When President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad launched Iran’s first domestically built telecommunications satellite into space on Sunday, he did so in the name of the last true Shia imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi.
The launch coincided with the end of festivities in Iran to mark the birthday of the imam, one of the holiest figures in Shia Islam, who is believed to have gone into hiding in the year 941 and will return to bring peace and justice to the world.
Every year, thousands of Shia Muslims flock to shrines to mark his birthday. In Iran, they head for the Jamkaran mosque, 110km south of Tehran, where the mystical Shia leader is believed to receive pilgrims’ written messages.
But this year’s festivities have proved unusually controversial because of claims that the imam is being exploited for commercial and political purposes. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on Sunday called those who had “opened a business” and claimed to have been connected to the imam “liars”. Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said the current “fake” obsession with the imam had “misled millions of people”.
Regime insiders say Mr Khamenei is unhappy with the religious fanaticism of the government, although he backs its economic, political and international policies.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad rarely starts a speech at home or abroad without first praying for God to hasten the imam’s second coming. The president, who has no clerical background, makes frequent reference to the imam as a way of displaying his piety, and many Iranians this weekend followed their president’s example by sticking badges of the same prayer on the windows of their cars or shops in celebration of the imam’s birthday.
“We are witnessing a new cult in Shiism whose leaders claim to be connected to the imam,” says one regime insider.
Some background to this story:
The key to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hardline policies may not be hidden in his revolutionary past, or in any of the nuclear facilities dispersed across Iran, but in a small farming village near the holy city of Qom.
Here, in what was until only a few years ago a shabby local mosque, Iran’s new radical Muslim leader has become the chief sponsor of a messianic cult whose massed followers pray each week for the end of the world as we know it.
All Muslims await the appearance of the Mahdi; the largest branch of Shiites, those known as Twelvers, await his return.
To the majority of Shiites, the Mahdi was the last of the prophet Muhammad’s true heirs, his 12 righteous descendants chosen by God to lead the faithful.
The Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam, the Imam of Our Times, was born Muhammad ibn Hasan and went into hiding around 878. Shiites believe he maintained contact with representatives until 941, when all communication from him ceased. When the time is ripe, they teach, he will reappear and, along with Jesus, will lead Muslims in a struggle to rid the world of corruption and establish justice. The Mahdi ordered a shrine built in Jamkaran nearly 1,000 years ago, Shiite teachings hold.
It would be a caricature to paint the whole country as caught up in messianic fervor. Even among the clergy, there are many who treat the Mahdi’s return as figurative rather than literal. But at a time when many here believe that Iran, and by extension its brand of Shiism, is under threat by the West, the Mahdi can be a useful symbol for the government to rally the people.
For Iran’s opponents in Washington and elsewhere, the talk of the Mahdi’s return, with its apocalyptic overtones, causes worry. Some critics of Iran fear that religious zeal might overcome reason when it comes to setting the nation’s policies.