Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah, popularly known as Mahdi of Sudan (1844-1885), is one of the most problematic appearances in the works of Iqbal.
Historically, the Mahdi of Sudan was a Sufi master from North Africa who turned militant and claimed to be Mahdi, the long-awaited redeemer who would set the stage for the Second Coming of Jesus. He extended the kalima – Muslim proclamation of faith – to include, “Muhammad al-Mahdi is the Khalifa of the Prophet of God” and replaced the fifth pillar of Muslim faith, the pilgrimage to Makkah, with an obligatory jihad – mainly against fellow Muslims of Turkish and Egyptian origins – and used force for implementing a wholly uncritical vision of the past, especially in matters of law. Careful not to claim prophet-hood, he nevertheless asserted that he was inspired by Gabriel, the angel who used to bring revelation to prophets.
Since Iqbal was known to be irreverently skeptical about almost all of these ideas, readers may be shocked to find the spirit of Mahdi appearing on the Sphere of Venus in Javidnama (1932), and singing an anthem about the impending birth of Iqbal’s ideal world. However, precisely due to his famous eccentricities, Mahdi is of immense value as a focal point for an intensive study of the turmoil that exists in the heart of the Muslim world in modern times (and unlike some other modern mystics, his movement attempted to “extricate the individuals from an enervating present” rather than slavishly surrendering their souls to its dictates).
A Western counterpart, although incomparably more ignoble, is perhaps the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who also appears in the works of Iqbal, mainly to personify a spontaneous overflow of tendencies existing in the heart of the Western society.
After taking Sudan in 1898, the British conqueror Lord Horatio Kitchener (1850-1916) opened the tomb of Mahdi and scattered his bones. In Javidnama, Kitchener’s subsequent death in a torpedoed ship is mentioned as the revenge of Mahdi’s spirit, and compared with the drowning of the Pharaoh (according to the Quran, the Pharaoh drowned during the Exodus).