In an age when political leaders are packaged and promoted like detergents, the personality of Imam Khomeini stands out by miles. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest figures of contemporary history ï even western commentators have been forced to admit as much ï but this still does not adequately reflect his total personality, whose influence extends far beyond the borders of Iran. On the tenth anniversary of his passing, therefore, it is appropriate to examine some of the achievements of this remarkable personality in history.
Imam Khomeini emerged from a unique background and tradition in Iran. He was not a political leader in the conventional sense. For him worldly power was not an end but the means to something higher and more noble. The Imam’s approach to politics was shaped by his deep spirituality and attachment to Allah. It was his unshakeable faith in Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala that gave him the strength to stand firm at those crucial moments when others would compromise or give in.
On several occasions during the Revolution some of his supporters urged him to compromise with the Shah because the people would not be able to make any more sacrifices. He would reply simply that we must do what we have to do and leave the result to Allah. It was also his steely resolve that enabled Iran to withstand, alone, the combined might of the confederacy of kufr that invaded Iran through Ba’athist Iraq in September 1980.
No study of the Imam would be complete without first observing the numerous similarities between the life of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, and the Imam’s. A measure of his deep love for the Prophet can be gleaned from the fact that both his sons ï Mustafa and Ahmed ï were named after the Prophet. Like the Messenger of Allah, the Imam also became an orphan young and had to go into exile. The Prophet lived for 10 years after the establishment of the Islamic State; so did the Imam 1400 years later. But what is even more striking is that, following the example of the Prophet, the Imam also spent much time in prayer, especially at night, in whose stillness the human spirit achieves much greater closeness to Allah. Human action sanctified by Allah’s pleasure is the only route to success. Action devoid of such legitimacy proves ephemeral.
With this background in mind, it becomes clear how the Imam achieved what many considered to be an impossible task: the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, leading to the establishment of the Islamic State in Iran, in such a short period of time. The Islamic Revolution occurred when the Shah’s imperial army bristled with the latest weapons the west could provide. It had not been defeated in a war as was the case with the Bolshevik or French revolutions. Instead, the Shah’s regime was backed by the military, political and diplomatic might of the US.
The Imam did not urge the people to take up arms against the regime. The Islamic Revolution ï though one of the bloodiest in contemporary history, in which some 80,000 people, including many women and children, were slaughtered in less than a year by the Shah’s army ï conquered force with patience and passive resistance. For the Imam, the sacrifice of blood was the greatest weapon against the Shah. The people of Iran scaled heroic heights of sacrifice for their noble cause. The Shah’s troops were ultimately drowned in the blood of the shuhada.
This particular phase in Muslim history also sheds light on the greatness of the Imam’s achievement. At the time of the Islamic Revolution, the Muslim world was completely demoralised. The khilafah ï the last vestige of Islamic authority, however tenuous ï had been abolished by Mustafa Kemal in Turkey in March 1924. Throughout the Muslim world, defeat and humiliation stared Muslims in the face, exemplified by the horrible experiences of June 1967 and December 1971. The Ummah was witness to the depressing spectacle of Muslim armies surrendering en masse to the enemies of Islam.
Physical defeat was compounded by the projection of Islam as an outdated ideology. Such demonic notions as nationalism, Arabism, socialism, Ba’athism, communism and so on ï products of the western mind which had already pronounced the ‘death’ of God ï reigned supreme. Islamic activists throughout the Muslim world seemed resigned to a prolonged period of hard struggle before seeing the fruits of their toil.
It was in these circumstances that the Imam’s call for an Islamic Revolution came as a flash of lightning in a sea of darkness. He, however, had an even greater task before him. The Imam first had to move the Shi’i orthodoxy, which shunned all political activity during the ghaybah (occultation) of the twelfth Imam, away from its rigid position. This was a monumental task, but the Imam dealt with it through the guidance of Allah.
Building on the usuli school of thought that had emerged among Shi’i scholars in the eighteenth century, as a more pro-active alternative outlook to the traditional, akhbari understanding among Shi’i ulama, the Imam went on to develop his theory of vilayet-e faqih as the basis for Islamic government. These ideas were presented in a series of lectures in Najaf (in Iraq, where he lived in exile) in the early 1970s. His students took up the cause, making it the basis for the struggle which culminated in the victory of the Islamic Revolution.
The Imam was in exile and had no direct contact with the people, yet he transcended this barrier with customary grace. His speeches were relayed by telephone and recorded by his followers. Thousands of taped copies were then distributed throughout the country. The simple audio-cassette became the vehicle for challenging the most powerful monarchy in the Middle East. Mosques were turned into centres of mobilisation and resistance, restoring them to the status for which the noble Messenger of Allah had built the first masjid in Medina.
After the Islamic Revolution overthrew the west’s favourite client, both the Revolution and the Imam became targets of their vicious propaganda. If the Imam disdained interest in worldly affairs, western commentators branded this the Shi’i practice of taqiyya (dissimulation). New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolaini’s comment is typical: she reported that, when asked how he felt about his triumphant return to Tehran after 15 years in exile, the Imam replied ‘nothing.’ For her this meant that the Imam was not revealing his true feelings.
Westerners often fail to appreciate that not everyone is attached to this world as people in the west are. Muslims, especially those who have achieved nearness to Allah, consider the life of this world ephemeral. Ultimately they will face the Creator to give an account of their sojourn here. The Imam was just such a Muslim; he was not a leader moulded in the ways of the west, unable to contain his joy at being elected to high office, or breaking down in tears when unsuccessful.
This detachment from the world was apparent early in the Imam’s life when his young daughter drowned in a pond. His wife was naturally greatly distressed. Upon hearing the news, the Imam first offered two rakah nafal prayers. Then he went to console his wife by reciting the Qur’anic verse to her: ‘We are from Allah and to Him is our return’ (2:156). Only a man of deep spirituality would react in this way.
When the Imam returned from exile in January 1979 he was welcomed by an estimated three million people in Tehran; more than 10 million people joined his funeral procession in June 1989. The authorities had to urge people from outlying areas not to come to Tehran because the city’s services could not cope with such numbers. How many examples of such profound affection for a leader can one find in the world?
Unlike the practice of so many ‘revolutionary’ leaders around the world, the Imam did not occupy any of the palaces vacated by the Shah. He lived in a simple house with the barest essentials, and he ate simple food. When he passed away, the Imam left behind nothing except a few books.
These were the sum total of this great man’s possessions, who had brought about one of the greatest revolutions of this century. Only a true man of God could live like this. Professor Hamid Algar, a leading authority on Iran, quotes a favourite du’a of the Imam from the Munajat-e Shabanniyyah: ‘O Allah! Grant me total separation from other than You and brighten the vision of our hearts with the vision of looking upon You. So they may pierce the veil of light and attain the fountainhead of magnificence, and our spirits be suspended from the splendor of Your sanctity.’
May Allah have mercy on his departed soul and may he be given a place in Paradise among His chosen servants.
[The writer is Director, Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT)].
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999