Dave Sim's blogandmail #237 (May 6th, 2007)
The Twelfth Imam
I've got a handwritten note here from Jeff Seiler which he gave me at SPACE, which will be included in the Cerebus Archive "grab bag" of SPACE 2007 ephemera and which reads as follows
The 12th immam [sic]
9th century, disappeared as a boy, b-day celebrated annually
many Muslims believe he is still alive
The current president of Iran, Ahmadinejad, believes in this figure leading some to wonder whether he is preparing for an Armageddon clash
Jeff suggested that it might make an interesting topic for the Sunday Edition and, so, here we are.
The fundamental schism within Islam is between the Sunni and Shiite faith. Basically the Sunnis believe in the descent of authority from the senior male followers of the Prophet Muhammad, starting with Abu Bakr who inherited his mantle of authority in 632 when the Prophet died, followed by each successive Caliph, each elected by a majority vote of the most highly regarded of the Prophet's followers. The Shiites, contrariwise, believe in the descent of authority through the Prophet's grandsons. So, in Western terms it's an oligarchy versus monarchy construct but both based in religious faith. The original rationalisation for the proto-Sunnis to supersede the proto-Shiites was that the Prophet's grandsons were too young to govern which obviously wasn't the case by the time of the second and third Caliphs at which time it became an issue of their being too weak to govern. Considering that the usurpation of authority (Muhammad had specified that his family superseded his followers in authority devolving upon them) was the source of that weakness—the Caliphs consolidated power and basically eradicated the Prophet's family to the best of their abilities—there's a real "heads we win, tails you lose" quality to it. The fact that Muhammad's most trusted follower was Abu Bakr and Abu Bakr's daughter was Aisha, the Prophet's favourite wife certainly weighed in the balance against the Prophet's clear intentions regarding the succession. Favourite follower and favourite wife. Abu Bakr was a humble man and a reluctant successor. Aisha on the other hand, according to legend, led the proto-Sunni forces into battle against the proto-Shiite forces. You don't have to read too much human history to see that you should always keep your eye on the widow. It seems to me a good example of misguided chivalry that so many Muslims in the first century after the prophet's death turned their backs on the Prophet's explicit instructions regarding his successors and I suspect Aisha was a big reason behind that.
A vast majority of those of the Shiite faith are centered in, oddly enough, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. So far as I know each of the twelve Imams has a mosque devoted to his veneration, veneration which was suppressed under Saddam Hussein. You see flare-ups every year whenever there is a celebration of a Shiite holy day with mass processions to Shiite mosques along with accompanying rituals (usually masochistic blood-letting of varying degrees of severity in memory of the sufferings of the Prophet's grandsons and the successive Imams at the hands of Sunnis over the centuries). The Golden Mosque, if I'm not mistaken, was devoted to veneration of one of the Prophets' grandsons. The flare-ups of violence are always on the part of the Sunnis who consider veneration of the family of the Prophet to be blasphemous and—as has become SOP in Muslim circles—the more extreme activists believe that they will be rewarded by the Prophet in heaven if they kill enough Shiites and punished if they fail to kill them.
As you say Iranian President Ahmadinejad is a devout Shiite so he would definitely believe in the Hidden Imam who is supposed to emerge just before Judgement Day in much the same way that many Christian fundamentalists believe that Jesus is supposed to return just before Judgement Day.
The core problem is the distinction between those who believe that the Hidden Imam actually exists which is one level of fundamentalist belief. Faith that you believe the Hidden Imam exists and that you know where he is a whole other level of fundamentalist belief. Part of the religious hysteria which gripped Iran and particularly Tehran in 1979, I would assume, was that at one level or another there was believed to be at least the possibility that the Ayatollah Kohmeini was the Twelfth Imam and had returned from exile to restore Sharia Law and to oversee the ouster of Shah Palavi. He wore a black turban which is the sign that you are a direct descendant of Muhammad which is not a credential that you would attempt to fake in Shiite circles. You either are or you're not. The Twelfth Imam Fever is always at its greatest at these watershed moments before history continues to unfold and nothing in particular seems to attach itself to your reign. When the Ayatollah eventually died it became pretty obvious that he wasn't The Twelfth Imam since Judgement Day didn't come while he was still alive. Of course there was still a burst of Fever at his funeral that was severe enough that his coffin was torn open by the madding crowds and we were subjected to the unappetizing (from a Western perspective) sight of his wrapped corpse ignominiously spilling onto the ground. It's a peculiarly Islamic phenomenon, I suspect having to do with the fact that when Twelfth Imam Fever hits, society is usually turned upside down and all forward advances (as the Western mind would see it) are overturned and everyone is transported back to the seventh century by religious fiat. If the dictates are coming from the Twelfth Imam, that's one thing: Judgement Day "haply is nigh" and the devout need to repent in an absolutist sense. If the dictates didn't come from the Twelfth Imam, by the time that becomes apparent (when the candidate dies) you've already inverted your society and eradicated all forms of modernism and fully entrenched a totalitarian seventh century priesthood (which Iran now has) which you then have to shed copious amounts of blood to dislodge over decades if not centuries. And as soon as you finally get rid of them—IF you get rid of them—along comes the next would-be Mahdi and the whole thing starts over again.
I wouldn't be overly concerned about President Ahmadinejad preparing for an Armageddon clash. He doesn't wear a turban at all, let alone a black one identifying him as a descendant of the Prophet. My guess is that he's basically the Iranian religious authorities' idea of a good modernist front man (which gives you a rough idea of how far from modernist the religious authorities in Iran are—still basically keeping the Ayatollah's home-fires burning and trying to maintain absolute religionist control: there was a picture in the paper this morning of female police officers in burqas in Tehran issuing warnings to women for leaving too much flesh exposed or wearing their scarves too far back on their heads and exposing their hair). He played the arrest of the British boarding party beautifully, humiliating the British at every turn and then releasing the hostages before there could be any lasting consequences for Iran. Tut-tutting over having a female sailor in a combat role and putting her on television with a Muslim head covering. I would bet that played very well everywhere in the Muslim world.
But, returning to your original question, I don't think Ahmadinejad believes himself to be the Twelfth Imam and I don't believe any of the Imams currently in charge in Iran believes himself to be the Twelfth Imam—the Twelfth Imam wouldn't use a front man, he would just declare himself the absolute authority as the Ayatollah Kohmeini did in 1979—and I don't see any sign that they pretend to know where the Twelfth Imam is. For a society which still considers the Crusades to have happened yesterday, the idea of having another bout of Twelfth Imam Fever less than thirty years after the last one just wouldn't wash, I don't think. Too much danger of "the boy who cried wolf".
It's interesting, as a side-note to all this, in reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X that you can see this Muslim Syndrome as it tends to take place and unfold. Elijah Muhammad basically created the impression in founding the Nation of Islam in the United States that the figure who had instructed him, Wallace D. Fard, claimed he was "God in person". And then he, Elijah Muhammad instructed everyone else including Malcolm X. Of course the teachings of Elijah Muhammad are more than a little over the top:
The black people, God's children, were Gods themselves, Master Fard taught. And he taught that among them was one, also a human being like the others, who was the God of Gods: The Most, Most High, The Supreme Being, supreme in wisdom and power—and his proper name was Allah.
This is not only joining gods with God, but it's also demoting God to the stature of a human being and making human beings into gods. Let me count the ways that I find this dramatically misguided. It's like a peculiar synthesis of Christianity and Islam and trying to cast Elijah Muhammad in the role of Jesus as Christians have come to conceive of him: God and man in one. As Malcolm X said, he believed in Elijah Muhammad even more than Elijah Muhammad believed in himself. But, there was a good reason for that: I think Elijah Muhammad knew that he was running a scam. I'm not sure that Wallace D. Fard ever existed or if he did that he was the person Elijah Muhammad made him out to be. And I think Elijah Muhammad was aware that there was a grave danger in the Nation of Islam with its litany of peculiar legends masquerading as Islam actually coming to the attention of real Muslims. At the same time there are large kernels of truth here: not the least of which is that you can, genetically, make white people out of black people, but you can't make black people out of white people. You can breed blackness out but you can't breed blackness in. So the Nation of Islam's argument that the white race is a devil race bred by "Yakub" to wreak evil upon the earth is at least supportable to the extent that black people were the original human race and that whiteness is aberrational. Which is no small point when you see what happened when white people and black people became re-acquainted.
I have no problem believing that Elijah Muhammad was an instrument of God but that didn't keep him from getting some twenty-year old Church secretaries pregnant even while he was teaching that there was absolutely no fornication allowed in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was a true believer—make that a True Believer—who actually did the work that made the Nation of Islam the going concern that it remains to this day and who strictly adhered to Elijah Muhammad's teachings—he had no reason to "fly under the radar" since he was living a completely blameless life and could never understand why Elijah Muhammad wasn't more of an activist. My guess is that Elijah Muhammad knowing that he was violating his own rules saw the wisdom in keeping everything just about the size that it was when Malcolm X came along: big enough to provide a nice living for himself, big enough to do good for a certain number of black people and big enough to attract attractive young Church secretaries but small enough that when he kicked the Church secretaries out he would be able to do so with impunity—their word against his—and take up with the next batch of Church secretaries with no one the wiser.
Where Malcolm X falls down, in my view, is in calling Elijah Muhammad the Messenger of God since a core Islamic belief is that Muhammad was God's Last Messenger and Seal of Prophets. I mean, I can appreciate his enthusiasm and I can understand the extent to which Elijah Muhammad's teachings almost literally saved his life, but either Muhammad is God's Last Messenger or he isn't. At one point he quotes himself—refuting the charge that his hard work was attributable to personal aggrandizement—as saying to "everybody", "All praise is due to Allah. Anything creditable that I do is due to Mr. Elijah Muhammad." The problem is that if you look at those two assertions square on, it sounds as if he is equating Elijah Muhammad with Allah which would be "joining gods with God" and a definite Muslim no-no. Likewise with believing the Wallace D. Fard story which is a core element of Elijah Muhammad's teachings. To believe it, you have to believe that Wallace D. Fard was God and/or the Mahdi as he declared himself to be. I don't think you can be a good Muslim and believe either of those things. Later, after he made the hajj to Mecca, he came around to realizing that it's a mistake to attach divinity to any human being but by that time it was pretty much too late.
I've just gotten to the JFK assassination part of the book, where Elijah Muhammad has issued explicit instructions that no member of the Nation of Islam is to say anything about it—talk about a powder keg subject in a powder keg time period!—but Malcolm X can't resist saying, "The chickens are coming home to roost." This was interesting on a number of levels quite apart from the extent to which it drove White America ballistic—obviously the thing Elijah Muhammad was most afraid of—since JFK at the time of his assassination was universally believed to be a devout practicing Catholic and a good family man and husband. Oh, how could this terrible thing have happened to this wonderful, wonderful man? You would literally take your life in your hands suggesting he was otherwise. Of course this many years later on, not the least of the interesting levels for me is that the expression is actually "the pigeons are coming home to roost" or "the birds are coming home to roost". Of course "pigeons" and "birds" are gender-neutral terms: male and female pigeons and/or birds coming home to roost, while "chickens" are specifically female. I think this was inadvertent on Malcolm X's part but probably intentional on the part of the ___ informing him. It's certainly accurate if you see the JFK assassination as being at least in part attributable to his womanizing and the (let's call a spade a spade) murder of Marilyn Monroe the year before. And it would be a joint indictment, linking JFK's then unknown transgressions with Elijah Muhammad's since Malcolm X had, in 1963 just become aware of Elijah Muhammad's own womanizing. On the ___ level it would therefore constitute something of a threat against Elijah Muhammad, along the lines that "just as JFK's chickens have come home to roost, so too will Elijah Muhammad's chickens come home to roost," which in turn would have compelled Elijah Muhammad (or the ___ informing him) to overreact to a threat he couldn't have been consciously aware of on a purely human level.
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