Iranian ‘cult’ of imam sparks controversy

Iranian ‘cult’ of imam sparks controversy

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.

– Source: Iranian ‘cult’ of imam sparks controversy, Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Financial Times, UK, Aug. 17, 2008 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Some background to this story:

Iranian president backs messianic cult

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.

– Source: Iranian president backs messianic cult, The Sydney Morning News, via Stuff.co.nz, Australia, May 15, 2006 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Messianic Fervor Grows Among Iran’s Shiites

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.

– Source: Messianic Fervor Grows Among Iran’s Shiites, John Deniszewski, Los Angeles Times, Apr. 15, 2006 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Iraqi troops clash with messianic Shiite cult during holy day

BAGHDAD | Members of an obscure messianic cult fought pitched battles Friday with Iraqi security forces in two southern cities.

At least 80 people were killed and scores were injured as panic spread among worshippers marking Shiite Islam’s holiest holiday.

Members of the cult, which calls itself the Supporters of Mahdi, mingled with the crowds in at least three sections of Basra and in Nasiriya, then fired shots at worshippers and the security forces, police and witnesses said.

The cult believes that Imam Mahdi, who disappeared in the 9th century, is about to return and save the world.

Police said the cult’s leader, Ahmed Hassan Yamani, was killed along with nearly 50 followers in the fighting in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. About 60 gunmen were arrested, and large quantities of weapons were seized from a mosque linked to the group, said the Basra police chief, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Kareem Khalaf.

About 20 other gunmen were killed in Nasiriya, police said. At least 10 policemen in Nasiriya and four in Basra were also among the dead, and at least 90 people were injured in the two cities, they said.

Friday’s violence occurred as hundreds of thousands of worshippers across Iraq took part in Ashoura rites commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was killed by the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid on the plains of Karbala. Hussein’s death in 680 sealed the schism between Shiites and Sunnis over who was Muhammad’s rightful heir.

The holiday coincided with new criticism of the Iraqi government and Parliament from Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose party until now has backed the government, and from a former political ally, the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He signaled that he might allow his militia to become active at the end of February after a yearlong freeze.

Lifting the freeze could have consequences for the U.S. military, which has been able to use the calm to focus on Shiite insurgents who have ignored the freeze. The Americans also have used the calm to stabilize Sunni and mixed neighborhoods in the Baghdad area.

Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier died north of Baghdad on Friday when an improvised explosive device exploded near his vehicle.