Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah (Arabic: محمد أحمد ابن عبد الله; August 12, 1844 – June 22, 1885) was a religious leader of the Samaniyya order in Sudan who, on June 29, 1881, proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith. His proclamation came during a period of widespread resentment among the Sudanese population towards the oppressive policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers, and capitalized on the messianic beliefs popular among the various Sudanese religious sects of the time. More broadly, the Mahdiyya, as Muhammad Ahmad's movement was called, was influenced by earlier Mahdist movements in West Africa, as well as Wahhabism and other puritanical forms of Islamic revivalism that developed in reaction to the growing military and economic dominance of the European powers throughout the 19th century.
From his announcement of the Mahdiyya in June 1881 until the fall of Khartoum in January 1885, Muhammad Ahmad led a successful military campaign against the Turco-Egyptian government of the Sudan (known as the Turkiyah). During this period, many of the theological and political doctrines of the Mahdiyya were established and promulgated among the growing ranks of the Mahdi's supporters, the Ansars. After Muhammad Ahmad's unexpected death on 22 June 1885, a mere six months after the conquest of Khartoum, his chief deputy, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad took over the administration of the nascent Mahdist state.
Muhammad Ahmad was born on 12 August 1845 at Labab Island, Dongola in Northern Sudan to a humble family of boat-builders claiming descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad through the line of his grandson Hassan. When Muhammad Ahmad was still a child, the family moved to the town of Karari, north of Omdurman, where Muhammad Ahmad's father, Abdullah, could find a supply of timber for his boat-building business.
While his siblings joined his father's trade, Muhammad Ahmad showed a proclivity for religious study. He studied first under Sheikh al-Amin al-Suwaylih in the Gezira region around Khartoum, and subsequently under Sheikh Muhammad al-Dikayr 'Abdallah Khujali near the town of Berber in North Sudan. Determined to live a life of asceticism, mysticism and worship, in 1861 he sought out Sheikh Muhammad Sharif Nur al-Dai'm, the grandson of the founder of the Samaniyya Sufi sect in Sudan. Muhammad Ahmad stayed with Sheikh Muhammad Sharif for seven years, during which time he was recognized for his piety and asceticism. Near the end of this period, he was awarded the title of Sheikh himself, and began to travel around the country on religious missions. He was permitted to give tariqa and Uhūd to new followers.
In 1870, his family moved again in search for timber, this time to Aba Island on the White Nile south of Khartoum. On Aba Island, Muhammad Ahmad built a mosque and started to teach the Qur'an. He soon gained a notable reputation among the local population as an excellent speaker and mystic. The broad thrust of his teaching followed that of other reformers, his Islam was one devoted to the words of Muhammad and based on a return to the virtues of strict devotion, prayer, and simplicity as laid down in the Qur'an. Any deviation from the Qur'an was therefore heresy.
In 1872, Muhammad Ahmad invited Sheikh Sharif to move to al-Aradayb, an area on the White Nile neighboring Aba Island. Despite initially amicable relations, in 1878 the two religious leaders had a dispute motivated by Sheikh Sharif's resentment of his former student's growing popularity. The dispute led to violence between their followers, and while they temporarily reconciled their differences, the experience revealed to Muhammad Ahmad his mentor's ostensible faults. At a subsequent celebration in honor of the circumcision of Sheikh Sharif's sons, Muhammad Ahmad expressed his disapproval of the dancing and music, which reignited the latent tension between the two men. As a result of this second dispute, Sheikh Sharif expelled his former student from the Samaniyya order, and despite numerous apologies and emotional appeals, refused to forgive and re-admit him.
After recognizing that the split with Sheikh Sharif was irreconcilable, Muhammad Ahmad approached a rival leader of the Samaniyya order named Sheikh al-Qurashi wad al-Zayn. The elderly sheikh eagerly accepted him and his followers, and under his new master, Muhammad Ahmad resumed his life of piety and religious devotion at Aba Island. During this period, he also traveled to the province of Kordofan, west of Khartoum, where he visited with the notables of the capital, el-Obeid, who were enmeshed in a power struggle between two rival claimants to the governorship of the province. While in Kordofan, he also enhanced his reputation by granting baraka to the common people who attended his sermons en masse.
On 25 July 1878, Sheikh al-Qurashi died and his followers recognized Muhammad Ahmad as their new leader. Around this time, Muhammad Ahmad first met Abdallahi bin Muhammad al-Ta'aishi, who was to become his chief deputy and successor in the years to come.
Announcement of the Mahdiyya
On 29 June 1881, Muhammad Ahmad publicly announced his claim to be the Mahdi so as to prepare the way for the second coming of the Prophet Isa (Jesus). In part, his claim was based on his status as a prominent Sufi sheikh with a large following in the Samaniyya order and among the tribes in the area around Aba Island. Yet the idea of the Mahdiyya had been central to the belief of the Samaniyya prior to Muhammad Ahmad's manifestation. The previous Samaniyya leader, Sheikh al-Qurashi Wad al-Zayn, had asserted that the long-awaited-for redeemer would come from the Samaniyya line. According to Sheikh al-Qurashi, the Mahdi would make himself known through a number of signs, some established in the early period of Islam and recorded in the Hadith literature, and others having a more distinctly local origin, such as the prediction that the Mahdi would ride the sheikh's pony and erect a dome over his grave after his death.
Drawing from aspects of the Sufi tradition that were intimately familiar to both his followers and his opponents, Muhammad Ahmad claimed that he had been appointed as the Mahdi by a prophetic assembly or hadra (Arabic: Al-Hadra Al-Nabawiyya, الحضرة النبوية). A hadra, in the Sufi tradition, is a gathering of all the prophets from the time of Adam to Muhammad, as well as many Sufi holy men who are believed to have reached the highest level of affinity with the divine during their lifetime. The hadra is chaired by the Prophet Muhammad, known as Sayyid al-Wujud, and at his side are the seven Qutb, the most senior of whom is known as Ghawth az-Zaman. In the belief system of the Mahdiyya, it was this divine assembly that bestowed upon Muhammad Ahmad the title of al-Mahdi. The hadra was also the source of a number of central beliefs about the Mahdi, including that Muhammad Ahmad was created from the sacred light at the centre of the Prophet's heart, that the Mahdiyya was eternal and the basic institution of the universe, and that all living creatures had acknowledged the Mahdi's claim since his birth.
In order to frame the Mahdiyya as a return to the early days of Islam, when the Muslim community, or Ummah, was unified under the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, Muhammad Ahmad drew many parallels between his manifestation as the Mahdi and the career of the Prophet. For example, he referred to himself as the Successor of the Messenger of God (Arabic: Khalifat Rasul Allah, خليفة رسول الله), and named his four closest deputies after the four successors to the Prophet Muhammad. Later, in order to distinguish his followers from adherents of other Sufi sects, he forbade the use of the word darwish (commonly known as "dervish" in English) to describe his followers, replacing it with the title Ansar, the term the Prophet Muhammad used for the people of Medina who welcomed him and his followers after their flight from Mecca.
This revivalist vision of the Mahdi intersected with the popular beliefs and legends of the Mahdi. Many of these beliefs have obscure origins in unsubstantiated Hadith, or are influenced by a convergence of local mythologies, Shi'a concepts, and Sufi traditions. It was believed that the Mahdi would manifest himself at the turn of an Islamic century, that his coming would herald in the end of time, that he would revitalize the faith and restore unity to the Ummah, and that his reign would last for eight years. At the end of his reign, it was believed that he would be defeated in battle with the anti-Christ (al-Dajjal), who would subsequently be vanquished by the return of Jesus (Nabi 'Isa).
Response of the 'Ulema
Despite his popularity among the clerics of the Samaniyya and other sects, and among the tribes of western Sudan, the Ulema, or Orthodox religious authorities, ridiculed Muhammad Ahmad's claim to be the Mahdi. Among his most prominent critics were the Sudanese Ulema loyal to the Ottoman Sultan and in the employ of the Turco-Egyptian government, such as the Mufti Shakir al-Ghazi, who sat on the Council of Appeal in Khartoum, and the Qadi Ahmad al-Azhari in Kordofan.
These critics were careful not to deny the concept of the Mahdi as such, but rather to discredit Muhammad Ahmad's claim to it. They pointed out that Muhammad Ahmad's manifestation did not conform to the prophecies laid out in the Hadith literature. In particular, they argued that he had been born in Dongola, that he lacked proof of descent from Fatima, that he did not have the prophesied physical characteristics of the Mahdi, and that his manifestation did not conform with the "time of troubles" "when the land is filled with oppression, tryanny, and enmity."
While his challenge to the legitimacy of Turco-Egyptian rule, and the Sublime Porte by extension, set many of the religious elite against him, some of his radical changes to Islamic doctrine and practice alienated other Muslim scholars, both Sudanese and foreign. In particular, the Mahdi abolished the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Arabic: Mahdahib, مذاهب), rejected all authoritative texts in the history of tafsir or Qur'anic exegesis, changed the Shahada, or profession of faith, to include the phrase, "Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Khalifa of the Prophet of God," and revised the five pillars of Islam by replacing the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca with the obligation to undertake jihad, and adding a sixth pillar, which was belief in the Mahdiyya.
Advance of the rebellion
After consulting the Ulema, Egyptian authorities attempted to arrest him for spreading false doctrine. A military expedition was sent to reassert the government's authority on Aba Island, but the government's forces were ambushed and nearly annihilated by the Mahdi's followers.
Muhammad Ahmad retaliated by declaring jihad, an act which was highly criticized as unjust by the then scholars of Islam:
I am the Mahdi, the Successor of the Prophet of God. Cease to pay taxes to the infidel Turks and let everyone who finds a Turk kill him, for the Turks are infidels
It is important to note that when the Mahdi referred to "Turks," as he does in the passage above, the term is inclusive of any non-Sudanese imperialist element, including Egyptians and Western Europeans. Unlike other Muslim reformers, the Mahdi did not advocate the application of ijtihad but "claimed to receive direct inspiration from God", so that his own proclamations superseded traditional jurisprudence. This, however, did not usurp the prophet Muhammad's position as seal of the Prophets, because the Prophet was — in some way — the intermediary of his revelations.
Information came from the Apostle of God that the angel of inspiration is with me from God to direct me and He has appointed him. So from this prophetic information I learnt that that with which God inspires me by means of the angel of inspiration, the Apostle of God would do, were he present.
The Mahdi and a party of his followers, the Ansār (helpers, known in the West as "the Dervishes"), made a long march to Kurdufan. There he gained a large number of recruits, especially from the Baqqara, and notable leaders such as Sheikh Madibbo ibn Ali of Rizeigat and Abdallahi ibn Muhammad of Ta'aisha tribes. They were also joined by the Hadendoa Beja, who were rallied to the Mahdi by an Ansār captain in east of Sudan in 1883, Osman Digna.
Although the Mahdist revolution started in June 1881 in Northern Sudan and was backed by western Sudan, it found a great support from the Nuer, Shilluk and Anuak tribes from southern Sudan in addition to the tribes of Bahr Alghazal, a thing which affirmed that the Mahdist revolution was a national revolution and not a regional one. In addition to unifying different tribes, the revolution also cut across religious divides, despite its religious origins. The Mahdi was supported by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. This had important implications for the slave trade, because the Mahdi, going against traditional Islamic injunctions, allowed the enslavement of free Muslims who did not support him and forbade the enslavement of the traditionally hunted non-Muslims who did support him.
The Khatmiyya sufi order which had enjoyed popular support in east and north Sudan rejected the Mahdi's claim outright. Mahdist forces attacked the Khatmiyya adherents and even ransacked the tomb of sayyid Al-Hassan grandson of the revered religious leader Mohammed Uthman al-Mirghani al-Khatim in Kassala. The head of the Khatmiyya sufi order was forced into exile in Egypt for fear of assassination.
Late in 1883, the Ansār, armed only with spears and swords, overwhelmed a 4,000-man Egyptian force not far from Al Ubayyid ("El Obeid"), and seized their rifles and ammunition. The Mahdi followed up this victory by laying siege to al-Ubayyid and starving it into submission after four months. The town remained the headquarters of the Ansar for much of the decade.
The Ansār, now 40,000 strong, then defeated an 8,000-man Egyptian relief force led by British officer William Hicks at Sheikan, in the battle of El Obeid. The defeat of Hicks sealed the fate of Darfur, which until then had been effectively defended by Rudolf Carl von Slatin. Jabal Qadir in the south was also taken. The western half of Sudan was now firmly in Ansārī hands.
Their success emboldened the Hadendoa, who under the generalship of Osman Digna wiped out a smaller force of Egyptians under the command of Colonel Valentine Baker near the Red Sea port of Suakin. Major-General Gerald Graham was sent with a force of 4,000 British soldiers and defeated Digna at El Teb on February 29, but were themselves hard-hit two weeks later at Tamai. Graham eventually withdrew his forces.
Given their general lack of interest in the area, the British decided to abandon the Sudan in December 1883, holding only several northern towns and Red Sea ports, such as Khartoum, Kassala, Sannar, and Sawakin. The evacuation of Egyptian troops and officials and other foreigners from Sudan was assigned to General Gordon, who had been reappointed governor general with orders to return to Khartoum and organize a withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons there.
Arrival of Gordon
Gordon reached Khartoum in February 1884. At first he was greeted with jubilation as many of the tribes in the immediate area were at odds with the Mahdists. Transportation northward was still open and the telegraph lines intact. However, the uprising of the Beja soon after his arrival changed things considerably, reducing communications to runners.
Gordon considered the routes northward to be too dangerous to extricate the garrisons and so pressed for reinforcements to be sent from Cairo to help with the withdrawal. He also suggested that his old enemy Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur, a fine military commander, be given tacit control of the Sudan in order to provide a counter to the Ansār. London rejected both proposals, and so Gordon prepared for a fight.
In March 1884, Gordon tried a small offensive to clear the road northward to Egypt but a number of the officers in the Egyptian force went over to the enemy and their forces fled the field after firing a single salvo. This convinced him that he could carry out only defensive operations and he returned to Khartoum to construct defensive works.
By April 1884, Gordon had managed to evacuate some 2500 of the foreign population that were able to make the trek northwards. His mobile force under Colonel Stewart then returned to the city after repeated incidents where the 200 or so Egyptian forces under his command would turn and run at the slightest provocation.
That month the Ansār reached Khartoum and Gordon was completely cut off. Nevertheless, his defensive works, consisting mainly of mines, proved so frightening to the Ansār that they were unable to penetrate into the city. Stewart maintained a number of small skirmishes using gunboats on the Nile once the waters rose, and in August managed to recapture Berber for a short time. However, Stewart was killed soon after in another foray from Berber to Dongola, a fact Gordon only learned about in a letter from the Mahdi himself.
Under increasing pressure from the public to support him, the British Government under Prime Minister Gladstone eventually ordered Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley to relieve Gordon. He was already deployed in Egypt due to the attempted coup there earlier, and was able to form up a large force of infantry, moving forward at an extremely slow rate. Realizing they would take some time to arrive, Gordon pressed for him to send forward a "flying column" of camel-borne troops across the Bayyudah Desert from Wadi Halfa under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Herbert Stuart. This force was attacked by the Hadendoa Beja, or "Fuzzy Wuzzies", twice, first at the Battle of Abu Klea and two days later nearer Metemma. Twice the British square held and the Mahdists were repelled with heavy losses.
At Metemma, 100 miles (160 km) north of Khartoum, Wolseley's advance guard met four of Gordon's steamers, sent down to provide speedy transport for the first relieving troops. They gave Wolseley a dispatch from Gordon claiming that the city was about to fall. However, only moments later a runner brought in a message claiming the city could hold out for a year. Deciding to believe the latter, the force stopped while they refit the steamers to hold more troops.
Fall of Khartoum
They finally arrived in Khartoum on 28 January 1885 to find the town had fallen during the Battle of Khartoum two days earlier. When the Nile had receded from flood stage, one of Gordon's pashas (officers), Faraz Pasha, had opened the river gates and let the Ansār in. The garrison was slaughtered, and Gordon was killed fighting the Mahdi's warriors on the steps of the palace, hacked to pieces and beheaded which the Mahdi forbade. When Gordon's head was unwrapped at the Mahdi's feet, he ordered the head transfixed between the branches of a tree "where all who passed it could look in disdain, children could throw stones at it and the hawks of the desert could sweep and circle above." When Wolseley's force arrived, they retreated after attempting to force their way to the center of the town on ships, being met with a hail of fire.
The Mahdi Army continued its sweep of victories. Kassala and Sannar fell soon after and by the end of 1885 the Ansār had begun to move into the southern regions of Sudan. In all Sudan, only Suakin, reinforced by Indian troops, and Wadi Halfa on the northern frontier remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands.
Modifications of Sharia
With Sudan now in Sudanese hands, the Mahdi formed a government. The Mahdiyya (Mahdist regime) modified the Shariah (Islamic law), which would be implemented by Islamic courts headed by various Islamic imams, in accordance with the view of an Islamic state. The courts enforced a Sharia law that the Mahdi claimed was founded on divinely revealed laws.
According to this doctrine, loyalty to him was essential to true belief. The recitation of the shahada was modified to include and Muhammad Ahmad is the Mahdi of God and the representative of His Prophet. Among the five pillars, service in the "jihād" replaced the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) as a duty incumbent on the faithful (though jihad-struggle is central to orthodox Islam, it is not considered one of the five pillars of faith).
He also authorized the burning of lists of pedigrees and books of law and theology because of their association with the old regime and because he believed that they accentuated tribalism at the expense of religious unity.
Death of Muhammad Ahmad and his succession
Six months after the capture of Khartoum, Muhammad Ahmad died of typhus. He was buried in Omdurman near the ruins of Khartoum. The Mahdi had planned for this eventuality and chose three deputies to replace him, in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad. This led to a long period of disarray, due to rivalry among the three, each supported by people of his native region. This continued until 1891, when Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, with the help primarily of the Baqqara Arabs, emerged as unchallenged leader. Abdallahi, referred to as the "Khalifa" (Caliph, lit. "successor") purged the Mahdiyya of members of the Mahdi's family and many of his early religious disciples.
The "Khalifa" was committed to the Mahdi's vision of extending the Mahdiyah through jihād, which led to strained relations with practically every neighboring nation in Africa. For example, the "Khalifa" rejected an offer of an alliance against the Europeans by Ethiopia's Emperor, Yohannes IV because the majority of the Ethiopians were not Muslim which made them less in the eyes of the Khalifa. Instead, in 1887 a 60,000-man Ansar army invaded Ethiopia, penetrated as far as Gondar, and captured prisoners and booty. The Khalifa continued to refuse to conclude hostilities or negotiate peace with Ethiopia unless every Ethiopian converted to Islam.
In March 1889, an Ethiopian force commanded personally by the Nəgusa nagast (Emperor, lit. "King of Kings") invaded the Sudan and marched on Gallabat; however, after Yohannes IV fell in battle, the Ethiopians withdrew.
After the final defeat of the Khalifa by the British under General Kitchener in 1898, Muhammad Ahmad's tomb was destroyed to prevent it from becoming a rallying point for his supporters, and his bones were thrown into the Nile. Kitchener retained his skull. Allegedly the skull was later buried at Wadi Halfa. The tomb was eventually rebuilt.
Muhammed Ahmad's posthumous son, Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, whom the British considered important as a moderate leader of the Mahdists, became a leader of the neo-Mahdist movement in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. However, the British would not support Abd al-Rahman in his ambition to become King of Sudan when the country gained independence. 'Abd al-Rahman sponsored the Umma (Nation) political Party in the period before and just after Sudan became independent in 1956.
In modern-day Sudan, Muhammad Ahmad is sometimes seen as a precursor of Sudanese nationalism. The Umma party claim to be his political descendants. Their leader Imam Sadiq al-Mahdi, is the great-great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad, and also the imam of the Ansar, the religious order that pledges allegiance to Muhammad Ahmad. Sadiq al-Mahdi was Prime Minister of Sudan on two occasions: first briefly in 1966–67, and then between 1986 and 1989.
In popular culture
- Mahdi-Trilogie (Mahdi Trilogy, 1896) by Karl May, where Kara Ben Nemsi meets Muhammad Ahmad.
- In Desert and Wilderness, a young adult novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1912)
- In the 1966 movie Khartoum, the Mahdi was played by Laurence Olivier.
- In the British sitcom Dad's Army, Lance-Corporal Jones often talks about his encounters with the Mahdi.
- In the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, characters discuss the news of the Mahdi's destruction of the British garrison at Khartoum.
- The Four Feathers, a much-filmed adventure novel from 1902 is set during the British military expedition against the Mahdi.
- A 2007 episode of the crime drama Waking the Dead featured an attempt to locate the Mahdi's missing skull, in order to defuse tensions due to the hunger strike of a Sudanese Mahdist politician. The episode also made reference to the 1966 film in particular reference to Olivier's portrayal of the Mahdi.
- The 2008 novel After Omdurman by John Ferry deals with the reconquest of the Sudan and the destruction of the army of the Mahdi's successor, the Khalifa.
- "Winston’s Lost Night", a 2013 episode of Murdoch Mysteries, involves the murder of a man for desecrating the Mahdi's tomb. The young Winston Churchill is initially suspected of the murder. He gives a speech denouncing the desecration.
- Wilbur Smith's novel The Triumph of the Sun is set around the siege of Khartoum led by the Mahdi.