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Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi

Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902–1989) was an Iranian Shīʿī cleric and leader of the Islamic Revolution. Born into a longstanding clerical family in Khomein, a small village in central Iran, he was the youngest of six children. His father, Muṣṭafā, who had studied theology in Isfahan and Najaf, was murdered seven months after Khomeini 's birth.

As a child, Khomeini studied Arabic, Persian poetry, and calligraphy at a government school and a maktab (elementary religious school). When he was sixteen, his mother and aunt, both of whom had been strong influences on him, died. At seventeen, he left Khomein to study in a madrasah (Islamic school) in Arak under Shaykh ʿAbd al-Karīm Ḥāʿirī Yazdī (1859–1936) and later followed him to Qom. There, he completed the three steps of religious education, and by the early 1930s he had become a mujtahid. At twenty-seven, he married Batūl Saqafī.

In the 1930s, Khomeini, as a very confident teacher with a growing circle of students, began to expound on ethics in response to Reza Shah Pahlavi 's modernization and secularization of Iran. Khomeini gave public lectures which brought him to the attention of the authorities for the first time. When Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in 1941, Khomeini saw it as the thin end of the wedge of a Western ideological and cultural offensive. To counteract this influence, Khomeini advocated a united clerical establishment.

His first political statement appeared in a visitors ’ book in a mosque at Yazd in 1944. It began with the Qurʿānic verse, “Say, I do admonish you on one point: that you do not stand up for God, in pairs or singly.” The significant point in the lines that followed was his emphasis on rising up in the name of God.

By the end of the 1940s Khomeini 's interest in the political field, which he considered just as much part of Islam as philosophy and theology, increased. In the early 1950s, he was to witness the rise of the nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh and his rapid fall brought about by the United States and Britain. In 1962, when the chief Iranian theologian, Ayatollah Moḥammad Ḥosayn Borujerdi, died, the burden of fusing religion and politics fell to Khomeini, whose aim was more to islamize politics than to politicize Islam.

The shah 's secularization policies of the early 1960s gave Khomeini his first excuse to oppose the ruler. He accused the government of aping the West and eroding Islam, and he showed great ability in mobilizing his network of opposition. Bāzārīs were one group which increasingly turned to Khomeini, as they felt their livelihood was threatened by the shah 's attempt to shift power to the burgeoning commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. Khomeini helped the merchants to establish an alliance of Islamic missions. Some of Khomeini 's trusted students, such as Murtaẓ¨ā Muṭahharī and Muḥammad Ḥusayn Bihishtī, acted as this alliance 's supervisory body, whose core members were later to create the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

During the mourning ceremonies in the month of Muḥarram in 1963, Khomeini took the opportunity to utilize the Shīʿī zeal for tragedy and martyrdom by comparing the shah 's regime with that of the hated Caliph Yazīd, who had killed Imam ʿAlī 's son, Ḥusayn. On the day of ʿĀshūrāʿ, Khomeini delivered a forceful sermon railing against the shah, Israel, and the United States, ending with a warning to the shah to heed his actions. The result was a wave of anti-shah marches in Tehran that day and the next, which prompted the shah to have Khomeini arrested and removed to Tehran.

Such was Khomeini 's stature in the country after his imprisonment and house arrest in Tehran that the government seemed anxious to appease him, for it understood only too well that he was now the undisputed leader of disparate factions within Iranian society. In a series of statements, he turned his attention away from Islamic rituals to the social, political, and cultural aspect of Islam. His speech on the issue of granting extraterritorial rights to the United States led to his arrest again in October 1964. Thereupon, Khomeini was sent into exile in Turkey; from there he went to Najaf. In Najaf, Khomeini set about emphasizing to the clergy that they had a responsibility to introduce Islamic laws, rules, and codes to the educated youth, and indeed it was with left-wing, anti-shah Iranian student organizations abroad that Khomeini now started to develop a strong relationship. His written statements and audiotapes were widely distributed and proved to be most effective weapons in the buildup to the revolution. Likewise, the preachings of ʿAlī Sharīʿatī, Murtaz¨ā Muṭahharī, and Maḥmud Ṭāleqāni brought intellectuals into the Khomeini camp.

Khomeini returned to Tehran in February 1979 as the imam—a title used in the Arab Shīʿī world for a religious leader. He had come to serve the clergy and Iranian society, which had been transformed by revolution. Khomeini 's main objectives for the future were twofold: to control those forces unleashed by the revolution and to consolidate his regime. Mehdi Bazargan, who had successfully attracted many young people to religion in the 1960s and 1970s, was appointed prime minister of an interim government, with the task of preparing Iran for the transition from a monarchy to an Islamic republic, which was approved by referendum in March 1979. The IRP was set up by a group of Khomeini 's disciples, which included ʿAlī Akbar Hāshimī Rafsanjānī, Muḥammad Javād Bāhunar, ʿAbd al-Karīm Ardabīlī, ʿAlī Khameneʿi, and Bihishtī. Khomeini, then aged seventy-seven, withdrew to Qom.

Bazargan felt his wings clipped by Khomeini supporters within government departments, the revolutionary committees, radio, and television. Together with some leading clergy, such as Ayatollahs Muḥammad Kāẓim Sharīʿatmadārī and Ḥasan Ṭabāṭabāʿī Qummī, liberals, lawyers, and minority leaders, he was critical of the IRP and the revolutionary courts. Two days after the seizure of the U.S. embassy by a group of students, Bazargan resigned. Affairs were left in the hands of the Revolutionary Council, under Bihishtī. Khomeini, however, always had the last word.

Shortly after the hostage-taking, a newly formed rival party called the MPIRP, which had the support of Sharīʿatmadārī, tried to seize power in Tabrīz. It failed but demonstrated that even among the ʿulamāʿ there was a diversity of ideas on government. However, Khomeini was not prepared to compromise with anyone over his vision of the Islamic Republic. In November 1979 the Assembly of Experts drafted the Islamic constitution, which mandated three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), presided over by a jurisprudent.

The following month the constitution was ratified in a national referendum, followed by the election of Abol-Hasan Bani Sadr as president in January 1980. The son of an ayatollah, Bani Sadr, a self-styled Islamic economics expert, political writer, and long-winded speaker, was an admirer of Mossadegh and not a believer in clerical supremacy. Also, he was no match for the leader of the IRP, Bihishtī. The former student of Khomeini, Bihishtī was instrumental in the political transition of power from the shah to Khomeini, highly instrumental in controlling the machinery of revolutionary terror, and the formulator of the constitution.

The eight-year war with Iraq (1980–1988) was a great testing time for Khomeini and one which he withstood. Coming as it did soon after the revolution, it led to food rationing, shortages, and other economic troubles. To extreme dissatisfaction, Khomeini told the nation that revolution was not about material well-being and went on to pursue the war regardless of the burden it imposed on the country. In fact, he used the war to undermine various institutions to sustain the regime.

As with Bazargan 's prime ministry, Bani Sadr 's presidency was neither smooth nor long. He immediately set about resolving the hostage issue, seeing the students in the U.S. embassy as potential rivals. But in the long run he succeeded in antagonizing Iran 's radical and anti-Western forces and Khomeini himself. He filled the presidential office and other organizations with Western-trained technocrats who had little sympathy for “reactionary” or “incompetent” religious leaders. Even his supporters in the Majlis (parliament) ultimately went to the IRP side, as they found Bani Sadr 's tactics abrasive, ill timed, and provocative. Further confrontation took place when Muḥammad ʿAlī Rajāʿī was appointed prime minister by the Majlis on Khomeini 's recommendation. In the conduct of the war, too, Bani Sadr clashed with Khomeini.

Events in summer 1981 were potentially perilous for Khomeini. Amid all the differences between the religious establishment and Bani Sadr, who had recently gained the support of the Mujāhidīn-i Khalq, Khomeini dismissed Bani Sadr and replaced him with Rajāʿī. The Mujāhidīn took the streets and Bani Sadr called for a mass uprising. On June 28, a bomb in the IRP head-quarters killed Bihishtī and more than seventy others, followed by another bomb on August 30, killing the president of five weeks, Rajāʿī, and his prime minister, Bāhūnar. Khomeini appealed to the nation in a broadcast to spy on the neighbors and hunt out the opposition, the counterrevolutionaries, which the nation obligingly did, heralding a period of indiscriminate imprisonment, torture, and killing.

Khomeini, victorious again, this time decided to exclude all who did not agree with political Islam and vilāyat-i faqih. Thus the upper religious class came to take over the government of the country, more serving Islam through Iran than serving Iran through Islam. In October 1981 Ḥujjat al-Islām ʿAlī Khameneʿi became the third president of Iran, with Mīr Ḥusayn Mūsavī, a member of the central council of the IRP, as prime minister. Rafsanjānī took over the Majlis and Ardabīlī the judiciary. So Khomeini could now relax with the knowledge that his former disciples were in charge of the country. “We [i.e., the clergy] are here to stay,” he told his critics.

In a speech in summer 1982, Khomeini said, “Our aim is to rid Iraq of its tyrannical rulers and move to liberate Jerusalem.” But internal shortages and external pressure in response to Iran 's intransigent policies put Khomeini on the defensive. He defied all those who continually pleaded with him to agree to end the war. Opposition to continuation of the war after the liberation of Khorramshahr, which had fallen to the enemy early on, grew inside the country.

Khomeini pursued the war regardless of the burden it imposed on the country. He was growing bolder in focusing on Islamic internationalism. His 1987 message entitled “The Charter of the Islamic Revolution,” which he sent to Iranian officials in Saudi Arabia, began with the Qurʿānic verse: “And he who goes forth from his house, a migrant to God and his Apostle, should he die his reward becomes due and sure with God” (sūrah4:100).

By early 1988, Khomeini 's promise that the final offensive would bring military victory had become palpably unattainable. In April 1988, Iran lost the dearly won Fāw peninsula. Meanwhile the “War of the Cities” reached its peak with Iraq firing long-range missiles at Iranian cities. After each Iraqi missile, a new wave of resentment came to the surface over the inability of the regime to protect its citizens. Donations for the war were drying up. Volunteers were scarce. Soldiers were deserting from the war front. Diplomatic pressures were mounting, and Iranians increasingly felt the effects of the tightening of the international black-market loophole.

Khomeini 's defensive tone was evident in his opening speech to the Majlis read out by his son Aḥmad on May 28, 1988. Khomeini was feeling adversity both internally and internationally. The last straw for him came on July 3, 1988, when an American warship shot down an Iran Air Airbus, killing 290 on board, the ship 's crew claiming that it had mistaken the plane for an attacking jet fighter. He finally realized that his revolution was in serious trouble. Faced with the choice between the continuation of the revolutionary struggle and the survival of the republic, he chose the latter. In the biannual meeting of the Assembly of Experts on July 16, the frail ayatollah 's willingness to seek a diplomatic solution to the war was first discussed, and on July 18 Iran unconditionally accepted United Nations Security Council resolution 598. Two days later Khomeini issued a statement declaring that he had accepted the truce in the interest of the revolution and the Islamic system. It was, said the old man, more bitter for him than a poisoned chalice.

Having suppressed or driven underground all organized opposition, Khomeini had had time to look at the question of succession. He firmly told the Assembly of Experts to choose the next leader. It took the assembly more than two years to reach a decision. In November 1985 it was announced that the assembly had appointed Ayatollah Ḥusayn ʿAlī Muntaẓirī to succeed. Muntaẓirī acted as a loyal opposition leader, often protesting against human rights abuses, corruption, and red tape. But on foreign policy he was more in tune with the radicals, especially in their anti-Americanism. When the radicals tried to turn Muntaẓirī 's office into a power center from which to seize control of the leadership after Khomeini 's death, Rafsanjānī, Ayatollah ʿAlī Mishkini, and Aḥmad Khomeini responded with alarm and caused a souring of relations between Khomeini and Muntaẓirī.

Muntaẓirī was blunt: “Unfortunately,” he said, “… I agree with the new generation of the revolution that there is a great distance between what we promised and what we have achieved … [I]f government means to compromise our values and principles, we had better not have government.” For Khomeini, who valued ideology only if it could be translated into power and for whom the road to holiness was only through action, abjuring governmental control could only be a worst-case scenario. Muntaẓirī 's stand highlighted Khomeini 's increasingly defensive posture since he had accepted the ceasefire.

What tipped the balance was Khomeini 's fatwā (edict) in February 1989 against Salman Rushdie following the publication of that author's The Satanic Verses, sentencing him to death for what many Muslims saw as an attack against the integrity of the prophet Muḥammad. He called on all intrepid Muslims to execute both Rushdie and his publishers. He said, “Whoever is killed on this path would be regarded as a martyr.” By issuing this fatwā Khomeini was putting himself forward as leader of entire Islamic world and became the putative spokesman for Muslims everywhere. In March 1989 Khomeini removed Muntaẓirī from office and set up a body to review the constitution.

Khomeini died on June 3, 1989. His funeral was again the occasion of tumultuous scenes as everyone wished to say a last farewell to “the most divine personality in the history of Islam after the Prophet and the Imams,” in the words of the joint statement issued by Rafsanjānī, Khameneʿi, Ardabīlī, and Mūsavī. Khomeini did not bring about the just and virtuous society he had promised but stated in his will that “he was proud to be trying to implement the rules of the holy Qurʿān and the traditions of the Prophet.” Khameneʿi was then selected as the next leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran—a smooth transition of power to conclude the long life of Khomeini, who had engineered one of the most significant revolutions of the twentieth century.



  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran. Albany, N.Y.1980. Excellent guide to clerical politics in recent decades.
  • Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley, 1969.
  • Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. London, 1985.
  • Bāzargān, Mehdi. Inqilāb-i īrān dar dū ḥarakat (Iranian Revolution in Two Acts). Tehran, 1363/1984.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, 1981. A most useful collection of Khomeini 's theoretical work on Islamic government.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Kashf al-asrār. Amman, 1987. Arabic translation of Khomeini 's first political work, originally published in Persian in 1941; a useful source on his early worldview.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Taḥrīr al-wasīlah. Beirut, 1987. Khomeini 's major work on Shīʿī law, written in exile in Turkey, which reflects some of his views on government.
  • Martin, Vanessa. Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran. New ed.London, 2003.
  • Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah. London, 1999.
  • Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Sign of God.London, 1994. A major biography of Khomeini.
  • Rajaee, Farhang. Islamic Values and World View. Washington, 1983. Excellent book on the thought of Ayatollah Khomeini.
  • Rūḥānī, Ḥamīd. Barʿrasī va taḥlīlī az nahẓat-i Imām Khumaynī (Analytical Study of Imam Khomeini 's Movement). 3 vols.Tehran, 1981–1993. Very useful source book on Khomeini written by one of his students.
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