Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah

views updated Jun 08 2018

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Born on c. 1900 (Khomein, Persia)
Died on June 3, 1989 (Tehran, Iran)

Religious leader of Iran

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran. He came to power in 1979 in a violent storm of religious fervor. Muslims in Iran and throughout the Middle East were attracted to his rejection of Western-influenced modernization and his emphasis on Islamic tradition. (Western influences came from Western countries such as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States.) But his leadership was in many ways detrimental to Iran: he mismanaged the country's economy, prolonged a bitter and bloody war with Iraq that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iranians, and slowed down the development of the country by many years. He was reviled by many leaders in the West, yet his form of Islamic rule had a great impact on the region and changed the balance of power in the Middle East forever. When he died in 1989 he was hailed by many as a martyr, and he has retained a god-like status among many of his followers.

"Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim. Those who say this are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all."

A childhood dominated by religion

Sayyid Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini was born around 1900. His first name, Ruhollah, means "The Spirit of God," and is a common name in the Shiite branch of Islam. Islam is the religion of the Muslims, and Shiites are members of the branch of Islam that regard Ali, one of the Prophet Muhammad's sons, as the Prophet's legitimate successor. Most Shiites live in Iran.

Khomeini was born in a poor and rural area of Persia (which changed its name to Iran in 1935), about 180 miles southwest of Tehran, the country's capital. He was the youngest of six children. His father, Mustapha Musavi, was the mullah (religious leader) of several towns, including that of Khomein—the birthplace from which the child took his name. Khomeini descended from a long line of religious leaders: his grandfather and brother were both ayatollahs, high-ranking Shiite religious and political leaders who are regarded as authorities on religious law. Most of his childhood was spent discussing religion or reading the Koran, the holy book of Islam. His mother, Hajar, also came from an important religious family. She was the daughter of Ayatollah Mirza Ahmad, a famous religious scholar from Najaf, Iraq, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

When Khomeini was just a few months old, his father was brutally murdered and his mother, a deeply religious woman, was left to care for all six children. Tragically, she died when Khomeini was just fifteen years old, after which his brothers and sisters were left to care for him. At the age of nineteen he was sent to Arak, in central Persia, to study the Koran under the famous Ayatollah Haeri, one of Islam's most important theologians, or religious thinkers, at the time. Khomeini was a very diligent student who excelled in ethics and philosophy. His hard work gained him a place at one of the leading centers of Islamic study in Qom, the holiest city in Persia and the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam. People soon started to take notice of the young student, for his preaching was very political and his dislike of and intolerance for non-Muslims and foreigners was intense. Although Khomeini was never described as a brilliant speaker, the passion with which he spoke inspired people to rally around him. When he rose through the ranks to become a teacher himself, hundreds of students would cram into his classroom to hear his famous lectures on solving his country's problems through religious means.

Political agitation

In 1941 the recently renamed Iran was ruled by a monarchy. The Iranian equivalent of the king, Reza Shah, had just abdicated, or resigned, in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980). The religious leaders of Iran had little tolerance for the royal family, as they regarded the royal lifestyle as decadent and their relationships with Western countries, especially the United States, as a form of treason. At the same time, the shah, as the Iranian leader was called, was trying to modernize Iran and believed that the way to do this was to put less emphasis on religion. The shah thought that, instead of sitting in classrooms reading the Koran, children should be learning the skills that would help them obtain jobs. Khomeini accused the shah of being un-Islamic, cruel, and corrupt. The religious leader and the shah first clashed publicly after the shah held a referendum (proposal put up for public vote) that included women's right to vote. The mullahs were strongly opposed to women's rights, and Khomeini seized on the opportunity to declare that these reforms were simply part of an American plan to rule Iran. His argument would prove to be quite persuasive to those who disliked Western influences in their country.

Sharia and Women's Rights in Islam

Sharia law is the code of law derived from the Koran and from the teachings and examples of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. Sharia is only applicable to Muslims, and under Islamic law there is no separation of church and state. The law is very harsh. For instance, those who steal can be sentenced to having their hands cut off. Those who commit rape are sentenced to death by stoning. Sharia allows men to have four permanent wives and as many temporary wives as they desire. Fathers have full custody over their children. After the father dies, custody of children reverts to the male relatives on the father's side. If a couple divorces, the mother has no right to see her children. If a woman wishes to travel, she must first get permission from her husband.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini expanded the boundaries of Sharia through a more fundamentalist, or deeply conservative, interpretation. Women were not allowed to hold senior positions, such as those of judges or lawyers, and they were forced to cover themselves from head to toe. Birth control was forbidden. The strictest use of Sharia in the 2000s is practiced in Saudi Arabia, but most majority-Muslim countries follow some form of Islamic law within their national law. In early-twenty-first-century Iran, Sharia does not limit all rights for women: almost half of the students attending universities are women; there are many women in the national legislature; and there are successful birth control programs around the country.

In 1944 Khomeini wrote his first political text, demanding that the Iranian government be Islamicized, or reconstructed to conform more closely with Islamic religious law, or Sharia. The type of Iranian society that Khomeini wished to bring about was one where women covered themselves from head to toe in black gowns and head scarves, and where people were not allowed to gamble, drink alcohol, watch Western films, or buy Western products. He also desired to purge Iran of all of its non-Islamic elements, including members of other religious faiths, such as Jews and Christians. To bring about this revolution, however, he would have to use modern means.

Khomeini declared himself on the side of the poor and oppressed in Iran. Hundreds and then thousands flocked to hear him speak. He also continued to educate himself in all areas of Islamic religion and law. Sometime during the 1950s he became an ayatollah and gathered around him a group of devoted followers. His popularity soon came to the attention of the authorities, and the shah, fearing instability, immediately sent troops and secret police to his seminary to arrest him. Khomeini's followers were outraged and staged violent protests in Tehran, but the protests were brutally suppressed and many people were thrown into prison. In 1963 Khomeini himself was arrested and forced into exile. He spent most of the next thirteen years in Najaf, the Shiite spiritual capital in neighboring Iraq, where he built a devoted and increasingly powerful following. He taped his own religious teachings and smuggled them into Iran, and gave many television and radio interviews. He officially denounced the Iranian monarchy with such slogans as "Death to the Shah," and declared he would never cooperate with the monarch again. After declaring war on the shah, he vowed to remove him from power. In 1977 Khomeini's eldest son, Sayyed Mostafa, died suddenly in Najaf. Khomeini believed that the shah's secret police had crossed the border and murdered him as a warning sign to Khomeini. His anger only grew more intense.

The Iranian revolution

The shah of Iran was in charge of one of the most powerful armies in the Middle East and was respected in many capitals throughout the world, from London to Washington. But the protests against him that had erupted after the exile of Khomeini only grew more intense. The shah had failed to spread wealth evenly across the country, and the gap between the rich and the poor was immense. Unemployment was high, and poverty was widespread. Large-scale protests against the shah started to erupt all over the country, and by 1978 the shah could no longer send out his army to suppress the demonstrators. There were now simply too many of them. By this time Khomeini had moved to Neauphle-le-Chateau, France, where he gained global attention from the publication of his speeches. He had firmly secured his position as opposition leader to the shah. The shah came under mounting pressure to step down, and finally, on January 16, 1979, he fled to Cairo, Egypt, on a special jet, leaving many of his possessions behind.

After two weeks of intense fighting and power struggles inside Iran, Khomeini boarded a plane, wearing his famous black turban and long grey beard, and landed at the Tehran airport, where he was met by hundreds of thousands of his cheering followers. From this point onward, such was his power that he was never seriously challenged from within Iran's borders. In March 1979 Iran changed from being a hereditary monarchy to an Islamic republic. A new constitution was drawn up to give ultimate powers to a national religious leader, Khomeini, for his lifetime. Khomeini commanded the army, he directed foreign policy, and he had the power to get rid of the elected president. In short, he was all-powerful. Khomeini's first prime minister was Mehdi Bazargan (1905–1995), a seventy-two-year-old moderate. Bazargan only ruled for eight months, as differences of opinion between the secular (non-religious) and religious elements of the ruling elites became too difficult to manage. Khomeini, who was a master at dealing with people, never took sides with any faction, in order to remain popular. But he could also be very brutal, as when he exacted vengeance on those who had been loyal to the shah. Nearly one thousand of the shah's officials were executed when Khomeini took power, and by the mid-1990s it was estimated that nearly five thousand people had been killed, with forty-five thousand more thrown into prison by the Khomeini regime.

The U.S. hostage crisis and war with Iraq

The Islamic revolution took a violent turn in 1979 when the U.S. embassy in Iran was overtaken by a group of Iranian militants, who took hostage the entire U.S. staff. Their demands were simple: they wanted the shah, who was receiving medical treatment in the United States, returned to Iran to face trial. Khomeini backed the students' actions, but his prime minister, Bazargan, resigned in disapproval as panic spread over what action the U.S. government might take. Embassy workers were held hostage for 444 days and only released when Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–1981) as U.S. president in January 1981. Following the 1979 revolution and the fear that Khomeini inspired in Western countries, Iran was perceived throughout the world as a threat to peace and stability.

No country was more threatened by the rise of an Islamic fundamentalist government in Iran than neighboring Iraq. In September 1980 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (1937–; see entry), the secular leader of Iraq, sent his armies across the border and into Iran in an attempt to topple the Khomeini regime. The world largely supported Saddam Hussein, who was expected to defeat the Iranian religious conservatives. But the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) did not go as expected. The large Iranian army fought for two bloody years, until Iraqi forces were pushed back into Iraq. The war cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides. Instead of rebuilding his damaged country, however, Khomeini made a great error: he decided to invade Iraq. This decision prolonged the war for another six years and cost almost one million Iranian and Iraqi lives. It also nearly destroyed the Iranian economy. The war was one of the most expensive since World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), costing an estimated $400 billion and creating 1.5 million refugees.

At the same time Iranian authorities were struggling with ideological disagreements within their ranks over religious policies, particularly the predominance of religious law over civilian law. Khomeini did not intervene, but it was clear that he stood in favor of religious law. By 1988 Khomeini realized that the war with Iraq had ruined the country's economy and earned Iran even greater hostility from the United States. In a surprising reversal, Khomeini accepted a United Nations (UN; an international organization founded in 1945 and made up of most of the countries of the world) Security Council call for a cease-fire. In a speech, he acknowledged that the acceptance of the UN contradicted his preachings about never giving in to the demands of the West.

After the war Khomeini became very ill and appeared less and less in public. He was reportedly suffering from cancer of the liver. He still managed to shock the world from his deathbed, however, when he issued a fatwa (a statement of religious law issued by an Islamic cleric) ordering that all Muslims hunt down and kill author Salman Rushdie (1947–), whose book The Satanic Verses Khomeini considered blasphemous (profane and disrespectful). Rushdie was forced into hiding in London for several years. Khomeini's last important decision was to order a review of his 1979 constitution that had concentrated power in the hands of the executive president. He wanted new rules drafted for the selection of a new president, but his wishes were not carried out.

After only eleven days in the hospital, following an operation to stop internal bleeding, Khomeini died on June 3, 1989. Authorities were not supposed to reveal his burial location, but news of the site was leaked and a crowd of over one million gathered around it. A mob of thousands of young religious men broke into the funeral procession and damaged his coffin. The authorities were forced to carry out a second funeral, in which Khomeini was interred in a steel casket that was surrounded by hundreds of guards. Many in contemporary Iranian society consider Khomeini a martyr. His wife, Khadija, and four children survive him, as does the Islamic government that he founded. However, many of Iran's problems have continued. Iran has remained a government that is shunned by many Western countries, even as it is admired by those who would bring Islamic revolution to their own land.

For More Information


Harmon, Daniel E. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

Harris, David. The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah: 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam. New York: Little, Brown, 2004.

Husain, Akbar. The Revolution in Iran. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Enterprises, 1988.

Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: The Life of the Ayatollah. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Taheri, Amir. The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Bethesda, MD: Adler and Adler, 1986.

Willett, Edward. Ayatollah Khomeini. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2004.

Web Sites

"Ayatollah Khomeini." Iran Chamber Society. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

"Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini." Time Online. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

Khomeini, Ruhollah

views updated May 29 2018

Ruhollah Khomeini

BORN: c. 1902 • Khomein, Iran

DIED: June 3, 1989 • Tehran, Iran

Iranian religious cleric, political leader

The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an Iranian political and spiritual leader who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran. He served as its Supreme Leader until the time of his death. Opposed to Western influence and the secularization (separation of government from direct religious influences) of Iran, Khomeini joined the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran in 1979. Officially ordained as the Leader of the Revolution, he called for Islamic revolutionaries across the Muslim world to follow Iran's example. The Iran Hostage Crisis and the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) occurred under his leadership. He was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1979 and appeared on its cover again in 1980 and in 1987.

"Islam was dead or dying for nearly fourteen centuries; we have revived it with the blood of our youth…. We shall soon liberate Jerusalem and pray there."

A Persian heritage

Ruhollah Khomeini was born in the rural town of Khomein, south of the capital city of Tehran, Iran. His exact date of birth is disputed but generally is recorded between 1900 and 1902, the same time as the birth of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (see box). Ruhollah was the son and grandson of Shiite mullah's (Muslim religious leaders) who were minor landowners. His grandfather, Seyyid Ahmad, migrated to Khomein from India, but the family historically originated in northeastern Iran. Men in the family assumed the title of Seyyid because they claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad (571–632). Ruhollah's father, Seyyid Mostafa, died while Ruhollah was an infant. His mother, Sadiqeh, and an aunt raised Ruhollah and his four siblings in Khomein. His early education was in the local religious school with private tutors added later for special subjects such as logic and science. Before his sixteenth birthday both his mother and his aunt had died, leaving Ruhollah under the guardianship of his elder brother, Morteza.

The Constitutional Revolution in Iran

At the turn of the century, Iran was in a state of chaos with Russian influence in the north and British influence in the south of the country. The central authority of the Shah (king) in Tehran was limited by the power of rural chieftains and khans (landowners), in addition to the interference by foreign powers. In an effort to modernize the political system and end foreign influence, a group of intellectuals and high-ranking clerics proposed a written code of laws for Iran. Their stated goal was to establish a democratic government where the people would rule themselves.

Opponents viewed the reforms as the Westernization of Muslim Iran. The resulting dispute brought about the Constitutional Revolution in 1905. An elected government was established and a constitution was written in 1906. The parliamentary system limited the scope of royal power. Many clerics joined the new order as teachers and legislators. Although the constitution still relied on Islamic law, other clerics remained resentful about the events that altered their role and authority in Iranian society.

The Nationalists who supported the Shah, and the Democrats who supported the Constitution, briefly lived together peacefully. However, the Shah soon had many Democrats detained on a variety of charges. Some were killed and others sought asylum (safety) with foreign embassies. After bloody riots broke out in the streets of Tehran, the Shah dissolved the National Assembly and declared martial law (law enforcement placed in the hands of a military rather than civil authorities). The fighting ended in 1909 with the Democrats gaining complete control of the capital and the government. The Shah was forced into exile in Russia and his thirteen-year-old son was named as his successor. The National Assembly continued to struggle for control of the country throughout the difficult years of World War I and into the 1920s.

As World War I (1914–18) came to an end, Ruhollah prepared to continue his education in an Islamic (see box) seminary. In 1921, he chose the seminary in Arak in order to study under some of the most prominent clerics of his time. Seminary students wore skull caps and short jackets until they commited themselves to religious learning and were initiated at a special ceremony. Ruhollah was initiated in the summer of 1922. He exchanged his skull cap for the customary turban, which identifies a true seeker (talabeh) who has publicly committed to a new way of life. It is a symbol of respect and responsibility in Muslim society and is worn with a long cloak and tunic. Ruhollah's turban was black because he was a seyyid. Non-seyyids who are members of the clergy wear white turbans and are known as sheikhs.

After his initiation, Ruhollah followed his teacher and mentor to the emerging seminary at Qum (also spelled Qom), located ninety miles south of Tehran. Attaching oneself to a successful mentor was very important in the competitive atmosphere of a seminary because major scholars were assured monetary support from wealthy Muslim donors. Under the guidance of his mentor, Ruhollah studied law and Islamic taxation. He also took a special interest in mystical philosophy (Irfan). After graduation, Ruhollah spent many years teaching as well as writing extensively on these subjects. In 1929, he married Khadija Thaqafi, the daughter of a wealthy and respected cleric. They had several children during their sixty-year marriage.

The turban and the crown

In 1921, Reza Khan Mirpanj (1878–1944) led a coup (surprise overthrow of the government) in Iran that eventually gave him supreme power as the King of Kings. He became Shah and founded the Pahlavi dynasty to carry on his line of descent. Reza Khan believed that adopting Western institutions and creating a modern economy was the only way for the country to rid itself of poverty and foreign interference. He pursued a secular (not related to religion) campaign with a dress code which required men to wear European suits and hats. Mullahs had to apply for a permit in order to keep their religious dress and traditional turbans. Ruhollah helped his students with their exams to ensure they qualified to keep their clerical dress. Ultimately, Reza Khan introduced a controversial law forbidding women to wear veils. The religious community resisted Reza Khan's move toward republicanism (a government run by representatives elected by the public) and fought any legal changes that might weaken Islam. In 1941, British and Soviet troops occupied Iran forcing Reza Khan into exile in South Africa. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was sworn in as the Shah while still in his early twenties.

Ruhollah led a delegation of mullahs to Tehran in order to protest the continuation of the Pahlavi dynasty when Mohammad-Reza was sworn in. However, he returned to Qum without having experienced much support. The following year he published the first version of his booklet Kahf-ol-Asrar (Key to the Secrets), which condemned anyone who criticized Islam. Three years later, an author he had specifically mentioned in his booklet was murdered by the terrorist group Fedayin-e-Islam (Martyrs of Islam) for criticizing the faith and therefore betraying Islam.


Islam is the youngest of the world's great universal religions in the twenty-first century. A follower of Islam is called a Muslim (one who submits). The founding of the Muslim community began under Muhammad the Messenger, born around 571 ce in the stony valley of Mecca, in current day Saudi Arabia. The final word of Allah (God) given to his prophet Mohammed is recorded in the Qur'an (also known as the Koran). This divine revelation of commands, rewards, and punishments was originally written in Arabic. Its central article of faith states that "There is no God but Allah."

After the Qur'an, the next most important Islamic text is the Hadith. It is a record of the acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The Hadith transmits the sunna, the traditions and practices of the Prophet, to illustrate what he would approve of even into modern times. Islam emphasizes the brotherhood of men in fulfilling the will of Allah. So it is a matter of great concern that a clear direction specifically outlines the moral and social regulations for living a good life. A Muslim communes (intimately communicates) with Allah at all times. Therefore, there is no separation between faith and life, including politics and business, to a believer. Mecca remains the most holy city in Islam. It is a focal point for all Muslims as well as the center of the hajj, the foremost of all Muslim rituals. The hajj is a compulsory pilgrimage to Mecca that is undertaken by over two million Muslims each year.

Muslims conceive of their religion as a community that obeys Allah not with passive acceptance, but in the joyful performance of the Sharia (Way), which is the Law of Islam. The Sharia is seen as a comprehensive legal system that governs all phases of Islamic life. For the first four centuries of Islam, the collecting of the Hadith and the codification of the Law were the chief activities of Muslim scholars. Of the various law schools that formed, four survived as the main body of Sunni (Traditional) Muslims. The four accepted schools that define religious duties and interpretations of the law are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali. Branching off of the main body of Muslims are a variety of sects, Shiites, who feel they are set apart from all other Muslims and regard Sunnis as enemies of the faith.

In the 1950s, Ruhollah was acclaimed as an ayatollah (major religious leader). He changed his surname to the town of his birth in accordance with clerical tradition. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had long been interested in politics. He was widely read on the subject but now took an active role in the process. Initially, like his mentor before him, Khomeini viewed the clergy's role in politics as supervisory rather than as outright rule. He was reluctant to claim personal leadership. Ultimately, he would side with the activist faction of Islam to promote an Islamic state.

The Shah had already indicated he no longer needed the support of the clerics as he proceeded with his father's secular modernization throughout the 1950s. The government announced a legislative bill in 1962 that would allow women to vote for the first time. It also did not require candidates for local councils to be Muslims. Khomeini considered this an attack on traditional Islam and began a political campaign against the Shah. His power base was among the bazaar (a market place where many kinds of goods are sold) merchants, guilds (an association of people in the same trade or business), and lower clergy of Iran who were not opposed to Islamic reform but traditionally resisted challenging government power because of the possible financial penalties. This group was now open to disputing the authorities because they felt their livelihood was threatened by the Shah's attempt to shift power toward the new commercial and industrial middle class.

With the passing of time, it became evident that there was a need for a new style of leadership in the clergy if the mullahs were to fight secularization and the narrowing of their powers. People were looking for an individual leader to unite the faithful and bring together all the diverse views of Islam, especially in Iran and Iraq. With his position of leadership established, Khomeini easily found followers among the devout. His black turban ensured financial contributions could be counted on. Muslims believed a donation tax to Khomeini would gain Allah's favor because he was a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. The money he brought in allowed Khomeini to increase his influence among the clergy by spending it in the theological centers. In 1963, Khomeini began to use his position as a spiritual leader in Iran to publicly denounce the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He went on to condemn the United States and Israel as co-conspirators with the Shah in their efforts to erase Islam. The Shah responded by forcing Khomeini into exile in 1964. He first went to Turkey, then Iraq, and finally to France in 1978.

The rule of the Ayatollah

During his exile, Khomeini continued to agitate for revolution. He sent tapes of his sermons to circulate in bazaars and homes in Iran. Over time, he became the acknowledged leader of the opposition. Khomeini wrote a book titled Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists that outlined his plan for an Islamic republic in Iran. When the Shah was deposed in January 1979, he fled to the West for safety. Khomeini was invited to return to Iran, where he declared a provisional (temporary) government while elections were prepared. Former members of the overthrown monarchy faced vigilante (groups of people administering punishment outside the law) bands who were merciless in the wake of the revolution. Human rights violations included mass interrogations (questioning) and executions of anyone who opposed the revolutionary government.

The Iranian people voted overwhelmingly to replace the monarchy with an Islamic republic and a new constitution. Every eight years, the citizens of Iran would elect a group of clerics called the Assembly of Experts. This assembly would select and monitor the Supreme Leader, who would have absolute authority in the theocratic system (government ruled by religious authority). The constitution also required that a president be elected every four years from a group of approved candidates. Khomeini was officially ordained as the Leader of the Revolution and initiated as the Supreme Leader for life in the new Islamic Republic of Iran.

Anti-American sentiment was running high in Iran. In reaction to the American refusal to return the Shah to Iran for trial, Khomeini supporters seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, taking hostages. Additional hostages were taken at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Khomeini announced that Iran's Parliament would decide the fate of the American embassy hostages. Before long, the Americans launched a failed rescue mission. Fifty men and two women were held hostage for 444 days before their release was finally negotiated.

Islamic revolution

Sharia (Islamic law) was introduced under the Ayatollah Khomeini's rule with a dress code for both men and women. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were allowed only as long as they did not contradict Islamic law. Opposition to the religious rule of the clergy or Islam was not tolerated at any level. Those who disliked post-revolutionary Iran were allowed to leave the country.

Khomeini called for Islamic revolutionaries across the Muslim world to follow Iran's example. He called his campaign an effort to export the revolution. The secular state of neighboring Iraq viewed Khomeini's campaign as dangerous because it threatened to incite Iraq's majority Shiites as it had done in Iran. Believing Iran to be in a weakened position, Iraq launched a full-scale invasion of Iran in September 1980, an act which started the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq's aggression was supported by the West, who feared the possibility of the spread of Islamic revolutions throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf states. The high costs of the eight-year war finally convinced the involved parties to accept a truce negotiated by the United Nations (an international organization founded in 1945 composed of most of the countries in the world). Nothing was gained by either party.

In early 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious decree) against a British Muslim author named Salman Rushdie. Although Rushdie had no ties to Iran, Khomeini considered his novel, The Satanic Verses, offensive to Islam and to the prophet Muhammad. Khomeini called for Muslims everywhere to kill Rushdie if given the opportunity, as it was their religious duty. Rushdie went into hiding and eluded capture. Suffering from cancer, Khomeini died a few months later. However, the fatwa lived on, contributing to the bitterness existing between Iran and the West. Millions of Iranians mourned the loss of their leader, who was buried at Behesht Zahra cemetery in Tehran.

For More Information


Hoveyda, Fereydoun. The Shah and the Ayatollah: Iranian Mythology and Islamic Revolution. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003.

Martin, Vanessa. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran. New York: I. B. Tauris & Co., 2000.

Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: The Life of the Ayatollah. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Taheri, Amir. The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler Publishers, Inc., 1986.


"Time 100: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini." Time Magazine. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah

views updated May 11 2018

Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah 1902-1989


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He was born on September 24, 1902, in the western Iranian town of Khomein to a clerical family. His father Mustafa was murdered by bandits when Khomeini was five months old. His older brother Sayyid Murtaza (later known as Ayatollah Pasandida) assumed responsibility for Khomeinis education after their mother died in 1918.

At nineteen, Khomeini traveled to nearby Arak, where he studied religion under Ayatollah Abd al-Karim Hairi, a well-known Islamic scholar. Khomeini followed Hairi to the Fayzieh madrasa (religious college) in Qom the following year, where Khomeini distinguished himself in ethics and religious philosophy. Upon completing his education, Khomeini taught Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. After Hairis death in 1937, he became an assistant to Ayatollah Husayn Boroujerdi, one of the leading Shiite authorities of the day. Khomeinis residence in Qom coincided with the rise of Reza Shah, who curtailed the influence of the clergy as he centralized authority.

In 1932 he married the daughter of a prominent Tehran cleric and had seven children, five of whom survived infancy. Both sons died under mysterious circumstanceshis eldest son Mustafa in Najaf in 1977 and his youngest son Ahmad died in Tehran in 1995.

Khomeini published his first tract on spiritual philosophy at age twenty-seven. His reputation as a teacher of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He published his first major book, Kashf al-Asrar (Secrets Revealed), in 1944, to refute an influential antireligious pamphlet published several years before.

Khomeini catapulted to the national stage in 1962 after he publicly opposed a government reform package that included land reform, womens suffrage, and a provision which would allow the religious minority Bahais to seek office. He was a master of rhetoric and coalesced an opposition including traditional clergy, nationalists, and the poor. After Khomeini denounced the Iranian government on June 5, 1963, the shah ordered his arrest, but he was soon released because of popular pressure. After two more arrests, on November 4, 1964, the shah exiled Khomeini to Turkey from where he made his way to Najaf.

It was during his Iraqi exile that, in 1970, Khomeini wrote Hukumat-i Islami (Islamic government) that outlined his theory of vilayat-i faqih (guardianship of the jurists) in which he countered the traditional Shiite opposition to direct clerical rule. Khomeinis followers smuggled many of his sermons into Iran by audiocassette.

Protests erupted on January 7, 1978, after a state-controlled newspaper questioned Khomeinis sexuality and patriotism. Police fired onto the crowds, beginning a cycle of escalating demonstrations. In October 1978, Khomeini flew to France where he received Iranian visitors and the Western press. The shah fled Iran on January 16, 1979. On February 1, 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran and, two months later, declared the Islamic Republic. As supreme leader (rahbar ) and against the backdrop of the U.S. hostage crisis and Iran-Iraq War, he launched a cultural revolution and consolidated his power in a series of bloody purges. Khomeini died on June 4, 1989.

SEE ALSO Fundamentalism; Fundamentalism, Islamic; Iranian Revolution; Iran-Iraq War; Religion


Khomeini, Ruhollah. 1981. Islam and Revolution: Writing and Declarations, trans. Hamid Algar. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Moin, Baqer. 1999. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. London: I. B. Tauris.

Michael Rubin

Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah

views updated May 21 2018

Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shi'i Muslim cleric and instructor, played a central role in the Iranian Revolution of 1978 to 1979 and orchestrated the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini first became a well-known public figure when he spoke out during the 1960s against the failings and policies of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the shah of Iran, denouncing the government's corruption, repression, secularism, and alliance with the United States. Khomeini was further incensed when the government gave women suffrage and extended the legal privileges of Americans in Iran. Khomeini demanded the shah's resignation, after which the government soon deported Khomeini to Turkey.

The next year, Khomeini was expelled to Iraq, where he maintained contact with Iranians by smuggling into Iran cassettes of his sermons, through which he continued to condemn the shah's government. In 1978 Khomeini was deported to France, where it was easier to sustain these contacts. Throughout his years in exile, Khomeini increased his credibility and fame for his opposition to the shah due to both the wide circulation of his sermons and his network of former students who were rising in the religious ranks.

Meanwhile, living conditions in Iran had worsened throughout the 1970s despite Iran's massive oil reserves. Iranians increasingly blamed the failures of the shah's economic policies, government corruption, and repression for the status quo, and looked to Khomeini, whose charisma and religious rhetoric proved to be effective unifying mechanisms. In Iran's diverse political spectrum, the only commonalities among the various groups were their resentment of the shah and their shared cultural background, of which Shi'i Islam is a major part.

In 1978, as Iranians were increasingly frustrated with the government and pushing for reform, a government-owned newspaper attacked Khomeini with dubious accusations. Students and merchants in Qom, the city where Khomeini had received his training, protested spontaneously and the army ended the demonstration with force, killing some seventy students. At the customary memorial gatherings held after forty days, more demonstrating mourners were killed; the initial incident led to a recurrence of demonstrations and deaths every forty days. Khomeini encouraged the demonstrations from France via his students' networks and cassette distributions. By January 1979, the shah's military backing was collapsing and he fled the country; Khomeini returned to Iran two weeks later.

From the time of Khomeini's return until 1982, circumstances in Iran were precarious and chaotic. During this period, religious and secular sectors struggled for control of Iran's future, and an Islamic theocracy was only one of several alternatives. Khomeini launched a number of measures to root out the opposition, including the Islamic Republic Party, the Revolutionary Guards, and tribunals. Khomeini also established the Council of Guardians, a body that has veto power over all legislation, and installed himself as supreme leader.

Although the Islamic regime under Khomeini sought a comprehensive, severe Islamization of society, it has been forced to reverse or soften many policies. For example, despite Khomeini's efforts to curtail women's rights in the early 1980s, women have successfully campaigned to overturn many of these rulings and have secured some legal advantages that they lacked under the shah.

see also Iran.


Abrahamian, Ervand. Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Algar, Hamid, ed. and trans. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini. Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981.

Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Martin, Vanessa. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran. London and New York: Tauris, 2000.

Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Khomeini, Ruhollah

views updated Jun 08 2018

Khomeini, Ruhollah (1900–89) Iranian ayatollah (religious leader). An Islamic scholar with great influence over his Shi'ite students, he published (1941) an outspoken attack on Reza Pahlavi and remained an active opponent of his son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Exiled in 1964, he returned to Iran in triumph after the fall of the Shah in 1979. His rule was characterized by strict religious orthodoxy, elimination of political opposition, and economic turmoil. In 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwa (death order) against the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie. He was succeeded by Hashemi Rafsanjani. See also Iran-Iraq War

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