His Mahdi Mission
In a New York Times article on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this week, we read this:
President Ahmadinejad, who came to office in 2005 declaring his intention to “hasten the emergence” of Imam Mahdi, said in a speech broadcast nationally this month that Imam Mahdi supported the day-to-day workings of his government and was helping him in the face of international pressure. That was too much for senior clerics, who contend that they alone are qualified to speak on the topic. “Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks are common beliefs in Shiite Islam, but they were never brought up in politics and for political purposes by a noncleric,” said Farid Moddaressi, a religion reporter in
. “Mr.Ahmadinejad’s views come from a religion which is defined by its clerics, but they believe that he is not a religious authority to make such remarks.” Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has established a well-financed foundation to prepare the nation for the imam’s return, was stung by the criticism. “To deny the help of the imam is very bad,” he said in his news conference. “It is very bad to say that the imam will not emerge for another few hundred years; who are you to say that?” Tehran
… In his speech, which was made last month but not broadcast immediately, Mr. Ahmadinejad said Imam Mahdi was directing his government’s policies. He said he had the imam’s hidden support when he gave a speech at
So why should an intra-Shia debate over the Mahdi and his return matter to us? Because Ahmadinejad’s policies are driven by his religious worldview – and that worldview can have enormous ramifications. To understand his cast of mind a bit better, a brief historical overview of Shia Islam may be helpful.
Those of the Shia faith believe that Muhammad designated Ali, his son-in-law and cousin, as his successor. To the Shia, it was impossible that God could have left open the question of leadership of the community. Only those who knew the prophet intimately would have the thorough knowledge of the true meaning of the Koran and the prophetic tradition. Further, for the new community to choose its own leader held the possibility that the wrong person would be chosen.
The majority view prevailing at an assembly following Muhammad’s death, however, was that Muhammad had deliberately left succession an open question. These became the Sunnis, followers of the Sunnah, or Tradition of the Prophet. Sunnis have a belief in “the sanctity of the consensus of the community,” as the late
The assembly elected as Muhammad’s successor Abu Baker, a close companion of Muhammad, and gave Abu Baker the title Caliph, or successor, of God’s messenger. Ali was the third successor to Abu Baker and, for the Shia, the first divinely sanctioned “imam,” or male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
The seminal event in Shia history is the martyrdom in 680 of Ali’s son Hussein, who led an uprising against the “illegitimate” caliph. “For the Shia, Hussein came to symbolize resistance to tyranny,” according to Masood Farivar. “His martyrdom is commemorated to this day as the central act of Shia piety.” The end of Muhammad’s line came with Muhammad al-Mahdi, the “Twelfth Imam” — or Mahdi (“the one who guides”) — who disappeared as a child at the funeral of his father Hassan al-Askari. Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, is merely hidden from view and will one day return from his “occultation” to rid the world of evil. Legitimate Islamic rule can only be re-established with the Mahdi’s return because, in the Shiite view, the imams possessed secret knowledge, passed by each to his successor, vital to guiding the community.
History is moving toward the inevitable return of the Twelfth Imam, according to Shia. Professor Enayat put it this way:
“The Shi`is agree with the Sunnis that Muslim history … has been for the most part a tale of woe. But whereas for the Sunnis the course of history since then has been a movement away from the ideal state, for the Shi`is it is a movement towards it.”
It’s important to note that Shia have historically been politically quiescent.
[Khomeini] vested the myth [of the return of the Twelfth Imam] with an entirely new sense: The Twelfth Imam will only emerge when the believers have vanquished evil. To speed up the Mahdi’s return, Muslims had to shake off their torpor and fight.
Which bring us to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has publicly said that the mission of the Islamic revolution in
And then there is
These views, by themselves, are troubling enough; if
Such an outcome is not pre-ordained. The Iranian government, after all, has several different power centers, including the presidency, the parliament, the Revolutionary Guards, and the office of the Supreme Leader, which is currently filled by Ayatollah Khamenei, who ultimately oversees the armed forces and exerts great influence. And scholars like Professor Feldman have argued that “Shiite Islam, even in its messianic
incarnation, still falls short of inviting nuclear retaliation and engendering collective suicide.”
Perhaps, though Ahmadinejad’s views of “messianic incarnation” might well rest on the more extreme end of even the extremists. Regardless, the confluence of Ahmadinejad’s eschatology, his deep hatreds, and nuclear weapons (which
That is less than ideal.The Hitler analogy is overused these days. But from time to time it can be instructive. And in his introduction to Mein Kampf, Konrad Heiden wrote this:
For years Mein Kampf stood as proof of the blindness and complacency of the world. For in its pages Hitler announced — long before he came to power — a program of blood and terror in a self-revelation of such overwhelming frankness that few among its readers had the courage to believe it. Once again it was demonstrated that there was no more effective method of concealment than the broadest publicity. Mein Kampf was written in white-hot hatred.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a man of white-hot hatreds. It would be foolish to assume he won’t try to act on them in some way and at some point, particularly if