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al-Mahdi is "the rightly-guided one" who, according to Islamic Hadiths (traditions), will come before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim.  Over the last 1400 years numerous claimants to the mantle of the Mahdi have arisen in both Shi`i and Sunni circles.  Modern belief in the coming of the Mahdi has manifested most famously in the 1979 al-`Utaybi uprising of Sa`udi Arabia, and more recently in the ongoing Mahdist movements (some violent) in Iraq, as well as in the frequently-expressed public prayers of former Iranian President Ahmadinezhad bidding the Mahdi to return and, in the larger Sunni Islamic world, by claims that Usamah bin Ladin might be the (occulted) Mahdi.  Now in 2014 Mahdism is active in Syria, as the jihadist opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra claims to be fighting to prepare the way for his coming; and in the new "Islamic State/caliphate" spanning Syrian and Iraqi territory, as its leadership promotes the upcoming apocalyptic battle with the West at Dabiq, Syria.  This site will track such Mahdi-related movements, aspirations, propaganda and beliefs in both Sunni and Shi`i milieus, as well as other  Muslim eschatological yearnings.
For a primer on Mahdism, see my 2005 article, "What's Worse than Violent Jihadists?," at the History News Network:; for more in-depth info, see the links here to my other writings, including my book on Mahdism.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Preemptive Gloating in Tehran

During my time in Iran I had to sit through a long speech by Ali Larijani that could only be described as "triumphalistic," in that one of his major points was this: "the time of the supremacy of one religion over another is not over; Islam is promised final victory."  This was on Friday, August 15.  The same day, in a Friday khutbah at Tehran University, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said the same thing, according to MEMRI: "The claim that the time has passed when one religion ruled the world runs counter to the Koran and the [Islamic] tradition. Not only has the time not passed, but the Islamic revival that we are witnessing today is moving in this direction, and Allah willing, this Islamic revival will sweep over the entire world, when the Mahdi appears" (  Talk about staying on message!  Of course the IRI's and Islam's apologists (Muslim and non-Muslim) will maintain that this is just bluster from an aggrieved nation with an inferiority complex that remembers the nefarious overthrow of Mossadegh and fears American (or Israeli) military strikes. 
But what if we take Larijani and Khatami and their ilk at their word?  Doesn't that throw a monkey wrench into the "can't we all just get along?" approach of the Barack Husayn Obamas of the world?
While you contemplate that, here are some more of my pictures from Iran.

Below is the actual conference hall where my paper was read, with the official Fourth Annual Mahdism Conference Poster behind the three clerics running (and I use the term loosely) things:

This next one is yours truly in front of a copy of the kiswah, the covering of
the Ka`bah, which the Sau`dis gave to the IRI:


And this is the entrance to the Jamkaran Mosque:

6:08 pm edt          Comments

Monday, August 25, 2008

Persian Letters

     August 10-17 I went to Iran for the Fourth Annual International Conference on Mahdism.  It was an all-expenses-paid trip courtesy of the Bright Future Institute, a quasi-governmental organization dedicated to paving the way for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam as the Mahdi.  Traveling to Iran is not something one should attempt solo.  I've been to other Middle Eastern countries on my own but I would never have gone to Iran without official sanction from the IRI government.  And even then I  barely made it, as my visa did not arrive until just four days  before my Air France flight--Atlanta to Paris, Paris to Tehran--departed.
     As the pilot announced the descent into Imam Khomeini International airport, many of the Iranians on the flight downed their last Heineken or glass of wine and the women began reaching into their bags for chadors.  At the end of the walkway, prior to customs, I was met by Dr. Ali Haddad of the the Institute, as well as officials from the Foreign Ministry and airport security.  Along with another American, Evan Anderson (a representative of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., who works for the Episcopal Bishop there in interfaith dialogue), I was escorted to the VIP lounge and provided tea while the bureaucrats took off with passports and documents.  Eventually Mr. Anderson and I were led off to be fingerprinted, something reserved for Americans and for which the BFI folks were most apologetic. It was explained to us that this was "just politics" and Iranian retaliation for American policy regarding Iranians entering the U.S. I refrained from asking our hosts if they had ever heard of 9/11.  Rode with Ali Haddad and a driver to the Hotel Laleh in Tehran, about an hour drive (the new and impressive Imam Khomeini airport is between Tehran to its north and Qom to its south, actually closer to the former; I was told that it is reserved for international flights only, no domestic ones at all).  On the drive I asked Ali if Iranians preferred Barack Husayn Obama over John McCain; he said "most Iranians who follow U.S. politics do not think it will make any difference").
     Hotel Laleh is a five-star establishment in Iran, built under the Shah and finished in the early 1970s.  It was nice enough, most importantly having a WESTERN-style toilet and perhaps a dozen TV channels (although air conditioning in that hotel, at least, meant air slightly cooler than that outside--and Tehran was around 90 during the day when I was there).  Most channels were in Farsi, and my two years of that language in grad school didn't really prepare me for following the programs (although many of them consisted of imams and Qur'anic verses).  I did watch some of the Arabic channel al-Jazeera, however. And Iran's Press TV is in English.  BBC and CNN came in for perhaps an hour in the early mornings before, I presume, the government censors woke up and turning on the scrambler equipment.  Regarding IRI TV: Press TV was better than I had expected but is still tendentious as hell; for example, there were a number of stories on Ethiopian Christian "atrocities" against Somali "freedom fighters" involving "gunning down busloads of old women and children" with "American support."  And the lead-ins to every segment of the show consists of shots of Israeli planes, Israeli troops firing, American soldiers knocking down doors, and Arabs and Muslims being taken off in ambulances and/or weeping. If that was my only source of news, I'd be anti-American and anti-Israeli, too.  Maybe Pew, Zogby and other pollsters might want to figure out a way to factor that into their next report on how much Bush has caused us to be hated in the rest of the world?!
     But you have to love a weatherwoman in a chador! 
     After recovering on Monday, I ventured out on Tuesday to the Tehran bazaar and the Gholestan Palace, formerly the seat of the Qajar Dynasty  (ruled Iran late 18th-early 20th century).  Americans were only allowed out of the hotel with a translator/minder; in my case it was Laleh, a wonderful woman who had graduated univerity with a degree in English  translation and had been hired by BFI just for this conference.

The Tehran bazaar was quite disappointing, perhaps because my frame of reference was the Istanbul bazaar--but of course Tehran loses in every respect when compared to Istanbul: no water ways nearby, hotter, drabber, more repressive.  And the Qajar palace complex was run-down and in woeful need of repairs (again, contrast this with the well-kept and -preserved Ottoman Topkapi Palace in Istanbul).  Is it that the Iranians don't care about this site--because of ideology and/or lack of  tourism--or because they don't have the funds to keep it up and run all those centrifuges as well?  Interesting conversation: I asked Laleh if she'd ever been to Iraq, and she said "yes," she'd been on a pilgrimage to Najaf and Karbalah with her family a few years ago.  I refrained from pointing out that if Saddam were still in power, that would never have happened.  Cultural note: Iran seems to be living through an extended episdoe of "That 70s Show"--and I'm not just talking about Internet connection time or President Ahmadinejad's sartorial style.  Men in Iran wear designer jeans, too-tight shirts and have more hair--both head and facial--than I used to see at Boston concerts.  Of course, contrast that with the women in chadors--and you can wear any color you'd like, as long as it's black--with only their faces and hands uncovered. 
     One of the nice BFI folks mentioned to me, Wednesday morning, that he did not know Sunni Muslims also believed in the Mahdi! This was in the context of discussing my paper, "Through a Glass Darkly: A Comparison of Previous Mahdist Movements and States to the Future Eschatological Mahdiyah."  This led to a conversation with another individual from the Institute about Qur'anic and Biblical exegesis, in which at one point I said "that's not what the Salafis say." I was told "I am talking about true Islam." (Contrast this with what I was told by an Egyptian Sunni whom I met on the flight from Atlanta to Paris; after informing him where I was going and why, he sniffed "Shi`is? They are not real Muslims!")  Here's a pic of Abolfazl Nurmuhammapour, one of  the wonderful BFI chaps:

Post-lunch on Wednesday I had a taped interview with the BFI folks. The hojjatollah sitting in was quite nice (although he spoke no English) and looked amazingly like my friend Reverend Joe Perez (although I'm sure he's not as good a basketball player).  At one point I thought I'd stepped in it, when asked "what do you say to those people who say Islam is a violent religion?" I mentioned that all three monotheistic religions have violent histories BUT I did point out that Jesus never led armies in battle or ruled a state, both of which Muhammad did, and that it was crucial for folks like the BFIers to disabuse those Muslims who support violence of their tendency to try to emulate the Prophet's 7th century practices in this regard.  I was later interviewed by Press TV along the same lines and gave much the same answers.  And yet I made it back!
     Also, on Wednesday evening the same fellow who served as translator during my BFI interview was talking with me and I asked him my stock Jaywalking question: what do Iranians think of Barack Husayn Obama? He said "he cannot win, because America is so racist?"  Wondering if he'd been in contact with the DNC, I asked him how he knew this? "Because of American movies, like 'American History X.'"  There you have it, folks--proof positive BHO cannot win.  Guess they're not allowed to see "Glory, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or the NBA in Iran.
      Finally, on Thursay, the conference kicked off at the Hall of Leader in north Tehran, a short-range missile distance from the Elborz Mountains. Here's the inside of the Hall:
On the way to this opening session I met Scott Peterson, "Christian Science Monitor" correspondent based in Istanbul who's been to Iran numerous times and written on Mahdism, Jamkaran, etc.  The hall was quite nice, with a domed, almost conical ceiling that let in some light and housing two large TV screens--ayatollahtrons?--although only one is visible in the above picture. The two large seals flanking the screen say "Muhammad" and "Allah,"from left to right.  Pix of Khomeini and Khameini (of course) are in the center of the dais area. The inside tables for attendees have microphones and set-ups for simultaneous translation, since the conference's official languages were Farsi, Arabic and English (take that, France!).  After the IRI national anthem there was prayer and Qur'an recitation (just what is a Christian supposed to do during those?) an finally the parade of opening ceremony speakers began. Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi praised the BFI for "paving the ground for the reappearance of the Mahdi" through nine publications in 30 languages and for having Ph.D.-granting status now.  Ayatollah Khoshani--who was not on the program, but got to speak anyway (this sort of thing happened throughout the conference)--wished us all a "Happy Imam Mahdi's Birthday" (it would be on Aug. 17, three days hence) and mentioned speaking with Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI about the future return of Jesus.  But his ecumenical side dissipated when he finished his talk with "May God grant us freedom from torture and oppression at the hands of the Zionists, the White House and the British in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. We hope this times next year we'll witness the return of Imam Mahdi."
     President Ahmadinejad--who had been sitting perhaps 30 feet to my left--then spoke, after being honored for the publication of his new book.  His devotion to Mahdism being well-known, as one can imagine he hit all the familiar tropes in his speech.  After mentioning that globalization "is not just happening, it is Allah's plan" Ahmadinejad--of course--recited a litany of Western-imposed global horrors that will not be rectified until the Mahdi reappears: Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Chinese cheating at the Olympics. OK, I'm kidding about the last one.  He really meant American cheating.  The A-man wears platform shoes to get him up to that 5'7" fighting size, but he does have charisma: he was mobbed by clerics and non-clerics alike, both entering and leaving the building. 
     Break for coffee, tea and snacks. Iranians are fond of cake with pistachios piled on top, but their coffee is a bastard variant of Nescafe and while their tea is top-notch trying to get any drinks or snacks makes one liable to losing a digit, if not an entire arm. I thought I was back at a grad student soiree in the States.  
     The second half of the Mahdism Conference opening session gave me a sense of deja vu all over again.  Dr. Hamid Mowlana gave us a list of 10 aspects of "strategic Mahdism," which included the creation of "an axis of justice-seekers" (take that, President Bush!); rejection of all Western ideologies, in particular the "end of history" (this rejection of Fukuyama's came up over and over again in the conference--wonder if they've heard of Robert Kagan?); of course, the expectation of the Mahdi's return. And that latter belief should be disseminated outside Iran via schools and universities, the media and the diplomacy of the IRI! After a concluding speech by Ayatollah Sohrabi, which either didn't make much sense or found me wishing I'd had some Nescafe straight-up, we finally broke for lunch (back at the hotel).
     Finally, at 3:30 PM Thursday, 8/14, the conference panels kicked off. The schedule included two simultaneous panels in two different halls, 16 in each over two days, for a total of 32 paper presentations. Here's a shot of the venue:
This one is a bit of an anomaly, because usually the women sat--whether by choice or unspoken social pressure--in the back rows.  And as Dr. Ismail Poonawala of UCLA said to me "this conference is not academically rigorous at all, because no critical papers are allowed." Indeed. The conference was more pro-Mahdist propaganda than anything else, and in fact a number of the clerics who presented "papers" might just as well have been delivering a Friday khutba in the mosque. Favorites topics included globalization, messianism in other religions (mostly Christianity, but there was a bit on Jewish messianism and even one paper on Buddhist millenarianism) and preparing for the Mahdi's return.  It was at times surreal, as statements of comity with Christians regarding Jesus were interspersed with erudite discussions about whether the Returned Mahdi would convert all Christians and Muslims, or simply kill us all.  And there was the irritating tendency of the clerical panel moderators to let non-scheduled speakers filibuster, taking time away from those of us actually on the program.  But while I did put a lot of effort into my paper--26 pages on previous Mahdist movements and states (the Muwahhids, the Fatimids, -the Sudanese Mahdists and the failed Saudi Mahdism of al-Utaybi) and how they must be seen as "types" of the future Mahdiyah--it was really just a rationale for going to Iran.  
     The closing ceremony of the conference featured a speech by Ali Larijani, former IRI nuclear negotiatior and current Speaker of the Majlis (Parliament).  I have dealt with that speech in a piece scheduled to run in "The Weekly Standard" soon, but suffice it to say that rumours of the ideological split between Larijani and Ahmadinejad are greatly exaggerated.  I was one of four foreign conference presenters "honored" by being asked to come sit on the dais behind Larijani during his address. If pictures of that should surface, please do not consider my seating location to be, in any wise, an endorsement of the statements and political positions of Ali Larijani or the IRI!
     On Saturday, August 16 conference participants we taken to Qom, a several-hour bus ride south of Tehran.  I was told Qom's population was 2 million (compared to Tehran's 13+ million).  The first place we visited was the (in)famous Jamkaran Mosque, believed by many Shi`is to be built on the site of a brief rematerialization by the Mahdi centuries ago. Here's a shot of pilgrims marching to Jamkaran.
And here's another shot of Jamkaran:
And here's what it looks like inside (the aforementioned Scott Peterson told me he's NEVER been allowed before to take pictures inside of Jamkaran):

One of the BFI chaps actually was arrested by IRI security, because he had obtained permission for us to take pictures, a privilege which one of the mosque tenders then tried to revoke.  And I was given, as a gift, a prayer stone made of clay from Karbala (site of Imam Husayn's martyrdom, according to Shi`is, in 680 CE).  This picture is from the right wing of the mosque, the left being for women and the center (somewhat visible through those windows on the left in this picture) being the main prayer area where we were forbidden from taking pictures.  
     Amazingly, I totally forgot to go to the well in the back of the mosque where one can allegedly drop prayer requests to the Mahdi. 
     On the way back to Tehran we stopped for a few minutes of photo-op at Khomeini's Tomb/Mosque Complex on the outskirts of Tehran; alas, this is the best picture I have of the outside:
Those minarets around the tomb complex are massive; if size matters, Khomeini is an important guy for sure:
Inside, the mosque/tomb was much more populist (bordering on kitschy) than, say, Jamkaran: Christmas-style lights, posters, etc. But there were weeping Iranians in front of his actual tomb (they showed up not long after I took this picture--rent-a-bereaver?).
I was asked by the Press TV team if Khomeini was popular in America. I winked broadly at them and said "Oh, yes, VERY popular." They cracked up, knowing exactly what I meant.
     I departed Iran at 0200 on the Mahdi's birthday (Aug. 17), having left the U.S. on my own birthday.  For some reason he got more press, although the home-made cards from my sons trump that, if you ask me.
     Besides a case of "ayatollah's revenge," I took away from Iran a number of important observations, which I will be writing up and, hopefully, publishing over the next few weeks.  If anyone is interested in obtaining a copy of the paper I presented at the conference, please feel free to contact me on this website (contact link is easy to find).

11:06 am edt          Comments

Monday, August 18, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Mosque
Here's the first of more to come: me in front of the Jamkaran Mosque!

10:37 pm edt          Comments

A Conservative Yankee in Khameini's Court

I spent all last week in Iran for the "Fourth Annual [Ahmadinejad-sponsored] International Conference on Mahdism Doctrine."  This was mostly in Tehran, but I did make it to Qom and even to Jamkaran Mosque, alleged site of the 12th Imam's dematerialization over a millennium ago. I will have pics, and reports, up soon.  Stay tuned.

4:47 pm edt          Comments

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Jamkaran Mosque near Qom, Iran (during my trip there Aug. 2008)

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