The Twelfth Imam
by Joel Rosenberg
June 3, 1989 The news swept through the Iraqi city of Samarra. As word of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death spread through the Shia Muslim stronghold, it eventually reached Najjar Malik and hit him like a thunderbolt.
Only nine years old, Najjar had long been sheltered from national or world events by his uncle and aunt, who had taken him in after his parents’ death in a tragic car accident several years earlier. They didn’t let him watch television or listen to the radio. They didn’t let him read anything but his schoolbooks. For little Najjar, incredibly bright but also incredibly small for his age, life consisted of mosque and school and nothing else. If he wasn’t memorizing the Qur’an, he was memorizing his textbooks.
But today was different. Suddenly, it seemed as if every one of the 350,000 Shias in Samarra had heard what Najjar had just heard from a woman shrieking in the hallway.
“The Imam has died! The Imam has died!”
Najjar was too much in shock to cry.
It couldn’t be true. It had to be a vicious rumor, started by the Zionists or the Sunnis. The Ayatollah Khomeini was larger than life. He simply could not be dead. Wasn’t he the long-awaited Mahdi? Wasn’t he the Twelfth Imam, the Hidden Imam? Wasn’t he supposed to establish justice and peace? How then could he be dead if he was, in fact, the savior of the Islamic world and all of mankind?
Every Friday night for years, Najjar’s aunt and uncle had made him listen to the latest taped sermon from the Ayatollah Khomeini that had been smuggled out of Iran and into Iraq. Then his aunt would tuck him into bed, kiss him good night, turn out the light, and shut the bedroom door. Then, when the apartment was quiet, Najjar would stare out the window into the moonlight, meditating on the Ayatollah’s words and his fiery insistence that a Muslim’s duty was to perform jihad ....holy war ....against the infidels. It wasn’t exactly the stuff of childhood dreams, but it stirred something deep within Najjar’s heart.
“Surely those who believe, those who wage jihad in God’s cause ....they are the ones who may hope for the mercy of God,” the Ayatollah would declare, citing Sura 2:218 from the Qur’an. Jews and Christians are the ones whom God has cursed, he would explain, saying the Qur’an taught that they “shall either be executed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off alternately, or be banished from the land.”
“Kill them!” Khomeini would insist, pointing to Sura 9:5. “Wherever you may come upon them, and seize them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place. The Prophet and his followers are commanded to wage jihad against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be stern against them,” the Ayatollah argued year after year, “for their final refuge is Hell.” Infidels, he insisted ....citing Sura 22 ....will spend eternity in a blazing fire, “with boiling water being poured down over their heads. All that is within their bodies, as well as their skins, will be melted away.
“Have nothing to do with them,” he argued. “Don’t befriend them. Don’t negotiate with them. Don’t do business with them.” After all, he loved to say ....citing Sura 5:59-60 ....“Allah has cursed the Christians and the Jews, and those whom He has utterly condemned He has turned into apes, and swine, and servants of powers of evil.” Najjar had been transfixed by Khomeini’s courage and conviction. Surely this man must be the Mahdi. Who else could it be? he had wondered. True, his aunt conceded when Najjar occasionally asked innocent questions, Khomeini had not yet brought justice and peace. Nor had he yet established an Islamic empire that would transform the globe. But all this, she said, was just a matter of time.
Now what? Najjar thought. If Khomeini had really died, who would lead the Revolution? Who was the real messiah, and when would he come?
No one else was home, and Najjar felt scared and alone. Desperate to learn more, he fled his aunt and uncle’s cramped high-rise flat and ran down all seventeen flights of stairs rather than wait for an elevator. He ran out into the dusty street in front of their dilapidated building, only to find huge crowds of fellow Shias pouring out of their apartments as well. Seeing a group of older men huddled on a nearby corner near a fruit stand, smoking cigarettes and listening to a small transistor radio, Najjar ran to their side and listened in.
“Radio Tehran can now confirm that the revered Imam ....peace be upon him ....has died of a heart attack,” he heard the announcer say in Farsi, the man’s voice faltering as he relayed the news. “The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution has been in the hospital for the last eleven days. He was suffering from internal bleeding. But a government spokesman has confirmed what hospital officials indicated just a few minutes ago. Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini is dead at the age of eighty-six.”
Najjar’s mind reeled. How can the Promised One be dead? It was not possible.
With few other hard facts to report, Radio Tehran broadcast excerpts from Khomeini’s speeches. In one from 1981, Khomeini declared to his fellow Shias, “We must strive to export our Revolution throughout the world.”
Najjar heard a thunderous roar erupt from whatever crowd had been listening to the imam. He closed his eyes and pictured the scene and suddenly wished his parents had never left Iran. Perhaps then they would still be alive. Perhaps Najjar could have actually seen the Ayatollah with his own eyes. Perhaps he could have heard the master’s words with his own ears. Perhaps he could have even served the Revolution in some small way.
“The governments of the world should know that Islam will be victorious in all the countries of the world, and Islam and the teachings of the Qur’an will prevail all over the world,” bellowed Khomeini in another radio clip. Najjar knew that line by heart. It came from a sermon the Ayatollah had delivered in Paris, just before returning to Tehran to be greeted by millions of faithful followers shouting, “The Holy One has come! The Holy One has come!”
Disoriented by this sudden turn of events, Najjar backed away from the crowd of men and out of earshot of the radio broadcast. He had heard more than he had wanted. His slight body trembled. His filthy cotton shirt was drenched with sweat, and he suddenly felt parched. He had no idea where his uncle and aunt were. But he desperately didn’t want to be by himself.
Perhaps they were at the mosque. He decided that was where he should be as well. He took off in a dead run for six blocks, slowing only when he could see the side door of the al-Askari Mosque just a few hundred meters away.
But suddenly, without warning, three teenagers ....much larger than Najjar ....came rushing out of the bushes and tackled him from the side. Blindsided, Najjar crashed to the ground with the wind knocked out of him. Before he could catch his breath, the three began beating him mercilessly. Two balled up their fists and landed blow after blow upon Najjar’s stomach and face. The third kicked him repeatedly in the back and the groin. He shrieked in pain, begging them to stop. He knew who they were, and he knew what they wanted. They were friends of his cousin, who owed one of them a few dinars. His cousin had been late in paying.
Soon blood was pouring from little Najjar’s broken nose and from his left ear. His face began to swell. His vision blurred. All colors began to fade. He was sure he was going to black out. But then he heard a voice that shouted, “Stop!”
Suddenly the beatings stopped.
Najjar didn’t dare open his eyes. Bracing for the next blow, he remained in a fetal position. After a few moments, he heard the boys walking away. Why? Where were they going? Was it really over? Mustering just enough courage to crack open one eye, Najjar wiped away the blood and tears and saw the three bullies standing around someone, though he could not tell who. Was it a parent? a policeman? Najjar opened the other eye. He wiped more blood away and strained to hear what was being said.
“The Holy Qur’an says, ‘Whomever Allah guides, he is the rightly guided,’” declared a commanding voice. “But what does the Prophet ....peace be upon him ....say of those who go astray, of those rebels who go far from the teachings of Allah? He says, ‘We will gather them on the Day of Resurrection, fallen on their faces ....blind, dumb and deaf. Their refuge is Hell. And every time it subsides, we will increase them in blazing fire.’”
Najjar knew that verse. His aunt had made him memorize Sura 17:97 on his fifth birthday, and it haunted him to this day. He scanned the crowd that had gathered, hoping to see a friendly face, or at least a familiar one. But he recognized no one, and he wondered whether the mob was there to see a fight or a punishment.
“You’re saying we are all going to Hell?” asked one of the bullies. Najjar was surprised to hear a trace of real fear in the boy’s faltering voice.
“It is not I who say it,” said the stranger with quiet authority. “The Qur’an says, ‘The weighing of deeds on that Day of Resurrection will be the truth. Those whose scales are heavy with truth and good deeds, it is they who will be the successful. As for those whose scales are light, because of evil deeds, those are the ones who have lost their souls, causing them to travel towards the Fire, because they mistreated; they knowingly denied Our signs.’”
Najjar knew that one, too. It was Sura 7:8-9.
He watched the shoulders of the teenagers sag. Their heads hung low. It wasn’t clear the boys had ever heard those verses before, but they certainly seemed to grasp the stakes. Suddenly, they weren’t so tough, or so cruel. Indeed, horrified by the wrath that could be awaiting his tormentors, Najjar almost felt sorry for them.
Since his earliest childhood, Najjar had deeply feared the fires of Hell. He was convinced that his parents’ death in a car crash on a weekend trip to Baghdad when he was only three was punishment from Allah upon him for his own sins. He had no idea what sins he could have committed at so young an age. But he was painfully aware of all he had committed since. He didn’t mean to be such a terrible person. He tried to be a pious and faithful servant of Allah. He prayed five times a day. He went to the mosque every chance he could, even if he had to go alone. He had already memorized much of the Qur’an. He was often praised by his teachers for his religious zeal. But he knew the wickedness in his own heart, and he feared that all of his attempts to do what was right could end up being for naught. Was he really any better than these boys who had beaten him? No, he concluded. He was probably worse. Surely they had been sent by Allah to punish him, and he knew he deserved it.
The three boys began backing away from their accuser. A moment later, they turned quickly and ran away. It was then that Najjar saw the one who had come to his defense, and he could not believe his eyes. The stranger was not a man but a boy ....one not much older than he. He certainly wasn’t more than ten years old, and he was short, with a slight build. He had jet black hair, light olive skin, a pointed, angular, almost royal nose, and a small black spot like a mole on his left cheek. He didn’t wear street clothes like others his size and age. Rather he wore a black robe and sandals. But what struck Najjar most was the boy’s piercing black eyes, which bored deep into his soul and forced him to look away in humiliation. “Do not fear, Najjar” said the strange boy. “You are safe now.” Najjar’s heart sped. How did the boy know his name? They had certainly never seen each other before.
“You are curious how I know your name,” the boy said. “But I know all about you. You are Persian, not Arab. Your first language was Farsi, though you also speak Arabic and French fluently. You grew up here in Samarra ....as did your parents ....but your grandparents were from Iran. From Esfahan, to be precise.”
Najjar was stunned. It was all true. He searched his memory. He must know this boy somehow. But he couldn’t imagine where or when they had met. He had a nearly photographic memory, yet neither this face nor this voice was registering in the slightest.
“You are a child of the Revolution,” the stranger continued.
“Your mother, Jamila, bless her memory, was a true servant of Allah. She could trace her family lineage to the Prophet, peace be upon him. Your mother memorized the Qur’an by the age of seven. She was excited by the fall of the Shah and the return of the Ayatollah from exile in Paris to Tehran on the fateful first day of February, 1979.”
This, too, was true, Najjar realized, but it frightened him. “Though eight months pregnant with you,” the boy went on, “your mother insisted that she and your father join the millions of Iranians trying to catch a glimpse of the Ayatollah as his flight touched down at Mehrabad International Airport that morning. But they never made it, did they?”
Najjar shook his head.
“Just after sunrise, your mother went into premature labor,” the stranger continued. “She delivered you on a bus on the way to the hospital. Barely four pounds, fourteen ounces, you were on life- support for months. The doctors said you would not survive. But your mother prayed, and what happened?”
“Allah answered her prayers,” Najjar said quietly.
“Yes, he did,” the stranger confirmed. “And then what? Your parents brought you home from the hospital just days before the students seized the American Embassy. Your mother stayed at your side night and day from that point forward. She loved you dearly, didn’t she?”
Najjar’s eyes began to well up with tears, and the stranger moved closer and spoke nearly in a whisper.
“Your father, rest his soul, was a risk-taker.” Najjar nodded reluctantly.
“Your mother pleaded with your father not to move you and her to Iraq,” the stranger went on. “But he would not listen. He meant well. Raised by merchants, he had a passion for business, but he lacked wisdom, discernment. He had failed at exporting Persian rugs to Europe and Canada. He had failed at exporting pistachios to Brazil and had to borrow money from your uncle. He always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then, convinced the rise of the Ayatollah in Iran would create a boom in business with the Shias in Iraq, he brought you all here to Samarra, to build a business and make a fortune. Unfortunately, he did not see the Iran–Iraq war coming. His business never took off, and your parents were killed on the twelfth of December, 1983, in a car accident in Baghdad. And aside from your aunt and uncle, you have been all alone ever since.”
The hair on the back of Najjar’s neck stood erect. His face went pale. Forgetting about the extent of his injuries, he struggled to his feet and stared back at this boy. For several minutes, there was complete silence. Then the stranger spoke his final words.
“You are the brightest in your class, Najjar. You love Sheyda, the girl who sits next to you. You will marry her before your twentysecond birthday.”
“How do you . . . ?” But Najjar could say no more. His mouth was as dry as the desert floor.
“Allah has chosen you, Najjar Hamid Malik. You will become a great scientist. You will help the Islamic world achieve ultimate power over the infidels and establish the Islamic caliphate. You will help usher in the era of the Promised One. But you must follow Allah without hesitation. You must give him your supreme allegiance. And then, if you are worthy, you shall live forever in Paradise.”
Najjar hoped it was true.