Mahdism exists in both Sunni and Shi`i Islam—particularly, among the latter, in the Twelver branch. Belief in a man who will be “divinely-guided” by Allah and bend the entire world to Islam (with a little help from the returned “prophet `Isa,” Jesus) persists in Islam as a whole; for although the Qur’an says nothing of the Mahdi, there are a number of ahadith, “sayings” attributed to Islam’s founder Muhammad, that predict his coming.
The Sunnis and Shi`is do differ on just who the Mahdi is, and the manner of his arrival, however. The former expect a Muslim warlord, a holy warrior, who will take up the mantle of “the Prophet,” first in the Middle East then eventually over the whole planet. For Twelvers, the largest group of the Shi`a, the Mahdi will be the Twelfth Imam descended from Ali (Muhammad’s closest male relatives, as his cousin and son-in-law). Hujjat Allah ibn al-Hassan disappeared in the 9th century AD; he is not dead, however, but in a state of ghayba, or “occultation” (thus the “Hidden Imam”). He will thus return to our world as the Mahdi in the future. So for Sunnis, the Mahdi comes out; whereas for the Twelver Shi`is, he comes back. Historically, it has been more common for self-styled Mahdis to appear in a Sunni context, rather than a Shi`i one. (See my books Holiest Wars and Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps for details on this, and other aspects, of Mahdism.)
Iran’s population has been almost entirely Twelver Shi`i since that nation’s forced conversion by the Safavid rulers in the 16th century AD. And of course the government has been run by Twelver Shi`i religious leaders since 1979’s revolution, explicitly describing itself as one that prepares the way for the unveiling of the Hidden Imam . Now the Islamic Republic might find itself hoist by its own messianic petard. Just two days ago, The Economist reported that “Iranians yearn for a messiah. The ayatollahs are worried.” Police reports from the city of Qom—where most ayatollahs are educated, and live—indicated that in a recent month, 20 men claiming to be the Mahdi have surfaced. Such pretensions can get one executed, on the charge of “spreading corruption [or mischief] on the earth.” (This is condemned in several sections of the Qu’ran, such as here.) Among the 20 are several outright unhidden Imams; a number of babs, “gates,” who are more-or-less John the Baptists to the Muslim messiah; followers looking for Hassan al-Yamani, an Iraqi cleric who had Mahdist aspirations but disappeared in 2003. (I did some research and reporting on this fellow for the government about a decade ago. Ahmad al-Hassan al-Yamani, at last report, had proclaimed himself the “son of the Mahdi” and that the Twelfth Imam had emerged from occultation and was guiding him. He condemned the Baghdad and Teheran governments as illegitimate, and that the US represented al-Masih al-Dajjal, the “deceiving messiah.” His followers were known as Ansar al-Mahdi.)
Of course, since the Islamic Republic deems itself the true custodian of Mahdism, it does not tolerate free-lancers. The government has established a special team, “unknown soldiers of the last imam,” to go after these great pretenders. But the problem emerges from within, according to an unnamed adviser to former President Ahmadinejad. “The feeling of an end of times is strongest among those who had faith in the regime but now feel it has failed.”
On a related note, several weeks ago US President Joe Biden held an Eid al-Fitr reception at the White House to mark the end of Ramadan. Toward the end, Biden suddenly started talking about the Hidden Imam: “I realized how little I know about the details of Islam. I knew, I knew about it—but I didn’t know the differences that existed. I didn’t know what the Hidden Imam was. I mean I….so I went out and hired a full professor….” Who then, presumably, briefed Joe on this rather important aspect of Twelver Shi`ism. Biden was Vice-President for eight years in an administration that conducted intense negotiations with Iran. Before that, for many years Biden was Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In all that time in both those positions, Joe never received a briefing on the religious beliefs of the Iranian people and their leaders?! That’s hard to believe.
What conclusions can we draw from all of this? First, contra assertions by some analysts, belief in the Twelfth Imam/Mahdi is not just some “hardline” belief held by antediluvian ayatollahs; it’s intrinsic to Twelver Shi`ism (which is the majority brand of Islam not just in Iran but in Iraq, Azerbaijan and probably Lebanon). And note: “as Iran’s domestic malaise deepens, the search for a saviour is growing.” Second, where there’s that much Imamic smoke, eventually it’s very likely there will, at some point, be Mahdist fire. A violent one. In Iran, or possibly in Iraq. Third, why trust the Biden Administration to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the “Iran Deal” that aims to slow down, and hopefully prevent, the Islamic Republic from manufacturing nuclear weapons—when the individual in charge (allegedly) just now learned the most important belief held in that country?