In the Islamic world, the Mahdi is defined as the Guided One or Redeemer, with some serious and major differences of opinion between the Shi’a and Sunni Muslim sects.
Shi’ites claim the Mahdi is their 12th Imam, who “…will arise at some point before the Day of Judgment, institute a kingdom of justice, and will in the last days fight alongside of the returned Jesus against the Dajjal, the Antichrist.” The Sunnis dispute this concept, despite its belief by most Muslims. Those Sunnis, who believe in the existence of the Mahdi, believe that the Mahdi will be an ordinary man, born to an ordinary woman. The leadership of the Islamic Supreme Council of America strongly believes in the coming of the Mahdi during the 21st century.
After the death of Muhammad in 632, a number of individuals attempted to gain personal benefits with claims of being the Mahdi. The first known historical reference was in 686. The latest is Iraqi al-Sadr (Hujjat al-islam Muqtada al-Sadr), who, while not claiming to be the Mahdi, is claiming that his militia is the Mahdi’s militia defending against the United States whose purpose in invading Iraq is to find and kill the Mahdi when he appears in Iraq. His supporters believe al-Sadr to be the son of the Mahdi, a belief that al-Sadr accepts by his silence. In support of his follower’s belief, al-Sadr has stated that his militia “belongs to the Mahdi” and has named it the “Al-Mahdi Army,” a force that he claims he cannot control or disband because it is not his militia, but belongs to the Mahdi and whose purpose is to protect the Mahdi. In the meantime, the “Al-Mahdi Army” has caused much bloodshed and personal assassinations and much material damage during the past five years and continues to do so into 2007.
The inability of the Shi’a and Sunni sects to share the legacy of Muhammad over the centuries since his death has perpetuated a religious war, which has grown into a massive power struggle to determine who will rule Iraq. Both sects have determined that the solution to the problem of power and rule is to eliminate the opposition by killing off all who oppose their views and woe be unto the innocents who fail to support them. As a result, present day suicide bombings, financed by the Fattah, Hamas, similar terrorist organizations and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, are a common every day occurrence. Families of the bombers are routinely compensated with cash awards for their contribution to the carnage. Sect militia, dedicated to destroying non-conforming civilians and opposing militia, operate indiscriminately. It is a rare day that the military or the police don’t find Iraqis ritually killed with one shot to the back of the head or systematically tortured to death. Yet, others are killed by simply throwing them off tall buildings or other structures. Beheadings are frequent. Almost all bodies, when found, are bound hand and foot. It must be admitted that these sects are operating democratically – they will kill anyone, Iraqi or non-Iraqi, local civilian or outsider.
Muhammad died almost 1400 years ago. Did the indiscriminate violence immediately follow his death? If not, when did it start? Was the violence a gradual escalation or were there periods of war-like behavior that trended to the extreme violence of today? The available historical records show little to answer these questions directly, but during the final quarter of the 19th century, a new Mahdi appeared on the scene in what is now Sudan.
In 1844, Muhammad Ahmad Ibn As-sayyid ‘abd Allah was born in Nubia and remained in Sudan devoting his entire life to religious studies and the more mystic interpretation of Islam. By 1870, he had attracted a small number of disciples who joined him on Aba Island 8in the White Nile south of Khartoum. At the time, Sudan was a dependency of Egypt, which was a province of the Ottoman Empire. The native population of the Sudan was oppressed and highly discontent. The political situation was extremely dangerous. Muhammad Ahmad took advantage of the discontent and, convinced that the ruling class had deserted Islam, revealed to his followers in 1881 “that God had appointed him to purify Islam,” and he publicly assumed the title of al-Mahdi.
By the end of 1883, the small band of followers armed with sticks and spears, had grown to an army, and had destroyed three Egyptian armies capturing “an enormous booty of money, bullion, jewels and military supplies, including Krupp artillery and Remington rifles. Through his military operations and intelligent and subtle propaganda, he made himself master of almost all the territory formerly occupied by the Egyptian government. He created an Islamic state extending from the Red Sea to Central Africa.
In early 1884, the khedive of Egypt appointed General Charles Gordon as governor-general of the Sudan. Gordon reached Khartoum in February and successfully evacuated about 2,000 women, children, sick and wounded before the Mahdist forces laid siege to the town in March. A British relief force arrived at Khartoum in January 1885 two days after the city had fallen and its inhabitants, including Gordon, were slaughtered. Records show that the Mahdi had issued express orders against the killing of Gordon, something the British public refused to believe. The British relief force engaged the Mahdist forces, but eventually retreated downriver. The Mahdi abandoned Khartoum and made neighboring Omdurman his administrative capital.
At the age of 41, Muhammad Ahmed died in June 1885 of what appeared to be typhus. One of four caliphs, Abdullah al-Taashi, assumed the leadership.
It wasn’t until 1898, ten years later, that the British government decided to reconquer Sudan. A force of 25,800, in- cluding 8,000 British regulars and 17,000 Sudanese and Egyptian troops, armed with Maxim machine guns, artillery and a flotilla of gunboats in support, led by British General Sir Horatio Kitchener advanced on Omdurman. The British light cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers led the advance. Riding with the cavalry was Winston Churchill who had just completed a tour reporting on the Boer War and was now riding with Kitchener. In the ensuing battle, the Ansar force of 50,000 had 23,000 casualties and 5,000 captured. The Kitchener force had 430 casualties.
After Omdurman a force of approximately 25,000 Mahdists moved southward pursued by the British. In October 1899, the Khalifa decided to make a stand with a force of 10,000. The battle of Umm Diwaykarat ended with 1,000 Khalifa casualties and 3,000 captured, including the sons of the Khalifa and Emir Yuni. The British suffered 26 casualties.
The remnants of the Mhadists continued to resist for a short while under Osman Digna, who was captured in January 1900. The last territories of Darfur were captured in 1916.
“In the century since the Mahdist uprising, the neo-Mahdist movement and the Ansar, supporters of Mahdism from the west, have persisted as a political force in Sudan. Many groups, from the Baqqara cattle nomads to the largely sedentary tribes on the White Nile, supported this movement. The Ansar were hierarchically organized under the control of Muhammad Ahmad’s successors, who have all been members of the Mahdi family (known as the ashraf). The ambitions and varying political perspectives of different members of the family have led to internal conflicts, and it appeared that Sadiq al Mahdi, putative leader of the Ansar since the early 1970s, did not enjoy the unanimous support of all Mahdists. Mahdist family political goals and ambitions seemed to have taken precedence over the movement’s original religious mission. The modern days Ansar were thus loyal more to the political descendants of the Mahdi than to the religious message of Mahdism.”
Thus, we have in today’s political world in Sudan, the western province of Darfur under repeated attacks of internal forces bent on genocide with the support of the existing Sudanese government and its disinterest in protecting the residents of Darfur despite many toothless overtures by the United Nations.
Churchill, Winston Spencer. River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan. London.
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Gazda, Daniel. Mahdi Uprising 1881-1899. Warsaw, 2004.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahdi
Islamic History Sourcebook. www.fordham.edu/halsall/islam/1885khartoum 1.html
“Khartoum, Siege of.” Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite CD.
Al-Mahdi Army / Active Religious Seminary. www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/para/al-sadr.htm