Track Persia – May 16, 2017
Apocalypticism within the “Twelver” sect of Shiism is the most important component of the the Shiite apocalyptic tradition because it is fundamentally associated with the notion of the twelfth, or Hidden, Imam—something that is absent in the Sunni theological system.
The Mahdi, a title for the Shiite Muslim saviour who will appear before the end of time and establish a just world government. For Shiites, the Mahdi was born in 868 AD as the twelfth Imam, and went into minor occultation for nearly seventy years and then into major occultation, which will last until God decides to make him appear.
Although Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, according to Islam, is the last messenger of God, Shiites regard the Imamate as a continuation of his prophecy, since they believe humans should not be abandoned without divine guidance. The Imam is in charge of the affairs of the Shiite community as relates to both this world and the next, until the end of days. Devoted Twelver Shiites believe that the Hidden Imam will return before the end of time, but expecting him is not necessarily an important aspect of the daily religious life.
In Shiite classical tradition, any attempt to establish a legitimate religious government before the return of the Hidden Imam is heretical, since only he has the religious right to rule in the traditional paradigm. One of the signs of the Hidden Imam’s return is a deviation from Islam.
According to the apocalyptic tradition, when the Mahdi returns and introduces the “true Islam,” people will think it is a “new religion,” and the Islamic scholars will oppose him, giving the Mahdi no choice but to behead them. In some Shiite hadiths, the Mahdi will kill two-thirds of the world’s population, and he “will clean the earth from nonbelievers and deniers of Islam and he will continue to kill the enemies of God until God is satisfied.
Apocalyptists, who form a marginal trend in religious society, tend to transform the passivity of the worshiper into active identification of the signs of the Mahdi’s return.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s approach to politics and religion was a turning point. Armed with the theory of wilayat al-faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurist, Khomeini appeared as an anti-messianic Shiite jurist who believed that waiting for the Mahdi did not require political passivity. He insisted that an Islamic government be instituted in the present, without waiting for the Hidden Imam. His theory stated that a jurist can rule in the name of the Hidden Imam and that believers need not stay out of politics before his return.
Khomeini’s successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei follows Iran’s Mashhad hawza (seminary) which is influenced by anti-rationalist clerics who do not believe in the use of reason in the interpretation of religious texts. Shi’i Imams, rather than human reason, could solve the world’s problems is one of the significant belief of this hawza and it has become a significant place for the idea of the Hidden Imam and the apocalypse. Therefore, Khamenei’s dominant version of religion is a superstitious not a rational. Experts in Iran’s clerical establishment say it is the prevailing view that the Supreme Leader makes decisions based on certain superstitions such as bibliomancy—randomly choosing pages of holy text to decide on what course of action to take—or special prayers to “divine men” who are connected to the Hidden Imam.
Although the Supreme Leader has final say on all fundamental domestic and diplomatic issues, he does not have exclusive authority over the decisionmaking process. However, if democratic or moderate forces were marginalized, Khamenei would see no constraint to his totalitarian ambitions. If the political scene develops into a more dynamic interaction between different fronts, Khamenei becomes more cautious, prudent, and apt to relinquish his objectives under pressure. For example, in Khamenei’s theological view, waging war against infidels is completely legitimate. He is on record disagreeing with most contemporary Shiite scholars by saying that any offensive war by the Islamic government is a defensive war because by conquering non-Islamic territories, the ruler of the Islamic country defends the principle of God’s unity and Islam. For Khamenei, going to war is a political decision because it is always justifiable on religious grounds.
Another group of Iranian politicians including Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, belongs to secret society that believes in the imminent return of the Hidden Imam. Despite lacking of theological training, this group considers itself to be the authentic representative of Islamic teachings with a mission to change society in preparation for the coming of the Mahdi. Advance technology can be used to hasten the return of the Hidden Imam, apparently by controlling Iran’s nuclear programme. For example Ahmadinejad, while was in office frequently spoke about preparing the way for the imminent return of the “Hidden Imam.” He believes that the Hidden Imam has full control over the world and “the management of the world is in the hands of Imam.” In his view, a politician who is not connected to the Imam and not expecting him “has no benefit from the truth.” He stated that the Iranian nuclear program was running under the control of the Hidden Imam and that the Hidden Imam guided his speech at Columbia University in 2007.
In the military forces, especially in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij militia, apocalypticism has a very strong following. Two major elements in this group’s agenda in preparation for the Hidden Imam’s return: an ideological military and nuclear power.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution has given a new understanding to the apocalyptic tradition in which worshipers are obliged to take some action in order to hasten the return of the Mahdi. The crisis of ideology in Iran started shortly after the victory of the Revolution. Along with his populist economic policies that promised to provide all the people’s basic needs, including water, electricity and transportation, Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, promised to implement Islamic law when he took power. But after he saw the incompatibility of Islamic law, as it is in tradition, with the reality he faced, Khomeini used his theory of wilayat al-faqih in order to free the hands of the ruling jurist from the bounds of Islamic law. Accordingly, a ruling jurist has the authority to overrule Islamic law if it is necessary for the safeguard of the regime.
Khomeini stated, “the government has the right to unilaterally terminate its religious contracts with the people, if those contracts are against the interests of the country and Islam. The government has the right to prevent anything, whether related to religious rituals or not, as long as it is against the interests of Islam. The hajj [pilgrimage], which is one of the important religious tasks, can be prevented temporally by the government if it regards it against the expediency of the Islamic Republic.”
Exporting the revolution in Iran’s constitution
Despite in the classical Shiite jurisprudence that waging offensive jihad, or holy war, is an exclusive right of the infallible Imam, Khomeini believed that the Shiite jurist had the authority to order it. According to the Iranian leadership, Islamic unity and brotherhood did not recognize any frontier and nothing could prevent the unity of Muslim peoples. The Iranian clerics advocate exporting their brand of revolution throughout the Islamic world and call upon the Muslims to follow Iran’s model of revolution.
The Iranian constitution in fact calls for the spread of the revolution and states Iran’s intention to promote its Islamic revolution abroad. The Iranian constitution’s preamble states that “the mission of the Constitution is to create conditions conducive to the development of man in accordance with the noble and universal values of Islam” and that the constitution “provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad.”
The roots of the Iranian Constitution are found in a book written by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1970 entitled Wilayat al-Faqih.
The preamble also states that Iran’s Army and Revolutionary Guard “will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.” The closing sentence of the Iranian constitution’s preamble expresses “the hope that this century will witness the establishment of a universal holy government and the downfall of all others.”
The Iranian constitution also makes clear that Iran is on a mission to rid the world of foreign domination and oppression. Most disturbing is Article 154 of the constitution which clarifies that the Islamic Republic of Iran “considers the attainment of independence, freedom, and rule of justice and truth to be the right of all people of the world.” Therefore, while Iran will “scrupulously refrain” from all forms of interference in the internal affairs of other nations, it supports the just struggles of the mustad’afun [oppressed] against the mustakbirun [tyrants] in every corner of the globe.” This allows Iran to make its often-repeated claim that it has never executed an offensive attack on foreign soil – when in fact it does so through proxies in the region.
The preamble gives an historical perspective: “The plan of the Islamic government as proposed by Imam Khomeini at the height of the period of repression and strangulation practiced by the despotic regime [the Shah] . . . gave greater intensity to the struggle of militant and committed Muslims both within the country and abroad.
A Washington, D.C. court in 2003 found Iran responsible for the bombing of the marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 marines. Quoting the Iranian Constitution’s preamble that “The mission of the Constitution is . . . to create conditions conducive to the development of man in accordance with the noble and universal values of Islam” that the constitution“ will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community,” and that it “provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad,” the court wrote that “The post-revolutionary government in Iran thus declared its commitment to spread the goals of the 1979 revolution to other nations. Towards that end, between 1983 and 1988, the government of Iran spent approximately $50 to $150 million financing terrorism in the Near East”
A different judge from the D.C. court two years later also found Iran liable for the marine barracks bombing and stated: “Following the 1979 revolution spearheaded by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the nation of Iran was transformed into an Islamic theocracy. The new government promptly drafted a constitution, still in effect today, which boldly declares its commitment to spread the goals of the 1979 revolution to other nations”