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Al-Mahdi of Sudan

posted on: Jul 19, 2021

The country of Sudan. Photo: ISS Africa

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

Today not that many people know much about the history of Sudan, but this Arab country has had a long and interesting history full of empires and kingdoms including great states such as Nubia and Makuria.  However, a place in timeless known is 19th-century Sudanese history when many Sudanese fought against British colonialism led by the Al-Mahdi who managed to keep Sudan independent for a while during the Age of European Imperialism in Africa.

Al-Mahdi and his Early Life in 19th Century Sudan

Map of Khedive of Egypt during the 19th century by

The man who would be known as the Al-Mahdi in Sudan had the birth name of Muhammad Ahmad, and he lived during the times of British colonization in the 18th century when the nation was under the occupation of the Khedivate of Egypt that was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire and also under increasing British influence.  Throughout his life, he was very devoted to his religion of Islam and studied Islamic Orthodoxy during his youth, but he was also a Sufi Muslim as well and instead of furthering his Islamic Orthodoxy education at the famous Al-Azhar University in Egypt he decided to stay in Sudan and join a Muslim brotherhood.  He later joined what was called the Sammaniyyah Order and he was soon able to attract his own disciples who were interested in his Sufi and mystical studies of Islam.  He was also a very intelligent and worldly man who was interested and learned about faraway countries around the world such as Egypt and England.  Soon enough, he would lead the Sammaniyyah Order as he wanted to purify Islam and create an Islamic state in Sudan. 

Thus, Muhammad Ahmad was also a part of an Islamic fundamentalist movement among other Islamic scholars in Sudan who were angry with foreign interference in their countries such as the Ottomans, Egyptians, and the British.  The Sudanese were at first angry with the Turks and the Egyptians who had a completely different lifestyle to them, and with an exception for the people who cooperated with them, most Sudanese were not well off and were abused by the Ottomans in the forms of taxation and other measures.  The situation for the Sudanese worsened when the British came in who were Christians from Europe who drank alcohol and participated in other such practices that were considered un-Islamic.  Muhammad Ahmad and his followers soon went against the occupying foreign forces such as the Khedive of Egypt, who he believed was just a puppet of non-Islamic powers, and he also believed that the Egyptians deserted their faith making them unworthy to lead to Sudanese people.  Thanks to these beliefs amongst the Sudanese, Muhammad Ahmad was soon able to start a rebellion that was very successful and that built a religious state that outlived his death.

Al-Mahdi’s Revolt

Image of Al-Mahdi by

Muhammad Ahmad said that his goal was to purify Islam and that God sent him on this purpose, and he soon announced himself as the Al-Mahdi on June 29, 1881, the figure who is supposed to lead and save Muslims from evil and injustice at the end of time.  The Al-Mahdi was then able to find support amongst numerous supporters across Sudan ready to fight the historical oppressors of the Ottomans and the Egyptians and now also, the British.  The Al-Mahdi’s forces were soon able to achieve success with numerous victories against the Egyptians, allowing them to obtain supplies as well as showing the legitimacy of his struggle to the Sudanese people.  At this time, it was mostly the Egyptians that were fighting the Al-Mahdi’s revolt as the British in Cairo were indifferent to the conflict, and the Egyptians still wanted to prove that they are a strong nation despite British occupation.  The Egyptians under British General Hicks were defeated again, however, in 1883 and soon the British called the Egyptians out of Sudan as they wanted to be sure that the Egyptians wouldn’t waste their money that they needed to pay Britain with a fight in Sudan.  The Sudanese under the Al-Mahdi soon approached the capital of Khartoum, which was garrisoned by British General Charles George Gordon who was to be slain by the Al-Mahdi’s forces as Khartoum was captured by 1885.  However, despite kicking the British and Egyptians out in a string of incredible victories the Al-Mahdi would soon die in the same year of 1885 with some historians claiming the cause of death to be typhus. He was soon buried in the town of Omdurman, Sudan, and left a legacy of fighting for Sudan’s independence against foreign powers.  However, Al-Mahdi’s regime would not survive his death as the British would return with an army to end this new state.  

Al-Mahdi’s successor was to be defeated by the British army of Lord Herbert Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, who then destroyed the Al-Mahdi’s tomb and his bones were thrown into the Nile River in order for it to not be a rallying point for future revolts and protests against the British.  Sudan was then a part of Egypt known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan until the country’s independence from Britain on January 1, 1956.  The Al-Mahdi is still remembered as one of the most influential historical figures in Sudanese history today as he was known for his piousness and his good generalship for the Sudanese cause, and he will not be forgotten anytime in Sudan’s future.

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