The Magazine

The Importance of Being Mahdist

Among Iran's Twelvers.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By TIMOTHY R. FURNISH
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he second week of August, I was in Tehran and Qom for the Islamic Republic of Iran's fourth annual "International Conference of Mahdism Doctrine," sponsored by the Bright Future Institute. This organization was founded four years ago to "introduce Imam Mahdi to the world" and "pave the ground for his reappearance," according to Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, who spoke at the opening session. All Islamic sects have traditions about the future coming of al-Mahdi, "the rightly guided" leader who--assisted by the returned Muslim prophet Jesus--will make the entire world Muslim. Sunnis and Shias, however, differ in that the latter maintain the Mahdi has already been here, as the twelfth of the Imams, the descendants of Muhammad through Ali. The Shias have to a much greater degree than Sunnis, institutionalized the doctrine.

Rumors swirled during the heady days after Iran's 1979 revolution that Ayatollah Khomeini was the Mahdi, or at least his herald. Khomeini's death in 1989 effectively killed this belief but not his status as harbinger, and active anticipation of the twelfth imam's return was given official sanction with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2005 election as president. A parade of speakers at the opening ceremonies of the conference thanked him for this support, and Ahmadinejad's own remarks showed--yet again--his intense devotion to Mahdism as both a doctrine and a means of opposing the West, particularly the United States and Israel.

Speaking on the subject of "Global Government: A Divine Necessity," Iran's president opined that "globalization is not just happening, but is Allah's plan." Problems such as "the killing of a million innocent people in Iraq" and "the false, fabricated, criminal Zionist regime" will not be solved "in the absence of the Perfect Man, the Mahdi." And the job of the Bright Future Institute is "to help bring all of humanity to knowledge of the true savior of mankind, Imam al-Mahdi." As for those predicting Ahmadinejad's defeat in his reelection bid: If the crowd of supporters mobbing him post-speech was any indication of his true popularity, four more years is a foregone conclusion.

A sample of papers from the conference shows that Ahmadinejad is far from alone in his devotion to Mahdism as a panacea for humanity's ills. Dr. Bahram Kazemi, from Iran, spoke about the jihad component of the future Mahdiyah (the Mahdi's regime); I wasn't all that reassured by his contention the Mahdi would be more likely to convert non-Muslims than to simply kill us all. Canadian Fatima Chagpar referred to the U.N. Security Council as "the highest form of formalized oppression" and "Western common law as legalized adultery." Another Iranian, Dr. Mariam Tabar, asserted that "the military capabilities of the future Mahdist state depend on Islamic governments in the here and now acquiring abilities to stand against the enemies of the imam"--presumably including nuclear weapons. Dr. Jasim Husain, a British Shiite, spoke about the recent emergence of false Mahdi claimants in Iraq and how this indicated a yearning for the coming of the true Mahdi.

Other papers at panels going on simultaneously with mine covered topics such as "Strategic Futurism in Mahdism," "Islamic Revolution and the Role of Mahdism in Awakening the Nations," and the intriguing, if oxymoronic, "Mahdian Democracy." My own presentation, on previous Sunni leaders who had declared themselves the Mahdi, was largely uncontroversial, although a number of Shia scholars and clerics afterwards expressed surprise that Sunnis even had such a belief.

On the other hand, the keynote speaker at the closing session, Ali Larijani--current speaker of parliament and former chief nuclear negotiator--clearly knows about the power of Mahdism outside the world of Twelver Shias, and his devotion to Mahdism as a pan-Islamic ideology, if perhaps not as a personal belief, appears every bit as intense as Ahmadi-nejad's. Larijani opened by gloating over the American "quagmire" in Iraq--the surge's success being either unknown or inadmissible--and the failed efforts of "the West and the Zionist regime to erase 'holy jihad' from the minds of Muslims." Likewise, Westerners try to convince Muslims that Mahdism is either merely a mode of personal devotion or a lifeless historical force, whereas true Mahdism is religious, social, and political.