June 17, 2006


Ahmadinejad’s Demons (Matthias Kuntzel, April 24, 2006, The New Republic)

The Shia call all the male descendants of the Prophet Muhammad “imams” and ascribe to them a quasi-divine status. Hussein, who was killed at Karbala by Yazid, was the third Imam. His son and grandson were the fourth and fifth. At the end of this line, there is the “Twelfth Imam,” who is named Muhammad.

Some call him the Mahdi (the “divinely guided one”). He was born in 869, the only son of the eleventh Imam. In 874, he disappeared without a trace, thereby bringing Muhammad’s lineage to a close. In Shia mythology, however, the Twelfth Imam survived. The Shia believe that he merely withdrew from public view when he was five and that he will emerge from his “occultation” in order to liberate the world from evil.

In Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, V. S. Naipaul described seeing posters in post-Revolutionary Tehran bearing motifs similar to those of Maoist China: crowds, for instance, with rifles and machine guns raised in the air as if in greeting. The posters always bore the same phrase: “Twelfth imam, we are waiting for you.”

According to Shia tradition, legitimate Islamic rule can only be established following the twelfth imam’s reappearance.

Khomeini, however, had no intention of waiting. He vested the myth with an entirely new sense: The Twelfth Imam will emerge only when the believers have vanquished evil. To speed up the Mahdi’s return, Muslims had to shake off their torpor and fight.

It was this culture that nurtured Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s worldview.

Which is why Ayatollah Sistani and the new Iraq scare the Iranian leadership so badly, they highlight the heretical nature of Khomeneism.

MORE (via Karma):

: INSIDE IRAN'S NEW POWER STRUGGLE (Amir Taheri, 6//17/06, NY Post)

For his part, Khamenei has maintained an uneasy distance from both camps while his son discusses a compromise with the "new men."

Much of this power struggle is fueled by personal rivalries and mundane political differences, but its theological theme bears mention, too. This centers on a dispute that has marked duodecimo (Twelver) Shi'ism for over 1,000 years.

The duodecimo Shi'ites believe that Allah created the world for the family of Muhammad and bestowed all power on 12 descendants of his favorite daughter Fatimah. The last of the 12, one Muhammad bin Hassan, known as the Mahdi (The Guide), disappeared in 940 AD, ushering in a period of "ghaybat al-kubra" (Long Absence) during which no government anywhere in the world has legitimacy. The return of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, will mark the end of the world as we know it and the start of a new and perfect one.

The theological division among Shi'ites concerns a simple question: What should believers do while the Imam is absent? One doctrine, known as Intizar (waiting) maintains that the best that believers can do is to be patient and wait until the Imam decides to return. Followers of that doctrine are known as Muntazeris (Those Who Wait).

That doctrine is opposed by another known as Ta'ajil (To hasten). Its adepts believe that believers should act to hasten the coming of the Mahdi. The Ta'ajilis (Hasteners) insist that believers should seek to unite the entire Islamic ummah and lead it into battle against the "Infidel," with the view of provoking a final showdown for global domination in the hope that, when the crunch comes, the Hidden Imam will return to ensure the victory of the Only Truth.

Throughout history, the overwhelming majority of Shi'ites in Iran have subscribed to the doctrine of Patient Waiting. The new elite, however, is decidedly seduced by the doctrine of Hastening the Return. President Ahmadinejad openly claims that the aim of his government's actions is to hasten the coming of the Mahdi.

The U.S. has enormous leverage to drive a wedge between the Ahmedinejadists and the people on the one hand and Ayatollah Khamenei and company on the other, leaving the Hasteners thoroughly isolated and primed to be disposed of next election.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 17, 2006 10:20 AM

So Khomeiniism immanentizes the eschaton?

Posted by: David Cohen at June 17, 2006 11:20 AM

David is on the right track with this.

I may take it further. The difference between khomeneism and other strains of Sheaism and between Shiaism and Sunnism is not what we think of as heresy but rather merely schism.

Say to me, please, what are the theological distinctions, not related to or rooted in the Tweedledee/Tweedledum question of who is to be master, separating these factions.

I am quite serious. The sources have not been helpful. We have been calling the mob war going on over there "sectarian violence," but the "sects" are fighting over power and only power.

Oh, you may find differences in emphasis intelligible to divinity school professors and clutched at, straw-like, by drowning Islamophiles. My question remains: what difference is there in religious, as distinct from political, belief, as practiced by ordinary Muslims.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 17, 2006 11:49 AM


Yes. Like the rationalisms it flows from the heresy of believing we can perfect society ourselves.


If, as Judaism, Christianity and Shi'ism believe, government can never be perfected in the absence of the Messiah and it is up to us to be worthy of His coming, then you have the basis for both morality and separation of Church and State, which seem to be about the only two things necessary to a decent society, maximizing both security and freedom.

The precise point is that there oughtn't be any difference in religious practice, only in political and economic and even they need to be a function of the religious.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 12:14 PM

The duodecimo Shi'ites believe that Allah created the world for the family of Muhammad and bestowed all power on 12 descendants of his favorite daughter Fatimah.

Is it just me, or does this sound like the precise, irreconcilable opposite of "separation of Church and State"?

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 17, 2006 3:09 PM

Separation is appropriate until the Twelfth returns.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 3:55 PM

I guess my understanding of Islamic thelogy is a bit shallow, so let me ask a couple of basic questions? Muhammed was a prophet, correct? Would that be a prophet along the lines of Ezekiel, Isaiah, Moses, or Elijah? I do not recall God conferring "quasi-divine" status on any of their descendants, and I'm wondering where God conferred such status on Muhammed's? What in the Quran supports duodecimo theology?

Posted by: Dave W at June 17, 2006 5:40 PM

Mohammed isn't divine, which is why Muslims object to the term Mohammedism. He's just the final prophet. The one big difference, as I understand it, is that where other prophets conveyed what God had told them, Muslims believe that the words of the Quran are quite literally God's word, which is why desecrating the book is so much more inflammatory.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 5:45 PM

My resolve weakens, but I still think it's a schtick.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 17, 2006 6:09 PM

Separation is appropriate until the Twelfth returns.

So then why is Iran ruled by mullahs? Yes, you can claim Khomeneism is a heresy, but that sounds a lot like the arguments Trotskyites and others make: Marxism is actually wonderful and non-oppressive, don't you know, regardless of the fact that every real-world example of it is fatally flawed. We're supposed to ignore all the failures because the next implementation will work correctly.

Muslims believe that the words of the Quran are quite literally God's word

It's more than that: they believe the Koran, in its current official form, existed in Heaven before Mohammed transcribed it for us. God speaks Arabic at home, you see.

Oddly, though, Muslims seem reluctant to allow reproductions or studies of historic Korans. I suspect they don't want to deal with the theological problems that would arise when some old copies are found to not match the current version.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 17, 2006 7:28 PM

For the same reason it took Christians a while to get it right once they become dominant. The Shi'ites will learn too.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 7:33 PM

Everybody: I'm still waiting for some hint of a theological, as opposed to political distinction between the Islamic factions. It looks more and more as though I shall have to keep waiting.

What I seem to be seeing is that there really is no theological distinction, as the rest of us understand it.

It is theological for them, although is would be political for the rest of humanity.

That's what I had suspected all along. No further questions. We are ready for closing

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 17, 2006 8:11 PM

It was a political question--who would succeed Mohammed in running a state that was unitary because of the unfortunate quirk of Islam having succeeded where Judaism and Christianity were slave religions. the Shi'a though, because they lost, did indeed develop a theology that's quite similar to Christianity and Judaism. The spectacular failure of Sunni Islam has given us the opportunity to Reform it too, as has already happened in places like Turkey and Indonesia.

It is, of course, a theological question for us as well, one we answered correctly before we had power,m incorrectly once we attained it, but have reverted back to the correct answer with experience.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 8:21 PM

Mr. Gots;

There is a big theological difference, which was captured by Mr. Cohen in the first comment. He didn't get it quite right, as Khomeiniism does not immanentize the eschaton. It does, however, provide a means by which it could be done by the actions of men. In standard Shia'ism, it is the Mahdi and/or Allah who decides on the timing of the eschaton, not any living human. It seems to me that whether man or God is in charge of bringing about the End Times is not a small difference in theology.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at June 17, 2006 8:45 PM

They basically fell into the rationalist error--as a function of Khomeini's time in France--and came to believe that humans could perfect the regime.

Posted by: oj at June 17, 2006 8:58 PM

If the aim, theologically speaking, is to hasten the day of the iman's return, then a good place for Islam to begin by re-examining what Allah says jihad is all about! That's a central theological issue IMO.

Posted by: Dave W at June 17, 2006 11:16 PM