Tuesday, February 03, 2009

30 Years Ago: Recalling the Ayatollah's Return

30 years ago, on February 1, 1979, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini returned from nearly two decades in exile to his native Iran. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, shah (king), had fled the country on January 16, faced with growing public discontent with his rule.

This is an encyclopedia article I wrote recently for a forthcoming, in-the-works 3-volume collection, The Middle East: History, Religion, and Culture (Golson Books & Sharpe Reference). This article may not be quoted.

Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (1902-1989), the Iranian Shi‘i Muslim religious scholar and major leader of the Iranian Revolution, was born into a clerical family in the small village of Khomein in central Iran. His family were sayyids, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and her husband, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi‘i Imam and fourth Rashidun caliph. As a young child, he studied Arabic, Persian literature and poetry, and religious subjects at a local religious school, while also attending a state-run school where he studied mathematics, sciences, and learned how to read and write.

Orphaned by the age of sixteen, he traveled to the city of Arak in order to further his seminary studies under Grand Ayatollah ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri Yazdi (1859-1936). The two later moved to Qum, one of Iran’s three centers of Shi‘i scholarship and learning, and a major Shi‘i scholarly center that attracted students from all over the world. Like all students in the Shi‘i seminary system, Khomeini studied Islamic religious texts, including the Qur’an and traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad and the twelve Shi‘i Imams, as well as philosophy, logic, mathematics, sciences, and Arabic. He had a keen interest in mystical philosophy (irfan), which he chose as his primary subject of specialization instead of jurisprudence (fiqh). By the time he was in his early 30s, Khomeini had become a mujtahid, a religious scholar capable of exercising reasoned interpretations of religious texts and sources in order to issue juridical opinions (fatawa) and rulings. After receiving his certification as a mujtahid from his teachers, Khomeini began teaching courses himself in Qum’s seminary, where he was reportedly a popular instructor. Many of his students in Qum would later play important roles in the Iranian Revolution.

In the 1940s, Iran’s new Pahlavi shah (king), Reza Khan (1878-1944), sought to weaken the power of the ‘ulama by introducing government certification of religious scholars and opening up a Faculty of Theology at the University of Tehran, in an attempt to break the monopoly over religious education of the country’s traditional seminaries. A new secular legal code was also introduced. Khomeini, despite his later reputation as a fierce critic of monarchy, did not initially call for the replacement of the Pahlavi monarchy. Instead, he performed the advisory role traditionally played by the ‘ulama, and sought to convince the shah to stop his forced secularization of society through dialogue. Reza Khan’s forced abdication under British and Soviet pressure led to a brief period of respite for the ‘ulama and religious institutions since the new shah, Reza’s son Muhammad Reza (1919-1980), was essentially a figurehead as long as foreign forces occupied Iran.

Khomeini first emerged as a major public critic of the new shah in 1962, following the death of Iran’s senior Shi‘i religious scholar, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Borujerdi, who was opposed to an active political role for the ‘ulama. On January 26, 1963 the shah passed land reforms through a rigged referendum, which led to protests breaking out across Iran. In March, government security forces attacked the Fayziyya seminary in Qum, killing a young seminarian. On the fortieth day after his death, a traditional period of mourning in Islam, Khomeini fiercely criticized the Pahlavis as “usurpatory,” and accused the shah of selling the country out to the West. On June 3, he criticized the ongoing Pahlavi crackdown on ‘ulama critical of the government. Khomeini called for the shah to heed the ‘ulama’s advice. He was arrested three days later, and in August was sentenced to death.

Khomeini, now an ayatollah, was saved from execution by the country’s senior ‘ulama, including Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Kazim Shari‘atmadari, who recognized him as a grand ayatollah and marja‘ al-taqlid, the most senior level in the Twelver Shi‘i clerical hierarchy. No grand ayatollah had ever been executed, and Khomeini’s sentence was commuted and he was released. After criticizing the shah for granting U.S. contractors and government officials immunity from prosecution, Khomeini was arrested again in October 1964, and exiled from Iran. He first stayed briefly in the Turkish city of Bursa before relocating to the southern Iraqi Shi‘i shrine city of Najaf, where he taught courses in the city’s famous seminary. In Iraq, he interacted with several of his most prominent contemporaries, including the Iraqi ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was executed in April 1980 by Saddam Hussein because of his political activism, and Grand Ayatollah Abu’l Qasim al-Khu‘i, a quietest Iranian-born cleric. Khomeini’s lectures and speeches were smuggled into Iran on audio cassettes and as pamphlets, where they continued to influence the growing revolutionary movement. Several of his students, including Ayatollahs Murtaza Mutahhari (1920-1979), Hussein ‘Ali Montazeri (1922- ), and Muhammad Hussein Beheshti (1928-1981), continued to criticize the shah and his regime, disseminating their teacher’s materials through the seminary and mosque networks that were deeply embedded in Iranian society.

While in Najaf, Khomeini delivered a series of lectures in January and February 1970 which were transcribed and later published as Hukumat-e Islami (Islamic Government). In these lectures, he called for the implementation of his theory of wilayat al-faqih, “guardianship of the supreme jurist,” a governmental system where the senior religious jurist (faqih) would lead society until the messianic return of the twelfth Shi‘i Imam, who is believed to be in occultation. A modified form of this theory would form the basis of the political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran when it was founded in 1979.

Following a year of severe unrest and mass protests against his rule, Shah Muhammad Reza and his family fled Iran on January 16, 1979. Khomeini returned to his homeland on February 1, descending the stairs of an Air France plane escorted by aides and the aircraft’s pilot. He was greeted by millions upon his arrival, and gave a speech at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, Tehran’s main cemetery. Following his return to Iran, Khomeini and his supporters worked to Islamicize the Iranian revolutionary movement, which had brought together a diverse array of political activists, including socialists, Marxists, and liberal democrats. Khomeini and his allies in the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), which was headed by his former student, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Beheshti, were able to use the country’s extensive religious networks, mosques, schools, and seminaries to garner public support. The other groups had largely been decimated in the shah’s crackdowns, and lacked the organization and support enjoyed by Khomeini and the IRP. Khomeini served as the faqih until his death of natural causes on June 3, 1989. He was succeeded by another former student, Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei (1939- ), who replaced Grand Ayatollah Hussein ‘Ali Montazeri, who was forced to step down as Khomeini’s heir apparent shortly before his death, after he had privately raised concerns about the direction the revolutionary movement had taken.

Khomeini, and particularly his theory of wilayat al-faqih, remain controversial among Twelver Shi‘is. Among some, he is greatly admired and called “the imam,” a title of great symbolic importance.

View an example of how Khomeini is revered by his followers. This is a video commemorating the grand ayatollah's last days. It includes rare footage.

View rare footage of Khomeini's funeral, which drew millions of Iranians.

Lebanon’s largest Shi‘i political party and paramilitary movement, Hizbullah, recognizes Khomeini as its first political and spiritual guide. The prominent Lebanese ayatollah Muhammad Jawad Mughniyah and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri have written criticisms of Khomeini’s arguments and conclusions in Hukumat-e Islami. Other Shi‘i scholars, such as Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah and Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad in Iraq, argue that it is possible to have a society which follows Islamic morals and values without wilayat al-faqih, as Khomeini envisioned it.

Further Reading:

Abrahamian, Ervand. Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Algar, Hamid, ed. and trans. Islam and Revolution I: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1981.

Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: New Edition. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2005.

Martin, Vanessa. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

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