January 12, 2006
Mission and Mysticism
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, a new word has entered
the political vocabulary: mahdaviat.
it's a technical religious term. Mahdaviat derives from mahdi,
Arabic for "rightly-guided one," a major figure in Islamic
eschatology. He is, explains the Encyclopedia of Islam, "the
restorer of religion and justice who will rule before the end
of the world."
originated in the earliest years of Islam and, over time, became
particularly identified with the Shi'ite branch. Whereas "it
never became an essential part of Sunni religious doctrine,"
continues the encyclopedia, "Belief in the coming of the
Mahdi of the Family of the Prophet became a central aspect of
the faith in radical Shi'ism," where it is also known as
the return of the Twelfth Imam.
means "belief in and efforts to prepare for the Mahdi."
In a fine
piece of reporting, Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor
shows the centrality of mahdaviat in Ahmadinejad's outlook and
explores its implications for his policies.
When he was
still mayor of Teheran in 2004, for example, Ahmadinejad appears
to have secretly instructed the city council to build a grand
avenue to prepare for the Mahdi. A year later, as president, he
allocated $17 million for a bluetiled mosque closely associated
with mahdaviat in Jamkaran, south of the capital. He has instigated
the building of a direct Teheran-Jamkaran railroad line. He had
a list of his proposed cabinet members dropped into a well adjacent
to the Jamkaran mosque, it is said, to benefit from its purported
raises the topic, and not just to Muslims. When addressing the
United Nations in September, Ahmadinejad flummoxed his audience
of world political leaders by concluding his address with a prayer
for the Mahdi's appearance: "O mighty Lord, I pray to you
to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the Promised
One, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill
this world with justice and peace."
to Iran from New York, Ahmadinejad recalled the effect of his
of our group told me that when I started to say "In the
name of God the almighty and merciful," he saw a light
around me, and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself.
I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and for those 27 or 28
minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink... And they
were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and
had opened their eyes to receive the message from the Islamic
calls the "presidential obsession" with mahdaviat leads
Ahmadinejad to "a certitude that leaves little room for compromise.
From redressing the gulf between rich and poor in Iran to challenging
the United States and Israel and enhancing Iran's power with nuclear
programs, every issue is designed to lay the foundation for the
is a code for [Iran's Islamic] revolution, and is the spirit of
the revolution," says the head of an institute dedicated
to studying and speeding the Mahdi's appearance. "This kind
of mentality makes you very strong," observes the political
editor of Resalat newspaper, Amir Mohebian. "If I think the
Mahdi will come in two, three, or four years, why should I be
soft? Now is the time to stand strong, to be hard."
reports PBS, "worry that their new president has no fear
of international turmoil, may think it's just a sign from God."
has direct and ominous implications for the US-Iran confrontation,
says an Ahmadinejad supporter, Hamidreza Taraghi of Iran's hard-line
Islamic Coalition Society. It implies seeing Washington as the
rival to Teheran, and even as a false Mahdi.
the top priority is to challenge America, and specifically to
create a powerful model state based on "Islamic democracy"
by which to oppose it. Taraghi predicts trouble ahead unless Americans
fundamentally change their ways.
that formulation. The most dangerous leaders in modern history
are those (like Hitler) equipped with a totalitarian ideology
and a mystical belief in their own mission. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
fulfills both these criteria, as revealed by his UN comments.
That combined with his expected nuclear arsenal make him an adversary
who must be stopped, and urgently.
is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures