Imam Khomeini (R.A.): The Eminent Personality of Recent Islamic History
Imam Ruhullah al-Musawi al-Khumayni (R.A.) can be considered as the eminent figure of recent Islamic history, for his impact, considerable enough in Iran itself, has also reverberated throughout much of the Muslim world and helped to transform the worldview and consciousness of many Muslims.
Childhood and Early Education
Ruhullah Musawi Khumayni was born on 20 Jamadi al-Akhir 1320/ 24 September 1902, the anniversary of the birth of Hazrat Fatima, in the small town of Khumayn, some 160 kilometers to the southwest of Qum.
Sayyid Mustafa father of Imam Khumayni was born in 1885 and he was a famous religious scholar of his period. In Dhu’l-Hijja 1320/ March 1903, some five months after the Imam’s birth, Sayyid Mustafa was killed by the Qajar dynasty authorities because of his defense of the impoverished peasantry.
In 1339/1920-21, Sayyid Murtaza elder brother of Imam Khumayni sent him to the city of Arak (or Sultanabad, as it was then known) in order for him to benefit from the more ample educational resources available there. Arak had become an important center of religious learning because of the presence of Ayatullah ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri (d.1936), one of the principal scholars of the day.
Roughly a year after the Imam’s arrival in Arak, Ha’iri accepted a summons from the Ulama of Qum to join them and preside over their activity. One of the earliest strongholds of Shi’ism in Iran, Qum had traditionally been a major center of religious learning as well as pilgrimage to the shrine of Hazrat-I Ma’suma, a daughter of Imam Musa al-Kazim, but it had been overshadowed for many decades by the shrine cities of Iraq with their superior resources of erudition. The arrival of Ha’iri in Qum not only brought about a revival of its madrasas but also began a process whereby the city became in effect the spiritual capital of Iran, a process that was completed by the political struggle launched there by Imam Khumayni some forty years later.
The Imam followed Ha’iri to Qum after an interval of roughly four months. This move was the first important turning point in his life. It was in Qum that he received all his advanced spiritual and intellectual training, and he was to retain a deep sense of identification with the city throughout the rest of his life. It is possible, indeed, although not in a reductive sense, to describe him as a product of Qum. In 1980, when addressing a group of visitors from Qum, he declared, “Wherever I may be, I am a citizen of Qum, and take pride in the fact. My heart is always with Qum and its people.”
The Great Teacher of Hawzah
From 1936 the Imam started giving lectures in Islamic ethics and people are related to have come from as far a field as Tehran and Isfahan simply to listen to the Imam. This popularity of the Imam’s lectures ran contrary to the policies of the Pahlavi regime, which wished to limit the influence of the ulama outside the religious teaching institution.
As for the earliest writings of the Imam, they also indicate that his primary interest during his early years in Qum was gnosis.
In 1928, for example, he completed the Sharh Du’a’ al-Sahar, a detailed commentary on the supplicatory prayers recited throughout Ramadan by Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (A.S.).
Two years later, he completed Misbah al-Hidaya ila ‘l-Khilafa wa ‘l-Wilaya, a treatise on gnosis. Another product of the same years of concentration on gnosis was a series of glosses on Qaysari’s commentary on the Fusus.
The first work written by the Imam for publication, Kashf al-Asrar (Tehran, 1324 Sh. /1945) in refutation of the Wahabbis. Thee Imam in this book also condemned the anti-religious policies of Riza Shah and bitterly criticized the Pahlavi regime for destroying public morality.
Imam Khumayni in 1944 envisaged the Islam's political concept of "Vilayat-i faqih", which became the constitutional cornerstone of the Islamic Republic of Iran established in 1979.
When Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri died in 1936, the supervision of the religious institution in Qum had been jointly assumed by Ayatullah Khwansari, Ayatullah Sadr, and Ayatullah Hujjat. A sense of lack was nonetheless felt. When Ayatullah Abu ‘l-Hasan Isfahani, the principal marja’-i taqlid of the age residing in Najaf, died in 1946, the need for a centralized leadership of Shi’i Muslims became more felt more acutely, and a search began for a single individual capable of fulfilling the duties and functions of both Ha’iri and Isfahani. Ayatullah Burujirdi, then resident in Hamadan, was seen to be the most suitable person available, and Imam Khumayni is said to have played an important role in persuading Ayatullah Burujirdi to come to Qum.
In 1946, he began teaching usul al-fiqh at the kharij level.
The Years of Struggle
The emphases of the Imam’s activity began to change with the death of Ayatullah Burujirdi on March 31, 1961, for he now emerged as one of the successors to Ayatullah Burujirdi’s position of leadership. This emergence was signaled by the publication of some of his writings on fiqh, most importantly the basic handbook of religious practice entitled, like others of its genre, Tauzih al-Masa’il. He was soon accepted as marja’-i taqlid by a large number of Iranian Shi’is. His leadership role was, however, destined to go far beyond that traditional for a marja’-i taqlid and to attain a comprehensiveness unique in the history of the Shi’i ulama.
This became apparent soon after the death of Ayatullah Burujirdi when Muhammad Riza Shah, secure in his possession of power after the CIA-organized coup of August 1953, embarked on a series of measures designed to eliminate all sources of opposition, actual or potential, and to incorporate Iran firmly into American patterns of strategic and economic domination. In the autumn of 1962, the government promulgated new laws governing elections to local and provincial councils, which deleted the former requirement that those elected be sworn into office on the Qur’an.
Seeing in this a plan to permit the infiltration of public life by the Baha’is, Imam Khumayni telegraphed both the Shah and the prime minister of the day, warning them to desist from violating both the law of Islam and the Iranian Constitution of 1907, failing which the ulama would engage in a sustained campaign of protest.
For his own part, Imam Khumayni issued on January 22, 1963 a strongly worded declaration denouncing the Shah and his plans. In imitation, perhaps, of his father, who had taken an armored column to Qum in 1928 in order to intimidate certain outspoken ulama, the Shah came to Qum two days later. Faced with a boycott by all the dignitaries of the city, he delivered a speech harshly attacking the ulama as a class.
The Imam 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 had violated the constituent, 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 Nauruz celebrations for the Iranian year 1342 (which fell on March 21, 1963) be cancelled as a sign of protest against government policies.
The very next day, paratroopers were sent to the Fayziya madrasa in Qum, the site where the Imam delivered his public speeches. They killed a number of students, beat and arrested a number of others, and ransacked the building.
Then, on April 3, 1963, the fortieth day after the attack on the Fayziya madrasa, he described the Iranian government as being determined to eradicate Islam at the behest of America, Israel, and himself as resolved to combat it.
Confrontation turned to insurrection some two months later. The beginning of Muharram, always a time of heightened religious awareness and sensitivity, saw demonstrators in Tehran carrying pictures of the Imam and denouncing the Shah in front of his own palace. On the afternoon of ‘Ashura (June 3, 1963), Imam Khumayni delivered a speech at the Fayziya madrasa in which he drew parallels between the Umayyad caliph 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. This warning was remarkably prescient, for on January 16, 1979, the Shah was indeed obliged to leave Iran amidst scenes of popular rejoicing. The immediate effect of the Imam’s speech was, however, his arrest two days later at 3 o’clock in the morning by a group of commandos who hastily transferred him to the Qasr prison in Tehran.
As dawn broke on June 3, the news of his arrest spread first through Qum and then to other cities. In Qum, Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad and Varamin, masses of angry demonstrators were confronted by tanks and ruthlessly slaughtered. It was not until six days later that order was fully restored. This uprising of 15 Khurdad 1342 (the day in the Iranian calendar on which it began) marked a turning point in Iranian history. Henceforth the repressive and dictatorial nature of the Shah’s regime, reinforced by the unwavering support of the United States, was constantly intensified, and with it the prestige of Imam Khumayni as the only figure of note - whether religious or secular - willing to challenge him. The arrogance imbuing the Shah’s policies also caused a growing number of the ulama to abandon their quietism and align themselves with the radical goals set forth by the Imam. The movement of 15 Khurdad may therefore be characterized as the prelude to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79; the goals of that revolution and its leadership had already been determined.
After nineteen days in the Qasr prison, Imam Khumayni was moved first, to the ‘Ishratabad military base and then to a house in the Davudiya section of Tehran where he was kept under surveillance. Despite the killings that had taken place during the uprising, mass demonstrations were held in Tehran and elsewhere demanding his release and some of his colleagues came to the capital from Qum to lend their support to the demand. It was not, however, until April 7, 1964 that he was released, no doubt on the assumption that imprisonment had tempered his views and that the movement he had led would quietly subside. Three days after his release and return to Qum, he dispelled such illusions by refuting officially inspired rumors that he had come to an understanding with the Shah’s regime and by declaring that the movement inaugurated on 15 Khurdad would continue. Aware of the persisting differences in approach between the Imam and some of the other senior religious scholars, the regime had also attempted to discredit him by creating dissension in Qum. These attempts, too, were unsuccessful, for early in June 1964 all the major ulama put their signatures to declarations commemorating the first anniversary of the uprising of 15 Khurdad.
Despite its failure to sideline or silence Imam Khumayni, the Shah’s regime continued its pro-American policies unwaveringly. In the autumn of 1964, it concluded a status of forces agreement with the United States that provided immunity from prosecution for all American personnel in Iran and their dependents. This occasioned the Imam to deliver what was perhaps the most vehement speech of the entire struggle against the Shah; certainly one of his close associates, Ayatullah Muhammad Mufattih, had never seen him so agitated. He denounced the agreement as a surrender of Iranian independence and sovereignty, made in exchange for a $200 million loan that would be of benefit only to the Shah and his associates, and described as traitors all those in the Majlis who voted in favor of it; the government lacked all legitimacy, he concluded.
Shortly before dawn on November 4, 1964, again a detachment of commandos surrounded the Imam’s house in Qum, arrested him, and this time took him directly to Mehrabad airport in Tehran for immediate banishment to Turkey. The decision to deport rather than arrest Imam Khumayni and imprison him in Iran was based no doubt on the hope that in exile he would fade from popular memory. Physical elimination would have been fraught with the danger of an uncontrollable popular uprising. As for the choice of Turkey, this reflected the security cooperation existing between the Shah’s regime and Turkey.
The Imam was first lodged in room 514 of Bulvar Palas Oteli in Ankara, a moderately comfortable hotel in the Turkish capital, under the joint surveillance of Iranian and Turkish security officials. On November 12, he was moved from Ankara to Bursa, where he was to reside another eleven months. The stay in Turkey cannot have been congenial, for Turkish law forbade Imam Khumayni to wear the cloak and turban of the Muslim scholar, an identity which was integral to his being; the sole photographs in existence to show him bareheaded all belong to the period of exile in Turkey. However, on December 3, 1964, he was joined in Bursa by his eldest son, Hajj Mustafa Khumayni; he was also permitted to receive occasional visitors from Iran, and was supplied with a number of books on fiqh. He made use of his forced stay in Bursa to compile Tahrir al-Wasila, a two-volume compendium on questions of jurisprudence.
On September 5, 1965, Imam Khumayni left Turkey for Najaf in Iraq, where he was destined to spend thirteen years.
Once settled in Najaf, Imam Khumayni began teaching fiqh at the Shaykh Murtaza Ansari madrasa. His lectures were well attended, by students not only from Iran but also from Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf states.
It was also at the Shaykh Murtaza Ansari madrasa that he delivered, between January 21 and February 8, 1970, his celebrated lectures on vilayat-i faqih, the theory of governance that was to be implemented after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution.
In a letter to the Iranian ulama dated April 16, 1967, Imam Khumayni assured them of the ultimate downfall of the Shah’s regime.
On the same day he also wrote to prime minister Amir ‘Abbas Huvayda accusing him of running “a regime of terror and thievery.” On the occasion of the Six Day War in June 1967, the Imam issued a declaration forbidding any type of dealing with Israel as well as the consumption of Israeli goods.
Other developments on which the Imam commented from Najaf were the extravagant celebrations of 2500 years of Iranian monarchy in October 1971 (“it is the duty of the Iranian people to refrain from participation in this illegitimate festival”); the formal establishment of a one-party system in Iran in February 1975 (the Imam prohibited membership in the party, the Hizb-i Rastakhiz, in a fatwa issued the following month); and the substitution, in the same month, of the imperial (shahanshahi) calendar for the solar Hijri calendar that had been official in Iran until that time.
Imam Khumayni had also to deal with changing circumstances in Iraq. The Ba’th Party, fundamentally hostile to religion, had come to power in July 1967 and soon began exerting pressure on the scholars of Najaf, both Iraqi and Iranian.
The Imam’s strong concern for the Palestine question led him to issue a fatwa on August 27, 1968 authorizing the use of religious monies (vujuh-i shar’i) to support the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The most visible sign of the persisting popularity of Imam Khumayni in the pre-revolutionary years, above all at the heart of the religious institution in Qum, came in June 1975 on the anniversary of the uprising of 15 Khurdad. Students at the Fayziya madrasa began holding a demonstration within the confines of the building, and a sympathetic crowd assembled outside. Both gatherings continued for three days until they were attacked on the ground by commandos and from the air by a military helicopter, with numerous deaths resulting. The Imam reacted with a message in which he declared the events in Qum and similar disturbances elsewhere to be a sign of hope that “freedom and liberation from the bonds of imperialism” were at hand. The beginning of the revolution came indeed some two and a half years later.
The Islamic Revolution, 1978-79
The chain of events that ended in February 1979 with the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime and the foundation of the Islamic Republic began with the death in Najaf on October 23, 1977 of Hajj Sayyid Mustafa Khumayni, unexpectedly and under mysterious circumstances. This death was widely attributed to the Iranian security police, SAVAK, and protest meetings took place in Qum, Tehran, Yazd, Mashhad, Shiraz, and Tabriz.
The esteem in which Imam Khumayni was held and the reckless determination of the Shah’s regime to undermine that esteem were demonstrated once again on January 7, 1978 when an article appeared in the semi-official newspaper Ittila’at attacking him in scurrilous terms as a traitor working together with foreign enemies of the country. The next day a furious mass protest took place in Qum; it was suppressed by the security forces with heavy loss of life. This was the first in a series of popular confrontations that, gathering momentum throughout 1978, soon turned into a vast revolutionary movement, demanding the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime and the installation of an Islamic government.
On ‘Id al-fitr, which that year fell on September 4, marches took place in all major cities, with an estimated total of four million participants. The demand was loudly voiced for the abolition of monarchy and the foundation of an Islamic government under the leadership of Imam Khumayni. Faced with the mounting tide of revolution, the Shah decreed martial law and forbade further demonstrations. On September 9, a crowd gathered at the Maydan-i Zhala (subsequently renamed Maydan-i Shuhada’) in Tehran was attacked by troops that had blocked all exits from the square, and some 2000 people were killed at this location alone. Another 2000 were killed elsewhere in Tehran by American-supplied military helicopters hovering overhead. This day of massacre, which came to be known as Black Friday, marked the point of no return. Too much blood had been spilt for the Shah to have any hope of survival, and the army itself began to tire of the task of slaughter.
As these events were unfolding in Iran, Imam Khumayni delivered a whole series of messages and speeches, which reached his homeland not only in printed form but also increasingly on tape cassettes. His voice could be heard congratulating the people for their sacrifices, denouncing the Shah in categorical fashion as a criminal, and underlining the responsibility of the United States for the killings and the repression. (Ironically, US President Carter had visited Tehran on New Year’s Eve 1977 and lauded the Shah for creating “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”
In one of the numerous miscalculations that marked his attempts to destroy the revolution, the Shah decided to seek the deportation of Imam Khumayni from Iraq, on the assumption, no doubt, that once removed from the prestigious location of Najaf and its proximity to Iran, his voice would somehow be silenced. The agreement of the Iraqi government was obtained at a meeting between the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers in New York, and on September 24, 1978, the Imam’s house in Najaf was surrounded by troops. He was informed that his continued residence in Iraq was contingent on his abandoning political activity, a condition he was sure to reject.
On October 3, he left Iraq for Kuwait, but was refused entry at the border. After a period of hesitation in which Algeria, Lebanon and Syria were considered as possible destinations, Imam Khumayni embarked for Paris, on the advice of his second son, Hajj Sayyid Ahmad Khumayni, who by now had joined him. Once arrived in Paris, the Imam took up residence in the suburb of Neauphle-le-Chateau in a house that had been rented for him by Iranian exiles in France.
Residence in a non-Muslim land was no doubt experienced by Imam Khumayni as irksome, and in the declaration he issued from Neauphle-le-Chateau on October 11, 1978, the fortieth day after the massacres of Black Friday, he announced his intention of moving to any Muslim country that assured him freedom of speech. No such assurance ever materialized. In addition, his forced removal from Najaf increased popular anger in Iran still further.
It was, however, the Shah’s regime that turned out to be the ultimate loser from this move. Telephonic communications with Tehran were far easier from Paris than they had been from Najaf, thanks to the Shah’s determination to link Iran with the West in every possible way, and the messages and instructions the Imam issued flowed forth uninterrupted from the modest command center he established in a small house opposite his residence. Moreover, a host of journalists from across the world now made their way to France, and the image and the words of the Imam soon became a daily feature in the world’s media.
In Iran meanwhile, the Shah was continuously reshaping his government. First he brought in as prime minister Sharif-Imami, an individual supposedly close to conservative elements among the ‘ulama. Then, on November 6, he formed a military government under General Ghulam-Riza Azhari, a move explicitly recommended by the United States. These political maneuverings had essentially no effect on the progress of the revolution. On November 23, one week before the beginning of Muharram, the Imam issued a declaration in which he likened the month to “a divine sword in the hands of the soldiers of Islam, our great religious leaders, and respected preachers, and all the followers of Imam Husayn, Sayyid al-shuhada’.” They must, he continued, “make maximum use of it; trusting in the power of God, they must tear out the remaining roots of this tree of oppression and treachery.” As for the military government, it was contrary to the Shari’ah and opposition to it a religious duty.
Vast demonstrations unfurled across Iran as soon as Muharram began. Thousands of people donned white shrouds as a token of readiness for martyrdom and were cut down as they defied the nightly curfew. On Muharram 9, a million people marched in Tehran demanding the overthrow of the monarchy, and the following day, ‘Ashura, more than two million demonstrators approved by acclamation a seventeen-point declaration of which the most important demand was the formation of an Islamic government headed by the Imam. Killings by the army continued, but military discipline began to crumble, and the revolution acquired an economic dimension with the proclamation of a national strike on December 18. With his regime crumbling, the Shah now attempted to co-opt secular, liberal-nationalist politicians in order to forestall the foundation of an Islamic government.
On January 3, 1979, Shahpur Bakhtiyar of the National Front (Jabha-yi Milli) was appointed prime minister to replace General Azhari, and plans were drawn up for the Shah to leave the country for what was advertised as a temporary absence. On January 12, the formation of a nine-member regency council was announced; headed by Jalal al-Din Tihrani, an individual proclaimed to have religious credentials, it was to represent the Shah’s authority in his absence. None of these maneuvers distracted the Imam from the goal now increasingly within reach. The very next day after the formation of the regency council, he proclaimed from Neauphle-le-Chateau the formation of the Council of the Islamic Revolution (Shaura-yi Inqilab-i Islami), a body entrusted with establishing a transitional government to replace the Bakhtiyar administration. On January 16, amid scenes of feverish popular rejoicing, the Shah left Iran for exile and death.
What remained now was to remove Bakhtiyar and prevent a military coup d’état enabling the Shah to return. The first of these aims came closer to realization when Sayyid Jalal al-Din Tihrani came to Paris in order to seek a compromise with Imam Khumayni. He refused to see him until he resigned from the regency council and pronounced it illegal. As for the military, the gap between senior generals, unconditionally loyal to the Shah, and the growing number of officers and recruits sympathetic to the revolution, was constantly growing. When the United States dispatched General Huyser, commander of NATO land forces in Europe, to investigate the possibility of a military coup, he was obliged to report that it was pointless even to consider such a step.
Conditions now seemed appropriate for Imam Khumayni to return to Iran and preside over the final stages of the revolution. After a series of delays, including the military occupation of Mehrabad airport from January 24 to 30, the Imam embarked on a chartered airliner of Air France on the evening of January 31 and arrived in Tehran the following morning. Amid unparalleled scenes of popular joy - it has been estimated that more than ten million people gathered in Tehran to welcome the Imam back to his homeland – he proceeded to the cemetery of Bihisht-i Zahra to the south of Tehran where the martyrs of the revolution lay buried. There he decried the Bakhtiyar administration as the “last feeble gasp of the Shah’s regime” and declared his intention of appointing a government that would “punch Bakhtiyar’s government in the mouth.” The appointment of the provisional Islamic government the Imam had promised came on February 5. Its leadership was entrusted to Mahdi Bazargan, an individual who had been active for many years in various Islamic organizations, most notably the Freedom Movement (Nahzat-i Azadi).
The decisive confrontation came less than a week later. Faced with the progressive disintegration of the armed forces and the desertion of many officers and men, together with their weapons, to the Revolutionary Committees that were springing up everywhere, Bakhtiyar decreed a curfew in Tehran to take effect at 4 p.m. on February 10. Imam Khumayni ordered that the curfew should be defied and warned that if elements in the army loyal to the Shah did not desist from killing the people, he would issue a formal fatwa for jihad. The following day the Supreme Military Council withdrew its support from Bakhtiyar, and on February 12, 1979, all organs of the regime, political, administrative, and military, finally collapsed. The revolution had triumphed.
The centrality of Imam Khumayni’s role and the integrally Islamic nature of the revolution he led. Physically removed from his countrymen for fourteen years, he had an unfailing sense of the revolutionary potential that had surfaced and was able to mobilize the broad masses of the Iranian people for the attainment of what seemed to many inside the country (including his chosen premier, Bazargan) a distant and excessively ambitious goal. His role pertained, moreover, not merely to moral inspiration and symbolic leadership; he was also the operational leader of the revolution. Occasionally he accepted advice on details of strategy from persons in Iran, but he took all key decisions himself, silencing early on all advocates of compromise with the Shah. It was the mosques that were the organizational units of the revolution and mass prayers, demonstrations and martyrdom that were - until the very last stage - its principal weapons.
Last decade of the Imam’s life
Imam Khumayni’s role was also central in shaping the new political order that emerged from the revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran. At first it appeared that he might exercise his directive role from Qum, for he moved there from Tehran on February 29, causing Qum to become in effect a second capital of Iran. On March 30 and 31, a nationwide referendum resulted in a massive vote in favor of the establishment of an Islamic Republic. The Imam proclaimed the next day, April 1, 1979, as the “first day of God’s government.” The institutionalization of the new order continued with the election, on August 3, of an Assembly of Experts (Majlis-i Khubragan), entrusted with the task of reviewing a draft constitution that had been put forward on June 18; fifty-five of the seventy-three persons elected were religious scholars.
It was not however to be expected that a smooth transition from the old regime would prove possible. The powers and duties of the Council of the Islamic Revolutionary, which was intended to serve as an interim legislature, were not clearly delineated from those of the provisional government headed by Bazargan. More importantly, significant differences of outlook and approach separated the two bodies from each other. The council, composed predominantly of ulama, favored immediate and radical change and sought to strengthen the revolutionary organs that had come into being - the revolutionary committees, the revolutionary courts charged with punishing members of the former regime charged with serious crimes, and the Corps of Guards of the Islamic Revolution (Sipah-i Pasdaran-i Inqilab-i Islami), established on May 5, 1979. The government, headed by Bazargan and comprising mainly liberal technocrats of Islamic orientation, sought as swift a normalization of the situation as possible and the gradual phasing out of the revolutionary institutions.
Although Imam Khumayni encouraged members of the two bodies to cooperate and refrained, on most occasions, from arbitrating their differences, his sympathies were clearly with the Council of the Islamic Revolution. On July 1, Bazargan offered the Imam his resignation. It was refused, and four members of the council l- Rafsanjani, Bahunar, Mahdavi-Kani, and Ayatullah Sayyid ‘Ali Khamna’i - joined Bazargan’s cabinet in an effort to improve the coordination of the two bodies. In addition to these frictions at the governmental level, a further element of instability was provided by the terrorist activities of shadowy groups that were determined to rob the nascent Islamic republic of some of its most capable personalities. Thus on May 1, 1979, Ayatullah Murtaza Mutahhari, a leading member of the Council of the Islamic Revolution and a former pupil close to the Imam’s heart, was assassinated in Tehran. For once, the Imam wept in an open display of grief.
The final break between Bazargan and the revolution came as a consequence of the occupation of the United States embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 by a coalition of students from the universities of Tehran. Despite declarations of willingness to “honor the will of the Iranian people” and its recognition of the Islamic Republic, the American government had admitted the Shah to the United States on October 22, 1979.
The pretext was his need for medical treatment, but it was widely feared in Iran that his arrival in America, where large numbers of high-ranking officials of the previous regime had gathered, might be the prelude to an American-sponsored attempt to restore him to power, on the lines of the successful CIA coup of August 1953. The Shah’s extradition to Iran was therefore demanded by the students occupying the embassy as a condition for their liberating the hostages they were holding there.
It is probable that the students had cleared their action in advance with close associates of Imam Khumayni, for he swiftly extended his protection to them, proclaiming their action “a greater revolution than the first.” Two days later, he predicted that confronted by this “second revolution,” America would be “unable to do a damned thing (Amrika hich ghalati namitavanad bukunad).” This prediction seemed extravagant to many in Iran, but a military expedition mounted by the United States on April 22, 1980 to rescue the American hostages and possibly, too, to attack sensitive sites in Tehran, came to an abrupt and humiliating end when the American gunship crashed into each other in a sandstorm near Tabas in southeastern Iran. On April 7, the United States had formally broken diplomatic ties with Iran, a move welcomed by Imam Khumayni as an occasion of rejoicing for the Iranian nation. It was not until January 21, 1981 that the American hostages were finally released.
Two days after the occupation of the US embassy, Bazargan once again offered his resignation, and this time it was accepted. In addition, the provisional government was dissolved, and the Council of the Islamic Revolution temporarily assumed the task of running the country. This marked the definitive departure of Bazargan and like-minded individuals from the scene; henceforth the term “liberal” became a pejorative designation for those who questioned the fundamental tendencies of the revolution. In addition, the students occupying the embassy had access to extensive files the Americans had kept on various Iranian personalities who had frequented the embassy over the years; these documents were now published and discredited the personalities involved. Most importantly, the occupation of the embassy constituted a “second revolution” in that Iran now offered a unique example of defiance of the American superpower and became established for American policymakers as their principal adversary in the Middle East.
The enthusiasm aroused by the occupation of the embassy also helped to ensure a large turnout for the referendum that was held on December 2 and 3, 1979 to ratify the constitution that had been approved by the Assembly of Experts on November 15. The constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved, differed greatly from the original draft, above all through its inclusion of the principle of vilayat-i faqih as its basic and determining principle. Mentioned briefly in the preamble, it was spelled out in full in Article Five:
“During the Occultation of the Lord of the Age (Sahib al-Zaman; i.e., the Twelfth Imam)… the governance and leadership of the nation devolve upon the just and pious faqih who is acquainted with the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability; and recognized and accepted as leader (rahbar) by the majority of the people. In the event that no faqih should be so recognized by the majority, the leader, or leadership council, composed of fuqaha’ possessing the aforementioned qualifications, will assume these responsibilities.”
Article 109 specified the qualifications and attributes of the leader as “suitability with respect to learning and piety, as required for the functions of mufti and marja’.”
Article 110 listed his powers, which include supreme command of the armed forces, appointment of the head of the judiciary, signing the decree formalizing the election of the president of the republic, and – under certain conditions - dismissing him.
These articles formed the constitutional basis for Imam Khumayni’s leadership role. In addition, from July 1979 onwards, he had been appointing Imam Jum’a’s for every major city, who not only delivered the Friday sermon but also acted as his personal representatives. Most government institutions also had a representative of the Imam assigned to them. However, the ultimate source of his influence was his vast moral and spiritual prestige, which led to him being designated primarily as Imam, in the sense of one dispensing comprehensive leadership to the community.
On January 23, 1980, Imam Khumayni was brought from Qum to Tehran to receive treatment for a heart ailment. After thirty-nine days in hospital, he took up residence in the north Tehran suburb of Darband, and on April 22 he moved into a modest house in Jamaran, another suburb to the north of the capital. A closely guarded compound grew up around the house, and it was there that he was destined to spend the rest of his life.
On January 25, during the Imam’s hospitalization, Abu’l-Hasan Bani Sadr, a French-educated economist, was elected first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His success had been made possible in part by the Imam’s decision that it was not opportune to have a religious scholar stand for election. This event, followed on March 14 by the first elections to the Majlis, might have counted as a further step to the institutionalization and stabilization of the political system.
However, Bani Sadr’s tenure, together with the tensions that soon arose between him and a majority of the deputies in the Majlis, occasioned a severe crisis that led ultimately to Bani Sadr’s dismissal. For the president, his inherent megalomania aggravated by his victory at the polls, was reluctant to concede supremacy to Imam Khumayni, and he therefore attempted to build up a personal following, consisting largely of former leftists who owed their positions exclusively to him. In this enterprise, he inevitably clashed with the newly formed Islamic Republic Party (Hizb-i Jumhuri-yi Islami), headed by Ayatullah Bihishti, which dominated the Majlis and was loyal to what was referred to as “the line of the Imam” (khatt-i Imam). As he had earlier done with the disputes between the provisional government and the Council of the Islamic Revolution, the Imam sought to reconcile the parties, and on September 11 1980 appealed to all branches of government and their members to set aside their differences.
While this new governmental crisis was brewing, on September 22, 1980, Iraq sent its forces across the Iranian border and launched a war of aggression that was to last for almost eight years. Iraq enjoyed financial support in this venture from the Arab states lining the Persian Gulf, above all from Saudi Arabia. Imam Khumayni, however, correctly regarded the United States as the principal instigator of the war from the outset, and American involvement became increasingly visible as the war wore on. Although Iraq advanced territorial claims against Iran, the barely disguised purpose of the aggression was to take advantage of the dislocations caused in Iran by the revolution, particularly the weakening of the army through purges of disloyal officers, and to destroy the Islamic Republic. As he had done during the revolution, Imam Khumayni insisted on an uncompromising stance and inspired a steadfast resistance, which prevented the easy Iraqi victory many foreign observers had confidently foretold. Initially, however, Iraq enjoyed some success, capturing the port city of Khurramshahr and encircling Abadan.
The conduct of the war became one more issue at dispute between Bani Sadr and his opponents. Continuing his efforts at reconciling the factions, Imam Khumayni established a three-man commission to investigate the complaints each had against the other. The commission reported on June 1, 1981 that Bani Sadr was guilty of violating the constitution and contravening the Imam’s instructions. He was accordingly declared incompetent by the Majlis to function as president, and the next day, in accordance with Article 110 section (e) of the constitution, Imam Khumayni dismissed him. He went into hiding, and on July 28 fled to Paris, disguised as a woman.
Toward the end of his presidency, Bani Sadr had allied himself with the Sazman-i Mujahidin-i Khalq (Organization of People’s Strugglers; however, the group is commonly known in Iran as munafiqin, “hypocrites,” not mujahidin, because of its members’ hostility to the Islamic Republic). An organization with a tortuous ideological and political history, it had hoped, like Bani Sadr, to displace Imam Khumayni and capture power for itself. After Bani Sadr went into exile, members of the organization embarked on a campaign of assassinating government leaders in the hope that the Islamic Republic would collapse. Even before Bani Sadr fled, a massive explosion had destroyed the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party, killing more than seventy people including Ayatullah Bihishti. On August 30, 1981, Muhammad ‘Ali Raja’i, Bani Sadr’s successor as president, was killed in another explosion. Other assassinations followed over the next two years, including five Imam Jum’a’s as well as a host of lesser figures.
Throughout these disasters, Imam Khumayni maintained his customary composure, declaring, for example, after the assassination of Raja’i that the killings would change nothing and in fact showed Iran to be “the most stable country in the world,” given the ability of the government to continue functioning in an orderly manner. The fact that Iran was able to withstand such blows internally while continuing the war of defense against Iraq was indeed testimony to the roots the new order had struck and to the undiminished prestige of Imam Khumayni as the leader of the nation.
Ayatullah Khamna’i, a longtime associate and devotee of the Imam, was elected president on October 2, 1981, and he remained in this position until he succeeded him as leader of the Islamic Republic on his death in 1989. No governmental crises comparable to those of the first years of the Islamic Republic occurred during his tenure. Nonetheless, structural problems persisted. The constitution provided that legislation passed by the Majlis should be reviewed by a body of senior fuqaha’ known as the Council of Guardians (Shaura-yi Nagahban) to ensure its conformity with the provisions of Ja’fari fiqh. This frequently led to a stalemate on a variety of important legislative issues.
On at least two occasions, in October 1981 and January 1983, Hashimi- Rafsanjani, then chairman of the Majlis, requested the Imam to arbitrate decisively, drawing on the prerogatives inherent in the doctrine of vilayat-i faqih, in order to break the deadlock. He was reluctant to do so, always preferring that a consensus should emerge.
However, on January 6, 1988, in a letter addressed to Khamna’i, the Imam put forward a far-reaching definition of vilayat-i faqih, now termed “absolute” (mutlaqa), which made it theoretically possible for the leadership to override all conceivable objections to the policies it supported. Governance, Imam Khumayni proclaimed, is the most important of all divine ordinances (ahkam-i ilahi) and it takes precedence over secondary divine ordinances (ahkam-i far’iya-yi ilahiya). Not only does the Islamic state permissibly enforce a large number of laws not mentioned specifically in the sources of the shari’a, such as the prohibition of narcotics and the levying of customs dues; it can also suspend the performance of a fundamental religious duty, the hajj, when this is necessitated by the higher interest of the Muslims. At first sight, the theory of vilayat-i mutlaqa-yi faqih might appear to be a justification for unlimited individual rule by the leader (rahbar). One month later, however, Imam Khumayni delegated these broadly defined prerogatives to a commission named the Assembly for the Determination of the Interest of the Islamic Order (Majma’-i Tashkhis-i Maslahat-i Nizam-i Islami.) This standing body has the power to settle decisively all differences on legislation between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians.
The war against Iraq continued to preoccupy Iran until July 1988. Iran had come to define its war aims as not simply the liberation of all parts of its territory occupied by Iraq, but also the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Husayn. A number of military victories made this goal appear attainable. On November 29, 1981, Imam Khumayni congratulated his military commanders on successes achieved in Khuzestan, remarking that the Iraqis had been obliged to retreat before the faith of the Iranian troops and their eagerness for martyrdom. The following year, on May 24, Khurramshahr, which had been held by the Iraqis since shortly after the outbreak of war, was liberated, and only small pockets of Iranian territory remained in Iraqi hands. The Imam marked the occasion by condemning anew the Persian Gulf states that supported Saddam Husayn and describing the victory as a divine gift. Iran failed, however, to follow up swiftly on its surprise victory and the momentum, which might have made possible the destruction of Saddam Husayn’s regime, was lost as the tide of war flowed back and forth. The United States was, in any event, determined to deny Iran a decisive victory and stepped up its intervention in the conflict in a variety of ways.
Finally, on July 2, 1988, the US navy stationed in the Persian Gulf shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, with the loss of 290 passengers. With the utmost reluctance, Imam Khumayni agreed to end the war on the terms specified in Resolution 598 of the United Nations Security Council, comparing his decision in a lengthy statement issued on July 20 to the drinking of poison.
Any notion that the acceptance of a ceasefire with Iraq signaled a diminution in the Imam’s readiness to confront the enemies of Islam was dispelled when, on February 14, 1989, he issued a fatwa calling for the execution of Selman Rushdie, author of the obscene and blasphemous novel, The Satanic Verses, as well as those responsible for the publication and dissemination of the work. The fatwa received a great deal of support in the Muslim world as the most authoritative articulation of popular outrage at Rushdie’s gross insult to Islam. Although its demand remained unfulfilled, it demonstrated plainly the consequences that would have to be faced by any aspiring imitator of Rushdie, and thus had an important deterrent effect. Generally overlooked at the time was the firm grounding of the Imam’s fatwa in the existing provisions of both Shi’i and Sunni jurisprudence; it was not therefore innovative. What lent the fatwa particular significance was rather its issuance by the Imam as a figure of great moral authority.
The Imam had also gained the attention of the outside world, albeit in a less spectacular way, on January 4, 1989, when he sent Mikhail Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a letter in which he predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of communism: “Henceforth it will be necessary to look for communism in the museums of political history of the world.” He also warned Gorbachev and the Russian people against replacing communism with Western-style materialism: “The basic problem of your country has nothing to do with ownership, the economy, or freedom; it is the lack of a true belief in God, the same problem that has drawn the West into a blind alley of triviality and purposelessness.”
Internally, however, the most important development in the last year of Imam Khumayni’s life was, without doubt, his dismissal of Ayatullah Muntaziri from the position of successor to the leadership of the Islamic Republic.
On June 3, 1989, after eleven days in hospital for an operation to stop internal bleeding, Imam Khumayni lapsed into a critical condition and died. The outpouring of grief was massive and spontaneous, the exact counterpoint to the vast demonstrations of joy that had greeted his return to Iran a little over ten years earlier. Such was the press of mourners, estimated at some ten million that the body ultimately had to be transported by helicopter to its place of burial to the south of Tehran on the road leading to Qum. A still expanding complex of structures has grown up around the shrine of the Imam, making it likely that it will become the center of an entire new city devoted to ziyara and religious learning.
The testament of Imam Khumayni was published soon after his death. A lengthy document, it addresses itself principally to the various classes of Iranian society, urging them to do whatever is necessary for the preservation and strengthening of the Islamic Republic.
Significantly, however, it begins with an extended meditation on the hadith-i thaqalayn: “I leave among you two great and precious things: the Book of God and my progeny; they will never be separated from each other until they meet me at the pool.” The Imam interprets the misfortunes that have befallen Muslims throughout history and more particularly in the present age as the result of efforts precisely to disengage the Qur’an from the progeny of the Prophet (S).
The legacy of Imam Khumayni was considerable. He had bequeathed to Iran not only a political system enshrining the principles both of religious leadership and of an elected legislature and head of the executive branch, but also a whole new ethos and self-image, a dignified stance of independence vis-à-vis the West are in the Muslim world. He was deeply imbued with the traditions and worldview of Shi’i Islam, but he viewed the revolution he had led and the republic he had founded as the nucleus for a worldwide awakening of all Muslims. He had sought to attain this goal by, among other things, issuing proclamations to the hujjaj on a number of occasions, and alerting them to the dangers arising from American dominance of the Middle East, the tireless activity of Israel for subverting the Muslim world, and the subservience to America and Israel of numerous Middle Eastern governments. Unity between Shi’is and Sunnis was one of his lasting concerns; he was, indeed, the first Shi’i authority to declare unconditionally valid prayers performed by Shi’is behind a Sunni imam.
It must finally be stressed that despite the amplitude of his political achievements, Imam Khumayni’s personality was essentially that of a gnostic for whom political activity was but the natural outgrowth of an intense inner life of devotion. The comprehensive vision of Islam that he both articulated and exemplified is, indeed, his most significant legacy.