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Al-Khalifa Abdullahi- Life & Policy, By: Dr. Viviane Yagi

By: Mohammed Osman

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Al-Khalifa Abdullahi- Life & Policy, By: Dr. Viviane Yagi
Translated from French into Arabic by: Dr. Makki Bashir Mustafa al-Badry
Number of pages: 323 of a medium size

Publisher: Cooperative Publishing Group, 2011
A book review by : Aisha Sulieman Braima

Khartoum, ( sudanow.info.sd )- It is our pleasure to present, on the 113 anniversary of the martyrdom of Al-Khalifa Abdullahi Al-Ta'yshi in Um Dibaikrat Battle on November 24, 1899, a fair portrait of the second man of the Mahdist Revolution and State.

The portrait was painted by a diligent researcher whose goal was to reach the truth whatever the cost was. She is Viviane Yagi whose journey of conversion to Islam was another reason for reviewing this book which, originally, was Phd research dissertation , which the author obtained from the Faculty of Arts, Languages and Humanities of the Third Montpellier University in France.

It is one of several intellectual works the author provided the academic, intellectual and cultural arenas with, in the country that she loved and cherished. She, a French national from a respected family, converged in Sudan community since setting foot on its land in 1955 as the wife of Sudanese diplomat Dr. Mohamed Ahmed Yagi until she passed away in 2011.
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The author related that, while she was poring through writings on the history of Sudan, she noticed numerous incredible pieces of information about Al-Khalifa Abdullahi and wondered how a man of this image could resist the invader up to the last moment of his life.

Then she perused the official documents, rare manuscripts, the missives exchanged between the Mahdi and his Khalifa (his successor) and the correspondence of the Mahdist Emirs (commanders) and she found out that the writings of several foreign historians were lacking in objectivity and that some of the Sudanese historians followed suit of those foreigners. The author thereupon decided to carefully examine this important character of the history of the Sudan and to shed light on its unknown aspects, clarify facts about false indictments attached to him or to explain the objective circumstances surrounding some of his misunderstood decisions in light of the events, subjecting them to an unemotional and unbiased examination.

At first she was planning to write a book on the Khalifa, but her findings prompted her into writing a PhD dissertation the pages of which exceeded 700. In the process, the author perused several writings and original documents from various parts of the world, met many personalities involved in that period of history and heard their personal experiences and verbal stories they heard from their predecessors. She also toured important sites which stood witness to that epoch such as Karary and Um Dibaikrat battlefields


The book falls into two parts and nine chapters with the first part devoted to the ascent of Al-Khalifa Abdullahi, containing information on the Sudan and the factors and reasons that set the scene for the rise of the Mahdi along with some notes on the Muslim world during the 1880s and the years Al-Khalifa spent with the Mahdi till the demise of the latter. The first part of the book also dwelt on the youth stage of Abdullahi in 1885 and the beginning of his reign as a Khalifa (a Muslim ruler).

The second part deals with the Mahdist State, its organization and fall, reviewing the various elements of the administration of the State and the power struggle by Al-Khalifa Abdullahi with the Mahdi’s relatives as well as the Arab and non-Arab Sudanese tribes which revolted against the Mahdist regime and the defeats that led to the fall of the regime in 1898-99, the date of his death which ultimately led to the demise of the Mahdist State of which he was a living embodiment

The introduction contained a brief biography of Al-Khalifa Abdullahi pointing that he was hailing from the Al-Ta’yshah tribe which is one of the Baggarah tribes of Darfur in West Sudan. He joined the Mahdist movement in 188; at the beginning he was a disciple of the Mahdi, then became his right hand and the Mahdi appointed him general commander of the Mahdist armies in addition to tasking him with all administrative affairs. The Mahdi, feeling that he was approaching death, named Abdullahi as his successor and, thereupon, Al-Khalifa Abdullahi took the reins of power from 1885 to 1899. And after the Mahdist regime was defeated by the Anglo-Egyptian armies, the Al-Khalifa continued his struggle against the invaders for one year until he was killed while he was still holding his weapon in his hand in Um Dibaikrat battle on November 24, 1899.

However, the image still harbored by many people, both Sudanese and foreigners, of Al-Khalifa Abdullahi is that he was tyrannical, blood-thirsty, extreme oppressor, erotic, power maniac and full of suspicion and jealousy.

The British spread this image of him for political propaganda and to provoke the British public opinion into accepting the notion of reoccupying the Sudan, citing two reasons: avenging the murder of Gordon and liberating this part of the world from the brutality and tyranny of Al-Khalifa Abdullahi.

The Sudan harbor a relatively different image of Al-Khalifa Abdullahi; they blame him for removing Al-Mahdi’s relatives from power, putting them in prison, sending them into exile and ultimately killing them. Many Sudanese just cancel from their accounts the 13 years of rule by Al-Khalifa Abdullahi over the Sudan. The author takes this as a reminiscent of a scene in “The Small Eagle” play in which the two teachers who were teaching Duke de Richards history hurriedly passed over the Empire era and Napoleon’s son remarked: “What a strange era! Nothing has occurred in it?

The author refuted the accusations some historians and laymen have attached on the Al-Khalifa as follows:-

He was ferocious and merciless against his opponents; compared to the tyrants or other cotemporary leaders of other states, he was not the fiercest, hews forced to be fierce against those who opposed him. He was a faithful believer in the Mahdist movement and regarded the Mahdi’s opinions as a law. It was Mahdi who, upon entering Al Obaid town, said: “Everything he does is a Prophet’s command or permission by us, rather than his own discretion.” He felt he was commanded to carry out God’s will and he believed his behavior was God’s revelation and he thought that it was not his desire to kill but he did this to defend himself and his authority.

He is blamed for ruthlessness towards some tribes but we should remember that those were convicted of two great crimes under the military and civil acts as most of them fled the army of Wad al-Nijumy of the government and were thus convicted of escaping from the enemy and also from the jihad (holy war). When they returned home, these tribal groups resumed practices of plunder and pillage and therefore deserved punishments of death and cross-limb amputation. The Al-Khalifa exacted this punishment not out of revenge but he was enforcing the law.

The author cited as an example of having been merciful his good treatment of the European prisoners of war (POWs) of whom he killed none. When he was stricken by misfortunes, Al-Khalifa found some who stood by his side, something which, according to the author, surprised Churchill who remarked that when he reached the main body of his defeated army, Al-Khalifa found that many of his friends were disappointed. He was unarmed and none of his escorts could protect him from his soldiers who had good reasons to slay him for all the torture they had suffered, yet he was not attacked by anyone but, instead, was welcomed by his soldiers and was surrounded by the emirs who survived the Karary battle in which thousands were brutally massacred. How, then, could he have been atrocious, unjust and hateful as portrayed by the Europeans?

Moreover, after his death in 1899, his grave became a visiting place for the people, something that greatly worried the English rulers to the extent that Kosti District Inspector asked the governor of the White Nile Province to demolish Al-Khalifa’s tomb which is being visited until today and patients are being taken to it for blessing .

There are two incidents which show his fairness and expose as a lie every accusation that he was fond of seizing the money of other people. One of those incidents was related by Sheikh Majzoub Mudathir Ibrahim al-Hajjaz and the other by Yusuf Michael.

There was once a woman servant, who escaped from her master, entered Al-Khalifa home and took refuge among his women. The servant’s master went to Sheikh Suleiman al-Hajjaz, who was then the Islamic magistrate, and filed a complaint against Al-Khalifa Abdullahi. The judge summoned Al-Khalifa and ordered him to stand beside the plaintiff and frankly told him that he had mistaken against the plaintiff. The Al-Khalifa admitted the presence of the servant at his home. The Magistrate ordered Al-Khalifa to send the woman servant back to her master and Al-Khalifa complied. After pronouncing the ruling, Sheikh Suleiman left his seat and told Al-Khalifa: “This is the law. The trial has ended. It is now your turn to seat yourself; you are Al-Khalifa and we are your subjects.” Al-Khalifa praised Sheikh Suleiman’s performance and called upon all magistrates to follow his example.

The chief of Abdallab tribe, Nassir wad Juma’ah, had a sword famous for its sharpness and when Al-Khalifa heard of it he summoned Nassir and asked him to hand over the sword. After examining it, Al-Khalifa noted that it was an ordinary, unlike what people described a very sharp one. Nassir said he had inherited it from his ancestors and he had killed 40 men with it in Abu Roaf battle and it could chop a rifle and its carrier in two halves and a large number of the Ansar (Mahdi’s followers) and emirs would testify to this. Al-Khalifa gave him back the sword, saying: “Take back your sword, Nassir, you are honest and straight forward.”

If Al-Khalifa was unjust as some people allege, how could a man dare to file a complaint against him and how could a magistrate be so brave that he could issue a ruling in favor of the plaintiff and convict Al-Khalifa and order him to give back the object of the complaint? The same applies to the sword of Nassir Juma’ah, despite Al-Khalifa’s desire in keeping the sword for himself.

As for the case Al-Zaki Tambal, it was true that Al-Khalifa put him in prison but decided to keep him there only to consider the accusations leveled against him. But Al-Khalifa’s orders were ignored and when he knew of the death of Tambal, he immediately ordered that the magistrate, Ahmed Ali, be put in the same place of Tambal in prison and be served similar treatment. In many cases, the assigned officials failed to carry out the orders given to them by Al-Khalifa and the punishment was immediately imposed as Al-Khalifa always knew of the fact and immediately served justice.

As regards his accusation of jealousy towards his power and inclined to suspicion, it was because of his feeling that he was a stranger to the tribes of northern and central Sudan and for this reason, he had to be suspicious and to strike for the slightest suspicion before he was struck to protect himself.

For this reason, he called members of his own tribe and other Baggarah tribes, surrounded himself by them and appointed them to the main positions in his state. He was not in a position to trust the others who all wanted, in different degrees, that the caliphate be assumed by one of the Mahdi’s relatives. It is to be mentioned at this point that people tend to forget that during the Mahdi’s time, all the important positions were occupied by the Mahdi’s relatives and by the chiefs of the tribes of the north and the Gezira.

The only exceptions to this were Al-Khalifa Abdullahi who, after the death Mahdi’s brother, became the commander general of all armies of the Mahdi, Yagoub who was appointed by the Mahdi to replace his brother Al-Khalifa Abdullahi as holder of the Black Banner, although Al-Khalifa remained commander general, Hamdan Abu Anjah who, on Al-Khalifa recommendation, was appointed by the Mahdi as commander of the Sudanese soldiers of the government forces who were taken prisoner by the Ansar of the Mahdi, and Osman Dignah who, throughout the eras of the Mahdi and Al-Khalifa, was chieftain of the Beja tribes of eastern Sudan.
Al-Khalifa had no option other than to depend on his kinsfolk the Baggarah and on those who respected the Mahdi’s last wishes and who firmly believed that Abdullahi was the right Khalifa, out of all tribes.

This was ignored by all those who believed that power, after the Mahdi’s demise, should have been assumed either by Al-Khalifa Sherif or by one of the Ashraf. They simply forgot that, well before his death, the Mahdi completely renounced and disclaimed the Ashraf. They also ignored the position Al-Khalifa Abdullahi occupied during the Mahdi’s life. He was the first one to believe in the Mahdi and, since the fall of Al Obaid, the Mahdi emphasized the role of the Khalifa who would succeed him and, when he appointed him, the Mahdi used the same words Mohamed the Prophet addressed to the inhabitants of Medina who came to pledge allegiance to him at Aqaba: “I am from you and you are from me.” The Mahdi speaking about Al-Khalifa Abdullahi, said: “he is from me and I am from him,” adding: “Everyone who disobeys him, should understand that he has disobeyed me.”

Al-Khalifa is also accused of leading a luxurious way of life; and those who accused him of indulgence in pleasures were either clergymen or conservative or Victorian thinking who believed that polygamy as licentiousness and debauchery. But to consider the situation objectively, Al-Khalifa was the successor of the Mahdi who was regarded by the surrounding tribes as a source of blessing and they sought to have his blessing by contracting marriages with him. This was also a means for guaranteeing his position and backing his power among the different tribes, taking Mohamed the Prophet as his model. It should also be taken into consideration that polygamy has existed in the East and in Africa.

The concupiscence charge, before leveled against the Mahdi and, afterwards, against Al-Khalifa, was directed against the Prophet and was then extended to engulf Islam at large and those who made those charges forget that Islam has decreased to four the number of legal wives. Before the advent of Islam, number of wives was unlimited.
As for the ignorance charge, it was persistently denied by Al-Khalifa’s sons as baseless; it was true that Al-Khalifa Abdullahi was not a scholar in the contemporary concept but he was not illiterate because, according t his grandson Mohamed Dawood, he hailed from a knowledgeable family as his ancestors were famous for knowledge and piousness. His grandfather and father, wherever they went, opened schools for teaching the Koran. His son Abdul Salam said his father, Al-Khalifa, was writing in Warsh style which still exists in North Africa.

The argument cited to support the allegation that Al-Khalifa was illiterate that we haven’t come across a message written in his hand and that he had employed large number of clerks is extremely weak as it is certain that we have not seen all the documents. Moreover, the heads of state often employ numerous clerks and dictate to them their messages.

Al-Khalifa was accused of hypocrisy but, on the contrary, he was a faithful loyal believer with a firm conviction of the Mahdist movement. He had not the slightest doubt that Mohamed Ahmed was the awaited Mahdi designated by God to purge earth from evils and to establish justice. He was convinced of the religious nature of his position and that he was chosen by God, through His Prophet, to be the successor of the Mahdi. Based on this premise, Al-Khalifa thought he had to finish what he had begun and to achieve the dream of conquests.

He was confident that the entire globe, east and west, would convert to the Mahdi’s call and, so as to achieve this goal, he made of the Sudan a big camp from which the armies of the jihad (holy war) would set out for emancipation of the world from evils and for restoration of the Islamic faith to its original purity. It was the faith that motivated his deeds and this might have been the primary reason for his failure and faith is double-edged weapon which can be a source of inspiration and ability to achieve the impossible but can also block the ability to recognize the reality and hear the voice of reason.

Abdullahi was confident that all his deeds were in obedience of God’s will and his sole concern was victory of the faith. In response to an offer for peace by the monarch of Ethiopia, Al-Khalifa said: “First, you have to convert to Islam and believe in the Mahdist movement and after that we can talk about peace.” This was characteristic of all his reactions to his opponents. He was convinced that God addressed him through the Prophet, (the mystic prophet) Khidir and the Mahdi and it is difficult for the people who live in the age of agnosticism and rationality to comprehend this thinking. For everyone who upholds scientific or quasi-scientific ideologies, a person who claims to be talking on behalf of God and behaves on God’s commands is a hypocrite disguised behind a religious banner for reaching selfish ends or carrying out a personal revenge. But the believer comprehends this position even if he does not believe in it.
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In the conclusion of her book, the author enumerated Al-Khalifa’s attributes which she said were recognized even by his opponents, adding that all people agree that he was sharply intelligent with a powerful mind, an inexhaustible energy, unconquerable courage and concrete patience in hardships. In short, he possessed all attributes of the Arab Muslim champion and if he had adequate time, he could have made of the Sudan a powerful, united country. But he was a believer, rather than a politician and as the Sudan was a vast country inhabited by numerous ethnicities, it was difficult to be fully controlled.

By the end of the day, Al-Khalifa could not unify all tribes of the country and he might have succeeded in achieving this unity, if he had had sufficient time.

The spiritual torch that was the source of the Mahdist power was extinguished by the martyrdom of Al-Khalifa in Um Dibaikrat but he remained alive and the impact of the Mahdist movement remained throughout the English colonization, inspiring the national movements. The inter-tribal conflicts faded and the notion of the nation grew gradually in the minds of the Sudanese people and what was regarded as the land of Islam during the Mahdist era has become the Sudan since the 1920s.

The Mahdist movement showed that all ethnicities of the Sudan can assemble behind one banner motivated by a lofty goal, forgetting everything that divides or splits them. The grand-children of those who established the Mahdist State struggled for independence of their country. The esteem and veneration that shrouded the Mahdist movement all through its reign has until today remained a source of inspiration to the Ansar and has remained an example of the first Sudanese Muslin government for every leader to keep as a model.

In conclusion, this is a quick review of the book the author intended to present as an unbiased scientific research on the life of Al-Khalifa Abdullahi, the man who had a remarkable impact of the Sudan’s modern history. There is no question about her honesty and fairness as can be reflected in a long series of research and biographies she has produced. It remains for those who are seeking truth and objectivity to ponder on what she has presented for reconsidering their excessive prejudice against Al-Khalifa.

Remain to be said, is that the translation of the dissertation into Arabic by Dr. Makki al-Badry is an excellent work characterized by a simple, vivid and fluent language. There are some printing mistakes which cannot devalue this translation or the quality of the book.
As/mas/mo

Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...

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