Given the paucity of good leaders in the Muslim world, Imam Khomeini, who joined heavenly company in June 1989, offers an example of great leadership.
Imam Khomeini was a towering personality who changed the course of history in profound ways. As Muslims worldwide commemorate the 25th anniversary of his departure (June 3) from this world, his legacy on the global stage remains firmly established. It can be said with confidence that he was perhaps the most successful revolutionary of the 20th century, unmatched and unrivalled by anyone.
His was a multi-dimensional personality: mujtahid, faqih, ‘arif, statesman, revolutionary, as well as a poet. Many of his works remain unknown to most people.
His was a multi-dimensional personality: mujtahid, faqih, ‘arif, statesman, revolutionary, as well as a poet. Many of his works remain unknown to most people. To the outside world as well as many Muslims, Imam Khomeini is best known, and rightly so, as the leader who brought about the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978–1979. This is truly a remarkable achievement in contemporary Muslim history because hitherto Muslims had faced only defeat and humiliation. From the 1878 defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the abolition of the khilafah, albeit nominal, in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal in March 1924, Muslims were in retreat everywhere.
Kemalism’s great insult heaped on the Ummah was only marginally ameliorated by the hopes aroused by the creation of Pakistan in August 1947 when British colonial rule ended in India. These hopes were soon dashed when the ruling elites in the newly created state of Pakistan started to indulge in the kind of politics that have disillusioned people all over the world. More humiliations were in store for Muslims: the June 1967 defeat of Arabian armies at the hands of the Zionists and the surrender in December 1971 of 90,000 Pakistani troops to the invading Indian army in what was then East Pakistan (Bangladesh). These are truly dark episodes in contemporary Islamic history that Muslims would rather forget than recount.
It was against this backdrop of total darkness that the success of the Islamic Revolution came as a flash of lightning. What is less well understood is the environment in which Imam Khomeini succeeded. It was not another regime change like so many that had occurred in the Muslim world in previous decades. Many were military coups or noisy palace reshuffles with one set of elites replacing another, merely to continue the same exploitative anti-public and anti-Islamic policies that were already in vogue.
In order to appreciate the legacy of Imam Khomeini, we must briefly review the history of the last 200 years, especially relating to the Muslim world. This will enable us to understand the enormous challenges faced by the Imam and how he overcame them to bring about the Islamic Revolution.
In order to appreciate the legacy of Imam Khomeini, we must briefly review the history of the last 200 years, especially relating to the Muslim world. This will enable us to understand the enormous challenges faced by the Imam and how he overcame them to bring about the Islamic Revolution. Most Muslim countries emerged from the bowels of colonialism in the last 60–70 years. By the middle of the 20th century, stirrings of revolt were evident almost everywhere; nationalist movements were demanding independence. Weakened by the bloodletting between European powers during the Second World War, the colonialists started abandoning physical control of their colonial possessions.
The Dutch were driven out of the East Indies; the subcontinent was partitioned leading to the creation of India and Pakistan. Others in Africa and Asia followed suit: Malaya (later to be renamed Malaysia), Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Somalia, and a host of others. But the colonial enterprise was not entirely unsuccessful, at least from the point of view of the colonialists. Even while they were forced to leave, the Europeans left behind local elites that have continued the white man’s “civilizing mission.” In 200 years of colonisation, the colonialists not only changed the socio-political and economic systems but also replaced the educational systems, supplanting local languages with colonial languages, and changing the tastes, habits as well as cultures of colonised societies. They created a class of people that looked like the natives but behaved and acted like white colonial masters, in short they were perfect “Brown Englishmen.” Independence was a myth and a cruel hoax.
Iran under the Shah was no exception. While endowed with vast oil and gas resources, the overwhelming majority in Iran languished in poverty; only a tiny parasitical class around the Shah acquired enormous wealth. The Shah himself, despite bestowing upon himself such titles as shahinshah (the king of kings), and descendant of Cyrus the Great, was totally subservient to the West.
It was against this backdrop that Imam Khomeini emerged on the scene. In studying his life, one finds that his political activism was underpinned by a deep study of Islam and keen awareness of the reality of everyday life including major political decisions and their impact on people’s lives. Unlike his predecessors or contemporaries in other parts of the Muslim world, especially the “Sunni” world, the Imam had to overcome three major obstacles. The first was internal to Shi‘i political thought; the second had to do with the oppressive regime and its state apparatus, and the third was and remains the Western-imposed world order that dominates and manipulates the policies of weaker states.
To overcome the inertia of history, especially underpinned by centuries of theology is a truly monumental task. The Imam achieved this with hikmah and courage.
To overcome the inertia of history, especially underpinned by centuries of theology is a truly monumental task. The Imam achieved this with hikmah and courage. He mobilized the youth of Iran — men and women — by inspiring them to get involved in their own affairs so that oppression and exploitation would end. It was the youth who confronted and defeated the Shah’s heavily armed army during the revolution and it continues to stand as a bulwark against the West’s disruptive policies. Without being educated in the West, the Imam understood the West’s political and economic systems far better than most Western educated Muslims ever did. It was his total reliance on Allah (swt) that enabled him to surmount immense challenges in the struggle to establish the Islamic State.