Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Sayyid Abd al-Rahman was the posthumous son of Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, who had been proclaimed himself the Mahdi or redeemer of the Islamic faith in 1881, and died in 1885 a few months after his forces had captured Khartoum.
As-Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, KBE (Arabic: عبد الرحمن المهدي) (15 July 1885 – 24 March 1959 was one of the leading religious and political figures during the colonial era in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (1898–1955), and continued to exert great authority as leader of the Neo-Mahdists after Sudan became independent.
The British maintained a close political relationship with Abd al-Rahman, despite him being a Muslim leader. Meanwhile, he grew wealthy from cotton production, for which his supporters provided labor since he was a child exiled to Aba Island, and was influential and well loved among his people. The British administration distrusted him because they could not control him or use him to exert influence on Sudan.
In 1882 the British took effective control of Egypt in the Anglo-Egyptian War.
Northern and central Sudan had been nominally under Egyptian suzerainty since an Ottoman force had conquered and occupied the region in 1821. The primary motive was not territorial conquest but to secure a source of slaves to serve in the Egyptian army. The slaves, paid in lieu of taxes, were brought from the formerly inaccessible regions of south Sudan. When the British explorer Samuel Baker visited Khartoum in 1862, he found that everyone in the town was involved in the slave trade, including the Governor-General. The Egyptian and Nubian garrison lived on the land like an army of occupation. Bribery was the only way to get anything done. Torture and floggings were routine in the prisons. Baker said of Khartoum "a more miserable and unhealthy place can hardly be imagined". He described the Governor General Musa Pasha as combining "the worst of Oriental failings with the brutality of a wild animal". By the end of 1883, the Ansar army had wiped out three Egyptian armies.
In the 1870s, a Muslim cleric who was a direct decendant of the Prophet Muhammed (P.B.U.H.) named Muhammad Ahmad began to preach renewal of the faith and liberation of Sudan from the Egyptians. In 1881 he was proclaimed the Mahdi, the promised redeemer of the Islamic world. The Mahdi's followers were named "AnsaruAllah", or Aider/Helpers of God, the name that was given to the citizens of Medina who helped the Prophet Muhammed. The religious and political revolt gathered momentum, with the Egyptians steadily losing ground and the British showing little enthusiasm for a costly engagement in this remote region.
In the 1930s Abd al-Rahman spoke out against a treaty between Egypt and Britain that recognized Egyptian claims of sovereignty in Sudan, although no Sudanese had been consulted, travelling to London to make his case. His Ansar followers became an influential faction in the General Congress established in 1938, and in the successor Advisory Council set up in 1944. Abd al-Rahman was patron of the nationalist Ummah (Nation) political Party in the period before and just after Sudan became independent in 1956.In 1958 the Umma party won the most seats in the first parliamentary elections after independence.
In 1937, Abd al-Rahman visited England and Egypt, where he met with high-ranking officials and with King Farouk. His purpose was to present Sudanese criticism of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in person. He was openly critical of the Egyptian plans for unity of the Nile valley, which he considered unrealistic. In May 1937, his eldest son al-Siddiq al-Mahdi visited Egypt and was given a royal reception.