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Global Pandemic Is 'White Death' Heralding Judgement Day, Messianic Shiites Says

Messianic artwork with inscription reading "May God hasten the reappearance of the Imam in Occultation" in anticipation of the Day of Judgement.
Messianic artwork with inscription reading "May God hasten the reappearance of the Imam in Occultation" in anticipation of the Day of Judgement.

The coronavirus pandemic for many may pose a global health and economic crisis but for some in Iran COVID-19 is the White Death, a sign of the imminent Day of Judgement.

Several religious theorists in Iran have identified the global coronavirus pandemic with White Death, one of the signs that herald the reappearance of the Imam in Occultation and the judgement day. The association made between the two is based on the CT scan results that show the virus turns the lungs of the victims white.

According to the Twelver-Shiite tradition before the appearance, or rather reappearance, of the promised redeemer Mahdi, swarms of locusts will wipe out the crops and White Death and Red Deaths will kill multitudes of people. The Red Death has traditionally been interpreted as bloodshed in wars and the White Death as death by disease.

Whether the coronavirus pandemic is the White Death of the Twelver Shiite messianic tradition or not has become a very hot topic among those impatiently awaiting the reappearance of Imam Mahdi these days. Tradition says Mahdi, the son of the 11th Imam and the last of the Imams in Twelver Shiism, went into occultation at the age of five in the year 879.

"The coronavirus pandemic is definitely a sign of the reappearance of the Imam in Occultation even if it is not the White Death foretold [by the sacred tradition]. It will prepare the scene for it anyway," Mohammad-Hadi Homayoun, an official of the Revolutionary Guard's Imam Sadeq University said on Iran's state-run television a few days ago. "Any event that illuminates the condition of the world means we are on the path to the reappearance of the Imam," he said.

All Twelver Shiites believe in Mahdi and his occultation but not everybody believes in his imminent return. In Iran where Twelver Shiism enjoys the status of state religion, such beliefs can have serious consequences and implications, in politics and even in international relations.

Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, was one of the most ardent advocates of the imminence of Zohur, that is the reappearance of Imam Mahdi. Many policies adopted by his government were made in accordance with this belief and much of his outlandish statements in his United Nations speeches were rooted in the same belief as well.

Rumor had it that in the meeting of the president and the ministers of his administration a chair was reserved for the Imam. A clerical official of the Revolutionary Guard confirmed the rumor several years later when he no longer held office. Ahmadinejad himself denied the rumor once in a television debate.

Supporters of Ahmadinejad went as far as identifying him with one of the individuals that according to tradition will accompany the Imam when he reappears. His closest associates and even the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also had been assigned roles in this scenario based on messianic beliefs.

Ahmadinejad's great antagonism and animosity with the state of Israel which he believes is dominated by Zionists, the army of evil against the promised redeemer, may be interpreted in the same context.

"One of the plans that Zionists have is to make the mankind forget about the Imam," he said in a speech in August 2013 and even more bizarrely, claimed that a person serving as the Imam's messenger has told him that western powers are hard at work to find the Imam, "to hurt him, to erase his thinking from people's minds".

The said messenger apparently told Ahmadinejad that western agents had gone to see him and tried to find out from him about those who the Imam contacts, his whereabouts and how to find him.

Ahmadinejad fell from favor not on account of his eschatological views but because he got so lost in his delusions that thought his role was no less significant than Khamenei's in the events to come. He and his associates eventually came to be dubbed as "The Deviant Circle" and some of his associates even ended up in prison.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.