The Sudanese Mahdiyya: When Doomsday Visions Fortified the Struggle for Independence

While the uses of apocalypse politics vary, they manage to consistently channel longings for renewal and redemption

The Sudanese Mahdiyya: When Doomsday Visions Fortified the Struggle for Independence
The Beit al-Khalifa museum in Omdurman, Sudan, on Jan. 22, 2023. (Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As the Islamic State group captured territory across Syria and Iraq and began to gain a semblance of statehood, analysts looked to history for precedents that could explain the caliphate’s recruitment strategy and appeal. Given the organization’s heavy use of apocalyptic narratives and eschatological imagery, including lore surrounding the coming of a messianic figure known as the Mahdi, many pointed to the Sudanese Mahdi’s movement as a clue.

As Erin Rushing wrote for the Smithsonian Unbound blog: “The Mahdist jihad underlies much of the ongoing violence in South Sudan and seems to inspire today’s ISIS: Current photos from the Middle East show men brandishing weapons and waving flags bearing religious inscriptions just as the Mahdists did.” Meanwhile, a senior analyst for the Rand Corporation took this comparison even further and implied that the Sudanese Mahdi’s state was similar enough to the Islamic State group that we could predict the latter’s frailty based on the former’s rapid demise. While some U.S.-based observers also identified the dire circumstances in occupied 19th-century Sudan as part of the appeal of a messianic leader, most essentialized Mahdist movements as holding a static political meaning that transfers easily from 1885 to the present.

However, just as interpretations of jihad or the just war are continuously interpreted and debated, ideas surrounding the end of days can motivate unrelated political goals at different times.

While Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi of Sudan is known for rallying forces to fight a foreign occupation by claiming to be the long-awaited redeemer of all Muslims, this was not because he held expansionist ambitions on par with those of the Islamic State group, nor were his uses of state violence nearly as arbitrary or cruel. Mahdist revolutionary figures were, in fact, widespread in many parts of Islamic Africa during the early colonial period. When taken in a wider regional context, it becomes clear that the association of the Mahdi and his coming with a time of unbearable oppression and Muslims’ eventual military triumph against all odds made the Mahdi the perfect story to motivate an impossible fight.

Although the Quran describes and frequently alludes to apocalyptic events such as the Day of Resurrection (Yawm al-Qiyamah) and the Day of Judgment (Yawm al-Din), it does not explicitly mention a Mahdi. Furthermore, the two most revered hadith collections lack any record of the Prophet Muhammad describing the Mahdi. The Hanbal, Tirmidhi and Abu Dawood hadith collections, however, do contain Mahdi references that overlap on several points: The Mahdi will be a descendant of the prophet; he will arrive shortly before the Day of Resurrection; and he will banish injustice and oppression from the Earth before ruling for a brief Golden Age. After this Golden Age, the world will end and each soul will face its final judgment. An illustrative hadith from Abu Dawood reads:

The Prophet Muhammad further states: Even if only a day remains for Qiyamah [resurrection] to come, yet Allah will surely send a man from my family who will fill this world with such justice and fairness, just as it initially was filled with oppression.

While the Mahdi appears marginal in the most important Islamic sources, searching for signs of his arrival has long been a popular preoccupation. In the early centuries of Islam, “malahim” (“tribulations”) and “fitan” (“strife”) literature compiled sayings of the original Muslim community related to “The Hour,” meaning the time of the apocalypse. In the medieval period, Islamic dynasties were made and unmade through claims to be the Mahdi. Ibn Tumart (1077-1130) of Morocco, for example, founded the Almohad caliphate using public confirmations that he was the long-awaited one. The Fatimid dynasty, which once spanned from Morocco to Egypt, also used apocalyptic narratives as a force of revolution and expansion. Eschatological descriptions and speculations often circulated independently of explicit political goals and establishments, a trend that continues today through YouTube videos on the Mahdi’s coming — several of these have views in the millions.

It should also be noted that doomsday continues to animate politics in the present, especially in regard to the Middle East and North Africa. A report released by the Middle East Institute shows that messianic narratives are baked into the training of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, where hostility toward Israel is often phrased in terms of preparing for the Mahdi’s coming. The largest U.S. lobby for Israel comes from evangelicals who see a Jewish state as paving the way for Christ’s second coming. As already alluded to, the Islamic State group made heavy use of visions of the Mahdi’s arrival and the apocalyptic battles to follow in their propaganda videos. Some political scientists argued that the caliphate’s control over cities mentioned in eschatological literature gave them a new level of political clout and legitimacy.

While the political evocation of the Mahdi and the eschatological lore surrounding his coming reach across different historical periods, it became the container for specific popular hopes and ambitions at the beginning of colonization. By the time French and British forces began to conquer Muslim-majority regions, stories of the Mahdi’s imminent arrival already had their place in the wider popular consciousness. Claims to be or to know the Mahdi had already served as narrative templates for popular uprisings against corrupt or unjust rulers, be they Muslim or foreign. By tapping into millenarian longings, early anti-colonial revolutionaries galvanized movements that achieved stunning victories despite their huge military disadvantages.

There were two figures in particular who embodied this interpretation: Bu Ziyan of Algeria and Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdallah of Sudan. Both shaped colonialism and colonial administrations, albeit in different ways. Revolutionary Mahdis even hold perennial appeal in popular culture, as seen by allusions to his arrival in the 2021 film “Dune.”

The shock and trauma of the 1830 French conquest of Algiers set the stage for highly contagious rumors of the Mahdi’s coming. Seeing a regency of the Ottoman Empire, the caliphate of all Muslims, fall to a foreign occupier led many Algerians to believe that the world must have reached peak corruption. As the French army advanced and captured more territory, expectation of the coming redeemer reached a fever pitch. Bards and poets began to allude to the imminent arrival of the “Master of the Hour,” a deputy of the Mahdi who would liberate Muslims from the yoke of occupation. This popular belief went on to create political realities: From 1845 to 1901, a dozen different Mahdist rebellions swept North Africa, leaving a lasting impression on colonial governance and culture.

The southeastern Algerian desert, home to a string of interconnected oases, became the site of one of the longest of these rebellions. While little is known about Bu Ziyan’s early life, he follows a larger pattern of claims to power and legitimacy in the region. Like most leaders of Mahdist revolts, Bu Ziyan was affiliated with a powerful Sufi brotherhood. Although the French removed Bu Ziyan as head of the local Rahmaniyya Sufi lodge as punishment for supporting an earlier rebellion, this did not stop the lodge’s leadership from eventually endorsing his Mahdist claims.

Like many revolutionary leaders of this period, Bu Ziyan started reporting otherworldly dreams and visions, which were widely understood as proof of his unique access to the spiritual realm. In one dream, the Prophet Muhammad appeared before him wrapped in a glowing light and, upon awakening, Bu Ziyan saw that his palms and legs were tinted green. He showed his verdant limbs to the oasis residents and announced that he was the Mahdi’s deputy, responsible for ushering in the end of days. This gave the people of Zaatasha and other neighboring oases the drive and courage to confront a vastly better-armed oppressor. The Mahdist revolution of 1849 lasted for several months and spread to the neighboring regions of Biskra, Tolga, the Ziban, Aurès and Hadna.

Zaatasha withered and then imploded under a long, drawn-out and bloody siege. While the French attacked with field artillery and bolt-loading rifles, Bu Ziyan’s men fired back with homemade bullets flying from muskets. Despite their military advantage, the first French troops sent to Zaatasha failed to apprehend Bu Ziyan. Two months later, the second attempt to quell the rebellion also failed. That autumn, Zaatasha was attacked by 8,000 colonial troops, and the fighting continued into November. Eventually, Gen. Émile Herbillon (1794-1866) quashed the Mahdi’s followers once and for all by razing the oasis and decapitating its palm trees, leaving the residents utterly bereft. While he claimed that clearing the palms was necessary to smoke out the rebels and roll in the artillery, it was also a brutal act of collective punishment that reverberated throughout the region. As for the Mahdi himself, he was shown no mercy. The general displayed the head of both Bu Ziyan and his 20-year-old son on a pike at the village entrance. After thousands of Zaatasha’s residents either fled or were slain, the remaining suffered a massive cholera outbreak. Yet even in the midst of such devastation, rumors continued to circulate that the Mahdi or his son had escaped alive and would return to save the town.

Despite their near-universal defeat, Algerian Mahdist rebellions inspired decades of colonial paranoia. Publications such as “Un danger européen: les sociétés secrètes musulmanes” (“Secret Muslim Societies: A Danger to Europeans,” 1890) by Napoléon Ney and “Les confréries religieuses musulmanes” (“The Religious Muslim Brotherhoods,” 1897) by Octave Depont and Xavier Coppolani warned that believing in the Mahdi and the coming millennium could incite fierce and unrelenting rebellions.

Later in the 19th century, from the other side of Africa, another Sufi declared himself the Mahdi to revolutionary effect. Unlike the doomed Bu Ziyan of Algeria, however, Bin Abdallah’s forces succeeded in driving out the British-backed Egyptian khedive from the capital before establishing an independent state. Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, as Bin Abdallah later became known, was born in the Dongola region along the banks of the Nile. His family claimed lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, an important source of political legitimacy at this time. Al-Mahdi studied with Sheikh Muhammad Sharif of the Sammaniya Sufi brotherhood for an extended period, but the relationship soured and al-Mahdi was expelled in 1878. While some sources attribute this rift to al-Mahdi’s ambitions to start his own brotherhood, others claim he was sharply critical of the sheikh for not abiding by more puritanical standards.

In his travels around Sudan, al-Mahdi noticed the general unhappiness of the people with both their hapless rulers and the growing European presence in the region. One particular aspect of the khedive rule that the Mahdi mentioned repeatedly in his sermons was the high tax rate and violent collection methods. He deemed their taxes both unjust and un-Islamic and declared that “the Turks” (meaning agents of the Ottoman khedive) had strayed so far into disbelief that it was every true Muslim’s duty to fight them. Although some historians also point to British attempts to end the slave trade in Sudan as a source of local discontent, the Sudanese Mahdi neither promoted nor condemned slavery — instead of stating that the slave trade should be revived, he reminded his followers of the Islamic limits on who can be enslaved and the benefits of manumission.

Similar to Bu Ziyan, al-Mahdi started to report dreams wherein the Prophet Muhammad visited him with signs and messages. In one particularly glorious vision, al-Mahdi saw himself enthroned by Muhammad with the first four caliphs acting as his witness. The angel Azrael then appeared and offered him a pure white banner to take into battle. In June 1881, after gaining a significant number of followers, al-Mahdi started to travel from town to town declaring that he was the Mahdi and that the End of Days was near. The coming of the 14th Islamic century (in late 1882) alongside the perceived injustices of the Anglo-Egyptian occupation made the ground fertile for his millenarian message.

Despite being armed with little more than spears, al-Mahdi and his followers captured almost the entirety of the territory occupied by the Egyptian khedive. They repelled three subsequent attacks by Anglo-Egyptian forces, the last one led by British Gen. William Hicks in 1883. Mahdist forces finally captured Khartoum in 1885, and al-Mahdi ordered Maj. Gen. Charles George Gordon to be executed. After leading prayers in the country’s largest mosque, al-Mahdi announced the capital of his state at Omdurman, 16 miles from Khartoum. While this shocking victory seemed to confirm the apocalyptic prophecies and promises of the Sudanese Mahdi, he died of typhoid just a few months after establishing his polity. The Mahdist government then continued under his successor, Abdallah, until the British reconquest in 1898.

The unlikely triumph of the Sudanese Mahdi’s resistance movement and Gordon’s tragic death shocked and fascinated the British public. In the introduction to “General Gordon’s Khartoum Journal,” Lord Elton remarked that, “When Gordon set out from Cairo for Khartoum on January 26, 1884, he became, though he would never know it, the most celebrated personage in the world.” The diary of an Austrian missionary, Joseph Ohrwalder, “Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp, 1882-1892,” was so popular that it cycled through five different printings in the three short years from 1892 to 1895. There was even a comic opera titled “The False Prophet!” whose cast of characters included “El Mahdi, the False Prophet (Lord of the Soudan).” Much later, the movies “Khartoum” (1966) and “The Four Feathers” (2002) continued the telling and retelling of the Mahdi’s near-miraculous victory from the perspective of British forces.

While contemporary thinkers liken 19th-century Mahdist movements to the violent expansionism and puritanism of the Islamic State group, British colonial analyses were far more sympathetic. Perhaps partly because it was easy to scapegoat the Ottoman-Egyptian administration and deny Great Britain’s role in Sudanese suffering, many colonial military figures pointed to the circumstances of the occupation as the root cause of the rebellion. As F.R. Wingate remarked in his 1891 book “Mahdism and the Egyptian Sudan”: “The ground was well prepared in many ways, but the broad base of the Mahdi’s appeal was the injustice and cruelty of every sort which sprang up the moment Gordon’s wholesome discipline was withdrawn.” Winston Churchill, who fought in the British reconquest of the Sudan a decade later, explained the Mahdist revolt in similar terms in “The River War”:

The reasons which forced the peoples of the Soudan to revolt were as strong as the defence which their oppressors could offer was feeble. Looking at the question from a purely political standpoint, we may say that upon the whole there exists no record of a better case for rebellion than that which presented itself to the Soudanese. Their country was being ruined; their property was plundered; their women were ravished; their liberties were curtailed; even their lives were threatened. Aliens ruled the inhabitants; the few oppressed the many; brave men were harried by cowards; the weak compelled the strong.

In both occupied Algeria and Sudan, popular discontent was as fundamental to Mahdist rebellions as to any other revolution. One part of the appeal of Mahdis in particular, however, was that they offered a religiously sanctioned outlet for political dissatisfaction that religious-political establishments failed to provide. Bu Ziyan was endorsed only by his local Sufi lodge, while the wider Rahmaniyya leadership were skeptical of his claims to be or to know the Mahdi. Furthermore, many members of the Algerian ulema (legal scholars) were advising against armed struggle given the unlikelihood of a military victory. The Sudanese Mahdi was similarly rejected and rebuked by the local ulema, who considered him an imposter. However, as word of each man’s heavenly visions reached wider audiences, this provided a form of legitimacy that bypassed existing authorities and establishments. To be a scholar or leader was a respectable thing but could hardly compete with the kind of direct access to Muhammad implied by night visits or green-tinged limbs.

Another aspect of Mahdist political appeal lay in the promises of a renewed community of believers. Mahdist leaders pointed to internal weakness, corruption and division as the root of unbelievers’ ability to triumph over Muslims. Their movements promised that, through renewing and redeeming their faith, they could usher in a new era of strength and harmony. While little is known about Bu Ziyan’s leadership during the brief months of Zaatasha’s independence, the Sudanese Mahdi leaves behind an archive of rulings and declarations from both the period of his rebellion and his reign. From these, it is clear that his interpretation of renewal leaned toward Salafism. He banned smoking and discouraged the practices of certain Sufi brotherhoods such as visiting saints’ graves. He also spoke repeatedly of the need to return to the “proper” religion.

Despite their esoteric rhetoric, Mahdist movements of the 19th century were an expression of faith in the inevitable banishment of oppression and injustice from the Earth. To believe in the Mahdi’s coming or arrival was to gain the strength to fight a highly asymmetrical war and, perhaps even more crucially, to hold onto tenets of faith and culture in the face of foreign occupations. Mahdist narratives were buoyed by the faith that, while God may temporarily test believers, surely wickedness will not triumph in the end.

Although the uses of apocalypse politics vary depending on whether they are deployed by American presidents, anti-colonial rebels or the Islamic State group, they consistently manage to channel longings for renewal and redemption. Ironically, the coming end of days often ignites hope for a better tomorrow. As such, apocalyptic narratives continue to sway policy decisions, motivate unlikely political alliances, and bring otherwise unthinkable political demands to life. The Mahdist figures of the recent past show that, at the times when earthly justice seems the most out of reach, the promise of doomsday makes fighting for this world irresistible.

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