Muhammad Ahmad, also known as the Mahdi, is one of the most colorful and controversial Muslim figures of the 19th century. He is held by many as an ardent Sudanese Nationalist and champion of Sharia law, and vilified by many as a violent extremist and Jihadist. Both points of view recognize him as a determined foe of European colonialism and western cultural influences. Today he is honored as the national hero of Sudan. This is especially true in Khartoum, which he captured in a brilliant battle against the colonial army of Britain and their Egyptian allies. Though it is not a mosque, his shrine in Khartoum is generally considered to be the country’s most important Islamic shrine.
For better or for worse, few men have had such a lasting impact on the modern Islamic world as Muhammad Ahmad. Muhammad Ahmad, known to many Sudanese Muslims as the Mahdi, effectively invented the modern concept of Islamic nationalism. Muhammad Ahmad was born and raised in the Sudan in the mid-19th century, when most of northeast Africa was under the foreign rule of the Ottoman and British empires. A very devout Muslim from an early age, the majority of his life was spent traveling throughout east Africa and studying and teaching the Qur’an.
By his thirties, Muhammad Ahmad had developed a true antipathy towards the British, the Ottomans, the Egyptians and anyone else whom he deemed to be a foreigner meddling in Sudanese affairs. In this antipathy he was joined by the vast majority of the Sudan’s local Muslim population. In 1881 he began to organize an uprising against foreign rule, with the intent of establishing an Islamic regime in the Sudan ruled by Sharia law. His followers began to refer to him as Mahdi, a title theoretically reserved for a Muslim savior who is supposed to return to the world at the end of times, though in the end he failed to live up to his nickname’s significance.
The revolt was one of the most dramatic periods in the history of colonial Africa. In the course of two years, the Sudanese systematically drove out or slaughtered thousands of Egyptians soldiers who were garrisoned in the Sudan by the Ottoman Empire. So great was the Sudanese threat to Egypt where the Suez Canal had recently been completed that the British intervened. The climactic confrontation occurred in 1885 AD, when Muhammad Ahmad captured Khartoum and destroyed the Anglo-Egyptian garrison that was stationed there.
In the wake of this victory, the Sudan effectively won its independence, and Muhammad Ahmad became a national hero. Unfortunately, he died of typhus just a few months later. Moreover, his dream of an independent Sudan governed under Sharia law was short-lived. A little more than a decade later, Khartoum and most of the rest of the Sudan was conquered by the British, and remained a quasi-British colony until 1956. Despite this setback, Muhammad Ahmad’s dream never died among the people of the Sudan, and his mausoleum remained a place of reverence and a symbol of national independence right until the present day.
The Mausoleum of the Mahdi, while modest compared to Khartoum’s other major mosques, is the most recognizeable building in the city. Originally constructed in 1885 after his death, the first mausoleum was destroyed by the British a few years later, and Muhammad Ahmad’s corpse was tossed into the Nile River for good measure. The place of his tomb remained abandoned throughout the remained of the colonial period, but the mausoleum was rebuilt soon after the British pulled out. The current structure dates from the mid-20th century.
The architecture of the tomb represents an amalgam of various 19th and 20th century styles. The main mausoleum building itself is clearly reminiscent of the British colonial style common to Egypt and the Middle East. The most distinctive, and unusual, feature of the mausoleum is the great central dome which looks like the tip of an enormous silver bullet. The shape is based on traditional African styles. Four smaller silver domes crown towers at the corners of the mausoleum. Inside the mausoleum is a shrine marking the place where the Mahdi’s tomb once stood.
The Mausoleum of the Mahdi is actually located in Omdurman, a suburb of Khartoum located just to the west across the Nile River. Omdurman was founded by Muhammad Ahmad and is the youngest, and most traditionally Islamic, of Khartoum’s districts. The mausoleum is open to Muslims but is absolutely off limits to non-Muslims. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.sudan.net/travel (official tourism website of Sudan)
Khartoum boasts a number of important mosques and other Islamic sites. Khartoum’s main mosque is the Masjid Al-Kabir in the city center. There is also the Masjid Hajja Soad and the Masjid Hamed An-Niel. The latter mosque hosts ‘performances’ by local Whirling Dervishes on Fridays. The Khalifa’s House, where the Mahdi once resided, is now a museum.