THE MAHDIYAH, 1884-98
Developments in Sudan during this period cannot be understood
without reference to the British position in Egypt. In 1869 the
Suez Canal opened and quickly became Britain's economic lifeline
to India and the Far East. To defend this waterway, Britain sought
a greater role in Egyptian affairs. In 1873 the British government
therefore supported a program whereby an Anglo-French debt commission
assumed responsibility for managing Egypt's fiscal affairs. This
commission eventually forced Khedive Ismail to abdicate in favor
of his more politically acceptable son, Tawfiq (1877-92).
After the removal, in 1877, of Ismail, who had appointed him
to the post, Gordon resigned as governor general of Sudan in 1880.
His successors lacked direction from Cairo and feared the political
turmoil that had engulfed Egypt. As a result, they failed to continue
the policies Gordon had put in place. The illegal slave trade
revived, although not enough to satisfy the merchants whom Gordon
had put out of business. The Sudanese army suffered from a lack
of resources, and unemployed soldiers from disbanded units troubled
garrison towns. Tax collectors arbitrarily increased taxation.
In this troubled atmosphere, Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd
Allah, a faqir or holy man who combined personal magnetism
with religious zealotry, emerged, determined to expel the Turks
and restore Islam to its primitive purity. The son of a Dunqulah
boatbuilder, Muhammad Ahmad had become the disciple of Muhammad
ash Sharif, the head of the Sammaniyah order. Later, as a shaykh
of the order, Muhammad Ahmad spent several years in seclusion
and gained a reputation as a mystic and teacher. In 1880 he became
a Sammaniyah leader.
Muhammad Ahmad's sermons attracted an increasing number of followers.
Among those who joined him was Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, a Baqqara
from southern Darfur. His planning capabilities proved invaluable
to Muhammad Ahmad, who revealed himself as Al Mahdi al Muntazar
("the awaited guide in the right path," usually seen as the Mahdi),
sent from God to redeem the faithful and prepare the way for the
second coming of the Prophet Isa (Jesus). The Mahdist movement
demanded a return to the simplicity of early Islam, abstention
from alcohol and tobacco, and the strict seclusion of women.
Even after the Mahdi proclaimed a jihad, or holy war, against
the Turkiyah, Khartoum dismissed him as a religious fanatic. The
government paid more attention when his religious zeal turned
to denunciation of tax collectors. To avoid arrest, the Mahdi
and a party of his followers, the Ansar, made a long march to
Kurdufan, where he gained a large number of recruits, especially
from the Baqqara. From a refuge in the area, he wrote appeals
to the shaykhs of the religious orders and won active support
or assurances of neutrality from all except the pro-Egyptian Khatmiyyah.
Merchants and Arab tribes that had depended on the slave trade
responded as well, along with the Hadendowa Beja, who were rallied
to the Mahdi by an Ansar captain, Usman Digna.
Early in 1882, the Ansar, armed with spears and swords, overwhelmed
a 7,000-man Egyptian force not far from Al Ubayyid and seized
their rifles and ammunition. The Mahdi followed up this victory
by laying siege to Al Ubayyid and starving it into submission
after four months. The Ansar, 30,000 men strong, then defeated
an 8,000-man Egyptian relief force at Sheikan. Next the Mahdi
captured Darfur and imprisoned Rudolf Slatin, an Austrian in the
khedive's service, who later became the first Egyptianappointed
governor of Darfur Province.
The advance of the Ansar and the Beja rising in the east imperiled
communications with Egypt and threatened to cut off garrisons
at Khartoum, Kassala, Sannar, and Sawakin and in the south. To
avoid being drawn into a costly military intervention, the British
government ordered an Egyptian withdrawal from Sudan. Gordon,
who had received a reappointment as governor general, arranged
to supervise the evacuation of Egyptian troops and officials and
all foreigners from Sudan.
After reaching Khartoum in February 1884, Gordon realized that
he could not extricate the garrisons. As a result, he called for
reinforcements from Egypt to relieve Khartoum. Gordon also recommended
that Zubayr, an old enemy whom he recognized as an excellent military
commander, be named to succeed him to give disaffected Sudanese
a leader other than the Mahdi to rally behind. London rejected
this plan. As the situation deteriorated, Gordon argued that Sudan
was essential to Egypt's security and that to allow the Ansar
a victory there would invite the movement to spread elsewhere.
Increasing British popular support for Gordon eventually forced
Prime Minister William Gladstone to mobilize a relief force under
the command of Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley. A "flying column"
sent overland from Wadi Halfa across the Bayyudah Desert bogged
down at Abu Tulayh (commonly called Abu Klea), where the Hadendowa
Beja--the so-called Fuzzy Wuzzies--broke the British line. An
advance unit that had gone ahead by river when the column reached
Al Matammah arrived at Khartoum on January 28, 1885, to find the
town had fallen two days earlier. The Ansar had waited for the
Nile flood to recede before attacking the poorly defended river
approach to Khartoum in boats, slaughtering the garrison, killing
Gordon, and delivering his head to the Mahdi's tent. Kassala and
Sannar fell soon after, and by the end of 1885 the Ansar had begun
to move into the southern region. In all Sudan, only Sawakin,
reinforced by Indian army troops, and Wadi Halfa on the northern
frontier remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands .
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 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 (see
Islamic Movements and Religious Orders , ch. 2). 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.
Data as of June 1991