The Mahdiyya, 1881-98

Discussion of the religious orders leads naturally on to the Mahdist movement, generally recognized as the origin of Sudanese nationalism, and the prelude to the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in 1898. Before turning to look at the movement, it would be well to examine the origins and basic elements of Mahdist belief. Ibn Khaldun writes in his Muqqaddama: ‘It is a universal belief amongst the Muslim masses throughout the ages that at the End of Time a man of the family of the Prophet must manifest himself to confirm the faith and proclaim justice. The Muslims will follow him and he will establish his rule over the Islamic Kingdoms, he will be called the Mahdi.’ Such messianic belief is popularly rooted in Sunni Islam, providing an ideology for the oppressed which has resulted in the frequent appearances of Mahdis throughout the history of Islam.

To many modern Sudanese Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi is the father of nationalism. The view of the Mahdist movement as being nationalist in origin has come about because it throve upon the unity created by the oppression of the Turco-Egyptian regime; and also because the Mahdi managed to overcome, perhaps for the first time, the system of tribal and religious loyalties, to allow the Muslim Sudanese people to act as one with a common motivation and a common loyalty.

The Mahdi was an astute politician, keenly aware of the feelings of the various Sudanese groupings, and endowed with the enviable attributes of a personal charisma and organizational ability. Mahdi’s initial military successes were gained in the southern region of Kordofan (by the end of 1882 all but two garrisons of that province lay in Mahdist hands). That area was particularly responsive to anti-Turkish agitation due to the threat posed to its economy by the regime’s professed determination to eradicate the slave trade, after pressure from Europe. This example of a region or grouping finding the Mahdist cause attractive for reasons other than religious enthusiasm is by no means unique – the Baqqara nomads, who became the mainstay of the Mahdist army, can be seen as motivated by their propensity to fighting government control on the southern fringe, as much as by anything else, whilst the adhesion of the Beja tribes, reluctant as it certainly was, can be attributed to the rivalry of some of their leaders with the Khatmiyya that they shared with the Mahdi. Such a variety of motivations almost inevitably produced a degree of fragmentation even within the Mahdiyya, probably the most unitary institution of Sudanese pre-colonial history, something reflected in the structure of the Mahdist army, different factions fighting under different flags, each division commanded by its own caliph.

Initial success lent the movement impetus and credibility, and thereafter progress was swift. In January 1883 the Kordofan capital, El Obeid, fell to the Mahdi, precipitating the collapse of the decadent Turco-Egyptian regime, and obliging many reluctant Sudanese elements to join the revolt. Ottomon rule in the Sudan finally came to an end with the defeat of General Gordon and the capture of Khartoum on 26 January 1885. The system of government which the Mahdi and his followers, the Ansar, established was based on the principle of his absolute authority in both spiritual and temporal matters. Calling for a return to the pure and unadulterated Islam of the Prophet, he eschewed the ascetic principles of Sufism in his pursuit of justice in dar al-salam (the land of Islam) and followed orthodox theocratic principles in creating a government conducted, in the tradition of Prophet Mohammed, by four caliphs and involving judicial and financial institutions based upon the Qur’an and the Sunna.

The Jihad was a central pillar of the new state inherited by the Mahdi’s chief disciple, Khalifa ‘Abdullahi al Ta’aishi, upon th death of the former less than six months after that of Gordon. The Mahdist subjection of the Sudan was only ever intended as a first step in the holy war (something which clearly renders dubious the view of Mahdism as a movement with vocation). Abdullahi’s position was not enviable. He lacked the Mahdi’s charisma and profundity, and his succession had been challenged not least by the Mahdi’s kith and kin led by Khalifa Sharif; they called themselves awlad al balad (the rightful sons of the land), as opposed to the Baqqara ‘upstarts’ who descended on Omdurman from the west. The Khalifa was swift and ruthless in neutralizing them. Even so, whatever authority the Khalifa had exercised continued to rest upon brute force and reverence for the late Mahdi, something which obliged him to continue all the initiatives undertaken by his predecessor, including a campaign of Jihad against Egypt (since 1882 occupied by British forces) and against Ethiopia in order to bring its ‘infidel’ people into Islam. He also sent dispatches to queen Victoria, the Ottoman Sultan Abd al Hamid and Kedive Tawfiq of Egypt enjoining them to submit to Mahdiyya. This obscurantist approach to international relations, with its concomitant adventurism, had contributed more than anything to the demise of the regime. Tribal feuds, internal dissension and famines compounded matters further for the Khalifa; the only surprise, thereafter, was that the Mahdist regime survived as long as 1898 when its fate was sealed by the victory of Kitchener’s superior army at the battle of Karari.

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