Ayatullah Khamenei mentioned the 12th or “hidden” imam, also known as the Mahdi, several times in his speech at Friday’s prayers. After his awkward rant about the Branch Davidians, the mention of the hidden imam was surely the most confusing to many in the so-called West.
The Mahdi is said to have been born in the ninth century and to continue to survive today. Twelver Shi’as, who constitute the majority of Shi’as in Iran, believe that the Mahdi will join Jesus when he returns to rule the earth in peace after a period of great global unrest, war and chaos.
He is referred to as the hidden imam because he is said to live among us in anonymity, which brings a great significance to the Qur’an’s command to treat one’s fellow man with kindness and forgiveness. You never know, you might be talking to the Mahdi himself!
During Ahmadinejad’s first term, it was a running joke among Iranians that his arrogance and apparent delusions of grandeur might have been the result of his false conviction that he was in fact the hidden imam. Of course, Ahmadinejad made no such statement, but that’s what makes it a joke.
Still, he clearly thinks quite highly of himself and his divine calling to be the former and next Iranian president. Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding his divine guidance and selection has reminded many Iranians, especially Iranian-Americans such as myself, of George W. Bush’s statements that he spoke to God. In many ways, in fact, Ahmadinejad is the mirror image of Bush. He demonized and continues to demonize the U.S. just as much as Bush and his predecessors demonized Iran.
Bush’s threats directed toward Iran and his inclusion of Iran in some ominous “axis of evil” did not blow over well with the Iranian people. Neither did his excitement at the prospect of importing American democracy around the world. His poor grasp of Iranian history, moreover, created both an annoyance and a legitimate fear among Iranians.
Chief among Bush’s historical oversights was the cause of the 1979 Islamic revolution. If anyone is to blame for this revolution, it is likely the U.S. and the UK. By installing the Shah to power and staging the coup that overthrew the democratically elected and highly revered prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, the U.S. and the UK were only fanning the flames of fundamentalism. The fact that this overthrow quickly followed Mossadegh’s attempt to nationalize oil, moreover, was not interpreted favorably by the Iranian people. Rather, the overthrow of Mossadegh helped provoke the Islamic revolution nearly three decades later.
In effect, there would have been no need for a revolution were it not for the imperialist policies of the American and British governments toward Iran.
The Ayatullah Khomeini, thus, became a beacon of hope for many Iranians. He brought genuine independence to a highly nationalistic people. Unfortunately, he also ultimately brought a theocratic state, one that the initial supporters of the revolution simply did not anticipate. Ayatullah Khomeini is perhaps the most significant modern figure for Shi’a Iranian Twelvers after the Mahdi. Moreover, he is a figure that I cannot help but love and hate at the same time. And I am not alone in these sentiments.
Many Iranians feel very much the same way. We are a people full of contradictions. We don’t want another monarchy; we are proud of our independence. We don’t want a theocracy; we are proud of the many Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha’is and Christians inside of Iran. But while we know what we don’t want, we don’t know exactly what we do want.
Even if the hidden imam is not living among the Iranian people, the power of his mere myth cannot be underestimated. By invoking the Mahdi as many times as Khamenei did during his speech at this Friday’s prayers, he was attempting to appeal to the hopes of the Iranian people. While this attempt was clearly well thought out, it has fallen on many deaf ears, especially among Iranian youth, who thanks to the highly un-Islamic policies of the Islamic Republic, have grown increasingly skeptical of religion.
I for one, as an Iranian Twelver, have no doubt that if the Mahdi is among us, he would agree that the so-called Islamic republic has indeed constituted a great disservice to Islam. Chief among the teachings of Islam is religious tolerance, and by defying this teaching, the leaders of the allegedly Islamic Republic of Iran have created a situation that will ultimately blow up in their faces. It might not happen today. It might not happen next year or even in 50 years. But the time for a new revolution (green, blue, pink or yellow) is certainly approaching. The only question that remains is when.