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.