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Occultation in Perpetuum: Shi'ite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic

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Abstract:

This article examines the assertion, widespread in both media and academia, that the Islamic Republic of Iran — and especially the current government under Mahmud Ahmadinejad — is actuated by a powerful, Shi'ite-based messianism. Much evidence appears at first glance to support this assessment: not only the statements and actions of the charismatic President, many of which reference the imminent return of the Hidden Imam, but also, and more fundamentally, the widespread perception of Shi'ism — the state religion of Iran and spiritual force behind the Islamic Revolution — as an endemically and fervently apocalyptic creed. These two factors have combined with the agenda-ridden punditry of many lay-people and even specialists to create the pervasive impression that Iran's rulers live on the brink of the Eschaton, and seek to expedite its arrival by initiating a worldwide cataclysm. The author rejects the validity of this outlook, arguing instead that religio-historical developments in the medieval and modern periods gradually turned Twelver Shi'ism into the most resolutely anti-messianic movement in Islam, and perhaps in the world. While it remains imperative, in the author's view, that the international community strive to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear capabilities, this is not due to any inherent "End of Days" outlook informing Iranian policy. This alternative view harbors significant implications for the West's present and future dealings with Shi'ism in general and with Iran in particular.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3751/62.2.13

Publication date: March 1, 2008

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