Learn more about Muhammad Ahmad
Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah (otherwise known as The Mahdi or Mohammed Ahmed) (12 August, 1845–June 22, 1885) was a Muslim religious leader, a faqir, in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. He declared a jihad and raised an army after declaring himself the Mahdi in 1881, and led a successful war of liberation from the Ottoman-Egyptian military occupation. He died soon after his liberation of Khartoum, and the state he founded fell victim to colonial maneuverings that doomed it to reconquest in 1899.
 Early life
Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi, was born in 1845 on Dirar Island off Dongola, the son of an indigent boat-builder and a member of an 'Arabized Nubian' family from Dongola. They moved to Khartoum for better prospects for his family, and all of Muhammad's brothers entered the boatbuilding business, following their father. Muhammad instead focused on religious studies like his great-grandfather, a respected sharif.
Muhammad Ahmad learned the Qur'ān in Khartoum and Karari and later studied fiqh under Shaykh Muhammad Khayr. He was interested mostly in Sufi teachings. In 1861, he approached Shaykh Muhammad ash-Sharif, the leader of the Sammaniyya, to join his students and learn more about Sufism. When Shaykh Muhammad ash-Sharif realized Muhammad Ahmad's dedication, he appointed Muhammad Ahmad shaykh and permitted him to give tariqa and Uhūd to new followers.
In 1871 his family moved again to Aba Island on the White Nile, where he built a mosque and started to teach the Qur'ān. He soon gained a notable reputation among the local population as an excellent speaker and mystic. The broad thrust of his teaching followed that of other reformers, his Islam was one devoted to the words of the Muhammad and based on a return to the virtues of prayer and simplicity as laid down in the Qur'ān. Any deviation from the Qur'ān was therefore heresy.
Over the next ten years, Muhammad Ahmad travelled widely to Dongola, Kordofan and Sinnar. During his travels, he was struck by the hatred for the Ottoman-Egyptian rulers and found that as soon as anyone educated and well-spoken appeared, the local populations would declare him Mahdi "Saviour" and hope for deliverance.
Muhammad Ahmad was joined on his travels by Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, a Baqqara tribesman from southern Darfur, whose organizational capabilities proved invaluable. On his return to Aba Island in 1881 Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself al-Mahdi al-Muntazar or "the Expected Saviour" and began raising an army. Muhammad Ahmad used a V-shaped gap in his teeth to prove he was the Mahdi.
 In Egypt
An understanding of the British role in these events is important. In 1869 the Suez Canal opened, and to defend the waterway Britain sought a greater role in Egyptian affairs. In 1873 the British government supported a program where 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 son Tawfiq in 1877, leading to a period of political turmoil.
Ismail had appointed Charles George Gordon Governor-General of the Sudan in 1877. Soon after he arrived he started to end the slave trade, which at that point dominated the economy which was controlled by the tiny minority of Arabs. Before his arrival some 7 out of 8 blacks in the Sudan were enslaved by the tiny minority of Arabs; the native Africans formed well over 80% of the overall population. Gordon's policies were effective, but the effects on the economy were disastrous, and soon the Arab Social Ascendancy came to see this not a liberation from slavery, but a modern-day European Christian crusade and a threat to Muslim and Arab social dominance. It was this anger that fed the Ansars' ranks.
Upon Ismail's abdication Gordon found himself with dramatically decreased support. He eventually resigned his post in 1880, exhausted by years of work, and left early the next year. His policies were soon abandoned by the new governors, but the anger and discontent of the dominant Arab minority was left unaddressed.
Although the Egyptians were fearful of the deteriorating conditions, the British refused to get involved, "Her Majesty’s Government are in no way responsible for operations in the Sudan", the Foreign Secretary Earl Granville noted.
 The Rebellion
Even after the Mahdi proclaimed a jihād or holy war, against the Egyptian Ottoman government, Muhammad Ahmad was dismissed as a religious fanatic. The government paid more attention when his religious zeal turned to denunciation of tax collectors. A military expedition was sent to reassert the government's authority on Aba Island, but the government's forces were ambushed and nearly annihilated by the Mahdi's followers. To avoid arrest, the Mahdi and a party of his followers, the Ansār "Helpers" (known in the West inaccurately as "the Dervishes"), made a long march to Kurdufan. There he gained a large number of recruits, especially from the Baqqara.
Muhammad Ahmad also wrote to many Sudanese tribal leaders and gained their support, or at least neutrality, and he was also supported by the slave traders who were looking to return to power. They were also joined by the Hadendoa Beja, who were rallied to the Mahdi by an Ansār captain, Osman Digna.
Late in 1883, the Ansār, armed only with spears and swords, overwhelmed an 4000-man Egyptian force not far from Al Ubayyid ("El Obeid"), 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 town remained the headquarters of the Ansar for much of the decade.
The Ansār, now 40,000 strong, then defeated an 8000-man Egyptian relief force led by British officer William Hicks at Sheikan, in the battle of El Obeid. The defeat of Hicks sealed the fate of Darfur, which until then had been effectively defended by Slatin bey. Jabal Qadir in the south was also taken. The western half of Sudan was now firmly in Ansārī hands.
Their success emboldened the Hadendoa, who under the generalship of Osman Digna wiped out a smaller force of Egyptians under the command of Colonel Valentine Baker near the Red Sea port of Suakim. Major-General Gerald Graham was sent with a force of 4000 British and defeated Digna at El Teb on February 29th, but were themselves hard-hit two weeks later at Tamai. Graham eventually withdrew his forces.
Given their general lack of interest in the area, the British decided to abandon the Sudan in December 1883. While their forces still held several northern towns and Red Sea ports, they ordered Gordon to return to Khartoum and organize a withdrawal of the Egyptian garrisons there.
Gordon reached Khartoum in February 1884. At first he was greeted with jubilation as many of the tribes in the immediate area were at odds with the Mahdists. Transportation northward was still open and the telegraph lines intact. However, the uprising of the Beja soon after his arrival changed things considerably, reducing communications to runners.
Gordon considered the routes northward to be too dangerous to extricate the garrisons and so pressed for reinforcements to be sent from Cairo to help with the withdrawal. He also suggested that his old enemy Al-Zobeir Pasha Rahma, a fine military commander, be given tacit control of the Sudan in order to provide a counter to the Ansār. London rejected both proposals, and so Gordon prepared for a fight.
In March 1884, Gordon tried a small offensive to clear the road northward to Egypt but a number of the officers in the Egyptian force went over to the enemy and their forces fled the field after firing a single salvo. This convinced him that he could carry out only defensive operations and he returned to Khartoum to construct defensive works.
By April 1884, Gordon had managed to evacuate some 2500 of the foreign population that were able to make the trek northwards. His mobile force under Colonel Stewart then returned to the city after repeated incidents where the 200 or so Egyptian forces under his command would turn and run at the slightest provocation.
That month the Ansār reached Khartoum and Gordon was completely cut off. Nevertheless, his defensive works, consisting mainly of mines, proved so frightening to the Ansār that they were unable to penetrate into the city. Stewart maintained a number of small skirmishes using gunboats on the Nile once the waters rose, and in August managed to recapture Berber for a short time. However, Stewart was killed soon after in another foray from Berber to Dongola, a fact Gordon only learned about in a letter from the Mahdi himself.
Under increasing pressure from the public to support him, the British Government under Prime Minister Gladstone eventually ordered Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley to relieve Gordon. He was already deployed in Egypt due to the attempted coup there earlier, and was able to form up a large force of infantry, moving forward at an extremely slow rate. Realizing they would take some time to arrive, Gordon pressed for him to send forward a "flying column" of camel-borne troops under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Herbert Stuart. This force was attacked by the Mahdists twice, first at Abu Klea and two days later nearer Metemma. Twice the British square held and the Mahdists were repelled with heavy losses.
At Metemma, 100 miles north of Khartoum, Wolseley's advance guard met four of Gordon's steamers, sent down to provide speedy transport for the first relieving troops. They gave Wolseley a dispatch from Gordon claiming that the city was about to fall. However, only moments later a runner brought in a message claiming the city could hold out for a year. Deciding to believe the latter, the force stopped while they refit the steamers to hold more troops.
They finally arrived in Khartoum on 28 January 1885 to find the town had fallen two days earlier. Faraz Pasha had treacherously opened the gates and let the Ansār in. Gordon was killed on the steps of the palace and beheaded although the Mahdi had expressly ordered for him to be taken alive. Wolseley's force retreated after attempting to force their way to the center of the town on ships, being met with a hail of fire.
Kassala and Sannar fell soon after and by the end of 1885 the Ansār had begun to move into the southern regions of Sudan. In all Sudan, only Suakin, reinforced by Indian Army troops, and Wadi Halfa on the northern frontier remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands.
 The Mahdiyah
With Sudan now in Sudanese hands, the Mahdi formed a government. The Mahdiyya (Mahdist regime) imposed traditional Islamic laws. Sharia courts enforced Islamic law and the Mahdi's own commands. He also authorized the burning of lists of pedigrees and books of law and theology because of their association with the old regime and because he believed that they accentuated tribalism at the expense of religious unity.
The Mahdi modified Islam's five pillars to support the dogma that loyalty to him was essential to true belief. 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 shahada. Moreover, service in the jihād replaced the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) as a duty incumbent on the faithful. Zakat (almsgiving) became the tax paid to the state. The Mahdi justified these reforms as responses to instructions conveyed to him by God in visions.
Six months after the capture of Khartoum, Muhammad Ahmad died of typhus. The Mahdi had planned for this eventuality and chosen three deputies to replace him, in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad. This led to a long period of disarray, due to rivalry among the three, each supported by people of his native region. This continued until 1891, when Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, with the help primarily of the Baqqara Arabs, emerged as unchallenged leader. Abdallahi, referred to as the Khalifa (Caliph, lit. "successor"), purged the Mahdiyya of members of the Mahdi's family and many of his early religious disciples.
The Khalifa was committed to the Mahdi's vision of extending the Mahdiyah through jihād, which led to strained relations with practically everyone else. For example, the Khalifa rejected an offer of an alliance against the Europeans by Ethiopia's Emperor, Yohannes IV. Instead, in 1887 a 60,000-man Ansar army invaded Ethiopia, penetrated as far as Gonder, and captured prisoners and booty. The Khalifa then refused to conclude peace with Ethiopia.
In March 1889, an Ethiopian force commanded personally by the Nəgusa nagast (Emperor, lit. "King of Kings") marched on Gallabat; however, after Yohannes IV fell in battle, the Ethiopians withdrew.
ˤAbd ar-Raħmān an-Nujumī, the Khalifa's best general, invaded Egypt in 1889, but British-led Egyptian troops defeated the Ansār at Tushkah, the first battle the Mahdiyya lost. Further attacks into Equatoria were stopped by the Belgians and in 1893 the Italians repulsed an Ansār attack at Akordat (in Eritrea) and forced them to withdraw from Ethiopia.
 The Return of the British
By this point British interest in the area was once again growing, due to the interest of the French and Belgians in nearby areas. As each of these forces moved up the Nile, the British felt they required a presence in the Sudan in order to validate their claims to it via Egypt's annexation. In 1892 Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener had been promoted to the post of commander in Egypt, and in 1895 they started plans for the re-conquest of the Sudan.
Kitchener's forces, the Anglo-Egyptian Nile Expeditionary Force, consisted of 25,800 men, including 8,600 British regulars, and a flotilla of gunboats. They reached and fortified Wadi Halfa in 1895, and started south at a very slow pace the next March. In September Kitchener captured Dongola, and constructed several rail lines to ensure supplies. There were small battles at Abu Hamad and Atbara, both times the Ansar were defeated by the massive English firepower which now included Maxim machine guns. Kitchener then marched on Omdurman.
On 2 September 1898, the battle of Omdurman opened with a frontal assault by the Mahdiyya's 52,000-man army. Over the next five hours, some 11,000 Mahdiyya forces would be killed against about 40 of the Anglo-Egyptian forces (and about 400 wounded). The Mahdiyya ended at this point and the British once again took control of the Sudan.
The Khalifa escaped and reformed an army, but this was defeated in 1899 at the battle of Umm Diwaykarat and the Khalifa was killed.
During their short reign, the Mahdiyya had destroyed the Sudanese economy and about half of the population died due to famine, disease, persecution and warfare. Their efforts to wipe out the former tribal differences left few loyalties intact, and internecine warfare was common. In general the country welcomed the fall of the Mahdiyya.
 See also
- David Levering Lewis, "Khalifa, Khedive, and Kitchener" in The Race for Fashoda. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. ISBN 1-55584-058-2
- Winston Churchill, "The River War: An Account Of The Reconquest Of The Sudan", 1902, available at Project Gutenberg.ar:محمد أحمد المهدي