Iranian and Iraqi Shiite Muslims mourn while re-enacting events of Ashoura in southern Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. Shiites mark Ashoura to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein during the 7th century Battle of Karbala in present-day Iraq. (AP)

Track Persia- January 22, 2017

Messianism in Shiite tradition is associated with the Mahdi, a title for the saviour of Muslims who will appear at the end of days 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.

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.

Today, Shiite messianists believe that after centuries of hegemonic rule, Islam is corrupt and the Mahdi has to return in order to bring the authentic interpretation of Islam. According to the apocalyptic tradition, when he 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.

The Shiite apocalyptic tradition has bloody visions about what will happen when the Hidden Imam returns. According to the tradition, when the Mahdi appears, there will be two kinds of death, red and white, each claiming a third of the world’s population. The red death will be from the Mahdi’s sword and the white will be from the plague, leaving only a third to survive.  In some Shiite texts, the Mahdi will kill two-thirds of the world’s population, and he “will clean the earth from nonbelievers and deniers (of Islam)…he will continue to kill the enemies of God until God is satisfied.” The Mahdi “will order his twelve thousand solders to kill anyone who does not believe in your religion.”

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. However, his position as the representative of the Hidden Imam makes him concerned more about safeguarding the Iranian regime, even by overruling Islamic law. In a conflict between political ambition and the vital interests of the regime, the Supreme Leader would stand for the latter.

The approach of Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 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, but rather a need for religious government. For this reason, Khomeini fought ideological groups such as Hojjatiya, who advocated the traditional view of Shiism, even through the last years of his life.

The very essence of Khomeini’s revolutionary message was the rejection of messianism: 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.

A cynic would note that the Supreme Leader’s rule is based on the absence of the Hidden Imam, on whose behalf he rules. Once the Hidden Imam reappears, the Supreme Leader is out of a job. In short, messianism undercuts the Supreme Leader’s powers and position.

Since the Islamic Republic faces a real problem encouraging people to become more religious, it has an ambivalent attitude about messianism. The political and economic crisis of the regime caused mistrust among ordinary people about the use of Islam by the government. At the same time, the Islamic Republic’s ideological approach has theoretically discredited Shiite traditional theology.

To overcome the crisis of faith in the last decade, the state media and other official communication channels and institutions, such as the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, are trying to popularize Shiism by promoting a simple version of the religion as manifested in the rituals. Government officials campaign for religious days and ceremonies, and spend a huge portion of the state budget on religious places and institutions.

The result has been the drastic flourish of the Mahdi cult in the country. But the Islamic Republic is not always satisfied with the people’s resort to such rituals because the management of such rituals is out of the control of the state and the traditional clerics. A new class of maddah, religious singers who are not clerics and have no theological training, has emerged and been welcomed by Iranian society, especially by the young generation. They are propagating a version of Shiim that is not ideological, and they use modern music and melodies, popular poetry, and erotic and romantic images to praise the Shiite Imams. The young women who attend the religious ceremonies of the new maddahs wear makeup and clothes that do not meet the Islamic Republic’s official standards.

This puts the government’s control of religious affairs under threat, and can imperil the government’s use of Islam for its own purpose. People are reluctant to go to mosques and listen to a cleric preach, but many of them are eager to participate in religious ceremonies that are run by a maddah. Not only the religious authorities in Qom, but also Khamenei and members of his office, such Akbar Nateq Nuri, the former speaker of the Majlis and a prominent conservative, warn about the untrue Shiim promoted by maddahs and the spread of superstition by people who claim they are in direct contact with the Hidden Imam. Many people who bring such a claim tell their followers that the Hidden Imam is angry with the Islamic Republic and its leaders.

In recent years, a dozen people in Iran have claimed they have seen the Hidden Imam and received special instructions from him. According to the original apocalyptic tradition of Shiism, everyone who claims to have met the Hidden Imam should be denied. But after the delay in the return of the Hidden Imam, many Shiites have started to doubt his existence and cannot believe that a human being could live for so many centuries. Ironically, many Shiite theologians, such as Mirza Hossein Noori, wrote books about people who have seen the Hidden Imam in different mosques or holy places in order to prove that he exists and is still alive. Therefore, while it is religiously unacceptable to claim to have met the Hidden Imam, such claims are well received by many Iranians.

Based on ‘Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy’, by Mehdi Khalaji, January 2008

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.