Shi’a Islam — like Christianity and Judaism — contains a strong messianic component, which perhaps explains the End Days mentality that prevailed throughout the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Just as there have been many false Christian and Jewish messiahs, Islam too has had more than its share of phonies.
During the 1979 Revolution many Shi’a came to believe that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini was the Mahdi, the so-called Twelfth or Hidden Imam, coming out of hiding to usher in the End Times. The returned exile Khomeini — who had no more been in hiding than had the pope — refused to confirm or deny the rumors.
Among them was current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then a young revolutionary guard. (It remains unclear whether he was one of the U.S. Embassy hostage takers, an allegation he denies.) But Ahmadinejad has never forgotten the headiness of that premature apocalypse. When Khomeini died in 1989 it became apparent even to the most fanatical “Twelvers” that the old man was not the Mahdi, so the watch and wait began anew. A wait that has gone on for more than 1,100 years. So what are a few more years?
A few more years are, according to the Iranian president, all we have left. Last year Ahmadinejad prophesied that the Hidden Imam would return August 22, 2006. However, the only calamity that struck on 8/22 — far as I can tell — was the Mets come-from-behind win over the Cardinals. Now Mahmoud and The Bad Prophets are predicting the Hidden Imam will reveal himself some time within the next two years. In preparation for this blessed event, Ahmadinejad has given $20 million of Iranian taxpayer money for the construction of a shrine at the Jamkaran mosque where he and many of the town’s last days cultists expect the Hidden Imam to expose himself.
Doomsday cult leaders have been predicting the Last Days for millennia. Christians were positive that the world would end in the year 1000, and literally let their fields go to seed. Christ may not have showed, but famine certainly did. Much later the Rev. William Miller calculated the time for the Second Coming (based on interpretations of the Biblical apocalypses) to be 1844. When that year passed uneventfully Miller simply said, oops, must have got the math wrong, and came up with another date, and so on and so forth until even his most devoted followers got bored and went back to Methodism.
More recently these millenarian kooks have gone from parody to scary. The Heaven’s Gate cult, in anticipation of the Last Days, sought to hitch a ride on an alien space ship trailing in the wake of the comet Hale-Bopp — the price of a strictly business class ticket being mass suicide. Then the pseudo-Buddhist doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo murdered 12 and injured thousands by releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995. (In Cult at the End of the World, authors David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall make a strong case that the cultists nearly succeeded in acquiring nuclear weapons from the Japanese mafia and KGB veterans in 1992.) Like the college grads who constitute the apocalyptic cult al Qaeda, Aum Shinkikyo was largely made up of engineers, physicists, doctors, and weapons experts who believed they alone would survive the coming apocalypse, an event they would hotwire into being with their repeated terrorist attacks.
Ahmadinejad’s critics likewise accuse the president of being obsessed with the coming apocalypse. They point to his debut at the United Nations in 2005, when, in a near-perfect imitation of a manic street preacher (I hope it was an imitation), Ahmadinejad called upon Allah 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.” According to several Arab delegates, the Iranian president literally glowed with the divine light of something or other throughout his long U.N. rant. Or maybe he had just been standing a little too close to all that enriched uranium.
EARLIER THIS YEAR the London Telegraph reported that unnamed Western officials suspect the Iranian president of instigating a clash with the West in the hope of rekindling the spirit of Islamic revolution and speed up the arrival of the Hidden Imam. Some pundits suspect that the Iranian president is purposely trying to nudge the Hidden Imam out of his hidey-hole — to “influence the divine timetable,” as the Telegraph put it — thus his maniacal need for enriched uranium, in order to “destroy the world to make it right.”
So who is this Hidden or Twelfth Imam and why has he been on the lam for 1,100 years?
The Twelfth or Hidden Imam — a.k.a. Mohammed al-Mahdi — lived in the 9th century, and was the son of — you guessed it — the 11th Imam. These dozen or so Imams, in-laws and descendants of the prophet Mohammed, served as the mouthpieces of Allah. This last Imam at the age of five, supposedly disappeared into a cave or down a well. (Today, in his hometown, believers continue to drop messages down a “holy” well.)
It sounds absurd, but it is more or less the same messianic story Jews and Christians believe: that the return of the savior will usher in the final days, beginning with an apocalyptic battle, followed by an era of peace and justice, then — a bang or whimper depending on your preference. During this apocalyptic battle the whole world will be vanquished by the Muslim armies and those infidels still breathing will be converted to Islam. (Think about that next time President Bush says Islam is a religion of peace.) Finally, Jesus Christ, now a Muslim convert, will return to judge — using Sharia law — the quick and the dead. Now that’s something I’ll bet you didn’t learn in Mrs. Widebottom’s Sunday school class.
The question that concerns us here is whether Mr. Ahmadinejad truly believes that provoking chaos, or worst case, nuking Israel, will hasten the return of the Hidden Imam. I’d like to think that in this day and age no one is loony enough to believe such a cock and bull story. But then I remember the long list of loony dictators who made the 20th century history’s greatest bloodbath: Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Idi Amin, Mussolini, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Radovan Karadzic , etc., etc. They weren’t supposed to do anything crazy either.
In a recent Washington Post column, Charles Krauthammer pointed out that if the Iranian president really wants to “wipe Israel off the map,” he could with one warhead do what it took Hitler six years to do. Or, according to President Ahmadinejad, what Hitler didn’t do.
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