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Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini


Brazenly defying the West, he revived Islam's faithful and authored a new form of religious government. The prescriptions were often chilling


To Westerners, his hooded eyes and severe demeanor, his unkempt gray beard and his black turban and robes conveyed an avenger's wrath. The image is the man.

Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, the dour cleric who led an Islamic revolution in Iran, perceived himself above all as an avenger of the humiliations that the West had for more than a century inflicted on the Muslims of the Middle East.

He was among many Muslim autocrats in this century to embrace a mission designed as a corrective to the West. Kemal Ataturk, the most daring of them, introduced Turkey, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, to Western-style secularism in order to toughen his society against Europe's imperial designs. In the 1950s, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, more intemperately, initiated a fierce campaign of Arab nationalism aimed at eradicating the vestiges of Western colonialism from the Arab world.

Khomeini took a different course. All three, at their apogee, were rulers of once great empires that had fallen into political and social disarray. But Ataturk and Nasser were committed to resurrection by beating the West at its own game of building strong secular states. Khomeini's strategy was to reject Western ways, keeping Iran close to its Islamic roots.

Some ask, focusing on this strategy, whether Khomeini was riding a popular wave in global affairs. In the late 20th century, Muslims were not alone in organizing to restore religious belief to government. Christians in America, Jews in Israel, even Hindus in India were promoting the same end. As a revolutionary, Khomeini sought to bring down not just the Shah's Western-oriented state but also the secular Weltanschauung that stood behind it. Did Khomeini's triumph augur an intellectual shift of global magnitude?

While historians ponder this question, it is enough to say that Khomeini presided brilliantly over the overthrow of a wounded regime. He was merciless and cunning. His well-advertised piety complemented a prodigious skill in grasping and shaping Iran's complex politics. Most important, he knew how to exploit the feelings of nationalist resentment that characterized his time.

Ruhollah Khomeini — his given name means "inspired of God" — was born to a family of Shi'ite scholars in a village near Tehran in 1902. Shi'ism, a minority sect in Islam, is Iran's official religion. Like his father, he moved from theological studies to a career as an Islamic jurist. Throughout his life, he was acclaimed for the depth of his religious learning.

As a young seminary teacher, Khomeini was no activist. From the 1920s to the 1940s, he watched passively as Reza Shah, a monarch who took Ataturk as his model, promoted secularization and narrowed clerical powers. Similarly, Khomeini was detached from the great crisis of the 1950s in which Reza Shah's son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi turned to America to save himself from demonstrators on Tehran's streets who were clamoring for democratic reform.

Khomeini was then the disciple of Iran's pre-eminent cleric, Ayatullah Mohammed Boroujerdi, a defender of the tradition of clerical deference to established power. But in 1962, after Boroujerdi's death, Khomeini revealed his long-hidden wrath and acquired a substantial following as a sharp-tongued antagonist of the Shah's.

Khomeini was clearly at home with populist demagogy. He taunted the Shah for his ties with Israel, warning that the Jews were seeking to take over Iran. He denounced as non-Islamic a bill to grant the vote to women. He called a proposal to permit American servicemen based in Iran to be tried in U.S. military courts "a document for Iran's enslavement." In 1964 he was banished by the Shah to Turkey, then was permitted to relocate in the Shi'ite holy city of An Najaf in Iraq. But the Shah erred in thinking Khomeini would be forgotten. In An Najaf, he received Iranians of every station and sent home tape cassettes of sermons to be peddled in the bazaars. In exile, Khomeini became the acknowledged leader of the opposition.

In An Najaf, Khomeini also shaped a revolutionary doctrine. Shi'ism, historically, demanded of the state only that it keep itself open to clerical guidance. Though relations between clergy and state were often tense, they were rarely belligerent. Khomeini, condemning the Shah's servility to America and his secularism, deviated from accepted tenets to attack the regime's legitimacy, calling for a clerical state, which had no Islamic precedent.

In late 1978 huge street demonstrations calling for the Shah's abdication ignited the government's implosion. Students, the middle class, bazaar merchants, workers, the army — the pillars of society — successively abandoned the regime. The Shah had nowhere to turn for help but to Washington. Yet the more he did, the more isolated he became. In January 1979 he fled to the West. Two weeks later, Khomeini returned home in triumph.

Popularly acclaimed as leader, Khomeini set out to confirm his authority and lay the groundwork for a clerical state. With revolutionary fervour riding high, armed vigilante bands and kangaroo courts made bloody work of the Shah's last partisans. Khomeini cancelled an experiment with parliamentarism and ordered an Assembly of Experts to draft an Islamic constitution. Overriding reservations from the Shi'ite hierarchy, the delegates designed a state that Khomeini would command and the clergy would run, enforcing religious law. In November, Khomeini partisans, with anti-American passions still rising, seized the U.S. embassy and held 52 hostages.

Over the remaining decade of his life, Khomeini consolidated his rule. Proving himself as ruthless as the Shah had been, he had thousands killed while stamping out a rebellion of the secular left. He stacked the state bureaucracies with faithful clerics and drenched the schools and the media with his personal doctrines. After purging the military and security services, he rebuilt them to ensure their loyalty to the clerical state.

Khomeini also launched a campaign to "export" — the term was his — the revolution to surrounding Muslim countries. His provocations of Iraq in 1980 helped start a war that lasted eight years, at the cost of a million lives, and that ended only after America intervened to sink several Iranian warships in the Persian Gulf. Iranians asked whether God had revoked his blessing of the revolution. Khomeini described the defeat as "more deadly than taking poison."

To rally his demoralized supporters, he issued the celebrated fatwa condemning to death the writer Salman Rushdie for heresies contained in his novel The Satanic Verses. Though born a Muslim, Rushdie was not a Shi'ite; a British subject, he had no ties to Iran. The fatwa, an audacious claim of authority over Muslims everywhere, was the revolution's ultimate export. Khomeini died a few months later. But the fatwa lived on, a source of bitterness — as he intended it to be — between Iran and the West.

Beside the fatwa, what is Khomeini's legacy? The revolution, no longer at risk, still revels in having repeatedly, with impunity, defied the American Satan. The Islamic state was proof to the faithful — as the Soviet Union was to generations of communists — that the Western system need not be a universal model.

Yet Khomeini rejected a parallel between his doctrines and the fundamentalism propounded by other Muslim dissidents. He never described himself as fundamentalist. He often said that Islam is not for 14 centuries ago in Arabia but for all time.

Since Khomeini's death, the popular appeal of an Islamic state — and of fundamentalism — has surely dimmed. Thinkers still debate and warriors kill, but no country seems prepared to emulate Iran. Perhaps revolutions happen only under majestic leaders, and no one like Khomeini has since appeared.


Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (1902-1989) was the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The only leader in the Muslim world who combined political and religious authority as a head of state, he took office in 1979.

Ayatollah Khomeini was born on September 24, 1902, according to most sources. The title Ayatollah (the Sign of God) reflected his scholarly religious standing in the Shia Islamic tradition. His first name, Ruhollah (the Spirit of God), is a common name in spite of its religious meaning, and his last name is taken from his birthplace, the town of Khomein, which is about 200 miles south of Tehran, Iran's capital city. His father, Mustapha Musavi, was the chief cleric of the town where he was murdered only five months after the birth of Ruhollah. The child was raised by his mother (Hajar) and aunt (Sahebeh), both of whom died when Ruhollah was about 15 years old.

A Religious Scholar

Ayatollah Khomeini's life after childhood went through three distinct phases. The first phase, from 1908 to 1962, was marked mainly by training, teaching, and writing in the field of Islamic studies. At the age of six he began to study the Koran, Islam's holy book, and also elementary Persian. Subsequently he was taught Islamic jurisprudence by his older brother, Morteza Pasandideh, who was also an ayatollah in the holy city of Qom in Iran. He completed his studies in Islamic law, ethics, and spiritual philosophy under the supervision of Ayatollah Abdul Karim Haeri-ye Yazdi, first in Arak, a town near Khomein, and later in Qom, where he also got married and had two sons and three daughters. His older son, Hajj Mustafa, died (allegedly killed by the Shah's security agents), but the younger one, Ahmad, was relatively active in revolutionary politics in Tehran.

Although during this scholarly phase of his life Khomeini was not politically active, the nature of his studies, teachings, and writings revealed that he firmly believed from the beginning in political activism by clerics. Three factors support this suggestion. First, his interest in Islamic studies surpassed the bounds of traditional subjects of Islamic law (Sharia), jurisprudence (Figh), and principles (Usul) and the like. He was keenly interested in philosophy and ethics. Second, his teaching focused often on the overriding relevance of religion to practical social and political issues of the day. Third, he was the first Iranian cleric to try to refute the outspoken advocacy of secularism in the 1940s. His now well-known book, Kashf-e Assrar (Discovery of Secrets) was a point by point refutation of Assrar-e Hezar Saleh (Secrets of a Thousand Years), a tract written by a disciple of Iran's leading anti-clerical historian, Ahmad Kassravi.

Preparation for Political Leadership

The second phase of Khomeini's life, from 1962 to 1979, was marked by political activism. During this phase he carried his lifelong fundamentalist interpretation of Shia Islam to its logical and practical conclusions. Logically, in the 1970s, as contrasted with the 1940s, he no longer accepted the idea of a limited monarchy under the Iranian Constitution of 1906-1907, an idea that was clearly evidenced by his book Kashf-e Assrar. In his Islamic Government (Hokumat-e Islami) - which is a collection of his lectures in Najaf (Iraq) published in 1970 - he rejected both the Iranian Constitution as an alien import from Belgium and monarchy in general. He believed that the government was an un-Islamic and illegitimate institution usurping the legitimate authority of the supreme religious leader (Faqih), who should rule as both the spiritual and temporal guardian of the Muslim community (Umma). Practically, he launched his crusade against the shah's regime in 1962, which led to the eruption of a religiopolitical rebellion on June 5, 1963. This date (15th of Khurdad in the Iranian solar calendar) is regarded by the revolutionary regime as the turning point in the history of the Islamic movement in Iran. The shah's bloody suppression of the uprising was followed by the exile of Khomeini in 1964, first to Iraq until expelled in 1978 and then to France.

Radicalization of Khomeini's religiopolitical ideas and his entry into active political opposition in the second phase of his life reflected a combination of circumstances. First, the deaths of the leading, although quiescent, Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Muhammad Burujerdi (1961), and of the activist cleric Ayatollah Abul Qassem Kashani (1962) left the arena of leadership open to Khomeini, who had attained a prominent religious standing by the age of 60. Second, although ever since the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi to power in the 1920s the clerical class had been on the defensive because of his secular and anticlerical policies and those of his son, Muhammad (Mohammad) Reza Shah, these policies reached their peak in the early 1960s. The shah's so-called White Revolution (1963) in particular was considered by the religious leaders as detrimental to not only the Shia cultural tradition, but also to their landed and educational interests. And third, the shah's granting of diplomatic privileges and immunities to the American military personnel and their dependents (1964) was viewed as degrading to the Iranian sense of national independence.

Founding the Islamic Republic of Iran

The third phase of Khomeini's life began with his return to Iran from exile on February 1, 1979 - Muhammad Reza Shah had been forced to abdicate two weeks earlier. On February 11 revolutionary forces allied to Khomeini seized power in Iran. The hallmark of this phase was the emergence of Khomeini as the founder and the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Throughout this phase, Khomeini was preoccupied with the fundamental goal of engineering an ideal Islamic society in Iran. From the perspective of Khomeini and his leading disciples, the Iranian Revolution went through three major periods. The first one began with Khomeini's appointment of Mehdi Bazargan as the head of the "provisional government" on February 5, 1979, and ended with his fall on November 6, two days after the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. This, according to Khomeini, marked the beginning of the second revolution, which was in his view better than the first one that had resulted in the departure of the shah (January 16, 1979). The hallmark of this so-called second revolution was the elimination of mainly nationalist forces from politics. As early as August 20, 1979, 22 opposition newspapers were ordered closed. In terms of foreign policy, the landmarks of the second revolution were the destruction of U.S.-Iran relations and the Iranian defense against the Iraqi invasion of the Shatt-al-Arab (September 22, 1980). The admission of the shah to the United States on October 22, 1979; Khomeini's instruction to Iranian students on November 1 to "expand with all their might their attacks against the United States" in order to force the extradition of the shah; and the seizure of the American embassy on November 4 led to 444 days of agonizing dispute between the United States and Iran until the release of the hostages on January 21, 1981.

The so-called third revolution began with Khomeini's dismissal of President Abul Hassan Bani-Sadr on June 22, 1981. In retrospect, the fate of Bani-Sadr, as that of Bazargan, reflected Khomeini's singleminded determination to eliminate from power any individual or group that could stand in the way of his engineering the ideal Islamic Republic of Iran which he had formally proclaimed on April 1, 1979, and which he called "the first day of the Government of God." This government, however, had yet to be molded thoroughly according to his fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. In terms of foreign policy, the main characteristics of the third revolution were the continuation of the Iraq-Iran war, increasing rapprochement with the Soviet Union, and expanded efforts to export the "Islamic revolution."

In the opinion of this author, the revolution began going through yet a fourth phase in late 1982. Domestically, the clerical class had consolidated its control, prevented land distribution, and promoted the role of the private sector in the economy. Internationally, Iran sought a means of ending its pariah status and tried to distance itself from terrorist groups. It expanded commercial relations with Western Europe, China, Japan, and Turkey; reduced interaction with the Soviet Union; and claimed that the door was open for reestablishing relations with the United States. Late in 1985 a special 60-member assembly of religious figures designated as Khomeini's eventual successor for the office of "Supreme Jurisprudent", a close ally - Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri (born 1922).

In November of 1986 President Reagan acknowledged that the United States had secretly supplied some arms to Iran. The disclosure and subsequent handling of the purchase money led to a lengthy congressional investigation and the appointment of an independent counsel to see if federal statutes had been violated.

In 1988, Khomeini and Iran accepted the United Nation's call for a cease-fire with Iraq. On February 14, 1989, Khomeini sentenced writer Salman Rushdie to death, without a trial, in a legal ruling called a fatwa. Khomeini deemed Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses to be blasphemous because of its unflattering portrait of Islam. Before his death from cancer in Iran on June 3, 1989, Khomeini designated President Ali Khamenei to succeed him. Khomeini is still a revered figure to Iranians. Each year on the anniversary of his death, hundreds of thousands of people attend a ceremony at his shrine at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery.











This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008