Mahdiyya (Religious order)

Religious order created in Sudan in 1881, reacting in a violent way against foreign innovation and intrusion (especially against any Egyptian influence), but later on evolving gradually to become an « ordinary » sect of growing political and social significance.

In 1881 in Sudan, at that time under Egyptian control, Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdullah (c.1840-85) claimed to be the Mahdi (the Guided One) and the Imam (the head of the Muslim community). His followers established a religious order called the Mahdiyya, with a body of activists, the al-Ansar. He called for a holy war against the infidels. They defeated the Egyptian troops sent against them and conquered different provinces. The Mahdi even managed to take Khartoum in 1885, thereby killing Gen. Gordon, former Governor-General of the country and established his rule over most of Sudan.

After the Mahdi’s death in june 1885 the order lost much of its vigor and failed to establish a well-organized state. Sudan was reconquered by an Anglo-Egyptian force from 1896 till 1898. Continuing resistance was quelled at the beginning of the 20th century.

Nonetheless, the Mahdiyya survived and gradually evolved into an « ordinary » sect which, in time, gained important political power and influence. In favor of the independence of Sudan and thus opposed to any union with Egypt it even helped the

British combat the influence of the Ottomans during World War I.

From the 1950s it was a focus of opposition to the military-revolutionary regimes controlling Sudan, essentially through it’s political arm, the Umma party. In July 1966 al-Sadeq al-Mahdi, great-grandson of the Mahdi and leader of the Umma Party even became Prime Minister, leading a coalition government, but Numeiri’s coup in 1969 put an end to his legal political activities. In 1970, after an alledged Mahdiyya rebellion, he was deported to Egypt and in March that same year Numeiri suppressed al-Ansar, the militant organization of the Mahdiyya. Al-Sadeq returned, was arrested and went in exile several times over the years. Among other things he denounced Numeiri’s decrees imposing the Sharia* in 1983.

Al-Sadeq al-Mahdi was among the leaders of the coup that overthrew Numeiri in April 1985. The Umma Party was victorious during the elections that followed a year later and he formed a coalition governmemnt but was to be overthrown by a coup under Gen. Bashir in April 1989, who has since then forbidden all political parties.