Tales of the Mahdi
The Sword of the Prophet: The Mahdi of Sudan and the Death of General Gordon, Fergus Nicoll, London: Sutton Publishing, 2004. pp384
Fergus Nicoll's The Sword of the Prophet leads the reader into the land and times of Mohamed Ahmed Al-Sayyid, the so-called Mahdi, or "guided one", who led the Sudan against its British and Egyptian occupiers at the end of the nineteenth century and won, at least initially, a series of striking victories against them. The book poignantly recalls the Mahdi's brief period of notoriety, and, through a narrative that is both racy and captivating, constitutes a hard-headed, immensely knowledgeable account of how one man, the son of a Nubian boat-builder, mobilised his countrymen for long periods of war thanks to his dangerous and charismatic personality.
The Sudan, the "Land of the Blacks," became his playground, but, writes Nicoll, the Mahdi's aims were considerably wider than that: "His aspirations were extraordinary: nothing less than the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement with a pure Islamic state along the lines of the Prophet Muhammad's first Muslim community in Arabia in the early seventh century. The seizure of Khartoum must be followed, as domino topples domino, by the fall of Cairo, Mecca, Jerusalem and Constantinople itself."
As befits such a tale, The Sword of the Prophet is studded with tales of treachery and religious intrigue, political acumen, melodramatic obsession and unflinching heroism. The characters, both Sudanese and foreign, are time- tested, and the Sudanese in particular play their parts by the book: armed only with spears, the Qur'an and blind faith, the Mahdi's followers challenged the might of Victorian Britain and its Egyptian proxy state in the 1880s, catching Britain, which had only recently occupied Egypt, unawares. A Taliban-like state was instituted in the Sudan that was notable for its religiously inspired rigour.
Nicoll's work explores the inner workings of the militant Islamist state that the Mahdi instituted in the Sudan and much about it has a contemporary ring. However, the book is far from being a hymn to Islamist militancy, and in a chapter entitled "A New Order" the reader is introduced to the grim realities of Mahdist-run Sudan. "The tariff punishments prescribed at Jebel Gadir were carried out strictly, as were new regulations governing behaviour," Nicoll writes. "Thieves had their right hands cut off for a first offence, their left foot for a second. To be caught drinking marisa, the local home-brewed alcohol, was to invite a merciless whipping. Married, widowed or divorced women caught having sex were executed by burying them up to their necks in the earth, where they were either stoned or horsemen galloped over them until they were dead."
In addition, for all its religiously inspired rigour the Mahdist regime was not notable for its probity. Corruption was rife, and the Baggara tribes, whose members formed a sizeable part of the Mahdi's following, saw in him little more than an opportunity for self-enrichment. Nicoll notes, for example, that oversight of the state's Beit Al-Mal (treasury) was entrusted to one of the Mahdi's loyal companions, Ahmad Suleiman Al-Mahasi, and that in order to cement this alliance the Mahdi took Suleiman's daughter Safia to be his wife. However, Suleiman was far from being a responsible administrator, and the full extent of the corruption that infested the Mahdist state's finances was only discovered after the collapse of the regime.
Suleiman himself was also a slave-owner, slavery being an accepted side-effect of inter- tribal fighting and acceptable in religious terms. On this prickly point, Nicoll notes that "for Muhammad Ahmad himself, slavery was part of normal life ... That acceptance reflects exactly the attitude of the Qur'an, which guided Muhammad Ahmad's every decision. The Holy Book may have sought to mitigate the effects of slavery but the several matter-of-fact references amounted to an endorsement that was quite satisfactory for him." Nicoll also puts slavery into its historical and economic context, noting that "long before the Egyptian invasion, the indigenous authorities in Sudan had made a tidy profit from the export of slaves over the Red Sea to Jeddah."
The Mahdi aimed to be an empire builder, though the intrigue that eventually killed him started in his own extensive family. Indeed, the Mahdi's followers, chief among them the Ansars, were bound to be defeated however fiercely they believed in the righteousness of their cause. The Mahdi's name and the movement he masterminded were eventually reduced to historical footnotes, and Nicoll's work documents the disintegration of the Mahdi's ambitions and of the religious movement he led. But before doing so, his book also examines the sources of its strength.
One source is to be found in the timeless rhythms of the Mahdi's childhood, and Nicoll describes the education he would have received as follows: "Heads bent over their writing-boards, chanting and rocking rhythmically, the boys embed in their memories the concluding verses of the sura. The most confident sings out the melodious verses in a strong voice, not even glancing at the text scribbled in jet-black ink across his wooden writing-board. When the verses are thoroughly mastered, they will be washed off and a fresh section of the holy text dictated." This portrait of the Mahdi's childhood sheds light on the forces that shaped his political outlook, as well as the stamina that later marked his adult life. Nicoll notes that "the life of a boarding-school student of the Qur'an was hard. The day began as early as 4am, with practice and recitation of the previous day's lessons." It also may help to explain why even the Mahdi's demise failed to shake his followers' faith and their belief in the sanctity of his mission.
The Mahdi began his campaign to expel all foreigners from the Sudan, whether British, Egyptian or Turkish, by establishing his movement's spiritual base on Aba Island ( Jazirat Aba ) in the Nile. Following a series of religiously inspired revelations instructing the Mahdi in the movement that he was to lead, "the final revelation ( zuhur ) came on 29 June 1881 with the public manifestation of the Mahdi at Jazirat Aba. Four days earlier, Muhammad Ahmad had marked his 38th birthday. This was the defining moment of his life, the open declaration of a hitherto underground ideological revolution against the government."
The movement began strikingly well, and Nicoll notes that for the Mahdi there was a stark choice: on the one hand there was holy war, or jihad, to expel the foreigners from the Sudan, and on the other there was the might of British power. "By setting out an alternative to the existing political and social system, an alternative that centred on an ideal proto-Islamic society governed by Sharia Law, he declared himself a revolutionary," Nicoll writes. The Mahdi swiftly attracted the Sudanese tribes to his banner, his warriors overwhelming the country dressed in full war regalia of the jibba, or traditional patched smock. As the jihad dragged on, warriors fired with religious zealotry passed their home villages without pausing and looked for more distant territories to conquer in the name of Islam.
The Mahdi added every available Muslim Sudanese man to his army, none staying behind in their villages except the very young, the very old and the infirm. From Jebel Gadir, the garrison town deep in the Nuba Mountains established by Mohamed Ahmed as his first headquarters and the spiritual heart of the Mahdist uprising until his demise, the Mahdi's armies overran the Sudan. Sweeping westwards, they destroyed whole villages as they swept through the African savannah. In the south, Bahr Al-Ghazzal and Equatoria fell to the Mahdi. In the west, Darfur capitulated. Word of the Mahdist advance then flashed north and into territories controlled by Egypt. The Egyptian government had long coveted the Sudan, then a sprawling and ill-defined territory stretching from the southern frontier of Egypt at Aswan into the heart of the African continent and from the Red Sea shores of present-day Eritrea to the hill country of Kordofan and the then independent Sultanate of Darfur. As the Mahdi's armies advanced northwards, the Mahdi showed himself to be no slouch in the propaganda game. Everything was pressed into service to show how popular the Mahdist revolution was.
General Charles Gordon, the British Governor-General of the Sudan at Khartoum and one of the Mahdi's most famous victims, is depicted in a sympathetic light in the book, but his death at the hands of the Mahdists threw both London and Cairo into confusion. Earlier, Gordon had described the Sudan as a "beautiful woman who gave herself to Egypt. She now asks for divorce." Yet Gordon was off the mark, for, as Nicoll points out, the Sudan had never "given herself" to Egypt. Rather, "she had been systematically raped for six decades" before the first stirrings of the Mahdist rebellion. Nicoll also gives a fascinating account of European views of the Sudan and of Khartoum before the Mahdi's campaigns. The name Khartoum means "elephant's trunk" since, with a stretch of the imagination, the junction of the two Niles near Khartoum could be seen to resemble the delicate cleft in the tip of this animal's trunk.
The Sudan under Egyptian rule was changing fast, with "the few really lavish private houses built in Khartoum before 1860 [being] modeled, like the splendid mansions at Suakin on the Red Sea coast, on Arabian styles imported from Jeddah; after that date, European influences began to filter down from Egypt." Yet neither the Sudanese not the Egyptian authorities were ready for the sweeping changes then taking place in the country, and the Egyptian government in particular felt the consequences of the Mahdi's campaigns.
Indeed, "the disastrous timing of the Mahdi's uprising was compounded by the fact that Sudan, where expenditure consistently continued to exceed revenue, had helped drive Egypt into its financial crisis. The occupation had been launched on the assumption that Sudan would yield riches but, by 1882, most provinces consistently lost money," Nicoll explains. Furthermore, the Mahdist movement in the Sudan took place at a time when Egypt itself was undergoing profound political and socio-economic change. By an extraordinary coincidence of timing, Egypt was forced to neglect the revolution abroad because of revolution at home, which came with the British occupation of the country in 1882.
Imaginative and nuanced, Nicoll's book explores the psychological make-up of the man who was the Mahdi. He emphasises his pride and dignity: "The Mahdi reacted with stern dignity to Gordon's letter offering him the Sultanate of Kordofan," for example. "Had his enemies so misunderstood him that they thought he could be bought off with a meaningless title, granted rights over a territory that he already controlled? What kind of a man could make such a peremptory offer, tantamount to an order, when he came backed by no army, just a small contingent of officers and civil servants," Nicoll asks. His book also draws heavily on obscure primary sources, as well as on a range of secondary materials. In so doing, he makes it clear that there were a whole set of reasons why the Ansar eventually lost the war. One of them was the Mahdists' sense of fair play.
"You cannot beat the English without deceit," Nicoll quotes Othman Dinga, the celebrated Ansar general who had led the Mahdi's campaign in the eastern Red Sea hills, as saying. Dinga urged the Khalifa Abdullah, the Mahdi's stubborn successor, to surprise the British using darkness as a natural cover. "We fight in the morning after dawn prayers," the Khalifa retorted, and the fate of the movement was sealed. "His enemy was armed with artillery, machine- guns and repeating rifles. This disastrous decision was all the British could have desired."
The Mahdist forces were pitilessly quashed. "Of the Khalifa's 52,000-strong fighting force, an estimated 10,800 were killed and 16,000 wounded," Nicoll writes. Only 28 British troops were killed with 147 wounded.
Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah