Has the Islamic Republic of Iran fallen into a trap set by a prankster masquerading as a philosopher?
A new book published in Tehran and praised by officials as a "major philosophical treatise" may suggest yes as an answer. The book by Islamic academic Jalal Sobhani, and titled From the Day Before Yesterday to the Day After Tomorrow, is marketed as "a journey in the political thoughts of Ahmad Fardid."
Fardid, who died in 1994, aged 85, had established himself as the ruling ayatollahs' house philosopher with a series of television appearances and lectures in the 1980s about what he termed "preparations for the return of the Hidden Imam" at "the end of times".
As the Khomeinist regime's pet philosopher, he was praised as "the Socrates of Islam" although his sole resemblance to the Greek sage was his refusal to put his thoughts on paper.
I came to know Fardid in the early 1970s before the mullahs seized power, when we participated in a series of televised debates in Tehran. He had a sharp sense of humor and regarded life as a series of games, if not pranks, never to be taken too seriously. He mocked the mullahs and regarded religion as an attempt to fence in human imagination and creativity. In 1979, on the eve of the mullahs seizing power, all those who knew him would have described him as an anti-clerical, not to say outright anti-religion, thinker.
Claiming that he was "in conversation with Martin Heidegger," a German philosopher of the Weimar and Nazi eras, one theme he harped on was the quest for a "strong leader" to give society the moral backbone it needed. Without saying whom he meant as the "strong leader", the establishment in Tehran assumed that he meant the Shah. This was one reason, perhaps, that he became one of Empress Farah's favorite philosophers in the Royal Society of Philosophers.
At the same time, Fardid covered his left flank by warning against liberal democratic values and coining the phrase "Westoxication," which became a shibboleth for those who cherish instant-coffee concepts.
The problem was that one could never know when Fardid was serious and when he was pulling your leg.
Two decades after his death, that problem remains. Fardid's disciples, including Reza Davari Ardakani and Muhammad-Taqi Givechi (aka Mesbah-Yazdi) have presented him as a visionary who foresaw the advent of the Islamic Revolution as a new beginning for mankind.
In his new book, Sobhani goes further by casting Fardid as a propagandist for the Khomeinist regime's weirdest illusions.
According to Sobhani, the late " Socrates of Islam" divided human history into five epochs: the day before yesterday, yesterday, today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
According to this reading, the entire creation was a prelude to the messianic Return of the Hidden Imam (the Mahdi) which will happen in the "day after tomorrow" episode at the end of times. Led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Revolution marked the beginning of a phase in which Satan is "pushed out of" the path of humanity and Wilayat al-Faqih (rule by the Islamic jurist) is established.
Then the Wali al-Faqih sets in motion a train that moves towards the final station, where the Hidden Imam boards it. On the way to that destination one nation after another board the train until all humanity is on board.
That "manifest destiny" is taking shape at a time that the train is run by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Imam of the Age.
One reviewer recalls that many "true believers" saw the image of the previous "Imam", Khomeini, in the full moon just weeks before he returned from exile in France. Today, the reviewer asserts that those who wish to see Khamenei's face must look to the sun where his image "scintillates with greater force each day."
According to Sobhani, Fardid regarded "liberal democracy" as the most vicious enemy of the project to fulfill the "Islamic destiny of mankind". This is why the Islamic Republic must face the Western powers with determination, always with "the finger on the trigger." This is meant to justify the Islamic Republic's growing closeness to Russia and Communist China which, though repressing their Muslim citizens, compensate for that misdeed by also combating the West and its liberal democracy.
Having conversed with Fardid on numerous occasions, I have a sneaky feeling, if not an actual conviction, that he decided to play one of his devilish jokes on the mullahs.
Before the mullahs seized power he was content with being described as "ostad" (master) Ahmad Fardid, a modern man who wore Tyrolean folkloric attire and advertised his encyclopedic knowledge of wines. During the 13 months of turmoil that ended with Khomeini seizing power, when many thought that the ayatollah may turn out to be a Trojan horse for Marxist-Leninists, Fardid encouraged his disciples to call him "doktor" (doctor). Once the mullahs had won and started killing the Marxist-Leninists, Fardid remembered that he was a descendant of Imam Ali and thus one of the Ahl al-Beit, and started signing himself as "Sayyed Ahmad".
To be fair, Fardid never chased position or money. He lived in a small rented flat owned by one of our reporters, Ali-Akbar Khayrakhah. Nor did he fall for the third "oriental obsession": winning favor with ladies. He lived a life which, though not Spartan, bore no relations to his status as a celebrity in the glamour-obsessed pre-revolutionary Iran.
Half a century later, one may see Fardid as a born prankster who saw life as a jumble of beautiful but meaningless and forlorn imperatives beyond our comprehension. If life were a game, why not play games with it? Where better than philosophy to do that?
Today, Fardid reminds me of Ariel, the airy spirit attendant to Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, a master of pranks; magical deeds and practical jokes that spare no one. Ariel's secret goal is to gain absolute freedom from all rules, doctrines and systems. I have a feeling that Fardid mocked both the Shah and the Ayatollah and enjoyed every moment of it in secret.
Islamic Ariel or Islamic Socrates?
Fardid would have laughed at the question. But what would he have said if we called him the Islamic Archilocus, after ancient Greece's pioneering cynic?
Even then, from what we know of him, Fardid would have taken the mickey out of us, too, as he did out of the Empress, the Imam and the "Supreme Guide".
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.