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The Formation of the Sudanese Mahdist State

The Formation of the Sudanese Mahdist State (Islam in Africa)

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 The Formation Of The Sudanese Mahdist State
  • Book Author:
Chicago Kim Searcy
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The Formation of the Sudanese Mahdist State – Book Sample

CONTENTS – The Formation of the Sudanese Mahdist State

  • Acknowledgements ….. vii
  • Introduction …… 1
  • Chapter One Islam in the Sudan …. 7
  • A Brief Geographical Introduction … 7
  • The Arrival of Islam ….. 7
  • The Funj Sultanate ….. 11
  • The Darfur Sultanate ….. 16
  • The Turco-Egyptian Invasion and Occupation .. 18
  • Causes of the Mahdist Revolt …. 21
  • The Mahdī’s Origins ….. 24
  • Chapter Two Protocol, Ceremony, and Symbols of
  • Authority …… 29
  • Mystical Islam: Sufi Brotherhoods … 39
  • Protocol and Ceremony …. 41
  • Symbols of Authority ….. 54
  • Chapter Three The Charismatic Leader … 65
  • Charisma …… 66
  • Saints and Zāwiyas ….. 74
  • Mahdist Expectations: The West African Connection . 80
  • Chapter Four The Khalīfa and the Routinization of
  • Charismatic Authority ….. 89
  • A New Era for the Mahdiyya …. 90
  • The Mythic Concordance: The Khalīfa’s Claims to
  • Authority …… 92
  • The Khalīfa’s Origins ….. 96
  • The Khalīfa as the Locus of Power and the City of
  • Omdurman …… 109
  • Chapter Five The Creation of an Islamic State .. 119
  • … 127
  • itimacy …. 129
  • vi contents
  • The Treasury …… 135
  • The Implementation of Sharīʿa …. 138
  • The Construction of Buildings and Roads .. 141
  • Conclusion …… 149
  • Bibliography …… 153


Throughout world history, religion and politics have been inextrica-bly intertwined. The separation of church and state, a Western con-cept that achieved preeminence during the age of Enlightenment, was primarily inspired by the ethical thought of the Greek philosophers.1 According to this concept, politics is the utilization of power in a region, territory, or society—especially the power to govern, to decide who controls the institutions of society and on what terms. From the perspective of those who have embraced the concept of church-state bifurcation, this power to govern has no relation to religion.

Historians such as Montgomery Watt contend that those who hold this view are misguided. Despite Western claims of a separation of politics and religion, when men are prepared to die for a cause they support, the two are in fact linked. There must be some deep driving force that propels people to this extreme position, and this force is usually supplied by religion.2

One reason for the inevitable relationship between the realms of religion and politics lies in the simple reality that power is not mono-lithic. Power in politics is always a compound of force, influence, and authority. Political power requires meaningful purpose and vision to be accepted as authority.

People within or from beyond the boundar-ies of a political system will subvert, disobey, and resist force if they believe that a political system lacks, or threatens, a vision of meaning or purpose. In certain classical traditions in the West, a specific kind of ideal intelligence, “wisdom,” is seen as a primary factor for confer-ring legitimacy on political governance.

The ideal was governance by a philosopher-king. This dual role has always been awkward because there is, inevitably, an unequal balance between the use of wisdom and force.3 Wisdom may guide the mind and force may affect the body, but seldom do wisdom and force—alone or together—fundamentally shape the heart or the will. For authority to be given legitimacy, quali-ties of commitment beyond the powers of the human mind and body must be involved. Wisdom becomes decisive authority only when it is transformed from philosophy into religion.

In most cultures and throughout most of human history, religion is the guarantor of legitimacy, and politics is the custodian of temporal authority. This link between politics and religion is made starkly mani-fest in Islam. The word dīn, which has often been translated as religion, and dawla (state), are conjoined within the meaning of Islam. Islam encompasses the spiritual and the political, the private and the public domains. To address Islam in terms of a church and state dichotomy is to divide Islam.

This book examines the link between religion and politics in Islam through an analysis of the Sudanese Mahdiyya, specifically the ways in which the Mahdiyya’s leaders employed religious symbols and ritual in order to shape, legitimate, renew, and inform their society. The study of the relationship between ritual, symbols, and political authority is not a novel one. European historians have long examined how ritual articulates power and authority, primarily directing their analysis to the context of ancient, medieval, and early modern European societies.

 Historians such as Paula Sanders and Roy Mottahadeh, who devi-ated from this European model and explored political authority and power within the context of Muslim polities, have done so in relation to established Muslim states, such as the Fāṭimid dynasty (969–1171) that ruled Egypt and regions of the Maghrib and the Levant, and the Būyid dynasty (934–1062) of western Iran, Iraq, and Mesopotamia.

This study is the first treatment of the Sudanese Mahdiyya from a sociopolitical perspective that analyzes the way relationships of author-ity were articulated through ceremony and symbol. The Mahdiyya began as a revolt and ultimately culminated in the establishment of a state. As a consequence, the book analyzes the evolution of the politi-cal culture of a movement that became a body politic. A core con-cern of this study is the insignias and symbols of the Mahdists: how did they imbue these with a meaning that was uniquely Mahdist and Sudanese.

The Mahdists intended their message to be a universal one, but invested their symbols and ceremonies with meanings that could be understood only by those conversant in Sudanese religious lore. It was primarily through the use of symbols and ceremonies appropri-ated from the Sufi brotherhoods of mystical Islam and two Sudanese Islamic polities—the Funj and Fūr sultanates—that the Mahdists artic-ulated their claims to authority.

The Mahdist period (1881–98), from its very establishment, has received considerable attention. This is, perhaps, due to its timing: it began as an insurrection just as the European powers made their colonial penetration into Africa. In addition, it was rare for an indig-enous movement to be militarily successful against a much more pow-erful foe.

 Historians have largely focused on the events leading up to the formation and demise of the theocratic state of the Mahdists. These historians have a wealth of primary material to draw upon, as a great many of the proclamations, teachings, sermons, and judgments of the Mahdī are extant. These documents have been compiled into seven volumes and published by the contemporary Sudanese historian, Muḥammad Ibrāhīm Abū Salīm, under the title al-Āthār al-kāmila li-l-Imām al-Mahdī. Abū Salīm also published an earlier one-volume version of this text entitled, Manshūrāt al-Mahdī. Ismāʿīl ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Kurdufānī, deemed to be the official Mahdist chronicler, wrote two important historical texts on the Mahdiyya. His first treatment, Kitāb saʿādat al-mustahdī bi-sīrat al-Mahdī, deals with the early period of the Mahdiyya from a chronological perspective. His second text, al-Ṭirāz al-manqūsh bi-bushrā qatl Yuḥanna malik al-Ḥ ubūsh, treats the military confrontations between the Mahdist state and Ethiopia, again from a purely chronological point of view.

One of the most important sources is Naʿūm Shuqayr’s work treat-ing the history and geography of the Sudan, Taʾrīkh al-Sūdān al-qadīm wa-l-ḥadīth wa-jughrafiyyatuhu. Shuqayr worked for the Turco-Egyptian intelligence department from 1890 to 1898, and as a conse-quence his treatment of the Mahdiyya is somewhat biased. Nonetheless, this work, which was first published in 1903, contains primary textual material from intelligence reports, eyewitness accounts, and personal interviews concerning the Mahdiyya.

The European perspective of the Mahdiyya is brought to the fore in the writings of European prisoners and British military intelligence reports. Two of the most well-known captives of the Mahdiyya were Rudolf Slatin and Father Joseph Ohrwalder. Slatin, an Austrian soldier who became governor-general of Darfur in 1881, surrendered to the Mahdists in 1883. His memoir on the Mahdiyya, Fire and Sword in the Sudan, was published in 1896 shortly after his escape from the Mahdists. Father Joseph Ohrwalder, a Catholic priest, wrote Ten Years’ Captivity in the Mahdist Camp; this was translated and published in 1892.

Sir Reginald Wingate, a British military intelligence officer, trans-lated the memoirs of Slatin and Ohrwalder from the original German into English. Wingate, who ultimately served as director of military intelligence during the British campaigns to reconquer the Sudan from 1896 to 1898, also wrote a book detailing the rise of the Mahdī and the early stages of the Mahdiyya (Mahdism and the Egyptian Sudan, pub-lished in 1891).

These accounts are unquestionably biased against the Mahdists, who were essentially portrayed as a fanatical mob manipu-lated by corrupt and cruel leaders. Khalīfa ʿAbdallāhi, the Mahdī’s suc-cessor, received the brunt of this polemical blow, delivered primarily by Slatin, who depicted the Khalīfa as a man solely governed by his personal quest for worldly power. Despite the anti-Mahdist tone of these accounts, they provide useful information, as the authors wit-nessed the early stages of the revolt and subsequent state formation.

In addition to these accounts, there are other anti-Mahdist European works written by men captured by the Mahdists’ forces. For example, the German merchant Charles Neufeld was taken prisoner in 1887, and spent twelve years in captivity. Upon his release he wrote about his time as a captive and the Mahdist state during his imprisonment. Neufeld’s account, A Prisoner of the Khaleefa: Twelve Years’ Captivity at Omdurman (published in 1899), is important because he was an eyewitness to the development of the Mahdist administration in Omdurman.

The followers of the Mahdiyya were known as Anṣār al-Mahdī (the Mahdī’s helpers). Some of these Anṣār composed memoirs that provide a useful counter to those of the European chroniclers. Taʾrīkh ḥāyatī, written by Bābikr Bedrī, an early adherent of the Mahdiyya, is an auto-biography that paints a detailed portrait of the social and economic conditions of the Mahdist state, in addition to treating the religious aspects of the Mahdiyya.

 The memoir of Yūsuf Mikhāʾīl, a Sudanese Copt who joined the Mahdiyya in 1883, and who worked in the pub-lic treasury and served as the commander of the Coptic standard of the Mahdist army at the battle of Kararī, provides useful information concerning the administration of state policy during its formation. His memoirs were published in 1934 under the title Mudhakkirāt Yūsuf Mikhāʾīl ʿan awākhir al-ʿahd al-Turkī wa-l-Mahdiyya bi-l-Sūdān. The published memoirs of ʿUthmān Diqna, the leader of the Mahdists’

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