Michael Rubin is lecturer in history at Yale University.
On September 24, 1999, Iranian security agents arrested two students attending Tehran's Amir Kabir Technical University, Mohammad Reza Namnamat and Hamed Ahangari. A third student, ‘Abbas Ne‘mati, was detained on October 2. Their crime? The students several weeks earlier had published and distributed Mawj ("The Wave")—a minor lithographed or photocopied student publications with a circulation of about 150—containing their one-act play, "Entrance Exam and the Time of Resurrection." In the very brief play (the whole text is just over 1,000 words in English translation), they satirized religious conservatives by sketching out an encounter between a student and the Imam-i Zaman, the "Hidden Imam" who ushers in the Day of Judgment.1
Some hard-line members of the government and the religious establishment responded with alarm, accusing the students of blaspheming Islam. Ayatollah Husayn Mazaheri, a representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene'i, declared the two student authors apostates and stated that, "Under the sacred law of Islam, they are condemned to execution."2 The new judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi, called the play's publication a foreign plot against the Islamic Republic.3
On October 20, the three students, one other student (‘Ali Reza Aqa'i), and a professor (Mehdi Sajadehchiand), appeared in a packed Tehran courtroom to hear Judge Sa`id Mortezavi read charges that carried the death penalty. He accused them of labeling as "donkeys" people who "spent their lives serving the [Islamic] revolution. You are trying to insult Islamic values in a way such that we cannot say this was done without malice."4 In early November, Iran's court sentenced three of the defendants to jail for up to three years and a fourth was acquitted.
The arrest of the four students and the professor constitutes the latest battle in a power struggle between reformists and hard-liners that ignited after Mohammed Khatami's May 1997 election as president signaled a rebuff to the hard-liners. Since Khatami's election, some of his supporters within the government have been arrested or impeached, leading intellectuals have been murdered, and reformist newspapers have been repeatedly closed. In particular, the closure of the pro-Khatami newspaper Salam in July 1999 by Iran's Special Court for Clergy led to a peaceful student protest, to which the Ansar-i Hizbullah ("Defenders of the Party of God"), an unofficial hard-line vigilante group, responded by attacking a Tehran University dormitory, killing nine students and sparking the worst rioting Iran had seen in two decades.
Iran's universities reopened in the fall under the watchful eyes of police and the pale of the summer's violence. The hard-liners remain on the offensive, shutting down Neshat, another popular reformist newspaper, and then appearing to use the student play to constrict free speech further. Specifically, they accused Khatami's reforms of contributing to an environment in which students openly blasphemy Islam (though the students' real purpose was merely to lampoon the hard-liners).
The following translation, here slightly amended, was published on October 2 by the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran.
[Home. Evening. ‘Abbas finishes his prayers and goes over to the mosque. He kneels on the ground.]
‘Abbas [In a begging voice]: Oh God, Oh God! Please hurry the coming of Imam-i Zaman. Oh God, let me see his radiant face. Oh God, let me be one of his disciples. Oh God! Please answer my prayers tonight and let me pass my university entrance exams. Oh God! You know I only wish to be useful in Imam-i Zaman's government of justice on earth. That is the reason why I am alive.
[‘Abbas stands up, wipes his face and his tears. He then kisses the prayer stone and packs up his prayer mat.]
[Street. Night Time. ‘Abbas is walking quickly in the street. His face conveys the message that he is late. Suddenly a hand touches his back.]
[Voice of a young man.]
‘Abbas [Without turning round]: If you have come to Tehran from the provinces and you have been mugged and have no money and can't find your way, let me tell you I haven't got money to burn either. Go and work to earn money.
Man: No, ‘Abbas. It is not me who can't find his way. I have come to show you the way.
[‘Abbas turns towards the voice with trepidation. It is a man in a long white robe, standing in front of him.]
‘Abbas: How do you know my name?
Man: Not only do I know your name, I know all the secrets of your life. The ones you have confessed and the ones you haven't. ‘Abbas, I am your Imam-i Zaman.
‘Abbas: You're kidding!
[The man shakes his head from side to side. ‘Abbas pauses and then throws himself onto the man's feet. He starts to stroke the man's leg like a dog and says:]
‘Abbas: My Lord!, My Lord!, My Lord! Where have you been? My Lord! I am your lowly servant, My Lord, I wish to die for you.
[The man helps ‘Abbas to get back on his feet.]
Man: Do not weep ‘Abbas! Today is not the day to weep. ‘Abbas, do you know why I have come to you?
‘Abbas [Sobbing]: My Lord you are the one who knows all.
Man: I have come to gather 313 disciples.5 I am asking you if you wish to be my disciple.
‘Abbas: My Lord, how can I not wish so? I am alive because of your love. If I could, I would have wished to be all of the 313 disciples myself.
Man: You shall shave your head on Friday. At eight o'clock in the morning you will go to the Revolution Avenue. When I arise, you shall be recruiting followers for the final uprising.
Man: What is wrong? Is it too late?
‘Abbas: Umm ... err ... We have the university entrance exam on Friday at eight. Let's postpone it to Saturday.
Man: No, it cannot be. It is God's will for it to be on Friday.
‘Abbas [Begs a please gesture with his face.]
Man: No, it can't be!
‘Abbas: Look, I'm not asking to postpone it until after the exam results. I said Saturday. You have been hiding 1,354 years and 55 days,6 why can't you wait one more day for me??
Man: I said it cannot be! The world has become filled with oppression and tyranny.
‘Abbas: What a mess. Dear Lord. If you want to carry out the insurrection tomorrow, I know what will happen. You see, we have had a revolution before. I will miss the exams, your insurrection will take one to two years, then there will be a cultural revolution, universities will be closed for two to three years, when they are opened again, instead of 1.5 million to 2 million participants there will be seven to eight million people taking the exams—that is, if we don't count the African/Asian imported Islamic students. I would have forgotten my studies by then I may as well kiss university goodbye.
Man: But you always prayed for me to appear as soon as possible. You prayed to be one of my disciples.
‘Abbas: And I still do, my Lord. But if I become a member of your government tomorrow, I will be a minister without expertise and education. Whereas we need expert disciples. You were in hiding when our revolution happened in Iran. Same things happened here. Take my father, I don't mean to be rude, but he got suckered to become a revolutionary and served time in prison, so he missed higher education. Then, after the revolution, he got a high profile position in the government because of his revolutionary activities. Pardon the expression, but he really screwed things up. Then they replaced him with one of these experts. My Lord, this so-called expert struck at the very root of Islam! I am concerned that a similar situation may happen again.
Man: The Almighty has decided. If you refuse to become a martyr ...
‘Abbas: What? You're getting worse than these ayatollahs. They promised us so much and look what happened, you have only just resurrected and already have decided I should be a martyr. Lord! Don't talk to me like this, because I love you, I say nothing back to you, but if you talk like this to others, they will land a punch right on your chin and tell you that they have a wife and children.
Man: Do you not love martyrdom?
‘Abbas: Me? I die for martyrdom! I love martyrdom. I wish I could be a martyr one hundred times over. But I am not just me. I have responsibilities. You know better than me, Plato says "Everyone has a missing half who is made to marry him." If I become a martyr, my "missing half" will become someone else's wife, because they weren't supposed to wed each other, they will have arguments with each other, their kids will be brought up badly, because of my sacrifice, all their offspring will turn out wrong
Man: That is enough, I understand, I have to go.
‘Abbas: That is just one side of it, obviously the other fellow should have married another woman and by doing so ...
[The man moves away from ‘Abbas in the other direction.]
‘Abbas [Grabs the man's hand and shouts]: Where are you going? You think I am going to let you make me miss my exams?
[‘Abbas puts his hand in his pocket and draws a knife. The stage goes dark. The lights are turned on and off.]
[Prayer Group. Late evening. Every one is seated and holding the Qur'an to their heads. ‘Abbas is also holding the Qur'an and chanting. ‘Abbas punches his feet more vigorously than others and chants louder. ‘Abbas is weeping loudly.]
1 Twelver Shi'ism, Iran's official religion, holds that upon his death, the Prophet Muhammad appointed ‘Ali as Imam, or the leader of the faithful, and that from ‘Ali, this position passed through twelve generations until, in a.d. 874 the twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared. At the end of the world, he will reappear as the Imam-i Zaman, the messiah, who will usher in the day of judgment.
2 The Guardian (London), September 27, 1999.
3 "In Letter Mawj Editor Begs Pardon," Tehran Times, Sept. 28, 1999.
4 The Guardian (London). Oct. 21, 1999.
5 This number presumably refers to the idea that the Hidden Imam will return to earth shortly before Judgment Day, accompanied by his disciples, to confront and defeat his enemies in a final battle. The number 313 refers to the companions who fought with the Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Badr against Mecca in a.d. 623.
6 This figure appears to be incorrect. While Shi'i sources do not all agree on the exact date of the occultation, the Imam-i Zaman is usually said to have gone into hiding in the Islamic lunar year 260 (a.d. 874). It currently being the Islamic lunar year 1420 (April 17, 1999 - April 5, 2000), the number in the text should be 1160, not 1354.