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:"
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