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Muhammad Ahmad ibn 'Abd Allah,
al Mahdi
The Divinely Guided One


Muhammad Ahmad ibn 'Abd Allah, the man known to history as al Mahdi was born in the Sudan in 1844. Al Mahdi is an Arabic term meaning The Divinely Guided One which has been claimed by a number of Islamic leaders, including the founder of the Ahmadist sect in Pakistan, but Muhammad Ahmad ibn 'Abd Allah is the most famous al Mahdi and he will be referred to this appellation in what follows.

The father of al Mahdi was a ship builder in the Dungulah district of the Sudan. The family moved south to a village near Khartoum shortly after the birth of al Mahdi.

As a boy and young man al Mahdi was devoted to religious study. His devotion deviated from the orthodox toward a mystic Sufism. He aspired to strong self discipline and an ascetic life. As a young man he joined a religious order called the Sammanujah. He was given the status of shaykh.

Even as a very young man al Mahdi's devoutness attracted a following. In 1870 he and some of his disciples journeyed 175 miles of Khartoum to an island in the While Nile called Abba. They went there to receive religious instruction from one of the teachers living on that island. But al Mahdi found fault with his teacher's worldliness and was expelled from the following. He then joined the following of another teacher on Abba Island.

In 1880-81 al Mahdi became convinced that the rulers of Egypt and the Sudan were all corrupt puppets of the infidel Europeans and that the ruling class in general had abandoned true Islam. He felt his mission was to destroy those defiling forces and agents.

On June 29, 1881 Muhammad Ahmad ibn 'Abd Allah assumed the title of al Mahdi, The Divinely Guided One. He and a small number of his followers began the insurrection. Quickly he gained followers and took control of territory. The government in Egypt sent troops to subdue the uprising. Two such expeditionary forces were wiped out. The government then sent a force of eight thosand troops commanded by a British general. This too was wiped out, to a man. In 1884 al Mahdi forces besieged Khartoum. The defense was under the command of Charles Gordon, who recently had commanded British forces in the Chinese Empire.

The defenders of Khartoum withstood the siege for months and a military expedition under Lord Kitchener was sent to relieve the defenders but it was delayed. In January of 1885 the forces of al Mahdi overwhelmed the defenses. When Gordon's headquarters was stormed he took up a sword to valiently fight to the end. Apparently against the express wishes of al Mahdi Gordon was killed.

Al Mahdi was not to live long after his brilliant military victory over the Anglo-Egyptian forces in Khartoum. He died about six months later on June 22, 1885. He was not quite 41 years of age. It had taken not quite four years from his assumption of the title of al Mahdi to conquer the Sudan and establish theocractic rule over it. It was a truly meteoric rise to fame and power.

Before his death al Mahdi named three Khalifas to be his successors. One emerged as the dominant figure and ruled with the support of the Baqqara Arabs.

About ten years later British forces under Lord Kitchener re-established British control over the region, including Khartoum. When Kitchener's forces invaded the Mahdist territories the Khalifa sent his 52 thousand man army against Kitchener's troops with their modern firepower. The Mahdist army suffered eleven thousand deaths in a five hour battle while Kitchener's army lost only 48.

Although the British Army prevailed over the Mahdi's forces Rudyard Kipling penned a tribute to the Mahdi's warriors. The poem refers to the warriors of the Beja tribe whom the British soldiers called the Fuzzy Wuzzies because of their hair style.

The Beja warriors from time immemorial formed their hair up into a coiffure using animal grease. (This probably had a utilitarian function as well as being high style in that it would give some protection from blows to the head.) The Beja warriors fought with a two-edged, two-handed sword and they charged with such abandon that the British forces had to adopt the formation usually only used to defend against a cavalry charge, the square. The battle which Kipling refers to in which the Beja warriors broke the British square was not the final battle referred to above but a smaller battle sometime before it.

Kipling wrote his poem in the Cockney dialect of London. Here is Kipling's poem with the dropped aitches and other letters replaced.


                  Fuzzy-Wuzzy

We've fought with many men across the seas, 
         And some of them was brave and some was not: 
The Pathan and the Zulu and Burmese; 
         But the Fuzzy was the finest of the lot. 
We never got a half-port's change of him: 
         He squatted in the scrub and hocked our horses, 
He cut our sentries up at Suakim, 
         And he played the cat and banjo with our forces. 
         So here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, 
            at your home in the Sudan; 
         You're a poor benighted heathen 
           but a first-class fighting man; 
         We gives you your certificate, 
           and if you want it signed 
         We'll come and have a romp with you whenever
            you're inclined. 

We took our chance among the Khyber hills, 
         The Boers knocked us silly at a mile, 
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills, 
         And a Zulu impi dished us up in style: 
But all we ever got from such as they 
         Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swallow; 
We held our blooming own, the papers say, 
         But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us hollow. 
         Then here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, 
            and the Mrs and the kid; 
         Our orders was to break you, and 
            of course we went and did. 
         We sloshed you with Martinis, and 
            it wasn't hardly fair; 
         But for all the odds against you, Fuzzy-Wuz, 
            you broke the square. 

He hasn't got no papers of his own, 
         He hasn't got no medals nor rewards, 
So we must certify the skill he's shown 
         In using of his long two-handed swords: 
When he's hopping in and out among the bush 
         With his coffin-headed shield and shovel-spear, 
An happy day with Fuzzy on the rush 
         Will last a healthy Tommy for a year. 
         So here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, and 
            your friends which are no more, 
         If we hadn't lost some messmates 
            we would help you to deplore; 
         But give and take is the gospel, 
            and we'll call the bargain fair, 
         For if you have lost more than us, 
            you crumpled up the square! 

He rushes at the smoke when we let drive, 
         And, before we know, he's hacking at our head; 
He's all hot sand and ginger when alive, 
         And he's generally shamming when he's dead. 
He's a daisy, he's a ducky, he's a lamb! 
         He's a India-rubber idiot on the spree, 
He's the only thing that doesn't give a damn 
         For a Regiment of British Infantry! 
         So here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, 
            at your home in the Soudan; 
         You're a poor benighted heathen 
            but a first-class fighting man; 
         And here's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, 
            with your hayrick head of hair -- 
         You big black bounding beggar -- 
            for you broke a British square! 

Here is Kipling's poem in its original form.

                 Fuzzy-Wuzzy
              by Rudyard Kipling


(Soudan Expeditionary Force) 

We've fought with many men acrost the seas, 
         An' some of 'em was brave an' some was not: 
The Paythan an' the Zulu an' Burmese; 
         But the Fuzzy was the finest o' the lot. 
We never got a ha'porth's change of 'im: 
         'E squatted in the scrub an' 'ocked our 'orses, 
'E cut our sentries up at Suakim, 
         An' 'e played the cat an' banjo with our forces. 
         So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan; 
         You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man; 
         We gives you your certificate, an' if you want it signed 
         We'll come an' 'ave a romp with you whenever you're inclined. 

We took our chanst among the Khyber 'ills, 
         The Boers knocked us silly at a mile, 
The Burman give us Irriwaddy chills, 
         An' a Zulu impi dished us up in style: 
But all we ever got from such as they 
         Was pop to what the Fuzzy made us swaller; 
We 'eld our bloomin' own, the papers say, 
         But man for man the Fuzzy knocked us 'oller. 
         Then 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' the missis and the kid; 
         Our orders was to break you, an' of course we went an' did. 
         We sloshed you with Martinis, an' it wasn't 'ardly fair; 
         But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square. 

'E 'asn't got no papers of 'is own, 
         'E 'asn't got no medals nor rewards, 
So we must certify the skill 'e's shown 
         In usin' of 'is long two-'anded swords: 
When 'e's 'oppin' in an' out among the bush 
         With 'is coffin-'eaded shield an' shovel-spear, 
An 'appy day with Fuzzy on the rush 
         Will last an 'ealthy Tommy for a year. 
         So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' your friends which are no more, 
         If we 'adn't lost some messmates we would 'elp you to deplore; 
         But give an' take's the gospel, an' we'll call the bargain fair, 
         For if you 'ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square! 

'E rushes at the smoke when we let drive, 
         An', before we know, 'e's 'ackin' at our 'ead; 
'E's all 'ot sand an' ginger when alive, 
         An' 'e's generally shammin' when 'e's dead. 
'E's a daisy, 'e's a ducky, 'e's a lamb! 
         'E's a injia-rubber idiot on the spree, 
'E's the on'y thing that doesn't give a damn 
         For a Regiment o' British Infantree! 
         So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan; 
         You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man; 
         An' 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your 'ayrick 'ead of 'air -- 
         You big black boundin' beggar -- for you broke a British square! 

The Ansar (the helpers) survived the defeat and continues as an important political organization in modern Sudan. Descendants of al Mahdi have been influential in Sudanese politics. For more on this see Political and economic history of Sudan.


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