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The Sudanese Mahdī: Frontier Fundmentalist

  • John Voll (a1)


The Sudanese Mahdī has been pictured as a villain, as a hero, as a reactionary, as an anti-imperialist revolutionary, and in many other ways. The romance and excitement of the nineteenth-century Mahdiyya has inspired novels and movies, while the many faceted reality of the movement has caught the attention of a wide range of scholars in search of case studies of specific phenomena. In recent years the Mahdī has been used as an example of a ‘charismatic’ leader,1 the founder of a religionpolitical party in the ‘third world,’2 the leader of a millenarian revolt,3 an African rebel against alien rule,4 and a Semitic messiah in an African context. Many of these analyses are the constructive products of the changing situation in the world of contemporary historical studies. Each tends to reflect a broader analytical concern aroused by modern developments.



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1 Dekmejian, Richard H. and Wyszomirski, Margaret J., ‘Charismatic Leadership in Islam: The Mahdi of the Sudan,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, 14 (1972), 193214.

2 Smith, Donald Eugene, Religion, Politics, and Social Change in the Third World (New York: The Free Press, 1971), pp. 155161.

3 Lewy, Guenter, Religion and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 176193.

4 These last two refer to Brown, L. Carl, ‘The Sudanese Mahdiya,’ in Rotberg, Robert I. and Mazrui, Ali A., eds., Protest and Power in Black Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 145168. The editors put the chapter in the section entitled ‘Rebellions against Alien Rule,’ but L. Carl Brown presents the Mahdī in the broader context of Semitic messianism.

5 Barraclough, Geoffrey, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 35.

6 See, for example, Hodgson, Marshall G. S., The Venture of Islam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 3, 247;Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, Islam in Modern History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 5859;El Mahdi, Mandour, A Short History of the Sudan (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 9697.

7 Brown, ‘The Sudanese Mahdiya.’

8 In this way, in a general survey of modern Middle Eastern history, the Sudanese Mahdi is given as an example of the Shi'a mahdist concept. See Spencer, William, Political Evolution in the Middle East (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962), p. 17.

9 This is especially true of some of the older Western descriptions of the Mahdi. See Wingate, F. R., Mahdiism and the Egyptian Sudan (2d ed.; London: Cass, 1968), pp. 56;Bermann, Richard A., The Mahdi of Allah (New York: Macmillan, 1932), pp. 7374;Margoliouth, D. S., ‘Mahdi,’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 8, 339. More recently this approach was followed to some extent in Fatih, Soad el, ‘The Teachings of Muhammad Ahmad the Sudanese Mahdi’ (unpublished M.A. thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1961).

10 See, for example, the conclusions drawn in Holt, P. M., The Mahdist State in the Sudan, 1881–1898 (2d ed.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 31, and Brown, ‘The Sudanese Mahdiya,’ pp. 145–147.

11 Weber, Max, The Sociology of Religion, trans. Fischoff, Ephraim (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 56.

12 Gibb, H. A. R., Modern Trends in Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), p. 27.

13 See ibid., Macdonald, Duncan Black, The Religious Attitude and Life in Islam (Beirut: Khayats, 1965);Goldziher, Ignaz, Muslim Studies, ed. Stern, S. M. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971), 2, 255344.

14 Ibid., II, 262, and passim.

15 Rahman, Fazlur, Islam (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), p. 132. See also the vigorous discussion in Makdisi, George, ‘Ibn Taimiya: A Sufi of the Qadiriya Order,’ American Journal of Arabic Studies, 1 (1973), 118129.

16 von Grunebaum, G. E., ‘The Problem: Unity in Diversity,’ Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization, ed. von Grunebaum, Gustave E. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 23.

17 See, for example, the introductory essay by Lewis, I. M. and the essay by Trimingham, J. S. in Islam in Tropical Africa, ed. Lewis, I. M. (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

18 The terminology ‘authenticity’ and ‘openness’ and the definitions are taken from the Center for the Study of the Modern Arab World, St. Joseph's University, Beirut, ‘Thematic Content Analysis of Arab Writings on Acculturation,’ March, 1973, mimeographed.

19 Watt, W. Montgomery, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh: The University Press, 1973), p. 184.

20 Gibb, Hamilton A. R., Studies on the Civilization of Islam (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), pp. 3446.

21 Watt, The Formative Period, passim.

22 Nicholson, Reynold A., The Mystics of Islam (Beirut: Khayats, 1966), Introduction.

23 Robson, J., ‘Bid'a,” Encyclopaedia of Islam2, 1, 1199.

24 American University of Beirut, al-Wathā'iq al-'Arabiyyah 1969, p. 292.

25 Watt, W. Montgomery, Islamic Philosophy and Theology (Edinburgh: The University Press, 1962), p. 53.

26 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Ideals and Realities of Islam (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966), p. 166.

27 Canard, M., ‘Fātimids,’ Encyclopaedia of Islam2, 2, 859.

28 See Margoliouth, D. S., ‘Mahdi,’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 8, 336340;Macdonald, D. B., ‘Al-Mahdi,’ Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, pp. 310313.

29 Geilner, Ernest, ‘Post-Traditional Forms in Islam: The Turf and Trade, and Votes and Peanuts,’ Daedalus, 102, 1 (Winter 1973), 194.

30 Ibid., 193.

31 Shuqayr, Na'ūm, Tārīkh al-Sūdān al-Qadīm wa al-Hadīth wa Jughrāfiyatuh (Cairo: n.p., 1903), 3, 125126.

32 Holt, The Mahdist State, p. 106.

33 al-Bashīr, Muhammad 'Ali b., ‘Uqūd al-Durur fī Sharh Rātib al-’Imām al-Mahdī al-Muntazhzhar (Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Mahmūdiyyah, n.d.), pp. 6566.

34 Manshūrāt Sayyidnā al-'Imām al-Mahdi (Khartoum: Sudan Government — Central Archives, 19631964), II, 154–155.

35 Shuqayr, III, 121.

36 Manshūrāt, II, 22.

37 Shuqayr, III, 139.

38 Gibb, H. A. R., Mohammedanism (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 171.

39 Manshūrāt, I, 129.

40 ‘Summary Translation of the Mahadi's Book,’ in Khartoum University Library, Sudan Collection, 1677/48CM, typescript, 25 August 1936.

41 Fawzi, Ibrāhim, Kitāb al-Sūdān bayn yaday Churdūn wa Kitshinir (Cairo: Jarīdah al-Mu'ayyid, 1319/1901), 1, 7374.

42 Manshūrāt, III, 30. Holt (The Mahdist State, p. 131) gives the punishment prescribed for smoking as being one hundred lashes. He cites the Nujūmī notebook as the source of the legislation. It could be that the Mahdi changed the punishment.

43 Wingate, Mahdiism, p. 59.

44 Holt, The Mahdist State, pp. 130–131.

45 Shuqayr, III, 371.

46 Ibid., p. 118.

47 Holt, The Mahdist State, pp. 130–131.

48 Ibid., p. 105.

49 Shuqayr, III, 125.

50 Holt, The Mahdist State, p. 132.

51 Ibid., p. 128, and Shuqayr, III, 364.

52 Manshūrāt, 2, 155.

53 ‘Summary Translation of the Mahadi's Book’, p. 1.

54 Holt, The Mahdist State, p. 131.

55 Toynbee, Arnold, Civilization on Trial and the World and the West (New York: Meridian, 1958), p. 167.

57 Lewis, Bernard, The Middle East and the West (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 105.

58 Sharabi, Hisham, Arab Intellectuals and the West, The Formative Years, 1875–1914 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), p. 31.

59 Ibid., pp. 35–32.

60 Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, Islam in Modern History (Princeton, 1957), p. 41.

61 Wingate, Mahdiism, p. 42.

62 Ibid., p. 59.

63 Manshūrāt, II, 57.

64 Wingate, Mahdiism, p. 59.

65 Manshūrāt, II, 57.

66 Gibb, Mohammedanism, p. 172.

67 This is certainly true of Dekmejian and Wyzsomirski, Comparative Studies.

68 Weber, Max, On Charisma and Institution Building, ed. Eisenstadt, S. N. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 46.

69 Ibid., p. 51.

70 This tradition is usefully defined in Brown, ‘The Sudanese Mahdiyya,’ pp. 147–148.

71 Worsley, Peter, The Trumpet Shall Sound (New York: Schocken, 1968), p. 225.

72 Cohn, Norman, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Harper, 1961), p. 319.

73 The definition of this pattern has been made in a number of ways. Some of the best are Brown, ‘The Sudanese Mahdiya,’ pp. 159–168;Trimingham, J. S., ‘The Phases of Islamic Expansion and Islamic Culture Zones in Africa,’ Islam in Tropical Africa, ed. Lewis, I. M. (London: Oxford University Press, 1966);Hiskett, Mervyn, The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), Introduction.

74 Trimingham, J. Spencer, The Influence of Islam upon Africa (New York: Praeger, 1968), p. 77.

75 Hillelson, S., ‘The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,’ Islam Today, ed. Arberry, A. J. and Landau, Rom (London: Faber & Faber, 1943), p. 100.

76 Holt, P. M., A Modern History of the Sudan (New York: Grove Press, 1961), p. 28.

77 This is a statement made by Henderson, K. D. D. and cited in Reid, J. A., ‘The Fung Kingdom and Its Religious Background,’ Notes on the Tribes and Prominent Families in the Blue Nile Province (Khartoum, 1935), p. 7.

78 O'Fahey, R. S. and Spaulding, J. L., Kingdoms of the Sudan (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 87.

79 Voll, John, ‘Effects of Islamic Structures on Modern Islamic Expansion in the Eastern Sudan,’ The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 7, No. 1 (1974), 8598.

80 Trimingham, J. S., Islam in the Sudan (London: Cass, 1965), pp. 198202.

81 Biobaku, Saburi and al-Hajj, Muhammad, ‘The Sudanese Mahdiyya and the Niger–Chad Region,’ Islam in Tropical Africa, ed. Lewis, I. M. (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

82 Trimingham, Islam in the Sudan, pp. 226−228.

83 Voll, John O., ‘A History of the Khatmiyyah Tariqah in the Sudan,’ (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1969), chapter 3.

The Sudanese Mahdī: Frontier Fundmentalist

  • John Voll (a1)


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