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Interfaith discussion and religious harmony in Iran – By Syed Zafar Mehdi


Participants at the Tehran-hosted International Conference on Mahdism enter the conference hall. (file photo)

Editor’s Note: At a time when Christain minorities in Syria, Egypt and Pakistan are being targeted and persecuted by Salafists/Takfiri Deobandis, it is a positive move to bring different faith communities on the same platform to highlight common ground and support religious pluralism.
Iran Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani told the recently held International Conference in Tehran that “a new Middle East is being formed as a result of the ongoing wave of Islamic Awakening,”

The two-day conference, held June 24-25, was attended by a galaxy of scholars and intellectuals from across the world. A Christian scholar from Lebanon rubbing shoulder with a Muslim scholar from Morocco, discussing the various interpretations of the concept of messianism, is a sight to behold. A total number of 37 research papers were presented in four commissions during the conference.

Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Hosseini stated that a society based on Mahdism doctrine is a society where justice, welfare, progress and knowledge prevail.

The idea of a messiah or savior or redeemer is common to all major religions and traditions of the world, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.

In Islamic context, the concept of messianism (Mahdism) revolves around an eschatological figure who will rise and establish a system built on the foundations of justice, peace and social order. In Iran, the concept of Mahdism is deeply entrenched in the popular politico-religious discourse.

The concept emerged as a phenomenon in Iran in the 16th century under Safavid rulers. Since then, it has played a dominating role in shaping the religious and political dynamics in the country.

The Mahdism Doctrine conference, now into its 9th year, seeks to engage with the world on the thought-provoking concept of Mahdism and its relevance in the present times.

The philosophy of Mahdism has tremendous influence on the Iranian foreign policy. To borrow the words of British Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm, the concept can be broadly divided into two categories: passive and revolutionary. In the passive Mahdism, you immerse yourself in prayers and hope for the savior’s reappearance from occultation.

In the revolutionary Mahdism, you stand up and participate in the process of change. Iranian concept of Mahdism, as propagated by Imam Khomeini and later by Imam Khamenei, has revolutionary contours. It calls upon believers to strengthen their faith, individually and collectively, and set the ground for the savior’s reappearance.

In unequivocal terms, The Holy Quran and Prophetic traditions have predicted the glorious triumph of the forces of right over might and the establishment of a society built on the foundations of justice and righteousness. The wait and anticipation for that bright tomorrow continues, and as Imam Sajjad (as) said, “The greatest success is to wait for the reappearance of Imam”. (Al Ihtejaj vol.2 Pg.154. Kamaaluddin vol.1 Pg.320)

Awaiting or anticipating is primarily the result of two main conditions: not satisfied with the status quo and expecting things to change for good. A waiter is never tired of waiting because he knows the wait, however prolonged and distressing, is worth it.

He keeps waiting with an elixir of hope to see and participate in the process of change. But, merely being disgruntled with the status-quo is not sufficient. A person has to step out of the comfort zone, strive hard and prepare the ground for visible and fertile change to happen.

In the present circumstances – with the moral bankruptcy, endemic corruption, grinding poverty, scourge of illiteracy, ignorance, misrule and barbarism reaching the climax – what should an awaiter await for? In more precise terms, what are the responsibilities of a person waiting for the turn-around?

It is important to enjoin others to pursue good deeds (amr bil maruf) and advocate against sinful practices (nahi anil munkar). Extending the helping hand towards poor and marginalized in our society and bridging the yawning gap between haves and have-nots is an essential part of mahdism. We have to be aware of the sinister plots and conspiracies being hatched by the enemies of humankind. An important part of ‘awaiting’ and ‘preparing’ for messiah also includes non-cooperation and resistance against tyrant rulers and corrupt regimes world over.

There is a clear instruction in Holy Quran for believers waiting for the change. “And say to those who do not believe that you act as much as you can. We are also trying. You all wait and surely we all are waiting.” (11:121-122)

But, what does this wait entail and what are the believers waiting for. The narration attributed to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) makes it amply clear. “The world will not perish until a man among the Arabs appears whose name matches my name.” (Sahih al-Tirmidhi, V9, P74)

Looking at the state of affairs today, the discourse around the reappearance of Imam Mehdi (as) and the areas of ground-setting responsibility has assumed lot of significance.

With the world sinking into the proverbial abyss and people across the world grappling with myriad self-inflicted worldly problems, the responsibility on our shoulders increases manifolds. Imam’s occultation, however, does not mean he has abandoned us or that we must despair about the present state of affairs. Imam Ali (a.s.) said: “Await for the reappearance and do not despair of the divine mercy. Because the best deed in the eyes of Allah, the Great and the Mighty is to wait for the Reappearance. It is the duty of those who are believers.” (Al Khisaal, vol2, Pg616)

We are witnessing social, political and cultural disorder across the world today. Morals and ethics have diminished alarmingly. Nagging poverty and financial difficulties have resulted in poor quality of life. Illiteracy and educational backwardness has sent us back to dark ages. The forces of imperialism have become menacingly stronger than ever.

Human rights abuses have become the order of day. Weak and voiceless continue to be oppressed and subjugated by mighty and powerful. In such a depressing scenario, when the darkness of despair prevails everywhere, there is an elixir of hope. The hope lies in the divine intervention.

The hope is the divinely guided leader. ‘Awaiting’ is not a stagnant or sluggish phenomenon. It means constantly striving for perfection, trying to raise the standards of living, trying to fight the demons inside us, trying to fight the monsters in society, and working hard to prepare a fertile ground for Imam’s arrival.

Allah (swt) says in Holy Quran, “O’ Muhammad (pbuh), you are but a warner, and for every community, there exists a guide.” (Quran 13:7). There will always be a divinely gifted guide for people in every age. For us, the people of present age, it is Mehdi, the messiah, the saviour.

What are our responsibilities and duties as believers to prepare the ground for his reappearance? A tradition attributed to Imam Hasan Askari (as) exhorts people of present age to remain vigilant and aware and participate in the process of educational change. “Be aware, if somebody teaches an ignorant, guides a misguided, instills the teachings of Ahlebait, then on the day of Qiyamat, he will be with us. We will give him a seat next to us wherever we may be.” By this narration, it is amply clear that during the period of Imam’s occultation, among the biggest responsibilities on our shoulders is to teach and train ourselves and others and bring reformation in society.

Such ‘reformers’ enjoy a supreme position in front of Allah. Imam Ali Naqi (a.s.) extols the virtues of these ‘reformers’. “Had there not been such scholars in the period of occultation who call people towards the Ahlebait (a.s.), guide towards them, defend their religion with the proofs of Allah, protect weak believers from the devilish designs, deception of the tyrants and tentacles of the enemies of Islam, then surely all would have deviated from the religion of Allah.” (Mahajjatul-Baizaa, Vol. 1, Pg. 32)

Now, there are certain strategies and approaches one must adopt to work towards awakening and progressive change. The strategy has to be simple and well-defined. Grooming children from the elementary level, teaching and training them in the basics of religion and science, imparting lessons in Islamic ideology and philosophy, developing scientific temper in them, making them understand the purpose of existence and the rights and responsibilities as members of the community, explaining how Islam is not just a religion but a complete way of life, stressing on the need to pursue quality education, the need to analyze and interpret unreservedly, the need to inquire and argue fearlessly, the need to debate and discuss passionately, the need to exchange ideas generously, etc.

The approach has to be thoughtful, forward-looking, progressive and result-oriented. It must ensure the gains of education are properly utilized to raise children who are educated, informed, aware, enlightened and active. The objectives of this education and reformation have to be long-term and clearly defined. It must lead us closer to our God, closer to the ultimate truth.

Considering that we are anxiously waiting for someone who is a righteous and virtuous messiah; it’s important that we familiarize ourselves with the ideals of deliverance and act on them in letter and spirit. To prepare the ground for his reappearance, we have to develop a reformist spirit in ourselves and others so that the society undergoes change.

That is possible only through wholesome education. To protect and safeguard our society from social infirmities, ethical degeneration, cultural disorder, ignorance, misrule and anarchy; it’s important to educate ourselves and others around us. If we remain trapped in the vortex of ignorance; social anomalies, cultural dilemmas, and orthodox beliefs will continue to hinder our personal growth and that of the society. As Allah says in Holy Quran, “You are the best nation brought forth for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah”. (3:110)

Once the ground is set, the seeds of the promised rule of Mehdi (as) will sprout in such a society and our agonizing wait shall end.

Author: Syed Zafar Mehdi
Source: Press TV (
Date: 27/06/2013

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