A common factor between Shia Muslims and Christians is that they refer to the Expected One in their respective eschatological systems as ‘the Saviour’, Shia referring to the Mahdi, and Christians to Jesus. The West, especially Europe, is essentially post-Christian, with religion playing little role in everyday affairs. However, at times of crisis, people turn to religion for solace. A classic example was the effect of 9/11, which led to a massive upsurge in American church attendance. Similarly, in the wake of the events of 1967, with the defeat of the Arab states, Muslims began to abandon secular ideologies and turn to religion as a source of solace and of political resistance. The fruit of that turning was seen in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Following on from that, the people of Lebanon and Palestine have turned to religion for solace in the face of the Israeli occupation.
This solace has not been just for comfort in the face of oppression. Belief in the Biblical Saviour led Christians in Britain to successfully campaign against slavery in the nineteenth century, and belief in the Shi‘ite Saviour led Lebanese Shia to resist Israeli occupation and aggression and defeat both. It follows that belief in the eschatological triumph of the Saviour is a spur to activism prior to His Coming, and to understand the victory of Hezbollah, we must first understand the role of belief in the Mahdi in providing solace in both senses.
1. Islamic opposition to oppression and hopes for a deliverer
Islam has a horror of fitna, sometimes appropriately translated as ‘strife’ but also having connotations (depending on the context) of ‘oppression’. The classic texts in this regard are Surah al-Baqara 2:191, 193:
And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter…
And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers…
Say: Warfare therein is a great (transgression), but to turn (men) from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of Worship, and to expel His people thence, is a greater with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing…
Thus, the Islamic reaction to oppression involves resistance – i.e. defensive jihad. Indeed, Surah Al-Anfal 8:39 commands that Muslims ‘fight them until persecution is no more’. In different ages, the reality of political oppression has caused some Shia to back illegitimate candidates for the title of Mahdi:
They were …easily carried away by the talented eloquence of Mukhtar and his successful propaganda for Ibn al-Hanafiya as the deliverer (Mahdi) from the tyranny and injustice inflicted upon them by the Umayyads. It was, therefore, not so much the rights and personality of Ibn al-Hanafiya which made the masses of the Shi‘is of Kufa accept him as Mahdi-Imam as it was their desperate yearning for a deliverer from Umayyad domination and oppressive rule. A careful examination of Mukhtar’s propaganda for Ibn al-Hanafiya would show that the overriding emphasis in introducing him was on his role as Mahdi and not so much on his being the Imam. This may prove to have been the main factor which attracted people to him.
In this regard, an ayah that is of particular relevance to the experience of Shia down the ages, and of Muslims in places such as Lebanon and Palestine today, is Surah An-Nisa 4:75:
How should ye not fight for the cause of Allah and of the feeble among men and of the women and the children who are crying: Our Lord! Bring us forth from out this town of which the people are oppressors! Oh, give us from thy presence some protecting friend! Oh, give us from Thy presence some defender!
It is significant that the text does not exactly call for ‘liberation’, ‘salvation’ or ‘defence’ in the generic sense of an action: rather, the concept is individualised – the call is for a personalised Defender/Saviour. Arguably, this may just be meant in the generic sense, but equally, it is easy to see how this could be applied to the Mahdi as the ultimate Defender/Saviour of the Oppressed who cry out to God. Significantly, Imam Hussein made his way to Iraq in response to an agonised plea by the people of Kufa;
This is a letter to Husayn bin Ali from his Muslim and faithful supporters. Be quick and hurry up, for the people are waiting for you, and they do not look towards anyone other than you. Hurry up. Hurry up. We repeat: Make haste. Make haste.
Equally significantly, the usual Shia exclamation upon reference to the Mahdi is ‘May Allah hasten his appearance’. The people of Kufa urgently desired the coming of an Imam who would establish justice and deliver them from oppression, and it was this Hussein promised in his reply to the people of Kufa:
You have written that you do not have an Imam and asked me to come to you so that Allah may perhaps draw you together on truth and guidance through me… I swear by my life that a true Imam and leader is only he who takes decisions according to the Qur’an, establishes justice, promotes the Divine religion and dedicates himself to the path of Allah.
Likewise, Muslims today are often in situations where they crying out for justice, so it is not surprising that today there is deep longing and expectant hope for a Saviour to come and vanquish oppression whilst establishing Just Governance – i.e. the Mahdi.
Throughout Islamic history, and especially in the present day, it is not that Muslims wish to be delivered from a place – indeed, one of the features of Palestinian resistance is the determination not to repeat the tragedy of 1948 by fleeing from the enemy forces after the latter had deliberately committed a massacre in a neighbouring place to encourage ethnic cleansing. Rather, Muslims seek to be delivered from an oppressive political context. At times certain Muslims have looked to ‘defenders’ that others saw as questionable – many Palestinians had hopes that Saddam Hussein might prove to be their ‘defender’ during the Gulf War, whilst some Iraqis looked to the Americans to be delivered from the same figure. Early in Islamic history, however, such hopes for a ‘defender’ sent by Allah to deliver the righteous Ummah from oppressive rulers came to centre on the Mahdi:
Narrated by Abu Sa’id al-Khudaris:
I heard the Prophet declare from the pulpit: ‘The Mahdi … will fill the earth with justice and equity as it is filled with tyranny and injustice.’
Bihar al-anwar, Vol. 51, p. 74
Identification of the Mahdi as the ultimate ‘defender’ immediately demonstrates a difference with those who have looked to ordinary human figures, whether arguably estimable (e.g. Mossadeq or Nasser) or questionable (e.g. Saddam). The Mahdi, in contrast, is a supernatural character, and for Shia in particular, his manifestation to the world is supernatural and thus God-given:
… Abu Khalid al-Kabuli … said:
Ali b. al-Husain… told me: ‘…I see your master, rising above the hill of your Najaf destined for Kufa, with three hundred and some odd over ten men, Jibraeel on his right, Mikaeel on his left, Israfil ahead of him, and with him (is) the Prophet’s standard, unfurled… (Bihar al-anwar, Vol. 52, p. 327).
The fact that the Saviour is supernaturally manifested in Iraq (i.e. attended by angels), aiming to reach Kufa just as Hussein did, provides a further connection with the martyred Imam. The land where an Imam – specifically the Lord of the Martyrs (in Shia terminology) was slain, will be the land where the last Imam – al-Mahdi – will manifest himself to complete the work begun by Hussein in confronting tyranny, as this hadith quoting his words demonstrates:
I am the seal of successors. And through me shall Allah, the Mighty and Glorious, drive away the calamities from my progeny and my Shias.
(Bihar, v. 52, p. 30)
So just as the journey to Kufa was the scene for the greatest tragedy in Shia history, the ultimate journey to Kufa will be the scene for the final triumph of the Saviour over oppression. This is confirmed by a saying of Imam Mahdi himself and by a tradition of Imam Reza:
Imam Mahdi said, ‘I pray for any believer who remembers the sufferings of my martyred grandfather, al-Husain, and then prays for my relief (al-Faraj)’
…O Son of Shabib! If you wish to cry for anything or anyone, cry for al-Husain Ibn Ali (PBUH) for he was slaughtered like a sheep… Certainly, the seven heavens and earths cried because of the murder of al-Husain (PBUH). Four thousand Angels descended on earth to aid him, but (when they were allowed to reach there) they found him martyred. So they remained at his grave, disheveled and dusty, and will remain there until the rising of al-Qa’im (Imam al-Mahdi (PBUH)), whereupon they will aid him. Their slogan will be, ‘Vengeance for the blood of al-Husain.’…
The Ziyarat Al-Nahiya, traditionally ascribed to the Twelfth Imam, emphasises the identification of the Mahdi with opposition to the oppression that Imam Hussein resisted:
Salutations from the one, who, had he been present with you in that plain, would have shielded you from the sharpness of the swords with his body and sacrificed his last breath for you… But … as I could not fight those who fought you, and was not able to show hostility to those who showed hostility to you I will, therefore, lament you morning and evening, and will weep blood in place of tears, out of my anguish for you and my sorrow for all that befell you…
Sachedina also comments on the annual condolences that Shi offer at Ashura which demonstrate the link between the service of Hussein and the jihad of the Mahdi: ‘May God …make us among those who will exact vengeance for his [Hussein’s] blood with his friend… the Imam Mahdi…’
2. The Mahdi as the Saviour from internal oppression
It should be noted that in the first aspect, eschatological hopes for the Mahdi relate to the internal situation of Muslims – that is, he is someone who will deliver them from oppressive rulers who themselves claim to be Muslims, as opposed to confronting Kufr – i.e. non-Muslim political forces. In this respect we can see a link between the jihad of Hussein against Yazid on the one hand, and Mahdist expectation on the other. Hussein went to Karbala to confront illegitimate rule, sacrificing himself in the process. This self-sacrifice was not immediately successful in toppling the tyrannical government, but Mahdist expectation held that a descendant of the Prophet (a sayyid) would be ultimately responsible for overthrowing oppressive regimes.
Every year during the Ashura festival Shia remember the Tragedy at Karbala, mourning both his loss and their failure to aid him. The lamentations at this time involve eschatological expectation, where the promise of Imam ’Ali Ibn al-Husain is of a place in Paradise for the mourner.
Imam ’Ali Ibn al-Husain (A.S.) used to say: Every Mu’min, whose eyes shed tears upon the killing of Husain Ibn ‘Ali (A.S.) and his companions, such that the tears roll down his cheeks, Allah shall accommodate him in the elevated rooms of Paradise.
(Yanaabe’al Mawaddah, p. 419).
However, another tradition from Imam Sadiq links the lamentation of Muharram with concern for the issue of illegitimate and oppressive government:
Imam Sadiq (A.S.) said: He whose eyes shed tears for our blood which has been shed, or for our rights which have been usurped, or for the humiliation meted out to us or to one of our Shi’ites, Allah shall accommodate him in paradise for a long time.
(Amali Sheikh al Mufid, p. 175).
It is important to connect this with the tradition from Imam Reza that urges a retrospective identification with the martyrs of Karbala:
Imam Redha (A.S.) said (to one of his companions):
If you desire that for you be the reward equivalent to that of those martyred along with Husain (A.S.), then whenever you remember him say: ‘Oh! Would that I had been with them! A great achievement would I have achieved’.
(Wasaail al Shia’h, vol. 14, p. 501).
This should also be linked to the famous saying ‘Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala’, which was an inspiration to Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution:
‘Everyday is Ashura and every land is Karbala!’ These are great, immortal words, mostly misunderstood and misused. Some think it means lamenting every day, but this isn’t so! What was the role of the land of Karbala on the Ashura Day? All lands should be like that! The part of the role of Karbala was this: The Master of the Martyrs accompanied by a few men rose up against the tyranny and oppression of the cruel regime of Yazid, against the emperor of the time, fought him but as their number was too small, they sacrificed themselves and were killed, thus they did not submit to cruelty and this meant a defeat for the oppressor. And, the motto ‘Every day is Ashura’ means that we all must stand and fight oppression every day if it so exists, the command is unlimited in terms of time and location or place. The Karbala event occurred on a site that was limited in dimension and number of challengers – 70 plus persons. But this is symbolic. All lands should perform the role that Karbala did, that is, people must resist oppression whenever and wherever it occurs, and fight it without regard for forces available.
It can be seen that the tradition, as Khomeini interprets it, establishes the universality and permanence of jihad against oppression. This means that Muslims are not meant to be passive until the coming of the Mahdi in resisting tyranny, but rather to prepare for his coming, which will be the ultimate jihad against unjust rule, by themselves engaging in the struggle against tyranny. The Mahdi’s jihad is simply the successful culmination of this struggle. The only major difference in the jihad waged by the Mahdi is that Offensive Jihad remains his unique prerogative (therefore America need not worry about Iranian nuclear ambitions until his coming!); Defensive jihad – namely, resistance to oppression – is mandated by the tradition that everywhere is Karbala, and every day is Ashura.
3. The Shi‘ite Saviour the giver of solace
The general experience of the Shia throughout much of their history is that they have been the victims of oppression. At times this has been political in the sense of various regimes that have engaged in state repression, such as that of the Pahlavi dynasty, other times it has been at the hands of sectarian Sunnis, most notably in modern times the Wahhabi Saudi regime, the Taliban or now Al-Qaida in Iraq. In recent times they have suffered the unique combination of racial and sectarian oppression that they denounce as the abiding characteristic of the Israeli regime, most notably in terms of Israeli actions in Lebanon, especially during the long occupation, exemplified during the well-documented abuses at Khiam prison. Frequently, this had led to mass-killings (such as Qana), causing them to equate the Israelis with Mu’awiya, the contemporary period with Ashura, and Lebanon with Karbala. At such times it is important to understand the psychological factor involved in Mahdist expectation, which has several facets.
Firstly, Shia believe that despite the Occultation of the Saviour, he is still present to aid them in their struggles. For example, the Hadith displays that just as the sun continues to shine and enable us to live even when the clouds prevent seeing it, so does the Mahdi aid his followers: ‘As for deriving benefit from me in my occultation is like deriving benefit from the sun when it hides behind the clouds’ (Bihar al-anwar, v. 53, p. 181). A classic statement of the Mahdi’s role in providing both psychological solace and practical guardianship is found in Kafi:
Usul al-Kafi H 504, Ch. 15, h1
Abu Muhammad al-Qasim ibn al-’Ala’… has narrated from ‘Ad al-’Aziz ibn Muslim the following.
“…The Imam smiled and then said the following. “…The Imam is as crystal-clear water to thirst, an indicator of true guidance and the protector against destruction … The Imam is as a comforting friend, a very kind father, a real brother, and a tender-hearted mother of a small child, a refuge for people in disastrous conditions. The Imam is Allah’s trustee over His creatures, His authority over His servants, His representative in His lands, the preacher of His cause and the defender of His sanctuary… The Imam maintains law and order in religion. He is the might of the Muslims that enrages the hypocrites, and …exterminates unbelievers.”
Secondly, there is the issue of eschatological hope. However intense the oppression, however extensive the suffering, Shia have always been buoyed and upheld by the solace given by the expectation of the Saviour’s return. It is an integral part of Shia belief that though they may now face oppression, their ultimate future is secure, since they have the promise of final victory through the coming of the Mahdi. They believe that his coming will dispel and vanquish tyranny; in short, they will be on the winning side.
Thirdly, it must be remembered that when Shia mourn and weep, especially over Hussein, they are engaged in a practical act of eschatological expectation. We have seen in the quotes from some Imams about the Ashura festival – the hope of Paradise through shedding tears, and especially noteworthy is the tradition from Imam Sadiq that promises Paradise for anyone weeping over any oppressed believer – ‘the humiliation meted out to us or to one of our Shi’ites’. A classic practical example is seen in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, where every martyr’s funeral became a political demonstration that intensified the jihad against the Shah, as ‘Imam Khomeini had said: “The blood of each martyr will awake a thousand of the living.” It is thus that unarmed people would prevail over such a renowned and powerful army.’ Another time Khomeini also stated ‘Lamentation of the martyrs, means preservation and perpetuation of the Movement. It is narrated that he who cries (at, Imam Hosein’s martyrdom) …will be admitted to the Heaven. Such a person who appears sad, whose face shows his affectation by tears, is actually helping to preserve the uprising and movement of Imam Hosein (a.s.).’ Thus, the tears of the mourners were also tears of solace and joy that their loved ones had ascended to Paradise as martyrs.
Equally in Lebanon, every Israeli bombardment and killing of villagers only led to increased resistance, both in terms of recruitment to Hezbollah and intensification of the fighting. It was impossible to destroy the morale of the Lebanese by these actions, since their tears were simultaneously sorrow for the loss of a loved one, after the manner of Hussein, but also joy at the martyr’s immediate entry into Paradise. Just as the Mahdi will avenge the blood of Hussein with the blood of Oppressors, so the Lebanese avenged the blood of their sons and daughters with the blood of Israeli soldiers. The example of the Mahdi and his Ziyarat was therefore instrumental in bringing about the victory of both Khomeini’s revolution against the Shah in Iran and the Hezbollah jihad against the Israelis. Against this belief the most powerful arsenal in the Middle East was impotent.
Fourthly, even though the Mahdi is yet in Occultation, Shia seek his practical help. Hence, the solace given is not simply of comfort, but of invigoration to resistance. The Ziyarat al-Ashura contains this invocation, whereby Shia identify with Imam Hussein’s jihad: ‘May Allah curse the people who laid the basis of oppression…’ Another part of this Ziyarat is this statement: ‘O Abu ’Abdullah… I am at war with those who make war with you, till the Day of Judgement’, emphasising the permanence and immediacy of defensive jihad against oppression. Then the supplication is given which links the petitioner with the hope of the Mahdi: ‘I pray to Allah … to grant me an opportunity to be with a victorious Imam, from the family of Muhammad…’ Another petition to Allah in this Ziyarat is that ‘He may grant me the opportunity to seek victory, along with a rightly guided Imam from amongst you, who will surely come and speak the truth.’
This demonstrates the practical inspiration and solace that the Mahdi gives to his followers: he prepares them for jihad. The Mahdi’s coming is a revolution that involves military readiness: Imam Sadiq said: ‘Prepare yourselves for the revolution of our Qa’im, even if it means to gather an arrow [for fighting God’s enemies].’ (Bihar al-anwar, Vol. 52, p. 366). In Shia history this practical preparation has ranged from boycotts to military resistance. For example, in 1890 the Qajar Shah Naser ed-Din awarded a monopoly concession to the British Imperial Tobacco Company. This was met with protests, which were largely ignored until in 1891 Ayatollah Mīrza Hasan Shirazi issued this fatwa: ‘Today the use of … tobacco… is reckoned war against the Imam of the Age…’ This led to a massive nationwide boycott, forcing the cancellation of the concession. Hence, this victory against colonialism was accomplished through faith in and on the authority of the Mahdi. That is, it was the Victorious Boycott of the Awaited Saviour.
When Khomeini issued his famous work Hokumat-i-Islami, it included this call to people to ‘Prepare yourselves to be useful to Islam; act as the army for the Imām of the Age in order to be able to serve him in spreading the rule of justice.’ He continued: ‘The Imams … not only fought against tyrannical rulers, oppressive governments, and corrupt courts themselves; they also summoned the Muslims to wage jihad against those enemies.’ On that basis, Khomeini gave the call to overthrow the Shah: ‘Islam is the school of jihad, the religion of struggle; let them … transform themselves into a powerful force, so that they may overthrow the tyrannical regime imperialism has imposed on us …’ This was effected successfully in 1979. Thus we may term the Iranian Revolution as the Victorious Revolution of the Mahdi.
This naturally brings us to Hezbollah. The internal foe in Lebanon – the Israeli occupation – was different than in Iran. Here it was externally-based, but was ‘internal’ in the sense of occupying the land. Hezbollah fused together the example of Imam Hussein in martyrdom with eschatological expectation of the Mahdi:
Hezbollah also used one of its own special types of resistance against the Zionist enemy that is the suicide attacks. These attacks dealt great losses to the enemy on all thinkable levels such as militarily and mentally. The attacks also raised the moral [i.e. morale] across the whole Islamic nation.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General, made the explicit link with Hussein:
We have learned through Imam al-Hussein that the love of martyrdom is part of the love for God. We have learned to glorify jihad for the sake of Islam. Generations after al-Hussein’s resurgence in Karbala, we still learn from the magnificent accomplishments that materialized through his martyrdom. His vision was not momentary or restricted to the battle: it was directed at the future of Islam and of Muslims.
However, what is almost totally neglected in Western study of the movement is the role of the Mahdi in inspiring Hezbollah. Qassem has a section in Chapter Four called ‘The Promise of Victory’, wherein he refers to eschatological promises concerning Jerusalem:
The role of those who persevere and resist in and around the Dome of The Rock in Jerusalem is mentioned in the accounts of the Prophet (PBUH)
One sect of my people shall uphold their religion, conquer their enemy, and will never be harmed by any assailant except that which befalls them of distress and hardship, and they will remain as such until God’s order comes unto them.
When asked where this party is, the Prophet (PBUH) said: ‘In Beit-ul Maqdis (Jerusalem) and under its wings.’ Tradition also speaks of the appearance of the Twelfth Imam, Imam al-Mahdi (PBUH), who will work to purify Jerusalem. Accounts quoted from the Prophet (PBUH) state:
A man of my people treading on my path and tradition shall emerge. God shall bestow heavenly grace on him, and the land shall offer its benediction. He will disseminate justice on the land that would by then be a haven for tyranny. He works for seven years on this nation. He reaches Beit-ul Maqdis (Jerusalem).
Therefore, there is no separation between the religious duty of liberating Palestine and the Godly promise of victory.
It can be seen that Hezbollah’s jihad proceeded on the dual basis of the example of Imam Hussein and the promise of the Mahdi’s appearance. Moreover, Hezbollah clearly see their jihad as preparing for the coming of the Awaited Saviour: ‘If we are confident that our actions but pave the way for Imam al-Mahdi’s emergence – he who will bring evenhandedness and justice after the reign of tyranny an despotism, then the future is quite promising.’ Therefore, Hezbollah’s jihad is both a microsm of the jihad of Hussein, with the Israeli government and its forces playing the role of Yazid, but also a microsm and a model of the future jihad of the Mahdi against the Dajjal and the Sufyani, with the Israelis seen as precursors of that ultimate oppressor. Thus, we can truly say that Hezbollah’s victory over the Israeli bombardment in 2006 was the Triumphant Jihad of the Mahdi. The fact of the Mahdi’s inspiration of Hezbollah’s jihad was hidden from the eyes of the Israelis. Yet for the Lebanese Shia, it was only hidden in the sense of the benefits to the Ummah of the Hidden Imam like the sun behind the clouds, as the Hadith illustrates. This is a major failing of secular Western commentators – to underestimate the power of Mahdist expectation in Hezbollah’s struggle.
4. The Reign and Coming of the Christian Saviour
The New Testament understanding of Jesus as the Saviour has a number of interesting parallels with both Imams Hussein and Mahdi. For example, like Hussein, Jesus was cruelly murdered by His religious opponents, suffering scourging (Mark 15:15) and Crucifixion at the hands of the pagan Romans (Mark 15:24), incited by the Jewish priesthood (John 19:6). Just as at Ashura Shia recall the self-sacrifice of Hussein, every time Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper, they remember the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross:
Luke 22:19 And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’. 20 And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.’ (Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24-25)
Christians believe it is by the self-sacrifice of Jesus that they are saved from Hell, admitted to Paradise and forgiven by God: Jesus stated in John 6:51 ‘I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh’; Jesus declared about the cup of wine at the Last Supper, from which the Lord’s Supper derives (Matthew 26:28): ‘this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins’. Just as Shia hold that by weeping for the martyred Imam they have the prospect of Paradise, Christians believe that they have the absolute assurance of salvation by their faith in Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, John 1:69.
However, there is a further aspect to Christ’s self-sacrifice that is relevant to our theme: the defeat of Satan. Jesus, speaking of His impending self-sacrifice on the Cross, declares ‘Now … the ruler of this world will be cast out’, (John 12:31, cf. 16:11). The Passion of Jesus at Calvary has analogies with the Passion of Hussein at Karbala: both confronted murderous tyrannical usurpers (John 8:44 – the Devil was a ‘murderer from the beginning’ i.e. of Man). Satan is depicted in the New Testament as the global usurper and tyrant – a kind of spiritual Yazid/Muawaiya. Khomeini even referred to Yazid as a devil, again providing an analogy with the Biblical narrative, and just as the New Testament presents the self-sacrifice of Jesus as effecting the overthrow of Satan’s regime, Khomeini understood Karbala as overthrow of Yazid’s regime:
The Master of Martyrs (a.s.) rose up with a handful of disciples … As the uprising was for God, they defamed and ruined the monarchy of that devil (Yazid). Outwardly, they all got killed but their sacrifice caused the overthrow of the corrupt regime which meant to turn Islam into a tyrannous, corrupt monarchy.
We are told in 1 John 5:19 that ‘the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One.’ Satan gained control of the world through the transgression of Adam in Eden, since this allowed Sin to enter the world. By paying the price for Man’s sins, the power of the Devil was mortally wounded. What looked to the world like the defeat of Jesus was actually His triumph over Satan – Colossians 2:15: ‘When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.’ This has parallels with Karbala: Khomeini stated ‘For the Shiite Faith, Muharram is the month in which victory was achieved amid blood and sacrifice.’ Jesus triumphed by His blood: Revelation 12:11 ‘And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb’. Interestingly, Khomeini saw the triumph of Hussein over the Ummayads as resulting from the blood of the Imam:
The Master of Martyrs was slain, not defeated but, he defeated the Bani Omayyads in such a way that they could not rise again. His blood drove them away so thoroughly that even today, defeat is registered in name of Yazid and his subjects while Islam thrives by the victory of the Martyrdom of Imam Hosein (a.s.).
However, there is a further parallel. As we have seen, the self-sacrifice of Imam Hussein still left oppression in the world, and for Shia, this part of his calling is to be completed by Imam Mahdi, who will extinguish tyranny forever. Equally, Christians often speak of themselves as living between two ages – the ‘present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4), under the continued but wounded domination of Satan, and the Age to Come (Hebrews 6:5) following the Second Coming of Christ, when there will be a New Heavens and a New Earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1), with Satan and his followers despatched to eternal Hell (Matthew 25:41, 46). At His first coming, Jesus said ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Reign of God is at hand’ (Mark 1:15 – meaning spatially imminent). The Greek word basileiea is best translated in most cases as ‘reign’ rather than ‘kingdom’ since it usually describes a dynamic activity than a place. When Jesus exorcised demons, He said to the healed person ‘But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’, Matthew 12:28. Hoekema comments: ‘The Greek verb used here, ephthasen, means has arrived or has come not is about to come.’ Yet the Reign is also future – Matthew 7:21-23; 1 Corinthians 15:50 – ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’).
How then do we resolve this apparent tension between the fact that the kingdom of God is ‘already’ and ‘not yet’? The answer is that the Kingdom of God belongs to the Age to Come – the two terms are interchangeable – Mark 10:25, 30 (‘…enter the kingdom of God …the age to come’). What has happened is that the powers of the Age to Come have invaded this present age through the Saviour, Jesus. We are presently awaiting the completion of the work wrought by Jesus at His First Coming. After His Ascension, Jesus sat the right hand of God as Ruler and Saviour, Acts 2:33, 5:31. He is reigning now, and His reign is characterised by the subjugation of His enemies, Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:24-25. His Return disposes of the last enemy, death, by establishing the Resurrection Age in its fullness, v23.
5. The Solace of the Christian Saviour
In this sense, the Present Reign and Second Coming of the Biblical Saviour has parallels with that of the Shia Saviour. Both Christians and Shia believe that in some way their respective Saviours continue to intervene in human history. Both believe that their Saviours will return to complete an earlier ministry – in the case of Jesus for Christians, His Second Coming will complete the work of His First Advent, and for Shia, the Mahdi’s coming will complete the work of Hussein. As with the Shi‘ite conception of the Saviour, the Biblical Saviour provides solace in two ways.
Firstly, there is the psychological solace the Biblical Saviour gives His people in times of oppression or ordinary trouble. Jesus warned that the abiding characteristic of this present evil age is trouble, but gave solace and hope because of His triumph over Satan’s power, John 16:33: ‘These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.’ Jesus told a congregation that they were to face suffering at the Devil’s instigation, but their martyrdom would simply be followed by Paradise, Revelation 2:10: ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ Christians are promised comfort ‘in all our affliction’ and ‘sufferings’ from Christ, 2 Corinthians 1:4-5. Because of this, Christians cans both rejoice in hope and persevere in tribulation, Roman 12:12. Christians, even when suffering terrible persecution at the hands of the Jewish authorities, the Romans or atheistic Communists, have known the supernatural solace that Jesus gives, enabling them to cope with persecution, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. At other times miracles occur, as when the Lord sent an angel to release Peter from prison chains, Acts 12:7ff. When Paul faced persecution in Corinth, the Awaited Saviour Himself appeared, and gave him words of solace, promising Paul that Jesus would be with him, Acts 18:9-10. Thus the Christians were able to resist oppression.
The other encouragement Christians possess is that they know that the final triumph is theirs over their oppressors because of the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus will come back to punish those who persecuted His people and give Christians relief, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7:
5 This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering. 6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels…
However great the persecution they may face, Christians know that one day it will end, when Jesus returns. They also know that they may not have to wait until then, because Jesus is already enthroned in heaven, conquering His foes. Sometimes Jesus performs a miracle, such as transforming His enemies into His followers, as with Saul, the zealous Pharisee whom Jesus transformed into the Apostle Paul. Paul’s autobiographical statements demonstrate that before his conversion, he engaged in religious oppression of Christians – Philippians 3:6: ‘a persecutor of the church’. However, an event happened which changed Saul’s perception of Jesus, and thus his attitude to the Christians, namely, the vision of the Risen and Ascended Saviour on the Damascus Road:
This objective, external event had a soul-stirring effect on the very centre of Paul’s being (2 Cor 4.6; Gal 1.16)… It was the moment when Paul was transferred from his false judgement of Jesus (2 Cor 5.16; Gal 3.13) to the true knowledge of him as God’s exalted Messiah, as God’s Son, and as the Lord (2 Cor 5.16; Gal 1.16; Phil 3.8). Thus it brought about a complete change in Paul’s life: the enemy of Christ became his servant. Indeed, he was made a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5.17).
The vision of the Ascended Saviour to Saul/Paul proved that God had raised Jesus from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand: ‘the one thing that could have convinced Paul that Jesus was the risen Lord was his Damascus-road experience; this henceforth was the essence of his gospel, and he owed it directly to that “revelation of Jesus Christ”’. The Acts record presents this as a vision of Christ in some form, Acts 9:3, 7; 26:13ff, 19. Paul himself refers to his seeing Jesus in 1 Corinthians 9:1: ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul states regarding the Risen Jesus ‘He appeared to me also’. Thereafter, he proclaimed that which he once persecuted, Galatians 1:23. Interestingly, there are parallels with the experience of people hostile to the Shi‘ite Imams, including the Mahdi whilst in Occultation, being transformed by an encounter with them:
The Almighty Allah has bestowed the Imams (a.s.) of “guiding with command”. They have the capacity to transform a period just by looking at it. Imam Hasan (a.s.) changed the Syrian foe into a humble friend, Imam Husain (a.s.) transformed Zohair Qayn, Imam Mohammad Taqi (a.s.) changed the heart of the Syrian worshipper, etc.. Similarly, Hazrat Vali-e-Asr (a.s.) has brought profound changes in the lives of people like Hasan Iraqi.
The pre-Christian Paul was ‘zealous’ – a term denoting Jewish religious fanaticism:
Zeal was more than just a fervent commitment to the Torah; it denoted a willingness to use violence against any – Jews, Gentiles, or the wicked in general – who were contravening, opposing, or subverting the Torah. Further, a zealot was willing to suffer and die for the sake of the Torah, even to die at one’s own hand…
The Israeli settler responsible for the Hebron massacre, Baruch Goldstein, was ‘zealous’ in this way: a vision from the Saviour in heaven such as that given to Paul would prevent any settlers from copying his outrage. Perhaps those who proclaim their belief in the present power of the Saviour, whether in Christian or Muslim terms, should consider that in their own minds they limit His power by neglecting the transformation that an encounter with the Saviour can accomplish on the oppressive enemy. Mohamed Mossadeq urged cheering Iranian crowds – ‘Don’t say “Death to the British!”; pray God to guide them’. Rather than saying ‘Death to America’, people in the Middle East should pray that God gives them a vision of the Saviour that transforms negative US policies.
However, for those unwilling to repent, the Ascended Saviour has other means of intervention. Jesus predicted the Destruction of Jerusalem in consequence for their rejection and murder of Him: Luke 21:22-23, 27: ‘For this is the time of vengeance in fulfilment of all that has been written… There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people… At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’ Those responsible for the murder of Jesus were made to pay. Similarly, in Luke 19:41-44, we encounter the weeping of Jesus over the fate of Jerusalem because of its murder of the Saviour, in which a stark prophecy of the actions of the Roman soldiers in AD 70 is found, especially in v43-44 –
The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.
Such did occur in AD 70 – the Romans surrounded the city, and besieged it for five months. After breaking through, they killed nearly everyone and levelled the city, including its Temple, home of the priesthood who incited the Romans to crucify Jesus. The irony is clear: God caused those people – the Romans – used by the Jerusalem Temple authorities to crucify the Saviour – to turn on those same oppressive authorities and destroy the central symbol of their system – the Temple. Just as the Shia Saviour is held to avenge the slaying of Hussein, the Biblical Saviour avenges His own murder.
6. The Strategy of the Saviour
In AD 70, the imperial power of its day, through the sovereign direction of God, turned on the regime it had supported in murdering the Saviour. At this juncture it is pertinent to state that just because the present global power – America – is seen by most Muslims as backing the regime oppressing Muslims and Christians, it does not follow that this will always be the case. From a supernaturalist viewpoint, it is quite possible that the power of the Saviour will transform its attitudes and policies leading America to confront such oppression. Moreover, it must be remembered that this has happened before, and this leads us to consider the strategy of the Saviour.
It is clear that the Occultation and then the manifestation of the Shia Saviour follows a clear strategy – firstly of protecting the Imam from assassination, secondly of his return in supernatural glory to battle his enemies, the Sufyani, the Dajjal and all oppressors. Similarly, the Biblical Saviour’s return has an analogous strategy- His coming completes His victory over Satan, and the Final Judgement ensues. It follows therefore that the followers of the Saviour, whether in Islamic or Christian perspectives, should also be guided by the Saviour in their struggles against oppression, and act with a conscious, workable strategy.
Khomeini, frequently recalling the sacrificial example of Hussein, had a definite strategy in Iranian Revolution. Essentially, the revolutionary jihad was an act of ‘people power’ through popular mobilisation: ‘Thousands of people died in the last months of the Shah’s regime, but they were mainly unarmed demonstrators, not guerrillas.’ A modern Western convert to Islam comments on Khomeini’s strategy in this regard:
For Imam Khomeini not only reinstituted the proper goals of a true revolution, he also defined the means: those of non-violence and the faith of an entire people in the power of martyrdom. The most typical example of this new method was his attitude towards the army, in which the Shah had believed he possessed an invincible power, and the ‘immortal ones’ in his guard. Imam Khomeini had a different conception of power. He had the audacity to see it, not in arms, but in the inner conscience … of the soldiers. All his directives during the time of confrontation were inspired by these principles: ‘Do not attack the breasts of the soldiers, but their hearts.’ Desertions multiplied. This non-violence, like that of Gandhi against the most powerful military and economic force of the day, was to bear fruit… It is thus that unarmed people would prevail over such a renowned and powerful army.
Similarly, Evangelical Christians have sought to extend the Kingdom of God by confronting and resisting oppression by non-violent means. The most obvious example of this is very relevant for British Christians in this year of 2007 – the abolition of slavery. It was Evangelical Christians under William Wilberforce who led a campaign of political lobbying, electoral intervention and popular boycotts of slavery products which led to the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807 and of slavery throughout the Empire in 1833. This was despite the obvious financial benefits to the British economy of slavery, and even purported security aid that the trade generated. Likewise, American Christians were in the vanguard of the fight against slavery in their country, and in both Britain and America, long the worst practitioners and sponsors of slavery in the West, became the most aggressive opponents of this oppression often obliging other countries, such as Brazil in 1885, to abandon slavery.
Perhaps this example should be instructive to the burgeoning Arab and Muslim communities in the West. Together with people from other communities, they could use their electoral numbers to mount an effective lobbying campaign against the oppression of their brothers in Lebanon and Palestine. The election of anti-war candidates in Britain and the largest rally in British history – two million people – against the Iraq war and for Palestinian liberty demonstrates the practical potential for this. What is lacking is a clear strategy – and the example of the Saviour in both Christian and Shia perspectives demonstrates the need for this.
What has guided Evangelicals in such campaigns is their belief in the self-sacrifice of the Saviour, His present reign and the desire to see His Return. In 2 Peter 3:12 Christians are urged to be ‘looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God’, i.e. the Second Coming of Christ. Christians are meant to ‘labour and strive’ for ‘godliness’ because ‘we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of believers’, 1 Timothy 4:8-10, and we remember that He is in Heaven, ‘from which also we eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’, Philippians 3:20, and thus are ‘looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Christ Jesus’, Titus 2:13. Indeed, the Lord’s Supper demonstrates how Christians unite the functions of Hussein and the Mahdi in their Saviour, because it not only reminds them of His death, but also of His return, since they practise it ‘until He comes’, 1 Corinthians 11:26. Thus, the Lord’s Supper every Sunday gives Christians solace, both in terms of comfort and in terms of the expectation of Christ’s Return.
There are surprising analogies between the solace that Mahdist expectation gives Muslims and that which Messianic expectation gives Christians. The issue of solace in all its aspects – above all, the encouragement to prepare the way for the coming of the Saviour – is a neglected factor in Western studies of religion, largely perhaps because of the post-religious character of especially European academic discourse and its presuppositions. Atheists and people who marginalise God simply cannot understand the idea of faith as a power to motivate people to endure oppression, and even to conquer it. This is what was so difficult for many Westerners to comprehend about the Iranian Revolution. Similarly, by all normal considerations, a few thousand poorly-armed guerrillas in Lebanon should not have been able to resist and beat the strongest military power in the Middle East, but Hezbollah did it twice. What commentators fail to notice was the power of expectation of the Saviour in motivating people in both contexts in their jihad.
Evangelical Protestants do not have a physical equivalent to jihad, but the New Testament reveals a spiritual analogy, whereby their prayers against Satan overcome him, Ephesians 6:10ff. This spiritual warfare undoubtedly helped cause the collapse of oppressive, atheistic Communism in Europe. After that collapse thriving congregations of Evangelical Protestants came to public notice, a testament to the power and solace of the Saviour in the face of oppression.
Finally, we come back to the question of tears. Women shed tears as Jesus was taken to be crucified, Luke 23:27, just as Shia shed tears for the Passion of Hussein. However, Jesus warned the women to cry for themselves, since the Judgment on Jerusalem would follow (in AD 70), v30 ‘Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “fall on us”, and to the hills, “cover us.”’. This is repeated in Revelation 6:16, where in answer to a prayer for justice and vengeance from the martyrs, v10, the terrible divine judgement fell on Jerusalem, described as ‘the wrath of the Lamb’, v16. On the other hand, the promise of God to oppressed Christians is that following the Second Coming of Christ, God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’, Revealation 21:4 (cf. 7:17). Similarly, Shia hold that the injustice of the oppression and murder suffered by Hussein and his entourage will be avenged by the coming of the Awaited Saviour. Christians and Muslim alike in Lebanon and Palestine are awaiting their Saviour to return and liberate them. People everywhere who suffer oppression cry out for the Saviour to come and deliver them, just as oppressors should fear His coming. May God hasten His appearance!
©Dr Anthony McRoy, London, 2007 (Source : The Scientific Committee of the International Conference of Mahdism Doctrine; http://www.intizar.org)