Muhammad Ahmad (b. 1844; d. 1885)

Proclamations of the advent of the Mahdi (God-guided one) have been numerous in Islamic history and while some have met with little response others such as that made by the Sudanese Muhammad Ahmad, a shyakh of a sufi and/or or mystical brotherhood, on Aba Island on the White Nile in June 1881 had widespread social and political as well as religious repercussions not only in the Sudan but across the Muslim world.

Although politics and religion are not easily separated from each other in the particular context of the rise of the Mahdia in the Sudan, as in others, the religious motives were more evident at the beginning of the Mahdi’s revolt than secular ones. The primary goal at the outset was, as in the case of so many other jihadi movements, the reform of Islam both in the Sudan and beyond. Closely linked to this objective was the ousting of the Turco-Egyptian regime, which at the time was administering the Sudan. The Mahdi finally accomplished this with the defeat in January 1885 of General Gordon at Khartoum, who having withdrawn from the Sudan in 1882, had returned to quell the Mahdist uprising.

With this victory Muhammad Ahmad and his followers believed they had put an end to the tyranny of Turco-Egyptian administration and military. Turco-Egyptian forces had conquered the Sudan in 1821 mainly for financial reasons and had divided it into two provinces administered and garrisoned by Turco-Egyptian officials and troops. The frequent imposition of heavy taxation and attempts to alter the character of Sudanese Islam which included attempts to replace the existing Maliki school of Islamic law with the Hanafite school led to frequent revolts which culminated in the Mahdi’s revolution.

Having overthrown Turco-Egyptian rule the Mahdi was persuaded that he was now in a position to spread his purified form of Islam to North Africa and beyond. But first his plans were to create a theocracy in the Sudan. This was to take the form of a state modeled on that of the Muslim community that had existed in the early days of Islam during the period of governance of the first four Caliphs and known as the Golden Age of Islam. As to his own position and claim to authority his letters stress that he believed himself to have been divinely chosen as Mahdi and successor of the Prophet Muhammad. He also believed that his chief followers were divinely chosen to be the successors of the Prophet’s companions (ansar).

The Mahdi established his headquarters at Omdurman just north of Khartoum which became a large, sprawling camp city and one that depended greatly for security on his revolutionary army which was largely tribal in origin and consisted of three divisions under three commanders. After his death in 1885 in Omdurman Abd Allahi, known as the khalifa al-Mahdi (successor of the Mahdi), prosecuted jihad or holy war along the Egyptian and Ethiopian frontiers and in Darfur to the West but with little lasting success. Though internal dissention and revolts weakened the Mahdist theocracy they were not sufficiently well supported to undermine it and it only finally collapsed when conquered by the British in 1898.

The response from African societies outside the Sudan varied. Hundreds of thousands of mainly peasant farmers from as far afield as northern Nigeria were to accept Muhammad Abmad as the Mahdi and laid down their tools to go East to live under the system of theocratic rule which he had established. Influential scholars (ulama) including those of Al-Azhar university in Egypt, denounced the revolt as ‘sectarian’. Innumerable treatises were composed by the learned to refute Muhammad Ahmad’s claims to be the Mahdi, treatises which he then rejected on the basis that the rational arguments which they contained were greatly inferior to the revelations he had received from Allah. As to the colonial authorities in the Sudan, East and West Africa, they were to remain in constant fear of Mahdist uprisings until well into the twentieth century and devoted considerable resources to the task of curtailing what they referred to as Mahdist propaganda.

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