Muhammad Ahmad was born in 1841, on the Nile island of Labab. In 1881, he declared himself as “The Mahdi”, an expected deliverer, who will restore Islam, as found in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and cause justice to manifest. He was to start a revolution that would leave a great mark on the Sudanese history. But was this man, a genuine religious figure, or was he motivated by political aspirations? It is this question that I will be aiming to answer through the course of this essay. To begin answering such a question, one must firstly determine the authenticity of the claim Muhammad Ahmad made to being “the Mahdi”.
Secondly, an analysis of his character needs to be carried out in order to establish any change, before his claim, during the conquests and prior to his death. Thirdly, the socio-political situation one finds in Sudan during this period is to be ascertained and how this may have hindered or eased the path of the revolution. We begin by analysing the claim he made to being “The Mahdi”. To determine if he really was “The Mahdi” as described in Islamic fiqh, we fast forward to the year 1885, the year in which Muhammad Ahmad died. Four years after his declaration and without having fulfilled many of his so called “prophecies”.
This clearly shows that his claims lacked any authentic grounding, thus, proving to be a distinguishing factor in helping to determine the motivations behind such a revolt. If he was lying, which he clearly was, one could easily assume that he was motivated by political aspirations. Where he aimed to use the title of “The Mahdi” to not only reinforce and legitimise his authority over the Sudanese people, but which also “gave the Sudanese a sense of unified entity”, absolutely necessary in leading a revolt against the Turkish-Egyptian rule.
He refers to visions he had, in which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is communicating with him and telling him of his mission. Here, “visionary propaganda is particularly characteristic”1 and his claims to the “direct access to Prophetic Knowledge and ultimately to Divine knowledge”2 gave him unprecedented authority. According to Ibn Khaldun: “The Muslims will follow him, and he will acquire domination over the Islamic realms… “3 In the present case, this implies a thirst for power, which in the present situation, of a country under imperialist control, could only be achieved via political and military means, given a religious coating.
Having travelled extensively in Sudan as a Shaykh, he may well have seen the disappearance of “Ismacil’s autocracy”4 and consequently the presence of a power-vacuum, thus, finding the perfect opportune moment to take over. He could be seen as being successful in tapping into a “wellspring of resentment at the outsiders”5. Here lie all the necessary ingredients for a revolution. However, it is possible that Muhammad Ahmad genuinely believed that he was in reality “The Mahdi”, owing possibly, to a disturbed mind. “He fasted, fell into trances and dreamed strange dreams”6.
This however, is not sufficient evidence to prove that he was not of sound mind. There had been a history of mistreatment and misgovernment of the Egyptians and Turks in the Sudan, and any Sudanese brave enough to complain was consequently “flogged, jailed, tortured, hunted down and sold into slavery or killed”7. In this increasingly oppressed environment, alongside “the great gulf”8 found between the personal faith of the Sudanese people and the official Islam of the Egyptian administration, seen by many to be corrupt and deviant from the true religion of Islam, an air of expectancy of a saviour in the form of “The Mahdi” was prevalent.
“At times of crisis in the Islamic world, the appearance of a Mahdi…… is not an uncommon development”4. Taking this into consideration and the fact that physical signs characterised of the Mahdi in Islamic fiqh “were recognised in Muhammad Ahmad”9, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible for someone living in this kind of environment, to assume this role, with absolute belief in its authenticity. The inward motivations of an individual, in many cases, manifest in the outward behaviour of the person.