The second-most successful Sunni Mahdist movement is one much more recent in time, that of Muhammad Ahmad b. `Abd Allah (d. 1885), the Sudanese Mahdi. A Sufi and-like Ibn Tumart-a pious, ascetic Muslim, Muhammad Ahmad became convinced, through dreams and visions, that God wanted him, as Mahdi, to overthrow the corrupt Turco-Egyptian Ottoman regime ruling Sudan and, indeed, to unite the whole Islamic world under his Mahdiyah.
After an initial period of secretly informing certain key followers that he was the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad went public and claimed the title, whereupon the Ottoman governor sent troops to capture or kill him. The Sudanese Mahdi took his supporters on a hirjah to far southwestern Sudan, whence he build up the movement and sent da`is to other parts of Ottoman Sudan.
Returning to attack territory ruled by the Ottoman regime, Muhammad Ahmad and his growing throng of Mahdists eventually took Khartoum in January 1885, killing and beheading the British general, Charles Gordon, whom the Sultan had put in charge. (Interestingly, however, the Mahdi wrote Gordon a letter first, giving him the choice of converting and joining him.) Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi died six months later, probably of typhoid or malaria, but his followers-led by his primary caliph, `Abd Allah-would rule Sudan for the next 13 years, until British forces invaded in 1898.
The administration and foreign policy of the Sudanese Mahdist state is much more known to us than that of the Muwahhids, not least because of a greater source base. Unlike Ibn Tumart, Muhammad Ahmad lived long enough to actually take power and begin handing down fatwas. He dissolved (or at least tried to dissolve) the madhahib, making his Mahdist madhhab preeminent. His Mahdist ijtihad was based on Qur'an, Sunnah, Hadith and his own ilham, or "direct inspiration" from God.
Fatwas thus were "final, irrevocable and infallible" and unappealable, since there was no higher legal authority. And in fact death was mandated for apostasy-which was defined as falling away from belief in him as Mahdi. While his legal reforms did, to some measure, improve the status of women-particularly in inheritance matters--under the Sudanese understanding of Islamic law previously regnant, he was almost Taliban-esque in mandating that women wear hijab at all times and avoid the bazaars and main roads.
Even during his lifetime, however, Muhammd Ahmad had designated a qadi al-Islam to administer his legal decisions. There were not enough Jews or Christians (other than British soldiers) in Sudan during the Mahdiyah to require an official policy; but there were plenty of Sufis, and in fact Muhammad Ahmad had been a member of the Khatmiyah order and Sufis of that and other orders made up a substantial part of his following. However, that did not prevent the Sudanese Mahdi from dissolving all Sufi orders upon his accession to power-although their reappearance after the Mahdist state's conquest by the British in 1898 shows that the Mahdi was not omnipotent.
It is for attempts at Pan-Islamic universalism that the Mahdist State of Sudan is most notable. Such is evident during the Mahdi's lifetime, when he wrote letters to other Muslim leaders asking them to accept him as Mahdi: Muhammad Yusuf, Sultan of Wadai; Muhammad al-Sanusi, head of the Sanusi order in Libya; Hayatin b. Sa`id, grandson of Uthman don Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in what is now Nigeria.
Despite the fact that only the last allegedly accepted his Mahdiyah, such communiques are clear evidence of the Pan-Islamic (or at least Pan-African Muslim) aspirations of Muhammad Ahmad. No doubt his Pan-Islamic vision had been passed on to his followers for "the Ansar expected a long series of victories which would make the Mahdi master of the Islamic world.
The news of his death [thus] came as a terrible shock…."
After Muhammad Ahmad's death the ruling caliph `Abd Allah tried to continue with the Mahdist expansion via jihad. One of the main targets was the neighboring Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, which the Mahdists often invaded but could never subjugate.
Mahdist forces also tried to incorporate, via jihad, territories to the south and west of Sudan, with little success. The Mahdist caliph also tried several campaigns against what was by then British Egypt (the British having occupied the country in 1881, in the wake of the `Urabi Pasha uprising and in order to safeguard the Suez Canal).
All of these failed miserably and in fact the total annihilation of a large Mahdist force in southern Egypt in 1889 effectively ended the expansionist phase of Sudanese Mahdism. As for `Abd Allah's ideology, "the strength of his [`Abd Allah's] Mahdism made it impossible for him to compromise with the 'infidel' rulers of Egypt…and accept recognition as a mere Sudanse sultan under a protectorate.
His ignorance of the outside world blinded him to the overwhelming superiority in transport and armament possessed by his enemies in Egypt…."
Of course the major obstacle to the acceptance of Muhammad Ahmad as the pan-Islamic-or at least pan-Sunni-Mahdi was the Ottoman Sultanate and Caliphate in Istanbul. In the propaganda responses to Muhammad Ahmad's initial Mahdist claims, the Ottoman `ulama in Khartoum were ordered to point out that the Mahdi would come, according to the relevant Hadiths, at a time when there was no legitimate ruler in Islam-a situation clearly NOT obtaining when Sultan Abdülhamid II was clearly enthroned in Topkap?.
And in fact it seems that Abdülhamid never really took seriously Muhammad Ahmad's religious claims, being "far less interested in the Mahdi's ideology than in his opportunities. Mahdism was a hostile force on a map: what worried the Sultan most was the presence of revolt in the eastern Sudan, from where it might easily spread across the Red Sea to Arabia….Consequently the Ottoman's government's first concern was to prevent the insurrection from spreading into neighbouring regions, and above all into Arabia.
" Abdülhamid, in essence, saw Muhammad Ahmad as a new Saudi-type threat to Mecca and Medina rather than an existential threat to Ottoman central rule and religious authority. Nonetheless it remains the case that "the Mahdi and his ansar sought, first and foremost, the renewal of Islam and its purification….For them the `liberation' of the Sudan…had nothing to do with territory or with nationalism, but was purely Islamic. It was the first stage in the jihad against the world of unbelievers, starting with the Egyptian and Ottoman Muslim rulers…." [emphasis added].
Another group, this time in the 20th century, that saw Mahdism as a way to Islamically "liberate" a portion of the ummah-and not just any portion, but its historically holiest section, Arabia-was the movement of at least several hundred mainly Saudis and Egyptians led by Juhayman al-`Utaybi in the name of the alleged Mahdi, his brother-in-law Muhammad `Abd Allah al-Qahtani, in late 1979. "On the morning of November 20, 1979, they gunned down guards, cowed thousands of worshippers into submission, placed snipers in the minarets, and began broadcasting over loudspeakers that the Mahdi had come and that the bay`ah (loyalty oath) to the Saudis was henceforth dissolved, to be replaced by one to the Mahdi.
" The KSA forces failed to dislodge the Mahdists and had to call in help from the French. In the several weeks it took to kill or capture them-the alleged Mahdi was killed in the fighting, al-`Utaybi taken prisoner and soon executed-the Mahdist forces broadcast a five-point agenda from the Great Mosque loudspeakers:
1) sever relations with the West in order to protect Islamic values
2) expel all foreigners from KSA
3) stop all oil exports to the West, particularly the U.S.
4) overthrow the illegitimate Saudi regime , including its apostate `ulama; and
5) redistribute Saudi royal family wealth.
This radical program , coupled with the international membership of the movement-Saudi, Egyptians, Yemenis, even (allegedly) several American converts-underscores the fact that, despite its having made it only to stage two of the Mahdist development level-effectively precluding any chance for him and his Mahdi relative to effect any changes in Islamic law, or any other area--al-`Utaybi's vision was pan-Islamic in scope and international in aspirations.
And while "it has long been assumed that Juhayman al`Utaybi and his movement represent an exceptional and rather short-lived phenomenon….there are many indications that the memory of Juhayman has been kept alive in certain Islamist circles until today, and that his ideology has inspired periodic attempts at reviving his movement" by the likes of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and the Bayt Shubra community in Riyadh.
"The residents of Bayt Shubra greatly admired Juhayman and saw themselves as his ideological successors," and in fact some of them "continued to believe that the mahdi had not died in 1979."
At the risk of oversimplification, the Mahdi, whether in the Sunni or the Shi`i view, would seem to have three major tasks to perform according to most Muslim commentators: 1) rule the entire world as a Muslim 2) enforce a more equitable distribution of wealth, in order to fill the world with justice and equity; and 3) restore the true shari`ah. There is a major difference between Sunni and Shi`i Mahdist thought on just how the first will come about: the former, if history is any guide, tend to believe that the Mahdi will wage jihad of the sword in order to effect his planetary rule; the latter, au contraire, prefer a more persuasive style of global Mahdist da`wah. Since neither Ibn Tumart nor Muhammad Ahmad, much less Juhayman al-`Utaybi, came close to ruling the Earth, we can at least acknowledge the univeralistic aspirations of certainly the first two, and most probably the latter. (And note that all three most definitely saw their Mahdisms as jihadist ones.) Of the three Sunni Mahdist movements examined, only the Saudi Mahdism was overtly economically redistributionist, while only the Maghribi and Sudanese varieties tried to re-formulate Islamic law. Thus none of these three overt Mahdisms tried to enact all three of the eschatological Mahdi's tasks, although each did (even if perfunctorily) execute two of three: Ibn Tumart Muhammad Ahmad al-`Utaybi Universalism Y Y Y Share the wealth N N Y Rewrite shari`ah Y Y N