Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Siege of Khartoum Begins

It was on this day in 1884 that the 319-day siege of Khartoum in the Sudan began with the rebel forces of Mohammed Ahmed, who claimed to be the "Mahdi" besieged the Egyptian garrison of the city commanded by the British veteran General Charles George "Chinese" Gordon. Because of his presence and the subsequent involvement of other European forces against the rebel army such as Great Britain, Belgium and Italy, all Christian powers, and the Christian forces of Ethiopia, sometimes one can get the impression that this was a clash between the forces of Christianity and Islam -which it most certainly was not. Some have also come to see the conflict as a war for Sudanese independence, a trend probably colored by the subsequent independence of the Sudan from Egypt. Again, however, that was not the case.

At its core, the war against Mohammed Ahmed was a war within Islam, a conflict of Muslim against Muslim and the forces of the self-proclaimed "Mahdi" should not illicit sympathy from anyone. The Ulema denounced him and his pretensions and those were extensive as he was determined to bring down the Khedive of Egypt himself and by refusing to recognize the authority of the Khedive he was also refusing to recognize the authority of the Ottoman Sultan on whose behalf the Khedive ruled. One can certainly have sympathy for the Sudanese people who, in many cases it is true, did not have the best life in their native land, but Mohammed Ahmed was not fighting a war on behalf of the people as some today seem to think. He was fighting to advance himself and his grandiose claims to be the messiah and in doing that he intended to overthrow every existing legitimate authority in the Islamic world that did not submit to him, which effectively came to everyone as no serious Islamic scholar could support his fragile case. He wanted to bring down the Khedive, the local rulers of Arabia and even the Sultan himself.

Some may tend to discount this as being too far-fetched for someone leading a horde of desert tribesmen against modern armies with modern weapons. However, what can be considered too far-fetched coming from a man who starts his campaign by declaring himself to be the messiah? No, this was a real and legitimate threat, a threat to the established, existing, legitimate authorities of the region as well as a religious challenge of the first order within Islam. It is admirable that countries of different religions were willing and able to come together to stop this threat to world peace and legitimate authority before it could do even more damage than it did. It is not difficult to see that there is a lesson in this historical episode for people today.

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