The tomb of the Mahdi in Obdurman, near KhartoumNAIROBI — The death of Sister Leonella, the brave Italian nun who gave her life recently in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, is a reminder for Westerners that in this area of the Horn and north-east Africa, religion is still an explosive issue.
Not too far across the map to the northwest, about 125 years ago another drama was being acted out. Sudan was under Turko-Egyptian rule, and the local people were restless for both political and religious reasons. And then, a prophet appeared: Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, the Mahdi. Alan Moorehead in his book The White Nile describes it in somewhat poetic terms: "Like a sandstorm he appears, suddenly and inexplicably out of nowhere, and by some strange process of attraction generates an ever-increasing force as he goes along".
At times of crisis in the Islamic world, political or religious, the appearance of a mahdi claiming divine authority to overthrow the old order and set up a new theocracy that is more purified and goes back to fundamentals is not uncommon. Two medieval mahdis had established regimes that lasted for some time: ‘Ubaydallah, the founder of the Fatimid dynasty in north Africa and Egypt in the tenth century, and Mohamed ibn Tumart, whose followers, the Almohads, conquered and ruled northwestern Africa and Moorish Spain in the twelfth century.
In fact, the coming of a mahdi was expected in Sudan at this time. After a first apparently miraculous victory against soldiers dispatched to clean him out by Ra’uf, the governor-general in Khartoum, in which clubs and spears defeated firearms, there was no stopping him.
Descriptions of the man make enjoyable reading, at this safe distance in time. His origins are not clear. According to Moorehead, he may have come from a family of boat-builders; others claim he was the son of a religious teacher, or the descendant of a long line of sheikhs. He was born in northern Sudan in 1844. Early in his life he had gained a reputation among the local people for great holiness and rigorous asceticism, and he had an exceptional gift of oratory. His followers obeyed him with fanatical reverence.
Most of all he had personal magnetism — rather like Hitler's, according to some biographers. In Europe, and by extension, and because of communication, the whole world, Hitler’s name has been a term of the greatest abuse for the last 70 years; in Britain, the name of the Mahdi conjured up similar fear and loathing for a century and more. Yet the men who wrote about him -– and to be able to describe the Mahdi from first-hand experience was one of the great achievements of the time — portrayed him with a mixture of awe and immense respect. He was larger than life.
Lytton Strachey wrote: "There was a strange splendour in his presence, an overwhelming passion in the torrent of his speech". In Fire and Sword in the Sudan 1879-1895 (Edward Arnold, 1986), Rudolf Slatin, the governor of Darfur, said that he was powerfully built, with broad shoulders, a large head and three tribal gashes on his cheek. He was always smiling even when he prescribed tortures to some unfortunate wretch. Major F.R. Wingate in Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan (Macmillan, 1891) complimented him on having the strongest head and clearest mental vision in the two million square miles of which he made himself the master, until he was ruined in the last months of his life by unbridled sensuality.
His confidence knew no bounds: the Prophet had said that one of his descendants would one day appear and reanimate the faith, and Mohamed Ahmed declared without a shadow of a doubt that he was that man. Perhaps one of the most poignant descriptions is that of Father Joseph Ohrwalder in his Ten Years Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp (Sampson Low, 1892). "He was very dark, strong, always had a smile; he had a V-shaped space between the two upper middle teeth. His manner of conversation was sweet and pleasant." After another spectacular victory, El Obeid in 1892, "the Mahdi was venerated almost as the prophet himself. The water he washed in was distributed to his followers who hoped that by drinking it they would be cured; and the dreams and visions he spoke of were regarded as a revelation from God".
One historian makes an interesting point: that the tyranny of the Mahdi in the desert followed a similar pattern to the dictatorship in Europe 50 years later. It was more crude and violent, and the atrocities were carried out not in the name of patriotism, but for God and Islam.
The Mahdi had his inner ring of disciples: the three khalifas -– his principal lieutenants — the emirs, the mukuddums, the leaders of the tribes, and the wild horde of tribesmen, camp followers and domestic animals. They had their uniform -– a jibbeh with patches sewn on as a mark of poverty, emblems inscribed with texts from the Koran and the green flag of the Mahdi.
His followers never questioned his authority. They considered him semi-divine and were ready to die for him, from the highest to the lowest. He was able to demand from this motley group a sense of duty and discipline that was quite lacking in the Egyptian troops. Holt and Daly in A History of the Sudan (Longman, 1988) nuance his supporters more finely. They classified them into three groups. The first included the genuinely pious men, his religious disciples. When the Mahdi was speaking of misgovernment and purification they were thinking more in terms of theology than politics. Their hope was that he would replace the repression and corruption with an Islamic theocracy. Next, the boatmen, traders and soldiers of fortune who were opening up the southern regions of the Sudan. Their livelihood had been affected by the British attempts to abolish the slave trade. Islam has fewer qualms about owning slaves, and they were hoping to see the previous status quo restored. Lastly came the nomads, for whom control by any settled government is hateful, and stronger control more hateful still. The Mahdi made a simple appeal: Kill the Turks and cease to pay taxes!
The Madhi took upon himself wide-ranging powers. In theory the law of the mahdist community was the Holy Law of Islam. In practice the Mahdi exercised wide powers of legislation, through proclamations and by decisions on points of law submitted to him. For example, from Government House in El Obeid he published a proclamation that included many of the prescriptions of the Koran: on prayer and penance, against intemperance, immodesty of dress and behaviour and over-indulgence of all kinds, lying, theft and non-restitution of goods to others; against disobeying one’s parents. These were enforced in the harshest manner, to the point of mutilation and execution of the offenders. Together with his khalifas and other chief officers, the Mahdi heard and determined all legal cases. He held supreme power from God directly, and it was exercised by other officials only as delegated by him.
What was the true purpose of the Mahdi’s revolt against Egyptian rule in the Sudan? To many modern Sudanese he is Abu’l-Istiqlal, the Father of Independence, a nationalist leader who united tribes by means of an Islamic theology, drove out alien rulers and laid the foundations of a nation-state. Although this is a common view, these seem to be more the consequences of the revolt than the motives, and was probably not in the mind of the Mahdi at the time.
Another view is that he was a mujaddid, a renewer of Muslim faith, who had come to purge Islam of its faults and accretions. The Mahdi himself often said that he was sent to establish the Faith and Custom of the Prophet. This would make him comparable to the Muslim reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia.
But Muhammad Ahmad went further. He claimed for himself a unique status, as seen in the three titles he associated with his name. The first was Imam, by which he asserted the headship of the community of true Muslims. The second was Successor of the Apostle of God, meaning he saw himself in the role of the Prophet, restoring the community that Mohamed had established. And the third was the Expected Mahdi, the eschatological figure whose advent foreshadowed the end of the age.
After conquering the Sudan, he would take Egypt, then advance on Jerusalem where Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to meet him and Islam would then conquer the world, although, as Moorehead points out, the notion the Mahdi had of the world, accustomed as he was only to the wide expanses of desert, was very sketchy.
Things turned out quite differently. After the fall of Khartoum, in which General Charles George Gordon perished, to the dismay of the British, the Mahdi retired to Omdurman, across the river Nile, and yielded to a life of sensual pleasure, according to the Europeans who were his prisoners at the time. He stayed mainly in his harem, grew fat and appeared for prayers with the faithful, moving only rarely to the Governor’s Palace in Khartoum. Like his origins, circumstances surrounding his death are not clear. Some say he was poisoned, others that he died from typhus or smallpox.
Now, when the West — along with moderate Muslims — faces a new threat from a different group of extremists, perhaps it should study Britain's encounter with the mysterious Mahdi, an encounter which involved years of blood and national humiliation and ended not with British victory, but with Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah as supreme lord of the Sudan.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.