“Iran is the country of Imam al-Mahdi.”
– Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution in 1979

(For Part 1 of this report, see Sistani.Qom: In the wired heart of Shi’ism)

QOM – Shi’ism is an eschatological religion that has codified its own, complex (happy) end of history. Intellectually, from a non-Shi’ite point of view, its appeal is derived from the fact that it is a romantic religion, a religion of the despaired and the dispossessed, and a religion of messianic waiting. The wait is for the expected leader, Imam al-Mahdi, the 12th hidden imam of Shi’ism who will come one day to, in essence, save mankind from itself.

Without understanding this long waiting it’s impossible to understand post-revolutionary Iran. And nowhere else than in the holy city of Qom in central Iran about 200 kilometers south of Tehran is one able to feel the full power of the faith. Hojjatoleslam Masoud Pour Seyyed Aghaei, a soft-spoken, black-turbaned top cleric, is the head of the Bright Future center – an educational and research institute set up to prepare the Shi’ite faithful, especially young people, for the arrival of Imam Mahdi. He quotes as evidence United Nations figures according to which the social gap between rich and poor has been extending nonstop since the 1950s, so that now 80% of the world’s population is excluded from its wealth. “This proves that the intervention of a higher power – God – is necessary.”

Seyyed Aghaei shows how the Internet is central to Shi’ism’s formidable capacity of regimentation and conversion. On its own premises, a house in one of Qom’s narrow alleys, the center publishes a magazine, Intizar Nojavan, soon also digitally, and operates a website – www.zerotimemag.com – about Imam Mahdi and other saviors in all religions. The center in fact multiplies itself in a number of sites – intizarmag.ir, bfnews.ir and intizar.ir.

Their religious program leads to a PhD in four years, including disciplines like history of Islam and knowledge of the Koran and other religions. After that, graduates can become teachers. All foreign students must learn Farsi. Soon the center will also sponsor an electronic university. Centers like Bright Future can count on substantial budgets distributed by the Art and Cultural Activity Center of City Hall in Tehran.

Seyyed Hassan Mirhosseini supervises the imposing library, which also collects all the PhD theses. Apart from Farsi and Arabic, there are books in English and French. According to Seyyed Aghaei, there are eight research groups at the center. He points out the crucial four differences between globalization – whose study is not neglected – and globalization of Imam Mahdi: fundamentals, goals, infrastructure of government and methodology. All studies at the center are directly related to Imam Mahdi. There are more than 100 candidates at the beginning of each term. After passing an entrance examination and an in-depth interview, about eight to 10 are approved each time.

The center pays special attention to kids. Seyyed Aghaei shows how in a series of gorgeously drawn allegories, a small group comprising a psychologist, a painter and a poet managed to illustrate six crucial concepts: dreaming about a “city of wishes”; “the birth of a person who will get these wishes”; absence (the person is hidden); love in the absence of this person; “the city of Heaven” (when the person appears); and what Seyyed Aghaei calls “green waiting,” a kind of utopia of a world ridden from injustice. Interaction is key. The center maintains a question and answer department where questions sent by e-mail or by phone are answered immediately (or the center calls back).

The digital team is extremely young, well-educated and hyperactive. Within minutes, Asia Times Online’s visit is already online at www.bfnews.ir. In a basement filled with computers, the team grills this correspondent with all sorts of questions regarding religion and literature and how Islam is perceived in the West. Among the team we find someone like Muhamad Sadegh Dehghan, a young Hazara born in Kabul who fled Afghanistan with his family in 1980 and grew up in Iran. He recently revisited his hometown and was impressed by the poverty – ie, the absence of reconstruction since the US deposed the Taliban in late 2001. He’s studying for a Master’s degree in international law at the University of Tehran and wants to remain in Iran.

A vision or a waking dream?

The Shi’ite tradition in Qom teaches that when the world has become psychologically ready to accept the government of God and when worldly conditions are ready for truth to prevail, God will then allow Imam Mahdi to launch his final revolution. This is the absolute heart of Shi’ism – messianism meets the revolution. Fervent Shi’ites are inherently prophets and revolutionaries.

The immensely respected Ayatollah Muhamad Baqr al-Sadr – founder of the Da’wa Party, father of the fiery Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and slain by the orders of Saddam Hussein in 1980 – wrote that the idea of Imam Mahdi as the ultimate savior is found not only in up to 400 narratives of Prophet Mohammed, but through countless analysis by both Sunnis and Shi’ites. Ayatollah al-Sadr also clarified that the materialization of the 12th imam was supported by both Islamic and scientific evidence.

The story of Imam Mahdi is a fascinating one. He was born in 868, during the Abbasid empire, in Samarra – today in turbulent Iraq. He became the 12th imam at the age of five, after his father Hasan al-Askari, the 11th imam, was poisoned at the age of 28. Then comes what the Shi’ites call Lesser Occultation. The Abbassids wanted to kill him, so he disappeared for 69 years: that’s how God wanted it. This was a kind of prelude to the Great Occultation, which has been going on for 11 centuries. No one – except God – knows how much longer it will last. During this period, only qualified faqihs – jurisprudents – are able to defend Islam. This is expressed in the controversial concept of velayat al-faqih. When Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini mingled the concept with the institutions of a nation-state. So the main duty of the state-supported Shi’ite clergy in Iran is to proselytize and prepare for the advent of the savior.

The theological and eschatological ramifications concerning Imam Mahdi are complex. In the body of hadiths – the sayings of Prophet Mohammed – expectation of Imam Mahdi is as important as (defensive) jihad in the cause of Allah, for example in Iraq and Palestine.

The savior will come with a bang – no less than a worldwide revolution started by the imam and 313 disciples by the Kaaba in Mecca, with Jesus coming down from heaven to pray, the vanguard marching towards Iraq and the imam settling down in Kufa, 20 minutes away from Najaf. The so-called “victorious armies of Islam” taking over the world will present humanity with a stark choice.

According to Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini in his book Al-Imam al-Mahdi – The Just Leader of Humanity (Ansaryan Publications, Qom), “on seeing the fulfillment of many of the signs promised in the traditions, a large number of unbelievers will turn towards Islam. Those who persist in their disbelief and wickedness shall be killed by the soldiers of the Mahdi. The only victorious government in the entire world will be that of Islam and people will devotedly endeavor to protect it. Islam will be the religion of everyone, and will enter all the nations of the world.”

The full powers of persuasion of Shi’ism are in splendorous evidence when Seyyed Aghaei tries to convince this correspondent that after all failed attempts of mankind to correct injustice, only Imam Mahdi presents a comprehensive solution. One tries to point out that for Westerners brought up in an intellectually critical environment, it’s not easy to accept a messianic utopia. But after hours of fruitful discussion, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of this beautiful dream. For Seyyed Aghaei and tens of millions of Shi’ites, this is not a dream: one must prepare and be prepared because it will inevitably happen. And the savior comes for all. “We cannot accept America as savior,” Seyyed Aghaei said. “They always want everything for themselves.”

The Bright Future center is only a few minutes away from the magnificent Hazrat al-Masumeh, the shrine in honor of Fatemah, the sister of Imam Reza, the second most sacred shrine in Iran after Imam Reza’s in Mashhad (and where President Mahmud Ahmadinejad held his first cabinet meeting last week). Historically, Fatemah is no less than the aunt of Imam Mahdi. “This shows how respected women are in Islam,” said our companion, Hassan Zadeh, a top cleric in Qom.

The fabulous golden dome is glistening under the sun. The courtyard is full of pilgrims. The shrine itself is off-limits to non-Muslims, but thanks to the author’s companions he manages to get in. The effect is as dazzling as a visit to Imam Ali’s shrine in Najaf or Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashhad. The walls and the roof are covered in an apotheosis of mirrored crystals. Ecstatic Hazara, Tajik, Gulf Arab faces say their prayers and then touch and caress the sumptuous grilled metal box housing the body of Fatemah. In the huge, adjacent prayer room pilgrims sit down for hours, absorbing the uplifting atmosphere. One is tempted to forget all the “sound and fury, signifying nothing” outside and beyond, and concentrate on the dream of a single man reappearing to liberate us all.