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The religio-political movement known as Ansar (“companions”) was named after the supporters of the Sudanese Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad ibn `Abdallah (d. 1885), who were disbanded in 1898 following their defeat by the Anglo-Egyptian army. Their surviving commanders were imprisoned, and the children of the Mahdi and of Khalifah `Abdallahi were kept under surveillance. The Mahdi’s ratib (prayerbook) and other Mahdist writings were banned.

In 1908 `Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, the Mahdi’s posthumous son, started to regroup the Mahdists as a religious order (tariqah), first building the family’s mosque in Omdurman with a loan from the government. In the same year he was permitted to cultivate lands on Aba Island, where Muhammad Ahmad had announced his Mahdist mission in 1881. This enabled him to proclaim the imamate of the newly organized Ansar and to create the spiritual, political, and economic center of the movement on Aba. To overcome government suspicions he emphasized peaceful aims and denounced every Mahdist antigovernment action. He proclaimed that the Mahdist da’wah was not opposed to the government and hence should not be forbidden as illegal.

The movement came into the open in 1915 when Governor-General Sir Reginald Wingate sought Muslim allies against the Turks. `Abd al-Rahman traveled to meet Mahdist supporters, thousands of whom demonstrated the depth of their loyalty as, armed with swords as in earlier days, they greeted their Mahdi’s son wherever he appeared, claiming that “the day had arrived” (al yawm atd). Although `Abd al-Rahman was explicitly forbidden from organizing the Ansar, this was in effect taking place. Thenceforth his agents, though not recognized by the authorities, represented him in the provinces, collected zakat, and spread the banned prayerbook (ratib al Mahdi) among his followers. Agents were appointed first in the Blue Nile and Funj provinces in 1916, and later in Kordofan and Darfur. In 1921 `Abd al-Rahman presented to the government a list of his provincial agents, including six in the White Nile, four in Kordofan, two in the Funj, four in the Blue Nile, three in Darfur, and one each in five other provinces, for a total of twenty-four. Many of the agents were merchants and tribal shaykhs rather than religious leaders.

In 1917 Shaykh Mustafa al-Maraghi, the Sudan’s Qadi al-Qudat, was asked to give a verdict as to whether the Mahdi’s writings should be legalized. He proclaimed the Mahdi’s letters and proclamations (manshurat) as unacceptable but said that there was nothing wrong with the ratib, except that the words al-Mahdi ‘alayhi assaldm (“the Mahdi, peace be upon him”) should be replaced by al Mahdi rahmatu Allah (“the Mahdi, [the]  mercy of God [Be upon him]). The ratib’s acceptance as a legitimate prayerbook signified the legitimacy of the Ansar. In 1923 an edition of five thousand copies was published under the title Al-ratib as-sharif li-sayyidina wa-maladhind al-imam al Mahdi ibn `Abdallah (The Holy Prayerbook of Our Master and Protector the Imam al-Mahdi ibn `Abdallah) and distributed to the Ansar throughout the Sudan.

Despite the government’s inconsistency in its dealings with `Abd al-Rahman and the Ansar since the 1920swhen it forbade their payment of zakat, their pilgrimage to Aba, and the activities of `Abd al-Rahman’s agentsthe movement continued to flourish. Between 5,000 and 15,000 Ansar made the pilgrimage to Aba Island annually, and many of them stayed there and supplied cheap labor for `Abd al-Rahman’s agricultural ventures. Thus when the Sudan achieved independence in 1955, the Ansar was its largest Muslim sect.

Politically the Ansar provided the core of the Ummah party and most of its leaders. Whenever the independence of the Sudan seemed to be threatened, there were thousands of armed Ansar to come to the rescue. In March 1954 they demonstrated against unity with Egypt; in the attempted coup of July 1961 against General `Abbud, it was proposed to use the 7,000 Ansar stationed in Omdurman to overthrow the regime. Siddiq al-Mahdi, then the imam, refused, saying, “I do not wish to meet God with the blood of Muslims on my hands.” During the regime of Ja’far al-Nimeiri (or alNumayri, 1969-1985) the Ansar first resisted on Aba Island, led by their imam al-Hadi al-Mahdi, and stopped Nimeiri from landing. The subsequent bombardment of the island and its 40,000 Ansar on 22-24 March 1970 led to an estimated five to ten thousand casualties. Other Ansar died in fierce battles in their quarter in Omdurman. In Ansar folklore the Aba Island massacre has been compared to the battle of Kararl against the Anglo-Egyptian forces in 1898, in which 11,000 were killed.

Later the Ansar, led by Sadiq al-Mahdi, participated in several attempted coups, notably in July 1976. Finally, in the April 1986 elections, the Ansar gave the Ummah party massive support and made it the single biggest political power in the country with some two million supporters. Since the assassination of Sayyid alHad! in 1970 the Ansar have remained without an imam. Elections were postponed several times and were scheduled for March 1988, with Sadiq al-Mahd! and Ahmad al-Mahdi, as the only contenders. Since the June 1989 coup, there have been attempts to promote alternative Mahdist leaders, notably from among the offspring of the Khalifah `Abdallahi.

The Ansar, though regarded by many as a $ufi order, is in fact an activist, revivalist Islamic political movement seeking to convert Muslims to its concept of an Islamic state through political rather than spiritual means. They aim at the puritanical reestablishment of the Mahdiyah and regard themselves as purer and more representative of true Islam than any Sufi order. They pray and study in their own mosques and use their own prayerbook. They regard their political struggle as part of their religious duty in which tribal, ethnic, and regional boundaries are irrelevant. For most of their adherents, especially the tribal elements in Darfur and Kordofan and the West African pilgrims (falldtah), Mahdism expresses their Islamic beliefs; it is therefore a blueprint for the future Islamic state in the Sudan, should the Ansar come to power.

[See also Mahdi; Mahdiyah; Sudan; Ummah-Ansar; and the biography of (al-Sddiq al-) Mahdi.]


Daly, Martin W. Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1934. Cambridge, 1986.

Ibrahim, Hasan Ahmad. “The Development of Economic and Political Neo-Mahdism in the Sudan, 1926-1935.” Unpublished ms., Khartoum, 1980.

Ibrahim, Hasan Ahmad. “Imperialism and Neo-Mahdism in the Sudan: A Study of British Policy towards Neo-Mahdism, 19241927.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 13.2 (1980): 214-239.

Ibrahim, Hasan Ahmad. “Al-Sayyid `Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi wabara’at al-munawwarat al-siyasiyah.” In Dirasat ft ta’rikh almahdiyah, pp. 193-202. Khartoum, n.d.

Mahdi, al-Sadiq al-, ed. Jihdd fi sabil al-istiqlal. Khartoum, n.d. (1965)

Vincent, Andrew. “Religion and Nationalism in a Traditional Society: Ideology, Leadership, and the Role of the Umma Party as a Force of Social Change in the Northern Sudan.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1988.

Warburg, Gabriel R. “From Ansar to Umma: Sectarian Politics in the Sudan, 1914-1945” Asian and African Studies 9.2 (1973): 101-153.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ansar/

  • writerPosted On: October 10, 2012
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