Find a Security Clearance Job!


The Mahdia / Mahdiyah, 1884-98

The fanatical Prophet of Islam, the Mahdi, had raised the standard of war throughout the Sudan, where, in 1885, General Charles Gordon, "Chinese Gordon," as he was called, for his daring exploits against the Tai-ping rebels, had died heroically in a forlorn hope at Khartoum. The Sudan was given up to murder and rapine. The Mahdiyah (Mahdist regime) imposed traditional Islamic laws. Sudan's new ruler also authorized the burning of lists of pedigrees and books of law and theology because of their association with the old order and because he believed that the former accentuated tribalism at the expense of religious unity. The Mahdia State could manufacture gunpowder and ammunition, and used for the first time the firearms captured during the fights against the colonial forces.

The Mahdiyah has become known as the first genuine Sudanese nationalist government. The Mahdi maintained that his movement was not a religious order that could be accepted or rejected at will, but that it was a universal regime, which challenged man to join or to be destroyed. The Mahdi modified Islam's five pillars to support the dogma that loyalty to him was essential to true belief. The Mahdi also added the declaration "and Muhammad Ahmad is the Mahdi of God and the representative of His Prophet" to the recitation of the creed, the shahada. Moreover, service in the jihad replaced the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, as a duty incumbent on the faithful. Zakat (almsgiving) became the tax paid to the state. The Mahdi justified these and other innovations and reforms as responses to instructions conveyed to him by God in visions.

Six months after the capture of Khartoum, the Mahdi died of typhus. On the death of the Mahdi in 1885, his body was entombed in a silver-domed mosque in Omdurman. This was completely destroyed Kitchener in 1898, when the Mahdi's body was burned and his ashes thrown into the river. In 1947 the Mahdi's son had the mosque and tomb rebuilt. Not surprisingly, it is closed to foreigners, but can be viewed from the outside.

The Mahdi had been regarded by his adherents as the only true commander of the faithful, endowed with divine power to conquer the whole world. He had at first styled his followers dervishes (i.e. religious mendicants) and given them the jibba as their characteristic garment or uniform. Later on he commanded the faithful to call themselves ansar (helpers), a reference to the part they were to play in his career of conquest, and at the time of his death he was planning an invasion of Egypt.

He had liberated the Sudanese from the extortions of the Egyptians, but the people soon found that the Mahdi's rule was even more oppressive than had been that of their former masters, and after the Mahdi's death the situation of the peasantry in particular grew rapidly worse, neither life nor property being safe. Abdullah set himself steadily to crush all opposition to his own power.

Mahommed Ahmed had, in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad and in accordance with the traditions which required the Mahdi to have four khalifas (lieutenants), nominated, besides Abdullah, Ali wad Helu, a sheikh of the Dogheim and Kenana Arabs, and Mahommed esh Sherif, his son-in-law, as khalifas. (The other khalifaship was vacant having been declined by the sheikh es Senussi. Rivalry among the three, each supported by people of his native region, continued until 1891, when Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, with the help primarily of the Baqqara Arabs, overcame the opposition of the others and emerged as unchallenged leader of the Mahdiyah. Wad Helu and Sharif were stripped of their power and gradually all chiefs and amirs not of the Baggara tribe were got rid of except Osman Digna, whose sphere of operations was on the Red Sea coast.

Abdallahi--called the Khalifa (successor)--purged the Mahdiyah of members of the Mahdi's family and many of his early religious disciples. Abdullah's rule was a pure military despotism which brought the country to a state of almost complete agricultural and commercial ruin. He was also almost constantly in conflict either with the Shilluks, Nuers and other tribes of the south; with the peoples of Darfur, where at one time an anti-Mahdi gained a great following; with the Abyssinians; with the Kabbabish and other Arab tribes.

Originally the Mahdiyah was a jihad state, run like a military camp. Sharia courts enforced Islamic law and the Mahdi's precepts, which had the force of law. After consolidating his power, the Khalifa instituted an administration and appointed Ansar (who were usually Baqqara) as amirs over each of the several provinces. The Khalifa also ruled over rich Al Jazirah. Although he failed to restore this region's commercial wellbeing, the Khalifa organized workshops to manufacture ammunition and to maintain river steamboats.

Regional relations remained tense throughout much of the Mahdiyah period, largely because of the Khalifa's commitment to using the jihad to extend his version of Islam throughout the world. For example, the Khalifa rejected an offer of an alliance against the Europeans by Ethiopia's negus (king), Yohannes IV. 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 by the king, marched on Qallabat; however, after Yohannes IV fell in battle, the Ethiopians withdrew. Abd ar Rahman an Nujumi, the Khalifa's best general, invaded Egypt in 1889, but British-led Egyptian troops defeated the Ansar at Tushkah. The failure of the Egyptian invasion ended the Ansar' invincibility. The Belgians prevented the Mahdi's men from conquering Equatoria, and in 1893 the Italians repulsed an Ansar attack at Akordat (in Eritrea) and forced the Ansar to withdraw from Ethiopia.

In the country under his dominion the khalifa's government was carried on after the manner of other Mahommedan states, but pilgrimages to the Mahdi's tomb at Omdurman were substituted for pilgrimages to Mecca. The arsenal and dockyard and the printing-press at Khartum were kept busy (the workmen being Egyptians who had escaped massacre). Otherwise Khartum was deserted, the khalifa making, Omdurman his capital and compelling disaffected tribes to dwell in it so as to be under better control. While Omdurman grew to a huge size the populatioa of the country generally dwindled enormously from constant warfare and the ravages of disease, small-pox being endemic.

Mahdism as a vital force in the old Egyptian Sudan ceased, however, with the Anglo-Egyptian victory at Omdurman on 02 September 1898. The British constructed a rail line from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamad and an extension parallel to the Nile to transport troops and supplies to Barbar. Anglo-Egyptian units fought a sharp action at Abu Hamad, but there was little other significant resistance until Kitchener reached Atbarah and defeated the Ansar. After this engagement, Kitchener's soldiers marched and sailed toward Omdurman, where the Khalifa made his last stand. On September 2, 1898, the Khalifa committed his 52,000-man army to a frontal assault against the Anglo-Egyptian force, which was massed on the plain outside Omdurman. The outcome never was in doubt, largely because of superior British firepower. During the five-hour battle, about 11,000 Mahdists died whereas Anglo-Egyptian losses together amounted to 48 dead and fewer than 400 wounded. The fanaticism with which the Mahdi had inspired his followers remained almost unbroken to the end.

Join the mailing list