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MAHDIYAH. In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, the northern territories of the presentday Democratic Republic of the Sudan were dominated by a politico-religious movement that aimed initially to reform worldwide Islam, but that was ultimately realized in the formation of a territorial state along the Nile. Although its fortunes and ideals changed with the fluctuating political conditions within and outside the Sudan, the movement-popularly called the Mahd-iyah after its founder-succeeded in creating symbols and evoking an ethos that have had lasting importance to Sudanese identity.

Turco-Egyptian rule of the Nilotic Sudan, which had been established by the armies of the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha from 1820 to 1822, began to unravel with the spread of a revolutionary movement led by Muhammad `Ahmad al-Sayyid `Abd Allah, a shaykh of the Sammaniyah Sufi brotherhood originally from the region of Dongola, who in 1881 declared himself to be the “Expected Mahdi” (al-Mahdi al-Muntazar) and called for the overthrow of Turkish rule. Muhammad Ahmad’s millenarian message of an age of justice and equity prior to the end of time was readily accepted by a Sudanese people suffering the dislocating effects of Turco-Egyptian rule; moreover, the timing of the Mahdi’s mainfestation at the end of the thirteenth Islamic century accorded with messianic expectations long held across the Sudanic belt of Africa and along the Nile River Valley. Asserting his conformity with Sunni doctrines of the Mahdi contained in the authoritative hadith literature (doctrines numerous and contradictory enough to establish almost any claim), Muhammad Ahmad confounded his critics from the `ulama’, and his military successes against government troops sent to arrest him enhanced his credibility among both sedentary and nomadic populations. After an initial victory in August 1881 at his base on Aba Island, the Mahdi moved from the White Nile region to the more defensible highlands of the Nuba Mountains in the west-central province of Kordofan. In a deliberate reference to the Prophet’s own experience, the Mahdi termed this withdrawal a Hijrah and named his followers ansdr (“helpers”), while calling for a jihad against all “unbelievers” who opposed him. The name of his sanctuary in Kordofan, Jabal Qadir, was changed to Massa in further conformity to messianic tradition. Two more government expeditions sent to capture him were defeated in 1881 and 1882. As pastoral Arab tribesmen of the west (Baqqara) flocked to his banner, the Mahdi laid siege to the provincial capital al-Ubayyid, which surrendered in January 1883. After destroying a British-commanded Egyptian force at Shaykan in Kordofan in November 1883, the Mahdi accepted the surrender of the remaining Egyptian garrisons in the west; by early 1884 he was effectively in command of at least the northern provinces of the Egyptian Sudan. The capital city Khartoum alone held out against the Mahdi’s forces, but after the fall of the city of Berber in May 1884 and the closure of the Nile escape route, Khartoum’s fate was sealed. On 25 January 1885, Khartoum was taken, its British governor General Charles Gordon being killed in the fighting. The Mahdi next retired to his army’s encampment at Omdurman on the western bank of the Nile, anxious to avoid the spiritual contamination of “the city of the Turks.” Six months later he was dead, the victim of a sudden illness, and his body was laid to rest in Omdurman. His tomb (al-Qubbah) towered over the city, a reminder of the Mahdi’s teachings and a symbol of the movement he had launched.

The man who assumed the leadership of the Mahdist state, `Abd Allah ibn Muhammad of the Ta`a’ishah Baqqarah, had been one of the Mahdi’s earliest followers as well as his most powerful general, commanding the huge western tribal levies. In official Mahdist ideology the Mahdi had represented the successor to the prophet Muhammad (Khalifat Rasul Allah), while `Abd Allah represented the successor to the first caliph, Abu Bakr (Khalifat al-Siddlq); two further leaders, `All ibn Muhammad Hilw of the White Nile Arabs and the Mahdi’s cousin Muhammad Sharif ibn Hamid, respectively represented the successors to the caliphs `Umar (Khalifat al-Faruq) and `Ali (Khalifat al-Karrar). (Succession to the caliph `Uthman, offered to Muhammad al-Mahdi of the Libyan Sanusiyah, was declined.)

`Abd Allah’s identification as khalifat al-siddiq helped solve the ideological problem of the Mahdi’s premature death; however, the more practical problems of governing the Sudan plagued Khallfah `Abd Allah throughout his reign. On two occasions, in 1886 and 1891, he faced overt challenges to his leadership from the Mahdi’s jealous kinsmen the Ashraf, led by the junior khalifah Muhammad Sharif. Throughout the period an underlying tension between the settled riverine population (awlad al-balad) and the western pastoralists who had emigrated to the Nile (awlad al-‘Arab) eroded the Mahdist ideal of a unified community and intensified economic and political competition within the state. A famine in the years 1888-1890, originating in natural causes but exacerbated by the Khalifah’s policy of forced migration to the capital, decimated the population. Meanwhile the Khalifah’s tendency to concentrate authority in his own hands and those of his brother, Amir Ya’qub, robbed his subordinates of needed initiative and led to serious administrative failings. The institutional development of the state did not advance much beyond what the Mahdiyah had inherited from the previous regime (many Mahdist officials had in fact earlier served the Turks), and leadership of both the judiciary and the state treasury often fell victim to political expediency. Finally, the jihad itself, the original raison d’etre of the Mahdiyah, came to an effective end with the destruction of a Mahdist army by the Anglo-Egyptians at Tushki, north of Wadi Halfa, in August 1889. Although fighting continued along the state’s borders for the remainder of the period, no further effort was made to export the Mahdist movement.

To his credit the Khalifah was able to convince most Sudanese of his personal integrity long after they had grown disaffected with his regime; his status as Khalifat al-Mahdi continued to carry supreme moral and political authority. However, just as the Mahdiyah was beginning to coalesce into a socioreligious and political order, foreign powers were planning its destruction. An AngloEgyptian invasion of the Sudan, carried out on behalf of larger British imperial interests, began with the occupation of Dongola province in 1896. Within a year a railway had been built across the Nubian desert, safeguarding Anglo-Egyptian supply lines, and the invasion proceeded steadily up the Nile. The end of the Mahdiyah came at the battle of Karari, north of Omdurman, on 2 September 1898. The Khalifah himself survived the battle and fled with a small following into Kordofan, only to be hunted down and killed by a British force one year later. For the next fifty-six years the Sudan was ruled by an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, though Mahdist belief persisted: F. R. Wingate, governorgeneral from 1899 to 1916, was regarded by some former ansar as the Antichrist (al-Dajjal), who in theory was supposed to follow the Mahdi; and numerous neoMahdist revolts erupted in the first two decades of the new regime.

Viewed in the context of modern Sudanese history, the Mahdiyah represents an acceleration of the ongoing process of arabization and islamization, as the Mahdi’s practice of Islam-essentially the normative Islam of the riverine population-was adopted by other Sudanese peoples. With the creation of powerful symbols of common identity (e.g., the Mahdi as leader and Omdurman as capital), a degree of national coherence was imparted to the otherwise disparate provinces of the region. The obvious legacy of the period has been the Ansar religious movement, established by the Mahdi’s posthumous son `Abd al-Rahman (1885-1959), and its political branch the Ummah Party (founded in 1945). Both derive their chief support from the former Mahdist strongholds of Kordofan, Darfur, and White Nile provinces, though reverence for the Mahdi’s family and observance of his collection of prayers (rdtib) are common throughout the northern Sudan. In a wider context, the Mah’diyah has been interpreted variously as a fundamentalist movement within the Islamic tradition of reform and renewal, a protonationalist and anticolonial movement, or even an example of “Semitic messianism.”

[See also Ansar; Mahdi; Revival and Renewal; Sudan; Ummah-Ansar. ]


Bedri, Babikr (Beds, Babakr). The Memoirs of Babikr Bedri. Translated by Yousef Bedri and George Scott. London, 1969. This translation of the first volume of a three-volume autobiography covers the author’s life up to the defeat of the Mahdist state in 1898, and provides the fascinating perspective of a loyal follower of the Mahdi on the events of the period.

Holt, P. M. The Mahdist State in the Sudan; 1881-1898. 2d ed. Oxford, 1970. The most scholarly treatment of the subject, focusing on the institutional development of the Mahdist state and the political history of the period, stressing the importance of the Mahdiyah in its Islamic and African contexts. Contains an extensive and critical bibliography.

Sanderson, G. N. England, Europe, and the Upper Nile, 1882-1899. Edinburgh, 1965. Excellent study of the European diplomatic and political contexts of events during the Mahdist period, taking into account the larger region of the Nile River Valley.

Shaked, Haim. The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi. New Brunswick, N.J., 1978. Summary translation of the official Mahdist biography of the Mahdi, Isma’il ibn `Abd al-Qadir’s Kitab sa’adat al-mustahdi bi-sirat al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Book of the Bliss of Him Who Seeks Guidance by the Life of the Imam the Mahdi). The original work, completed in November 1888, reflects official Mahdist thinking on the Mahdi’s life and times, and hence provides a useful comparison to the memoirs of Babikr Bedri.

Shuqayr, Na’um. Tarikh al-Sudan al-gadim wa’l-hadith wa jughraftyatuhu (The Ancient and Modern History of the Sudan and Its Geography). 3 vols. Cairo, 1903. The most important contemporary work on the Mahdist period, written by a former officer of the Egyptian Military Intelligence who had unrivaled access to both written materials and oral accounts. Much of the primary source material provided in volume 3 is unique.


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

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