Long before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to make himself the Caliph (on June 29, 2014), a move that probably hasn’t worked out the way he’d intended it, a Sudanese Sufi named Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885) had similar, though really even more spectacular, delusions of grandeur and proclaimed himself the Mahdi. The Mahdi, of course, is a once-in-history messianic redeemer who is supposed to appear in the Last Days–usually, at least for Sunnis, either accompanied by or around the same time as Jesus returns to Earth–to rule the world, defeat evil, all the usual things one does in preparation for the Day of Judgment. Declaring yourself to be that guy is way more grandiose than declaring yourself to be a caliph–for one thing, there have been a lot of caliphs over the centuries, but the next Mahdi to show up will, kind of by definition I guess, be the first.
Muhammad Ahmad was by all accounts a devoted student of Islam, known even when he was a young man for his seriousness as a scholar and for the depth of his piety. In an earlier time he might have been called a “Holy Man” and remained an object of religious veneration, like the 5th century Saint Simeon the Stylite or any of the legendary founders of the major Sufi schools. But in 19th century Sudan, which was living under the yoke of an Egyptian domination that gradually, over the course of the century, became a British domination via Egypt, it was probably inevitable that a man who attracted a large following of religious devotees would also become a figure of political resistance.
Sudan came under Egyptian (technically this meant Ottoman, but by the nineteenth century Egypt was only nominally part of the Ottoman Empire) rule in 1821 by brute force. The Egyptian governor, Muhammad Ali (d. 1849) made Sudan the target of his first independent (i.e., not undertaken at Ottoman behest) military campaign, with an eye toward exploiting Sudan’s gold deposits and its people (as slaves). This assertion of Egyptian authority over Sudan was resented both for the brutality with which it was imposed and for the ongoing brutality of Egypt’s never-ending demand for slaves and for heavy taxes. In the 1870s, with Cairo heavily in debt to London, the Egyptians actually appointed a British general, Charles Gordon, to govern Sudan. This only further enraged the Sudanese, who could now add “impiety” to the list of their grievances against their Egyptian rulers. Gordon became tied up in fighting with Sudanese tribes in Darfur almost as soon as he took office.
The Samaniyah Sufi order, of which Muhammad Ahmad was a member and a branch of which he came to lead before he made his big declaration, emphasized the concept of the Mahdi in its teachings and one of its previous leaders had predicted that the Mahdi would arise from that order’s ranks. But Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself the Mahdi as much as an act of political rebellion against Egypt and Britain as an act of messianic zeal. Which is not to say that he didn’t believe his own hype, just that the causes for his action were not much different from those fueling any other rebellion against stifling, oppressive colonial rule. He made his declaration on June 29, 1881, a scant 135 years ago today and exactly 133 years to the date before Baghdadi made his own claim to the caliphate. I have no idea if Baghdadi chose June 29 to echo Muhammad Ahmad, but at the very least this appears to be one of those cases where history is rhyming.
The “Mahdi” quickly led his men to a string of major victories over often larger but generally untrained and undisciplined Egyptian armies, to the point that Britain, which was gradually making Egypt its colony anyway, became directly involved in the fighting. The Mahdist War, which followed Muhammad Ahmad’s declaration, went on for 18 years, until the last remnants of the impromptu kingdom he established were wiped out by the British and French. Muhammad Ahmad wasn’t even alive to see most of it–in very un-Mahdi-like fashion, he died in 1885, just a few months after winning his greatest victory, the capture of the city of Khartoum from the Brits. He was succeeded by his deputy, Abdallahi b. Muhammad, who titled himself (naturally) Caliph and ruled Mahdist Sudan for the rest of the war.