There is a quaint, difficult to find little gem of a piece On the Philosophic Life by Al-Razi that A J Arberry translated many years ago. And in it, a beautiful simple phrase which would astonish you today given how things have turned out: “our Imam Socrates!”
Socrates, as we all know, was that unique character executed by the Athenians. Those still left with some hope of following where he leads prove elusive for me to encounter and learn from in the heartland of evil.
Something about a combination of smugness, and traditional esoteric approach aimed at making thought inaccessible and non-threatening-- both to the clergy and the rest of us ordinary folks-- typical of Mir Damad and the influential Isfahan School of Iranian philosophy with a penchant for synthesis of Avicenna’s rationalism and Suhravardi’s intuitive, illuminationist unveilings.
Naturally, that perennial haggle over the price of onions, I suspect, might have had something to do with it as well!
On the other side of the divide too, one fears, his disciples are not faring any better. They hardly ever show up to the market places anymore and when they do, quite a few fall all over themselves supplicating the heirs of Anytus for morsels. That, of course, has left all of us at the mercy of an ever expanding army of erudite experts these days and some terribly obnoxious sophistry.
But what did we mean by imminent? What is torture? When was the exact onset of that widespread child diarrhea plaguing countless? What are the foundations of that statistical model tracking those casualties inflicted? Not exactly a most manifestly heartfelt concern with dike and virtue, is it?
So on the one side, it appears as if we are back to a time roughly around the beginning and Aristophanes is having the last laugh. Finally, visibly, reduced to measuring flea’s jumps and disputing the originating orifice of some gnat’s buzz! We’ll see shortly what manages to survive by the time our various experts and those fisking giants get through remaking all life in their own image.
On the other side, the Imams are having the last laugh and in particular one missing five year old, al-Mahdi, that disappeared down a cellar in Sammara some centuries ago. He is expected to emerge from his major occultation and save the day.
So welcome to Messiaville and the grand
And where do we stand now?
Aren’t we appeared locked for a finite duration of time, at least, in this place of misery, murder and fears? And the way out, for some, of course, is tapping that desire for redemption and a Messiah becomes the key. And then the surprises! Most Messiahs do that for you.
So for instance, what makes christos such an awe is what he is which defies the historical expectations of what he should have been. The promised warrior/destroyer of the enemies of Hebrews ends up suffering and dying as he does on the cross amidst some pretty ugly tormenting taunts.
Such pity, isn’t it, that humiliation mostly manages to repulse these days only when viewed on the pages of some holy book! So was he the Messiah--that promised, anointed one? The debates have been endless.
That latter term—anointed—is a nice one. Most Iranians know about it. That’s our one flattering claim to fame these days. And this because we tend to be proud of Cyrus the Great! Ahmadi Nejad might be a threat but look, we say, at King Cyrus’s Cylinder. Cyrus is acknowledged as the Anointed of the Lord in Isaiah. Not bad at all for a gentile, don’t you think? And a Persian to boot!
That is one of the many paradoxes of life in the heartland of evil. For such money obsessed, ostentatious people, there have been no shortages of Messiahs amongst us. Does that, in a way, speak to the grip of the spiritual? Who knows, really? But it’s clear that we tend to be pretty good at what’s been called Mundus Imaginalis.
Messiahs galore everywhere! It might partially have something to do with the repeated invasions of foreign hordes and radical insecurity of life. Troubling times tend to be unsettling and along with the misery come those who promise salvation. Even the Jews of Iran have had theirs. The crusades gave us the adventures of one Menahem b. Solomon more widely known as that famed David Alroy.
But there is always some intellectual history as well behind the appearances of the Messiahs. It is never an ex-nihilo creation of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Jews or the British no matter how supposedly powerful those invisible hands which are rumored to control and guide!
If you’re a Shi’ia, for instance, who has come to believe in a youngster as your anchor, you’re left with some vexing questions. And once you start with the questions, you’re driven by the logic of your constructs--whether we like them or not. All religions have them. Has it ever been settled-- once and for all--the nature of the body the doubting Thomas touched? Is the returning resurrected Christ, finally, a circumcised one?
So, where exactly has this missing Imam resided all these years? And how do we know what he demands of the believers in his absence. There have been the Usuli theologians who insisted on innovation and the sort of independent exercise of judgment that comes with experience. Hence ijtehad, and mujtahed and an increasingly full-of-itself hierarchy which assumes qualified to suffocate life, pontificating about the Law by virtue of being grounded in reason and some professional experience.
And their adversaries known as Akhbaris or the literalists who demanded strict adherence to tradition based on a verifiable chain of transmission since an overtly aggressive independent authority of a religious hierarchy they deemed an usurpation of the authority of the missing youngster.
The debates, in retrospect, have not only given us the Guardianship of the Jurists, Velayate-Faqih, and this modern monstrosity we experience today, but also the highly imaginative speculations of Shaykhism, and, of course, Babism and Baha’ism.
Now if we were to overlook centuries of development for whatever reason—whether out of some heartfelt revulsion with this present form of authoritarian Islamic rule, or some not so admirable quest for petty advantages and brownie points, surely a matter best settled in solitude against one’s conscious—what we get is only what we have too much of already.
That is, a people full of bombast about our past and our rich history, exhibiting very little genuine appreciation or inquisitiveness about/for that heritage and the substantial treasures which continue to remain unexplored!
And an endless, nauseating babble about the land of romance, poetry, philosophy, rose and the nightingale without the sort of pulsating vibrant intellectual life required excavating them to re-create the sort of identity, at the very least, commensurate with the longevity of our presence in the world.
A terribly lost people at the mercy of false gods, false hopes, grand expectations, busy blowing our own bugles in our own lonely little corners narcissistically and forever expectant of the end of time and/or longing some savior to point a way out!
So then what we get is normally the kind of self-fulfilling prophesies best avoided like plague. A moving hymn, for your viewing displeasure, from our past (in Parthian) from what survives the Manichaean corpus:
Hear, oh world, the words of the Lord!
We would invoke the gods that they may save us
from this evil age of tyranny, full of strife and unbelief.
Oh angels and twins, save us from all distress.
That time (the end) has come,
Just as the redeemer (Mani) has written.
And, of course, also perennial yearnings for the Messiah all the way to total annihilation:
Speak to me, Lord and Friend, and reveal to me, Son
of the most beloved, the time of your coming, when
you will appear at the end.
Oh great Redeemer, my Teacher, speak of that time and its signs.
The speakers, the righteous and chosen ones, who must live
in the Realm of the Lie, Do not accumulate herds and belongings.
Therefore they are persecuted.
Ha, this irate potentate! How long will he continue to rule
Read the rest of this ancient Manichaean Hymn about the Second Coming, also part of our heritage.
We’ll have to go even further centuries back. There, we’ll encounter the figure of Saoshyant—the original redeemer.