Iran between messianic aspiration and the management of revolution

This article was published in Oasis 13. Read the table of contents

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Belief in the Occultation internalised the political failure of the early stages, that is to say the lack of government of the Muslim community, and led to a centuries-long exclusion of the Shi’ites from any form of hegemony. With the rise of the Safavids everything changed.

Shi’ism was born at the time of the death of the Prophet (632) because of the rejection of the political approach adopted by the majority of (Sunni) Muslims and an upholding of the legitimacy transmitted from the Prophet himself to Ali and then from Ali to his oldest son (the First Imam) and from each Imam to his successor, until the twelfth Imam who concealed himself from the eyes of the faithful in 874. The belief in the Occultation was the crowning of the internalisation by the Shi’ites of their political failure: they did not govern the Muslim community because their power was of a spiritual character. The experiences of Ali (the fourth caliph, 656-661), and of the eighth Imam, Rezâ, who was designated successor to the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mûn (817) shortly before being assassinated, illuminated a refusal to govern believers at a political level.

The Occultation also has an eschatological significance: while awaiting for the return of the Imam at the end of time, everything is suspended in view of this ‘absence-presence.’ Spiritual power, the magisterium of religious knowledge, finds its sources and its legitimacy only in the tradition of the Imams and when the ‘ulamâ’ have to make public their answers to the questions of believers they leave open the possibility of a source of exoteric inspiration communicated by the Imam through such non-rational means as dreams. The Twelfth Imam is also defined as the occulted Imam, he who brings to life again, or the Mahdi (‘eschatological saviour’), according to whether one seeks to make him a virtual entity or the pole of an eschatological belief.

The political level is much more complex given that the forgoing of political power excluded the Shi’ites for centuries from any form of hegemony. A minority in a Muslim world governed by the Sunnis, they adopted contradictory solutions and often accepted compromises: in working with a Sunni state they avoided persecutions and allowed the handing down, mostly in a clandestine way, of the Shi’ite faith. They allowed human society to function and reduced violence to a minimum. However, they always maintained reservations as regards their political loyalty: the only true sovereign was the Imam and obedience to political power was suspended while awaiting his return to ‘install a kingdom of justice and truth.’ The best example of this pragmatism is the cohabitation in Baghdad from 932 to 1062 of a Shi’ite Iranian dynasty, the Buyids, which dominated and governed the Abbasid empire without removing the Sunni caliphate, which was allowed to remain in power symbolically.

The rise to power in Iran, starting in 1501, of a dynasty of Shi’ite Sufis, the Safavids, who forced their subjects to declare that they were Shi’ites, changed everything. In order to govern their empire they appealed to the Shi’ite ‘ulamâ’ who administered justice and assured the services of prayer and teaching. The sovereigns, who claimed the prestige of descending from the Prophet and the Imams, justified their exercise of power by means of a messianic legitimacy: adversaries of the Sunni Ottoman Empire, they tried to rally round themselves all Muslims. Despite a period of brilliance, borne witness to by the monuments of Ispahan and the renewal of Islamic scholarship, and even though they ruled for many generations over a great empire, the Safavids lost their charisma long before they were ousted by Afghan invaders in 1722.

The question of political power arose again with the Shi’ite dynasty of the Qâjâr who ruled in Iran from 1779 to 1925. The revolt of Mohammad-Ali the Bâb, towards the middle of the nineteenth century, pushed certain eschatological tendencies of traditional Shi’ism to extremes. The Bâb declared that he was the representative of the Imam, then that he was the Imam himself or even that he was the Prophet. In order to suffocate this new religion, the ‘ulamâ’ allied themselves with Nâser od-Dîn Shâh (who ruled from 1848 to 1896) but they did not tarry in then turning against him.


Executed in a Public Square

In their struggle against absolutism, the moderate ‘ulamâ’ allied themselves with reformist politicians. In 1906 they obtained the promulgation of a parliamentary constitution in which, however, the role of religion was problematic. The most conservative ‘ulamâ’ coalesced against the constitutionalists and after the final defeat of these, a great Shi’ite theologian from Teheran, Sheik Fazlollâh Nuri, was executed in a public square (1909). This event led the majority of the Iranian ‘ulamâ’ to move away from the reformist and modernising current. They were marginalised and formed in Qom (a centre for Islamic pilgrimages and teaching located 120km to the south of Teheran) the core of resistance to the secularisation of Iranian society.

Even though amongst them there were reformers, figures in favour of compromise who aimed to maintain a place for Islam within modern Iranian culture, the most radical of them, for example Ayatollah Khomeini from the 1960s onwards, rejected a political system based upon the principles of democracy. It should be said that successive governments, after the coup d’état against Mosaddeq (1953), did nothing but alienate the Iranian people from its rulers and its institutions, fostering extremist responses on the part of the opposition, through such measures as censorship, the suspension of political freedoms, corruption, and an exaggerated westernisation that did not respect Islamic traditions.

Two ideologies dominated the Islamic field before the revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini, during his exile which lasted from 1964 to 1979, developed a categorical rejection of democratic legitimacy and in contrary fashion valued the role of the ‘ulamâ as heirs of the temporal power of the Prophet. While awaiting the return of the occulted Imam, the society of Muslims could not in his view live in chaos and had to be administered to prepare for the return of the Imam with respect for divine law and justice. Thus, systemising a Shi’ite juridical principle which according to tradition applied exclusively to the protection of widows and orphans, Khomeini accorded to the jurist who was most respected by his peers the status of vali, that is to say protector and governor at the same time on behalf of the Imam and during his absence. We are dealing here with ‘government by a theologian-jurist’(velâyat-el-faqȋh).

In the view of Ali Shari’ati (who died in 1977), however, the ‘ulamâ’ had corrupted Islam by joining forces with imperial power starting with the Safavids. They were accomplices in the deviation of religious feeling towards superstitious beliefs. Their silence as regards the social injustices perpetrated beginning with the constitutional revolution of 1906 indicated their inability to meet the needs of men. Shari’ati launched the idea of an ‘Islam without mullah,’ thereby taking up the phrase used by Mosaddeq at the time of the oil embargo (1951-53), ‘an economy without oil.’ This did not mean that one could do without an elite to lead society but, rather, one had to create an advance guard of intellectuals who understood the revolutionary meaning of Islam, a social religion which promoted justice, equality, and freedom for everyone. Shari’ati moved in the direction of a rather secularised Islam, although appealing to traditional themes of Shi’ism such as the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in his fight against corruption and iniquity, the principle of the ‘justice of God,’ awaiting the return of the Imam, and so on.


Political Practice

When the ‘experts’ elected by the Iranian people met in 1979 to draw up a constitution, their first concern was to avoid any possibility of a return to monarchy and dictatorship, in addition to conserving everything which during the political achievements of the constitutional period had been directed towards modernity and democracy.[1] Contrary to the concerns provoked by the increasing role of the clergy in the new republic and to the previous positions of Ayatollah Khomeini, the elementary roles of democracy were preserved: popular sovereignty was exercised through universal suffrage, women took part in political life, and individual freedoms were recognised (articles 5 and 6 and 19-43 of the constitution). Even though individual rights found justification in religious logic, in these articles a certain personalism was upheld: the individual had rights which the state had to respect and the harmonious development of the person was the goal of Islamic government (preamble; art. 3).

To this humanistic dimension the authors of the constitution added a principle – which has often been denounced as theocratic – which refers to an order based essentially on the revelation of the Koran and the Shi’ite tradition. After a quotation from the Koran which establishes the divine origin of the social order,[2] the long preamble describes the constitution as an ‘emanation of the cultural, social, political and economic institutions of Iranian society,’ which in their turn are ‘founded on the principles and criteria of Islam, which echo the profound wishes of the Islamic community of believers.’

In the definition of the regime of the Islamic republic, its Shi’ite character is already clearly upheld in article 2 which refers to the ‘justice of God,’ to the Imamate (the leadership of the believers by the Imam), and the interpretative function (ejtihâd) performed by theologians-jurists, that is to say the magisterium of the clergy: three notions absent from Sunnism. Article 5 of the constitution defines political power in line with a purely Shi’ite vision: ‘During the Occultation of the Wali al-Asr [the occulted Imam] (may God hasten his reappearance), the wilayah and leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just [‘adil] and pious [muttaqi] faqih, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability…’ Even though, in fact, after Khomeini, this Guide was elected by a commission of experts chosen by universal suffrage, this was, whatever the case, a block on the institutions, endowed with immense power over the political, juridical and military apparatus which impeded any democratic process.

Khomeini, through whom was defined the principle of the velâyat-e faqih and whose thought performed the function of ideology directed towards the clericalisation of the political system, at the outset gave way on certain important points in the face of political needs. He accepted a popular sovereignty which expressed itself through elections and neither the civil equality of women nor the freedoms of the individual were called into question. To begin with he wanted to leave the daily government of the republic in the hands of secular Muslim politicians. Then the ‘ulamâ’ intervened increasingly openly in government as ministers, MPs, presidents of parliament and lastly also as presidents of the republic.[3]

Paradoxically, President Khâtami, even though he wore a turban, worked openly to bring out what he called ‘civil society’ (jâme’a-ye madani), whereas the old guardian of the revolution who succeeded him, and who does not wear a turban, seems to support a messianic vision of the world where awaiting the return of the Imam is often seen as an imminent possibility, and this at a time when the clergy seems to dominate the militias.


The Return of the Mahdi

To understand this paradox we must remember the great variety of tendencies which have continued, after the revolution, to mark the ideological terrain of political Islam. Intervention in politics ‘in the name of the Imam’ was a literally revolutionary innovation in a religion which for many centuries had abandoned affirming the direct participation of the ‘ulamâ’ in political power. Some ‘ulamâ’ preached great prudence in cooperating with powers which at any moment could have been denounced as usurpers of the prerogatives of the Twelfth Imam. Thus during the first years of the revolution, when the supporters of Khomeini during demonstrations repeated the slogan “O God, keep Khomeini amongst us until the return of the Mahdi,” the members of the association Hojjatiyya, a movement created in the 1950s to fight against the bahâ’î (who were accused of being apostates of Islam), rejected the compromising of religious in affairs of state and upheld the transcendence of religious belief, completing the slogan with the following anti-Khomeini words: “O Mahdi, come, come quickly!”

In contrary fashion, amongst the extremist supporters of the Khomeini tendency some perceived in the reformist and democratic negative trend a trap that could deform Islamic power. Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbâh-e Yazdi (born 1934) defined the Islamic republic in terms which stressed its theocratic legitimacy. In his view, the people had played only an auxiliary function in the formation of the Islamic regime and the appellation ‘republic’ was nothing else but a façade to help the Imam of Time to establish the power of the Guide (Khomeini and then, from 1989 onwards, Ayatollah Khamenei). Such a statement is not marginal if we consider that Mesbâh-e Yazdi is the official mentor of President Ahmadinejad. The latter never loses an opportunity to remember the position that the Twelfth Imam must have in the Iranian State: he is reserved a seat in the Council of Ministers and when the President feels inspired, as on the occasion of his speech to the General Assembly of the UN in New York in 2006, he describes the halo of light with which the Imam surrounds him.

In February 2011, an institute near to the Guide Khamenei invited researchers to take part in an international symposium on Mahdism (the messianism linked to the return of the Imam Mahdi) and declared: ‘The mission of those who will attend is to achieve a ready and active community. Preparation is nothing else but a sense of duty, the performance of the obligations that the Shi’ite individual and community have towards the occulted Imam, and the achievement of his goals. A community ready while waiting is one that directs its aspirations, its relationships and its programmes in the same direction as the goals and the aspirations of the Imam.’[4]

This is not the only interpretation of Islam. On the one hand it clashes with the attitude traditionally held by Shi’ite theologians that sociologists define as quietism, the refusal to intervene in political affairs, a position held by Ayatollah Sistâni, an Iranian who is resident in Najaf in Iraq (born 1930) and one of the leading contemporary Shi’ite authorities. Lastly, the greatest obstacle to Shi’ite messianism is what is politically opportune: neither inside Iran, where social and economic needs have nothing to do with the power of the Imam, nor outside Iran, can this subject be addressed without difficulties. One need only consider the supporters of the regime who are surprised to see the country invaded by corruption, violence and secularism.

Faced with the impossibility of seeing their revolution exported beyond regions with a Shi’ite majority (Iraq, the Lebanon) and in order to attenuate the obsession generated in Sunni countries by the – rather exaggerated – emergence of a ‘Shi’ite crescent,’ the Iranian leaders have the tendency, in order to remain credible in the Muslim world, to keep quiet about the most Shi’ite aspects of their messianism and to use, rather, the Palestinian cause in order to place themselves at the head of the popular struggle against the Zionist State and against American hegemony – a stance with which no Muslim leader can compete at the present time.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Constitution de la République islamique d’Iran, 1979-1989, translation, introduction and notes by Michel Potocki (Harmattan, Paris, 2004).

[2] ‘We sent Our Messengers with the clear signs, and We sent down with them the Book and the Balance so that men might uphold justice’ (Qur’an 57:25)

[3] Khâmenei (1981-), Hâshemi-Rafsanjâni (1989-), Khâtami (1997-2005).

[4] The institute Âyanda-ye rowshan (‘Brillian Future’) defines itself as a ‘laboratory for the salvation of the end of the world’: cf.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Yann Richard, “That Time Suspended Awaiting the Imam”, Oasis, year VII, n. 13, July 2011, pp. 35-39

Online version:
Text by Yann Richard, “That Time Suspended Awaiting the Imam”, Oasis [online], published 1st July 2011, URL: