The authorities think that too many people are claiming to be the Mahdi

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EARLIER this year Iran’s authorities arrested a score of men who, in separate incidents, claimed
to be the Mahdi, a sacred figure of Shia Islam, who was “hidden” by God just over a millennium
ago and will return some time to conquer evil on earth. 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. Many
of the fake messiahs were picked up by security men in the courtyard to the mosque in
Jamkaran, a village near Qom, whose reputation as the place of the awaited Mahdi’s advent has
been popularised nationwide by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When he took office in 2005
he gave the mosque $10m.
Iran’s economic doldrums may have helped to cause this surge in people claiming to be
mankind’s saviour—and in women saying they were the Mahdi’s wife. “In an open atmosphere
where people could criticise the government they would not believe these people,” says an exseminarian
in Tehran, the capital, noting that most Iranians still get all of their news from state
television and state-owned or -sanctioned newspapers.
Last year a seminary expert, Mehdi Ghafari, said that more than 3,000 fake Mahdis were in
prison. Mahdi-complexes are common, says a Tehran psychiatrist. “Every month we get
someone coming in, convinced he is the Mahdi,” she says. “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
The most famous case was that of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison
in 2007 for allegedly—among other things—claiming he was the Mahdi. Like many influential
people out of favour with the authotities and accused of being “false” messiahs, he was forced to
recant on state television, confessing that he had been against the Islamic Republic’s core
tenets. His admirers say the charge was absurd.
Mr Ahmadinejad has called his administration “the government of the hidden imam”. Last
month he told a batch of new Iranian ambassadors to consider themselves “envoys of the
Mahdi”. After his ㄚ�rst speech at the UN in 2005, a video circulated showing Mr Ahmadinejad
2/24/2017 Iran’s multiplicity of messiahs: You’re a fake | The Economist­east­and­africa/21576700­authorities­think­too­many­people­are­claiming­be­mahdi­youre 4/4
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.


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