When Ayatollah Khomeini returned from the outskirts of Paris to lead the Islamic revolution in Iran, the clergy in the holy city of Qom fell into deep thought. An Islamic state, in all its pious purity, can only be supervised by the twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, who, though invisible, is in Samarra in Iraq, and who will reappear at the time of his choosing. That time had clearly not come because no “signs” of the second coming had manifested themselves.
In the absence of the Mahdi, the “Vali Faqih”, or intermediate Imam, would hold the fort. Imam Khomeini, in other words, was “Vali Faqih”.
The return of the twelfth Imam is specific to Shia belief, but variations on the theme of some catastrophic or benign divine intervention are native to all Abrahamic faiths. Self-proclaimed Mahdis have, on occasion, appeared to fight colonialism. In the late nineteenth century in Sudan, for instance.
This kind of a detail becomes a mere footnote in Talmiz Ahmad’s Children of Abraham at War: the...