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A religious and political movement inspired by Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi (b. 1848, d. 1885), a man of great religious zeal and personal asceticism. In 1881, he proclaimed his divine mission to free Sudan from its Ottoman\Egyptian rulers, as a prelude to establishing a pure Islamic state. He came to control most of northern Sudan, and, after a ten-month siege of Khartoum, defeated the British General Gordon (b. 1833, d. 1885) and took possession of the capital. Gordon's perceived ‘martyrdom’ against the non-Christian (‘pagan’) Mahdi caused such commotion in Britain that its government was compelled to send a large military force to defeat his forces and establish British control over the Sudan.

Mahdism has remained an influential force in Sudan throughout the twentieth century. In the colonial days, it served as a focal point for Sudanese nationalism against British\Egyptian rule, and after independence it played an often pivotal role in Sudanese politics. It provided the basis for the Umma Party, and the focus of opposition against the Nimieri regime. Its leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi (b. 1936), a descendant of Muhammad Ahmad, was Prime Minister twice (1966–7 and 1986–9).

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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