Imam Ruhullah al-Musavi al-Khomeini: An Introduction

Developing Just Leadership

Hamid Algar

Rabi' al-Awwal 19, 1401 1981-01-25

Occasional Paper

by Hamid Algar

IMAM RUHULLAH AL-MUSAVI AL-KHOMEINI was born on September 24, 1902 into a family of strong religious traditions in Khumayn, a small town some hundred kilometers to the southwest of Tehran.1 Both his grandfather and father were religious scholars. The former, Sayyid Ahmad, was known as al-Hindi because of a period he had spent in India, where a distant branch of the family is said still to exist. The latter, Ayatullah Mustafa, was murdered by bandits only five months after the birth of Ruhullah, so that his mother and an aunt were responsible for his early upbringing. At the age of sixteen, he lost both mother and aunt in the course of a single year, and the task of supervising his education then fell to an elder brother, Sayyid Murtaza (better known, in later years, as Ayatullah Pasandida). Ayatullah Pasandida recalls that even in his youth, Imam Khomeini showed great piety, seriousness, and determination. It was the general consensus in Khumayn that a significant if turbulent career awaited him.2

At the age of nineteen, the young Khomeini was sent to study the religious sciences in the nearby town of Arak under the guidance of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri,3 who had been a pupil of great scholars at the Shi’i teaching centers in Iraq, most notably Mirza Hasan Shirazi.4 His studies under Ha’iri made Khomeini an heir to the traditions established by the great figures of the nineteenth century, traditions that included political activism as well as learning.

The following year, Ha’iri accepted an invitation from the people and scholars of Qum to settle there. Qum had always been a center of learning as well as pilgrimage, but Ha’iri’s arrival there, followed by his reorganization of the religious teaching institution, was the first in a series of developments that elevated Qum to the status of spiritual capital of Islamic Iran. The final and decisive development would be the movement of nationwide opposition to the Pahlavi monarchy that Imam Khomeini was to initiate in Qum in 1962.

Indications of Imam Khomeini’s future role were already present in those early years. He attained prominence among the numerous students of Ha’iri, excelling in a wide variety of subjects, but especially ethics and the variety of spiritual philosophy known in Iran as ‘irfan. At the early age of twenty-seven, he wrote a treatise in Arabic on these subjects, Misbah al-Hidaya, which was well received by his teachers.5 Many of Imam Khomeini’s important associates who came to be well known during the Revolution years—e.g., Ayatullah Muntaziri6—recall that they were first attracted to him by his proficiency in ethics and philosophy and that the classes he taught on them twice a week in Qum were frequently attended by hundreds of people.7

Given the current fame of Imam Khomeini as a revolutionary leader who has achieved a rare degree of success in the purely political sphere, it may appear surprising that he first gained fame as a writer and teacher concerned with devotional and even mystical matters. For Imam Khomeini, however, spirituality and mysticism have never implied social withdrawal or political quietism, but rather the building up of a fund of energy that finds its natural expression on the socio-political plane. The life of Imam Khomeini is a clear indication that the Revolution wrought by Islam necessarily begins in the moral and spiritual realm.8 The classes he taught at Qum in the 1930’s bore witness to this; topics of an ethical and spiritual nature were constantly interwoven with evocations of the problems of the day and exhortations to his listeners to devote themselves to solving them as part of their religious duty.

The early years of Imam Khomeini’s activity in Qum coincided with the establishment of the Pahlavi state by Riza Khan. Riza Khan transformed the Iranian monarchy into a dictatorship of the modern, totalitarian kind and made its chief internal aim the elimination of Islam as a political, social, and cultural force. Efforts directed toward this aim were directly witnessed by Imam Khomeini in Qum, and reports reached him regularly from other cities such as Mashhad, Isfahan, and Tabriz. What he saw and heard in those years left a deep impression on him; the repressive measures directed against the religious institution in later years by the second and last of the Pahlavi shahs, Muhammad Riza, were for him a natural and direct continuation of what he had experienced in the period of Riza Shah; father and son were of a piece.

Imam Khomeini’s first public statement of a political nature came in a book published in 1941, Kashf al-Asrar.9 The book is essentially a detailed, systematic critique of an anti-religious tract, but it also contains numerous passages that are overtly political and critical of the Pahlavi rule.

In 1937, Ha’iri died, and the religious institution was temporarily headed by a triumvirate of his closest senior associates: Ayatullahs Sadr, Hujjat, and Khwansari. Soon, however, a single leader succeeded to the role of Ha’iri, Ayatullah Burujirdi. Imam Khomeini was active in promoting the candidacy of Burujirdi, whom he expected to utilize the potentialities of the position of supreme religious authority in order to combat Pahlavi rule. He remained close to Burujirdi until his death in 1962, but other influences prevailed on Burujirdi; history regards him as a religious leader of great piety and administrative ability, but almost totally inactive in political matters.10

After the death of Burujirdi, no single successor to his position emerged. Khomeini was reluctant to allow his own name to be canvassed, but he ultimately yielded to the urgings of close associates that a collection of his rulings on matters of religious practice be published, thus implicitly declaring his availability as leader and authority. It was not, however, primarily through technical procedures such as this that the prominence of Imam Khomeini spread first within Qum, and then throughout the country. Of greater importance was his willingness to confront the Shah’s regime at a time when few dared to do so. For example, he was alone among the major religious scholars of Qum in extending support publicly to the students at the religious institution who were campaigning against the opening of liquor stores in the city. Soon his attention was devoted to matters of greater significance. The first step came in October 1962, when the Shah promulgated a law abolishing the requirement that candidates for election to local assemblies be Muslim and male. Imam Khomeini, joined by religious leaders elsewhere in the country, protested vigorously against the measure; it was ultimately repealed.11 The measure itself was not intrinsically important, because elections to local assemblies were invariably corrupt and their functions were purely formal. But the campaign against it provided a point of departure for more comprehensive agitation against the regime as well as an opportunity to build a coalition of religious scholars that might be mobilized for more fundamental aims in the future.

The next step was taken in 1963, when the Shah began to promulgate a series of measures for reshaping the political, social, and economic life of Iran that were collectively designated the “White Revolution.” The appearance of popular approval was obtained by a fraudulent referendum held on January 26, 1963. However, the measures in question were correctly perceived by a large segment of Iranian society as being imposed on the country by the United States and designed to bring about augmentation of the Shah’s power and wealth, as well as intensification of United States dominance, which had been instituted with the CIA coup d’etat against Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq in August 1953. Imam Khomeini moved immediately to denounce the fraudulent “revolution” and to expose the motives that underlay it, preaching a series of sermons from Fayziya Madrasa12 in Qum that had a nationwide impact.

The Shah’s regime responded by sending paratroopers to attack Fayziya Madrasa on March 22, 1963. A number of students were killed and the madrasa was ransacked. Far from intimidating Imam Khomeini, this event marked the beginning of a new period of determined struggle that was directed not only against the errors and excesses of the regime, but against its very existence. The attack on the madrasa had an almost symbolic value, exemplifying as it did both the hostility of the regime to Islam and Islamic institutions and the ruthless, barbaric manner in which it expressed that hostility. Throughout the spring of 1963, Imam Khomeini continued to denounce the Shah’s regime. He concentrated his attacks on its tyrannical nature, its subordination to the United States, and its expanding collaboration with Israel. The confrontation reached a new peak in June with the onset of Muharram, the month in the Muslim calendar when the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet, is commemorated and aspirations to emulate his example, by struggling against contemporary manifestations of tyranny, are awakened. On the tenth day of the month, Imam Khomeini delivered a historic speech in Qum, repeating his denunciations of the Shah’s regime and warning the Shah not to behave in such a way that the people would rejoice when he should ultimately be forced to leave the country.13 Two days later, he was arrested at his residence and taken to confinement in Tehran.

The arrest of Imam Khomeini brought popular disgust with the Shah’s regime to a climax, and a major uprising shook the throne. In Qum, Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, Isfahan, Kashan and other cities, unarmed demonstrators confronted the Shah’s U.S.- trained and -equipped army, which, upon the command to shoot to kill, slaughtered not less than 15,000 people in the space of a few days. The date on which this uprising began, Khurdad 15 according to the solar calendar used in Iran, marked a turning point in the modern history of Iran. It established Imam Khomeini as national leader and spokesman for popular aspirations, provided the struggle against the Shah and his foreign patrons with a coherent ideological basis in Islam, and introduced a period of mass political activity under the guidance of the religious leadership instead of the secular parties that had been discredited with the overthrow of Musaddiq. In all of these ways, the uprising of Khurdad 15 foreshadowed the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979.

The uprising was suppressed, but the general public and the religious scholars refused to tolerate the imprisonment of Imam Khomeini. Agitation persisted throughout the country, and numerous religious leaders converged on Tehran to press for Imam Khomeini’s release. It finally came on April 6, 1964, accompanied by a statement in the government-controlled press that Imam Khomeini had agreed to refrain from political activity as a condition for his release. This was immediately refuted by the Imam,14who resumed his denunciations of the regime with undiminished vigor.

If further proof were needed of the Shah’s tutelage to the U.S., it came in October 1964, when legal immunity was granted to American personnel for all offenses committed in Iranian territory. After learning that the Iranian rubber-stamp Majlis had agreed to this measure, Imam Khomeini spent a sleepless night, and the next day, October 27, he furiously denounced this open violation of Iranian sovereignty and independence.15 It had by now become apparent to the Shah and his foreign overlords that Imam Khomeini could not be intimidated into silence, and it was decided to exile him, in the vain hope of destroying his influence. Accordingly, on November 4, 1964, Imam Khomeini was arrested again and sent into exile in Turkey, accompanied by agents of the Shah’s secret police.

After a brief stay in Ankara, Imam Khomeini was obliged to take up residence in Bursa, a city in the west of Turkey. Continual pressure was brought on the Shah’s regime to permit Imam Khomeini to leave Turkey for a more favorable place of exile, Najaf, one of the Shi’i shrine cities of Iraq. In October 1965, consent was given, and Imam Khomeini proceeded to Najaf, which was to be his home for thirteen years.

In agreeing to this move, the Shah’s regime had been motivated not only by the desire to free itself from popular pressure, but also by the assumption that Imam Khomeini would be overshadowed in Najaf by the religious authorities resident there. This assumption proved false. Imam Khomeini established himself as a major presence in Najaf. More importantly, he maintained his influence and popularity in Iran. He issued periodic proclamations concerning developments in Iran that were smuggled into the country and clandestinely circulated at great risk. In addition, his messages addressed to the Muslim world at large were distributed several times in Mecca during the pilgrimage season of the year. In Najaf itself, he received visits during the long years of his exile from a number of important Iranian and other Muslim personalities.

The name and person of Imam Khomeini and the cause that he embodied were never forgotten in Iran. His example inspired a number of religious scholars and groups, which continued to build on the foundations laid in 1963 and 1964. and unnoticed by most foreign observers, an Islamic movement of unp aralleled breadth and profundity came into being.

It was, then, entirely natural that Imam Khomeini should swiftly emerge as the leader and guide of the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979. Notwithstanding his physical absence from the country, he was present in the hearts of his countrymen and infinitely more in tune with their aspirations than politicians who had suffered neither exile nor imprisonment.

On November 23, 1977, the elder son of Imam Khomeini, Hajj Mustafa, died suddenly in Najaf, assassinated by the Shah’s U.S.-instituted security police, SAVAK. Imam Khomeini bore this blow stoically, but the tragedy inflamed the public in Iran. Massive social corruption and economic dislocation as well as continuing political repression had already aroused universal discontent in Iran, and when the regime aimed its next blow against Imam Khomeini, discontent overflowed into rebellion, and rebellion, in turn, matured into revolution.

On January 8, 1978, one week after President Carter had been in Tehran lauding the Shah as a wise statesman beloved of his people,’6 the government-controlled press printed an article supplied by the Ministry of the Court attacking Imam Khomeini as an agent of foreign powers. The public reaction was immediate outrage. The following day in Qum, demonstrations broke out that were suppressed with heavy loss of life. This was the first of a series of demonstrations that progressively unfurled across the country, until in the end, barely a single region remained untouched by revolutionary fervor. Throughout the spring and summer of 1978, Imam Khomeini issued a series of proclamations and directives congratulating the people on their steadfastness and encouraging them to persist until the attainment of the final objective—overthrow of the monarchy and institution of an Islamic republic.

The centrality of the Imam in the revolutionary movement was obvious from the beginning. His name was constantly repeated in the slogans that were devised and chanted in the demonstrations; his portrait served as a revolutionary banner; and his return from exile to supervise the installation of an Islamic government was insistently demanded. Acting under another of its erroneous assumptions, the Shah’s regime requested the Baathist government of Iraq, in September 1978, to expel Imam Khomeini from its territory, in the hope of depriving him of his base of operations and robbing the Revolution of its leadership. Imam Khomeini had never enjoyed cordial relations with the various governments that had ruled Iraq since his arrival there in 1965, and he now informed the Baathists that he would be happy to leave Iraq for a country that was not subject to the Shah’s dictates. Syria and Algeria were considered as possible destinations, but in the end, as Imam Khomeini testifies himself, no Muslim country offered him refuge with the assurance of his being able to continue his activity freely.17 So he went to France, taking up residence at the hamlet of Neauphle-le-Chateau near Paris in early October 1978.

The move to France proved beneficial. Paradoxically, communication with Iran was easier from France than it had been from Iraq. The declarations and directives that were now being issued with increasing frequency were telephoned directly to Tehran, for further dissemination to a number of centers in the provinces. A never-ending stream of Iranians, from Europe and the United States as well as Iran itself, came to visit and pay homage to the Imam and to consult with him. The world’s media also descended on the modest residence of the Imam at Neauphie-le-Chateau, and his words began to reach a global audience.

The month of Muharram that coincided with December 1978 witnessed vast and repeated demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities demanding the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic republic under the leadership of Imam Khomeini. Despite all the savagery the Shah had employed, including the slaughter of thousands of unarmed demonstrators, the torture and abuse of detainees, and massacres of the wounded in their hospital beds, and despite the unstinting support he had received from the United States and other foreign powers, the corrupt and murderous rule of the Shah was approaching its end. His masters decided it was politic for him to leave, and when preparations had been made for the installation of a surrogate administration under Shahpur Bakhtiar, the Shah left Iran for the last time on January 16, 1979. The outburst of joy that followed his departure was a fulfillment of the prophecy Imam Khomeini had made sixteen years earlier.

Once the Shah left Iran, Imam Khomeini prepared to return to his homeland. When he did, on February 1, he was met with a tumultuous welcome. With his renewed presence in Iran, the fate of the Bakhtiar government was sealed. After a final outburst of savagery on February 10 and 11, the old regime collapsed in disgrace, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was born.

In the two eventful years that have elapsed since the triumph of the Revolution, Imam Khomeini has continued to play an indispensable role in consolidating its gains and guiding the destiny of the nation. In a formal sense his role has been defined by Articles 107 to 112 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran,’8 which incorporate the key political principle of the “governance of the faqih” (vilayat-i faqih).19 In a more general sense, however, he has continued to provide the Revolution with its very substance, acting as its highest instance of authority and legitimacy. Countless addresses to different groups of citizens that come to visit him, as well as public speeches to wider audiences on particularly significant occasions, have confirmed Imam Khomeini as the teacher and guide of the Islamic Revolution.20

Throughout this long and remarkable career, Imam Khomeini has manifested a unique set of characteristics: spirituality and erudition, asceticism and self-discipline, sobriety and determination, political genius and leadership, compassion for the poor and deprived, and a relentless hatred of oppression and imperialism. Summarizing his assessment of Imam Khomeini, the late Ayatullah Mutahhari21 compared him with ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, that high exemplar of Islamic courage, wisdom, and spirituality. All who have had the privilege to come into the presence o the Imam will concur in his judgment.


1. Some information about the early life of Imam Khomeini is to be found in the opening sections of two books that concern themselves chiefly with the events of 1962-1964: S.H.R., Barrasi va Tahlili az Nihzat-i imam Khomeini (Najaf? n.d.); and anon., Biyugrafi-yi Pishva, n.p., n.d.

2. Interview of the translator with Ayatullah Pasandida, Qum, December 19, 1979.

3. For detailed accounts of the life and achievements of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri, see Muhammad Sharif Razi, Asar al-Hujja (Qum, 1332 Sh./1953), I, 22-90, and Ganjina-yi Danishmandan (Tehran, 1352 Sh./ 1973), I, 283-304. His relations with Riza Shah are discussed briefly in Abdul-Hadi Ha’iri, Shi’ism and Constitutionalism in Iran (Leiden, 1977), pp. 135-139.

4. Concerning Mirza Hasan Shirazi, see p. 124 and p. 162, n. 155.

5. For lists of Imam Khomeini’s writings, published and unpublished, see S.H.R., Barrasi va Tahlili az Nihzat-i Imam Khomeini, pp. 55-61, and anon., Biyugrafi-yi Pishva, I, 52-53.

6. Ayatullah Muntaziri, born to a family of peasant stock in Najafabad in 130 1/1884, has for many years been closely associated with Imam Khomeini, who has described him as “the product of my life.” Not only a master of both law and philosophy, but also a militant leader, Ayatullah Muntaziri played an important role in sustaining the struggle against the Shah during Imam Khomeini’s years in exile.

7. Razi, Asar al-Hujja, II, 45.

8. See Imam Khomeini’s own remarks on the connection between spirituality and socio-political activity on pp. 399-400.

9. For an extract from this book, see pp. 169-173.

10. For a brief account of the achievements of Ayatullah Burujirdi, see Murtaza Mutahhari, “Mazaya va Khadamat-i Marhum Ayatullah Burujirdi,” Bahsi dar bara-yi Marja’iyat va Ruhaniyat (Tehran, n.d.), pp. 233-249.

11. See p. 118 and p. 161, n. 151.

12. Fayziya Madrasa, founded in Safavid times, has acquired particular fame among the teaching institutions in Qum because of the role it has played in the Islamic movement. Closed down in 1975 by the Shah’s regime, it was ceremonially reopened after the triumph of the Revolution.

13. For the text of this speech, see pp. 177-180.

14. See p. 139.

15. For the text of this speech, see pp. 181-188.

16. Carter told the Shah in Tehran on January 1, 1978: “Iran is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you.” New York Times, January 2, 1978.

17. See p. 238.

18. See Hamid Algar, trans., The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Berkeley, 1980), pp. 66-69.

19. This principle forms the central topic of the first section of this anthology. See especially pp. 62-125.

20. It is important to understand that despite this centrality of Imam Khomeini to the Revolution, the Islamic Republic is not an authoritarian regime over which he presides. The notion of a “Khomeini regime,” as promoted by the Western media, is entirely fictitious. Repeated consultations of the popular will after February 1979 have resulted in the emergence of a new set of political institutions that function with demonstrable freedom.

21. Ayatullah Murtaza Mutahhari was a scholar of unusually wide learning, a writer and lecturer of great effectiveness, and a cherished pupil of Imam Khomeini. He was a leading member of the Revolutionary Council until his assassination on May 1, 1979 by the terrorist group Furqan.

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