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Robert S. Kramer
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


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

Rule of the Mahdī.

Turco-Egyptian rule of the Nilotic Sudan, which had been established by the armies of the Egyptian viceroy Muḥammad ʿAlī Pasha from 1820 to 1822, began to unravel with the spread of a revolutionary movement led by Muḥammad Aḥmad al-Sayyid ʿAbd Allāh, a shaykh of the Sammānīyah Ṣūfī brotherhood originally from the region of Dongola, who in 1881 declared himself to be the “Expected Mahdī” (al-Mahdī al-Muntaẓar) and called for the overthrow of Turkish rule. Muḥammad Aḥmad's millenarian message of an age of justice and equity just before the end of time was readily accepted by a Sudanese people suffering the dislocating effects of Turco-Egyptian rule; moreover, the timing of the Mahdī'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 Valley. Asserting his conformity with Sunnī doctrines of the Mahdī contained in the authoritative ḥadīth literature—doctrines numerous and contradictory enough to allow the assertion of almost any claim—Muḥammad Aḥmad confounded his critics among the ʿulamāʿ, 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 Mahdī 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 Mahdī termed this withdrawal a hijrah and named his followers anṣār (helpers), while calling for a jihād against all “unbelievers” who opposed him. The name of his sanctuary in Kordofan, Jabal Qadīr, was changed to Jabal Māssa (after the North African place where Muḥammad ʿUbayd Allāh (d. 934 CE), the first Fāṭimid caliph manifested himself as Mahdī) 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 (Baqqārah) flocked to his banner, the Mahdī laid siege to the provincial capital El Obeid, which surrendered in January 1883. After destroying a British-commanded Egyptian force in Kordofan in November 1883, the Mahdī 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 Mahdī'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 January 25, 1885, Khartoum was taken and its British governor General Charles Gordon killed in the fighting. The Mahdī then 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 Mahdī's teachings and a symbol of the movement he had launched.

After the Mahdī.

The man who assumed the leadership of the Mahdist state, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad of the Taʿat isha Baqqārah, had been one of the Mahdī's earliest followers as well as his most powerful general, commanding the huge western tribal levies. In official Mahdist ideology the Mahdī had represented the successor to Muḥammad, the messenger of God (Khalīfat Rasūl Allāh), while ʿAbd Allāh represented the successor to the first caliph, Abū Bakr (Khalīfat al-Ṣiddīq); two further leaders, ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad Ḥilw of the White Nile Arabs and the Mahdī's cousin Muḥammad Sharīf ibn Ḥāmid, respectively represented the successors to the caliphs ʿUmar (Khalīfat al-Farūq) and ʿAlī (Khalīfat al-Karrār).

ʿAbd Allāh's identification as khalīfat al-ṣiddīq helped solve the ideological problem of the Mahdī's premature death, but the more practical problems of governing Sudan plagued Khalīfah ʿAbd Allāh throughout his reign. In 1886 and 1891, he faced overt challenges to his leadership from the Mahdī's jealous kinsmen the Ashrāf (sherifs), led by the junior khalīfahMuḥammad Sharīf. Throughout the period an underlying tension between the settled riverine population (awlād al-balad, offspring of the towns) and the western pastoralists who had emigrated to the Nile (awlād al-ʿArab, offspring of the Arabs) eroded the Mahdist ideal of a unified community and intensified economic and political competition within the state. A famine in the years 1888–1890, exacerbated by the Khalīfah's policy of forced migration to the capital, decimated the population. Meanwhile the Khalīfah's consolidation of authority in his own hands and those of his brother, Amīr Yaʿqūb, robbed his subordinates of initiative and led to serious administrative failings. The institutional development of the state did not advance much beyond what the Mahdīyah 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 jihād itself, the original raison d’être of the Mahdīyah, 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.

The End of the Mahdīyah.

To his credit the Khalīfah was able to convince most Sudanese of his personal integrity long after they had grown disaffected with his regime; his status as khalīfat al-mahdī continued to carry supreme moral and political authority. Just as the Mahdīyah was beginning to coalesce into a socioreligious and political order, however, foreign powers were planning its destruction. An Anglo-Egyptian 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 Mahdīyah came at the battle of Karari, North of Omdurman, on September 2, 1898. The Khalīfah himself survived the battle and fled with a small following into Kordofan, only to be hunted down and killed by a British force a year later. For the next fifty-six years the Sudan was ruled by an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, though Mahdist belief persisted: F. R. Wingate, governor-general from 1899 to 1916, was regarded by some former anṣār as the Antichrist (al-Dajjāl), who in theory was supposed to follow the Mahdī; and numerous neo-Mahdist revolts erupted in the first two decades of the new regime.


The Mahdīyah represents an acceleration of the ongoing process of arabization and islamization in Sudanese history, as the Mahdī'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 Mahdī 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 Anṣār religious movement, established by the Mahdī's posthumous son ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (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 Mahdī's family and observance of his collection of prayers (rawātib) are common throughout the northern Sudan. In a wider context, the Mahdīyah 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.”



  • Bedri, Babikr ( Badrī, Bābakr). The Memoirs of Babikr Bedri. Translated from the Arabic 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 Mahdī 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 Mahdīyah in its Islamic and African contexts. Contains an extensive and critical bibliography.
  • Moore-Harell, Alice. Gordon and the Sudan: Prologue to the Mahdiyya, 1877–1880. London, 2001.
  • 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 Valley.
  • Shaked, Haim. The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi. New Brunswick, N.J., 1978. Summary translation of the official Mahdist biography of the Mahdī, Ismāʿīl ibn ʿAbd al-Qādir's Kitāb saʿādat al-mustahdī bi-sīrat al-Imām al-Mahdī (The book of the Bliss of Him Who Seeks Guidance by the Life of the Imam the Mahdī). The original work, completed in November 1888, reflects official Mahdist thinking on the Mahdī's life and times, and hence provides a useful comparison to the memoirs of Babikr Bedri.
  • Shuqayr, Naʿūm. Tārīkh al-Sūdān al-qadīm wa-al-ḥadīth wa-jughrāfīya-tuhu (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.
  • Warburg, Gabriel. Islam, Sectarianism, and Politics in Sudan Since the Mahdiyya. London, 2002.
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