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Mahadiyya Movement in Sudanese Politics & Religion Research Paper


Introduction

The romance and enthusiasm of the Mahadiyya movement in Sudan have inspired countless novelists and moviemakers to tell the story of a revolutionary leader—the Mahdi. The movement refers to a revolution that took place in Sudan in the early 1880s in the midst of an infinitely complex confluence of political and social developments that have shaped the country’s motivations and beliefs (“The Mahdiyya”). The Mahdiyya or the Mahdist movement is often described by historians as “the origin of Sudanese nationalism” (“The Mahdiyya”) that made possible the formation of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in the late 1890s. The view of the movement as nationalistic at its core has to do with the fact that it managed to dismantle the system of tribal societies’ structural mechanism of which was poorly balanced by religious authorities. The interrelatedness of political, economic, and religious dimensions of the Sudanese society was keenly understood by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah who claimed to be Mahdi (a divinely guided one) and spearheaded the revolution that turned into a jihad (a holy war) against the oppressive rule of the Turco-Egyptian regime (Ronen 1).

The aim of this paper is to examine the Mahdiyya movement and its influence on the political and religious life of Sudan. The paper will also discuss the historical and ideological background of the movement and how it changed the Islamic world.

Geographical Background

There is a large body of primary textual material created before the sixteenth century that designated a great belt of the territory of sub-Saharan Africa to build al-Sudan or “the land of the Blacks” (Searcy 7). Therefore, pre-colonial Europeans who traveled to the continent adopted this name when they referred to the region that spanned from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea (Searcy 7). Under this geographical designation, “western Sudan included the lands to the south of the Sahara and north of the forest belt of modern West Africa” (Searcy 7), while eastern Sudan included the lands of the contemporary Republic of Sudan. In order to understand important and far-reaching implications of the Mahdiyya movement, it is necessary to consider the division between the northern and the southern regions of the country that separated the country along linguistic and religious lines. The northern region called Nubia stretched “from the first cataract of the Nile, south of Aswan, to the sixths cataract, north of the intersection of the Blue Nile and the White Nile” (Searcy 7). South of Nubia, were two other regions—Funj Sultanate and Sultanate of Darfur—that fell under the cultural influence of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula (Searcy 7).

Historical and Political Background

Nubia

It is impossible to have a comprehensive view of the formation of the Sudanese national identity, which was instigated by the Mahdiyya movement in the nineteenth century, without discussing Islamization as a critical dimension of the sociocultural process that defined the country (Fluehr-Lobban 610). Prior to the arrival of Islam, the northern region of the country consisted of two kingdoms that were introduced to Christianity by Egyptian missionaries in the early sixth century (Fluehr-Lobban 611). Cristian consciousness translated into a tight unity of Nubian people that helped them to withstand military incursions of Muslim raiding parties around 642 (Searcy 9). However, in 651, an expedition led by a king of Egypt, Abdallah b. Sa’d b., conquered a vast part of Nubia, thereby paving the way for the Islamization of the region (Searcy 10). Cultural infiltration of the area led to the collapse of Cristian kingdoms and resulted in the rise of Arabized Nubian elite and Arab-Islamic hegemony (Shuqayr 94).

The Funj Sultanate

According to Shuqayr, the beginning of the transformation and gradual demise of the Nubian society coincided with the ascendancy of the Funj Sultanate (95). The Funj kingdom practiced animism; however, under a barrage of threats from the Ottoman Turkish ruler, it converted to Islam. In his letter to the Ottoman sultan, a king of Funj stated that “it is for the sake of establishing Islam in the land, verily I and the people of my kingdom are Arab Muslims and we practice the religion of the Messenger of God” (Shuqayr 100).

The Darfur Sultanate

Another group of Sudanese Muslim elites emerged in the Darfur Sultanate and used an alleged connection with the Prophet’s family to legitimize their authority (O’Fahey 25). Just like the rulers of the Funj kingdom, the elites of the Darfur Sultanate used the sociopolitical force of Islam out of political expediency. Another similarity of the Fur people with the Funj society was the practice of animism. However, under the rule of Sulayman Solong, the Fur people slowly began to embrace the new religion that allowed homogenizing their disparate tribes.

Political Background

The Turco-Egyptian Invasion of Sudan

Most modern historians point to the Turco-Egyptian Invasion as the key factor that determined the timing of the Mahdist revolution of 1881 (Moore-Harrell 19). The Darfur Sultanate was in a state of decline when it was attacked by the Egyptians in 1820 (Moore-Harrell 19). Despite the resistance by the Fur people, the Sultanate was conquered, and from 1874 to 1882 it remained a part of Turco-Egyptian Sudan (Moore-Harrell 20). According to Shuqayr, the main reason for the occupation was economic exploitation (192).

Rumors about the immense wealth possessed by the Sudanese reached the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, who also wanted to acquire slave soldiers who could fight in his numerous armies (Searcy 19). Being aware of the decline of the Funj Sultanate, the Ottoman took advantage of the situation and conquered the land (Moore-Harrell 20). He helped to expand Egyptian wealth by exploiting the human, agricultural, and mineral riches of Sudan (Moore-Harrell 21). During the sixty years of the Egyptian occupation of the country, “the slave trade became the chief form of commerce” (Searcy 20) in the region. Searcy argues that “the technologically superior weaponry that had been introduced to the country by the Egyptians” (20) allowed slave traders to became supreme rulers who expanded their influence over the Funj Sultanate and conquered Darfur Sultanate.

Suppression of the Slave Trade

With the occupation of Egypt by British military forces in 1882, the Egyptian rulers were pressed to abolish the slave trade (Holt 33). Their attempts to enact anti-slave trade policies were one of the causes of the Mahdist revolt. Besides the attempts to curtail the slave trade, which affected Sudanese who profited from it, colonial subjects were driven by the desire to revenge the violent conquest by the Egyptians. Furthermore, the suppressive system of taxation instituted by the Egyptian government was another major source of discontent that united disparate tribal affiliations of the country. However, Muhammad al-Qaddal argues that neither the enactment of policies prohibiting the slave trade nor oppressive taxation can be considered sufficient reasons for the eruption of the Mahdiyya movement (qtd. in Searcy 23). Holt also contends that there was no reason for the revolt to be headed by the Mahdi and his followers who did not profit from the slave trade (34). Rather, it was violence and viciousness of the suppression itself that resulted in the revolution.

Religious Ideologies and the Mahdi

The extant Arabic correspondence and British colonial records point to the fact that the Islamization of Sudan played a key role in how the Mahdist message was perceived by the country’s population (Kapteijns 391). The western part of Sudan was predominantly Islamic; however, small communities continued to practice their pre-Islamic traditions. Interestingly enough, the consumption of millet beer was not prohibited in some of the regions of Sudan (Kapteijns 392).

Prior to the emergence of the Mahdi in the religious arena of Sudan, a member of a Sufi order, Hamad al-Nahlan b. Muhammad proclaimed himself the Mahdi. However, his claims were deemed invalid due to his iconoclastic behavior. Approximately 150 years later, Muhammad Ahmad was born in a family of a skilled carpenter who was allegedly a descendant of the Prophet (Searcy 24). The holy man devoted himself to studying Sufism under Shaykh Muhammad al-Sharif Nur al-Daim (Searcy 25). According to (Searcy 27), the fakir’s reputation for religious devotion and asceticism have propelled many people to “travel to Aba Island to seek his blessings and request permission to join the ranks of his disciples” (Searcy 27). After the death of a leader of one of the branches of Sammaniyya order, al-Qurashi, Muhammad Ahmad assumed the religious authority.

The Mahdi was keenly aware of the discontent among the people of Sudan; therefore, he used his religious legitimacy to spearhead the revolt against the oppressive Turco-Egyptian regime. However, the Mahdiyya movement was also the attempt to revitalize Islam in the country and return it to a strict monotheism. Sudanese were adherents of a major Islamic sect—Sunni. Therefore, in line with Sunni Islam traditions, Muhammad Ahmad was perceived as a messianic figure whose advent portended the end of injustice and tyranny (Kapteijns 393). The Sudanese holy man believed that his mission was not to simply dismantle the Turco-Egyptian regime but rather to “carry his jihad to every region in the world” (Kapteijns 393).

The Revolution and the Mahdist Regime

In 1882, Muhammad Ahmad and a large army of his followers known as the Ansar overpowered Egyptian force, which was led by British generals, and seized their weapons (Achiecque and Guarak 34). The victory was followed by a series of other battles and sieges that allowed the Ansar to reclaim the Darfur Sultanate. Even though the British government viewed the Mahdiyaa movement as a threat, it did not wish to engage in a military intervention that had the potential to put a significant burden on the country’s budget. Therefore, after another successful attack of the occupants by the Mahdi-led army, the British government arranged a withdrawal of Egyptian troops from Sudan. The withdrawal was coordinated by a former governor of the country—Charles George Gordon (Achiecque and Guarak 36).

After the fall of the Egyptian regime, the Mahdi, established a new government that was driven by the traditional laws of Sharia. Muhammad Ahmad “eschewed the ascetic principles of Sufism in his pursuit of justice in dar al-salam (the land of Islam)” (“The Mahdiyya”); therefore, he authorized the burning of religious texts. All judicial and financial institutions of the new nationalist government were in line with the injunctions of the Quran and the Sunna. Absolute authority in both secular and religious matters was a key feature of the Mahdist regime (“The Mahdiyya”). After the death of Muhammad Ahmad in 1885, the state was inherited by one of his disciples—Khalifa Abdullahi al-Taaishi (Voll 147). The Khalifa continued the jihadist initiatives of his predecessors and engaged in military expansions. He sent his emissaries to the Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Hamid and even Queen Victoria in order to bring infidels under the rule of Mahdiyya (“The Mahdiyya”).

The British government took a dim view of the regime and its desire to encroach on neighboring territories; therefore, after a devastating defeat of the Mahdist army by the British forces in 1898, the Mahdist state ceased its existence (Achiecque and Guarak 43). After one year, the British government decided to re-establish its control over Sudan (Hassan 441). For this reason, upon reaching an agreement with the Egyptian authorities, which were under immense influence of the British Empire, Sudan was declared an Anglo-Egyptian condominium (Hassan 441). Dedicated Mahdists despised the centralized system of the Sudan government introduced by infidels and engaged in numerous risings against the regime. These upheavals ended only in 1956 when Sudan became a sovereign state (Achiecque and Guarak 43).

Impact of the Movement

It is hard to overestimate the significance of the jihadist sentiment in the context of the movement’s impact on the rest of the Islamic world. In addition to political and socioeconomic causes of the Mahdiyya movement, it was fueled by the belief that core Muslim practices were in a state of decay and needed revitalization. Even though the Wahhabi movement, which was headed by Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab in the late eighteenth century started earlier than the Mahdiyya movement, both were driven by similar ideas (Voll 151). According to Voll, the leaders of the two movements “condemned what they viewed as the excesses of the Sufi orders” (151).

Hasan notes that the influence of the uprising on the Islamic world should be viewed through the prism of “the idea of the revival of Khilafa” (175). As such, the movement was revolutionary at its core. The scholar argues that the Mahdiyya movement proved that the image of an ideal Islamic state is at odds with any political system (Hasan 175). He also refers to the example of the Wahhabi movement that confronted the Ottoman State.

The intent to establish Sunna was viewed as a divine mission by the Mahdi; therefore, he treated “the outside world as a theological rather than a geographical concept” (Hasan 175). Even though the second stage of his jihad did not come to fruition, he was a paragon of an Islamic frontier puritan whose resounding message gave rise to the radical fundamentalist movement similar to those that can be seen around the world (Hasan 179).

Conclusion

The Mahdiyya movement was a defining era in the life of the Sudanese society. The movement gave rise to Sudanese nationalism and provided the oppressed population with spiritual energies necessary to withstand the harsh realities of the long-lasting occupation.

Works Cited

Achiecque, Mawut, and Mach Guarak. Integration and Fragmentation of the Sudan: An African Renaissance. AuthorHouse, 2011.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. “Islamization in Sudan: A Critical Assessment.” Middle East Journal, vol. 44, no. 4, 1990, pp. 610-623.

Hasan, Murad. “The Mahdist Movement in the Sudan.” Islamic Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, 1978, pp. 155-184.

Hassan, Ibrahim. “Mahdist Risings against the Condominium Government in the Sudan, 1900-1927.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 1979, pp. 440-471.

Holt, Peter. Mahdist State in the Sudan: A Study of its Origins, Development and Overthrow. Oxford University Press, 1958.

Kapteijns, Lidwien. “Mahdist Faith and the Legitimation of Popular Revolt in Western Sudan.” Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 55, no. 4, 1985, pp. 390-399.

Moore-Harrell, Alice. “The Turco-Egyptian Army in Sudan on the Eve of the Mahdiyya, 1877-80.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, 1999, pp. 19-37.

O’Fahey, Rex. The Darfur Sultanate: A History. Columbia University Press, 2008.

Ronen, Yehudit. “Between the Mahdiyya and the Muslim Brotherhood: Continuity and Change in Islamic Radicalism in Sudan.” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-19.

Searcy, Kim. The Formation of the Sudanese Mahdist State: Ceremony and Symbols of Authority: 1882-1898. Brill, 2011.

Shuqayr, Naʿūm. Taʾrīkh al-Sūdān. Edited by Muḥammad Abū Salīm, Dār al-Jīl, 1981.

“The Mahdiyya.” Sudan Embassy, Web.

Voll, John. “The Sudanese Mahdi: Frontier Fundamentalist.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 145-166.

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