EARLIER this year Iran’s authorities arrested a score of men who, in separate incidents, claimed to be the Mahdi, a sacred figure of Shia Islam, who was “hidden” by God just over a millennium ago and will return some time to conquer evil on earth.
A website based in Qom, Iran’s holiest city, deemed the men “deviants”, “fortune-tellers” and “petty criminals”, who were exploiting credulous Iranians for alms during the Persian new-year holiday, which fell in mid-March.
Many of the fake messiahs were picked up by security men in the courtyard to the mosque in Jamkaran, a village near Qom, whose reputation as the place of the awaited Mahdi’s advent has been popularised nationwide by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When he took office in 2005 he gave the mosque $10m.
Iran’s economic doldrums may have helped to cause this surge in people claiming to be mankind’s saviour—and in women saying they were the Mahdi’s wife. “In an open atmosphere where people could criticise the government they would not believe these people,” says an ex-seminarian in Tehran, the capital, noting that most Iranians still get all of their news from state television and state-owned or -sanctioned newspapers.
Last year a seminary expert, Mehdi Ghafari, said that more than 3,000 fake Mahdis were in prison. Mahdi-complexes are common, says a Tehran psychiatrist. “Every month we get someone coming in, convinced he is the Mahdi,” she says. “Once a man was saying such outrageous things and talking about himself in the third person that I couldn’t help laughing. He got angry and told me I had ‘bad hijab’ and was disrespecting the ‘Imam of Time’,” as the Mahdi is known.
The most famous case was that of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2007 for—among other things—claiming he was the Mahdi. Like many influential “false” messiahs, he was forced to recant on state television, confessing that he had been against the Islamic Republic’s core tenets.
Mr Ahmadinejad has called his administration “the government of the hidden imam”. Last month he told a batch of new Iranian ambassadors to consider themselves “envoys of the Mahdi”. After his first speech at the UN in 2005, a video circulated showing Mr Ahmadinejad telling a leading Iranian cleric that world leaders had been enchanted, during his oration, by a halo around his head that had been put there by the Mahdi himself.
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