Published: 00:00 GMT Daylight Time - Thursday 17 August 2006
Twelver Shi'a Mahdism and President Ahmadinejad of Iran
Speculations on the return of the Mahdi are extremely popular in contemporary Shi'a communities, especially in Iran. In Shi'a history, there have been two alternate views on the attitude of the community during the period of waiting:
1. A passive wait, believing that God would send the Mahdi at the preordained time.
2. An activist attitude of wanting to prepare for his return and hasten his coming.
At this time, the activist mode is in the ascendancy, and seemingly bizarre aspects of Iranian policy can be attributed to the conviction that we live in the end times, the Mahdi's appearance is imminent, and with it the final triumph of Islam.
For Twelver Shi'a, the expected Mahdi is their Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who was born in 869 and disappeared in 873 in Samarra when still a child. He is called the Hidden Imam, as it is firmly believed that he did not die, but lives on in a spiritual invisible mode (occultation) and will return as the Mahdi at the end of days when the world is full of oppression and injustice to take up the leadership of Islam, defeat all its enemies, and initiate a kingdom of universal peace, justice and prosperity in which all humanity accepts Islam.
The success of establishing an Islamic state in Iran in 1979 inspired many to believe they were living in the end times and some to view Ayatollah Khomeini as the promised "Hidden Imam" himself or his representative sent to prepare the way for his soon return. Khomeini rejected the attitude of passively waiting for the Mahdi, replacing it by an activist Mahdism which stressed that humans can help prepare for the Mahdi's coming by Islamising society, implementing Shari'a and setting up an Islamic state that will spread true Islam and serve the Mahdi as a tool for implementing his programme.
In contemporary Iran, conferences are held to discuss the return of the Mahdi and develop a strategy to prepare for it, and a vast amount of books is being published related to it. According to statements by leading clerics, at least 446,000 books relating to the Mahdi were published in Qom in 2005.
The election of Ahmadinejad as President served as a catalyst to Mahdist expectations. He advocates the activist type of belief that wants to hasten the return and has placed this belief at the centre of Iran's domestic and foreign policy.
In his speeches President Ahmadinejad has urged Iranians to work hard for the return of the Hidden Mahdi. In a speech to senior clerics on November 2005 he stated that his government's main mission was to "pave the path for the glorious reappearance of Imam Mahdi (may God hasten his reappearance)". There are also persistent rumours that Ahmadinejad's cabinet has drawn up a contract with the Mahdi promising to work for his return in exchange for his support.
Ahmadinejad finished his speech at the UN General Assembly on 17th September 2005 with a prayer for the return of the Mahdi. Following the speech, Ahmadinejad claimed that he felt a light surrounding him until the end of the speech.
Ahmadinejad's pronouncements and actions show that he is an activist mahdist who believes that creating a strong Islamic Iran armed with the most modern (including nuclear) weapons will both prepare for the Mahdi's return and be a tool the Mahdi can use to implement his programme of world dominion. In this view, chaos on an international scale is a precursor to the return of the Hidden Imam. Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran would seem to be an ideal tool for encouraging such chaos and for proffering to the Mahdi to ensure his victory.
Ahmadinejad's reckless statements and policies can be linked to his belief that a war with Israel and America would speed the return of the Mahdi, who will appear to save the Muslim nations and judge all unbelievers, especially Jews and Christians. These beliefs may encourage him to ignore pragmatic and rational considerations in his confrontation with the infidel West (including Israel) which in his view will soon be wiped away by the cataclysmic end-time events of the Mahdi's return.