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The Hidden Imam and His Cult


25 Jul 2010 19:42Comments
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Because of a new injunction by the Suprme Leader, this year's birthday celebrations for the Hidden Imam on July 27 will be a relatively subdued affair. Babak Sarfaraz examines the reasons behind this development. Photos of the Jamkaran celebration that he took two years ago appear above.

[ analysis ] Although Mahdaviat, or the cult of Mahdi -- associated with Shia Islam's 12th Imam, believed to be in occultation before he returns to save the world -- is over a millennium old, it has only attained the status of a mass movement in modern Iran in the last 20 years. Today, millions of Iranians worship the Hidden Imam with a devotion and adoration that rivals, and in some instances even surpasses, that paid to the Prophet of Islam.

Scholars identify two primary factors underlying this remarkable development: the sociocultural transformation Iran has undergone over the past few decades and a political realignment at the top of the factional pyramid.

While the idea of a coming redeemer is as old as civilization itself, social scientists agree that messianic movements flourish at times of great social upheaval or trauma. This was the case with certain periods of Zoroastrianism, sundry Jewish sects, various Roman plebian cults, and the early Christian church. So it is with the Mahdi cult in Iran. Years of socioeconomic and political dislocation have taken a heavy toll on the psyches of the poor and dispossessed masses who are the mainstay of the present movement.

As for the political factor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, like all Shiites, venerated the Hidden Imam; at the same time, he was wary of the overexaltation of the Mahdi cult, which he rightly associated with the ultra-reactionary millennialist Hojjatiyeh Society. The rituals surrounding the Jamkaran mosque, the main loci of the veneration and celebration for cullt followers, were generally kept low key while the ayatollah was still alive. All that changed with Khamenei. In tandem with the rise of new aspirants to power such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and his lay followers, as well as the forces loyal to the Revolutionary Guards, Khamenei sanctioned a major apotheosis of the Imam and his cult. Millions of people soon joined the movement.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the first to see how enormously useful the cult could be. As the mayor of Tehran, he asked the City Council to reconfigure the capital to accommodate the Imam's imminent coming. Once he became president, he repeatedly invoked the name of the great Imam and had his cabinet members visit the Jamkaran mosque at the outskirts of Qom and drop notes of allegiance in its famed well. Later, his government augmented budgetary allocations to the mosque-complex by millions of dollars while plans were discussed to build a direct rail link from Tehran to it.

In 2007, Iranian radio claimed that the mosque would soon be the third most important in the Muslim world -- presumably after Masjid'ul Haram and Masjid'ul Nabi and supplanting Masjid'ul Aqsa.

Unwanted complications

The formula seemed perfect, at first. By making Imam Mahdi attractive and accessible to everyone, a new wave of religiosity would sweep through the country, deflecting public grievances to safe, controlled channels. Every Tuesday night, thousands of people flocked to the Jamkaran mosque to seek absolution and happiness, dropping their written wishes into the well. On the Imam's birthday, hundreds of thousands of worshipers were bussed to the mosque in search of redemption and answers to their prayers. The cult was catching on.

Soon, however, complications arose. The movement was growing so large that it was attracting the attention of parties interested in manipulating it for their own ends. By 2008, the newspapers were replete with reports of self-proclaimed "Mahdis" announcing their reappearance and offering various prophesies or end-of-the-world scenarios. Every week, someone claimed to be the Mahdi or to be in special communion with him. There was also the ever-present danger that protest movements by the very poor could take shape under the banner of Mahdaviat.

Even more worrying for Khamenei was the threat posed by two groups of newly ascendant players to his power base. One group, the maddahs, or lay preachers, openly challenged the power of the clergy by claiming to establish a direct link between worshipers and the Imam, without clerical intercession. The other group, young neo-rightists like Ahmadinejad, began vying for influence among the same social groups that Khamenei himself targeted.

Criticism began to mount from several quarters. On the left, reformist-leaning grand ayatollahs like Hossein Ali Montazeri and Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, along with some Muslim intellectuals, questioned the wisdom of abetting the cult and suggested it was entirely heretical. In 2008, Abdolkarim Soroush, a leading Shia intellectual, called the cult a form of polytheism.

On the right, traditionalist clerics decried the jettisoning of their historical role by the maddahs. Grand Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani was one of the first to raise his voice against the trend. Many other clerics soon joined him.

What finally convinced Khamenei that the Mahdaviat movement had gone far enough was last year's presidential election and its aftermath. For instead of aligning closer to the Supreme Leader, the ungrateful and ambitious president has decided to become a major rival to his erstwhile benefactor.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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