In an interview in early May 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ibn Salman said the Iranian regime has adopted an extremist ideology, adding that Tehran wants to take control of the Muslim world.
Ibn Salman said the Iranian regime wishes to ‘set the scene’ for the Mahdi to reappear. These words are an extremely accurate way to understand the innermost aspects of Iranian policymaking. It should be stressed that this condemnation of the Iranian regime’s political exploitation of faith is not an attack on any sect of Shiism, which are branches of Islam with the same right to exist and to proselytize as any other sects or indeed faiths; this condemnation is leveled solely at the Tehran regime’s policies which encourage and exploit sectarianism for religious purposes and ideologize politics.
Through this study, we seek to highlight the ways in which the current Iranian regime has exploited and employed the doctrine of Mahdism in Iranian politics and its role in radicalizing members of this sect and using faith as a tool to legitimize Iranian expansionism, sending countless young Iranians into cutthroat sectarian wars beyond the country’s borders as a means of exerting regional control. The study also seeks to explain how Khomeinist Iran turned against the core principles of Shiism, and even Mahdism, forsaking its jurisprudential legacy, and exploiting the sub-sect to attain the regime’s political purposes, under the guise of ‘laying the groundwork for the
Mahdi to reappear.’
» Shiite approaches to the disappearance of the Mahdi
According to the Twelver Shiite doctrine, the governing creed of Iran’s ‘Islamic Republic’, there are three possible approaches relating to governance in the absence of the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam whose return is required in order to bring about the End Times and the Day of Judgement. These are:
1- The traditionalist approach: Traditionally, Shiites are required to refrain from engaging in politics until the appearance of the Mahdi. This approach was adopted by the leading jurists prior to the emergence of Khomeini, whose views are now espoused by Najaf’s school of jurisprudence, as well as most of Mashhad, the Akhbaris and the deconstructionists of Qum. According to this traditional approach, any political engagement prior to the reappearance of the Mahdi is misguided; those who raise any banner before the resurrection of the Imam are essentially perpetrating a form of sacrilege, worshipping a being or figure other than God. According to this traditional approach, therefore, Shiites should wait for the reemergence of the Mahdi before participating in any political activities. This traditionalist doctrine is known as the “theory of waiting”.
2- The revolutionary approach: The transformation in Shiite thinking on this issue was pioneered by Khomeini and by those seminaries, jurists and ideologues who subsequently modeled their view on his approach, which revolutionized the traditional approach of Shiism, replacing the passive “theory of waiting” with a proactive call to “lay the groundwork” for the re-emergence of the Mahdi.
3- The constitutionalist approach: This approach was adopted by Muhammad Hossein Naini and the other clerics collectively known as the pioneers of the ‘constitutional revolution’. These include contemporary theological theoreticians such as Shariati, Moussa al-Sadr, Shariatmadari, and others. This approach, which calls for political participation by both clerics and the public, coupled with respect for the rule of law and the authority of the people until the reappearance of the Mahdi, is one adopted by key “reformist” clerics in Iran, including Kadivar and Soroush, and Lebanese jurists such as Shams al-Din, Fadlallah, al-Amin, and some of the movement’s activists in Iraq. This approach is effectively a median point between the traditionalist and revolutionary approaches.
» A coup against Shiite heritage
As can be seen from the above examples, there has been a historic and seismic shift in Twelver Shiism since 1979, especially concerning the Mahdi; traditionally Shia are called upon to abandon politics and adopt the “Theory of Waiting”, which obliges them to avoid involvement in politics, including any establishment of theocratic rule, since the establishment of any state, the imposition of Sharia law, and the declaration of Jihad are exclusively the right of the Mahdi, with nobody else having the right to act in his place in matters of politics and governance.
According to this view, the Mahdi, known as Imam Zaman [Muhammad Ibn Hasan al-Mahdi] will spread justice on earth upon his return after it has been plagued with injustice, since humans are incapable of bringing justice on earth, even if they have attributes of perfection. Prior to Khamenei, all the famed Shiite clerics throughout the history of Shiism followed this path and enjoined their followers to do likewise, urging them to obey all rulers, both the just and unjust, Sunni and Shiite. These leading figures also forbade any disobedience to the state. Imam Moussa al-Kazem [128-183 AH], the eighth Imam according to Shiite Twelver doctrine, ordered Shiites to obey sultans regardless of their conduct. If they are just, he asserted, people should pray for God to consolidate the ruler’s power, while if the leaders are tyrants, believers should pray to God to guide them to the right path. Al-Kazem himself refrained from engaging in politics and affairs relating to governance.
Jurists following the Twelver Shiite doctrine had many opportunities throughout history to seize power; especially when they occupied senior posts during the periods of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. One of the best-known such jurists, Al-Sharīf al-Murtzā of the Buyid Dynasty is a case in point. He did not seize power, however, since he lacked the Mahdi’s insight into divine law or the means to achieve an utterly just state, given the full absence of a portrayal of this utopia mentioned in the literary works of Al-Farabi and Plato. All those who attempted to accomplish this mission ended up – according to Twelver doctrine – being cursed by the absent Mahdi. On several occasions throughout history, jurists of the Twelver Shiite doctrine received offers, either from sultans or revolutionaries, to have their share of power. Despite this, all those prior to Khamenei adopted the same position, saying: “Every political system established in the absence of the Mahdi is illegitimate and despotic.”
Throughout history, therefore, the ‘waiting theory’ was the doctrine taught for millennia to generations of clerics and the public. This continued right up to the arrival of Khomeini, who radically changed the supposedly unchanging doctrine, going from the passivity of “waiting for the infallible Imam” to “setting the scene for the Imam’s [Mahdi’s] re-emergence.
For the Iranian regime, which adopted Khamenei’s revolutionary approach as its foundational principle, this proactive doctrine necessitates launching regional invasions and wars, and seizing the resources of neighboring countries across the region, at the expense of the Sunni majority and the regional states.
The Iranian revolution represented not only a coup against the national state, but also against the foundational principles, guidelines and basic rules of Shiism itself. It shifted balances within the Shiite ideological hierarchy, especially in the social and political fields. In terms of Shiite theology, the post-Khomeini era is totally different to the pre-Khomeini period.
In the wake of Khamenei’s theocratic shake-up, Twelver Shiism changed dramatically, going from emphasizing the need to yield to all leaders and abandon involvement in politics to actively advocating disobedience to the rulers and demands for revolution, as well as sending fighters to other countries “to set the scene for the reappearance of the Mahdi.”
Along with these fundamental doctrinal changes, Khamenei’s new approach also radically reinterpreted the traditional rules of Shiite jurisprudence, abandoning the ‘Theory of Waiting’, based on the belief that the Mahdi alone is the only one who has the proper authority to spread justice, and instead advocating a new system whereby setting jurisprudence would embrace a revolutionary theocratic ideology to set the scene for the Mahdi’s reappearance.
According to Khomeini’s new version of jurisprudence, the oppressed everywhere should be helped in order to encourage the reemergence of the Mahdi. For Khomeini, the waiting period should be occupied in diligent work to pave the way for the Mahdi’s reappearance through establishing a state that would help to bring it about. This wholly revolutionary interpretation had not been suggested at any time previously during the 14 centuries since Shiism’s inception, with Khomeini’s new vision effectively giving life and momentum to the idea of political Shiism.
Khamenei’s reinterpretation of Twelver Shiism was a means of serving the sect’s political objectives of Shiism, and of giving it a revolutionary ideological foundation. This interpretation, however, was and still is considered a grave theological and systematic deviation. Some prefer to regard this transformation as a sudden leap – Iran’s own ‘Great Leap Forward’ – a move defined as a rapid series of advances in one area without any effort to create a coherent systematic path, or to link one shift to another, or to authenticate these changes. This leads to confusion, with followers expected to leap from one belief to another, or to move directly from a wholly new theological premise to a conclusion, with no effort to provide any evidence or proof to substantiate the reason for this leap, a major flaw concerning fundamental doctrinal changes which require certainty.
This sort of thinking is widely seen among Twelver Shiite analysts in research concerning the Mahdi, with many refusing to scrutinize the issue from a rational viewpoint instead of depending on theories passed down by clerics, or other leadership figures.
After arguing that Muslims should be governed by an Imam, a government, or a state, whose Imam, caliph or leader should be infallible and appointed by God, these analysts then move on to the idea of disappearance and waiting, which they argue supports the idea of the absence of the infallible Imam. However, on this issue, there is an important question: why has the Imam remained absent instead of emerging to lead Muslims and to establish a sorely-needed government? According to leading Shiite thinker Ahmed al-Katib, the belief in the Absent Imam necessitates a level of an internal contradiction since this Imam, according to Shiite doctrine, is supposed to lead Muslims, so it does not befit him to simply disappear. His presence is an urgent necessity, just like deploying traffic officers at crossroads and squares. His willful absence contradicts the principle that “there should be a ruler who spreads justice on earth”, with any deliberate decision to remain absent and to avoid carrying out the duties divinely assigned to him, more especially in times of chaos, rendering him useless. This glaring flaw notwithstanding, however, Shiites have refused to resort to logical reasoning, despite the fact that they used logic to reach the first premise relating to the necessity of appointing an Imam, and in agreeing that he should be infallible and appointed by God. These doctrinal and systematic gaps and spaces, known as the ‘sudden leap theory’, are considered signs of a systematic flaw through which researchers circumvent facts to deceive the audience into holding beliefs which contradict one another, and throw the basic premise into question.
The Twelver Shiite doctrine also states that the Absent Imam should appear to spread justice on earth while it is plagued with rampant injustice, emerging to implement Sharia Law, lead Muslims, issue fatwas for them and resolve legal problems faced by them. This belief ignores the proven historical fact that, according to the exhaustive records, none of the venerated Imams, including the Absent Imam, engaged in politics or affairs of governance during their lifetimes, being solely concerned with guiding people to the right path. How can it be, then, that Imams are also the best arbiters of these issues?
Contemplation of this central question has led to the Najaf School of jurisprudence clinging to the ‘Theory of Waiting’ to this very day.
When Khomeini asked Muhsin al-Hakim to take a firm stand against the Shah in 1965, he reportedly responded, “What could we do? Will it lead to change?”
Khomeini answered, “Of course. Through this uprising, we’ll thwart the plots of the government. How then could it be of no effect?”, adding, “If clerics unite [behind it], there will be a considerable effect.”
Hakim responded, “If there is a possibility for reason-based change, there will be no problem in taking ‘reasonable steps’.”
Khomeini then recalled what happened with Imam Hussein, asking, “Didn’t al-Hussein’s revolt offer a big favor to history?”
To this question, al-Hakim responded, “What about al-Hassan? He did not rise up.”
Khomeini countered Al-Hakim’s point by saying, “Al-Hassan did not find supporters,” with al-Hakim replying, “And I have no people who obey me.”
This approach, which conflicts with Khomeinist interpretation of the Shiite doctrine in its entirety, continues to be the one favored at al-Najaf seminary till this very day. According to this doctrinal view, clerics have no capacity to govern and engage in politics, given the conflicts between clerics and the human and imperfect governing authorities. Thus, only the Mahdi is entitled to govern, enforcing Sharia and running the affairs of the state. This traditionalist doctrinal school’s approach has remained unchanged, conflicting with the Khomeinist view which asserts that Jurists should take an interest in public affairs and governance and should assume responsibility for laying the groundwork to ensure the reappearance of the Mahdi and acting in the latter’s place in his absence.
» ‘Paving the way instead of waiting’
The Khomeinist’ doctrinal coup against the traditionalist jurisprudential school of thought taught at Shiite seminaries since the foundation of Shiism had a massive impact on the course of Shiism as a whole. At the leading religious seminary in Qum, Khomeini’s theory of “preparation” replaced the theory of “waiting”, with clerics graduating in the post-revolutionary phase after 1979 disseminating this doctrinal theory rather than the traditionalist view. This happened in parallel with Khomeinist institutionalization of the state’s cultural and educational institutions, all of which now reflected the revolutionary “paving the way” theory. This shift, or coup, in Shiite ideology, which had remained constant and stable for almost 1,000 years, was justified by Khomeini, who said, “The Mahdi has been absent for 1,000 years, and thousands of more years may pass before the time becomes ripe for the Imam to reappear. Over these long years, shall we leave the texts of Islam suspended, letting people do whatever they want? Should Islam lose everything after this minor disappearance? In my view, adopting this opinion is worse than claiming that Islam is distorted.”
Khomeini’s views were a blatant attempt at finding a reasonable-sounding pretext for what was, in effect, a coup against millennia of Shiite heritage, with his justifications based on very pragmatic and self-serving reasons rather than on religious texts. This enabled him to disregard the deep-seated principles of Shiism and the views of the early jurists who are the main pillars of Shiite thought.
We note that Khomeini presented his interpretation of Shiism as though it were the sole ‘true’ Islam, reducing the religion to one sect in a cult-like fashion. With the dismissive phrase, “Should Islam lose everything after the minor disappearance?”, Khomeini justified this disastrous doctrinal transformation, disregarding the efforts of Twelver Shiite clerics who attempted to find solutions to the new doctrinal problems caused by his interpretation. The blame for the difficulties in this does not lie with them, however, since they dealt with the traditional interpretation of Shiism, which advocates yielding to sultans and exerting all one’s efforts towards living peacefully in the state, refraining from disobeying the leaders by any means. They considered this stance to be of principle rather than strategy, since it is mandated within traditionalist Shiite doctrine, as explained above. Khomeini and his followers, however, attempting to justify the Jurist Leadership [Wilayat-e Faqih], insisted that the traditionalists’ stance was a tactical one rather than being born of principle.
Sharif al-Murtaza, one of the most renowned Shiite jurists who lived in the fifth Hijri century, said, “We are not entitled to appoint a ruler in case the Imam is powerless. Furthermore, we are not compelled to have this Imam altogether. Choosing an Imam is not obligatory on us, and we are not compelled to carry out Sharia-based punishments, and we are not in a position to censure others for leaving them unenforced.” According to al- Murtaza’s statement, then, there is no obligation to choose a ruler since this mission lies with the infallible Imams, previously determined by the Shiite Twelver doctrine. Humans, according to this doctrine, are not in a position to interfere in such a pure and divine process, with God alone being the sole arbiter in the matter of selecting and appointing rulers. In the case of the infallible Imam’s absence, it is clear that there is no choice but to wait for the Absent Imam because he is, according to Twelver Shiite doctrine, the savior. This was the primary foundational principle of Shiism from its inception, right up until the dramatic transformation triggered by Khomeini.
Khomeini had the possibility to integrate Shiites into Sunni countries, following in the footsteps of al- Murtaza, the Shiite jurists, and even the infallible Imams, who were integrated into the Umayyad and Abbasid empires, none of whom laid any foundation for a conflict between clerics and the state. Despite this, Khomeini preferred to turn his back on Shiite heritage as a prelude to enforcing the Jurist Leadership system. Without his wholesale dismissal of the traditionalist ‘Waiting Theory’, there would have been no possibility of implementing the Jurist Leadership doctrine.
» The Mahdi and political rivalry
This exploitation of the Mahdi has not only been seen in the Iranian regime’s regional foreign policy; it is also a favorite strategy of politicians in Iran attempting to gain public support; thus, Mahdism has gone from being a revered religious belief to being a PR tool to achieve political objectives.
In the 2017 Iranian elections, the Mahdi was a tool of political manipulation and even the subject of a standoff in the presidential elections, with several newspapers affiliated with the conservatives reporting that Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency had delayed the appearance of the Mahdi. Former President Ahmadinejad also tried to manipulate the idea of the Mahdi in order to pressure his opponents, including pressure groups and even the seminary community, which bothered the clerics themselves. Indeed, Ahmadinejad held the first international conference on ‘Mahdism,’ following his notorious speech at the United Nations, during which he raised the idea of the Mahdi to a bemused audience.
Speaking after the conference, Ahmadinejad said, “I have no doubt that the people of the Islamic Republic are preparing for the return of the Absent Imam, and if God wills, we will see his appearance soon.” In another of his speeches, Ahmadinejad said, “It is our responsibility to establish in Iran a model society that is a prelude to that great event, the Imam’s appearance.”
According to Samadi, the issue of Mahdism is now inseparable from political life and political rivalry in Iran, going far beyond any abstract doctrinal or theological debate to being a central issue in the struggle for power and influence. Ahmadinejad’s opponents have already accused him of promoting the idea of the Mahdi to achieve political objectives; amongst other things, he produced a film during his time in office about the Mahdi [reportedly funded by his supporters], which conveyed the message that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are among the soldiers of the Mahdi, who will pass the baton to him. The film also projects Shiite narratives onto Khamenei, depicting him as Sayyed al-Khorasani, the legendary leader of a great army, who it is said will be the ruler preceding the Mahdi who will relinquish rule to him. The movie also portrayed Ahmadinejad as the venerated figure Shuaib Ibn Saleh, waging war against corruption and defeating the Sofayani army to pave the way for the emergence of the Imam of Time [Imam Zaman]. Nasser Makarem Shirazi and other clerics strongly condemned Ahmadinejad’s movie, saying it was an insult to the people’s Mahdism-related beliefs, and describing its content as ‘pure lies.'
In a recording attributed to Ahmadinejad, reportedly speaking to Javadi Amali, he said that he sensed the presence of the Mahdi and felt that an aura of light was surrounding him while he spoke at the United Nations.
This claim was met with widespread criticism, with many clerics accusing Ahmadinejad of exploiting the religious beliefs of the people for political purposes. Despite this condemnation, Ahmadinejad defended his political exploitation of the Mahdi.
Ahmadinejad is not alone in making implausible claims of this nature, with another senior regime official, Mohammad Hassan Rahimian, the representative of the Jurist Leader, director of the Jamkaran Mosque in Qum, and former head of the Iranian Martyrs’ Organization, claiming that he witnessed secret meetings between the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Imam al-Mahdi, asserting that they met 13 times in a passageway in the aforementioned Jamkaran Mosque in Qum. Rahimian added that Khomeini gained more wisdom and insight through these meetings with the Absent Imam, which reportedly took place during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel; Rahimian said that Khamenei had asked the Mahdi to support Hassan Nasrallah in that conflict.
Another senior regime cleric, Makarem al-Shirazi, made similar claims, asserting that the secret behind successive political successes attained by the supreme leader is his close and continuous relationship with Imam al-Mahdi . Al-Shirazi added that the Absent Mahdi helps Khamenei to administer the affairs of the country. Al-Shirazi made these claims despite vocally opposing Ahmadinejad’s exploitation of the Mahdi as a PR tool.
The popularity of this exploitation of the Mahdi dates back to the Khomeini era, with much of the strong support for Khomeini springing from the belief that he is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, who many believed might turn out to be the long-awaited Mahdi.
» Following in the Safavids’ footsteps
The aforementioned cynical tactics used by the current theocratic leadership in Tehran are not new, with the Safavid rulers in previous centuries using the exact same strategy.
Shah Ismail al-Safavi claimed that he met with the Mahdi in a cave in Tabriz, telling him, “It is time to come forth. Go, I have given you the permission.” Al-Safavi also claimed to have seen Imam Ali and to be acting in place of the Mahdi in his absence.
Indeed, the Safavid State attempted to present itself as a theocratic state closely associated with the Twelve Imams, with the Shah revolutionizing Shiite political thought in his day, and also trying to circumvent the doctrines of “Taqiyya” and of waiting. Amongst his other implausible claims, the Shah asserted that he had received permission from the Mahdi to revolt against Turkmen rulers who governed Iran at the time. One day, whilst accompanying some of his Sufi companions in Tabriz, he reportedly ordered them to stop and crossed the river before entering a cave. On emerging from the cave, he approached his colleagues wielding a knife, claiming that he had met in the cave with the Mahdi, who told him that it was time to revolt. He also claimed that the Mahdi grabbed his back and lifted him three times from the ground before placing a dagger in his belt and saying: “Go. I have given you the permission.”
These tactics are not simply whimsy, but are an effort by the Shah, Khomeini and Khamenei to lend legitimacy to their own regimes and their wars, conferring a divine rightfulness not only their rule but on any conflicts which they wage, and making them literally holy wars; if the people believe that these leaders are assigned by the Mahdi to protect their religion and to govern in his absence, this means that the leaders have divine endorsement and must be unquestioningly obeyed, with any objection or questioning of their authority being a challenge to the Mahdi himself, and thus a challenge to God. Convincing the people of the leaders’ unquestionable, divinely sanctioned status is the point of these implausible stories of meetings with the Mahdi.
In reality, these claims not only defy reason but also defy the core tenets of the Shiite doctrine itself, which flatly rejects any possibility of seeing Mahdi face-to-face during the period when he is supposedly absent, let alone spending time with or consulting him. This further demonstrates that these claims and the regime’s wider exploitation of the Mahdi are distortions of Shiite doctrine, which is once again being cynically manipulated by the leaders to attain political benefits, just as it was by the Safavids and Qajaris.
This exploitative approach is used by the Iranian clerics and politicians to justify their activities at home and abroad. According to regime doctrine, opposing a cleric is as grave as opposing the infallible Imam, with opposing the infallible Imam being akin to opposing God Himself; therefore, any political decisions, wars, and expansionist activities must stem from the will of the Absent Imam as represented by the decisions of the Supreme Guide. By this logic, it is unthinkable to question Iran’s involvement in the Syrian war and engagement in endless conflict across the Levant since these are expressions of the will of the Absent Imam, taking place at his behest to pave the way for his reappearance; the deaths of at least 100,000 human beings in Damascus and the surrounding towns and villages are, in this view, simply one of the indicators of his imminent reemergence. The war in Syria is, therefore, a wholly religious and sectarian one for Iran’s regime, with the future of Shiism and of the Twelver doctrine hinging on this conflict.
This was spelt out by a leading regime cleric, Sheikh Ali Saeedi, Khamenei’s senior representative, who said during a meeting with senior commanders of the IRGC, “The Islamic revolution is preparing the international arena for the emergence of Imam Mahdi, and today we are standing on the threshold of this stage during which he will appear.”
Saeedi continued, “Today there are two camps working hard to prevent the appearance of the Mahdi. The first is the American-led external camp. The second is the internal camp that is made up of liberals and secularists. The latter is very difficult to know because they are cloaked in hypocrisy.”
It should be noted that as well as being used to justify expansionism in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, this regime narrative of war is paving the way for the Mahdi’s reappearance, which depicts all opposition to Iran as stemming from an imperialist desire to impede the Mahdi’s re-emergence or justify his arrest, is also being used to justify increasingly draconian suppression of domestic opposition in Iran under the pretext that dissidents are liberals or secularists who oppose the idea of the Mahdi’s reappearance.
» The aspects of the political manipulation of Mahdism can be summed up as follows:
– Brainwashing young people for forced conscription.
– Giving enthusiastic speeches to woo voters
– Putting a veneer of sanctity on the Supreme Leader’s pronouncements in his speeches
– Waging regional wars in the Mahdi’s name, under the guise of paving the way for him
– Distracting the attention of the masses using controversial issues, superstition, and evasion as a means of averting attention from urgent domestic crises.
For the regime in Tehran, the primary objective is to indoctrinate the Iranian people and Shiites worldwide into absolute obedience through convincing them of the necessity of unquestioning patience and unthinking compliance with the regime’s commands, primarily in participating in “paving the way” for the Mahdi’s reemergence.
In a famous speech byKhomeini on 15 Sha’ban 1400 AH [September 28, 1980], he said, “The issue of the Imam’s absence is an important one, as it shows us that the Mahdi, peace be upon him, is the only one fit to achieve a sublime mission like this, which is enforcing justice in its true essence across the world and among all humans. All prophets came to this earth with the aim of achieving justice among all humans. However, they did not succeed.” He continued, “Even the seal of the prophets, Prophet Mohammed, was assigned to spread justice and reform the behaviors of humans, but he failed too. Moreover, the one who will succeed in the true sense of the word is the Mahdi, and we will be among his soldiers to achieve absolute justice.”
The region and the world should pay attention to the underlying message conveyed by this mesmerizing speech, particularly in its conclusion, which expressed the Iranian regime’s martial, expansionist objectives, then as now.
» Preventing Assassination of Al-Mahdi
Under the pretext of preventing the assassination of Al-Mahdi, Iranian politicians and clerics intend to implement certain plans and policies. This was evident when the Iranian state television accused the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of planning to assassinate Al-Mahdi by snipers positioned at the towers surrounding the Ka’ba in Makkah as soon as he reappears, asking for Iranian action to prevent the assassination .
Iran’s former president, Ahmadinejad, also pointed to the Western nations and their attempts to assassinate Al-Mahdi saying, “The Iranian people have to put their hands in al-Mahdi’s hand. We are not the only people waiting for him; Europe and the United States are ahead of us in looking for his place and the time of his reappearance. Researches and studies produced by the US universities about Al-Mahdi are many times of what have been produced by Shiite Seminars [Hawzas] in Qum and Najaf.” He added, “Western intelligence has met many Muslim figures who are in contact with Al-Mahdi and gathered all information to arrest the Imam.” . In order to gain public and hardliner support against his opponents in Iran, Nejad also used this issue, which is, in fact, a cover for aggressive Iranian policies to interfere in the affairs of other countries under the pretext of conspiring against Imam Al-Mahdi.
The political use of Al-Mahdi’s assassination was taken from inaccurate old stories. One historical tale talked about an attempt by ‘Almutadhid Ibn Abbass’ who sent three policemen to Imam ‘Al-Hassan Al-askari’s’ house – al-Mahdi’s father- in Samara to arrest him. The story said, “When the policemen arrived, they saw a sea and a man praying on a mat on the water. When they tried to approach him, they drowned and turned back after they apologized to him.” .
It seems that these superstitions have inspired the Iranian leaders to revive and use these false stories, not against Abbasids this time, but against the Arabs, Americans, and others.
Shiite clerics regularly pretend they meet Imam al-Mahdi and take his advice and directives, which raises some controversial questions, even for Shiites themselves: why don’t Shiites propose al-Mahdi’s death in his hiding place just like his ancestors? Does infallibility mean immortality? Does hiding from authorities at that time when he was a little boy mean he is immortal? Why don’t they propose that the imperialist powers they accuse of conspiring against Al-Mahdi, have really arrested and killed him? Isn’t this quoted from their speeches and literature?
Assuming all superstitions about Al-Mahdi were real, why do Shiites always propose he would establish a state, rule, and dispense justice on earth despite all Shiite previous Imams – as quoted by Shiites themselves – had ignored politics and never participated in governments or established states? According to their legends, Shiites have always been concerned about concealing their faith; so, why are they focused on this issue and propose al-Mahdi’s reappearance would change the world?
Iran claims it is following the directives of the absent Imam; however, its oppressive internal and external practices and the terrorism it spreads everywhere are all conclusive evidence on the falseness of the proposition of the State of Justice and the other superstitions Iran uses to excite people’s feelings.
Suppose that Al-Mahdi disappeared fearing for his life when he was a little boy, why didn’t he reappear when he had grown up? If his fear of killing continues, how can he guarantee not to be killed when he reappears? . Can a coward Imam who has been hiding for hundreds of years, fearing for his life from ancient Abbasids and arrest by Americans in modern times, lead battles and risk his life? Do all the wars launched by Iran in modern times to make Al-Mahdi reappear justify all this bloodshed and destruction in the region? Is their goal only his reappearance or justice, freedom, and dignity? In fact, all these questions have no answers, even from Shiites themselves . They only rely on inaccurate stories and superstitions to influence the public and excite their feelings, and which have inflamed the region and provoked sectarian wars and bloodshed for years.
» Skipping of Historical Facts
In essence, the Idea of Mahdism State contradicts the Shiite doctrinal laws and the infallible Twelver Shiite Imams. No Shiite historical narrative has supported the idea that the infallible Imam would engage in politics or establish the State of Justice. On the contrary, history has proved that the infallible Imams have dedicated themselves to their religious duties away from politics, which means, according to some Shiite thinkers, that those Imams were leaders in religion rather than in government and politics . For example, the fourth Imam, Ali Zain Alabidin saw Yazid Ibn Muawiah and al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf; however, he never practiced politics or called people to rebel against the state; in contrast, he retreated from worldly matters to a modest living and was peaceful and close to the Umayyad Caliph, Abdulmalik Ibn Marwan . Zain Alabidin was called Sajjad [The one who kneels down before Allah] for the long periods he spent kneeling down asking Allah for mercy and forgiveness, which made his followers collect his words in one book called the Sajjadi Manuscript [Alsahifah Alsajjadiah]. This path followed by Zain Alabidin is the path of Al-Hassan Ibn Ali, who favored Da’wah [Religious duties] over politics, which is evidence that the Imamate is only guidance rather than leadership and politics .
Imam Sajjad had two sons, Mohammed who was called Baqir, and the younger Zaid. Zaid was a disciple of Wasil Ibn Ata, founder of Alaqlaniah Almu’tazilah, and was influenced by his ideas. Zaid arrived at his theory on the Imamate in a realistic rational manner for Shiites in general, away from mythologies, as stated by Aljabiri . However, the majority of Imamate Shiites decided Mohammed Baqir should succeed his father, which enraged Zaid so that he denied his brother’s Imamate and called it for himself. Zaid rejected his brother’s way of worship and retreat from politics saying, “The Imam is not the one who is sitting home, relaxing, and discouraging Jihad [holy war]; the imam is the one who secures his Hawzah, goes to Jihad, and defends his people” . Nevertheless, the Imamate Shiites declined Zaid’s proposition of involvement in politics and his call to rebel against the state.
Centuries later, Khomeini emerged and revolutionized the Twelver Shiite doctrine, unlike the majority of Twelver Shiites who had declined to politicize the Imamate before and during the times of the Imams themselves. In contrast, we find that the eighth Imam, Ali Ibn Mousa Alriza [153-203, Hijri date] swore allegiance to Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mamoun and became his crown prince . Accordingly, we find that Khomeini’s Shiism skipped historical facts and inferred from certain Imams’ legacies without explaining whether their Imamates were only Da’wah [the call for religion] or State Imamate [the call for the establishment of a State]. In fact, Khomeini over- generalized the theory of the Imam’s infallibility to include scholars, and decided – doctrinally and radically – to rule on behalf of the infallible Imam. In addition, Khomeini classified disobeying scholars the same as disobeying the infallible Imam and ultimately, disobeying Allah. Finally, Khomeini made preparation for the Mahdism State, a religious duty, which contradicts the Shiite classical doctrine – the foundation of the Imamate theory in terms of the decree and the infallibility of the Imam – and usurpation of the absent Imam’s right .
» Al-Mahdi in Narratives
The Al-Mahdi theory emerged long time ago, during the time of Imam Ali [May Allah be pleased with him]. When Imam Ali died, some of his followers denied his death and said, “Ali did not die; he is immortal until he leads the Arabs with his stick and spreads justice and righteousness on earth after it has been filled with injustice and indignity” .
Mohammed Ibn Al-Hanafiah died in the year 81 Hijri date and Shiites were divided into two parties, one claiming that he did not die and that people, especially his nephew who buried him, imagined this. While the other party said he died and claimed Mohammed al-Baqir as the fifth Imam. Furthermore, Ibn Al-Hanafiah’s son, Abu Hashem, led Shiites, after his father, against the Umayyad, but soon died and disappeared, which made his supporters claim he was Al-Mahdi Al-Muntazar [The expected one] and he was still alive. Shiites also claimed that Mohammed Al-Nafs Al-zakiah [100-145 Hijri date] was Al-Mahdi Al-Muntazar because he looked like Prophet Mohammed [Peace be upon him] and was named after the prophet’s first and second names. They also claimed that whenever he rode on his horse, people would scream, Al-Mahdi .
After the death of Ja’far Al-Sadiq, Shiites differed over if he had recommended his youngest son, Mousa Al-Kazim, or his elder son, Ishmael, to succeed him. Some Shiites said he appointed Mousa Al-Kazim, while others said he had named his elder son, Ishmael for the Imamate. Later, this group was called the Ishmaelites, and claimed Ishmael as Al-Mahdi .
Some Shiites claimed that Mousa Ibn Ja’far Al-Kazim was Al-Mahdi, while others argued Al-Kazim only meets Al-Mahdi and writes to him. However, Twelver Shiites rejected this theory, saying that Mousa Al-Kazim died in public and was buried about 150 years ago and the claim that he was still alive discredits reports that he was seen dead . Mousa Al-Kazim visibly died in front of people, but the birth of Al-Mahdi Ibn Hassan Al-Askari was unknown to people at that time. If people had known about his birth, they would not have doubted him.
Al-Nobakhti inferred the possibility of al-Mahdi’s absence under the condition of not exceeding the logical and acceptable limit for all known absences – thirty years at that time. However, according to Shiite beliefs, al-Mahdi’s absence has lasted for hundreds of years after Al-Nobakhti’s death [1178 years, until now], which exceeds the logical limit in their doctrine. This made some Shiite speakers to periodically create new evidence and use philosophical methods to overcome the significant gap in these beliefs. After the death of each Shiite Imam or scholar, new Shiite sects emerge and claim that he is Al-Mahdi. This was accompanied by groups of Hadeeth creators [fake stories] and immoderate writers with personal political and secular interests. For example, after the death of Mousa Al-Kazim [the seventh Imam], some of his companions said he was Al-Mahdi based on narratives presented by Hadeeth creators before them.
This is evidence thatthe Al-Mahdi theory came from several resources, characterized by imprecision and methodological shortcoming. Its inclusion in the doctrinal rituals of Shiites is absolute extremism for being adopted by a country that draws its policies based on such superstitions that were unclear even during the lifetime of the Imams themselves. Indeed, after the death of each Imam, Shiites differed on whom to succeed him, his eldest or youngest son, and were divided into many factions based on their differences on his successor. In certain cases, brother Imams differed and opposed each other on the same issue; for example, Mohammed Al-Baqir [the fifth Imam] and his brother Zaid [founder of Al-Zaidi sect] differed and each claimed the imamate for himself.
This methodological flaw was observed by Shiite thinker, Ahmed Al-Katib when he said, “The presence of all these Shiite factions reveals the vagueness of the Imam Al-Mahdi theory, the possibility for him to be one of Al Al-Bait members, and that he rises with the sword to establish the state of justice.” Al-Katib added, “Had the personality of Al-Mahdi been identified during the time of the prophet [peace be upon him] or the time of the eleven Imams, then Shiites, Imamates, and the Shiites of Imam Al-Hassan Al-Askari wouldn’t have differed on the identity of Imam Al-Mahdi.” Since the Shiite factions differed on who Al-Mahdi was with the absence of reliable narratives about his true identity, the belief in him as a doctrine is far from true religion, and is used for exciting and politicizing the whole Shiite sect. All in all, the Al-Mahdi theory does not have reliable sources, neither in the holy Quran nor the true narratives, and has never been unanimously agreed upon by Shiites themselves .
» Mahdism Theory and Strengthening the State
The Iranian regime believes that a constant link between Shiite people and rituals and occults is the best way to keep them under the Mullahs control. The ancient Safavid dynasty and modern Khomeini doctrine tended to excite people’s feelings, and ignite their momentum over two months [Muharam and Safar] every year, if not over the whole year. Indeed, they had turned all days into Ashora and all lands into Karbala. They also highlighted Ali Ibn Abi Talib’s characteristics and courage represented by revolution, Jihad, and the rejection of the unjust caliphate, and at the same time, they worked smartly on directing the Shiites feelings of vengeance against the Turks and the whole Muslim nation. Based on that assumption, Safavids encouraged people to be patient and wait for Al-Mahdi, who would eliminate poverty and spread justice all over the world. In fact, this doctrine discourages and eliminates the people’s will, their role in politics, and the deciding of their own destiny. In addition, it gives holiness to the regime’s decisions – deputy of the infallible Imam – since they are made, as claimed, in cooperation between this regime and the absent Imam, who is satisfied with the regime’s practices as long as he meets the president or the Jurist. This policy was followed precisely during the Safavid dynasty to distract people’s attention from demanding their basic needs and submit them to occults and religious discouragement with promises to improve their living conditions after al-Mahdi’s reappearance. In fact, they adopted this policy to give a state of infallibility and holiness to the regime as deputy of Al-Mahdi.
The Iranian leadership understands that the establishment of a universal Mahdist state is almost impossible. This project resulted from the theory of politicizing religion and contradicts facts and the international, regional, and local political standards. However, this belief is the normal domain of extremists who dream of building a huge empire, eliminating borders, and importing the old doctrine into modern times without differentiating between the changing and unchanging, and between the absolute and proposition. Nevertheless, the main goal of the Iranian government in using such literature is to involve its people in external conflicts under the Jihad concept, and impoverish them under the pretext of preparing for Al-Mahdi’s reappearance, which reflects the danger of the Iranian project in the region.
All in all, the Al-Mahdi theory is a vital intellectual and political modern Iranian affair. It is not only a classical doctrine that establishes the “Waiting” theory, but also has been taken beyond its historical context, Hawza, and doctrinal position in favor of the modern Khomeini revolution.
The Iranian Al-Mahdi-based literature revolutionizes not only Iran’s Shiites but also Shiites in other countries outside Iran’s borders to rebel against their home countries and prepare – as claimed – for Al-Mahdi’s reappearance. Iran aimed at extending the revolution outside its borders, and work with other Islamic and public movements to establish one universal community and liberate all oppressed people in the world, which was evident through the sabotage operations launched by Iran’s proxies in the Gulf and other Arab countries with Tehran’s political and logistic support.
Iran does not comply with international political standards, or even ethical and sectarian standards; rather, Tehran acts to preserve the future of its great national goal – the Universal State: The MahdisState of Justice or the world’s leader, as stated by Shiites. Accordingly, the Iranian Mahdism doctrine – emerging from Khomeini’s ideas – threatened all the countries of the region, and aimed at subjugating the Middle East under control of the Jurist Leader to prepare for the return of the absent Imam. Through this doctrine, the Iranian regime also controlled the Iranian people and sold them the idea of submitting to the rule of Mullahs as representatives of Allah on earth. Thus obliging all people to obey them due to their divine right to rule. According to the Shiite thinker, Ahmed Al-Katib, the belief in Al-Mahdi as the source of constitutional legitimacy to rule [based on Khomeini’s ideas] drove the Iranian leaders to use religion as a cover for their political actions and ignore any public or democratic legitimacy, giving themselves absolute authority that threatened Shiite modern political experiments, and hindered any democratic development in the Shiite communities. As a result, negotiating with the Mullahs that control the Iranian decision-making process is impossible until they give up this proposition, and comply with ethical and international laws.
All in all, we come up with the following conclusion:
1. The divergence of the Shiite views on Al-Mahdi theory. Some follow the traditional doctrinal view that prohibits practising politics until the return of Al-Mahdi, while the revolutionary views work on behalf of the absent Imam in politics to establish the State in preparation for al-Mahdi’s return through supporting militias and other groups in the region.
2. Al-Mahdi theory in the Shiite classical doctrine was a tool for inactivity and the inclusion of Shiites under the caliphate umbrella in the past and in modern times, which expresses the philosophy of the traditional “Waiting” theory. However, Khomeini rebelled against these traditions and revolutionized this theory that attracted many groups and networks to work undercover in countries having Shiite communities to destroy these countries and prepare for the return of Al-Mahdi. In fact, Khomeini succeeded in replacing the “Waiting” theory by the “Preparation” theory that could come about only by revolutionizing and politicizing the sect and its doctrine. On his side, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ibn Salman criticized Khomeini’s theory and the Iranian regime’s acts that could ignite sectarian conflicts and set the whole region ablaze, unlike the traditional “Waiting” theory in the Shiite doctrine before the emergence of Khomeini.
3. The most dangerous translation of the Khomeini movement is the political use and explanation of the Al-Mahdi issue. Khomeini Shiism mobilized tens of thousands of Shiites to fight in Syria and Iraq to defend Al-Mahdi and prepare for his return. In addition, most Shiite communities outside Iran rebelled against their home countries and joined Iranian armed groups to be soldiers of the only representative of Al-Mahdi on earth, the Iranian Supreme Leader.
4. Khomeini Shiism used Al-Mahdi theory in the internal political conflicts between Conservatives and Reformers in Iran.
5. In order to solve this problem, the righteous Shiite scholars should assume control over the Iranian and Shiite mentality and reshape the “Waiting” theory to replace the Khomeini “Preparation” theory and encourage Shiite minorities in other countries to engage in their communities. In this context, the Arab countries can encourage and invest in the traditional Shiite line as a historical and cultural heritage emerged in the Arab Sunni community before being involved in the Safavid political Shiism and later, in the Khomeini Shiism, which might change the balance of power in favor of today’s Reformer Constitutional School headed by Soroush and Kadeifar in Iran and many other Scholars in Lebanon. The engagement of this school in politics against the Khomeini ideas can make it an alternative for the Khomeini Shiism and enable it to lead the State of Iran and jog things back in place, unlike the traditional school that was destroyed by the Iranian revolution.
6. Iran benefits from the “Preparation” theory by acting on behalf of Al-Mahdi: internally, by subjugating people to any political, economic, and social decisions; and externally, by provoking some Shiite minorities in other countries to rebel and establish Iranian proxy groups outside its borders as a form of political extortion of the regional countries, and geographic and demographic shields in favor of the Iranian project.
In an interview in early May 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ibn Salman said the Iranian regime has adopted an extremist ideology, adding that Tehran wants to take control of the Muslim world.