SA4: Mahdi SA

Sudanic Africa 4, 1993.

Recent Books

The Life and Career of the Mahdi

Lawha li-tha`ir sudani: al-Imam al-Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad b. 'Abd Allah (1844-1885) by Muhammad Sa'id al-Qaddal. Khartoum: University of Khartoum Press, 1985. Reissued as al-Imam al-Mahdi: Muhammad Ahmad b. 'Abd Allah (1844-1885). Beirut: Dar al-Jil, 1992.

The year 1981 marked the centenary of the start of the Mahdist revolution; one hundred years before, the Sufi scholar named Muhammad Ahmad ibn 'Abd Allah had declared his calling as the Mahdi at Aba Island. In commemoration of the event, a librarian at the University of Khartoum decided to collect all of the biographical studies that had been written on the Mahdi up to that point. Much to his surprise and chagrin, however, the search yielded not a single biography on the Mahdi himself­in sharp contrast to the forty-odd works on Charles Gordon which the same search uncovered.[1]

Muhammad Ahmad was arguably the single most influential personality in the history of the modern Sudan. Studies which deal with any aspect of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sudanese history inevitably mention him and the movement which he launched. Yet in some sense the breadth of the historiographical tradition on the Sudan has remained quite limited. In particular, many extant English-language studies have tended to focus on Gordon and on the British/Europeans who followed him, while relegating the Mahdi and other Sudanese leaders into the space of a few pages. Such studies have, in effect, treated the Sudanese as if they were the backdrop on the stage of their own history.

Prompted by his colleague's fruitless search in the University of Khartoum library, Muhammad Sa'id al-Qaddal decided to reverse the biographical oversight on the life and career of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. In 1985, the University of Khartoum Press published his biography; just this past year, in 1992, Beirut's Dar al-Jil publishing house chose to re-issue it. The reprinting of al-Qaddal's biography on the Mahdi testifies to its supra-Sudanese value as a work of history.

Admittedly, there have been a few works published in past years which ostensibly concentrate on the Mahdi. For different reasons, however, they fail to qualify as full-fledged biographies.

One biographical contender might be Isma'il b. 'Abd al-Qadir al-Kurdufani's Kitab sa'adat al-mustahdi bi-sirat al-Imam al-Mahdi, written in 1888. (Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim edited the text for a 1972 Arabic edition; Haim Shaked published a translated and annotated version in 1978.[2] Commissioned by the Khalifa 'Abdullahi, Kitab sa'adat al-mustahdi functioned as a panegyric and as an 'official' history of the Mahdist state. The book took pains to prove that Muhammad Ahmad was indeed the Mahdi, often by referring to popular Sunni eschatological traditions. Al-Kurdufani's text is of historical value and interest as an official Mahdist source. Nonetheless, it is not a biography in the usual sense of the term, since its primary function was to serve as a work of propaganda for the fledgling Mahdist state. As such it concentrates almost exclusively on Muhammad Ahmad the Mahdi rather than Muhammad Ahmad the man.

What might seem to be a second contender, Richard Bermann's The Mahdi of Allah: The Story of the Dervish Mohammed Ahmed, published in 1932, actually reads more like a story-book, the underlying goal of which is to discredit the Mahdi and the Mahdist movement.[3] From today's standpoint, Bermann's text is shocking for its bitter xenophobia and racism, which tinge even Winston Churchill's introduction to the book. Its title, too, is grossly misleading. Only a fraction of Bermann's text deals with the Mahdi, and a sizeable chunk degenerates into a hagiography of Gordon. The book effectively targets a popular audience in order to justify British intervention in the Sudan (and European intervention within Africa as a whole) as a civilizing mission.

Set against this context, al-Qaddal's study is all the more refreshing. He has written what is neither a hagiography nor a vilification of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. Al-Qaddal relies extensively on Sudanese Arabic sources, including texts written by Mahdiyya contemporaries (e.g., Yusuf Mikha'il, al-Kurdufani); studies by Sudanese scholars (e.g., Mekki Shibeika, Abu Salim); and collections of Mahdist documents. He uses English-language sources extensively as well: the contemporary accounts of Wingate, Slatin, and Ohrwalder, of course, but also scholarship by the likes of Hill, Holt, O'Fahey, and others. Careful citation of sources makes his study of considerable use to researchers who wish to follow the footnote trail. His Arabic prose is clear and straightforward, so that his book should be accessible to non-native Arabic speakers who have had a few years' training in the written language.

Less than 150 pages long, al-Qaddal's text manages to provide a thorough if concise survey of Muhammad Ahmad's life and thought­a much-needed account of the man and his mission. Al-Qaddal gives a brief outline of Sudanese history during the Turkiyya, and of the nature of Islam and Sufism in the Sudan. He then turns to a study of the early life of Muhammad Ahmad, placing particular emphasis on his religious education and development and on his Sufi beliefs. The last two-thirds of the book are devoted to Muhammad Ahmad after he had declared his calling as the Mahdi. He traces the crystallization of the movement and the consolidation of its support base, before detailing the military struggle under the Mahdi with a battle-by-battle description. He concludes his study with an analysis of the Mahdi's political, economic, and social program: he deals with such topics as Mahdist policy towards the Sufi orders, the structure of the Bayt al-mal, rulings on marriage, and so forth.

The author clearly admires the Mahdi; on the first page of the biography he calls him 'a revolutionary whose life story has illuminated [Sudanese] history.' Nonetheless, he tempers his praise with judicious criticism. For example, he criticizes the Mahdi for having ordered the burning of all books except for the Qur`an and compilations of hadith, and says that this step 'was not devoid of extremism.'[4] Moreover, he describes the Mahdi's political, economic, and social programs as 'the weakest of his intellectual links,' in contrast to his highly developed and shrewd jihad ideology and military organization.[5]

Al-Qaddal seems to feel least comfortable in characterizing Muhammad Ahmad's position vis-a-vis the Sufi orders after his declaration of the Mahdiship. Muhammad Ahmad, after all, had been a member of the Sammaniyya tariqa before his calling. Once he had established a broad base of support, however, he had outlawed all Sufi orders, no doubt seeing them as potential rival power bases. Al-Qaddal repeatedly alludes to but does not truly confront the nature of Muhammad Ahmad the Sufi versus Muhammad Ahmad the Mahdi, the continuities and the breaks between the two.

One of the most interesting series of minor details which al-Qaddal includes in his study pertains to the folklore and legends surrounding the Mahdi, and to the signs of baraka and proofs of piety which his supporters saw in him. When still a young man, for example, Muhammad Ahmad had been eating the food at one mosque where he was studying until he learned that it had been subsidized by the Turco-Egyptian government. He thereafter refused to eat the mosque food, on the grounds that it had come from illegal taxes. According to another story, Muhammad Ahmad had been selling firewood in the Khartoum market until he learned that one of his customers was burning it in order to distill liquor.[6]

How could one individual do so much to shape a country's history? This is the question which al-Qaddal asks at the beginning of his study. In the case of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, even those historians who generally avoid the 'Great Man' theory of history cannot deny his remarkable charismatic force in propelling the history of the Sudan along its path.

Al-Qaddal may represent many Sudanese in attributing to the Mahdi a manifold and very positive legacy: he sees the Mahdi as a symbol against foreign oppression and a symbol for national liberation, who unified the tribes of the northern Sudan under the aegis of a shared Islamic heritage. This modern-day interpretation is certainly a compelling one, though in a nation as socially, politically, and religiously fragmented as the Sudan is today, one must realize that it is not the only one. While many Sudanese, of the North and South, might agree that Muhammad Ahmad represents one of the most influential figures in Sudanese history, not all would attribute to him the glorious legacy of national liberation and unification.

Heather J. Sharkey


1. Muhammad Sa'id al-Qaddal, Lawha li-tha`ir sudani, 1 [1992 edn. p. 7]. [*]

2. Isma'il b. 'Abd al-Qadir al-Kurdufani, Kitab sa'adat al-mustahdi bi-sirat al-Imam al-Mahdi, Ed. Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1972) and Haim Shaked, The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi: A Historical Study of Kitab sa'adat al-mustahdi bi-sirat al-Imam al-Mahdi by Isma'il b. 'Abd al-Qadir (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1978). [*]

3. Richard A. Bermann, The Mahdi of Allah: The Story of the Dervish Mohammed Ahmed, Introduction by Winston Churchill, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1932. [*]

4. al-Qaddal, Lawha, 124 [1992 edn., 140]. [*]

5. al-Qaddal, Lawha, 123 [1992 edn., 139]. [*]

6. al-Qaddal, Lawha, 37, 42 [1992 edn., 49, 55-6].[*]

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