Tuesday 24th of May 2022
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Through a Glass Darkly: A Comparison of Self-Proclaimed “Mahdist” States throughout History to the Theory of the (True) Mahdist State Yet to Come

“When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face….”

As a Christian and as a researcher who has been studying Islam and Islamic civilization—particularly Mahdist beliefs and movements among Sunni Muslims--for many years, these verses from the New Testament immediately sprang to mind when I began configuring this paper.

My thesis is that previous historical examples of Muslim leaders who declared themselves mahdis--as imperfect , impetuous and immature as they may have been--can nonetheless be instructive for anyone today studying Islamic notions of the future Mahdist state.

This I will humbly seek to do herein, for despite my experience and academic training in Islamic history, I would no more presume to lecture a learned assembly in Iran on their own beliefs than I would, even as a Christian (albeit non-Catholic), to give a paper at the Vatican on Catholic doctrines. I might, however, be able to shed some light on the typology of historical Mahdist movements (mainly, but not all, Sunni) and in particular their leaders’ universalistic claims and attempts to reconfigure the international geopolitics in what they saw as a Mahdistic form. As we proceed I will in particular examine how previously-declared Mahdiyahs dealt with four issues: 1) the status of the madhahib, or schools of Islamic law and the intepretation of the Qur’an and Hadith; 2) Ahl al-Kitab, Christians and Jews; 3) Sufis; and 4) international relations with other Muslim polities (as well as, if data exists, non-Muslim ones).

II. Examples of Successful Sunni Mahdist States

Despite the higher profile that Mahdism has acquired in recent years, many Western commenatators and analysts—even scholars of the Islamic world, who should know better—are still unaware that belief in the Mahdi exists not just in Shi`i but also in Sunni Islam. It is not my place to ascertain, or argue, which view of the Mahdi is correct. As a historian of Islamic societies, however, it is my place to observe, and comment upon, Mahdism as a historical phenomenon—of which there are numerous examples.

In my book I discuss eight Mahdist movements over the last millennium of Islamic history, all of them Sunni. (These represent but the tip of the Mahdist iceberg; some scholars, in fact, think that over the last fourteen centures of Islamic history there have been thousands of such movements. ) That analysis reveals that while Sunni Mahdism shares with Shi`ism the general delineation of the Imam Mahdi, that he will be God’s instrument for Islamizing the world, it differs in a number of way, primarily in that:

*Global Islamization will occur via jihad and conquest, rather than more peacefully, as in most of Shi`i thought

* The Mahdi will emerge onto the historical stage for the first time, rather than returning as the final Imam who has already been here

*Lacking any institutional apparatus to verify Mahdist claims, Mahdism is much more likely to occur, and as the province of freelancers in Sunnism—and this is exactly what history demonstrates.

Mahdist movements within Sunnism have tended to move through three stages:

1) Dissemination of revivalist propaganda aimed at undermining a Muslim government

2) Formation of a renegade military theocracy and attempts to seize power

3) Conquest of formation of a territorial state that eventually wanes in religio-ideological fervor.

Since generally only a Mahdist movement which has taken power can indulge aspirations of universality and engage in even marginally realistic attempts to influence the international order, the focus herein will be on Mahdisms that have reached level three—although some groups that have reached levels analogous to number two will also be examined.

The most successful Sunni Mahdist movement in history was that of Abu`Abd Allah Muhammad b. Tumart al-Susi (d. 1130 CE), better known as Ibn Tumart, founder of the al-Muwahhid (Almohad) movement that ruled much of the Maghrib for over a century, until 1269 CE.

Ibn Tumart was a pious, mystically-minded Muslim who after returing from the hajj decided that God had ordained him, as Mahdi, to overthrow the impious al-Murabit (Almoravid) rulers. Exploiting tribal differences in Maghribi society, and capitalizing on opposition to the al-Murabits, Ibn Tumart’s intensity, piety and conviction of God’s guidance convinced many that he was indeed the Mahdi.

Starting out as a critic and disseminator of anti-Murabit propaganda, before his death in 1130 he created an extra-legal military theocracy, the leadership of which was taken up by his caliph and amir al-mu`minin (“commander of the faithful”)`Abd al-Mu’min who, before his own death 33 years later, ruled over a Muwahhid state that included much of what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Spain. This state lasted until 1269, although before then al-Muwahhid caliphs disavowed that Ibn Tumart had been the Mahdi.

In terms of administration, Ibn Tumart seems to have intended to replace the Maliki madhhab with his own Mahdist one, but his premature death prevented that from actually happening (this can be contrasted with the examples of the Fatimids and the Sudanese Mahdists, on which more later in this paper).

He did, while he was alive—and based on his belief in his own `ismah, or “infallibility” as Mahdi—reserve to himself the sole right to interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith, disregarding ijma`. Ibn Tumart and al-Mu’min, as well as later Muwahhid caliphs like Ya`qub al-Mansur, were very intolerant of Jews and Christians, threatening them with conversion or death in many cases.

To be fair, the militant Catholicism emanating from the Normans of Sicily and the Reconquista in Iberia probably had as much to do with this as did religious doct rine. Regarding Sufism, after intial opposition and suppression, the Muwahhid courts became patrons of famous Sufi scholars. As for its universalist claims and international affairs, sources are few and/or not yet well-researched; but a clear sign of Muwahhid idea of their own Islamic primacy is found in the fact that Ibn Tumart’s caliph `Abd al-Mu`min did take the title—the first non-Arab to do so, since he was a Berber—of amir al-mu`minin, a rank that until then had been used only by the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. And the Muwahhids should get credit for at least facilitating regional Pan-Islamic unity, in that “through unifying the Maghrib under their rule, the Almohads gave for the first and only time a concrete historical existence to the conception of the Maghrib as a distinct religio-cultural entity.”

The second-most successful Sunni Mahdist movement is one much more recent in time, that of Muhammad Ahmad b. `Abd Allah (d. 1885), the Sudanese Mahdi. A Sufi and—like Ibn Tumart—a pious, ascetic Muslim, Muhammad Ahmad became convinced, through dreams and visions, that God wanted him, as Mahdi, to overthrow the corrupt Turco-Egyptian Ottoman regime ruling Sudan and, indeed, to unite the whole Islamic world under his Mahdiyah.

After an initial period of secretly informing certain key followers that he was the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad went public and claimed the title, whereupon the Ottoman governor sent troops to capture or kill him. The Sudanese Mahdi took his supporters on a hirjah to far southwestern Sudan, whence he build up the movement and sent da`is to other parts of Ottoman Sudan.

Returning to attack territory ruled by the Ottoman regime, Muhammad Ahmad and his growing throng of Mahdists eventually took Khartoum in January 1885, killing and beheading the British general, Charles Gordon, whom the Sultan had put in charge. (Interestingly, however, the Mahdi wrote Gordon a letter first, giving him the choice of converting and joining him.) Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi died six months later, probably of typhoid or malaria, but his followers—led by his primary caliph, `Abd Allah—would rule Sudan for the next 13 years, until British forces invaded in 1898.

The administration and foreign policy of the Sudanese Mahdist state is much more known to us than that of the Muwahhids, not least because of a greater source base. Unlike Ibn Tumart, Muhammad Ahmad lived long enough to actually take power and begin handing down fatwas. He dissolved (or at least tried to dissolve) the madhahib, making his Mahdist madhhab preeminent. His Mahdist ijtihad was based on Qur’an, Sunnah, Hadith and his own ilham, or “direct inspiration” from God.

Fatwas thus were “final, irrevocable and infallible” and unappealable, since there was no higher legal authority. And in fact death was mandated for apostasy—which was defined as falling away from belief in him as Mahdi. While his legal reforms did, to some measure, improve the status of women—particularly in inheritance matters--under the Sudanese understanding of Islamic law previously regnant, he was almost Taliban-esque in mandating that women wear hijab at all times and avoid the bazaars and main roads.

Even during his lifetime, however, Muhammd Ahmad had designated a qadi al-Islam to administer his legal decisions. There were not enough Jews or Christians (other than British soldiers) in Sudan during the Mahdiyah to require an official policy; but there were plenty of Sufis, and in fact Muhammad Ahmad had been a member of the Khatmiyah order and Sufis of that and other orders made up a substantial part of his following. However, that did not prevent the Sudanese Mahdi from dissolving all Sufi orders upon his accession to power—although their reappearance after the Mahdist state’s conquest by the British in 1898 shows that the Mahdi was not omnipotent.

It is for attempts at Pan-Islamic universalism that the Mahdist State of Sudan is most notable. Such is evident during the Mahdi’s lifetime, when he wrote letters to other Muslim leaders asking them to accept him as Mahdi: Muhammad Yusuf, Sultan of Wadai; Muhammad al-Sanusi, head of the Sanusi order in Libya; Hayatin b. Sa`id, grandson of Uthman don Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in what is now Nigeria.

Despite the fact that only the last allegedly accepted his Mahdiyah, such communiques are clear evidence of the Pan-Islamic (or at least Pan-African Muslim) aspirations of Muhammad Ahmad. No doubt his Pan-Islamic vision had been passed on to his followers for “the Ansar expected a long series of victories which would make the Mahdi master of the Islamic world.

The news of his death [thus] came as a terrible shock….”
After Muhammad Ahmad’s death the ruling caliph `Abd Allah tried to continue with the Mahdist expansion via jihad. One of the main targets was the neighboring Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, which the Mahdists often invaded but could never subjugate.

Mahdist forces also tried to incorporate, via jihad, territories to the south and west of Sudan, with little success. The Mahdist caliph also tried several campaigns against what was by then British Egypt (the British having occupied the country in 1881, in the wake of the `Urabi Pasha uprising and in order to safeguard the Suez Canal).

All of these failed miserably and in fact the total annihilation of a large Mahdist force in southern Egypt in 1889 effectively ended the expansionist phase of Sudanese Mahdism. As for `Abd Allah’s ideology, “the strength of his [`Abd Allah’s] Mahdism made it impossible for him to compromise with the ‘infidel’ rulers of Egypt…and accept recognition as a mere Sudanse sultan under a protectorate.

His ignorance of the outside world blinded him to the overwhelming superiority in transport and armament possessed by his enemies in Egypt….”

Of course the major obstacle to the acceptance of Muhammad Ahmad as the pan-Islamic—or at least pan-Sunni—Mahdi was the Ottoman Sultanate and Caliphate in Istanbul. In the propaganda responses to Muhammad Ahmad’s initial Mahdist claims, the Ottoman `ulama in Khartoum were ordered to point out that the Mahdi would come, according to the relevant Hadiths, at a time when there was no legitimate ruler in Islam—a situation clearly NOT obtaining when Sultan Abdülhamid II was clearly enthroned in Topkapı.

And in fact it seems that Abdülhamid never really took seriously Muhammad Ahmad’s religious claims, being “far less interested in the Mahdi’s ideology than in his opportunities. Mahdism was a hostile force on a map: what worried the Sultan most was the presence of revolt in the eastern Sudan, from where it might easily spread across the Red Sea to Arabia….Consequently the Ottoman’s government’s first concern was to prevent the insurrection from spreading into neighbouring regions, and above all into Arabia.

” Abdülhamid, in essence, saw Muhammad Ahmad as a new Saudi-type threat to Mecca and Medina rather than an existential threat to Ottoman central rule and religious authority. Nonetheless it remains the case that “the Mahdi and his ansar sought, first and foremost, the renewal of Islam and its purification….For them the `liberation’ of the Sudan…had nothing to do with territory or with nationalism, but was purely Islamic. It was the first stage in the jihad against the world of unbelievers, starting with the Egyptian and Ottoman Muslim rulers….” [emphasis added].

Another group, this time in the 20th century, that saw Mahdism as a way to Islamically “liberate” a portion of the ummah—and not just any portion, but its historically holiest section, Arabia—was the movement of at least several hundred mainly Saudis and Egyptians led by Juhayman al-`Utaybi in the name of the alleged Mahdi, his brother-in-law Muhammad `Abd Allah al-Qahtani, in late 1979. “On the morning of November 20, 1979, they gunned down guards, cowed thousands of worshippers into submission, placed snipers in the minarets, and began broadcasting over loudspeakers that the Mahdi had come and that the bay`ah (loyalty oath) to the Saudis was henceforth dissolved, to be replaced by one to the Mahdi.

” The KSA forces failed to dislodge the Mahdists and had to call in help from the French. In the several weeks it took to kill or capture them—the alleged Mahdi was killed in the fighting, al-`Utaybi taken prisoner and soon executed—the Mahdist forces broadcast a five-point agenda from the Great Mosque loudspeakers:

1) sever relations with the West in order to protect Islamic values

2) expel all foreigners from KSA

3) stop all oil exports to the West, particularly the U.S.

4) overthrow the illegitimate Saudi regime , including its apostate `ulama; and

5) redistribute Saudi royal family wealth.
This radical program , coupled with the international membership of the movement—Saudi, Egyptians, Yemenis, even (allegedly) several American converts—underscores the fact that, despite its having made it only to stage two of the Mahdist development level—effectively precluding any chance for him and his Mahdi relative to effect any changes in Islamic law, or any other area--al-`Utaybi’s vision was pan-Islamic in scope and international in aspirations.

And while “it has long been assumed that Juhayman al`Utaybi and his movement represent an exceptional and rather short-lived phenomenon….there are many indications that the memory of Juhayman has been kept alive in certain Islamist circles until today, and that his ideology has inspired periodic attempts at reviving his movement” by the likes of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and the Bayt Shubra community in Riyadh.

“The residents of Bayt Shubra greatly admired Juhayman and saw themselves as his ideological successors,” and in fact some of them “continued to believe that the mahdi had not died in 1979.”

At the risk of oversimplification, the Mahdi, whether in the Sunni or the Shi`i view, would seem to have three major tasks to perform according to most Muslim commentators:
1) rule the entire world as a Muslim
2) enforce a more equitable distribution of wealth, in order to fill the world with justice and equity; and
3) restore the true shari`ah.

There is a major difference between Sunni and Shi`i Mahdist thought on just how the first will come about: the former, if history is any guide, tend to believe that the Mahdi will wage jihad of the sword in order to effect his planetary rule; the latter, au contraire, prefer a more persuasive style of global Mahdist da`wah. Since neither Ibn Tumart nor Muhammad Ahmad, much less Juhayman al-`Utaybi, came close to ruling the Earth, we can at least acknowledge the univeralistic aspirations of certainly the first two, and most probably the latter.

(And note that all three most definitely saw their Mahdisms as jihadist ones.) Of the three Sunni Mahdist movements examined, only the Saudi Mahdism was overtly economically redistributionist, while only the Maghribi and Sudanese varieties tried to re-formulate Islamic law. Thus none of these three overt Mahdisms tried to enact all three of the eschatological Mahdi’s tasks, although each did (even if perfunctorily) execute two of three:
Ibn Tumart Muhammad Ahmad al-`Utaybi
Universalism Y Y Y
Share the wealth N N Y
Rewrite shari`ah Y Y N

III. Shi`i Mahdist State(s) in History

The most successful, overtly Mahdist Shi`i movement in history—and the only one that will be treated in this paper--would almost certainly be that of the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt for almost a quarter of a millennium, from 969-1171 CE, following a period of 60 years of power in what is now Tunisia.

They of course traced their descent from `Ali and Fatimah, via Isma`il, son of Ja`far al-Sadiq. In the 10th c. CE Isma`ili da`is won over the Kutama Berbers of the Maghrib and, when the chief Isma`ili da`i `Ubayd Allah arrived in Tunisia, he was soon put in power and took the title of al-Mahdi, although he likely thought that the successor (and possibly son), al-Qa’im, was the true Mahdi. Under the fourth caliph-mahdi, al-Mu`izz, the general Jawhar conquered Egypt and the Fatimid Mahdiyah was transferred there. Although even before taking Egypt the Fatimids “proclaimed aloud that universal sovereignty was given to them by divine decree and that they were called to displace the Umayyads of Spain as well as the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Byzantine emperors….”

So there is little doubt about the universalistic Mahdist aspirations of the Fatimids. And unlike the modern views of most Shi`is, at least in the Twelver World, the Fatimids saw no problem with openly proclaiming and waging jihad against their enemies, be they Abbasid or Seljuq Muslims or Christian Byzantines. However, internally, the Fatimids were very tolerant of Christians—and to a lesser extent, of Jews—with the notable exception of the reign of al-Hakim (996-1021).

In fact “Christians and Jews were massively employed in the Fatimid administration,” and a number of Christians even became viziers—which is remarkable for Muslim states of the period. Furthermore, the Fatimid government tolerated and even sometimes participated in Christian ceremonies such as Epiphany and Palm Sunday processions.

There is little data on the Sufis under Fatimid rule, but as for the administration of law under the Fatimids: while the Fatimid qa’im-caliphs never arrogated to themselves the status of interpreting the Qur’an and Hadith without recourse to any other input, they did attempt to create a Fatimid madhhab and give it precedence over the other schools of law, enforcing the situation with a Fatimid qadi al-Islam. But by the 11th c. it was relegated to the status of primus inter pares, at best. And as for disseminating the Fatimid da`wah, that was done outside the borders of the state, chiefly via “subversive activities against foreign states” -- but not inside; this meant that the masses in Egypt remained practicing Sunnis, while Isma`ili doctrines and beliefs remained the province of only the ruling elites.

As for whether the masses actually believed the ruler in Cairo was the Mahdi—well, even if they didn’t, they no doubt kept that to themselves, rather like the Roman citizens who had doubts about the divinity of the pre-Christian emperors.

The Fatimids are the only major Shi`i movement in history that both ruled a powerful state and openly avowed a living, breathing Mahdi-Caliph in their palace. Subjecting them to the same analytical scorecard as the aformentioned Sunni Mahdist movements—al-Muwahhids, Sudanese Mahdists and Saudi Mahdists—we find them also batting, to use an American baseball metaphor, .

667 in terms of fulfilling the Mahdi’s major functions: they were more assuredly universalistic in aspirations, if not reality, and they did try to construct a new, Mahdist interpretation of Islamic law; however, they were not so enamored of wealth redistribution as the real Mahdi will be.

And eventually, despite the Fatimids’ undenied military, diplomatic and cultural power in the medieval Middle East, “they were confronted with the fact that the hopes which the Isma`ili community had placed in the appearance of the Mahdi had not been realized, the law of Muhammad had not been abrogated, the hidden meaning…of the Qur’an had not been revaled, a more perfect law…had not been promulgated, Fatimid rule had not spread throughout the world….[and] the complete reversal of positions and the victory over the Infidels which the Mahdi was expected to bring about had been postponed to the end of time…” And in fact in 1171 the Fatimid Imamate was extinguished by a Sunni leader, Salah al-Din.

IV. Past “Mahdis” vis-à-vis the Future Mahdi: Alternative Views

Muslim commentators, whether Sunni or Shi`i, rarely have anything good to say about past claimants to the mantle of the Mahdi. At best they are seen as deluded irrelevancies, at worst at mutamahdis, sowers of dissension, bloodshed and fitnah within the ummah. But might there be another way to look at them that would be of at least some historical-theological, analytical value?

There is a Christian school of hermeneutics known as typology in which “an element found in the Old Testament [Jewish Scriptures] is seen to prefigure one found in the New Testament.” For example, the sacrifices the Hebrews practiced in Old Testament times are seen, in this view, as presaging the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (this indeed seems to be the viewpoint of the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews).

A more specific example of the Christian understanding of typology is found in the passage from the Gospel of John 3:14: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert , so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”

Might it be possible to see previous Mahdi claimants as something akin to Islamic types of the eschatological Mahdi-to-come, and previous Mahdi movements as Islamic types of the true Mahdist movement that will accompany and follow its founder in the future? This does NOT mean ascribing to `Ubayd Allah, Ibn Tumart, Muhammad Ahmad or al`Utaybi actual guidance from God—but it would mean, in essence, sometimes giving such men (well, probably not al-`Utaybi, but the others) the benefit of the doubt as to their motives—treating them, in effect charitably, as putative Islamic reformers--and, more analytically, viewing them, to a limited extent, as historical types of the future Mahdi.

If I may: one might indeed argue that a type of typology is implied by Imam Khomeini himself, for according to one understanding of his relevant writings while the Prophet and the Imams will always have a far superior status to almost all of humanity, the fuqaha’ can in certain ways fulfill the functions of the Imams, at least insofar as running a government. Thus, in a certain sense, the differentiation between function and status is analogous to the idea of type and fulfillment or reality about which I have been speculating. Following this line of reasoning, an Ibn Tumart, `Ubayd Allah or Muhammad Ahmad—and to a lesser degree, other less successful “mahdis” over the millennia—are each types of the coming Mahdi, able despite faults to perform some of the functions of the Awaited One on a much less effective and much more limited scale, while never reaching the actual status of Mahdiyah.

Indeed, if God is in charge of human history—and both Muslims and Christians agree that He is—then He must have allowed the development of the movements of Ibn Tumart, `Ubayd Allah, Muhammad Ahmad and even the despised, deluded al-`Utaybi. Perhaps He allows such false mahdis both to test people’s faith, but also perhaps to provide a dark glass, or a dim mirror, through which believers can view a foreshadowing of what true Mahdism will consist when it arrives.

V. Conclusion

Earlier, I delineated the three primary roles of the Mahdi as being: rule the entire world as a Muslim; enforce a more equitable distribution of wealth, in order to fill the world with justice and equity; and restore the true shari`ah. The only one of these that all four of the movements examined herein shared was the aspiration or ideology of universal Muslim rule (as they saw it).

To that I would add a qualifier that becomes in effect the flip side of the universalism coin: all four—the Fatimids, the Muwahhids, the Sudanese and Saudi Mahdists—shared the methodology of violent jihad. While this employment of jihad-by-the-sword may be a corruption, a misunderstanding mandated by misguided men trying (even in good faith) to do the function of the Mahdi without his status (or guidance from God), the fact remains that jihad was utilized as a methodology for advancing a universalistic Mahdist ideology.

Based on my training and experience teaching world (as well as Islamic/Middle Eastern) history at the college level in America, as well as my own research,I would submit that in the history (so far) of our planet there have only really existed three truly universalistic ideologies, two Western, one “Eastern:”
1) Christianity
2) Secularism (in various forms: atheistic Science/technology;

socio-economic libertarianism; and most notably, Marxism/Communism)
3) Islam.
(Of course, as the historian Arnold Toynbee is said to have observed, Communism is merely a Christian heresy, an attempt to keep the social justice elements and do away with the presence of God and His activity in history. But it is no less universalistic for that, and in fact Communism and its epigones are perhaps even more enamored of global power than the Church.)

Before moving on to the ultimate conclusion of this paper, it might be worthwhile penultimately to stop and examine—or at least speculate—on the paucity of Christ claimants in Christian history who actually led militant political movements, vis-à-vis the surfeit (at least comparatively speaking) of Mahdi claimants in Islamic history who tried to, or actually did, seize power. While a myriad of men (and some women) have claimed to be the returned Jesus Christ, the list of those who established political communities centered around that belief—either peacefully or violently—is rather small.

Europe during the Protestant Reformation saw some of these, most notably the so-called “Münster Rebellion” whose leader, John of Leiden, “claim[ed] to be the successor of David…[with] absolute power in the new ‘Zion.’ He justified his actions by the authority of visions from heaven….. He legalized polygamy, and himself took sixteen wives, one of whom he beheaded himself in the marketplace. Community of goods was also established.”

Note that while John did not claim to be Jesus per se, a claim to Davidic descent is rather close. Perhaps the most successful of all such militant messianic movements in Christian history is, ironically enough, not from Europe at all, but from China: Hong Xiuquan (d. 1864), the leader of the so-called “Taiping Rebellion” against the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty.

Converted by Christian missionaries, he came to see himself as Jesus’ younger brother, ordained by God to overthrow the oppressive Manchu regime. He and his followers conquered Nanjing and ruled from there for about 11 years before being annihilated by government forces. Other self-styled christs, such as Jim Jones (killed, along with his followers, in 1978 by drinking poison at their compound in Guyana, South America) and David Koresh (killed along with his followers by the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in an assault in 1993 in Waco, Texas), might be seen as somewhat analogous to false mahdis but they never even came close to taking power.

Much more research and thought needs to go into explicating this clear difference on this point of political history between the world’s two largest faiths, Christianity and Islam; but three historically- and theologically-grounded theories come to mind:

1) Jesus specifically eschewed political power when he answered the question of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, “Are you the king of the Jews?” with “My kingdom is not of this world” (Gospel of John 18:33ff). This has made it problematic for any of his followers to try to create the kingdom in the here and now—although some, as aforementioned, have tried.

2) the careers of Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad were rather different with respect to political power: the former never held it and the Christians were, for three centuries, a persecuted minority in the pagan Roman Empire, not gaining power until Constantine’s time in the early 4th century CE. And post-Constantine political power has been the monopoly of the state and/or the Church organization, rather than easily accessible by individuals with messianic pretensions.

3) The nature of Jesus’ earthly departure—the Ascension, in full view of his disciples—and the statement by two angels to the people there that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way….” (Acts of the Apostles 1:10, 11), has made it rather difficult—but not impossible—for anyone to claim the Messianic mantle in Christian history.

There are no doubt a host of socio-economic, psychological and political factors that could be considered, as well; but those will have to wait for another time and paper.

Finally, let me reiterate that just because specific examples of militant “christist” leaders are few and far between, this does not mean that Christianity lacks an expansionist, sometimes militant, fervor; quite the contrary. The Gospel of Matthew ends with the resurrected Jesus saying “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….” (Matthew 28:18ff). For many of Jesus’ followers over the last 2,000 years, that directive has been enough to drive Christian expansion, even in the absence of a militant messianic figure. And of course the bulk of Islamic expansion had taken place over the last 14 centuries not at the behest of self-styled mahdis but simply out of the Islamic mandate to da`wah as carried out by rulers, traders, Sufis, imams, `ulama and ordinary Muslims.
To return to an earlier theme: there are two Western visions of a pan-global ideology: Christianity and Secularism.

While the former, the idea of a global Christendom, is largely moribund the latter is not. Secularism developed in the wake of the 18th century “Enlightenment” and, to vastly oversimplify, its two major aspects were 1) the separation of church and state, and 2) an almost unbridled faith in science and technology to cure all society’s ills. Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between the Christianity of Western countries (particularly the U.S.) and Secularism, since the latter sprang from the former.

But whereas in the U.S. itself there is a great deal of tension between pious Christians of many denominations and the Secularist worldview, in much of the rest of the world the two appear often to be coterminous. And thus sometimes little, or no, differentiation is made (by Westerners or by non-Westerners) between the two universalist ideologies, Christianity and its prodigal son Secularism.

Islamic Mahdist universalism, as envisioned under the banner of the future Imam Mahdi, is like and unlike both the Christian and Secularist brand. Its seven major aspects, according to Seyed Sadegh Hagheghat of Mofid University, are:
1) reintegration of religion and politics (contra Secularism)
2) divine-, not people-derived (contra Secularism)
3) morality-based (contra Secularism and corrupt Christianity)
4) socioeconomically just (contra Secularism and Christianity)
5) jihadistic: “In Imam Mahdi’s era, Jihad will be against those unbelievers who fight against Muslims, not against secular states” (contra, presumably, Christianity?!)
6) ummistic (contra Secularism and Christianity)
7) trans-national: opposed to the Western nation-state division of the world (contra Secularism).
Christian universalists would agree with 1, 3, 4 and perhaps 7—albeit, of course, on the condition that Christianity rather than Islam be the operative principle. Secular universalists would probably agree with 4 and 7, although of course their trans-nationality would be for a Secular world government rather than a Mahdiyah.

What would the previous Mahdist claimants and their movements covered herein—the Fatimids, Muwahhids, Sudanese Mahdists and Saudi Mahdists—say about these seven envisioned aspects of the future Mahdiyah? No doubt each would agree with all of them, provided that their founders (or descendants) were put in charge.

But to what extent does the future reality of this Mahdist world order, in this vision, comport with the imperfect types of Mahdism realized in the past?
1) Integrating religion and state: irrelevant, since religion and politics were already integrated, even among the Mahdists’ opponents
2) Divine in guidance and legitimacy: of course anyone claiming to be the Mahdi would claim this
3) Moral: Mahdist movements always claim to be restoring morality
4) Justice and equity: previous, especially pre-modern, mahdis tend to pay this more lip service than real honor
5) Jihad: pre-modern mahdis in particular, as we have seen, wage jihad against—primarily—OTHER Muslims, who are cast (often) as “unbelievers”
6) Ummah-focused: a Mahdist ummah is seen as recapitulating that of the Prophet
7) Trans-national: pre-modern mahdis see themselves as pan-Islamic leaders.

So, mutatis mutandis—primarily by recalling the limits to their scope and power and keeping in mind the lack of divine guidance actually available to these earlier attempts at Mahdism—and disregarding number 1 for the reason given, we can say that `Ubayd Allah and the Fatimid caliph-mahdis, Ibn Tumart and his Mahdist caliphs, Muhammad Ahmad and his lone caliph, as well as to a certain extent al-`Utaybi in the name of his mahdi—all at least tried to implement all the elements of the future Mahdist state as envisioned by Seyed Hagheghat.

To borrow the terminology of Imam Khomeini: these erstwhile, imitation mahdis tried (sometimes sincerely, and in good faith) to fill the function of the true, eschatological Mahdi while simultaneously lacking the status to do so. So at best they could only create a type—flawed at best--of a Mahdist state. They all, indeed, saw “through a glass darkly” or, in an alternative translation of the New Testament text with which I began this paper, “in a mirror dimly”—whereas when the true Mahdi comes, all will be made clear. [5,813 words]

Timothy R. Furnish, Ph.D.
222 Falling Water Way
Woodstock, GA 30188
678-393-9551 (home)
678-230-6120 (cell)


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