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Messianic Fervor Grows Among Iran's Shiites

Many, including the president, pray for the Mahdi's return to defeat evil. Western critics fear such beliefs may lead to irrational policies.

April 15, 2006|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

JAMKARAN, Iran — Each Tuesday, thousands of people arrive here at dusk by car and bus. Beneath the twinkling lights of the blue-tiled mosque, they sit on carpets, following prayers broadcast over loudspeakers: families, pilgrims from distant provinces, young men frantic with expectation, women hoping for cures.

The devout make their way to the back of the shrine. There, they write their hopes, dreams and prayers onto slips of paper that they drop into two wells -- one for the men, one for the women. They pray, eyes squeezed shut, until moved along politely by mosque workers.

For many devout Shiite Muslims, this is a place of miracles -- the place of the Mahdi, the messiah. From lowly carpet weavers to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, devotion to the Mahdi and anticipation of his return appears to be crescendoing in Iran.

Particularly on Tuesdays, the day most associated with the Mahdi's blessings, the night here is filled with fervent prayers, a reflection of the ardent faith that gave rise to the Islamic Revolution, and which conservative supporters of Ahmadinejad hope will sustain the nation in any confrontation with the West over Iran's nuclear program.

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.

Ahmadinejad's particular attention to the Mahdi in his speeches and actions -- soon after taking office, he allocated $20 million to improve and enlarge the Jamkaran Mosque complex -- has been noted by Western critics.

So, too was Ahmadinejad's appearance in September before the United Nations General Assembly, when he said a prayer calling for the Mahdi's return: "O mighty Lord, I pray to hasten the emergence of

Belief in the Mahdi energizes many of the 8 million to 10 million pilgrims who come annually to Qom, the seminary city two hours south of Tehran that is considered among Iran's most holy places. The Jamkaran Mosque stands just outside Qom.

"A prayer in the Jamkaran Mosque is almost like going to Mecca," said Adel Safr, a cleric with the Qom mosque's international department. He helps receive foreign visitors in a room ornately decorated to resemble a garden.

"According to some of the sayings, if someone comes each week, 40 times in 40 weeks, he can be worthy to meet the Mahdi when he returns," Safr said.

Visiting the shrine, he said, was "a reaffirmation to say to him that we are still with you -- we came because we believe the Mahdi is caring and that he is going to cleanse the world of injustice and corruption."

To Safr, a 34-year-old who has been studying in Qom for four years, the troubles that have racked the Persian Gulf region in recent years could be portents of the Mahdi's return.

Just as some Christians see warfare in the Middle East as reflections of Biblical prophecy, some in Iran see a religious pattern in recent events.

The destruction of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra, Iraq, the Mahdi's birthplace and where he went into hiding, and the sectarian violence in that country are seen as fulfillments of prophecies about the conditions in which he would reappear.

"This is why Mr. Bush has put divisions in Saudi Arabia and Iraq -- to kill the Mahdi and make Jesus the messiah," Safr said. "I am serious. There have been speeches in the Pentagon about it."

For others, the shrine is a place for more personal prayers, a source of solace and hope for believers coping with poverty, health problems, or family or social difficulties.

"Ninety percent of people coming here have lost all their hope in the security of the world and want to grab onto their last chance, and they find it here," said Majid Haidari, 27, from Khosan.

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