Twelve years after the death of Imam Khomeini (r.a.) on June 3, 1989, the Islamic State of Iran stands as a monument to his work and achievement. When the Imam passed away the West rejoiced, expecting Iran to collapse without him. Twelve years later, as Iran prepares to go to the polls once more, the West watches in exasperation, knowing that the elections prove their utter failure to destroy the Revolution, and much of the Muslim world watches in admiration, comparing Iran with the despotic regimes that the West supports in their countries.
In order to understand fully the nature of the Revolution, and in particular if lessons are to be learnt by Islamic movements seeking to achieve similar results, it is the essence of Imam Khomeini’s work and vision that must be grasped.
In order to understand fully the nature of the Revolution, and in particular if lessons are to be learnt by Islamic movements seeking to achieve similar results, it is the essence of Imam Khomeini’s work and vision that must be grasped. The late Dr Kalim Siddiqui (d. 1996) highlighted the fact that Imam Khomeini’s ijtihad in the political sphere was both revolutionary, in that it reversed the centuries-old withdrawal from politics of the Shi’i ulama, and a natural progression from the reopening of the gates of ijtihad in the Shi’i tradition with the intellectual triumph of the usuli school of ulama over the akhbari ulama over 200 years ago. The subsequent emergence of living mujtahids, known as maraje (singular: marja), brought the ulama to the forefront of Shi’i community life. Imam Khomeini’s achievement was in extending this ijtihad into the political sphere, which had previously been unthinkable because of the Shi’i assumption that all political authority was to be shunned in the absence of the Twelfth Imam. The result was the formulation of a structure of government, based on pious ulama, which—in its emphasis on the appointment of a leader by the most learned and respected in the community on the basis of the candidates’ knowledge, piety and competence—is barely distinguishable in essence from the classical Sunni understanding of the khilafah.
Dr Siddiqui was frequently bemused by the difficulties that both Shi’is and Sunnis had in understanding this simple idea, which he referred to as a ‘process of convergence’ in Muslim political thought (Kalim Siddiqui, ‘Processes of Error, Deviation, Correction and Convergence in Muslim Political Thought’, 1998). Many Shi’is seem offended—for historical reasons—by the suggestion of any commonality with the concept of khilafah, while many Sunnis are equally hostile—for reasons of simple sectarianism––to the idea that the Shi’is could lead the way in such a matter. Until more Muslims prove able to emulate Imam Khomeini in overcoming these blindspots in their historical perceptions, intellectual progress in the Islamic movement is likely to remain limited, and any political progress ephemeral.
Another associated blindspot that must be overcome is resistance to the idea of ulama leading anything or anybody. This blindspot is often found among Muslim intellectuals and others brought up in Western academic traditions, who cannot accept the possibility that ‘mullahs’ can have any role, let alone that of leadership. The readiness of Muslims in Iran to accept the leadership of the ulama in the public sphere was another achievement of Imam Khomeini, aided by the tradition of marjiyyat in Shi’i Islam and the work before the Revolution of enlightened intellectuals such as Ali Shari’ati. The root of this problem outside Iran is the separation, as a result of Western imperial and cultural domination, of the ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ institutions and spheres of knowledge. The impact of imperialism was perhaps felt most by Islamic institutions, which were deliberately targeted and destroyed; if many of the ulama we have today are too limited in their thinking and vision to lead communities, that is hardly surprising under the circumstances. But there are increasing numbers who combine the qualities of ulama and those of ‘modern’ intellectuals; in this, as in so much else, Iran leads the way, with the Rahbar, Ayatullah Khamenei, the president, Hujjatul-Islam Khatami, and numerous other leading figures. The cultivation of such ulama will take time and patience ; in the mean time ulama and westernised intellectuals will have to tolerate each others’ idiosyncrasies.
The emulation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran by Islamic movements elsewhere in the Muslim world must be based on the essence of the ijtihad and vision of Imam Khomeini. It is a sign of Imam Khomeini’s achievement that, even twelve years after his death, much of the Islamic movement still falls short of the understanding that he developed.