Apocalyptic Islam

Interview with Abbas Amanat


Apocalyptic Islam
by Fariba Amini

Dr. Abbas Amanat is professor of History and International and Area Studies at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut. Prof. Amanat graduated from Tehran University and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in England. He is the author of many books and articles among them Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah and the Iranian Monarchy, 1831-1896 (1997) and Resurrection and Renewal: the Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (1989). His current book, Apocalyptic Islam and and Iranian Shi’ism, published by I.B. Taurus (2009), examines the millenarian roots and manifestations of Shi’ism as it developed in Iran. It covers many issues relevant to today’s discussions on Islam, Shi’ism and the Islamic Republic. He is currently working on a biography of the poet Fatima Baraghani Qurrat al-'Ayn (Tahirah) and a documentary history of Qajar Iran (in Persian). Professor Amanat has been a mentor to many students, both Iranians and Americans. As one of his former students says about him, “my years as a Ph.D. student at Yale were formative in various ways due to the presence of Prof. Amanat in my life as my mentor and a friend. Prof. Amanat’s scholarly advice, intellectual guidance, and enthusiasm inspired me throughout my work.”

In your recent book you talk about Shi’ia jurisprudence during the Qajar and Safavid periods, but you mention that it was not very relevant. Why would we, after 200 years or so, then see the crafting and the implementation of the idea of Vilayat- e- faqhih?

In my book I have tried to show that in modern times, and especially in the 20th century after the Constitutional Revolution and the rise of Pahlavi secularism, the Shi’i clerical establishment failed to rise up to the challenge of modernity by modernizing its essentially arcane Shi’i legal methods and institutions, concepts and practices. Both the “principles of jurisprudence” (osul-e fiqh) which is the methodology of law, and the actual instructions (foru’), lagged behind the needs of the time. Orthodox Shi’ism remained hopelessly preoccupied with outdated ideas of devotional rites and practices, ritual cleanliness, unpracticed and impracticable penal laws and so on. Loss of major institutions such as the education and the judiciary to the Pahlavi state helped marginalize the clergy. Instead the isolate establishment, and especially the younger and more radical members, sought social relevance not in legal modernity and reconsideration of Islamic law but in political activism and opposition to the secular policies of the state and its real or presumed subservience to Western values and Western powers. This is particularly evident after the 1960’s.

As I have shown, the doctrine of the “authority of the jurists” (vilayat-e faqih) was a clear example of this shift from legalism to political power; an attempt to become relevant and regain the lost privileges. Contrary to common misperceptions about the clergy’s opposition to the state, throughout its history the clerical establishment in Iran almost never entertained a claim over political power; an area that traditional Shi’i jurists for centuries tried to avoid. Any form of government except that of the Mahdi was perceived as a necessary evil; an oppressor (ja’er) that the pure and godly should avoid rather than embrace. Vilayat-e faqih should thus be seen as an act of empowerment, a discovery of the political potency of an Islamic ideology, while bypassing legal modernity. Even up to our time, some thirty years after the revolution, the Islamic Republic has yet to find adequate answers to the demand for doctrinal and legal modernity; issues such as human rights, freedom of speech, gender and minorities, and a humane penal code.

The Idea of the Hidden Imam or Mahdi is an important part of the Shi’a religion. How do the clerics give legitimacy to this idea?

The Shi’i clerical establishment always had an uneasy attitude toward messianic Shi’ism and promises for the return of the Mahdi. The Shi’i clerical scholarship wrote over a millennium numerous books and tracts on the “absence” (ghaybat) of the Hidden Imam emphasizing his prolonged life and that he will endure until the End of the Time when he will return to bring justice and equity. Yet despite great investment in rationalizing the absent of the Hidden Imam, this literature, by and large, was designed to give credence and legitimacy to the clerical establishment and their legal authority as jurists (mujtahids) in the absence of the Imam. In practice the clergy, particularly high ranking clergy -what today is known as ayatollahs- consistently rejected any claim to the advent of the Hidden Imam and even its impending possibility. This is well evident in their hostile fatwas throughout Shi’i history, especially in the Qajar era, and their persecution of followers of such messianic trends. Instead, increasingly since the 18th century, they advocated that the jurists collectively are the representative or the “deputy” of the Mahdi. Facing the current trend of expectation for the Mahdi, it seems that the Shi’i clergy have been taken off guard and don’t know how to go about the outlandish insinuations coming from the Iranian president and his cohorts. As I have discussed in the last chapter some high clergy are following the new lead and express pride in the fact that they for long wrote about the “signs” of the Mahdi’s advent. Yet majority of the more cautious and circumspect members of the clergy seems to be paying only a lip service to idea and treat the president’s repeated statements about the impending advent of the Mahdi with silent skepticism.

As you mention in your book, there is also a journal called Maw’ud, which is filled with all kinds of superstitious beliefs. Why do you think they are promoting such khorafat?

Such publications as Maw’ud and many websites devoted to the idea of the Mahdi, including repeated conferences, seminars, secretariats, and an assortment of organizations devoted to Mahdism in today’s Iran, serve a purpose however. They try to galvanize, it seems, the otherwise ideologically exhausted support for the regime with a very generous doze of financial support from the government or semi-governmental organizations that funnel funds for upkeep of website, publishing journals and paying for conference and seminars. It remains to be seen how much of grass roots support they enjoy but surely some of the ideas discussed or hinted at in these publications are sheer hate propaganda, recycled rhetoric of the Great Satan and a uncanny attempt to update and give currency to the prophecies of the Mahdi to make it relevant to the world affairs. Some insinuations are truly scary while others reflect popular Shi’i beliefs in a pseudo-intellectualized garb. In certain respect it reflects the worldview of the president and his supporters.

You talk about Jamkaran and how ordinary people and even the middle and upper classes go on pilgrimage to this site in the middle of the desert? You also said that Ahmadi Nejad government on the orders of Khamenei has spent or will be spending nearly 1.4 billion dollars on this site. Why do you think this is happening in light of the current economic hardship for Iranians? How do they justify this?

I don’t think I need to dwell too much on the irrationality of governments in determining their priorities in Iran or elsewhere. As far as the Islamic Republic and more specifically the current president is concerned however, Jamkaran is a success story. Here there are tens of thousands who show up weekly to visit the site and outpour their inner frustrations in a seemingly sacred space. After all with the exception of Mashhad no other religious site in today’s Iran seem to be attracting as much attention. Anyone who recognizes the place of propaganda –and no doubt the Shi’i clergy enjoy a millennium of expertise in this area- would recognize the value of a site that make people weep, pray, and write petitions for the Hidden Imam in order to share their problems and hope for the best. What is the worth of a billion or so dollars to offer such a collective therapeutic outlet? We should not forget that the Iranian society has become in a peculiar way more religious compared even to a generation earlier.

One of your chapters talks at length about the rise of the Babi movement. Can you tell us a bit more about its history and the circumstances in which it emerged?

The Babi movement that emerged in the middle of the 19th century was the latest, and possibly the most dramatic, example of messianic aspirations in Shi’i Iranian past (perhaps with the exception of Isma’ilism in its revolutionary phase in the 10 to 12th centuries). It claimed to fulfill the long-awaited return of the Mahdi at the End of the Time and thus the end of the Islamic dispensation. It was bound to meet with the hostility of the clerical establishment and eventually the rage of the Qajar state. What is however important about the movement compared to many examples in Islamic, more specifically Iranian Shi’i, history was its metaphorical interpretation of the Islamic Resurrection (Qiyamat) and cyclical view of history and the belief that religions like living organs have birth, growth, decline and eventual demise. It advocated that although all are of the common divine origin, each has to address the needs of specific time in human societies and evolution of human civilization. This idea, which articulated in later years and came to be known as “progressive revelation,” naturally challenged the finality of the Islam and hence aroused the opposition of the religious establishment. Yet despite persecution and pressure it thrived in the Iranian setting as a semi-clandestine movement and despite bitter internal divisions evolved to what is today the Baha’i Faith. Still the apocalyptic impulses that are at the heart of Shi’i messianism was responsible for the rise and growth of the Babi and later Baha’i thought. The symbolic interpretation of the messianic prophecies, a humanization of the Mahdi and the dynamics embedded in the Shi’i tragedy and salvation stories all contributed to the shaping of the movement.

What is particularly interesting about this movement from the perspective of Iranian culture, is its indigenous sense of national awareness evident in the use of Persian language as the language of its scripture, its honoring of Fars as the sacred land, and its new time reckoning based on the Iranian solar calendar that celebrated the Nowruz. The Babi doctrine in its intricacies however was riddled with anachronistic ideas it inherited from its Shi’i popular culture and complicated because of its experimentation with a new sacred language. Nevertheless, its very breaking away from the sphere of Islam opened the way for later emergence of a more modern yet indigenous Baha’i doctrine.

What do you think of the social movement known as the Green Movement that took place after the 2009 elections? How does this movement relate to other movements that have taken place in the last century in Iran?

As has been observed, there is something generational about the Green movement. Here too we may detect the return of messianic aspirations among a new generation of Iranians frustrated with the hypocrisy and oppression and with the unfulfilled promises of the Islamic Revolution. Such aspirations however no longer seem to favor the advent of a savior in the traditional Shi’i garb, something which has already been exhausted by the regime. Yet there was a palpable hope in the demonstration and its symbolism, its use of green as the color of salvation which is sacred and yet peaceful and “green” in the contemporary environmental sense. I finished my book only a few months before the June 2009 election. Looking back at the last paragraphs it seems to me, without bragging, that they are somewhat prophetic. The messianic paradigm and hope for salvation is something very old in Iranian culture, perhaps as old as inception of Iran. It is therefore remarkable to see that such a paradigm finds a new context and a new exciting expression in our time.


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Great post. Thank you.

by vildemose on

Great post. Thank you. Ahmadineja'd's messianic regime should never get his hands on nuclear weapons.