The Encyclopedia of Asian History
the Asia Society 1988.
Ayatollah al-Uzma Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini was a Shi’ite scholar and mystic. He was the leader of the Islamic Revolution (1979) that abolished the Iranian Monarchy and founded the Islamic Republic, and is for many Muslims the greatest figure in their modern history.
Khomeini was born September 24, 1902 in the western Iranian city of Khomein to Sayyid Mustafa, whose father, Sayyid Ahmad, had settled there some fifty years earlier. (Although of Iranian origin, Khomeini’s ancestors spent several generations in India; Sayyid Ahmad was the first to resettle in Iran.) Sayyid Mustafa was killed five months after Khomeini’s birth under disputed circumstances. His mother and a paternal aunt had charge of his early upbringing. In 1918 Khomeini’s elder brother determined that he should begin his madrasa (Islamic school) education in the nearby city of Arak under Shaikh abd al-Karim Ha’eri. In 1920, Ha’eri left for Qom to reform the religious teaching institution in that city, and Khomeini accompanied him. Thereafter his whole career, down to his exile from Iran in 1964, was closely associated with the city of Qom.
In addition to law – the core of the madrasa curriculum – Khomeini devoted much attention during his early years to traditional philosophy and mysticism; it was these subjects – particularly the latter—that formed the subject matter of his earliest writings. It was also as an instructor in philosophy and mysticism that Khomeini made his debut as a teacher, drawing many people who later remained his associates during the years of revolutionary struggle, notably the ayatollahs Mutahhari and Montazeri. Although Khomeini’s first two decades in Qom were largely devoid of political activity, primarily because of the quietist policies of Ha’eri, he participated in the 1923 protest movement led by Agha Nurollah Isfahani, delivered well-attended lectures on ethics that had political implications, and composed poetry that was partly political in content.
On May 14, 1944, about three years after the deposition of Reza Shah, Khomeini issued his first public declaration, calling on the nation, especially the ulama (Islamic Scholars), to “rise up for God” and revive Islam in Iran. At about the same time, he published Kashf al-asrar (The Revelation of Secrets), a book that primarily refuted an anti-Shi’ite tract but also criticized the Pahlavi family and intimated vilayat-i faqih (the governance of the jusrisprudent), the political theory that later became the constitutional basis of the Islamic Republic.
After an interval of ten years, Ayatollah Burujirdi succeeded Ha’eri in 1964 as head of the religious institution in Qom. Khomeini was among those instrumental in promoting him, evidently in the hope that he would prove more militant than Ha’eri.
Despite Khomeini’s repeated efforts to influence him, Burujirdi maintained a determinedly passive stance in regards to the Pahlavi regime. As a result Khomeini continued to refrain from attempting decisive political action. He is said, however, to have had some contact with militant religious personalities of the time, such as Ayatollah Kashani and Navvab Safavi. His main concern during the lifetime of Burujirdi was the teaching of Shi’ite jurisprudence. The number of students attending his lectures rose to five hundred by the mid-1950’s.
With Ayatollah Burujirdi’s death in 1962, Khomeini became the prominent religious figure in Qom. When the publication of some of his writings on jurisprudence signaled his availability as a “source of imitation” (marja-i taqlid) in succession to Burujirdi, many in the religious institution responded. The beginning of Khomeini’s political role and his emergence as a national leader who was well know beyond the confines of Qom came when he led a successful campaign in the fall of 1962 for the repeal of laws governing elections to local and provincial councils. His next and more significant clash with the government came early in 1963, when he denounced the shah’s “White Revolution” as a fraud designed only to intensify foreign, notably American, exploitation of Iran. On March 22, 1963 paratroopers raided the Faiziyya madrasa in Qom, where Khomeini taught and preached, killing several people. Thereafter, his denunciation of the regime became harsher and more frequent, culminating in the historic speech delivered on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Husain, the Prophet’s grandson (June 3, 1963). Two days later, Khomeini was arrested and taken to Tehran, whereupon a major uprising broke out, the forerunner of the Islamic Revolution sixteen years later.
On April 6, 1964 Khomeini was released and immediately resumed his attacks on the regime, ignoring a government announcement that he had agreed not to do so. His new campaign of attacks came to a climax on October 27, when he accused the government of treason because of the agreement on the status of forces it had made with the United States. On November 4 he was arrested once again and sent into exile that was to last more than fourteen years.
His first place of exile was Bursa in western Turkey, but in October 1965 he was transferred to the more congenial environment of Najaf, a center of Shi’ite learning and pilgrimage in Iraq. During the years in Najaf, Khomeini issued periodic pronouncements on Iranian affairs that were smuggled by audio tape into the country and circulated there. He also received visits from numerous personalities from the oppositional diaspora as well as from inside Iran. He was thus able to remain in touch with his following, despite the best efforts of the Pahlavi regime. Far from lapsing in obscurity, he was so well remembered by a significant portion of his countrymen that he emerged in 1978 as the natural and undisputed leader of the revolutionary movement.
The events that culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy began with a demonstration in Qom on January 9, 1978 in protest of the appearance of an article defaming Khomeini in the government-controlled press. Thereafter, a series of demonstrations broke out across the country so that by the end of 1978 nearly all the Iranian people were demanding the installation of an Islamic government under the leadership of Khomeini. His role was crucial throughout. His declarations provided constant encouragement and guidance, and his refusal to settle for anything less than the abolition of the monarchy gave the movement a clear and radical goal.
In the hope of diminishing Khomeini’s role, the Pahlavi regime persuaded the Iraqi government to expel him from Najaf in October 1978. Khomeini then established a new headquarters in the hamlet of Neauphle-le-Chateau near Paris, so communicating with Iran was, if anything, easier than it had been in Najaf. This last stage of Khomeini’s exile was relatively brief. On February 1, 1979, two weeks after the shah had fled, Khomeini returned to Tehran to a massive and tumultuous welcome. On February 12 the surrogate government left behind by the shah collapsed, and a provisional government took office under Khomeini’s supervision. The abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Islamic Republic were formalized through a referendum held on March 30 and 31st.
Soon after the triumph of the revolution, Khomeini returned to Qom, but in January 1980 he came to Tehran for medical treatment, and after his release from the hospital he stayed on in the capital, taking up residence in the northern suburb of Jamaran. This transfer of residence was necessitated by the successive problems and crises that beset the Islamic Republic: the divisions that existed between the provisional government and the revolutionary council; the crisis surrounding the detention of the American hostages; the conflicts between President Bani Sadr and the Islamic Republican Party, which ended in the removal of Bani Sadr from the Presidency; and the war unleashed by Iraq in September 1980. In confronting these various difficulties Khomeini played a skillful role as arbiter and as decision maker. His function as “leader” (rahbar) was constitutionally defined by chapter 8 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, but as important as his exercise of specific responsibilities was, his dominating charismatic presence, still perceived by many to embody this values and aspirations of the revolution.
By February 1989 Khomeini issued a fatwa demanding the death of writer Salman Rushdie and condemns his book The Satanic Verses. Shortly after, on June 3, 1989, Khomeini died in Tehran with millions attending his funeral.
Since 1979 Khomeini’s appeal as a pan-Islamic revolutionary spread widely outside Iran. Posters bearing his portrait can still be seen in Muslim homes from Mombasa to Manila.
The Encyclopedia of Asian History
the Asia Society 1988.