Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi Part I


by Mohebat Ahdiyyih

1st part of 2


Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised not only many Westerners but also many Iranians when, during his first speech at the United Nations, he prayed for the hasty return of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, Shi‘i Islam's messianic figure.[1] Demonstrating his priorities, he repeated the prayer in December 2007 when addressing Arab leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Doha[2] but did not object when they described the Persian Gulf as Arab, a diplomatic swipe at Iran's place in the region. Ahmadinejad's messianism is no ploy; it is very serious indeed.[3] Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Guardian Council, credits Ahmadinejad with "being inspired by God."[4]


The Mahdi and the Islamic Republic


The inspiration for Ahmadinejad's thinking can be found in traditional Shi‘ism. As with other monotheistic religions, Shi‘i teachings promise the return of a messiah. For Twelver Shi‘a, the messiah will be Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam, who went into occultation in 874 CE and is expected to return before the Day of Judgment to lead the righteous against the forces of evil.[5] Such ideas pervade Iranian culture, even beyond the Islamic context. The idea of the Mahdi has historical precedence, for example, in ancient Zoroastrian beliefs.[6] Persian literature and poetry are awash with the notion of a promised savior. Abol-Ghasem Ferdowsi (935-1020), the author of Shahnameh (The book of kings), Iran's national epic, wrote that a "noble man" would appear in Iran from "whom will spread the religion of God to the four corners of the world."[7]

After the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic incorporated the idea of Mahdism into its complex system of governance. Under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's concept of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent), Khomeini became the "guardian of Muslims" and representative of the Mahdi in the "first government of God" on earth. He allowed the election of a parliament, the Majlis, but then commanded the elected deputies in May 1980 to offer their "services to Lord of the Age [the Mahdi], may God speed his blessed appearance."[8]

Khomeini and the framers of the Islamic Republic's constitution established an important precedent: Both rationality and irrationality can be employed in the governance of a nation. This approach explains how the Islamic Republic has survived in the modern world even as it pursues a millennium-old philosophy in the face of a skeptical international community and despite a largely progressive and enlightened Iranian population.

Paying lip service to the Hidden Imam has been, since the time of Khomeini, a standard practice for Iranian officials. For example, shortly after leaving office, former president Mohammad Khatami delivered a philosophical and relatively rational speech about civilizations intended to lessen the adverse international reaction to Ahmadinejad's messianic statements. Nevertheless, during the course of his speech, Khatami asserted that the "Lord of the Age will bring about a world government" even as he claimed that "we have no mission to change the world."[9]

If past Iranian presidents have mentioned Mahdism, Ahmadinejad has made it a focal point of his rhetoric. In September 2005, he sponsored the first annual International Conference of Mahdism Doctrine in Tehran. The conference presented Mahdism as an ideology that could form the basis for world peace and unity across religions. Addressing the conference, Ahmadinejad said that the "Islamic Republic and the system of velayat-e faqih have no other mission but to prepare for the establishment of a world government . . . as the Imam [Mahdi] runs and manages the universe." He repeated the same idea but modified his language at the second conference in 2006, saying the "Mahdavi perception [Mahdism] and view are the perfect method for the administration and direction of the world." In follow-up seminars, speakers defined Mahdism as the "defining strategy of the Islamic Republic," a "comprehensive plan and strategic policy," and a "political regime and world view." Within that context, the conference determined not only that the Mahdi's advent is "inevitable" but also that it can be "accelerated" through human action. Discussants spoke about the Iran-Iraq war as a practical example of the application of Mahdism since "combatants were moved by the love of the Mahdi's representative, Khomeini, to sacrifice their lives." Attendees also spoke of Iran as the "Umm al-Qura" (mother of villages), suggesting that the Islamic Republic had replaced Mecca—which uses that same title—as the rightful center of Islam. [10]


Ahmadinejad's View of the Mahdi


Ahmadinejad's concept of Mahdism derives from the same sources that have inspired other Iranian leaders across the Islamic Republic's political spectrum. Aside from Khomeini's teachings on the subject[11] and the writings of Ayatollah Morteza Mottahari[12] (1920-79), a prominent ideologue of the Islamic Republic, a number of other Iranian authors have been influential. In the nineteenth century, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) sought to unite the Islamic world and demonstrate the utility of Islamic teachings in the modern world. He hid his true identity as a Shi‘i believer under the rubric of taqiyya (dissimulation) and pretended to be a Sunni from Afghanistan. Indeed, he contributed not only to Islamist reform inside Iran but also helped lay the groundwork for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.[13]

Ahmadinejad may also have derived inspiration from Navvab Safavi (1924-55), founder of Fadayan-e Islam, a group that assassinated a number of more liberal Iranian politicians and intellectuals. The writings of both Jalal Al-e Ahmad[14] (1923-69) and Ahmad Fardid[15][16][17]; and he may even have been influenced by such anticlerical writers as Fereydun Adamiyat (1920-2008), the most popular modern historian of Iran and a senior diplomat in the late shah's government, whose decades of work[18] have vastly influenced generations of Iranian intellectuals but are now being scrutinized after the exposure of a number of falsifications,[19] such as his intentional misrepresentation of facts about nineteenth-century religious and political movements and the early twentieth-century Iranian constitutional revolution.[20] Although he was prevented from writing or engaging in political activity after the 1979 revolution, major organs of the Islamic Republic—the Kayhan and Jam-e Jam dailies, for example—continue to amplify parts of Adamiyat's work that support their positions often without citing his name. So, too, does the Majlis Research Center and the Islamic Revolution Documentation Center, whose director is an advisor to Ahmadinejad, as well as major political and religious websites such as Tebyan. (1909-94), popular anti-American writers, may have influenced Ahmadinejad in his formative years, as would have ‘Ali Shariati (1933-77), an Iranian sociologist who helped meld leftist thought with political Islam and popularized the notion of Islamic revolution in the years before Khomeini's return. Ahmadinejad may also have drawn upon Ehsan Tabari (1916-89), the theoretician of Tudeh, the Iranian communist party, who after a lifetime of indoctrinating Iranian leftists confessed to "erroneous" ideas after the 1979 revolution

Further coloring Ahmadinejad's world-view, even if not his Mahdism, has been German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Iranian intellectuals react favorably to Heidegger's real or perceived anti-American sentiments, anti-Semitism, and his criticism of traditional Western thought. His grand theory of existence and his objection to attaching great significance to logical reasoning and intelligibility, as well as his theories of the value of nothingness, are concepts that have made him the darling of many Iranian intellectuals.


The Hojjatieh


But what surely has had the greatest influence on Ahmadinejad and his peers is systematic indoctrination by the Hojjatieh Society. The name Hojjatieh derives from Hojjat (proof), one of the titles of the Mahdi; the society was founded in the mid-twentieth century by clerics to combat the Baha'i faith, founded in the nineteenth century by a prophet whom Muslim clerics have labeled and opposed as a false mahdi. The Hojjatieh grew with the help of prominent clerics and assistance from the late shah, who sought to curry favor with the clerics. It soon became a powerful nationwide organization of fundamentalists trained in Mahdism and proved a menace to the late shah.

The Hojjatieh played an important role in radicalizing Ahmadinejad and other secular Muslim youth, students, teachers, government bureaucrats, and even some members of the armed forces prior to the 1979 revolution. Many Hojjatieh activists participated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in the early 1980s, Khomeini moved against the society, both because it challenged his velayat-e faqih doctrine of leadership and because it was poised to take the reins of power in Iran. The ensuing purge of its members from the Islamic regime forced numerous aspiring advocates of the new Islamic regime, such as Ahmadinejad, to renounce or hide their membership in or sympathy for the Hojjatieh.[21]

As a result, the Hojjatieh went underground. Accusations of membership were enough to taint aspiring politicians with disloyalty to the supreme leader. In recent years, several critics of Ahmadinejad's tenure have suggested that his administration is Hojjatieh-inspired and bent on settling scores with Khomeini's allies.[22] Such charges may not be baseless, as some Ahmadinejad supporters have publicly called for rehabilitation of the Hojjatieh and resumption of its activities against the Baha'i faith. For example, the head of the powerful Islamic Propagation Organization (IPO) in East Azerbaijan called for the "revival and strengthening of Hojjatieh Society."[23]

Here, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi's role is notable as Iranians believe he leads the new Hojjatieh.[24] A member of the Assembly of Experts and director of the Imam Khomeini Institute, Mesbah-Yazdi is a leading proponent of Mahdism and a powerful senior cleric with great influence over Ahmadinejad, his government, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and security forces.[25] He is also allegedly a trainer of hard-line clerics at the Haqqani theological college in Qom, some of whom have joined Ahmadinejad's cabinet.

Outspoken, Mesbah-Yazdi opens a window into Ahmadinejad's beliefs. He advocates the use of violence to promote the interests of Islam and seeks to purge the republican aspect of the Islamic Republic system in favor of a pure Islamic system, which his publications refer to as the nucleus of a Mahdi-led world. The October 2005 issue of his monthly publication Ma'refat, for example, argued that the "superiority of Islam over other religions is stressed in Qur'an, which calls on believers to wage war against unbelievers and prepare the way for the advent of the Mahdi and conquering the world." According to Pasdare Islam, the monthly publication of the powerful Islamic Propagation Organization, an institution in tune with Mesbah-Yazdi's ideas, Khomeini himself elucidated this idea by saying that the "Mahdi will fill the earth with justice" and that "all institutions in our country and their extensions worldwide must prepare the way to receive the Mahdi upon his advent."[26] Mesbah-Yazdi even attributes Ahmadinejad's election to the presidency to the will of the Mahdi.[27] Mesbah-Yazdi is not the only senior cleric who endorses Ahmadinejad's messianism. Jannati and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the secretary-general of the Qom Seminary Lecturers' Association, both members of Assembly of Experts, have also endorsed the president's beliefs.[28] Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself characterized Ahmadinejad's election to the presidency as the fulfillment of the "prayers of the Lord of the Age."[29]

A close examination of the statements and activities of Ahmadinejad and his supporters point to their intimate knowledge of Shi‘i traditions about the Mahdi's expected appearance in Iran and the fierce opposition and violence against him and his followers by clerics, issues that have been closely guarded and rarely mentioned by the ecclesiastics for obvious reasons. For example, following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, clerics directed the purging and editing of statements in books of the sayings and traditions attributed to Prophet Muhammad and his Shi‘i successors about the circumstances surrounding the future advent of the Mahdi. Media coverage of such statements was also tailored in the same manner. In one case, the redactors did not even exempt the most famous 110-volume book called Biharu'l-Anwar (Oceans of light), a standard textbook compiled by the Safavid-era scholar Muhammad Baqir Majlisi (1616-89). Major portions and traditions were stripped of materials deemed detrimental to the Islamic Republic's interests.


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