By Raha Tahami, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
Iranian government support boosts attendance but some say myths are bogus.
In the silence and darkness of the desert, the lights of the Jamkaran mosque shine brightly. It is around midnight on a Tuesday but no one is asleep.
One group of people is busy praying while a few women are kissing the mihrab, the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca.
Jamkaran is said to be Iran's most popular mosque, attracting millions of worshippers a year to the site near the Shia holy city of Qom, but the stories that surround it are relatively new.
The faithful come in the hope of seeing the 12th Shia Imam reappear. Some think their medical problems or financial woes will be eased by prayer here. Others in Iran think the whole thing is a pile of baloney cooked up to boost the standing of the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Also known as Muhammad al-Mahdi, Imam Zaman is believed by Shia to be the 12th Imam or Mahdi - the ultimate saviour of mankind. He was born in 869 but did not die - instead he was hidden by God to later return, they believe.
An emaciated looking 20-year-old in a worn-out shirt walked excitedly to the information centre of the mosque and said to the bearded young man working there, "I saw someone with a green turban whose features glowed. I think it was Imam Zaman!"
The clerk's reply suggested he had heard it all before, "No, you are mistaken. Seeing Imam Zaman is not that simple."
The significance of Jamkaran goes back to a story narrated by just one individual more than 1,000 years ago, a story whose accuracy is questionable.
The story is that the 12th Imam ordered one of his followers named Hassan Bin Mathleh to take the land of another man, a farmer, named Hassan Bin Moslem. Imam Zaman believed the land was holy and Hassan should not farm there. All the profit from the land was instead to go to a mosque.
It is said that this is how the small Jamkaran mosque, covering just 84 square metres, was built.
The traditional belief is that Hassan's vision was a dream but Iranian government officials now claim that the event happened while he was awake, enhancing its legitimacy. This is despite numerous Shia sources stressing that anyone who claims to have seen the Imam Zaman during his absence must be a liar.
The mosque had few visitors until ten years ago. Now, its official website says it had three million visitors in the month of August 2009 alone for the anniversary of Imam Zaman's birth.
According to Morteza Vafi, head of the secretariat of the high cultural and planning council of Jamkaran, 15 to17 million pilgrims come to the mosque every year.
But on other occasions, he has said that on average 600,000 people flock each week, which would mean 31 million a year.
Both those figures may be gross exaggerations, especially when compared to the resting place of the Eighth Shia Imam in the city of Mashhad, the holiest site in Iran, which attracts between 16 and 20 million visitors annually.
According to a religious affairs commentator, "If in fact the number of pilgrims visiting Jamkaran has reached that of the holy city of Mashhad, it means that the government has been able to create a new shrine in a very short period of time; a shrine that is related with the superstitious claims of the Ahmadinejad government about having connections with Imam Zaman."
A cleric who spoke to IWPR took a similar view, "Jamkaran mosque was not all that famous before the [1979 Islamic] Revolution and only a few worshippers came to pray.
"Even clerics did not take this mosque seriously, especially since the tomb of the holy Massoumeh, sister of the Eighth Shia Imam, is also in the city of Qom and it would not be proper that a mosque with questionable origins should attract more pilgrims than Massoumeh's shrine."
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, also was not especially fond of Jamkaran and is not thought to have prayed there.
Its fortunes took a dramatic turn with the succession of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader in 1989. Khamenei has shown a special liking for Jamkaran. In a speech in 1992, he advised clerics and religious scholars to visit the mosque, saying it would make them stronger, "We cannot have an ideal circle [of clerics] if they do not take notice of this place."
Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of the Lebanese Hizbollah, said Khamenei had admitted that he went "to Jamkaran whenever the administration of the country becomes overwhelming and I cannot find a solution".
Ayatollah Khamenei in 2001 appointed a representative, Abolqasem Vafi, to supervise the mosque. In the statement announcing the appointment, he referred to he mosque as "holy" and instructed all institutions to help Vafi in serving it. The mandate was a way to recognise Jamkaran officially and to be able to funnel public funding and official publicity to it. That is when the Jamkaran began to blossom.
Groups from mosques and religious organisations across the country arrange tours to take pilgrims to Jamkaran on Tuesday nights - the night Hassan Bin Mathleh saw Imam Zaman. A huge bazaar has grown up nearby which has greatly changed the economy of the surrounding towns and villages.
A religious expert who studies psychology said, "In reality, the attention to Jamkaran is politically motivated. Ayatollah Khamenei sees himself as the deputy of the 12th Imam. The official advertisements in the mosque along with all the pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei solidify the legitimacy of the supreme leader in the minds of the visitors."
By narrating appealing stories about the construction of the mosque, clerics at Jamkaran imply that the 12th Imam continues to visit there. This idea by itself is enough for millions of pilgrims to come, bringing with them large amounts of money in pledges and donations.
Numerous books are sold in Jamkaran about pilgrims who went to the mosque 40 Tuesdays in a row and who were finally able to see Imam Zaman. Other books tell of those who see him in their sleep or who are cured by him. The administrators of the mosque advertise its healing powers and authorise a certificate for every miracle that is performed and list them on its website.
These include the curing of various medical conditions, such as some cancers and infertility.
Ever since he became mayor of Tehran in 2003, Ahmadinejad began paying special attention to Jamkaran. He put forward the idea of building a road from Tehran to the mosque under the pretext that when the time for his grand reappearance comes, the 12th Imam will need it to reach the capital. A railway is also planned.
After Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, the mosque's fortunes completely changed. A budget of 1,200 billion rials (120 million US dollars) was put aside for it. This enabled the Jamkaran site to expand by 250 hectares, add 14 minarets, eight gates and a vast car park.
The Ahmadinejad administration has declared Jamkaran an ideal place for recreation and it has opened offices in numerous cities to help with organising travel and pilgrimages and to receive donations.
There are no exact statistics on the amount of official money spent so far on the mosque, but it gets so much from visitors that it does not depend on state funding.
One small source of income is two wells into which pilgrims throw slips of paper costing two cents on which they write their wishes, so that the 12th Imam will read and grant them. There is no mention of these wells in the history of the mosque.
In Shia religious texts such as the Mofatih-ol-Janan, it is said that wishes can be written on a piece of paper and thrown into a running stream. The mosque's wells, however, are completely dry.
According to one of the mosque workers, two clerics go down the steps of the wells every month to retrieve the crumpled pieces of paper. They are then recycled and resold.
During the early stages of Ahmadinejad's presidency, the wells sparked a huge outcry. Many traditional clerics saw them as fraud and were unhappy with their existence.
Ali Zadsar, a cleric and a member of parliament at the time, revealed that Ahmadinejad and his staff had signed a scroll with Imam Zaman's name on it and thrown it into the well.
Facing harsh criticism, the government denied the action, but many sources confirmed it.
Jamkaran's holiness continues to grow and has even expanded to a nearby chalk mountain, which is regarded as the place where Imam Zaman will establish his army. This myth was enough to inspire the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, to bury a number of unknown martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war there and organise an annual fair of military hardware.
Another holy spot has also been discovered at the top of this mountain. This place is considered to be one visited by the prophet Elijah, a close acquaintance of Imam Zaman, who accompanies him during his absence. With much effort, a new mosque is being built on the mountain.
The administration's special attention to Jamkaran has raised objections from many traditional clerics. The Jomhouriy-e Eslami newspaper, which has close ties to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in September 2006 questioned the history of Jamkaran and described it as a tool for those who want to spread superstitions in society.
"Neither are there any right and pious pilgrimages [to this mosque] nor will there be any miracles," the title said.
Former parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri criticised it on numerous occasions. "A bunch of extortionists and tricksters are spreading superstitions," he said.
But this criticism has not diminished the number of pilgrims visiting Jamkaran. Even Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, a cleric closely aligned with the government, has declared that Hassan was awake when the 12th Imam ordered the construction of the mosque.
In the past few years, other mosques have been recognised as connected to Imam Zaman in some way in addition to Jamkaran.
One of these is Saheb-o-Zaman mosque in the city of Ilam which, according to its custodians, is the most visited in the country after Jamkaran. Another is the Mohdethin mosque in the northern city of Babol, sometimes referred to as a second Jamkaran.
Leaflets in Babol say the Mohdethin mosque was built on the direct order of Imam Zaman. So much money and gifts have been donated that it has quickly expanded.
According to an elderly janitor there, "People see many dreams and their wishes come true. There is not a day when someone does not bring money or gold as payment for his wishes."
About the author: Raha Tahami is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and social affairs analyst in Tehran. This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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