Groups of Iranian Muslims are eager to promote the message of Mahdism as answering the expectations of the entire world – and not only of Muslims – for a Savior figure. This was made clear at the Third International Conference on Mahdism Doctrine, meeting in Tehran from August 26-27, which RW attended. The conference gathered participants from various countries (primarily Muslims, including Sunnis) and was inaugurated by President Ahmadinejad. It was organized by the Bright Future Institute, which was created in 2004 and headquartered in Qom. Besides the yearly conferences on Mahdism, the Institute has launched various magazines, educational programs, and a news agency, BF News. It is reported to be currently the largest organization promoting Mahdism in Iran.
The belief in the Mahdi, a messianic figure, is present both in Sunni and Shi’a Islam. However, an atmosphere of awaiting the advent of the Mahdi has been much stronger in Shi’a Islam, where the figure of the Mahdi is fused with the 12th Imam, whom the Twelver Shi’as believe to be alive but concealed for many centuries (what is called the “occultation”). Every Friday, many Shi’a believers hope that the Mahdi will be manfested, and express sadness on Friday night because the Mahdi didn’t come. Similar to attitudes in numerous millenarian movements across religious traditions, the advent of the Mahdi is associated with the hope for the establishment of a just world, from which oppression and suffering will be removed. “Justice shall prevail,” stated the Iranian President in his address to the audience, adding that “everyone is waiting for the Mahdi to come.” With its emphasis on calling for the liberation of all oppressed people around the world (not only Muslims), the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran paved the way for attempts to universalize the appeal of Mahdism.
Pour Sayed Aghaei, a Shi’a cleric who is the Director of the Bright Future Institute, said that Mahdism is the “key to the victory of the Islamic Revolution.” Mahdism is now being seen as a true global answer, and conferences such as the one which took place in Tehran represent one step in that direction. Several papers presented attempted to make the idea of the Mahdi acceptable for non-Muslims as well, stressing that similar ideas were present under different names in other religious traditions and that there would be space for non-Muslims under the future rule of the Mahdi. The expectation is not a quietist or passive one: it should be “practical,” and several speakers reminded the audience that the hard work preparing for the coming of Imam Mahdi will make it a reality. It is a dynamic expectation leading to the appearance of an utopian society. The creation of a collective desire for the arrival of a Savior figure is also seen as a way of hastening that event.
— Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)