Muhammad Ahmad – Muslim Warrior

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Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, also known as The Mad Mahdi, was a religious leader of the Samaniyya order in Sudan who, on June 29, 1881, proclaimed himself the Mahdi (or Madhi), the messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith. His proclamation came during a period of widespread resentment among the Sudanese population of the oppressive policies of the Turco-Egyptian rulers, and capitalized on the messianic beliefs popular among the various Sudanese religious sects of the time. More broadly, the Mahdiyya, as Muhammad Ahmad’s movement was called, was influenced by earlier Mahdist movements in West Africa, as well as Wahhabism and other puritanical forms of Islamic revivalism that developed in reaction to the growing military and economic dominance of the European powers throughout the 19th century.

From his announcement of the Mahdiyya in June 1881 until the fall of Khartoum in January 1885, Muhammad Ahmad led a successful military campaign against the Turco-Egyptian government of the Sudan (known as the Turkiyah). During this period, many of the theological and political doctrines of the Mahdiyya were established and promulgated among the growing ranks of the Mahdi’s supporters, the Ansars. After Muhammad Ahmad’s unexpected death on 22 June 1885, a mere six months after the conquest of Khartoum, his chief deputy, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad took over the administration of the nascent Mahdist state.

1.Early life
Muhammad Ahmad was born on 12 August 1845 at Labab Island – Dongola in Northern Sudan to a humble family of boat-builders, claiming descendent from Islamic prophet Muhammad through the line of his grandson Hassan.When Muhammad Ahmad was still a child, the family moved to the town of Karari, north of Omdurman, where Muhammad Ahmad’s father, Abdullah, could find a supply of timber for his boat-building business.

While his siblings joined his father’s trade, Muhammad Ahmad showed a proclivity for religious study. He studied first under Sheikh al-Amin al-Suwaylih in the Gezira region around Khartoum, and subsequently under Sheikh Muhammad al-Dikayr ‘Abdallah Khujali near the town of Berber in North Sudan.Determined to live a life of asceticism, mysticism and worship, in 1861 he sought out Sheikh Muhammad Sharif Nur al-Dai’m, the grandson of the founder of the Samaniyya Sufi sect in Sudan. Muhammad Ahmad stayed with Sheikh Muhammad Sharif for seven years, during which time he was recognized for his piety and asceticism. Near the end of this period, he was awarded the title of Sheikh himself, and began to travel around the country on religious missions. He was permitted to give tariqa and Uhūd to new followers.

2.Response of the ‘Ulema
Despite his popularity among the clerics of the Samaniyya and other sects, and among the tribes of western Sudan, the Ulema, or Orthodox religious authorities, ridiculed Muhammad Ahmad’s claim to be the Mahdi. Among his most prominent critics were the Sudanese Ulema loyal to the Ottoman Sultan and in the employ of the Turco-Egyptian government, such as the Mufti Shakir al-Ghazi, who sat on the Council of Appeal in Khartoum, and the Qadi Ahmad al-Azhari in Kordofan.

3.Arrival of Gordon
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-Zubayr Rahma Mansur, 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.

4.Siege
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 across the Bayyudah Desert from Wadi Halfa under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Herbert Stuart. This force was attacked by the Hadendoa Beja, or “Fuzzy Wuzzies”, twice, first at the Battle of 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 (160 km) 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.

5.Fall of Khartoum
They finally arrived in Khartoum on 28 January 1885 to find the town had fallen during the Battle of Khartoum two days earlier. When the Nile had receded from flood stage, Faraz Pasha had opened the river gates and let the Ansār in. The garrison was slaughtered, and Gordon was killed fighting the Mahdi’s warriors on the steps of the palace, hacked to pieces and beheaded which the Mahdi forbade. When Gordon’s head was unwrapped at the Mahdi’s feet, he ordered the head transfixed between the branches of a tree “where all who passed it could look in disdain, children could throw stones at it and the hawks of the desert could sweep and circle above.” When Wolseley’s force arrived, they retreated after attempting to force their way to the center of the town on ships, being met with a hail of fire.

The Mahdi Army continued its sweep of victories. 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 troops, and Wadi Halfa on the northern frontier remained in Anglo-Egyptian hands.

6.Death of Muhammad Ahmad and his succession
Six months after the capture of Khartoum, Muhammad Ahmad died of typhus. He was buried in Omdurman near the ruins of Khartoum. The Mahdi had planned for this eventuality and chose three deputies to replace him, in imitation 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 every neighboring nation in Africa. For example, the “Khalifa” rejected an offer of an alliance against the Europeans by Ethiopia’s Emperor, Yohannes IV because the majority of the Ethiopians were not Muslim which made them less in the eyes of the Khalifa. Instead, in 1887 a 60,000-man Ansar army invaded Ethiopia, penetrated as far as Gondar, and captured prisoners and booty. The Khalifa continued to refuse to conclude hostilities or negotiate peace with Ethiopia unless every Ethiopian converted to Islam.

In March 1889, an Ethiopian force commanded personally by the Nəgusa nagast (Emperor, lit. “King of Kings”) invaded the Sudan and marched on Gallabat; however, after Yohannes IV fell in battle, the Ethiopians withdrew.

After the final defeat of the Khalifa by the British under General Kitchener in 1898, Muhammad Ahmad’s tomb was destroyed to prevent it from becoming a rallying point for his supporters, and his bones were thrown into the Nile. Kitchener retained his skull. Allegedly the skull was later buried at Wadi Halfa. The tomb was eventually rebuilt.

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