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A Comparison of ISIS and Mahdist Sudan, 1885-1899

A frightening Islamic militant organization sweeps across a vast swathe of contested territory, participating in widespread violence and atrocities; and considered a reaction to Western intervention and appeared insults to their religion. Despite the shocking portrayals in the press, they are quickly and utterly defeated by vastly superior military technology. This story would be just as familiar to a reader in 2014 as it would be in 1899. The militants/paramilitary/terrorists/evildoers who burn our flag ISIS organization bears striking resemblance to a revolt in Anglo-Egyptian dominated Sudan during the late 19th century, known to historians as the Mahdist War. Both organizations had aspirations of world domination, driven by a romantic and violent narrative of history, with delusions of apocalyptic violence. Obviously, the Mahdist Revolt was unsuccessful in toppling the late 19th century British Empire, and it seems likely that ISIS will be unsuccessful in the destruction of American military hegemony in early 21st. This article will discuss the important parallels between these two organizations, both set against the greater narrative of British and American Imperial declines.

Mahdist rebels, note the distinctive patches, sewn on to Sudanese clothing to denote Mahdist sentiment.

Mahdist rebels, note the distinctive patches, sewn on to Sudanese clothing to denote Mahdist sentiment.

The children's rhyme, "Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear" came from a Kipling poem from the Mahdist War, referring to a Sudanese victory, referring to specific hairstyles of a specific tribe, in a poem called "Fuzzy-Wuzzy", where one line went "Fuzzy-Wuzzy broke the square"

The children’s rhyme, “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear” came from a Kipling poem from the Mahdist War, referring to a Sudanese victory, referring to specific hairstyles of a specific tribe, in a poem called “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”, where one line went “Fuzzy-Wuzzy broke the square”

The poem referred to the Battle of Abu Klea, where a British infantry square was broken, a considerably impressive military feat.

The poem referred to the Battle of Abu Klea, where a British infantry square was broken, a considerably impressive military feat.

The building of the Suez Canal was an important event in maritime and world history. Hitherto, British fleets would sail around the continent of Africa in order to reach the colonial possessions in the Indian Raj. A British puppet state existed in Egypt, while Imperial interests dominated the increasingly important Canal. Egypt invaded and conquered Sudan in the mid-nineteenth century in order to control the strategic Nile River, their rule in Sudan was perceived as inept and corrupt by the local populace. Egyptian authority in Sudan gradually collapsed in the wake of a radical and apocalyptic-minded Islamic revolt. This was lead by Muhammad Ahmad, who claimed to be “Mahdi”, a figure in Islamic eschatology who is foretold to do battle with the Masih ad-Dajjal, a sort of Islamic Antichrist at the end of the world, who they identified as the British Empire. The Mahdists committed several atrocities throughout Sudan until they were quickly defeated by a British army under Lord Kitchener. A young Winston Churchill accompanied Kitchener’s army, afterwards he wrote an account of his experiences in Sudan, called The River War. Kitchener’s army had been sent following a debacle at the Siege of Khartoum, where a British trained and equipped army was slaughtered by the Mahdist rebels. This included the Egyptian appointed Governor General of Sudan, the British officer Charles Gordon. Gordon was beloved by the gutter press for his colourful exploits throughout the British Empire and in China.

The Suez Canal, important shit.

The Suez Canal, important shit.

Photograph of elderly former Mahdist, early 20th c.

Photograph of elderly former Mahdist, early 20th c.

Nevermind, ISIS is totally different, they wear black.

Nevermind, ISIS is totally different, they wear black.

While in control of parts of Sudan, the Mahdists enforced a brutal form of Sharia Law. Christians and Animists were brutally persecuted and all manner of books were burned, this included Islamic theology books other than the Koran and Hadith; slavery also re-emerged in Sudan. Early in the Rebellion, Mahdist forces were able to ambush an Anglo-Egyptian column, taking arms and ammunition. Gordon and Egyptian forces were besieged at the city of Khartoum, the siege lasted nearly a year. Nevertheless, Gordon  and the entire garrison were cut to pieces by the Mahdists.This was taken up by the British media, and there was a general public outcry to avenge Gordon, the military was criticized for the scheduled relief force’s tardiness. Tales of slavery, brutal treatment of women, and atrocities committed by the Mahdists flooded into the British press. By 1898, the Mahdist army was crushed at the Battle of Omdurman, which proved to be the last major cavalry engagement of the British army, an action which Churchill, serving in the 21st Lancers, was witness to and participated. ISIS and the Mahdists complicate so-called “politically correct” narratives of anti-colonialism; just because an organization is opposed to colonialism doesn’t mean they’re “nice”, this idea derives from the condescending notion of the “Noble Savage”, which, ironically, deprives the colonized of their complete humanity, as humans are complicated (and violent) beings.

Painting depicting the Death of Gordon.

Painting depicting the Death of Gordon.

Colour drawing of the Battle of Omdurman.

Colour drawing of the Battle of Omdurman.

21st Lancers uniform at the time of the Mahdist War.

21st Lancers uniform at the time of the Mahdist War.

ISIS and the Mahdist Revolt bear striking similarities, and it’s likely they will  take the same trajectory as organizations. Once again, the Hitler analogy is used. This simply builds up ISIS as an organization to levels of power it will never achieve. The Nazis had at their disposal the apparatus of government, the support of numerous multinational companies, a generally loyal populace, as well as a trained army, navy, and air force. Foreign volunteers for ISIS are not trained soldiers and it seems unlikely that they will build a navy anytime soon. The Mahdist rebels in Sudan were equipped with some modern repeating rifles, some limited artillery, which they were not trained to use, as well as swords, spears, and clubs. Nevertheless, there is the advantage of fighting in terrain one is familiar with and acclimatized to, nevertheless, the British had ready supplies of ammunition and training with their weapons, as well as Maxim guns, a sort of early machine gun. ISIS is equipped with American weapons abandoned in Iraq, which they have limited training with, as well as second-hand Soviet weaponry, perpetually floating around the Middle East since the 1990’s, as well as of course the occasional sword. In certain respects, the gulf of military power between the British and the Mahdists was narrower than that of America and ISIS today; air power and drone technology obviously didn’t exist in 1885.

ISIS honestly believes they will take over all of this.

ISIS honestly believes they will take over all of this.

So all the way from India...

So all the way from India…

...to Spain. Fucking Spain.

…to Spain. Fucking Spain.

What is the appeal of apocalyptic violence? One may observe this phenomenon in Western societies as well, conspiracy theorists and Libertarian extremist Sovereign Citizens perceive themselves as stuck in a good and evil conflict; some conspiracy theorists contend the Federal Reserve is controlled by Satan or the Antichrist. Economic collapse, foreign invasion, and other social factors give apocalyptic violence a strange appeal. Nearly every End Times myth involves some form of Good vanquishing Evil. Through apocalyptic violence society may be cleansed of whatever Evil force is perceived as the Antichrist du jour. Certain segments of Zionist Christians have an apocalyptic bent, believing the existence of the State of Israel as necessary for the return of Christ at the End of Days; this could be contended as a form of the social phenomenon historians call “Millenarianism”, actively believing in or taking part hastening the End of the World. The apocalyptic mindset is all the more dangerous in this Nuclear Age, as humanity for the first time has the power to destroy itself, a truly unique historical moment.

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6 comments on “A Comparison of ISIS and Mahdist Sudan, 1885-1899

  1. Nice post. I’m glad I’m not the only one to draw this comparison. Note as well that the Mahdists fought not only the British and Egyptians but also Abyssinia, Italy and the (Belgian) Congo Free State during their brief existence. ISIS seems to be following the same playbook, and I imagine they’ll meet the same fate.

  2. I think there is an analogy between ISIS and the ambitions of Muhammad Ahmad (The Mahdi) as both desired to,establish a Caliphate throughout the region and beyond. It was perhaps fortunate from the West’s point of view that Mohammmed Ahmad died shortly after the killing of General Gordon and the taking of Khartoum in 1884. His heir and successor The Khalifa – Abdullah never had the vision or the ambition of his mentor and was content to retain that area taken in the Mahdist’s campaigns of 15 years earlier which rendered him vulnerable to the inevitable British backlash commenced in 1896 – 1898 Sudan campaign led by Gen Herbert Kitchener culminating in the Mahdist’s defeat at Omdurman and the death of the Khalifa in Kordofan the following year.
    I take comfort in the fact that repressive regimes such as The Mahdii’s reprised in our era by ISIS will ultimately fail – they may have spectacular success in the short term but they espouse a creed unacceptable to any free person and will be defeated eventually – unfortunately after causing death and misery for those it holds sway over while it exists.
    They preach a medieval barbaric message which is totally at odds with the modern world and will eventually be totally defeated.
    They consider the West weak and claim that they embrace death as a matter of course not realising that we embrace freedom and are prepared to die for it.

  3. Nice article! But what I conclude from American history of Imperialism and think tank based strategy making, it is highly unlikely that the ISIS just happened unintentionally like Mahidis. Rather, it is very much possible that like you, they could have drawn inspiration from history, to repeat it, in order to keep the conflicts floating. The long the conflicts are there, there is a distraction for American public (like the statement you made of Conspiracy nuts) , to control things domestically, as well as keep running the military and oil based economy, that is very liked to self destruct. So, what I think is, that this organization is a carefully created as a necessary evil.

    Please let me know what you think.

    Best,

    S.

  4. Greetings,
    If i may start by saying this article is extremely offensive to me and to the majority of the people of sudan for the fact that the comparison betweem the Mahdia state in Sudan and the so called ISIS is baseless and lacks any grounds of legal and historical support and is biasely based on hatred romanticized delusions and agony and outcry at the idea of the fall of britain’s greatest general by the hands of the sudanese.
    The author apparently and purposely ignores the facts leading to the mahdist war and declines to admit to the obvious reality that the Mahdist war was in fact a revolt against attrocities and corruption and plenty of other henuis crimes committed by the anglo-egyptian rule over the land of sudan and it’s people.
    I would have a full and thorough reply to this article in a manner that would provide an insight into the mahdist revolt and outrevolt.

  5. I will leave you with words of Britain’s own Peter Everington about the Mahdi and the revolt in Sudan in his poem called Aba Island and aba island the Mahdi’s inspirational birth place and the land where he fought his first battle:

    It is the Mahdi who is in Aba cave.
    For years has pondered, disciplined and remained calm.
    How best he inspired the weak , united the brave.
    The dawn of later years and Island shows,
    Where all the tribes live prosperous and free ;
    O may this Sudanese generation in their age ,
    Reaping the fruits of freedom from his grave ,
    Read their land’s success from history’s page,
    Remember that it all started in this cave !
    Remember that it all started in this cave !

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