After his declaration, he became a lot more active, pursuing political and military means, in order to achieve his mission of establishing an Islamic state. It is possible to see how one could confuse this somewhat jihadist regime as being politically inspired, rather than religiously. However, to understand the situation, one has to look at it through the eyes of Muhammad Ahmad and through his understanding of Islam. He is known to have replaced the fifth doctrine of Islam, Al-hajj, with Jihad, due to his belief in the priority of jihad in the present situation. Here one could begin to see the possibility that this was a “movement of religious origin which was assisted in its development by political, social and economic stresses in Sudanese society, and which accomplished a political revolution”12.
“He abolished all the orthodox rites of fiqh….All books on Prophetic traditions, Qur’anic exegesis…The Mahdi’s prescribed texts were the Qur’an, his ratib (prayer book) and his manshurat (proclamations)”.13 This statement could either reinforce the above theory or work against it. By eliminating books of Qur’anic exegesis, he may well have been aiming to eliminate disunity amongst the people, which was present due to the difference in opinion. However, he may also have been establishing his authority, as the only interpreter of the Qur’an due to his direct source of Prophetic knowledge through his visions.
Towards the end of his life, it is claimed by some that “a mosque and simple houses for the Mahdi and his officers were built”14. However, this contradicts the following statement, “He abandoned his desert existence and settled in a palace…..There he gave himself over to a life of indolence and luxury, surrounded by sycophants and a great quantity of concubines”15
The accuracy of this statement is somewhat questionable due to the presence of the element of bias, “Largely compiled from the statements of natives who had escaped”16. This extreme difference in view makes it difficult to determine an accurate picture of Muhammad Ahamds character shortly before his death, thus, making it equally difficult to comment on his motivations. Looking at any outside influence on the ideology of Muhammad Ahmad, we find the existence of a parallel between two movements in particular, that of the “Wahhabist movement of Hijaz and a possible impact of the Jihad movements of West Africa”17. Both of these movements sought to revive Islam, and could possibly have inspired Muhammad Ahmad to follow a similar path, due to their success.
In conclusion, I think it is necessary to state that evidently that there is a very close relationship between religion and politics relevant to the movement. Depending on the state of Muhammad Ahmads mind, there may have been times when religious motivations were stronger, but there may also have been times when political motivations won, especially during the event of conquest taking place, in sight of the booty. In any case, it is fair to say that there was a clear nexus between his role as a religious and political leader.
All in all, the motivations of an individual are closely related to their intention if not, are one and the same. These are truly known to the person themselves and God. Coming to a logical conclusion, we can merely guess at the motivations behind the movement led by Muhammad Ahmad, where either conclusion formed, would have a sufficient evidence to prove it. The evidence would however be entirely dependent upon each person’s interpretation of each event. Whether he was a genuine religious figure or not, he certainly clamed to be and was seen to be a religious figure by many of the Sudanese, resulting in the eventual establishment of an Islamic state.
P.M Holt, The Mahdist State in the Sudan 1881-1898 A study of its Origins, Development and Overthrow (1977)
David Westerlund and E. Evers Rosander, African Islam and Islam in Africa Encounters between Sufis and Islamists (1997)
Mekki Shibeika, British policy in the Sudan 1882-1902 (1952)
David Robinson, Muslim Societies in African History (2004)
Robin Neillands, The Dervish Wars Gordon and Kitchener in the Sudan 1880-1898 (1996)
PM Holt and MW Daly, A History of the Sudan From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day (2000)
Colonel Sir Francis Wingate, Ten Years captivity in the Mahdi’s Camp (1893)