Among some Shia Muslims, there is a belief that Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as the Twelfth Imam, has been hidden for more than a millennium but will return one day to bring justice to the world.
Known as the Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam bears similarities to the Judeo-Christian notion of the messiah.
Apparently, the concept is a popular one in Iran, as there are currently some 3,000 “fake mahdis” imprisoned in the Middle Eastern nation.
“Every month we get someone coming in, convinced he is the Mahdi,” seminary expert Mehdi Ghafari told The Economist. “Once a man was saying such outrageous things and talking about himself in the third person that I couldn’t help laughing. He got angry and told me I had ‘bad hijab’ and was disrespecting the ‘Imam of Time,’” as the Mahdi is known.
Earlier this year Iran’s authorities arrested nearly two dozen men in separate incidents, all of whom claimed to be the Mahdi.
A website based in Qom, Iran’s holiest city, deemed the men “deviants,” “fortune-tellers” and “petty criminals,” who were exploiting credulous Iranians for alms during the Persian new-year holiday, which fell in mid-March, according to The Economist.
“Iran’s economic doldrums may have helped to cause this surge in people claiming to be mankind’s savior – and in women saying they were the Mahdi’s wife,” the publication added.
Adherents of “Twelver Shi’ism,” as it is known, believe Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam, was born in 869 and hidden by God at the age of five.
Followers of Sunni Islam and some Shi’ites believe that the Mahdi has not yet been born, however.
Not unlike the Western world’s proclivity for producing individuals claiming to be the second coming of Jesus, there have been numerous instances of people alleging to be the Mahdi over the centuries.
Repressive Islamic governments, however, tend to take a dim view of such individuals.
Ayatollah Boroujerdi, for instance, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2007 for – among other things – claiming he was the Mahdi, according to The Economist.
“Like many influential ‘false’ messiahs, he was forced to recant on state television, confessing that he had been against the Islamic Republic’s core tenets,” the publication added.
Interestingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, no stranger to hyperbole, has called his administration “the government of the hidden imam.”
Last month he told a group of new Iranian ambassadors to consider themselves “envoys of the Mahdi.”
After his first speech at the UN in 2005, a video circulated showing Ahmadinejad telling a leading Iranian cleric that world leaders had been enchanted, during his oration, by a halo around his head that had been put there by the Mahdi himself.