The First Jihad

The Battle for Khartoum and the Dawn of Militant Islam

Daniel Allen Butler

Date Published :
April 2007
Publisher :
Illustration :
16 pages b/w photos
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ISBN : 9781935149613-epub

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ISBN : 9781612005935
Pages : 256
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Before there was Osama bin Laden, Abu al-Zarqawi or Ayatollah Khomeini, there was the Mahdi—the “Expected One”—who raised the Arabs in pan-tribal revolt against infidels and apostates in the late 19th-century Sudan.

Born on the Nile in 1844, Muhammed Ahmed grew into a devout, charismatic young man, whose visage was said to have always featured the placid hint of a smile. He developed a ferocious resentment, however, against the corrupt Ottoman Turks, their Egyptian lackeys, and finally the Europeans who he felt held the Arab people in subjugation. In 1880, he raised the banner of holy war, and thousands of warriors flocked to his side.

The Egyptians dispatched a punitive expedition to the Sudan, but the Mahdist forces destroyed it. In 1883, Col. William Hicks gathered a larger army of nearly 10,000 men. Trapped by the tribesmen in a defile at El Obeid, it was massacred to a man. Three months later, another British-led force met disaster at El Teb.

Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered a withdrawal from Sudan, and dispatched one of Victoria’s most celebrated heroes, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, to effect the evacuation. Instead, Gordon was besieged by the Mahdi at Khartoum. In an epic contest pitting military innovation and discipline against religious fervor, the Mahdi and Gordon dueled throughout 1884, while the British government hesitated to send relief.

On January 26, 1885 a treacherous native (or patriot, depending on one’s point of view) let the Mahdist forces into the city of Khartoum. Gordon, realizing that the end was at hand, donned a white uniform, took up his sword, and walked out upon his palace steps. He was hacked to death by jihadists and his head was carried around the city on a pole. A British relief column arrived two days later.

The Mahdi died shortly afterward, yet his revolt had succeeded. The British vacated the territory for almost 15 years until in 1899, led by Herbert Kitchner, they returned to forestall encroachments by other European powers. The Mahdist forces were crushed at the Battle of Omdurman, and the great jihad temporarily dissolved into the desert, not to be renewed for another century.

In today’s world the Mahdi’s words have been repeated almost verbatim by the Muslim jihadists who have attacked New York, Washington, Madrid and London, and continue to wage war from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean. Along with Saladin, who once defeated a holy war, the Mahdi stands as an Islamic icon who once launched his own successful crusade against the West.

This deeply researched work reminds us that the “clash of civilizations” that supposedly came upon us in September 2001 in fact began much earlier. This book is essential reading for all those who seek to understand the roots of our current relationship with Islam.

About The Author

Daniel Allen Butler, a maritime and military historian, is the bestselling author of “Unsinkable”: The Full Story of RMS Titanic, Distant Victory: The Battle of Jutland and the Allied Triumph in the First World War, and The First Jihad: The Battle for Khartoum and the Dawn of Militant Islam. He is an internationally recognized authority on maritime subjects and a popular guest-speaker for several cruise lines. Butler lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Daniel Allen Butler was educated at Hope College, Grand Valley State University, and the University of Erlangen.


"Fuzzy-Wuzzy” by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 1 The Land and the Prophet
Chapter 2 The Coming of the Mahdi
Chapter 3 Revolt in the Desert
Chapter 4 The City Between the Rivers
Chapter 5 Gordon
Chapter 6 The Siege Begins
Chapter 7 London and Cairo
Chapter 8 The Duel
Chapter 9 The Relief Column
Chapter 10 The Fall of Khartoum
Chapter 11 The Death of the Mahdi
Chapter 12 Omdurman

Author's Note


"…not a repeat of folk-lore history as depicted in many books and on the silver screen, but the result of most thorough and painstaking new research of memoirs, letters, government papers and many other primary sources… a very fine book and I recommend it most highly to you all”

- Military Modeling International, March 2008

"This terrific book tells the story of the film 'Khartoum', which starred a hammy Charlton Heston and a comedic-turn Laurence Olivier. Although there was plenty of spectacle in the film and it was enjoyable in places, I'm not surprised the film hasn't yet been remastered for Blu-Ray. But the book fills in an enormous number of gaps and is infinitely more satisfying.”

- Books Monthly , March 2018

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