1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mahommed Ahmed Ibn Seyyid Abdullah

MAHOMMED AHMED IBN SEYYID ABDULLAH (1848–1885), Sudanese tyrant, known as “the Mahdi,” was born in Dongola. His family, known as excellent boat-builders, claimed to be Ashraf (or Sherifs), i.e. descendants of Mahomet. His father was a fiki or religious teacher, and Mahommed Ahmed devoted himself early to religious studies. When about twenty years old he went to live on Abba Island on the White Nile about 150 m. above Khartum. He first acquired fame by a quarrel with the head of the brotherhood which he had joined, Mahommed asserting that his master condoned transgression of the divine law. After this incident many dervishes (religious mendicants) gathered round the young sheikh, whose reputation for sanctity speedily grew. He travelled secretly through Kordofan, where (with ample justification) he denounced to the villagers the extortion of the tax-gatherer and told of the coming of the mahdi who should deliver them from the oppressor. He also wrote a pamphlet summoning true believers to purify their religion from the defilements of the “Turks” i.e. the Egyptian officials and all non-native inhabitants of the Sudan. The influence he gained at length aroused the anxiety of the authorities, and in May 1881 a certain Abu Saud, a notorious scoundrel, was sent to Abba Island to bring the sheikh to Khartum. Abu Saud’s mission failed, and Mahommed Ahmed no longer hesitated to call himself al-Mahdi al Montasir, “The Expected Guide.” In August he defeated another force sent to Abba Island to arrest him, but thereafter deemed it prudent to retire to Jebel Gedir, in the Nuba country south of Kordofan, where he was soon at the head of a powerful force; and 6000 Egyptian troops under Yusef Pasha, advancing from Fashoda, were nearly annihilated in June 1882. By the end of 1882 the whole of the Sudan south of Khartum was in rebellion, with the exception of the Bahr-el-Ghazal and the Equatorial Provinces. In January 1883 El Obeid, the capital of Kordofan, was captured. In the November following Hicks Pasha’s force of 10,000 men was destroyed at Kashgil, and in the same year the mahdi’s lieutenant, Osman Digna, raised the tribes in the eastern Sudan, and besieged Sinkat and Tokar, near Suakin, routing General Valentine Baker’s force of 2500 men at El Teb in February 1884. The operations undertaken by Great Britain in face of this state of affairs are narrated under Egypt: Military Operations. It need only be added that General Gordon (q.v.) was besieged at Khartum by the mahdi and was killed there when the town was captured by the mahdists on the 25th–26th of January 1885. The mahdi himself died at Omdurman a few months later (June 22, 1885), and was succeeded in power by his khalifa Abdullah.

When he announced his divine mission Mahommed Ahmed adopted the Shiʽite traditions concerning the mahdi, and thus put himself in opposition to the sultan of Turkey as the only true commander of the faithful. To emphasize his position the mahdi struck coins in his own name and set himself to suppress all customs introduced by the “Turks.” His social and religious reforms are contained in various proclamations, one of which is drawn up in the form of ten commandments. They concern, chiefly, such matters as ritual, prayers, soberness in food and raiment, the cost of marriage and the behaviour of women. How far the mahdi was the controller of the movement which he started cannot be known, but from the outset of his public career his right-hand man was a Baggara tribesman named Abdullah (the khalifa), who became his successor, and after his flight to Jebel Gedir the mahdi was largely dependent for his support on Baggara sheikhs, who gratified one of his leading tastes by giving him numbers of their young women. In the few months between the fall of Khartum and his death the mahdi, relieved from the incessant strain of toil, copied in his private life all the vices of Oriental despots while maintaining in public the austerity he demanded of his followers. His death is variously attributed to disease and to poisoning by a woman of his harem. On the occupation of Omdurman by the British (Sept. 1898) the mahdi’s tomb was destroyed, his body burnt and the ashes thrown into the Nile (see Sudan: Anglo-Egyptian).

See Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan by F. R. Wingate (1891); Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp (1882–1892) from the MS. of Father Joseph Ohrwalder by F. R. Wingate (1892) and Fire and Sword in the Sudan (1879–1895) by Slatin Pasha (trans. F. R. Wingate, 1896). Both Ohrwalder and Slatin were personally acquainted with the mahdi, and their narratives contain much first-hand information. Wingate prints many translations of the proclamations and correspondence of the mahdi.