Divided Iran on the Eve

Sipa via AP Images
Inside the Jamkaran mosque near Qom, Iran, December 2008


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…

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