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."