Imam Khomeini, the tenth anniversary of whose death on June 4, 1989, was marked by millions of Muslims all over the world this month, was undoubtedly the most important figure in recent Muslim history, the man whose thought and leadership effectively gave birth to what we now know as the global Islamic movement. As Vali-i Faqih and Rahbar of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the first Islamic state of the contemporary era (albeit, inevitably, a prototypical and experimental Islamic state), he was the nearest thing the Ummah has had to Khalifah al-Rasul since long before the end of the Uthmaniyyah Khilafah.
Uniquely among recent Muslim leaders, he rose to leadership by the consensus of his fellow Muslims, who recognised in him exceptional qualities of taqwa and spirituality. But he always spoke for Islam and the Ummah as a whole rather than for any partial understanding of Islam. This was why millions of Muslims, Shi’as and Sunnis alike, accepted him as their leader, and sought to follow the revolutionary path which liberated Iran. Ordinary Muslims all over the world instinctively recognised him as a leader from the deepest traditions of Islam as soon as they saw him, whether live, on television or even in a newspaper. For ordinary Muslims, he came to embody a quality of humility and a pureness of iman that transcended every faultline in the Ummah, be it racial, national, linguistic, cultural or sectarian.
It is this spirit that the Islamic movement today is often said to have lost. Inevitably, people look for it in the Islamic state that the Imam created. All too often, they do not find it. Iran, people say, has failed to export the Revolution, is diluting the spirit of the Revolution, has joined the western-dominated international order instead of fighting it, or has become a nationalist, Shi’a state instead of an Islamic one. This is harsh; the expectations which people had for an Islamic state which was bound to be embryonic and experimental, as well as being subjected to the most venomous hatred and enmity by the west, were not reasonable. Not all officials of the state can be expected to share the qualities of the Imam himself. Having said that, in terms of nationalism and sectarianism in particular, too many have failed to maintain even minimum standards. However, as long as the understanding and vision of the leadership remains sound and unwavering, Iran will remain the leading edge of the Islamic movement, thanks to the momentum generated by the Imam’s unique leadership, and that of Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Khamenei.
But the failure of the Islamic movement outside Iran has arguably been the greater. Where the Imam transcended all divisions of the Ummah, too many activists outside Iran have fallen into every one they could find. Where Islamic Iran has sometimes been guilty of failing to take a broad enough view of the movement, Muslims elsewhere have often been guilty of demanding too much and failing to understand the limitations under which the Islamic state operates, and its own needs and imperatives. Too many are guilty of demanding and expecting from the Islamic state instead of assisting and helping it at a time when Islamic Iran needed it most.
Twenty years after the Islamic Revolution, there are many people in the Islamic movement who cannot remember the world without Islamic Iran, or without Imam Khomeini. With each generation, perceptions change. Islamic Iran is no longer a marvel to be wondered at, but an established feature of the geo-political landscape. And, for some - even within the movement - Imam Khomeini is no longer quite the presence he once was. But the movement today exists and works in a world shaped by his achievement. The challenge we face demands that we all work in the spirit of brotherhood and unity that he showed in his every action.
Imam Khomeini took a global view, focusing on issues common to all the Ummah, even though he came from, and worked largely within, a particular part of it. This ethos, that the things we share as Muslims, the things that make us Muslim, transcend the differences among us - and Islam and Muslims were never a monolithic faith or community - is one the Islamic movement must embrace if we are to move forward on the path Imam Khomeini, may Allah be pleased with him, has shown us.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1999