Imam Ruhullah Musawi al-Khomeini (September 24, 1902 to June 3, 1989) is among those iconic figures of history about whom everybody thinks they know much more than they actually do. His name and image, and a few basic facts about his life and work, are so familiar, so instantly recognisable, that any deeper consideration of his life and work seems superfluous. And yet he is in fact one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented figures of recent history. This is because the images and impressions people have of him are largely those generated and promoted by the West-dominated international media, for which he became a hate-figure after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978–79. In the Muslim world, moreover, enemies of the Islamic Revolution, and of political Islam generally, have not only adopted the West’s negative image of him, but have further added the sectarian label of “Shi‘i” to try to neutralise his influence on Islamic movements and activists there.
All understandings of such pivotal figures in history begin by placing them in historical context. But history is not an absolute; it is always subjective. It is well understood that history is not about events or personalities as much as it is about the processes of which those events are a part, and that these processes are innumerable, multi-layered, inter-related and tangled. The task for any historian or analyst is to ascertain which processes are the most important and significant in any context, and this is primarily where the subjectivity comes in. Western commentators, and many Westernised Muslims, have generally chosen to perceive Imam Khomeini purely in terms of a local, Iranian and conservative Shi‘i response to the “modernisation” of Iranian society during the twentieth century. This has often been because this is the only framework within which these commentators are capable of thinking, because of the limits placed on their imagination and vision by their academic and intellectual training; put very basically, their understandings of “modernity”, “progress” and “religion” prevent them from considering that anything “religious” might also be “modern” and “progressive”. But it has often also been a deliberate strategy by Imam Khomeini’s enemies to misrepresent him in order to minimise his impact and influence. In understandings of Imam Khomeini, and of political Islam more broadly, as perhaps in so many other cases, the ignorant and the biased tend to reinforce each others’ self-delusions.
The obvious question, therefore, is what the relevant historical contexts are for fully understanding Imam Khomeini. The first point to make is that understanding Imam Khomeini in terms of Iranian history and Shi‘ism is not necessarily wrong. However, they are by no means enough, and in particular explain neither his global impact, nor his obvious resonance for Muslims of all schools of thought. Nor are Western commentators wrong to focus on his religiosity; what is wrong is their assumption, based on their understanding of secularisation and modernisation, that such religiosity must be a conservative and anti-modern influence. In order to properly understand Imam Khomeini as a historical figure, therefore, it is necessary both to see him in terms of the correct historical processes, and to understand that for him, and most other Muslims, Islam is (and always has been) far more than simply a religion in the limited Western sense.
The first step to understanding Imam Khomeini’s place in history, therefore, is to identify the key historical processes which, intersecting in his person, thought and work at a particular time and place, contributed to the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978–79, and hence also to its consequences in terms of the political development of Iran, the rise of the global Islamic movement, and of Western perceptions, attitudes and policies towards Islam, the Muslim world and political developments there. The first of these processes is of course that of an Iranian response to so-called modernisation. As in other societies subjected to enforced Westernisation in the name of modernisation, there was widespread recognition in Iran that the process was unnatural and damaging. Jalal Ali Ahmad and Ali Shari‘ati provided the best known intellectual critiques of this process, but they were only the leading figures of deeper trends in Iranian society. Much of what they wrote, from an entirely secular perspective in Ahmad’s case, and a modernist Islamic one in Shari‘ati’s case, echoed concerns previously raised by Imam Khomeini and other ulama from within a traditional Islamic perspective. As far back as 1941, for example, in his book Kashf al-Asrar, Imam Khomeini wrote:
We have nothing to say to those whose powers of perception are so limited that they regard the wearing of European hats... as a sign of national progress. We do not expect them to accept a few words of sense from us; the foreigners have stolen their reason, intelligence, and all other senses…
There could hardly be a better articulation of the mindset that Ahmad was later to characterise as gharbzadegi (occidentosis or westoxification), and which Shari‘ati also highlighted. Yet while Ahmad and Shari‘ati are recognised as critics of Western colonialism, cultural imperialism and hegemonic discourse, with such figures as Franz Fanon, Malcolm X and Edward Said, Imam Khomeini’s thought, like that of most Muslims generally and of ulama in particular, is ignored. The reason for this is not difficult to see: unlike the Western-educated Ahmad and Shari‘ati, Imam Khomeini worked and wrote in the framework of, and the language of, Islamic thought and tradition, which Westerners and westernised Muslims could not be bothered to study and try to understand. What they cannot grasp, therefore, is that by rejecting the obscene and ruthless Westernisation that the Pahlavi regime — deeply influenced by the example of Mustafa Kemal in Turkey — tried to impose on Iran in the name of modernisation, Iranians were not so much rejecting modernity as seeking an alternative path to another understanding of it.
Grasping this would require Western analysts to consider historical processes in Muslim countries other than that of Westernisation, which most have proved utterly unable to do. In particular, it would require them to examine historical processes concerning the development of Islamic thought and institutions. These have been discussed by some academics looking at Islamic studies or Middle Eastern history, but have been almost totally ignored by modern historians and political scientists on the assumption that they are marginal and irrelevant to contemporary developments. This is not the place to discuss them in detail, but their broad outlines need to be made clear.
The first of them is the discourse among Muslim ulama and intellectuals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries about the reasons for the decline of Muslim political power, and how Muslims should react to it. This discourse cannot be seen purely as a reaction to Western power, as it so often is, the typically West-centric assumption being that Islamic thought was static and stagnant until the West forced it to face its own deficiencies and try to defend itself. Rather they must be seen as part of the continuing evolution of Muslim political thought which can be traced back to the debates about the succession to the Prophet (s) after his death, just 23 years after the beginning of his Prophetic mission, and had been in a state of continuous discussion and development ever since. The debate that arose after the Prophet’s (s) death was not only one of succession in terms of personalities; more fundamentally, it concerned the nature of both Islamic government and of the institutions that constituted it. The Sunni-Shi‘i fissure began here, although the two schools of thought did not evolve into the forms in which we know them now until centuries later. From that time onwards, through all the various vicissitudes of Islamic history in different parts of the world, Muslims have discussed the natures of government and the state, and the roles and responsibilities of ulama and Muslims generally, in the contexts of both the ideas and thought of their predecessors, and the particular political circumstances of the time. Imam Khomeini’s thought must be viewed as parts of this historical process.
The decline of the political power of the great Islamic empires in the early modern period was not only a result of the rise of Western powers. Both the Ottoman and Mughal empires were weakening even before Western attacks hastened their collapse, and Muslim thinkers had been reacting to their decline long before they were confronted with direct Western colonialism, just as they had reacted to earlier political developments in the Muslim world, including both the decline of earlier political powers and the impact of earlier invaders. The work of “reformers” such as Shah Waliyullah of Delhi (1703–1762), Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703–1792) in the Arabian peninsula and Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817) in West Africa are cases in point. When later generations of Muslim thinkers confronted the reality of Western power and hegemony, they did precisely what their predecessors had done: tried to explain the new political realities, and to guide Muslims as to how they should respond to them. To do so, they inevitably drew on the thought of their predecessors; it is impossible to understand their thought without considering this background. This is true of both ulama working in mainstream Islamic establishments, such as those of Egypt and India, and independent Islamic intellectuals such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Abul A’la Mawdudi, Hassan al-Banna and Hassan al-Turabi. Imam Khomeini’s thought must also be considered as part of the same tradition, albeit in the somewhat different trajectory of Shi‘i thought in Iran. It has been suggested that the Imam’s thinking was influenced by Mawlana Mawdudi and other thinkers on political issues in the Sunni world, which would be entirely natural.
Having said that, it is also true that the particular Shi‘i context of Imam Khomeini’s work and thought is also important. The traditional view that Shi‘i ulama eschewed political involvement because of their belief that all political authority was illegitimate in the absence of the Twelfth Imam is an oversimplification; a close examination of Shi‘i history shows a variety of relationships between Shi‘i religious establishments and political authorities, including Shi‘i rulers such as the Safavids and their successors in Iran from the sixteenth century onwards. But it is true that Shi‘i religious establishments generally kept at arms’ length from political powers and maintained ideals of apoliticism even if realities were sometimes different. The essential problem they repeatedly faced, however, was precisely the one faced by Sunni ulama from the Ummayad period onwards: that even if the rulers were fundamentally illegitimate (as Sunni ulama implicitly acknowledged in their differentiation between the first four khulafa al-rashidin, the “rightly-guided caliphs”, and the subsequent ones), they were an established reality that could not be ignored, and which defined the political framework in which both the ulama and the rest of the faithful had to operate. For much of Islamic history, the Shi‘is were a minority and could keep their heads down while the Sunni religious establishments dealt with difficult political issues; but when the rulers became Shi‘i, and in areas where the majority of people were Shi‘i , they were forced to engage with the powers of the time, and find ways in which the faithful could reconcile their beliefs with political realities, just as the Sunni ulama had had to do before them. Perhaps what can be said is that Shi‘i ulama, even as they engaged in politics, avoided the mistake of legitimising or justifying monarchical rule. This meant that they were never as heavily implicated in the excesses and failures of these rulers, and that their political thought was never weighed down by the reactionary justifications for illegitimate or authoritarian rule that have hampered so much Sunni political thought.
Shi‘i thought too, however, was in a state of constant evolution, and Imam Khomeini’s thought needs to be placed in this continuum. Although his argument that ulama had a political responsibility that they cannot ignore appears radical in terms of popular perceptions of Shi‘i apoliticism, it was in fact a logical development of the thought of established Shi‘i ulama before him. In his lectures on Islamic government, delivered in Najaf in 1970, and published in 1971, Imam Khomeini discusses the political challenges facing Muslims in modern societies and argues that it is nonsensical for ulama not to provide guidance and leadership on these issues. He points out that Shi‘i ulama had always provided guidance and leadership to the faithful on a range of issues, and these should include the political as these are crucial to the life of the community. He also points out that the Prophet (s), whose successors the ulama are as leaders of the community, was a political leader as well as a spiritual one. This was the basis for his rejection of apoliticism and his theological formulation of the idea of vilayat-i faqih, the “guardianship of the Islamic jurist”, which he explicitly associated with precedents in the thought of earlier Shi‘i ulama such as Shaykh Ahmed Naraqi (d. 1829), Mirza Muhammad Husayn Na’ini (d. 1936) and Ayatullah Kashif al-Ghita (d. 1954). The validity of his theological formulations has been the subject of intense debate within Shi‘i circles, with much of the debate focusing on his explicit rejection of the ideal of apoliticism.
Like the akhbari/usuli controversy earlier in Shi‘i history, and indeed most other theological issues, the debate is likely to be settled not so much by the theoretical triumph of one intellectual position over another, but by the judgement of social and political realities, which will in time render one or other position practically untenable. It is complicated, however, by political opponents of the Islamic Revolution proclaiming that the apolitical tradition is “true Islam” in order to paint the Imam as a distorter and usurper of Islamic tradition, rather than a scholar engaged in debates within the continuum of Islamic tradition, and so carrying it forward. The fact that this debate has taken place almost entirely within the Shi‘i tradition has also played into the hands of those who are trying to marginalise the Imam and the Islamic Revolution as merely Shi‘i phenomena, with no relevance to the rest of the Ummah and Islamic movement. It has also made it harder for even sympathetic non-Shi‘i Muslims to engage with his thought effectively. But that is no fault of the Imam and no reflection on the value of his work; the onus is on other Muslims to make the necessary effort.
Having said that, Imam Khomeini’s political thought and his case for governance by the ulama arguably owe less to theology and scholarship than to political imperatives. He explicitly argued that the pressures of the time demanded leadership, that this leadership must be in line with Islamic principles, and that there are none better qualified to provide it than the ulama; and that if the ulama do not accept this responsibility, they will be failing to follow the example of the Prophet (s) and failing to fulfil their duties to the Muslims who depend on them. In this, he brings Shi‘i political thought closer to traditional Sunni political thinking on the khilafah, and perhaps more pertinently, the arguments used by intellectuals of Sunni Islamic movements in the twentieth century, than ever before. This argument has been eloquently made by the late Kalim Siddiqui in his essay Processes of Error, Deviation, Correction and Convergence in Muslim Political Thought (1989), which has not had the impact it should have. But the reality of this convergence can be seen in the instinctive identification of many Muslims all over the world with the image of the Imam, the achievements of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the continuing success of the Islamic State of Iran, despite the sectarian propaganda and failure of many Islamic leaders to rise above it. This instinctive popular identification reflects the common political culture knitting together the various and disparate parts of the Muslim Ummah and global Islamic movement.
The failure of so many Islamic leaders to recognise the significance of Imam Khomeini’s leadership and the Islamic Revolution in Iran is particularly striking considering the success of the Islamic State of Iran and of Islamic movements inspired by it, such as the Hizbullah in Lebanon. By overthrowing the pro-Western regime of the Shah, and replacing it with a sincere attempt to develop modern institutions of state based on Islamic principles and values, the Islamic Revolution achieved precisely what movements elsewhere have been striving to do for decades. Moreover, far from collapsing within months or shortly after the death of the Imam, as many sneeringly predicted, it has survived over three decades, despite the many attempts of its enemies to destroy it. In the process, it has established arguably the most vibrant political environment of any Muslim country.
The fact that all is not perfect in Iran, and that its leaders could undoubtedly have done a great deal differently and better, does not invalidate the basis of the Revolution, or make the state and its system illegitimate; rather they are the normal vicissitudes of any human enterprise. The Islamic State of Iran is no utopia, and has no panaceas for the problems of people living in modern societies in a global social environment dominated by the hedonistic, consumerist culture of the West; but it is a genuine attempt by an Islamic movement and a part of the Muslim Ummah to establish a modern state based on Islamic principles, and confront the problems posed by Western hegemony, and its experiences — good and bad — should be seen as vital source material for Muslims confronting the same task elsewhere in the world. Again this is a reality that most ordinary Muslims elsewhere in the world appear to have understood better than some of their supposed leaders in Islamic movements.
This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the Islamic state of Iran, but an appreciation of its success is essential to any discussion of Imam Khomeini. This can be attributed partly to one little-discussed element of Imam Khomeini’s political thought, which deserves far more attention, and from which other Islamic movements could no doubt learn a great deal. Unlike so many other Islamic movements, the Imam never envisaged or laid down any particular, rigid institutional structure for the Islamic state. Much of the thought of Islamic movements in the Sunni world has taken two institutions in particular as their starting point, khilafah and shari‘ah, and tried to theorise modern state structures on the basis of traditional understandings of these institutions.
In Imam Khomeini’s lectures on Islamic government, and in his other key political writings, such as his Last Will and Testament, the focus is not on institutions, but on Islamic principles and the objectives of Islamic government; the responsibilities of Muslims generally and ulama in particular; and on the need for the use of reason, perseverance and patience in pursuit of these objectives. Within the broad framework of vilayat-i faqih, the institutional structures of the state are left largely undefined. The result was that after the success of the Islamic Revolution, the institutional structure of the Islamic state was not based on any rigid institutional formula, but on a constitution drafted by an elected constitutional assembly, which was understood to be a human construct subject to revision on the basis of experience. In subsequent years, the constitution and the institutions of the state have been revised and restructured several times in response to the experiences of the Islamic state, within the overall framework of vilayat-i faqih established after the Revolution.
The history of politics and political structures in all human societies indicates that such institutional flexibility is essential; and that success should be defined not only by the achievement of particular goals, but by progress over time and the ability to cope with changes in circumstances. In this sense, Imam Khomeini’s deliberately non-prescriptive political thought (and his arms’ length supervision of the Islamic state once he was established as vali-i faqih of the Islamic state) can be thought of as both profoundly modern and having a good deal in common with traditional Sunni understandings of the khilafah. These argue that the Prophet (s) left neither a prescribed institutional structure for the Islamic state, nor detailed instructions of how his successors should be appointed or govern, because no set system of government established in the circumstances of Arabia in the seventh century could be appropriate for an Ummah that would see both immense growth and massive social and technical change over subsequent centuries and millennia.
Twenty years after Imam Khomeini’s death, many of these issues remain to be examined and discussed in detail, in order that Muslims generally, and the global Islamic movement in particular, can gain the maximum possible benefit from his political thinking and his experience as theorist, strategist and leader of the most successful Islamic movement of the twentieth century. The first task must be to lift the blinkers of sectarianism, nationalism and anti-traditionalism that prevent many Muslims from seeing his real import and contribution. It may be that the passing of time since his death will make such a perspective easier to achieve.