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Divided Iran on the Eve


During the past decade the Jamkaran mosque near Qom in Iran has become one of the most visited Shiite shrines, rivaling Karbala and Kufa in Iraq as pilgrim destinations. Here thousands of believers pray for intercessions to their messiah—the Mahdi or Twelfth Imam—whose return they believe to be imminent. Written petitions are placed in the “well of the Lord of the Age,” from which many believe the imam will emerge to bring about universal justice and peace. Six months after his surprise election to the Iranian presidency in June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predicted that this momentous eschatological event would occur within two years. With the turmoil in neighboring Iraq, where Shiites continue to be attacked by Sunni extremists, expectations for the return retain their appeal.

While the Shiite faithful (along with their Jewish and Christian counterparts) are still awaiting their messiah, the Islamic Republic is investing heavily in the Jamkaran shrine, spending more than half a billion dollars on enlargements that rival those of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with vast interior courtyards and facilities—including offices, research centers, cultural departments, slaughterhouses, and soup kitchens—not to mention the farms where Jamkaran raises its meat. In a country where the religious establishment dominates state institutions, Jamkaran’s burgeoning bureaucracy seems set to outstrip that of the longer- established shrine complexes of Mashhad and Qom.

While external observers perceive the struggle in Iran between conservatives and moderates in political terms, the Islamic Republic’s conflicting ideological currents also find expression in the age-old rhetoric of the apocalypse, which originated in the region more than two thousand years ago. As Abbas Amanat explains in Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism, the Jamkaran makeover was part of the campaign orchestrated by conservative clerics in Qom against the government of former President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies.

Unlike many academics, Amanat, a professor of history at Yale, is willing to venture into regions outside his specialty of Iranian studies, which makes his book particularly valuable, as it is informed by the knowledge—all too rare among Islamicists—that Islam is one variant in a cluster of religions rather than a subject to be treated on its own. Messianic expectations are fundamental to all the West Asian religions, articulating forces that are both dynamic and dangerous:

The vast number of visitors to Jamkaran demonstrates the resurgence of interest in the Mahdi among Iranians of all classes—including the affluent middle classes in the capital—and the triumph of the Islamic Republic in capitalizing on symbols of public piety.

Although these symbols, such as the Jamkaran shrine, are specific to Shiism, their appeal—not to mention their mobilizing power—is universal. As Amanat points out, apocalyptic movements have been motors of religious change throughout history. Christian origins are inseparable from the spirit of apocalypticism that consumed the Judeo-Hellenistic world in late antiquity. Muhammad’s early mission cannot be explained without reference to the “apocalyptic admonitions, the foreseen calamities, and the terror of the Day of Judgement, apparent in the early suras [chapters] of the Qu’ran.” Later examples—to name but a few—include Martin Luther’s call for reforming the Catholic Church and Sabbatai Zevi’s claim in the seventeenth century to be the Jewish messiah. The Mormon church, the most successful of the new American religions, was born in the millennial frenzy that swept through the “Burnt-Over District” of upstate New York in the 1830s. Amanat sees all these as conscious attempts to fulfill messianic visions conceived on the ancient models preserved in Zoroastrian and biblical scriptures.

In a brief but masterful compression of insights gained from readings of Norman Cohn, founding father of millennial studies, and other scholars in the field, Amanat reviews the dynamics of apocalyptic histories. On the positive side the anticipation of imminent divine judgment can be translated into a message of social justice, with individual choice replacing dogmas handed down by ancestors, tribes, or communities. Historically, apocalyptic movements tend to be socially inclusive, appealing especially to the deprived, marginalized, and dispossessed. The negative side is the demonization of perceived enemies in a world where the People of God—the saved remnant of humanity—see themselves as the sole bearers of divine wisdom or knowledge. The utopian project of realizing paradise—when the messiah’s followers choose to enact the millennial scenario in real historical time—may be as devastating as the earthquakes, fires, plagues, and wars of apocalyptic imaginings.


Amanat’s approach to his subject matter is sometimes daunting. It is clear that he is more comfortable writing for fellow specialists than ordinary readers, which is a pity, because his insights have implications that extend far beyond Shiism, showing how a particular event, such as a massacre or crucifixion, becomes lodged in the historical memory.

In Twelver Shiism—the majority sect in the minority tradition of Islam—the messiah is twelfth in the line of imams, or spiritual leaders, descended from Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, whom the Shia believe was cheated of the succession after the Prophet’s death in 632 CE. In the Twelver version the last of these twelve imams “disappeared” in 874; in the populist myth he is hiding in a cave in Samarra in Iraq awaiting his triumphant return. Shiite devotion centers on the fate of the third imam, Ali’s younger son Hussain, who was massacred with his band of loyalist followers on the field of Karbala (in modern Iraq) by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid in 680.

Shiism has for more than thirteen centuries oscillated between revolutionary activism and quietist disengagement. In the early Muslim era Ali’s loyalists (his shia, or partisans) instigated numerous revolts, challenging and sometimes toppling the military-tribal complexes that came to power in the wake of the Arab conquests. Many of these revolts were conducted in the name of the Mahdi (messiah) or Qaim (resurrector), an eschatological figure with more than a passing resemblance to the avenging Christ of the book of Revelation. The most enduring brought the Turkic Safavid dynasty to power in Iran in 1501, which made Shiism the state religion and created a fusion of Persian and Shia identities. The cult of Hussain’s martyrdom, for example, evokes the theme of mourning for the murder of the Iraj—the primordial hero of Iran.

Having ridden to power on a wave of messianic expectations, the Safavids succeeded in defusing its revolutionary dynamic. In the imam’s absence the Shia ‘ulama —religious scholars—exercise spiritual authority on his behalf, lending them an authority and status superior to that of their Sunni counterparts. In the ensuing clergy–state equilibrium, the Hidden Imam was safely relegated to an ever-receding future, with speculations about his return dismissed as unorthodox, even heretical.

Millennial aspirations, however, are liable to escape from the grip of religious establishments, especially when current orthodoxies can be represented as a betrayal of pristine origins. As Amanat explains: “In a millennial momentum, common to all apocalyptic trends, a crucial shift occurs from dormant aspiration to keen ambition.” In Iran this transition was overseen and manipulated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, a sophisticated theologian and consummate political operator. A vigorous opponent of the Shah’s reforms, Khomeini had argued that in the absence of the Hidden Imam the clerics should effectively exercise power on his behalf under the aegis of a “Guardian Jurist.” His doctrine represented a radical break with the tradition of de facto separation between religion and state that had grown up over previous centuries. The infallibility of the imam must be realized through action. As Amanat puts it:

Khomeini in effect appropriated the function of the Imam to himself though staying short of claiming divine inspiration and infallibility…. He was not merely a “vicegerent” of the Imam, as he theoretically claimed to be, but an imam, as he was universally addressed in the Islamic Republic, an unprecedented honorific exclusively reserved for Shi’i Imams and not assumed by any Shi’i figure since the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam in the ninth century.

By taking power so spectacularly, Khomeini shook the traditions of Twelver Shiism to their foundations. The culture fostered by the madrasas (religious seminaries) under the Pahlavis and their Qajar predecessors had been strong in rhetorical skills, but inward-looking theologically. Its hallmark was “a fetishistic avoidance and frowning defiance of anything new, novel and unfamiliar” that appeared to threaten the ‘ulama ‘s power or influence. Instead of finding ways of adjusting their tradition to meet the modern world and its challenges, the Shiite scholars had focused obsessively on recondite issues such as the manner in which prayer may be nullified by ritual pollution. This approach served to foster a spirit of hostility to social and secular reforms enacted by the Pahlavis in areas such as land ownership, education, and marriage.


A cliché of Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric is that the United States is the Great Satan bent on destroying the Islamic Republic. While there is a genuine historical grievance over the CIA- sponsored “countercoup” that overthrew the nationalist Mossadegh government in 1953, the anti-Americanism that characterized Khomeini’s writings and still surfaces in Tehran street demonstrations seems closer to psychopathology than rational politics. Such frenzied antagonism, as Amanat suggests, owes more to Zoroastrian dualism than mainstream Quranic theology. In the Muslim scripture Satan (shaytan) is a less than Miltonic figure. He is just one demon among others, who has the role of tempter or ethical tester.

In the Zoroastrian schema, however, eternal conflict rages between supporters of Ahura Mazda, Lord of Wisdom, and those of the evil Ahriman. The cosmic battle is unending. One of Ahriman’s titles, the Demon of the Demons, is strikingly comparable to the Great Satan. Unlike the rather docile shaytan of Quranic tradition, his scope of operations and powers are immense. Amanat argues that during the early Islamic centuries Iranian Shiism absorbed the Zoroastrian view of a world divided between pure believers and polluting infidels, with bodies subject to constant danger. In the folk versions of Shiism that still persist, the human body is subject to all kinds of satanic onslaughts and must be constantly guarded against the enemy’s insidious plots. In a patriarchal social order it is, inevitably, women who bear the brunt of such guardianship.

Muslims were sometimes shocked when first encountering unveiled females. Their horror was registered by a Persian visitor to Europe in 1838, who, scandalized by the way that women handled “unclean” puppies, decided that women must be using their pets as sex toys:

The husbands of such women are very happy and content with this arrangement…. Women are so sexually aggressive in this country that no man, no matter what his potency and skill, can hope to satisfy them.

The East–West battle over gender is brilliantly described by Janet Afary in her groundbreaking survey Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. As in other patrilineal societies the woman is the “door of entry to the group.” Improper behavior on her part can expose her community and family to all sorts of hidden dangers. Systems such as these

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