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Muhammad Ahmad

Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah (otherwise known as The Mahdi or Muhammad Ahmed Al Mahdi Arabic:محمد أحمد المهدي) (August 12, 1844June 22, 1885) was a religious leader, in Sudan, who proclaimed himself the Mahdi — the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will appear at end times — in 1881, and declared a jihad against Egyptian authority in Sudan. He raised an army and led a successful religious war to topple the Egyptian occupation of Sudan.

Under his religious authority the divided clans of the Baggara and their rulers the Fur tribesmen were united into an alliance dedicated to establishing an "Islamic" state as the first step in a universal Islamic state.

In the West, due to the film "Khartoum" and other historical accounts, he is known for leading a siege against the city to drive the Egyptians and the British from Khartoum or to slaughter them. When Ahmad's armies overran the city, they slaughtered and beheaded British general Charles George Gordon, in the fall of Khartoum. Ahmad himself died soon after.

Without his leadership his movement and state lost much of its momentum. Attempts to expand by invading neighbors were unsuccessful, and famine, disease, persecution and warfare killed off about half Sudan's population. In 1898 an invading British army destroyed the Mahdi's army at the battle of Omdurman.

Early life

Muhammad Ahmad was born in 1844 on Labab Island off Dongola, the son of a boat-builder and a member of a Sudanese Arabic family from Dongola. After moving to Khartoum, all of Muhammad's brothers entered the boatbuilding business, following their father. Muhammad instead focused on religious studies like his great-grandfather, a respected sharif.

Muhammad Ahmad learned the Qur'ān in Khartoum and Karari and later studied fiqh under Shaykh Muhammad Khayr. He was interested mostly in Sufi teachings. In 1861, he approached Shaykh Muhammad ash-Sharif, the leader of the Sammaniyya, to join his students and learn more about Sufism. When Shaykh Muhammad ash-Sharif realized Muhammad Ahmad's dedication, he appointed Muhammad Ahmad shaykh and permitted him to give tariqa and Uhūd to new followers.

In 1871 his family moved again to Aba Island on the White Nile, where he built a mosque and started to teach the Qur'ān. 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'ān. Any deviation from the Qur'ān was therefore heresy.

Over the next ten years, Muhammad Ahmad traveled widely to Dongola, Kordofan and Sinnar. During his travels, he was struck by the hatred for the Ottoman-Egyptian rulers and found that as soon as anyone educated and well-spoken appeared, the local populations would declare him Mahdi "Saviour" and hope for deliverance.

Muhammad Ahmad was joined on his travels by Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, a Baqqara tribesman from southern Darfur, whose organizational capabilities proved invaluable. On his return to Aba Island in 1881 Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself al-Mahdi al-Muntazar or "the Expected Saviour" and began raising an army. Muhammad Ahmad used a V-shaped gap in his teeth to prove he was the Mahdi.


What part British imperialism played in the Mahdi uprising is a matter of dispute. When Muhammad proclaimed himself Mahdi, the British had influence in Egypt but no military occupation. The mission of General Charles George Gordon to Khartoum was to withdraw Egyptian troops and administration. Muhammad Ahmad directed his jihad against the "Turks" rather than the British. But some anti-imperialists see the term of the Christian British General Charles George Gordon as governor general of Sudan from 1877–80 as laying part of the foundation for the Mahdiya uprising.

Ottoman rule and Gordon's governor-general term

By the middle 19th century the Ottoman Imperial subject administration in Egypt was in the hands of Khedive Ismail. Although not a competent or devoted leader, Khedive Ismail had grandiose schemes about Egypt. His spending had put Egypt into huge debt and when his financing of the Suez Canal started to crumble, Great Britain stepped in and repaid his loans in return for controlling shares in the canal. As the canal took on a vast strategic importance as a control point for British trade with India, the need to ensure its security and stability became paramount. Thus, control of the canal required an ever increasing role in Egyptian affairs. With Khedive Ismail's spending and corruption causing instability, in 1873 the British government supported a program where an Anglo-French debt commission assumed responsibility for managing Egypt's fiscal affairs. This commission eventually forced Khedive Ismail to abdicate in favor of his son Tawfiq in 1877, leading to a period of political turmoil.

Ismail had appointed General Charles "Chinese" Gordon Governor of the Equatorial Provinces of Sudan in 1873. For the next three years, General Gordon fought against a native chieftain of Darfur, Zobeir, who had erected, on the basis of slave-traffic, a dangerous military power. Zobeir's organisation was eventually dismantled. Although unsuccessful at total pacification, Gordon was successful in limiting the power of the slave traders. Thus, he was made Governor-General of the Sudan in 1877. Soon after he arrived at his new post he started to end the slave trade, which at that point dominated the economy and was controlled by the tiny minority of Arabs. Before his arrival some 7 out of 8 blacks in the Sudan were enslaved by the tiny minority of Arabs; the native Africans formed well over 80% of the overall population. Gordon's policies were effective, but the effects on the economy were disastrous, and soon the Arab Social Ascendancy came to see this not a liberation from slavery, but a modern-day European Christian crusade and a threat to Muslim and Arab social dominance. It was this anger that fed the Ansars' ranks.

Upon Ismail's abdication Gordon found himself with dramatically decreased support. He eventually resigned his post in 1880, exhausted by years of work, and left early the next year. His policies were soon abandoned by the new governors, but the anger and discontent of the dominant Arab minority was left unaddressed.

Although the Egyptians were fearful of the deteriorating conditions, the British refused to get involved, "Her Majesty’s Government are in no way responsible for operations in the Sudan", the Foreign Secretary Earl Granville noted.

The Rebellion

Among the forces historians seen at work in the uprising are ethnic Sudanese anger at the foreign Turkish Ottoman rulers; Muslim revivalist anger at the Turks' lax religious standards and willingness to appoint non-Muslims such as the Christian Charles Gordon to high posts; Sudanese Sufi resistance to "dry, scholastic Islam of Egyptian officialdom".

Mahdi and jihad declarations

In 1881 Muhammad Ahmed declared himself Mahdi and ruler so as to prepare the way for the second coming of the Prophet Isa (Jesus),. "After consulting the ulama", 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 Ahmed retaliated by declaring jihad.
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

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.

Advance of the rebellion

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.

Muhammad Ahmad also wrote to many Sudanese tribal leaders and gained their support, or at least neutrality, and he was also supported by the slave traders who were looking to return to power. They were also joined by the Hadendoa Beja, who were rallied to the Mahdi by an Ansār captain, Osman Digna.

Late in 1883, the Ansār, armed only with spears and swords, overwhelmed an 4000-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 8000-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 4000 British soldiers and defeated Digna at El Teb on February 29th, 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, 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, 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.

The Mahdiyah

Modifications of Sharia

With Sudan now in Sudanese hands, the Mahdi formed a government. The Mahdiyya (Mahdist regime) invented a novel brand of "Shariah" which would be implemented by "Islamic" courts headed by various "Islamic" imams, in accordance with the view of a barely articulated "Islamic" state. The courts enforced a new "Sharia" law that the Mahdi claimed was founded on instructions conveyed to him by God in visions.

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 and zakat (almsgiving) became the tax paid to the state. 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. The Mahdi new "Sharia", was, needless to say, opposed by the ulema outside of Mahdiyah.

Death of Muhammad Ahmad and his succession

Six months after the capture of Khartoum, Muhammad Ahmad died of typhus. The Mahdi had planned for this eventuality and chosen 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 everyone else. For example, the "Khalifa" rejected an offer of an alliance against the Europeans by Ethiopia's Emperor, Yohannes IV. Instead, in 1887 a 60,000-man Ansar army invaded Ethiopia, penetrated as far as Gonder, and captured prisoners and booty. The Khalifa then refused to conclude peace with Ethiopia.

In March 1889, an Ethiopian force commanded personally by the Nəgusa nagast (Emperor, lit. "King of Kings") marched on Gallabat; however, after Yohannes IV fell in battle, the Ethiopians withdrew.


Social and economic fallout

During their short reign, the Mahdiyya had destroyed the Sudanese economy and about half of the population died due to famine, disease, persecution and warfare. Their efforts to wipe out the former tribal differences left few loyalties intact, and internecine warfare was common. In general the country welcomed the fall of the Mahdiyya.. This historical period made a great impression on the British public, leading to several books, such as "The Four Feathers" which was made into several movies, as well as the movie "Khartoum".

Political heritage

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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 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.

Also, the black colour on the Sudanese flag represents the Mahdist revolution.

Popular Culture

See also



  • David Levering Lewis, "Khalifa, Khedive, and Kitchener" in The Race for Fashoda. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. ISBN 1-55584-058-2
  • Winston Churchill, "The River War: An Account Of The Reconquest Of The Sudan", 1902, available at Project Gutenberg.
  • THE MAHDIYAH, 1884-98, at the Library of Congress-Country Studies


  • Mohamed Hassan Fadlalla, Short History of Sudan, iUniverse, (30 April, 2004), ISBN 0595314252
  • Mohamed Hassan Fadlalla, The Problem of Dar Fur, iUniverse, Inc. (July 21, 2005), ISBN 978-0595365029
  • Mohamed Hassan Fadlalla, UN Intervention in Dar Fur, iUniverse, Inc. (February 9, 2007), ISBN 0595429793

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