Childhood & Early Life
Muhammad Ahmad was born to a boat builder, Abdullah, and his wife in Labab Island-Dongola, Northern Sudan, on August 12, 1845.
A few years later, Abdullah settled down in Karari, a town lying to the north of Omdurman, the largest city of Sudan.
The young child was inclined towards Islamic theology, and was taught by the likes of Sheikh al-Amin al-Suwaylih and Sheikh Muhammad al-Dikayr 'Abdallah Khujali, both renowned religious teachers in Sudan.
Deeply influenced by the teachings of Islam, Ahmad visited Sheikh Muhammad Sharif Nur al-Dai'm, who was a major proponent of the ‘Samaniyya’ Sufi order in Sudan. From 1861-68, the adolescent boy lived with Sharif, mastered the nuances of his religion, and was subsequently honoured with the title of ‘Sheikh’.
Continue Reading Below
After receiving the title of 'Sheikh', Muhammad became a teacher and was allowed to give spiritual education, also known as 'tariqa', to new members of the sect.
In 1870, Ahmad's family moved to Aba Island, south of Khartoum, and here, the young man constructed a mosque so he could teach the 'Quran'. He gained popularity amongst his students for the way he taught, and for his loyalty to the holy book.
Two years later, in 1872, Sheikh Sharif was invited by Muhammad to live in the al-Aradayb region, close to Aba Island. For some time, the two religious leaders fostered a friendly relationship, but eventually their differences began to surface.
In 1878, Sharif started disliking the adulation that his former student was receiving, leading to a violent altercation between the followers of both the teachers. Though the conflict was temporarily sorted out, they had a second contention, which caused Sharif to oust Ahmad from the ‘Samaniyya’ sect.
Post this dissension, the expelled leader, along with his followers, requested rival ‘Samaniyya’ teacher Sheikh al-Qurashi wad al-Zayn to accept him as his follower, and the latter readily obliged. The same year, al-Qurashi died and Muhammad was made the new leader of the order, during which he met his successor, Abdallahi bin Muhammad al-Ta'aishi.
On June 29, the 'Samaniyya' leader declared himself to be the 'Mahdi', which means the prophet of Islam, who would redeem the religious order and deliver the world from evil. He claimed to have been chosen as the 'Mahdi' by a 'hadra', or an assembly of all prophets beginning from Adam to Muhammad.
The spiritual teacher drew several comparisons to prove that he was a divine manifestation of the Messenger of God. He also named the followers of his sect as 'Ansar', so as to differentiate them from practitioners of other forms of Sufism.
Though he was extremely popular amongst followers of 'Samaniyya', the conservative Islamic leaders, known as the 'Ulema', including teachers like Mufti Shakir al-Ghazi and Qadi Ahmad al-Azhari, derided his claims.
Despite controversies, Muhammad continued to spread his doctrines, obliterating the four Sunni orders of Islam. He also redrafted the declaration of faith, known as the 'Shahada', inserting the new phrase, "Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Khalifa of the Prophet of God".
Continue Reading Below
The Egyptian government decided to arrest the 'Mahdi', after discussing the matter with the 'Ulema' orthodox leaders. However, the 'Samaniyya' leader's disciples defeated the army of 200 Egyptian soldiers in the 'Battle of Aba'.
The 'Mahdi' declared 'jihad', a resistance movement against the Turks, ordering his followers to annihilate any Turk who crossed paths with them. This move was considered blasphemy by orthodox Muslims, but Ahmad travelled to the province of Kurdufan in Central Sudan, accompanied by his disciples.
In Kurdufan, he built an army made up of members of the 'Baqqara', 'Rizeigat', 'Hadendoa Beja' and 'Ta'aisha' ethnic tribes. The army included prominent leaders like Sheikh Madibbo ibn Ali, Osman Digna and Abdallahi ibn Muhammad.
The 'jihad' movement also gained popularity with the Nuer, Bahr Alghazal, Shilluk and Anuak ethnic races of Southern Sudan, giving the revolt nation-wide importance. The army of 'jihadis' started their protest by launching an attack against the orthodox Khatmiyya religious order in Kassala, eastern Sudan.
In 1883, the followers seized an Egyptian army of 4000 soldiers near El Obeid in Kurdufan, using nothing but swords and spears. Post this invasion, they emerged victorious in the 'Battle of El Obeid', against an Anglo-Egyptian army of 8000 soldiers led by British Colonel William Hicks, also called Hicks Pasha.
Following the two wars in El Obeid, western Sudan was completely taken over by Muhammad. They continued their rampage in the Suakin port, but was defeated in the ‘Battle of El Teb’, led by General Gerald Graham.
In December 1883, British officer Charles George Gordon, also known as Gordon of Khartoum, was given the responsibility of clearing the soldiers from most of Sudan. Gordon arrived in February, the following year, and apprehending trouble in his mission, prepared for a fight against the 'Ansar'.
For almost a year, the British forces were able to hold back the 'Ansar' army, but when Gordon reached Khartoum his infantry witnessed the invasion of the city by the 'Mahdists', in the 'Battle of Khartoum'.
The insurgents found their way to Gordon's garrison and he was killed, his body slashed, and his head cut off. Gordon's comrade, Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley, had to flee with his soldiers after being attacked by the 'Mahdists'.
Muhammad's army continued to capture towns of Sudan, including Sannar and Kassala. Having gained control over most of Sudan, the self-declared 'Mahdi' established a new government, by reforming the whole Islamic law, known as 'Shariah'. He also ordered other religious books to be burnt, since they allowed different sects to co-exist.