Will Hugo Chavez be resurrected with Jesus to bring justice to the world? According to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, yes. According to must of Iran’s clergy, no. In this debate lurks a complicated history of theology and politics.
On Wednesday, after the death of Venezuelan Dictator Hugo Chavez, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released a statement announcing a day of mourning, and saying that Hugo Chavez would resurrect with Jesus to bring righteousness to the earth.
“Venezuela has lost a brave son… He finally gave his entire life and being to a suspicious illness and with that, he is undoubtedly a true martyr in the path of serving the Venezuelan nation and safeguarding the revolutionary and human values. Although Hugo Chavez, is no longer among us today, I am sure that his innocent spirit has ascended to the heavens and will one day return to us with Jesus Christ and will once again help humankind establish peace, justice and kindness.”
This statement has really upset many factions with Iran. To understand why, one has to understand Jesus’ important role in Islamic apocalypse theology.
A brief crash course: Muslim stories of the apocalypse, like any apocalypse stories, are pretty complicated and highly contested. What’s not really contested is this: at the end, all human beings will be resurrected and judged, and then they will be sorted into heaven and hell (jannah and Jahannam).
Jesus plays a role in the apocalypse, but earlier. He returns to earth before most humans, destroying the “cross and the swine”, symbols of Christianity, and converts Christians to Islam. He is joined in this task by a figure called the “Mahdi”. At the end, he repudiates Christianity as a distortion of his true teachings.
So Ahmadinejad’s statement, as you might imagine, is controversial even in Iran. Jesus is an important figure in Islam, and equating Hugo Chavez with him in the first place is pretty bold. Secondly, Iran’s Shi’a population has recently put more emphasis on the role of the Mahdi, rather than on Jesus. Thus Ahmadinejad’s statement both ticked off people who are pushing for an Islam that has less Jesus and people who don’t think Hugo Chavez deserves such a prime place in Islamic Eschatology. And others just thing he talks too much about Mahdi.
So making such a bold and out-there theological assertion translated to pissing off Ahmadinejad’s political enemies, who already have stacks of complaints about him. Ahmad Khatami, a far-right cleric, slammed him in the Iranian media. Mohammad Taqi Rahbar, the head of the clerical faction of Iran’s parliament who has criticized Ahmadinejad, called his statements, “certainly wrong and exaggerated”.
Of course, the other interesting thing about this is how well Ahmadinejad got along so well with Chavez. Certainly, it’s easy to read this as the product of realpolitik concerns, of shared enemies. Islam, as a religion that grew amidst conflict and historically has eschewed forced conversion, has developed many ways to incorporate allies who are not of their religion. And since Islam grew out of developed Jewish and Christian traditions, seeing them not as false but as imperfect, it incorporated characters like Abraham and Jesus into the prehistory of Islam. Even in Iran, where the far-far-right reigns, there are still ways to see a Catholic not as a convenient ally but as essentially Muslim. Ahmadinejad is simply drawing on a long tradition of incorporating figures from other religions into the story of Islam.