When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…."
As a Christian and as a researcher who has been studying Islam and Islamic civilization-particularly Mahdist beliefs and movements among Sunni Muslims--for many years, these verses from the New Testament immediately sprang to mind when I began configuring this paper.
My thesis is that previous historical examples of Muslim leaders who declared themselves mahdis--as imperfect , impetuous and immature as they may have been--can nonetheless be instructive for anyone today studying Islamic notions of the future Mahdist state.
This I will humbly seek to do herein, for despite my experience and academic training in Islamic history, I would no more presume to lecture a learned assembly in Iran on their own beliefs than I would, even as a Christian (albeit non-Catholic), to give a paper at the Vatican on Catholic doctrines. I might, however, be able to shed some light on the typology of historical Mahdist movements (mainly, but not all, Sunni) and in particular their leaders' universalistic claims and attempts to reconfigure the international geopolitics in what they saw as a Mahdistic form.
As we proceed I will in particular examine how previously-declared Mahdiyahs dealt with four issues: 1) the status of the madhahib, or schools of Islamic law and the intepretation of the Qur'an and Hadith; 2) Ahl al-Kitab, Christians and Jews; 3) Sufis; and 4) international relations with other Muslim polities (as well as, if data exists, non-Muslim ones).