Imam Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (May 17, 1900 – June 3, 1989) was a Muslim cleric and Marja, and the political leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran which overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. Following the Revolution, Imam Khomeini became Grand Leader of Iran — the paramount figure in the political system of the new Islamic Republic — until his demise.
Imam Khomeini was considered a Marja-e taqlid to many Muslims, and in Iran was officially addressed as Imam rather than Grand Ayatollah; his supporters adhere to this convention. Imam Khomeini was also a highly-influential and innovative Islamic political theorist, most noted for his development of the theory of velayat-e faqih, the “guardianship of the jurisconsult.”
Family and early years
Ruhollah Mousavi was born to Ayatollah Seyyed Mostafa Musavi and Hajieh Agha Khanum, also called Hajar, in the town of Khomein, about 300 kilometers south of the capital Tehran, Iran, possibly on May 17, 1900 or September 24, 1902. He was a Seyyed from a religious family that are descendants of Prophet Mohammad, through the seventh Imam, (Imam Mousa Kazem). His paternal grandfather was Seyyed Ahmad Musavi, whose third wife, Sakineh, gave birth to Mostafa in 1856. Imam Khomeini’s maternal grandfather was Mirza Ahmad Mojtahed-e Khonsari, a high-ranking cleric in central Iran whose Fatwa for banning usage of Tobacco in opposition to a monopoly granted by Shah to a British company, led to cancellation of the concession.
Imam Khomeini’s father was murdered when he was five months old, and he was raised by his mother and one of his aunts. Later, when he was 15, his mother and aunt died in the same year. At the age of six he began to study the Quran, Islam’s holy book. He received his early education at home and at the local school, under the supervision of Mullah Abdul-Qassem and Sheikh Jaffar, and was under the guardianship of his elder brother, Ayatollah Pasandideh, until he was 18 years old. Arrangements were made for him to study at the Islamic seminary in Esfahan, but he was attracted, instead, to the seminary in Arak, which was renowned for its scholastic brilliance under the leadership of Ayatollah Sheikh Abdol-Karim Haeri-Yazdi (himself a pupil of some of the greatest scholars of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq).
In 1921, Imam Khomeini commenced his studies in Arak. The following year, Ayatollah Haeri-Yazdi transferred the Islamic seminary to the holy city of Qom, and invited his students to follow. Imam Khomeini accepted the invitation, moved, and took up residence at the Dar al-Shafa school in Qom before being exiled to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. After graduation, he taught Islamic jurisprudence (Sharia), Islamic philosophy and mysticism (Irfan) for many years and wrote numerous books on these subjects.
Although during this scholarly phase of his life Imam 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 (Fiqh), 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 Asrar (Discovery of Secrets) was a point by point refutation of Asrar-e Hezar Saleh (Secrets of a Thousand Years), a tract written by a disciple of Iran’s leading anti-clerical historian, Ahmad Kasravi. Also he went from Qom to Tehran to listen to Ayatollah Hassan Modarres —the leader of the opposition majority in Iran’s parliament during 1920s.
Imam Khomeini became a Marja in 1963, following the death of Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Borujerdi.
Early Political Activity
In this time he could represent his religious-political ideas openly. Because the deaths of the leading, although quiescent, Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Borujerdi (1961), and of the activist cleric Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani (1962) left the arena of leadership open to Imam Khomeini, who had attained a prominent religious standing by the age of 60. In addition, 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, Mohammad Reza Shah, these policies reached their peak in the early 1960s with “White Revolution.”
Opposition to White Revolution
Imam Khomeini first became politically active in 1962. When the White Revolution proclaimed by the Shah’s government in Iran called for land reform, nationalization of the forests, the sale of state-owned enterprises to private interests, electoral changes to enfranchise women, profit sharing in industry, and an anti-illiteracy campaign in the nation’s schools. Most of these initiatives were regarded as dangerous, Westernizing trends by traditionalists, especially the powerful and privileged religious scholars (Ulama) who felt keenly threatened. The Ulama instigated anti-government riots throughout the country. They found the White Revolution a sustainable ideological framework to support a particular relation of domination, in this case the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. This was above all a hegemonic project intended to portray the Shah as a revolutionary leader through the utilization of social and historical myths reinterpreted through the prism of contemporary, often conflicting ideological constructs, such as nationalism and modernism.
In January 1963, the Shah announced a six-point program of reform called the White Revolution, an American-inspired package of measures designed to give his regime a liberal and progressive facade. Imam Khomeini summoned a meeting of his colleagues (other Ayatollahs) in Qom to press upon them the necessity of opposing the Shah’s plans. Imam Khomeini persuaded the other senior Marjas of Qom to decree a boycott of the referendum that the Shah had planned to obtain the appearance of popular approval for his White Revolution. Imam Khomeini issued on January 22, 1963 a strongly worded declaration denouncing the Shah and his plans. Two days later Shah took armored column to Qom, and he delivered a speech harshly attacking the ”ulama” as a class. Imam Khomeini continued his denunciation of the Shah’s programs, issuing a manifesto that also bore the signatures of eight other senior scholars. In it, he listed the various ways in which the Shah allegedly had violated the Constitution, condemned the spread of moral corruption in the country, and accused the Shah of comprehensive submission to America and Israel. He also decreed that the Nowruz celebrations for the Iranian year 1342 (March 21, 1963) be cancelled as a sign of protest against government policies. In the afternoon of Ashura (June 3, 1963), Imam Khomeini delivered a speech at the Feiziyeh Madreseh seminary in which he drew parallels between Yazid and the Shah and warned the Shah that if he did not change his ways, the day would come when the people would offer up thanks for his departure from the country.
Following Imam Khomeini’s public denunciation of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as a “wretched miserable man” and his arrest, on June 5, 1963 (Khordad 15, on the Iranian calendar), three days of major riots erupted throughout Iran with nearly 400 killed. Imam Khomeini was kept under house arrest for 8 months and was released in 1964.
Also this was a turning point in political viewpoint of Islam. The clergies had supported Shia monarchy since establishment of Safavids and this was the main source of legitimacy of monarchs. Shia clergies had advised them to be just and obey Ja’fari jurisprudence. Also monarchs didn’t enforce religious rules which restricted or threatened religious life and institutions and defended the Shia territory of Iran. But Reza Shah transformed the Iranian monarchy into a modern dictatorship. The modernizing programs of Pahlavi dynasty restricted and threatened religious life and made clergies be against monarchy and finally Imam Khomeini decide to fight with them and build another state comparable to religious rules.
Opposition to capitulation
During November of 1964, Imam Khomeini made a denunciation of both the Shah and the United States, this time in response to the “capitulations” or diplomatic immunity granted to American military personnel in Iran by the Shah. In Nov. 1964 Imam Khomeini was re-arrested and sent into exile.
Life in exile
Imam Khomeini spent over 14 years in exile, mostly in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. Initially, he was sent to Turkey on 4 November 1964, where he stayed in the city of Bursa for less than a year. He was hosted by a Turkish Colonel named Ali Cetiner in his own residence, who couldn’t find another accommodation alternative for his stay at the time. Later in October 1965 he was allowed to move to Najaf, Iraq, where he stayed until being forced to leave in 1978, after then-Vice President Saddam Hossein forced him out (the two countries would fight a bitter eight year war 1980-1988 only a year after the beginning of Imam Khomeini’s leadership in Iran and the start of Saddam Hussein’s term in Iraq) after which he went to Neauphle le Château in France.
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 Asrar. In his Islamic Government (Hokumat-e Islami) — which is a collection of his lectures in Najaf 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).
In early 1970 Imam Khomeini gave a lecture series in Najaf on Islamic Government which later was published as a book titled variously Islamic Government or Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (velayat-e faqih). This was his most famous and influential work and laid out his ideas on governance (at that time):
- That the laws of society should be made up only of the laws of God (Sharia), which cover “all human affairs” and “provide instruction and establish norms” for every “topic” in “human life.”
- Since Sharia, or Islamic law, is the proper law, those holding government posts should have knowledge of Sharia (Islamic jurists are such people), and that the country’s ruler should be a faqih who “surpasses all others in knowledge” of Islamic law and justice, as well as having intelligence and administrative ability. Rule by monarchs and/or assemblies of “those claiming to be representatives of the majority of the people” (i.e. elected parliaments and legislatures) have been proclaimed “wrong” by Islam unless approved by the faqih.
- This system of clerical rule is necessary to prevent injustice: corruption, oppression by the powerful over the poor and weak, innovation and deviation of Islam and Sharia law; and also to destroy anti-Islamic influence and conspiracies by non-Muslim foreign powers.
A modified form of this Velayat-e Faqih system was adopted after Imam Khomeini and his followers took power, and he became the Islamic Republic’s first “Guardian” or Grand Leader.
In the meantime, however, Imam Khomeini was careful not to publicize his ideas for clerical rule outside of his Islamic network of opposition to the Shah which he worked to build and strengthen over the next decade. Cassette copies of his lectures fiercely denouncing the Shah as, for example, “the Jewish agent, the American snake whose head must be smashed with a stone,” became common items on the markets of Iran, helped to demythologize the power and dignity of the Shah and his reign.
As protest grew, so did Imam Khomeini’s profile and importance. During the last few months of his exile, Imam Khomeini received a constant stream of reporters, supporters, and notables, eager to hear the spiritual leader of the revolution.
Grand Leader of Islamic Republic of Iran
Return to Iran
Only two weeks after the Shah fled Iran on January 16, 1979, Imam Khomeini returned to Iran triumphantly, on Thursday, February 1, 1979, invited by the anti-Shah revolution which was already in progress.
Conservative estimates put the welcoming crowd of Iranians at least three million. When Imam Khomeini was on plane on his way to Iran after many years in exile, a reporter, Peter Jennings asked him: “What do you feel?” and surprisingly Imam Khomeini answered “Nothing!”
In a speech given to a huge crowd on the first day of returning to Iran, Imam Khomeini attacked the government of Shapoor Bakhtiar promising “I shall punch their teeth in.” He also made a variety of promises to Iranians for his coming Islamic regime: A popularly elected government that would represent the people of Iran.
Establishment of new government
On February 11, Imam Khomeini declared a provisional government. On March 30, 1979, and March 31, 1979, the provisional government asked all Iranians sixteen years of age and older, male and female, to vote in a referendum on the question of accepting an Islamic Republic as the new form of government and constitution. Through the ballot box, over 98% voted in favor of replacing the monarchy with an Islamic Republic. Subsequent elections were held to approve of the newly-drafted Constitution. Along with the position of the Grand Leader, the constitution also requires that a president be elected every four years, but only those candidates approved indirectly by the Council of Guardians may run for the office. Imam Khomeini himself became instituted as the Grand Leader for life, and officially decreed as the “Leader of the Revolution.” After assuming power, Islam was made the basis of Iran’s new constitution and obedience to Islamic laws made compulsory.
Relationship with other Islamic nations
Imam Khomeini intended to reconstruct Muslim unity and solidarity, so he declared the birth week of Prophet of Islam (the week between 12th to 17th of Rabi’al-Awwal in Islamic Hegira calendar) as the Unity Week. Then he declared the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan as the International Day of Quds in 1979.
But because of Islamic ideology of Islamic Republic of Iran, most rulers of other Muslim nations turned against him and supported Iraq in the imposed war against Iran, even though most of Islamic parties and organizations supported his idea.
Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s secular Arab nationalist Ba’athist leader, was eager to take advantage of Iran’s weakened military and (what he assumed was) revolutionary chaos, and in particular to occupy Iran’s adjacent oil-rich province of Khuzestan and undermine attempts by Iranian Islamic revolutionaries to incite the Shia majority of his country.
With what many believe was the encouragement of the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries, Iraq soon launched a full scale invasion of Iran, starting what would become the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War (September 1980 – August 1988). A combination of fierce patriot resistance by Iranians and military incompetence by Iraqi forces soon stalled the Iraqi advance and by early 1982 Iran regained almost all the territory lost to the invasion. The invasion rallied Iranians behind the new regime, enhancing Imam Khomeini’s stature and allowed him to consolidate and stabilize his leadership.
Although outside powers supplied arms to both sides during the war, the West (America in particular) became alarmed by the possibility of the Islamic Revolution spreading throughout the oil-exporting Persian Gulf oil and began to supply Iraq with whatever help it needed. The war continued for another six years, with 450,000 to 950,000 casualties on the Iranian side and the use of chemical weaponry by the Iraqi military.
As the costs of the eight-year war mounted, Imam Khomeini, in his words, “drank the cup of poison” and accepted a truce mediated by the United Nations. As the war ended, the struggles among the clergy resumed and Imam Khomeini’s health began to decline.
In early 1989, Imam Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the killing of Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born British author. Imam Khomeini claimed that Rushdie’s murder was a religious duty for Muslims because of his alleged blasphemy against Prophet Mohammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie’s book contains passages that some Muslims — including Ayatollah Imam Khomeini — considered offensive to Islam and the Prophet. Though Rushdie publicly apologized, the fatwa was not revoked, Imam Khomeini explaining that “even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell.”
Letter to Mikhail S. Gorbachev
In December 1988 (before the fall of the Berlin Wall), Ayatollah Imam Khomeini sent a letter to USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev predicting the fall of Communism and inviting him to study and research Islam. In his historical letter he wrote: “It is clear to everyone that Communism should henceforth be sought in world museums of political history.”
Life under Imam Khomeini
Under Imam Khomeini’s rule, Sharia (Islamic law) was introduced, with the Islamic dress code enforced for both men and women. Women had to cover their hair, and men were not allowed to wear shorts.
Life for religious minorities has been mixed under Imam Khomeini and his successors. Shortly after his return from exile in 1979, Imam Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering that Jews and other minorities (except Bahai) be treated well. By law, several seats in the Parliament are reserved for minority religions. Imam Khomeini also called for unity between Sunni and Shia Muslims (Sunni Muslims are the largest religious minority in Iran).
Death and funeral
After eleven days in a hospital for an operation to stop internal bleeding, Imam Khomeini died of cancer on Saturday, June 3, 1989, at the age of 89. Many Iranians mourned Imam Khomeini’s death and poured out into the cities and streets. More than 10 million people from across the country attended Imam Khomeini’s funeral to form one of the largest ever funerals in the world.
Following Imam Khomeini’s demise, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei came to be selected on June 4, 1989 by the Assembly of Experts to be his successor, in accordance with the Constitution.
Political thought and legacy
Imam Khomeini adamantly opposed monarchy, arguing that only rule by a leading Islamic jurist would insure Sharia was properly followed (Velayat-e Faqih).
Imam Khomeini believed that Iran should strive towards self-reliance. He viewed certain elements of Western culture as being inherently decadent and a corrupting influence upon the youth. His ultimate vision was for Islamic nations to converge together into a single unified power, in order to avoid alignment with either side (the West or the East), and he believed that this would happen at some point in the near future.
Imam Khomeini expressed support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; in Sahifeh Nour (Vol. 2, page 242), he states: “We would like to act according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We would like to be free. We would like independence.”
Imam Khomeini led an ascetic lifestyle, being deeply interested in mysticism, and was against the accumulation of land and wealth by the clergy.
Many of Imam Khomeini’s political and religious ideas were considered to be progressive and reformist by leftist intellectuals and activists prior to the Revolution.
Imam Khomeini’s definition of democracy existed within an Islamic framework. His last will and testament largely focuses on this line of thought, encouraging both the general Iranian populace, the lower economic classes in particular, and the clergy to maintain their commitment to fulfilling Islamic revolutionary ideals.
Family and descendants
In 1929, Imam Khomeini married Batol Saqafi Khomeini, the daughter of a cleric in Tehran. They had seven children, though only five survived infancy, 3 daughters and 2 sons. His sons entered into religious life. The elder son, Mostafa, was murdered in 1977 while in exile with his father in Najaf, Iraq and SAVAK (the Imperial-era secret police) was accused of his death by Imam Khomeini. Ahmad Khomeini, the younger son, died in 1995.
Imam Khomeini’s grandson Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, son of the late Seyyed Ahmad Khomeini, is also a cleric and the trustee of Imam Khomeini’s shrine.
- Velayat-e Faqih
- Forty Hadiths (Forty Traditions)
- Adab-e Salat (The Disciplines of Prayers)
- Jihad-e Akbar (The Greater Struggle)
- Tahrir al-Wasilah
- Interpretation of Surah Fatihah
- Serr al-Salat (Secrets of Prayers)
- Interpretation of Dawn Pray
- Interpretation of Forces of Reason and Negligence Tradition