For some time now, Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been back on the country's political scene -- no longer hidden from view, as it were. And so, the world once more has had to hear his strange, inflammatory statements.
During a speech to a group of clerics, Ahmadinejad accused Washington of seeking the arrest of the Hidden Imam, a messianic figure in Shiite theology who, according to tradition, went into "occultation" -- or hiding -- in the 10th century.
To be fair, the Hidden Imam -- known also as the Twelfth Imam and the Mahdi, sanctified with the religious and political authority of the prophet Muhammad -- is a big deal. The Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, technically rules in his absence as his custodian on Earth until he returns to fill the world with peace and justice.
So it's unclear exactly what U.S. agency, in Ahmadinejad's mind, is out to prevent the Hidden Imam's arrival. In his remarks, Ahmadinejad first pointed the finger at American educational institutions. And then, well, read the RFE/RL report:
"They've done so much research about the Hidden Imam in the human science universities of the United States that I am not exaggerating by saying that it is a thousand times more than all the work done in the seminaries of Qom, Najaf, and Mashhad," [Ahmadinejad] reportedly said, referring to three Shi'ite holy cities.Ahmadinejad, who is known for his controversial statements and his devotion to the Hidden Imam, added that U.S. universities have debriefed numerous individuals who have been in touch with the disappeared spiritual leader."To quote a friend, they've completed a case against the Hidden Imam, and closed it also for his arrest," he was quoted as saying. "The only [evidence] they lack is his picture."Ahmadinejad suggested that the West -- and particularly the United States -- sees the return of the Hidden Imam as a threat to its "empire," adding that the U.S. administration is "evil.""It is really a government established by Satan to prevent reaching God and the Hidden Imam," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying. " … This evil government knows that its end will come if the Hidden Imam reappears."
This is not the first time Ahmadinejad has warned of the supposed American fear of the coming messiah.
"We have documented proof that [the Americans] believe that a descendant of the prophet of Islam will raise in these parts [Middle East] and he will dry the roots of all injustice in the world," Ahmadinejad said at the time. "They have devised all these plans to prevent the coming of the Hidden Imam because they know that the Iranian nation is the one that will prepare the grounds for his coming and will be the supporters of his rule."
What that evidence was is unclear, but it all fits a purpose for Ahmadinejad. His grandstanding on the Hidden Imam is a matter of domestic politics -- a means of snatching some of the messianic figure's moral authority away from Iran's religious establishment, with which he has feuded in the past. Ahmadinejad's tense political battles with other factions in the Islamic Republic even led to the arrest of a number of his close allies.
As the Iran scholar Abbas Amanat observed a few years ago, the link between political authority and signs of the Mahdi is a relatively new phenomenon, made most prominent in recent decades by the doctrines of the Islamic Republic.
Even then, Amanat notes, the "majority of the more cautious and circumspect members of the clergy seem to be paying only a lip service to [the] idea and treat [Ahmadinejad's] repeated statements about the impending advent of the Mahdi with silent skepticism."