Mahdism has not always been limited to the future. Numerous times over the last 14 centuries of Islamic history self-professed mahdis have tried to fulfill the traditions by fomenting rebellion against allegedly illegitimate governments (usually, but not always, Muslim) in the name of installing more Islamic and egalitarian Mahdist regimes. Most aspiring mahdis soon found that such an impudent claim amounted to signing their own death warrants. However, a number of particularly politically and militarily adroit individuals have, with a little luck, succeeded over the years not only in inciting religious revolution but in taking power as Mahdis for at least a time.
Most such Mahdist insurrections have been Sunni. But some have been Shi' i. The three most prominent were the Fatimids, who ruled Egypt and parts of the Levant and Arabia from 969 CE to 1171 CE; the Buwayhids, dominant in Iraq between 945 CE and 1012 CE;1 and the Safavids, who during their reign in Iran from 1501 to 1723 converted the country from Sunnism to Shi'ism.2 In fact, arguably the single most successful Mahdi-based movement in history was that of the Fatimids.3 Despite this book's focus on Sunni Mahdism some background on this Isma'ili Shi'i group is necessary because of its importance as an influence upon later Sunni Mahdist movements in North Africa. The Fatimids began in the Maghrib (northwestern Africa: modern Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) in the early tenth century CE and by 969 had conquered Egypt. Whether the movement's leader Ubayd Allah considered himself or his successor al-Qa'im to be the Mahdi is unclear, but at least one of them was billed as such to the populace. At their height the Fatimids ruled from Morocco to Mecca, and they were responsible for building the city of Cairo as their new capital. Fatimid theology was a melange of several elements that included Shi'i Islam, Gnosticism,4 and Neoplatonism.5 This theology powered an expansionst ideology that led the Fatimids to try to conquer the entire Muslim world. Inveterate enemies of the other major Islamic state, that of the Abbasids, the Fatimids undermined the Baghdad caliphs by sending out da'is, or "religious propagandists.] These operatives attempted to convert Muslims in Abbasid territories to Fatimism with the ultimate aim of overthrowing that rival Sunni state and its caliph. Unlike a number of other medieval
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Publication information: Book title: Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden. Contributors: Timothy R. Furnish - Author. Publisher: Praeger. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 2005. Page number: 30.
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