The Hidden Imam and His Cult
PBS / Babak Sarfaraz

Because of a new injunction by Suprme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this year's birthday celebrations for the Hidden Imam on July 27 will be a relatively subdued affair. Babak Sarfaraz examines the reasons behind this development. Photos of the Jamkaran celebration that he took two years ago appear above.

[ dispatch ] Although Mahdaviat, or the cult of Mahdi -- associated with Shia Islam's 12th Imam, believed to be in occultation before he returns to save the world -- is over a millennium old, it had never become a full-fledged mass movement until the last 20 years in Iran. Today, millions of Iranians worship the Hidden Imam with a devotion and adoration that rivals, and in some instances even surpasses, that paid to the Prophet of Islam.

Scholars identify two primary factors underlying this remarkable development: the sociocultural transformation Iran has undergone over the past few decades and a political realignment at the top of the factional pyramid.

While the idea of a coming redeemer is as old as civilization itself, social scientists agree that messianic movements flourish at times of great social upheaval or trauma. This was the case with certain periods of Zoroastrianism, sundry Jewish sects, various Roman plebian cults, and the early Christian church. So it is with the Mahdi cult in Iran. Years of socioeconomic and political dislocation have taken a heavy toll on the psyches of the poor and dispossessed masses who are the mainstay of the p... >>>

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