Apocalypse Row: Must Shi`is Fight Like It’s The End Of The World?

For most of this millennium–going back to writing my doctoral dissertation on Mahdism and Islamic eschatology at Ohio State in 2000-01–I’ve argued against the conventional (conservative and Evangelical Christian) “wisdom” that the leadership of Iran wants to start a regional, or global, war in order to usher in the appearance of the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi. This claim that the ayatollahs want to “hotwire the apocalypse”–probably with nuclear weapons–comes from either a vast ignorance, or a profound (and probably intentional) misrepresentation, of Twelver Shi`i theology.  Maybe both.

I won’t reiterate the entire argument here. See my 2011 paper for the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis; my book Ten Years Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps (particularly pages 103ff.); and my recent article “Do Iran’s Leaders Want to Hotwire the Apocalypse?

But am I wrong? Two months ago a member of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Assembly of Experts (which, at least on paper, is charged with choosing that system’s Supreme Leader), Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri, gave an interview on Iranian TV and stated that “we will never reach the age of the reappearance [of the Mahdi] unless we go into widespread fighting.” On its face, that certainly appears to vindicate the idea that the heirs of the Safavids believe holy violence will help persuade Allah to release his chosen one to take over the world.


Shi`i men praying in Jamkaran Mosque, Qom, Iran, during my 2008 visit.

But it’s not that simple. See two relevant publications of mine: “Appearance or Reappearance? Sunni Mahdism in History and in Theory and its Differences from Shi`i Mahdism” (in Imam Mahdi: Justice and Globalisation, Institute of Islamic Studies-London, 2004, pp. 113-131) and “Through A Glass Darkly,” the conference paper which I presented in Tehran in 2008 (and which the Iranian government took and published as its own, here).

In both of these I delved into Twelver Shi`i doctrines, past attempts to reify such Mahdist teachings, and views of modern Iranian religious leaders. My conclusion was that yes, there is a strain of thought in Iran’s brand of Islam which promotes activity to persuade, if you will, Allah to unleash the Twelfth Imam. Prayer is one such activity. But creating the Mahdist state “in microcosm” is the best and most efficacious way to gain Allah’s favor in this regard.  The Islamic Republic of Iran is itself, in this view, the proffered state–the “vanguard” of the coming eschatological realm, as the rulers deem it. As I observed in Ten Years’ Captivation, pp. 91-93, this is more a case of  lowjacking than hotwiring the apocalypse.

[Addendum, 10.5.19. My good Canadian friend, math professor Dr. Rob Craigen, asked me on Twitter the difference between “lowjacking” and “hotwiring” the apocalypse. Lowjack is a system that allows stolen cars to be recovered by police, hopefully without a shootout; the term was coined as the opposite of “hijack.” Since the idea of hotwiring the apocalypse means, in effect, to hijack it–to force Allah’s hand via, in particular, nuclear weapons’ use by Muslims–lowjack is a kindler, gentler means of cajoling the Deity to advance His eschatological timetable. I came up with the idea after reading the commentary on II Peter 3:10-12 in the Orthodox Study Bible, which says that Christians can “actually hasten the coming of that day [Christ’s return],” not by force, but by “evangelism, prayer, holy living, repentance and obedience.”]

And I maintain that Mirbagheri’s statement needs to be seen in this light. The “fighting” to which he refers is a matter of Shi`is demonstrating fervent dedication to their belief in that branch of Islam’s core tenet: the return of the Hidden Imam to lead them to global dominance. At the end of the interview, that ayatollah says “the same revolutionary spirit that prevailed among the believers at the advent of Islam, during the Ashura [when Ali’s son Husayn was killed at the Battle of Karbala, in 680 AD], and following the occultation of the Hidden Imam, should prevail now.”

(According to Twelver teachings, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the last of the line of 12 Imams that began with Ali, disappeared in 874 AD but maintained contact with his followers until 941 AD, when all communication ceased. This is the occultation that’s so important in Twelver Shi`ism.)

Of course, this approach dovetails nicely with Tehran’s modern geopolitical aims, as recently trumpeted by Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, that any Islamic resistance to Israel in the region–not just Shi`​i groups (in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen) but also Sunnis in “Palestine” and even heretical Alawis in Syria–is “part of Iran” and the “resistance.”  So rather like Vatican II’s idea of the “anonymous Christian,” Alamolhoda (who is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini) seems to be promoting the idea of an “anonymous Shi`i.”  This is novel in Twelver thought, and needs more examination–but not this day.

No word yet on whether the Mahdi will accept these anonymous followers, once he returns. They might get cast into the fire, like us Christians.

But I think it’s clear that a close(r) look at Mirbagheri’s statements indicates that they don’t contradict my interpretation of political eschatology driving the Islamic Republic of Iran.

4 thoughts on “Apocalypse Row: Must Shi`is Fight Like It’s The End Of The World?

  1. Nicholas

    An interesting article, especially as a possible departure from the norm that you have outlined in your scholarship over the years.

    It is an epistemological problem if we are talking about motivation. Once we try and determine the subjective inside of the box by inference from the outside, we run into uncertainty. Inference, as you know, is not deduction, so we have to accept that our best guess is just that. Determining which parties are primarily concerned with power and which are religiously motivated (and which both, since the two are not mutually-exclusive) and how that links with eschatological belief is something of a Gordian Knot.

    Following your work, I’ve taken a more cynical view of the leadership of Iran since the initial ferment that struck Christians who engaged with the Islamic Antichrist paradigm popularised by Walid Shoebat and Joel Richardson. That being said, provided the regime stays in power, I believe that its players may be forced by geopolitics to make certain decisions that conform with that paradigm, even if they are not motivated by true eschatological expectation.


    1. Prudent and informed concerns, good sir. Any of us not living in Tehran or Qom are simply engaging in “best guess” analysis, I freely confess. I just think that mine accords with what those there follow in theological and political terms–I am not projecting my Christian views onto them. But ultimately, my prognostication is political, informed by (Twelver) theology–not the other way around.

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