Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation

Islamic Studies Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini
by
Nader Entessar

Introduction

The Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini (b. 1902–d. 1989) was a senior Shiʿa theologian and the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was a controversial figure credited with reviving the modern wave of Islamism in the world and founding the first modern Shiʿa theocracy. Khomeini combined political activism with religious scholarship. All in all, Khomeini wrote more than sixty books covering wide-ranging issues, such as religion, ethics, Gnosticism, poetry and prose, and government and politics. Khomeini was an uncompromising opponent of Western liberalism and secularism throughout his active life, and he viewed secular nationalists in Iran as corrupt or corruptible and incapable of defending both Islam and Iranian interests against Western encroachments. He was a charismatic figure able to hold together contending forces in the aftermath of the overthrow of the monarchical system in Iran. He sought, for the most part, to remain above the factional infighting that has characterized the Islamic Republic from its inception.

General Overviews

Although Khomeini served as the spiritual and de facto political leader of Iran for only a decade (1979–1989), his legacy continues to divide Iranians in and outside the country. To his detractors, Khomeini and his system of government symbolized religious tyranny, antifeminism, and antimodernism. His supporters have viewed him as a man who rescued Iran from a decadent monarchy and formed a system based on Islamic justice and support of the downtrodden, or mostazafin. Abrahamian 1993, Dabashi 1993, and Rahnema 2006 focus on Khomeini’s skills in combining religious populism with political activism. Algar 1981, Khalili and Manafi Anari 2001, and Moin 1999 rely on Khomeini’s varied original writings and speeches to trace the development of Khomeini’s views on subjects ranging from religion to politics and literature. Whereas Imam Khomeini’s Last Will and Testament (Khomeini 1989) provides an overview of Khomeini’s hopes for the future of the Islamic Republic, Rajaee 2007 places Khomeini’s religious and political thought in the context of the development of Islamic political thought in Iran in the 20th century. In short, Khomeini continues to remain both a polarizing and inspirational figure in Iran and the larger Muslim world, as demonstrated in essays in Adid-Moghaddam 2014.

Bibliographies

The writings of Khomeini are voluminous and are still being compiled and catalogued by several Iranian institutes. Some of his writings focus exclusively on religious matters. For example, Khomeini 1991 deals with the spiritual importance of prayer, whereas Khomeini 1984 elaborates on the importance of the pilgrimage to Mecca for spiritual and personal growth of Muslims. The most comprehensive of Khomeini’s writings are to be found in the multivolume collection Khomeini 1982. Khomeini 1989 and Khomeini 1981 present two contrasting sides of Khomeini. The former work portrays Khomeini’s mystical side, whereas the latter book presents Khomeini as a pragmatic and somewhat Machiavellian thinker aiming to establish the rule of the clergy in Iran. Some of Khomeini’s writings, such as Khomeini 1948 and Khomeini 1987, are essentially rebuttals to criticisms of Shiʿa doctrine by secular or religious Iranian modernists.

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Kashful Asrar. Tehran: Islamic Bookstore, 1948.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    (Uncovering of secrets). Pamphlet that Khomeini wrote as a young seminary teacher to rebut accusations against the Shiʿa belief system and clerical institutions in the country.

    Find this resource:

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Vilayat-e Faqih. Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1981.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    (Governance of the just jurisprudence). Collection of thirteen lectures delivered by Khomeini while in exile in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. The book has been published in several languages by many publishers. The book’s significance is in its delineation of how an Islamic government should be instituted.

    Find this resource:

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Sahifeh-e Nour. Tehran: Ministry of Islamic Guidance, 1982.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    (Book [or page] of light). A sixteen-volume collection of Khomeini’s writings and speeches on a vast array of topics. The collection is an indispensable source for scholars who seek to further their understanding of Khomeini’s views.

    Find this resource:

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Hajj Rituals. Tehran: Hafez, 1984.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    English-language translation of a larger volume written in Persian on rituals of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

    Find this resource:

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Towzihul Masa’il. Tehran: Reja Cultural Publication Center, 1987.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    (Explanation of problems). Sometimes published under the title Manual of Islamic Laws. This is not an original work; it simply includes Khomeini’s annotated explanation of the original book by the late Grand Ayatollah Boroujerdi, under whom Khomeini had received much of his theological training.

    Find this resource:

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Badeh-ye ‘Ishq. Tehran: Soroush, 1989.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    (The wine of love). Contains Gnostic poems of Khomeini. Deals with such issues as how to acquire true knowledge and how to purify one’s soul.

    Find this resource:

  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Adab al-Salat. Tehran: Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, 1991.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    (The disciplines of prayer). Expounds on Khomeini’s views on the significance of prayer in one’s life and daily existence.

    Find this resource:

Early Years and Political Challenges

According to most accounts, Khomeini was born on 24 September 1902 in Khomeini, a small town two hundred miles south of the Iranian capital city of Tehran. At the age of twenty, Khomeini went to Arak in central Iran and became a student of Ayatollah Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi, a prominent Shiʿa scholar at the Arak Seminary. In 1921 Haeri Yazdi moved to the holy city of Qum, and Khomeini followed him there to continue his studies in Islamic law (Sharia), Shiʿa jurisprudence (fiqh), mysticism (irfan), and philosophy. After Haeri Yazdi’s death in 1924, Khomeini continued his studies in Qum and ultimately became a popular teacher in several Qum theological seminaries. For several years, Khomeini taught courses in political philosophy, logic, ethics, jurisprudence, and Islamic history, and at a relatively early age he established himself as a leading scholar of Islamic theology. Khomeini was not only a prolific scholar but also an innovative teacher who emphasized Gnosticism and philosophy in his classes at a time when the traditional religious scholars of Qum were suspicious of those fields’ usefulness in the study of Islamic theology (Mottahedeh 1985). Historically, Shiʿa Islam had remained wary of political activism, as discussed in Algar 1980 and Arjomand 1984. Prior to the early 1960s, there was little indication of Khomeini’s political activism against the Pahlavi monarchy. Algar 2001 shows, however, that Khomeini’s antisecularism was evident in his speeches and some of his writings as early as the 1940s. Khomeini’s signature act of defiance against the monarchical system in Iran came in 1963, after Reza Shah Pahlavi had announced his White Revolution. Akhavi 1980 studies this six-point program, which called for changes in Iranian society that Khomeini viewed as inimical to Islamic principles. He regarded these changes as pushing Iran toward a Westernization path that would further diminish the power of the Shiʿa clergy over the country’s sociopolitical institutions. After his exile from Iran in 1964, Khomeini spent fifteen years in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq, formulating his plans to overthrow the Pahlavi monarchy. Eventually, he organized a coalition of nationalists and religious forces that managed to overthrow the monarchy in 1979, as covered in Fischer 1980, Keddie 2006, and Rajaee 1983.

  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Era. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A nuanced examination of the complexities in clergy-state relations in prerevolutionary Iran, including Khomeini’s significance in this evolving relationship.

    Find this resource:

  • Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Written by a prominent scholar of Islam many years before the successful Islamic Revolution in Iran. Provides the necessary historical context for understanding the emergence of the “revolutionary Islam” of Khomeini in Iran.

    Find this resource:

  • Algar, Hamid. Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: Four Lectures. North Haledon, NJ: Islamic Publications International, 2001.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contains four lectures delivered by Hamid Algar at the Muslim Institute in London. Both scholars and informed lay audiences can benefit from Algar’s eloquent explanation of the principal ideas and ideals that formed Khomeini’s religious and sociopolitical views.

    Find this resource:

  • Arjomand, Said Amir. From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A scholarly analysis of the interplay of nationalism and revolutionary Islam, with a particular focus on Shiʿism and Iran. Provides a good context for understanding Khomeini’s appeal to a wide spectrum of Iranians prior to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    Find this resource:

  • Fischer, Michael M. J. Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An intellectually stimulating analysis of sociocultural forces that led to the growth of religious opposition to the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran.

    Find this resource:

  • Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Detailed history of modern Iran by a prominent American historian. Contains a significant explanation of the role of religion in revolutionary upheavals in Iran during and since the mid-19th century.

    Find this resource:

  • Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A sophisticated but accessible analysis of the historical forces that shaped the emergence of Khomeini’s religious discourse in Iran.

    Find this resource:

  • Rajaee, Farhang. Islamic Values and World View: Khomeyni on Man, the State, and International Politics. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1983.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Seeks to explain the development of Khomeini’s views on the title’s topics through a detailed study of his sermons, speeches, and writings.

    Find this resource:

The Islamic Revolution

After months of popular demonstrations, Reza Shah Pahlavi finally left Iran on 16 January 1979, hoping that the provisional government of Prime Minister Shapur Bakhtiar would be able to restore calm. However, Khomeini adamantly opposed the Bakhtiar government and called for its overthrow. On 1 February 1979 Khomeini returned to Iran after his long exile, and on 11 February 1979 he appointed Mehdi Bazargan, a respected veteran of the anti-shah movement, as the prime minister of a competing government. With the military’s declaration of neutrality and Khomeini’s call for the soldiers to surrender to his newly declared governmental authority, the last remnant of the monarchical regime collapsed, and Bakhtiar fled the country for France. Khomeini then began to implement his long-held vision of establishing an Islamic republic. Kurzman 2004 and Saikal 2009 study how he skillfully and ruthlessly outmaneuvered other forces, such as the nationalists and the Left, that had participated in the revolutionary process to overthrow the monarchy. The first provisional postrevolutionary Iranian constitution did not include the post of vilayat-e faqih, or the supreme leader. However, Khomeini’s allies succeeded in calling for the election of the Assembly of Experts to revise the provisional constitution. The election process for the Assembly of Experts was dominated by Khomeini’s supporters, leading to charges of ballot tampering by those who had preferred a popular and more representative constituent assembly than the clerically dominated Assembly of Experts, as Schirazi 1997 explains. Upon its election, the Assembly of Experts drafted a new constitution that included the post of the supreme leader and a Council of Guardians with the authority to veto “un-Islamic” legislation and approve candidates running for various elected offices in the country. The new constitution was approved in a popular referendum in November 1979, thus finalizing the framework of a new Islamic republic and bestowing upon Khomeini the title of “leader of the revolution.” On 22 October 1979 the exiled shah, who was suffering from cancer, was allowed to enter the United States for treatment. In Iran, both Khomeini’s supporters and many secular groups feared that the United States was planning to stage a similar operation to the one it organized in August 1953, when it staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq and brought the shah back to power from exile. It was in this tense atmosphere that on 4 November 1979 a group of Islamist students under the banner of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held its employees hostage for 444 days. Ebtekar 2000 provides an insider’s account of this episode. Bakhash 1984, Hiro 1985, Siavoshi 1990, and Stemple 1981 offer further studies of the hostage affair, which received Khomeini’s blessing and helped radicalize the regime and consolidate its hold on the country by further marginalizing liberal religious elements in the government and society.

The Iran-Iraq War

The overthrow of the shah’s regime and the subsequent disintegration of his military created a vacuum that afforded Saddam Hussein, the president of neighboring Iraq and a foe of Iran, to launch a preemptive attack on Iran in September 1980. Khomeini’s exhortations to the Muslims to launch their own Islamic revolutions gave further impetus to the Iraqi government and other Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf to attack Iran, as studied in Chubin and Tripp 1988 and Cordesman 1987. Entessar 2004 and Rajaee 1997 show that Iraq’s full-scale invasion was supported by most Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and was later aided logistically by the United States. Notwithstanding Iraq’s superiority in both military manpower and advanced weaponry, Hiro 1991 and Parsadoost 2006 show that Iran’s fierce resistance resulted in Iraq’s forced withdrawal from occupied Iranian territories by early 1982. The war continued for several more years and came to an end in August 1988, when Khomeini, despite his opposition to ending the war with Saddam Hussein in power, accepted a cease-fire. The Iran-Iraq War cost Iran over $300 billion in damages and over 550,000 dead and severely injured (see Potter and Sick 2004). Nonetheless, the war allowed the newly established Islamic Republic to consolidate its hold on the country by mobilizing the country in the war effort. It pained Khomeini immensely to, in his words, “drink the cup of poison” and accept a United Nations–mediated truce that ended the war while leaving Saddam Hussein in power. As argued in Amirahmadi and Entessar 1992, after the end of the war Khomeini gave his blessing to the Iranian government’s programs to rebuild the country’s devastated economic infrastructure and its pulverized social fabric.

Khomeini’s Legacy

Khomeini’s legacy has endured long after his death. In Iran both Muslim conservatives (or “principalists,” as they call themselves) and the reformers claim to be the true heirs of Khomeini. Despite his pervasive symbolic presence in revolutionary Iran, Khomeini created a system of government that created numerous problems that continue to threaten his legacy and the Islamic Republic. Some of these problems have to do with the issue of political succession and factionalism, as studied in Arjomand 2009, while others deal with foreign policy challenges facing the country, as covered in Ehteshami 1995. Azimi 2008, Gheissari and Nasr 2006, and Mirsepasi 2010 argue that one of the most vexing and enduring issues in post-Khomeini Iran has to do with establishing democracy, accountability, and the rule of law. Kamrava 2008 ponders whether clerical institutions are capable of running a modern nation-state. Can dissent, including religious dissent, be tolerated in an Islamic state? These and similar questions have preoccupied Khomeini’s heirs; secular intellectuals; clerical reformists, such as Mohsen Kadivar (Kadivar 1997); and eminent religious authorities, such as the late Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, an erstwhile Khomeini heir designate who became a critic of the Islamic state in Iran (see Montazeri 2001).

LAST MODIFIED: 11/25/2014

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0126

back to top

Article

Up

Down