The Mahdist Revolution - Sudan

The Mahdist Revolution was an Islamic revolt against the Egyptian government in the Sudan. Within the context of Islam, “Mahdi” means “the guided one” and is a person chosen by God to restore the community to its pure form as it was during the days of the Prophet Muhammad.

AFRICAN HISTORY

8/5/2022 2 min read

four men holding assault rifles

The Mahdist Revolution was an Islamic revolt against the Egyptian government in the Sudan. Within the context of Islam, “Mahdi” means “the guided one” and is a person chosen by God to restore the community to its pure form as it was during the days of the Prophet Muhammad.

Under the modernizing rule of Mohammed Ali, Egypt conquered Sudan in the 1820s and 1830s in a futile effort to acquire military conscripts and gold. The Egyptians imposed a westernized state that taxed the Sudanese and sent their agricultural and other products north. Sudanese frustrations were increased in the 1860s and 1870s with the start of an Egyptian anti-slavery campaign that threatened local economic interests and brought Christian Europeans into this Muslim country.

On June 29, 1881 Mohammed Ahmed, an increasingly popular Sudanese religious leader, proclaimed himself the Mahdi and organized an army for a holy war against Egyptian occupation. Political turmoil in Egypt itself meant that the Egyptians failed to control the rebellion and more followers joined the Mahdi. The first major victory for the Mahdi occurred in 1882 when his supporters captured the Egyptian military base of El-Obeid west of the Nile. Although Mahdist forces initially tried to storm the fort and were cut down by breach-loading rifles, they eventually undertook a successful siege. As a result of this lesson, the Mahdi formed part of his army into a near-professional infantry corps equipped with firearms.

The British occupied Egypt in 1882 to secure the Suez Canal as a vital choke point for shipping to and from India. In November 1883 an Egyptian force of 8,500 soldiers under British Colonel William Hicks, complete with artillery and early machine guns like the Nordenfelt, invaded the Sudan to suppress the rebellion. Letting Hicks's expedition advance in order for harsh desert conditions to take their toll, Mahdists eventually surrounded and annihilated them with firepower at the Battle of Shaykan. The British then decided to pull out of Sudan and in early 1884 sent Charles Gordon, former governor of part of south Sudan, to organize the withdrawal. However, Gordon was not committed to the British government's plan and he delayed long enough to be trapped in Khartoum by the Mahdi's forces.

Around the same time, Sudanese leader Osman Digna led a rebellion against Egyptian rule in the eastern region of Suakin. A British column under General Gerald Graham pushed back the rebels at the hard fought battles of El Teb and Tamai but then was ordered to withdraw. A British relief expedition led by Garnet Wolseley failed to break through to Khartoum in time and Gordon was killed when the Mahdists stormed the city in January 1885. Although the Mahdi died in June 1885, a Mahdist state had been established with its capital a few miles from Khartoum at Omdurman.