Date:  Jan. 2002



The Saviour and Religious Revival*


By: Abdulkarim Soroush


1.  The concept of the saviour [mahdaviyat] is a subject about which our religious community can reflect at length.  The idea is woven into the warp and woof of our people’s religious lives; whether today, when we claim to have a religious and Islamic state, or before the revolution, when the state was not religious and the ulema and religious leaders sat in their own places in strength and had followers and adherents.  In both situations, the presence and evocation of the Hidden Imam were plainly discernible.  The pious people of our country see religious leaders as the deputies of the 12th Imam and esteem them for this reason.  The people pay a part of their assets and revenues to them each year, and believe that these funds belong to the Hidden Imam by right.  They believe that a fifth of their assets belongs to a person who is not observable in society today - but who is really present in the world – and that his deputies take these funds from the people in his name and by his command and spend them on causes that have his approval.  [The Mahdi (saviour) or the Hidden Imam is the 12th Shi’i Imam, who is believed to be in occultation and is to return one day to establish the reign of justice on earth.]

            The Shi’i community has lived with and been enlivened by this belief for centuries. And the belief continues to be held firmly today.  The rulers of the Islamic state, for their part, believe this of themselves; they believe that they are sitting in the 12th Imam’s place, that they are ruling in his name and that they command the people as his deputies. They base their entire legitimacy on the legitimacy of the Hidden Imam.  They believe that, just as Shi’is submitted to the Imams when they were present, so too must they submit to their deputies now and consider their words to be the words of the Hidden Imam.  And, in order to prove their case, they present arguments based on Islamic jurisprudence [henceforth fiqh] and religious narratives.

            In the light of this presence and influence, studying the concept of the saviour is an obvious duty for thinkers, sociologists and theorists of religion.  No idea has been as influential and potent in our society as that of the occultation of the Imam.

If you look at the political theories of Shi’i jurists [henceforth faqihs], you will see the question of the occultation very clearly.  After the demise of the 11th Imam, the Shi’is were afflicted with bewilderment for a time.  The theory of the Imamate told them that there must always be an Imam present in society and that they basically existed to run society and to guide people to the right path.  Hence, as far as they were concerned, an Imam who was in occultation was an unknown and undefined notion.  This is why, for about a century, a situation existed in the Shi’i community that Shi’i historians and historians of Islam have described as the period of bewilderment.  During this period, a new theory of the Imamate gradually grew in the Shi’i community.  The main substance of this new theory was that there was no need for the Imam to be physically in the midst of the people;  it is enough for him to keep an eye on them and assist them.  This was how the idea of the Hidden Imam was born.  The Hidden Imam is in fact a hidden guardian [wali] who is with the people and among the people.  He has a real presence in the minds of believers and Shi’is.  Without showing himself to the people, he acts as the mediator of divine grace. And one day he will appear.

Be that as it may, the idea of the saviour is not unique to Shi’ism and Islam;  it is one of the mysterious concepts and notions of religions in general.  True, the concept of the saviour plays a fundamental and pivotal role in Shi’i culture, but it is by no means confined to this creed.  In particular, if we view the concept of the Imamate as the manifestation of divine guardianship, it will be seen to have a much longer history and record.  In general, mystics consider “wali” to be one of God’s names or attributes;  hence, this divine name has always been present and manifest in the world.  “Nabi” [prophet] is not one of God’s names, but “wali” is one of God’s names and always has a manifestation in the world.  At times, there have been prophets in the world and, at times, there have not.  But wilayat [guardianship] cannot cease;  it is eternal and historical.

2.  Despite the longevity of the concept of the saviour in the history of religious ideas, the subject of my discussion is specifically the concept of the saviour in Islam.  I must begin by explaining some of the assumptions and premises of the discussion.

            The first point is that I do not intend to deal with the theological questions pertaining to the notion of the saviour.  Questions such as, “How can anyone live so long?”,  “How can an individual single-handedly bring about tremendous events in the world?”,  “Why does an individual with a global mission of this kind belong to the Muslims alone?”, etc. do not concern me here.  They are all considered to involve intra-religious debates.  My stance in discussing the concept of the saviour is an extra-religious stance.

            Secondly, I will try to examine the notion of the saviour from a specific perspective and in the light of a specific issue.  The specific issue is the relationship between this notion and the subject of religious revival.  On this basis, the framework of my discussion here is the historical context of religious revival and religious matters, including the saviour.

            We know that, in our times, some religious intellectuals have tried to give a different meaning to the idea of the saviour and to look at it from another angle. One of these angles was the one that the late Dr Shariati chose and espoused.  His famous speech “Awaiting:  The Religion of Protest” was the marker to his thinking on this subject. Shariati said that one of the most important reasons and motivations for a revolution is dissatisfaction with the status quo.  If someone is satisfied with the way things are, they will not opt for change and revolution.  The late Shariati wanted to present Islam as a revolutionary religion.  He therefore used religious teachings, including Shi’i teachings, to this end.  Shariati believed that awaiting the saviour meant precisely protesting against the status quo. If you are waiting for a saviour, it means that you long to see a rescuer and redeemer who will change the way things are.  This rescuer also has the backing and approval of God, so he cannot go wrong. 

            As you can see, Shariati’s reading set aside and absolutely dispensed with all the theological questions about the saviour’s personality and all the true, half true and false stories and myths that are told about him.  Instead, a single notion is extracted from it and placed in the service of a revolution. It is clear that, in studying the concept of the saviour, Shariati is interested in its practical and functional aspect.  However, my research into this concept can be understood in the framework and context of religious revival.

            3.  The work and path of prophets have a particular feature that essentially distinguishes them from their followers’ work and path.  Of course, this difference is inevitable and cannot be remedied.  The difference is that prophets and founders of religions start at the top and then descend, whereas their followers have to start at the bottom and gradually work their way upwards.  In other words, prophets and founders of religions first attain the cause and, then, this cause gives birth to and produces certain effects.  But their followers encounter the effects and try to attain the cause via these effects.  In order to clarify the distinction I must draw on Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi.  He says:  “You are joy, we are laughter / the product of an auspicious joy”. 

Joy is the cause and laughter is the effect.  Sorrow is the cause and tears are the effect.  A person is filled with joy and elation;  then, he breaks into laughter helplessly and unaffectedly.  But there are times when a person makes himself laugh so that he can eventually become joyful and elated.  He goes to a happy get-together and sits among gleeful people so that a little bit of the joy and elation can seep into him.  But, in these circumstances, even if he becomes truly filled with joy, the movement has been from effect to cause;  that is to say, starting from the bottom and moving upwards.  However, becoming joyful and elated and, then, laughing is to start from the top and move downwards;  it is movement from cause to effect. This holds true of prophets.  Prophets first attained an experience.  God, the hidden world and the truth of this world appeared to them in a mysterious way, and they suddenly found themselves facing an invasive, boundless truth.  Thereafter, the prophet’s prophetic personality was born.  The encounter was astounding and character shaping.  Prophets have reported that they suddenly found themselves before an incredibly skillful, penetrating and engulfing teacher. Not only have they been transformed themselves, but they have felt compelled to share this light with others.  Prophets have undergone this situation to varying degrees.  But the basis, nature and essence has more or less always been the same. 

We cannot penetrate any further into this event.  It is merely by seeing its products and external results that we understand that a rare occurrence of this kind has happened to some very exceptional individuals in the course of history.  Once this pupil rises to his feet after the encounter with that skillful teacher and finds himself transformed, he feels that his previous life has become impossible.  A person’s life is in keeping with their inner state.  When someone is altered essentially, existentially and intrinsically, their demeanour naturally changes.  This changed life is the product of those experiences that the individual has undergone.  Changed conduct is the result of change in a person’s psyche.  Every prophet or mystic has spent time awake in the dead of the night.  Conduct of this kind has never been dutiful.  This is movement from cause to effect.  Hafez says:  “Prayer beads and ascetic’s robes will ne’er inebriate you / pray to the wine master for perseverance to this end.”

These great men used to go to the wine master first and, once they had sipped from that jug and become inebriated, then they acquired an inebriated demeanour.  This inebriated demeanour was totally natural and unaffected.  All the words, injunctions and acts that they presented were a product of their new personality.

But when prophets entrust their religion to their followers, the situation changes.  As I said, this change is inevitable and no one can remedy it.  For the Prophet, things would begin from causes and then arrive at effects. But when he imparted his teachings to people and, for example, told them that they should perform their prayers, fast, not drink wine, not overeat, to rise in the dead of the night, etc., it was so that people would have those spiritual experiences, understand the truths of the other world and ascend the ladder of closeness to God.  The Prophet first attained certain states of being and, after attaining those states of being, these injunctions issued forth from him.  But he called on his followers to carry out these injunctions in the hope that they could attain those states.  In other words, we step onto the ladder of effects in the hope that, one day, we can reach that cause.

Religions began from the kernel for prophets and the outer shell was laced around the kernel.  But when the religions reached their followers, they began from the outer shell and tried to pierce the shell in the hope of reaching the kernel. And in most cases they never did reach it.  This is what religion’s shell, which is mentioned so often by mystics, means. From the start, religion’s shell was meant to protect the kernel.  It basically had a protective role.  But when the kernel was forgotten and the shell became the principal thing, even the shell lost its value.

4. As I have said elsewhere, there are three types of religiosity:  utilitarian-pragmatic religiosity, gnostic religiosity and experiential religiosity.  Each of these types of religiosity has its own particular approach to and interpretation of religious matters, such that when we step beyond the realm of pragmatic or utilitarian religiosity, our definition and interpretation of religion changes.  For example, in dealing with Ashura [10th day of the month of Muharram on which Imam Hussein’s was martyred], Shi’is’ mythical, mystery-ridden utilitarian religiosity was of the view that Imam Hussein was an otherworldly being and that the events in Karbala occurred on the orders of hidden forces.  On Ashura, when people lifted stones off the ground, they would find fresh blood underneath and angels came to Imam Hussein’s aid.  And anyone who weeps over Imam Hussein, is bound for heaven.  And so on and so forth. 

All of this placed Imam Hussein in a halo of mysteries and otherworldly and mythical forces, which is extremely attractive to the myth-loving type of believer.   Our fathers and mothers wept over this Imam Hussein for centuries, saw him surrounded by a halo of mysteries and envied God’s affection for him.

But utilitarian religiosity’s approach to Imam Hussein gradually gave way to gnostic religiosity’s way of thinking.  In the present age and century, religious thinkers and intellectuals have gradually set aside that former approach to Imam Hussein’s uprising and have turned to the gnostic interpretation.  Inevitably, new questions also arose:  Who was Imam Hussein and what caused his opposition to the Umayyads?  Why did he not make peace with them?  Why did he not make peace with Yazid as his brother had done with Mu’awiyah?  Why did he enter into war?  Why did he go to the desert of Karbala?  Why did he not accept their proposals?  What preceded this act?   What were its consequences?  What did it mean politically?  What was Imam Hussein’s motive?  And so on. 

In the gnostic interpretation of Imam Hussein’s uprising, there is absolutely no mention of where the angels were and what the jinn did.  Instead, there is a totally historical interpretation of a political act and it is analysed and examined.  This process has continued since the time of Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century to our day, when Shi’is have engaged in historical-political analyses of that uprising.

As to experiential religiosity’s way of dealing with Imam Hussein’s uprising, we can see it in Mowlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi’s approach.  Rumi considered Imam Hussein’s act to be a pure act of devotion and love.  In Rumi’s reading, Imam Hussein was someone who broke through the cage of the body to achieve the flight of the soul.  Far from seeing Imam Hussein’s fate as a cause for mourning, he believed it was pure felicity and joy;  far from being a misfortune, it was salvation itself.  This was why he called on the followers and devotees of Imam Hussein to look at this event and see how a sultan and a king had escaped captivity and attained the heaven of freedom.  What Rumi is saying is:  Look at this act of love and participate in it with him.

5.  The subject of the saviour has also been approached in three different ways by the three types of religiosity.  That is to say, this idea, too, has been dealt with in a utilitarian, mystery-ridden way; in a gnostic way; and in an experiential way.  The mystery-ridden, utilitarian approach – whether otherworldly or this-worldly – is the one that is still in force in our society today.  In this approach, the mythical aspects of the concept of the saviour are preserved and, in the context of analysis or explanation, the concept is always viewed in terms of its celestial aspect and everything gains its meaning in this celestial light.  This kind of approach generates certain rites and rituals in practice, and the manifestation of these rites and rituals can still be seen in the beliefs of the bulk of the people.  Although some of the observable manifestations have declined, others still exist.

In my opinion, the Hojjatieh Society is a manifestation of the mythical interpretation of the concept of the saviour and the 12th Imam.  Their presentation of this subject centred wholly around the mystery-ridden interpretation of the saviour and the occultation.  Even faqihs’ approach to the subject of the saviour and the Imam’s occultation can be viewed as that same kind of utilitarian, mystery-ridden and mythical interpretation.  People who consider themselves the deputies of the 12th Imam, interfere in the affairs of Shi’is in his name and believe that they have certain prerogatives consider themselves to have these rights in view of the fact that they are his deputies.  It would be appropriate for me to point out here that, if the mysteries and myths are removed from the sphere of religion, religion would turn into a human, rational, secular and this-worldly school of thought, and ultimately lose its celestial aspect for its devotees.  Hence, this element will never cease to be.  At the same time, clerics are basically considered to be the protectors and guardians of the mythical elements of religion.  In general, when believers turn to clerics, they do not expect to hear gnostic or experiential explanations;  in the main, they expect to hear about the mystery-ridden and mythical aspects of religion.  Moreover, no religion can be wholly reduced to its non-mythical elements.  Every part of religion, whether it is ethics, theology or even fiqh, is mystery-ridden to some degree and cannot be made absolutely conventional and demystified.

Of course, by myths, I do not mean nonsense, superstition or fairy tales; what I mean is precisely those parts of religion that cannot be completely understood, unravelled or proved by analytical or empirical reason.

At any rate, belief in the supernatural factor is one of the pillars of religious thought.  It may even be the case that the distinguishing feature between religion and human schools of thought is that, in religious thought, belief in facets beyond sensory ones is assumed and the existence of non-sensory layers and levels, which are mystery-ridden, is definite and certain.  Of course, identifying which mysteries and myths in the realm of religion are true and correct and which are superstitions is another matter which falls under first order knowledge and I do not intend to discuss this now.

With the arrival of modern times and Iranian society’s entry into the modern age, changes came about in our society’s religious and intellectual climate, including interest in the scientific-historical view of religion and religious teachings.  In this way, the gnostic interpretation and approach replaced the mystery-ridden, utilitarian approach.  It goes without saying that the concept of the saviour also came under scrutiny from the gnostic standpoint.  To this end, in explaining the idea of the saviour, Shi’is do not rely only on religious narratives and accounts; they try instead to render this idea pleasing and acceptable to reason; to extract a political and social message from it;  and to turn it into a concept that has a resonance for human beings today.

As I said earlier, Shariati’s efforts at reinterpreting the concept of the saviour is a prominent example of the gnostic approach to religious subjects.  Shariati tried to present a cohesive analysis that was in keeping with his own intellectual framework and modern wisdom.  He was of the view that the latent message of the idea of the saviour is that we must always protest against the status quo.  This was in fact an alternative version of the theory – propounded by faqihs - that, during the time of the occultation, the state constitutes usurped power.  However, Shariati increased the revolutionary implications of the theory.  Faqihs saw others as usurpers but they did not take any action themselves.  But, on Shariati’s reading, having decided that others are usurpers, it becomes necessary for us to depose them.  Hence, it is possible to extract the message of “revolution” from the concept of the saviour.

In effect, what Shariati did was to carry out a kind of social and religious pathology, because one of the ills that Shi’i society had become afflicted with was inaction.  The general belief was that believers’ problems and difficulties would be resolved with the appearance of that spiritual redeemer;  a belief that led to passivity.  In order to address this affliction, some reformers used the gnostic approach to present a reason-pleasing reading of the idea of waiting for the saviour.  In gnostic religiosity, there is absolutely no engagement with mythical issues and historical, theological details;  more than anything, the aim is to present the concept in a modern, rational and fruitful guise that bears a message for human beings today.

But what then is the experiential approach?  I consider it imperative to explain something by way of a preface to this question in order to shed light on the foundations of the experiential approach. The concept of the saviour is a kind of a philosophy of religious history.  We can have a religious or a non-religious view of history.  The religious view of history in fact interprets history as if everything comes from the hidden world and returns to the hidden world.  The design, planning and supervision of all its events are undertaken by God and nothing occurs without plan or purpose.  In effect, the entire course of history is like a scroll that is gradually being unravelled.  Religious history is a history that is only examined because and to the extent that God is manifested within it and other historical issues remain entirely outside the sphere of research and investigation.  The bulk of our history books written before the modern age of historiography have this quality.  Stretching from Tabari’s History to Nasekh al-Tavarikh, this can be seen plainly and clearly.  In these books, history begins with a prophet, viz. Adam, and, thereafter, too, it is always prophets who are the heroes and masters of historical events.  Each historical era begins with the appearance of a prophet.  That is to say, historical eras are defined by the appearance of prophets.  Hence, on this interpretation, history is the history of prophets and a celestial history.  History is of interest because it is in the hands of God, totally under His power and a manifestation of his involvement in affairs.  This is exactly the type of historiography that was set aside by Ibn Khaldun, who introduced a different type of historiography. 

In the religious view of history, history has a beginning and a conclusion.  Nothing in it is left to accident.  In fact, the divergence between will and accident is the exact divergence between the religious and the non-religious views of history.  In the non-religious view, people have come into this world by accident.  No one had drawn up a plan for the birth and creation of human beings.  No one was waiting for them.  This is why, in the non-religious view, history may lead anywhere.  The end of history depends on the way human beings behave, how they think and what they want.  Nothing is determined.  Whereas in religious history, the beginning and end and the dynamism of history are the product of a specific will.  This specific will is the will of God.

In the light of these two types of historiography, the idea of the saviour can be seen as a kind of religious view of history.  I am of the opinion that any attempt to explain this question with the aid of non-religious historical concepts is condemned to failure.  This religious view of history cannot be reduced to a non-religious view of history.  A phenomenon cannot be taken out of its context and still be expected to be effectual and resonant.  The concept of the saviour makes sense within a specific system and world-view;  outside this aggregate, it loses its meaning, vitality and force.  Hence, the experiential view of or approach to the question of the occultation and the saviour intends not to rob this concept of its mystery, but purely and simply to explain what it means.  The experiential view explains that all the religious indications suggest that the idea of the saviour is firmly linked to the notion of religious revival; and the revival of experiential religion at that.

In all religions, the figure that is introduced as the saviour is not a political leader, a scholar, a historian, a faqih and so on.  It is a celestial figure, a “man divine”.  A friend [wali] of God.  This is a shared feature that exists in religions’ promises and it is enough to show that there is something supernatural and mystery-laden about the concept of the saviour.  This divine and prophet-like figure must do something prophet-like.  Prophets were first and foremost prophets.  The things that you see in their lives that are of the nature of governance, politics, economics, etc. were incidental.  Put more simply (and of course this simpler version may on occasion distort the meaning), these kinds of activities were imposed on prophets. That is to say, these activities were external to them.  First and foremost, prophets addressed people’s hearts and souls.  They neither brought a new rationality for people nor constructed new livelihoods for them.  Of course, as a consequence of prophets’ actions, the level of knowledge and the livelihoods of people were transformed, but, inherently, prophets neither willed nor did this.

The Prophet of Islam, the history of whose life is clearer and better documented than that of any other prophet, primarily sought to introduce a new focal point and pivot into people’s lives.  The level of people’s earnings was absolutely not altered by the prophet’s call.  The level of people’s learning did not alter either.  The prophet did not challenge the scientific and philosophic theories of his time, because he had essentially not been sent to this end.  In fact, these matters have been left to the people.  What prophets did was to lend meaning to people’s lives.  Presenting God as the focal point of the meaning of human life and its true pivot was the essence of prophets’ mission.  “My prayer, my ritual sacrifice, my living, my dying – all belongs to God, the Lord of all Being.”  (Al-An’am, 162)  The Prophet’s key message has been expressed in this moving verse.  Prophets’ most important task is to identify and introduce that ultimate truth which lies at the spiritual focal point of this world. 

Of course, the message of prophets was addressed to people’s hearts and souls.  But a transformation in people’s soul and inner identity will inevitably lead to a transformation of their collective demeanour and outer life.  As Allama Iqbal put it: “Once it penetrates the soul, the soul is transformed / once the soul is transformed, the world is transformed.”

On this same basis, the person who is to appear at the end of the history will do something prophet-like.  What he will do is neither of the nature of what politicians do, nor what faqihs do, nor poets, nor scholars.  These people are all dear and esteemed in their own right, but the Prophet and the saviour act on a different level and plane. They move different levers and leave more extensive traces in the different dimensions of people’s lives.  The main aim of the one who will come at the end of time is to realize, define and reform human beings’ relationship with God.  Prophets were very successful in fulfilling this aim.  But if this relationship starts to weaken, if veils of forgetfulness start to dim believers’ eyes,  if people gradually turn away from the direction of guidance and if the flame that was lit in people’s hearts starts to die, a divine figure is needed to make it blaze again.

The history of religions points to the assumption that, in their historical context, religions decline and lose their initial power, majesty, impact and influence.  This is exactly where the need for the revival of religion stems from.  Religious reform movements essentially come into being to address this problem.  The dynasty of religious revivalists, starting from Seyyed Jamal to the present day, were solicitous about this: to present an authentic, mystery-ridden and, at the same time, rational definition of religion in a “demystified” world.  Of course, the direction followed by the revivalist efforts of our religious reformers have generally and mainly been from effect to cause.  Not only people who have been keen to revive religious law and fiqh, but also those who have sought an ethical revival of religion, those who have pursued a knowledge-based revival, and those who have harboured dreams of a revolution and an ideological revival of religion have all moved from effects towards causes in the process of their revivalist work.  But what the Prophet did and what the one who is to come at the end of time will do is to start at the top and from the causes, and to show that, first, in the modern world and in the heart of modern life, authentic religious experience and powerful contact with the other world is possible. Secondly, to allow others to share and participate in his spiritual experience.  Prophets did not start from the injunctions of canon law, nor even from ethical injunctions;  instead, they would create a blazing focal point of religious experience and warm their followers around it.  Rumi explains:  “Within them there is ferment vast / a trace suffices to inebriate anyone close at hand.”

A vast ferment existed within prophets such that anyone who was in their company would feel it and experience it.

Rumi says that people once asked the Prophet when the day of upheaval [doomsday] would be: “They’d ask him about the day of upheaval / saying, How long is it from your rise to the resurrection? / Be silent! he would reply / Why ask upheaval to tell you when upheaval will be?”

He told them that he was ferment and upheaval himself; why do you ask me when the day of upheaval will be?  Do not imagine that this was meant metaphorically.  It is the truth.  The Prophet was saying, I have created upheaval.  Look at yourselves and see how when you come close to me and my breath touches you, you turn into someone else and, when you turn into someone else, your morality and conduct change.  This is movement from the top.

Prophets passed away.  Thereafter, their followers had no alternative but to occupy themselves with the effects and to base their conduct on these in the hope that they could reach the causes.  But one day these effects will have become so hollow and ineffective that another person of the same fibre as prophets must come to re-ignite the movement from the cause and from the top; to create an upheaval that will light a new blaze in hearts and souls, so that the flames will show that religiosity is possible in the modern world.  Then, the believers who have had new life infused into them will rebuild their conduct and morality anew. 

When there were prophets, by virtue of their novel personalities, they exuded a new morality and conduct.  Today, we stand before the traces of what they exuded; traces which can no longer suffice and grow dimmer with every passing day.  The promised redeemer is someone who will revive the attainment of faith from above.  Today, we need a person who can teach us that religiosity is possible in the modern world and this person is not a faqih, he is not a theologian, he is of the same fibre as saints.  With the warmth that such a person generates around him, he can both draw others into the glow and teach them morality and conduct.  Modern religiosity will be born in the light of the appearance of this new wali.

The concept of the saviour and its relationship to the revival of religion can only be explained in this way.  The meaning of this theory is that the authentic revival of religion in our disturbed times must take place through the repetition and renewal of the experience of prophets;  that is to say, we must arrive at the effects again by starting at the causes. 

Most of our reformers began their work from the effects.  They had no choice, because as ordinary, average human beings, we have no alternative but to follow this course and to begin from the bottom rung of the ladder.  This method has its own particular ills, shortcomings and limitations, and this is unavoidable.  And if we view things through the eyes of the founders of religions, all these paths fall short of taking us to the desired, final destination.  The promised redeemer, who is to put to rights the gone--wrong situation, is someone who will take the course that was followed by prophets.  He will have a prophet-like personality.  In order to reform religion, he will neither take the path of reforming religious laws and fiqh, nor the path of reforming rites and morality, nor the path of tampering with outer layers and effects.  He will start at the top, not from the bottom.  But this can only be done by someone who has experienced the focal point and kernel of religion for himself.  This person is a “wali”.  He is a believer who will appear in the modern age and, with his appearance, demonstrate how one can be a believer in modern times.  All other revivalists want to remain believers and to show others how to be believers by relying on religion’s outer layers and shell.  These efforts are all laudable, but the idea of the saviour promises us that, with the appearance of a wali, people can benefit from profound religious experiences once again.

The theory of the saviour claims that temporary, passing, incomplete, piecemeal, short-term revivals will not make the world religious; this demystified world would remain demystified and its overwhelming tenor would continue to be a non-religious tenor.  This world will only shed its skin and change when a first rate religious figure, of the calibre of prophets, appears.  He has religious experience and, based on this experience, he builds a new world.  New religious regulations, ethics and fiqh will be written. Layers will be laced around the religious experience and people will find themselves facing a newly-born religious world.  The darkness that has cast a shadow over the world and is the product of the occultation of truth and justice will start to recede in the light of this wali’s radiant personality.  Then, we will once again see a world in which being a believer is natural and religious people will no longer feel out of place.  The saviour will help reform religion by creating a kernel, not by repairing the shell.  This is the nature of the relationship between the saviour and religious revival.

It seems evident that, in order bring about a religious revival in modern world, more than striving for a theoretical, theological, jurisprudential, ethical, scholarly or revolutionary revival of religion, religious reformers and well-wishers must strive for an elemental and spiritual revival of religion.  This mode of revival in the modern world is a historical imperative.  Relying on the effects, secondary principles and outer layers of religion and trying to revive them will draw us into the vortex of “Islam of identity” and open the way to modern fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism means relying on the Islam of identity instead of the Islam of truth; relying on an element that gives a person a this-worldly identity and draws a line between them and others; trying to define oneself through the existence of others who are unlike oneself.  But these kinds of boundaries do not exist in the Islam of truth.  Identities are always at war but truths can coexist, communicate and concur.  When truths arrive on the scene, they always adjust a person’s personality and demeanour, but identities come onto the scene without corresponding to any truth and they only flaunt themselves with antagonism or even with a deliberate quest for enemies. 

If we seek to revive religion in the modern world we have to answer this question:  How is it possible to “live” religiously in the world today?  Faqihs reply:  Fiqh can be so updated as to bring it into harmony with modern life.  Ethicists are of the view that ethics can be codified in such a way as to make an ethical religious life possible in the world today.  But the saviour-oriented religious perspective holds that only through the appearance of the righteous walis of God is a religious life possible in the modern age.  This wilayat will define human conduct and morality anew and, consequently, lead to an authentic revival of fiqh, theology, ethics and religious teachings.  The religious reading of history and the concept of the saviour considers the appearance of the saviour to be a great religious venture;  not a political or theological venture.  The appearance of the saviour is a great historical venture of the same fabric as the venture of prophets.


Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser


* Published under the title “Mahdaviyat va Ehya-ye Din” in the now-banned journal Aftab, No. 12, Jan-Feb 2002.



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