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They Die Too Young

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (Sudanow.info.sd) - Goes the Sudanese Adage:” Death is selective, as it always picks the best”. This has often come true in the case of Sudan. For whenever a genius shines, it very soon diminishes, leaving behind disappointment and sorrow.

In the coming pages Sudanow relates the story of some Sudanese outstanding personalities who shone for a short while and then were gone. The list is very long , but for the time being we will be contented with the story of three men who made history, each in his own domain.

These three men are: Sudan’s liberator from the Turko-Egyptian and British Rule Mohammad Ahmad al –Mahdi, Literary genius al-Tijani Yousif Bashir and outspoken religious scholar Mohammad Sayyid Haj, respectively.


The Mahdi(1844-1885):

Known as the Mahdi of Sudan , Mohammad Ahmad al-Mahdi entered into the annals of history as the national leader who defeated the British Empire and its Turkish protégés and flushed their formidable armies out of Sudan in a few years and gave them a humiliating defeat that called feelings of dismay in the United Kingdom and Egypt and jubilation elsewhere around the World.
Historians and military experts had particularly wondered at the Mahdi’s whirlwind victorious march from Aba Island, to Gadeer and Sheikan in the mid-west down to the battle of Khartoum that saw the defeat and killing of England’s best warrior, Sir. Charles Gordon and the collapse of Turko-Egyptian rule of Sudan that started in 1821.
The Mahdi was born in Labab Island - known as the Ashraf (or nobles) Island not far away from today’s town of Dongola in extreme Northern Sudan that saw the final settlement of his ancestors after a long journey from Arabia for fear from the brutality of al-Hajaj bin Yousuf , one of the Umayyads rulers.



His birth was on 22nd August 1844 (27th of Rajab 1260 of the Hijri calendar) as stated in documents found in the custody of his son Ali, who died in 1945. The Mahdi had four siblings :Three brothers and one sister. He was a descendant of a man called Haj Shareef who lived too long and was known for remarkable piety.
As a boy the Mahdi had migrated with his father to Karare (North of Omdurman). His father , Abdallah, died before the Mahdi reached puberty, leaving him in the care of his two brothers. The Mahdi managed to learn the Koran by heart when he was just fifteen and then joined the Sammaniyya Sufi Order under its Sheikh Mohammad Shareef Nur al-Dayim . Later on he took oath of allegiance from Skeikh al-Ghorashi Wadazzain and when the latter died Mohammad Ahmad announced that he was the Mahdi in a letter he sent to Sufi leader, Sheikh al-tayyeb al-Baseer. Earlier the Mahdi had met his faithful disciple and successor Abdallah Wad Toarshain (al-Taaishi), who in due course rallied Western Sudanese around the Mahdi and his revolution.The Mahdi then retreated to the isolated Aba Island, positioned on the White Nile about 400 km South of Khartoum, and started to disseminate his religious and patriotic ideas .The Turks took note of him and sent a contingent of troops to subdue him. A brief skirmish took place and the Mahdi and his men emerged victorious. The Aba battle was the first armed confrontation between the Mahdi and the Turko-Egyptian Government. Aware that the government could mobilize from Khartoum and attack him in Aba Island, the Mahdi quickly moved to Gadeer in Kordufan in the country’s mid-West and later on to the nearby Shaykan. There the masses poured in from the region and from the far West to support the Mahdi. Feeling the heat , the Government amassed troops under the command of British General William Hicks Pasha in 1883 and sent them to Shaykan.


Hicks (Photo credit: Google)
Hicks (Photo credit: Google)

The Battle of Shaykan:

Wrote British historian Fergus Nicoll about al-Mahdi that he was the son of a boat - builder and became one of the most influential personalities in Sudan's history. He ignited a revolt that expelled the occupiers and shocked the governments in London, Cairo , Istanbul and Paris. In Shaykan in 1883 Mohammad, who was just 39, emerged as the father of a new Sudanese nation. In him the Sudanese saw a tolerant leader and a spiritual symbol of long-lost justice , a personality with immense charisma and with a vision for social reform.
On 5 November 1883 the Mahdi led his warriors in the dawn prayer and told them: Whoever of you waits to adjust his shoe, will not be able to find the Britons and the Turks alive!
He then asked his men to repeat the war prayer three times. The commanders each took his banner and positioned himself in his assigned place, according to the plan the Mahdi earlier explained to them. The Hicks expedition reached Sheikan forest at about 9 a.m and fell into the trap. The Mahdi warriors came of their hiding places among the trees and wiped out the Hicks troops in a battle that took no more than 15 minutes. General Hicks, his lieutenants and the crème of his officers were killed. Just a few troops had survived who later on told the horrific story of what had happened on the battlefield. The Mahdi lost 200 of his men.
From Skaykan the Mahdi moved Northwards and conquered El-Obied, capital of today’s North Kordufan State. There in El-Obied the Mahdi garnered the support and allegiance of notables and religious leaders . His army added more and more flesh as it moved Eastwards towards Khartoum, the capital of the country.

Soon after he reached Khartoum, the Mahdi laid a tight siege around the city from all sides and when it was ripe, he picked it. His zealous men killed General Gordon in the heat of the moment, contrary to his orders to keep the man alive. Some history books say the Mahdi had wanted to exchange Gordon for leader of the Egyptian revolt Ahmad Urabi who was in prison at the time.
Very soon the Mahdi moved the capital of the country from Khartoum to Omdurman, just across the Nile to the West.
Six months later the Mahdi died, reportedly of typhoid, aged 40 and was succeeded by his first lieutenant Abdullahi wad Torshain , known as Abdullahi al-Ta’ayshi, who ruled the country down to the British and Egyptian re-conquest of Sudan in around 1900.


Gordon in an Egyptian uniform (Photo credit: Google)
Gordon in an Egyptian uniform (Photo credit: Google)

The International Impact of the Mahadist Revolution:

It was the battle of Shaykan, the conquest of Khartoum and the killing of General Gordon that put the Mahdi into international limelight with enemies of Great Britain rejoicing and with the Britons scathing their government for not sending enough troops to stop the Mahdi and rescue Charles Gordon.
The British public was so moved by the demise of Gordon that the famous song ‘ Too Late to Save Him’ ran nearly on every lip in England. It was chorused in bars and everywhere when there was a gathering at weekends.
The fall of Khartoum and the death of General Gordon also led to the collapse of the government of Premier William Ewart Gladstone. Sir Wellesley, sent at the head of a salvation army to rescue Gordon, was stripped from his office after he failed to reach Khartoum at the right time and after he was defeated by the Mahdi’s army on the outskirts of Omdurman.
Receiving the news about Britain’s defeat in Sudan, the Irish nationalists intensified their struggle against the Government in London. The Irish public rejoiced in the streets for the news coming from Sudan.

The socialist World that was in a formative situation at the time, had, equally, applauded the Mahdi’s victory. Wrote communist thinker and co-father of communism Friedrich Engels: The Mahdi .. the Sudanese leader who faced the British has triumphed in Khartoum.
Karl Marx , the other father of communism , wrote to his friend Friedrich Engels shortly before his death (Marx’s death) that the news incoming from Sudan these days are indeed very exciting . These news oblige us to reconsider the entire structure of the communist creed we had called for! It could oblige us to reconsider our view that religion is a byproduct of the class situation.
Adds Marx: By this revolutionary Mahdist version of Islam that we see in Sudan, religion can become a fuel for the international revolution against imperialism.

Ahmad Urabi , Leader of the Egyptian revolution- known as the Urabi Revolution - had written that : Britain has gained nothing from its attempt to invade Sudan. It has lost everything , its name , its fame and it has lost the respect of all Moslems. The brave Sudanese had revenged for their Egyptian brothers and guarded their country against the invaders. Millions of Sudanese have taken the oath of death for the liberty of their country. And the more the English aggression intensifies against them, the stronger the Sudanese become.

Moslem reformer Jamal Eddin al-Afghani wrote three fiery articles, in French, in which he showed utmost admiration for the Sudanese liberation movement and its leader, the Mahdi.


The Mahdi’s Achievements In Five Years of Revolution:

The Mahdi died on 22nd June 1885, aged 41 years. Some historians say he had lived just 40 years.
The most outstanding of the Mahdi’s achievements could be summed up in:
-The liberation of Sudan from Britain, the World’s greatest colonial power of the time, using primitive weapons.
-He unified the Sudanese tribes and shaped the borders of the Sudan, including the Southern Sudanese some of whom had fought in his ranks.
-He set up an Islamic army along the lines drawn by the Prophet Mohammad for his army. He strived to follow the Moslem tradition (the Sunnah) and maintained law and order in the way followed in the early days of Islam.
-He minted an Islamic currency he called the Riyal.
-He launched a printing press to publish the Koran and other Islamic books (interpretations of the Koran and Prophet Mohammad’s tradition).
-He launched a ministry of finance he called Bait al-Mal (money home) as did the early Moslems.
-He established an Islamic economy that marries public and private ownership.
-He issued papers called manshourat al- Mahdi to educate his followers and the public at large on prayer, fasting , jihad and other rites of Islam.
-He wrote a prayer book (the Ratib) to be read by the faithful at dawn and sunset.
He issued fatwas (Islamic rulings) on family law and banned tobacco and alcohol altogether.



Al-Tijani Yousif Bashir:

Ahmad al-Tijani Yousif Bashir (1912-1939) was an unusual talent in Arabic poetry and prose. Many Sudanese consider this nation quite unfortunate that a man of letters like al-Tijani was so short lived , otherwise he could have enriched the country’s literature (poetry in particular) with marvels incomparable.
Tijani was born in Omdurman in 1912 in an environment of culture and religious knowledge. He was named after Sheikh Ahmad al-Tijani of Fez, Morocco, the founder of the popular Islamic Tijaniyya Sufi (mystic) order.
It seems that our poet had acted up to his name as can be seen in his poetry that carries a semblance of some Sufi poets.
As a young boy , Tijani learned the Koran in the Khalwa (seminary) of his uncle Mohammad al-Kitayyabi . Then he, naturally, enrolled into the al-Ma’ahad al-Elmi (Islamic Institute) in Omdurman.
At the Institute Tijani acquired a vast knowledge of Arabic language and Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence). It was at the Institute that Tijan’s poetic talent blossomed. This caused him to be known as a poet among his peers. After an intellectual debate with his some fellow students, Tijani was dismissed from the Institute due to what the administration considered signs of heresy.

After his dismissal from the Institute , Tijani chose to become a journalist. Then he retreated into seclusion in his home, reading old literature and Sufi and philosophy books. He was so absorbed in his studies that he grew very weak, finally contracting tuberculosis . He spent the rest of his days in sickness, dire poverty and social isolation.
Tijani has left behind a wealth of literary production. His poetry was published in a collection he called Ishraqa (Radiance).Some of the poems included in the collection include:
-Al-Sufi al-Mua’athab (the tormented Sufi).
-Malahin al-hawa wal alam (melodies of love and anguish).
-Qalb al-Faylasoof (the philosopher’s heart).
-Amal (hope).
-Anta Walneel (you and the Nile).
-al-Ma’ahad al-Elmi (the institute).
-Hayra (wonder).

Al-Tijani has been the subject of many studies including-Dr. Abdulmajeed Abdeen: Al-Tijani Sha’er al Jamal (Al-Tijani the poet of beauty), Mohammad Mohammad Ali: Muhawalat Fi alnaqd (attempts in criticism),-Henry Riyadh: Al-Tijani Sha’eran Wa natheran (Tijani, poet and prose writer).



Mohammad Sayyid Haj (1972-2010):

He is one of the most famous Sudanese Moslem scholars and preachers in contemporary history. He had presented lots of programmes on the radio and TV on Islamic knowledge. His speeches continue to be broadcast on specialized radio and TV stations. His courageous and humorous ways of preaching, particularly those directed to the youth, are very attractive that it is familiar to listen to his sermons as an entertainment in almost every passenger automobiles.
He was born in Ashkait village (New Halfa) on the 21st of March 1972 and died in a car crash in Gedaref, Eastern Sudan, on 24 April 2010, aged 38.
He studied the Holy Koran in Haj Yousif Khalwa (seminary). He finished his elementary education in Haj Yousif and intermediate and secondary education in New Halfa.
He graduated from the faculty of Islamic Sharia’a , Omdurman Islamic University, and obtained an M.A in Sharia’a from the same university. As a student he engaged in long debates with secular students and advocates of innovation in Islam.
His publications include:
-Al-Huroob Al-Saleebiyya Gadiman Wa Hadithan (The Crusades-past and present.
-Ramadan: Virtues and rules.
-The celebration of Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.
-Limatha al-Iltizam (Why commitment).



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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