The Revealer has been doing a section on religion in Iraq. It’s a necessary thing because I think many of the mistakes we are making there relate to the fact that we don’t understand the religious issues at play. Even better news is that I think they are doing a great job, particular on the Muqtada as-Sadr mayhem as witnessed by this recent post.
They get major credit for saying that Sadr is not a cleric, so they don’t need to issue an apology, and they correctly point out that he doesn’t consider himself a scholar.
More important for the point of this post, they get that there are messianic overtones to the appearance of the Hidden Imam, but it’s not the same as the Second Coming of Jesus. These events have traditionally been considered parallel – not sequential, nor simultaneous – as precursors to the creation of a just society.
Of course, the Hidden Imam refers to the 12th Imam of the Ithna’ashari Shi’ah, who has gone into ghayba (occultation, hiding in an other-worldly plane). His return is to herald the beginning of a perfectly just society. (Abdulaziz Sachedina has a great treatment of the topic.) Khomeini, while never claiming the title for himself, was often referred to as the Imam, indicating a belief that he was the just ruler.
The only Shi’ah group to presently have a hazar (present) Imam are the Nizari Ismailis, who oddly enough were the first Shi’ah group to have their Imam go into hiding. However, that type of hiding is known as satr (concealment in this world; that is acting incognito). When the Imam – three generations later – came out of satr he took the title of mahdi to indicate a radical change in the society around him, and began establishing the Fatimid Empire. Of course, the idea of who or what the mahdi was was untested, so there were those groups who did expect the end of the world, and they split when that idea was not realized by the Imam.
The period of ghayba of the Ithna’ashari Imam overlaps with the first period of satr of the Ismaili Imams. It is therefore easy to understand the common discourse shared by both groups.
By the end of the Fatimid Empire, the Ismaili community split into the Nizari and Mustali groups. In the history of the Mustali community, the Imam enters ghayba as well. Their conception of the return of the Imam is different than the Ithna’ashari conception, but the differences seem to be in the minutiae (I have to admit Mustali theology/theological history is not my forte.)
The main point is that the messianism of the Muslim community, like its millenarianism, is different than the Christian ones. I’m glad they are pointing it out to the reader.