Mohammed Ahmed Ibn el-Sayyid Abdullah, otherwise known as the Mahdi, led one of the largest, most-successful anti-colonial Islamist rebellions in the Long Holy War between the Muslim world and the Christian West. In the early 1880s, the Mahdi’s armed followers, who referred to themselves as the Ansars, swept across the deserts and scrub brush plains of the Sudan, driving the British, the Egyptians and Ottoman Turks from the Upper Nile Basin.
After capturing Khartoum in January 1884, the Madhi established a theocratic state based on Sharia Law. Although the Mahdi died soon after the fall of Khartoum, his Islamist state survived another fourteen years. Only in 1898 did the British government muster the political will and military might to re-conquer the Sudan. The end of the Mahdist state came on September 2, 1898, when a combined force of British, Sudanese and Egyptian soldiers under the command of General Herbert Kitchener defeated a Muslim army of 50,000 Ansars north of Omdurman, which lies on the west bank of the Nile across from Khartoum. In a horribly lopsided battle, the British and their North African allies killed or wounded 25,000 Ansars, while suffering a mere 400 casualties of their own.
The Mahdist war against Egypt, the Ottomans, and the British in the 1880s and 1890s has many parallels with the current war between ISIS and the West. For instance, the Ansars considered the British and their African allies as infidels bent on the colonial exploitation of the Sudan. The infidels were also seen as a threat to the Muslim faith. While in combat, Islamist warriors took few, if any, adult male prisoners. More often than not, when an enemy male of military age fell into the hands of the Ansars, he was immediately beheaded or run through with a sword or spear. Captured women and children became slaves of the leading men in the Mahdist movement. Christian prisoners, if taken alive, had the option of either converting to Islam or dying; understandably, many opted to become Muslims rather than have their severed head mounted on a pike. The fanaticism of the Ansars, displayed in their tendency to run headlong into withering machine gun fire, can partly be explained by the widespread belief that death in the service of the Mahdi guaranteed the deceased a place in paradise.
We all know that the soldiers of ISIS behave like their Mahdist predecessors; they see themselves as the protectors of the true faith, they behead their prisoners, they enslave women and children, and they fight with suicidal fanaticism. And yet, the men of ISIS are not the only ones with strong ties to a militant past. Today’s Western policymakers and military men are behaving like the British did in the 1890s.
In an attempt to completely de-humanize the Mahdist movement, members of the British government and military labeled the Mahdists as simply “terrorists.” Meanwhile, British newspapers whipped up a sense of moral outrage amongst the British public over the humanitarian transgressions of the Mahdists. Specifically, General Charles G. Gordon’s death in battle with the Mahdists in 1884 served as a key means by which the British media garnered public support for a military campaign into the Sudan. Conversely, Britain’s largest newspapers purposely kept the public in the dark about Mahdist society, Mahdist values (especially their opposition to Western social and political norms), and Mahdist success in maintaining order in an otherwise fragmented and violent land.
But the most significant similarity between the British stance toward the Mahdists and the present Western policy toward ISIS is this: the British determined that the Islamist movement could not be contained within its existing territory; therefore, it had to be utterly destroyed and its followers either killed or scattered to the winds.
Not long before his death, General Gordon summed up the existential threat posed by the Mahdists to the British colonial system. He wrote, “The danger to be feared is not that the Mahdi will march northward through Wadi Halfa [a landmark that straddled the Sudanese-Egyptian border]; on the contrary, it is very improbable that he will ever go so far north. The danger is altogether of a different nature. It arises from the influence which the spectacle of a conquering Mohammedan power, established close to your frontier, will exercise upon the population which you govern. In all the cities of Egypt it will be felt that what the Mahdi has done they may do; and as he has driven out the intruder and infidel, they may do the same. Nor is it only England that has to face this danger. The success of the Mahdi has already excited dangerous fermentation [against the Ottomans] in Arabia and Syria.”
The Mahdist threat came not from the soldiers directly under the supreme leader’s command, but from the sense of empowerment that his military and political success would engender in the subjugated peoples within the British and Ottoman empires. Arabians, Syrians, Egyptians, and others would be emboldened by the Mahdi’s example to strike against their colonial masters. This was why General Gordon believed the Mahdists had to be thoroughly obliterated by British force of arms. If the Mahdist movement was allowed to survive, it would forever serve as an example to oppressed peoples everywhere of native defiance to colonial subjugation.
The stakes for the West, and the United States in particular, in the present war against ISIS are greater than those of the British in the Sudan. The Sudan was a backwater in the 1880s and 1890s. Granted, the Mahdists influenced Muslims on the Arabian Peninsula and the area now encompassing Syria, but vast distances, harsh environments, primitive communications, and the presence of British military power along the Lower Nile and atop the waters of the Red Sea severely limited the spread of Mahdist ideology beyond its birthplace in the Sudan.
Unlike the Mahdists, ISIS holds a prime piece of real estate. Iraq occupies the heart of the Middle East. The Muslim countries of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey border Iraq or segments of ISIS territory. Additionally, modern transportation systems and sophisticated communications technologies give ISIS a geographic and demographic reach far beyond anything available to the Mahdists.
Over fifty years ago, Sayyid Qutb, the father of what we now refer to as Muslim fundamentalism or radical Islam, wrote that a revolutionary vanguard needed to “…initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country….” Qutb believed that once firmly established within a defined territory, the new Islamist state would serve as an example to Muslims everywhere, encouraging them to overthrow their Westernized governments and join the rising tide of Islamic revival.
The leaders of ISIS see themselves not only as the successors of the Mahdists, but also as Qutb’s revolutionary vanguard. The territory they control in Iraq is both a Mahdist state and Qutb’s all-important example of Muslim revival. As for the war ISIS is waging in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, it is a continuation of the Long Holy War against the Christian West and its colonial domination of the Muslim world.
In the 1890s, British leaders decided to destroy the Mahdist state, not because its army directly threatened British interests, but because the very existence of the state and its ideology threatened to incite Muslims to rebel against their colonial oppressors. One hundred and twenty years later, the West is again attempting to destroy a nascent Islamist state for the same set of reasons. And today’s war has many of the hallmarks of that earlier war, especially its brutality – a brutality rooted in the uncompromising ideologies of the two belligerents.