June 3rd marks the 21st anniversary of Imam Khomeini’s passing into heavenly company. Amid his many achievements was the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, establishing the first Islamic state in modern times. We reproduce an abridged version of Zafar Bangash’s foreword in the latest book, Imam Khomeini: A Leader of Principle and Purpose, published by Crescent International for the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought.
Three factors are essential for the Islamic movement to bring about change in society: an accurate understanding of the situation in which it operates; clarity about the goal it wishes to pursue; and, the process through which this would be achieved. This is also the lesson we learn from the Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (r) when he proclaimed the message of Islam, first in Makkah and later in Madinah. He was absolutely clear about the jahili nature of society in Makkah, indeed the entire Arabian Peninsula and beyond, and refused to compromise with it. He set out to challenge and demolish it and replace it with a system based on Islamic principles and values.
The process for this change was the mobilization of a group of people that were totally committed to bringing change in society regardless of the price they would have to pay. And they did. At the end of the life of the noble Messenger of Allah (r) on earth, Islam had not only spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, but an Islamic state had also been established and consolidated. It started in Madinah but expanded both east and west ultimately encompassing the entire Arabian Peninsula during his lifetime. The Prophet’s (r) successors expanded the Islamic domain to virtually the entire known world, spreading as far as Central Asia and China and into parts of Europe. This is the model Muslims have followed throughout history.
In the Muslims’ contemporary history, there have been numerous movements that have struggled to bring about change in their respective societies. Some have subsumed their struggle under the label of nationalism while others have openly proclaimed that they wish to implement Islamic laws in society, yet with the exception of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, none of the other movements has succeeded. What sets the Islamic movement in Iran apart from others, such as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt and Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan or movements inspired by their thought and method? Numerous reasons can be advanced for the lack of success of these movements — and there are elements of truth in all of them — but it needs emphasizing that no movement succeeds without struggle and sacrifice. It is not in the sunnah of Allah (Â) to not test His faithful servants: this was the case with all the Messengers and Prophets of Allah (Å) and continues to be the case with those that have made a faith-commitment to Allah (Â). He makes clear in the noble Book:
Do people think that when they say, “we make a faith commitment to Allah,” that they would not be tested with trials and tribulations? Lo! We tested those who were before you. Thus Allah distinguishes those that are sincere [in their commitment to Him] and those that merely feign and lie [about their commitment] (29:2–3).
Thus challenges and trials and tribulations are part of the struggle that committed Muslims must endure in order to achieve the goal of implementing Islam in society. Both the Ikhwan and the Jamaat-e Islami were endowed with charismatic leaders although they did not achieve the stature of Imam Khomeini. The Ikhwan and the Jamaat also had well-thought-out programs but because they frequently made erroneous assumptions, success eluded them and continues to do so today.
What we can say with confidence is that Islamic movements cannot gain power by participating in elections organized under the prevalent jahili systems in Muslim societies. The experience of the Ikhwan (in Egypt), the Jamaat (in Pakistan), the Islamic Salvation Front (in Algeria) and many others that operate as Islamic political parties confirms this. Some may cite the successes of Hamas and Hizbullah to assert that participation in electoral politics under existing systems can bring positive results. It needs pointing out that their conditions are rather different. Their lands and societies are under direct foreign military occupation. They are forced to make difficult choices. Should they deal with the external enemy or tackle the internal situation first? The choices facing them are not pleasant and both carry grave risks.
The news of Imam Khomeini’s death on June 3, 1989 was marked by extreme grief both in Iran as well as outside. Millions of people in Iran participated in his funeral procession in Tehran while tens of millions of others around the country were grief-stricken. While an estimated three million people had welcomed the Imam on February 1, 1979 when he returned from 15 years in exile, more than 10 million people participated in his funeral prayers in Tehran in the scorching summer heat. The authorities in Iran had to urge people from outside Tehran not to come because facilities in the capital were stretched to breaking point. The scenes at his funeral, as witnessed on television, were heartbreaking.
What these demonstrated clearly was that the Imam lived in people’s hearts. He had earned their trust and confidence through self-sacrifice and denial of worldly pleasures. He was bold and courageous but above all, he had unshakable faith in Allah (Â) and His promised help. The people knew that he was a leader of exceptional qualities but he lived a life that was very close to that of ordinary people in Iran. They also knew that he had no personal ambitions in life beyond adhering to the commands of Allah (Â) and eliminating injustice from the face of the earth. These are the attributes of a truly great leader. This, however, is only one dimension of his multifaceted personality.
Imam Khomeini came from a deeply intellectual tradition. From a very early age, he was immersed in the study of ‘irfan (gnosis) and mysticism. His interest in fiqh was aroused much later. It was clear even in his early life that he was deeply troubled by the injustices in society and he reflected on the causes of such malaise. He began to raise and discuss these issues at a relatively young age despite being quite junior in the hierarchical structure of the ‘ulama in Iran. But he was careful not to overstep his authority in the presence of senior figures. It was later when he had reached a more senior position that he began to express his views more forcefully, leading to his arrest by the Shah’s regime and ultimately exile from Iran in 1963. Exile, however, did not deter him from speaking out, and thus he attracted large audiences. There was a yearning among people searching for a leader with courage, knowledge and charisma. They found their ideal in Imam Khomeini.
There are many dimensions of Imam Khomeini’s personality. It is regrettable that apart from ProfessorHamid Algar, perhaps the greatest authority on the Imam, there have not been many scholars that have paid adequate attention to the Imam’s intellectual contribution in numerous fields. Most Muslims around the world became familiar with the Imam’s writings and works through the pioneering efforts of Professor Algar and through the writings of the late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui in the Crescent International. In Tehran, there is also an Institute established for the Compilation of the Works of Imam Khomeini. While it has done some good work, it is largely confined to literature in Farsi and perhaps some material in Arabic. The English works produced by the Institute are of questionable quality.
What is needed is a team of dedicated researchers to concentrate on the writings and declarations of Imam Khomeini to make the rest of the world aware of them. There is a great deal about his intellectual contribution that is unknown to most people. Unless these works are properly researched, analysed and discussed, the world would remain unaware of Imam Khomeini’s contribution in many fields. Even his widely known achievement — leading the Islamic movement to bring about an Islamic revolution in Iran — is not properly understood; even many Muslims do not understand and hence do not appreciate it fully. Some of it is undoubtedly the result of negative propaganda in the western media, and even within the Muslim world financed and supported by such regimes as those in Saudi Arabia or Iraq under Saddam. The West’s animosity toward the Imam is based on the loss it suffered in Iran. He overthrew the West’s favourite puppet and demolished the Western-imposed exploitative order there. This was a major blow to Western interests. This the West could not tolerate, hence the incessant hostile propaganda and negative portrayal of the Imam. They could hardly be expected to extol his virtues. The Islamic State of Iran continues to be viewed with great hostility even today precisely because it refuses to surrender to the West, unlike other regimes in the Muslim world.
The western media’s hostile propaganda is one dimension of the problem. In fact it is confirmation of the fact that the Imam had embarked on a course that was viewed by imperialism and Zionism, the two leading sources of zulm in the world today, as a challenge to their exploitative and anti-human policies. But what explains the hostility of such states as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq under Saddam? These bastions of Arabism are illegitimate entities that were created by western colonialists to serve their interests. The Imam’s successful struggle against the Shah, who was in the mould of all these other rulers, by bringing about an Islamic revolution exposed them completely. This was especially true in the case of Saudi Arabia whose rulers had wrapped themselves in the mantle of custodians of the Two Holy Cities. Muslims worldwide were forced to ask: how could the custodians of the Haramayn be subservient to the kafirs, especially the US, a sworn enemy of Islam?
The hostile propaganda against the Imam was confirmation that his mission was dedicated to the service of Allah (Â). But such propaganda does not fully explain the lack of knowledge among Muslims and other people about the Imam’s immense contribution in such diverse fields as the understanding of the Qur’an, hadith, ‘irfan, fiqh, theology, Muslim political thought, etc. In any case, we should not give too much credit to the Saudis and their ability to influence events in the Muslim world. What is truly lacking is the will and a well-thought-out plan to study the Imam’s contribution. This is an area that awaits serious consideration and attention.
The Islamic Republic commemorates the Imam’s anniversary each year. Guests are invited from all over the world. Papers are presented and conferences held. The commemoration ceremonies culminate in a huge rally at the Imam’s mausoleum in the Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery. Why has a committee of scholars not been appointed and provided facilities to undertake serious research into the writings and thought of the Imam? It serves little purpose to produce numerous volumes of questionable quality and assume that this is all that is required. True, people continue to have deep attachment to the memory of the Imam more than two decades after his departure from this world but his intellectual contribution is of a much higher order and needs to be addressed at the proper level.
This would provide important lessons for the global Islamic movement. It is through the process of learning from our successes as well as failures that we would be able to better tackle the challenges confronting us.