A Study of the Mahdi.
(P»ll Mall Gazette, 13th March.)
England is at war with the Mahdi. The Government has pledged the resources of the Empire to smashing him ; but it haß been Jeft to a Frenchman, M, James Darmestetter, to furnish the world with the first appreciation of the Mahdi which is worth reading, at nil recent lecture at the Sorbonne, now, we ara glad to see, republished in the Revue Politique I et Litteraire, an admirable weekly, by no ] means so well known on this side of the Channel as it deserves to be. M. Darmestetter passes in survey the long series of Mahdis who have from time to time risen toy trouble the Moslem world by recalling the bright dreams of his first ideal, and concludes a very ( interesting .account of the present Mahdi, which will probably enable some of those who have supported his smashing at Khartoum cuots que coute now that it ia too late to consider the conclusion at which they so inconsiderately arrived. M. Darmestetter, after speaking of the present movement in the Soudan and its leaders, says : " The Mahdi was born at Dongola about the year 1200 of the Hegira, 1843 of our era. His father waa called Abdallah and his mother Amina. He has on both cheeks three parallel scars. (He is of middle height, has a light brown complexion, and a black baard. — (Revae d'Ethnographip, letter of April 13, 1883.) These details — though for us they have no value— ara very significant for the Mussulmans, for one of the most ancient traditions attributed to Mahomet declares that the Mahdi will bear the same name as the Prophet, and that the father of the Mahdi will bear the same name as the Prophet's father. Now the Prophet waa oalled Mahomet Ahmed ; his father waß called Abdallah, and his mother also was called Amina. Forty years is the prophetical age among the Mussulmans, because that is the age at which Mahomet revealed himself, and the Mahdi'B scars are the stamp of the Prophet whioh marked Mahomet, and whioh must mark every true propbot, I do opt e»y that from
his birth the Mahdi haa had the Prophet's stamp. Such things are signs which appear when the necessity for them is felt. His name , and those of his parents would make it appear that he waß born in surroundings predisposing men to prophethood, and that this predisposition is hereditary, From his earliest childhood Mahomet showed signs of ( a decided vocation. At 12 years of age ha knew the Koran by heart. -Hia father was dead, and his two elder brothers — boatbuilderß on the White Nile — thought there -was the stuff of a great scholar in their brother. They aided him to bis wants and gave him the means to Btudy under tw» renowned profes•sora near Khartoum, Abdel Dogim and El Oourachi. At 25 years, of age, when he bad his studies, and' when his mother was dead, he went to the island of Aba (a small sland, at that time unknown, but which has w become historical in Europe and sacred In Africa), near which his brothers tyere at work. There he lived for 15 years a retired life ; the 15 years which Mahomet passed in meditating on his mission near Mount Harra. It will be noticed that his career was traced beforehand in that of the Prophet. Strauss assumoa that the figure of Jesus is a creation of the popular imagination from the material of the old prophets of Israel ; the life of the Mahdi is Strauaa' theory in aotion ; the Mahdi is the living reflection of Mahomet.' He lived in a subterranean cave, wept continually over the corruption of mankind, and wafe wasted away by austerity and fasting. The neighbouring tribe of the Baggaras, the most powerful of this region of the Nile, venerated him as a saint, and felt that the spirit of God was upon him. Then, when the year of prophecy arrived — the fortieth year — he revealed himself as the Mahdi, and the Baggaras proceeded without difficulty from veneration to adoration. He
bacame tbe prophet in bis own* country. . . The revolutionary idea among us, and tbe idea of a Messiah among the Mussulmans, are tho same instinct, the same aspirations, among us under a secular, among them, under a religious ,form ; among us shrivelled up in abstract "'forma and theoretical reasonings,, among them iv the striking form of supernatural visions. • '93 has has arrived in the Soudan. Revolutionary Islam is even as revolutionary France. In both cases there is the same striving after tbe ideal in bloody battles fought with covetousness and hatred ; in both oases the same ignorance of teality, the same unnatural hope, the samo dream of a world renewed by a miracle, while humanity remains as it was before ; the same prodigies of enthusiasm, of ferocity, of devotion; in both cases the king dom of equity, of peace, of eternal fraternity inaugurated under the auspices of the destroying angel. The chancellor of the Mahdi need not feel himself expatriated in the midst of the
desert clubs. Where the French beggar sings, ' Here is, the end of your miseries, consumers of brown bread, water-drinkers,' the oppressed Arab cries to heaven, ' Mater yathar el Mahdi'— (When will the Mahdi appear?) A poople penetrated with this sentiment can be exterminated, but it cannot be made submissive to its fate." Such, then, is Mahomet Aohmet-ibn-Abdallah, the Goddirected, for such is the meaning of the term Mahdi, Such ia the man whom we have undertaken to crush at the centre oi his power. M. Darmeatetter does *not think highly of the chances of our success. He says : " There is one thing which I believe can be safely assumed ; and that is that ■whatever may be the results of the English expedition, a European nation, whatever it may be, will never be able to establish permanent order in the Soudan. -Why ? By natural fatality ; by an order from on high. The sun above their heads, the desert sand beneath their feet, oppose a double veto to their success." Let us nope that M. Darmestetter is wrong. Tbe fact that he concludes his lecture by advising the employment of the Abysainians in reconquering the Soudan for civilisation shows that, however brilliant and sympathetic may be his appreciation of a religious phenomenon, and however skilful bis philosophic analysis of its origin, be blunders like a child when be enters the domain of practical politics. Whatever is done with the Soudan, the Abyssinians will not be the instrument by which it will be reclaimed for civilisation, at all events not for a long time yet. And this for many reasons — (1) The Abysainians are as fanatical as tho Arabs, perhaps more bo; (2) they are hill men, who have always been beaten when they ventured into the plains ; and (3) they are, if anything, less civilised than the Soudanese. Of Gordon, who for 11 months kept the God-directed son of the Dongola boatbuilder at bay behind the earthworks at Khartoum, M. Darmestetter makes a somewhat original observation. He says:— "The latest events, the fall of Khartoum and the death of Gordon, have dispelled doubts as to the Mahdi's
mission— tha death of Gordon even more than
the fall of Khartoum, for it is an event which from the beginning bad its marked place in the programme of the Messiah. It seems, indeed, as if Gordon had played, and still played, in <.be imagination of the Mahdi's man, a part which is not that of a human being. To us Gordon is nothing but a hero, the last, perhaps, and the most sympathetic, hero of Christian Puritanism, a Milton who has lost his way among the intrigues of the nineteenth century ; lo tbe Arab Gordon ia Christianity itself, the greatest inoarnation of evil and of error, which they 'contemplate, with a mixed feeling of terror, respect, _ and hatred. Tbe English papers have 'published a missive from tbe Emir of Berber, announcing the fall of Khartoum and the death of General
Gordon thus: — '
■* We have killed the traitor
f Gordon,' so it is translated. It is rather •Btonisning to have this. epithet of traitor applied to Gordon, even though by the pen of an Arab, It is to be regretted that English newspapers have not given the translation of the Arab word ; it is quite possible that the text waa 'Gordon impostor'— tha,t,.is to say the Deddjal, the Antichrist. I*or the death of Deddjal, the murder of the Antichrist, must ba tha great , work of the Mahdi and the commencement of his triumph. There is another part which he might have played if it had pleased him to go over to Islamism, and which the Mahdi appears to have offered to him : it was the part of Jeans Christ. ' Theoretically at least, there is no Mahdi without a Jesus, by his Bide, That part has still tobe taken ; may be that M. Olivier Pain might be tempted by it." Altogether, the lecture at the Sorbonne is one of tbe most suggestive and interesting studies of the central figure, in the great drama of tbe Soudan that we have yet seen, and we cordially commend it in its entirety to all who are interested in the solution of that unknown quantity in the Soudanese equation, Mahomet Aonmet-ibn-Abdallah, the God-directed.