Nubia was home to some of Africa’s earliest kingdoms. Known for rich deposits of gold, Nubia was also the gateway through which luxury products like incense, ivory, and ebony traveled from their source in sub-Saharan Africa to the civilizations of Egypt and the Mediterranean. Archers of exceptional skill provided the military strength for Nubian rulers. Kings of Nubia ultimately conquered and ruled Egypt for about a century. Monuments still stand—in modern Egypt and Sudan—at the sites where Nubian rulers built cities, temples, and royal pyramids.

Omdurman (standard Arabic Umm Durmān أم درمان) is the largest city in Sudan and Khartoum State, lying on the western banks of the River Nile, opposite the capital, Khartoum. Omdurman has a population of 2,395,159 (2008) and is the national centre of commerce. With Khartoum and Khartoum North or Bahri, it forms the cultural and industrial heart of the nation. The name Omdurman (ʾUmm Durmān) literally translates as "Mother of Durman", but who she was or who Durmān might have been is not known. There are unattested legends of a woman known as ʾUmm Durmān who lived in an area at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, but her importance remains obscure.

Muhammad Ahmad Al Mahdi was born on 12 August 1845 at Labab Island - Dongola in Northern Sudan to a humble family of boat-builders and were direct descents from the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) through the line of his grandson Hassan son of Sayyid Imam Ali (R.A). When Muhammad Ahmad Al Mahdi was still a child, his family moved to the town of Karari, north of Omdurman, where Muhammad Ahmad's father, Abdullah, could find a supply of timber for his boat-building business.

While his siblings joined his father's trade, Muhammad Ahmad Al Mahdi showed a proclivity for religious study. He studied first under Shaykh al-Amin al-Suwaylih in the Gezira region around Khartoum, and subsequently under Shaykh Muhammad al-Dikayr 'Abdallah Khujali near the town of Berber in North Sudan. Determined to live a life of asceticism, mysticism and worship, in 1861 he sought out Shaykh Muhammad Sharif Nur al-Dai'm, the grandson of the founder of the Samaniyya Sufi order in Sudan. Muhammad Ahmad stayed with Shaykh Muhammad Sharif for seven years, during which time he was recognized for his piety and asceticism.  


Near the end of this period, he was awarded the title of Shaykh himself, and began to travel around the country on religious missions. He was permitted to give tariqa (order) and Uhūd to new followers in 1870, his family moved again in search for timber, this time to Aba Island on the White Nile south of Khartoum. On Aba Island, Muhammad Ahmad Al Mahdi built a mosque and started to teach the Qur'an. He soon gained a notable reputation among the local population as an excellent speaker and mystic. The broad thrust of his teaching followed that of other reformers, his Islam was one devoted to the words of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) and based on a return to the virtues of strict devotion, prayer, and simplicity as laid down in the Qur'an. Any deviation from the Qur'an was therefore heresy.