IV. Past "Mahdis" vis--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.