Crouching Tiger, Hidden Imam
Subtext; the rise of Ahmadinejad, and the fall of Iran.
How did a Shi’a cult, largely unknown outside Iran, give rise to a cantankerous President and cause international isolation of Iran?
Although Mahdaviat, or the cult of Mahdi —associated with Shi’a Islam's 12th Imam, believed to be in occultation before he returns to save the world— is over a millennium old, it only attained the status of a mass movement in modern Iran in the 1980s and 90s with millions of Iranians venerating the Hidden Imam with unprecedented devotion.
Scholars identify two primary factors underlying this remarkable development: the sociocultural transformation Iran underwent in the decades during and after the war years and political realignment at the top of the factional pyramid.
While the idea of a coming redeemer is as old as civilization itself, 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. And so it is with the Mahdi cult in Iran; years of socio-economic and political dislocation coupled with a decade-long brutal war that killed more than a million had taken a heavy toll on the psyche of the people.
As for political factors, Ayatollah Khomeini, like all Shi’a, venerated the Hidden Imam; at the same time, he was wary of the over-exaltation by 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 cult 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 the cult; millions 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! After becoming president, he repeatedly invoked the name of the Hidden Imam.
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. 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 began attracting the attention of groups 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 prophecies 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 poor could take shape under the banner of Mahdaviat.
More worrying for Supreme Leader 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 Shi’a intellectual, denounced the cult.
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 too far was the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and its aftermath; instead of aligning closer to Khamenei, the ambitious President decided to become a major rival, frequently and publicly defied him and clashed with the parliament.
The Mahdaviat cult helped propel Ahmedinejad to the Presidency of Iran and he brought international opprobrium for his utterances, lost Iran the support of allies with his adversarial foreign policies, brought debilitating UN sanctions with nuclear brinkmanship and shame to a cultured country with his crude behavior.
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