In 1989, shortly after the death of Imam Khomeini, and ten years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Dr Kalim Siddiqui, Director of the Muslim Institute, London, wrote a series of articles for Crescent International reflecting on the situation of the global Islamic movement at the time, and in particular on the progress and experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Dr Kalim was uniquely positioned to comment on these subjects. He had been active in the Islamic movement all his life, and had been among the first Islamic intellectuals to recognise the true nature and importance of the Revolution in Iran. He remained both a steadfast supporter of Islamic Iran, and an acute and critical commentator on its role in the global Islamic movement, until his death in 1996.
Now, as Muslims around the world mark the 24th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at a time when the Islamic movement is under intense attack from an angry and aggressive Western alliance, we are reprinting those articles over the next few issues.
Dr Kalim Siddiqui and the Muslim Institute no longer survive to offer guidance and leadership at this crucial time. Although the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and Crescent Internationalcontinue to try to maintain his line of thought and action, we cannot do better than to return again to the words and insight of the man himself.
A crisis is a situation in which difficult decisions have to be made over a short period of time. In a crisis one stands at a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of alternatives. One option has to be chosen, disregarding all others. Often an option offers itself only for a fleeting moment. If one fails to take it, the opportunity may never offer itself again. Waiting too long, vacillating, doing nothing or too little, is often as fatal in its consequences as doing too much too soon.
Some crises, however predictable, are best managed when they arise. Any attempt to anticipate and ‘solve’ a crisis in advance is likely to be counter-productive. The death of Imam Khomeini was one such crisis. It was inevitable. The leadership in Iran tried to manage it several years in advance. The consequences are too well known. In November 1985, when the Council of Experts (Majlis-e Khubragan) decided to nominate Ayatullah Montazeri as ‘successor,’ I happened to be in Tehran. The news was brought to me by a close friend even before it was officially announced. My immediate reaction was that the naming of a successor assumed that one person would live longer than the other, while this was known only to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and should not be presumed. The few Iranian friends I talked to dismissed it as my ‘Sunni’ position while the Shi’i school believed in ‘nomination.’
In the event the experiment of ‘nomination’ did not work and the Imam died without a known successor. But the manner in which the leadership in Iran handled the question of succession during the night of June 3 and the following day was a model of maturity and wisdom. It also demonstrated the stability of the political system of Islam. Above all, it was a demonstration of the collective taqwa of the leadership in Iran. Immediately after the Imam died the leadership proceeded to the council chamber to choose a new ‘imam.’ After this had been done, they proceeded to bury the late Imam, united under a new leader.
The news of Imam Khomeini’s death reached me early on the morning of June 4. The evening before a friend in Tehran had warned me to expect the end soon. Nonetheless, the news when it came was a shock. Such words as ‘grief’ are too common and mundane to describe the feeling that is experienced once in a thousand years. But there was little time for emotion. The telephone began to ring — television, radio, newspapers and newsagencies from all over the world wanted my comments. The BBC asked me to predict who might succeed the Imam. The time was 1.30pm in London. I said ‘Khamenei’. Three hours later I was at Heathrow airport with a party of ulama boarding a flight to Tehran when the Iran Air manager came and told me that the Majlis-e Khubragan had chosen Seyyed Ali Khamenei to succeed the Imam.
Of course I had guessed. My sense of history told me that the choice would be based on political experience. I also surmised that the man to succeed the Imam would have to be from the Tehran-based leadership, rather than from the senior ulama living in Qum. In other words, the political system would prefer an alim with political experience and standing. There could be no one other than Ayatullah Khamenei. The fact that he was not a marja’ made little difference. For the moment the Imam’s position as a marja’ has been filled by Ayatullah Muhammad Ali Araki. The new marja’ has endorsed all the ijtihad and fiqhi positions of the late Imam. Ayatullah Araki is old and frail. Perhaps after a short time, Ayatullah Khamenei will also become a marja’, though this is no longer a constitutional requirement. The important point to note is that, at the first moment of crisis, the leadership in Iran has preferred political wisdom and maturity over scholarly seniority and precedence. In my humble opinion the ‘reason of the State’ requires that Ayatullah Khamenei should also be known as ‘Imam Khamenei,’ and not just rahbar (one who shows the way or guide). Perhaps this will follow soon. Even Imam Khomeini was for a time called Naib-e Imam (one who is deputizing for Imam Mahdi). This was soon dropped.
We have seen monumental changes in a relatively short period of time, a matter of just over 10 years. Of course, the self-correcting process in Shi’i theology began a very long time ago through ijtihad. What we have seen is the flowering of that process and the manifestation of the political power of Islam. Iran has become a reservoir of new ideas and the new powerhouse of Islam. The Ummah has acquired a new political magnetic field. No Muslim is unaffected by it. Everyone is attracted to it. The political geography of the world has been transformed. The former ‘superpowers’ and ‘rivals’ for world domination have become friends. A new bipolar world has emerged, with Islam as one pole and kufr (the secular civilization) the other. But the power of Islam has yet to become global through, first, a global Islamic movement and, second, a succession of Islamic Revolutions in all parts of the world. We are moving in that direction.
As I returned home from the Imam’s funeral, I became increasingly aware of the abiding power of the Islamic Revolution. This power had been shown most impressively by the grief of the masses in Iran. This was their way of saying that though the Imam had died, the Islamic Revolution would live, grow and expand. The manner in which those the Imam has left in charge of Iran have handled the transition has been a model of good sense and collective responsibility. Those who predicted a ‘struggle for power,’ even civil war, have been proved wrong once again.
Over the years the Muslim Institute ground has become a vantage point from which we can look to the future. This moral high ground consists of defining and rejecting the evil that prevails today, and showing the way forward to the good that must prevail tomorrow. We have also identified the error and deviance within the Ummah that has led to the present situation and the corrective action that is required if we are to create a future in the image of Islam. In our view the Islamic Revolution has set an example of corrective action that has to be followed in all parts of the Ummah.
The role of Iran in the future can be either minimalist or maximalist. For a minimalist role Iran need do no more. The leadership in Iran can simply sit back and say that Iran has set an example and it is now for the rest of the Ummah to follow. This would be a perfectly legitimate position to take if it were not for the fact that such a position is not in keeping with the spirit of Islam and the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, upon whom be peace. Imam Khomeini’s own writings and speeches also commit Iran to a global role. What is more, the minimalist position is precisely the one that the enemies of Islam would like Iran to take. Thus, the only role Iran can play is the maximalist one, as part of the global Islamic movement. The choice of taking another view does not really exist. The great virtue of Islam is that it guides us to the one and only path –the path of righteousness. Imam Khomeini’s great achievement is that he closed all other doors. l
[This article first appeared in Crescent International, vol. 18, no. 13, October 1-15, 1989. In the next issue: ‘Capturing a fleeting moment in history to reach the moral high ground.’]