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Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi

    1902 – 1989 Leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran

    Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini was an Iranian Shi'i cleric and leader of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979 . Khomeini led the country for the next ten years as Iran's religious and political authority, advocating the formation of an Islamic republic.

    Religious Leader and Outspoken Critic.

    Khomeini was born in the village of Khomein in central Iran. Both his father and grandfather were Shi'i religious leaders. As a child, Khomeini studied Arabic, Persian poetry, and calligraphy at an elementary religious school and later attended other Islamic schools where he continued his religious education. As a Shi'i scholar and teacher, Khomeini produced writings on philosophy, law, and ethics. He later gained recognition as an ayatollah, signifying his status as a religious guide.

    By the 1930s, Khomeini's teachings had attracted a large following of students. He became an outspoken critic of Iranian leader Reza Shah Pahlavi , giving public lectures opposing the shah's secular reforms and urging Muslim clerics to unite against Western influence.

    In the late 1940s, Khomeini's interest in politics increased. Influenced by his early religious training, he retained a conservative worldview and embraced the concept of revolution against injustice in the name of God. Teaching that holiness came through action, Khomeini believed that Muslim clerics should be politically active, and by the 1960s, he was Iran's leading spokesman for an Islamic government.

    The ayatollah continued to criticize Iran's government, then led by Reza Shah Pahlavi's son Muhammad . Khomeini believed that Israeli and American influence had corrupted the shah. Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi , in turn, feared Khomeini's growing influence and had him arrested, sparking antigovernment riots. Exiled by the shah in 1964 , Khomeini settled in the Shi'i holy city of Najaf in Iraq. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein forced him to leave the country in 1978 , Khomeini moved to a suburb of Paris for a brief period.

    The Road to Revolution.

    While in exile, Khomeini continued to oppose the shah's regime. He built up his following in Iran through writings and taped speeches, and he developed ties with left-wing Iranian student groups. Khomeini's encouragement greatly strengthened long-standing opposition to Iran's American-backed government. Many people resented the shah's use of terror against opponents of his harsh policies. They also believed his economic policies benefited only his wealthy supporters. The peasants suffered as unemployment soared. Tensions finally boiled over in 1978 when millions of Iranians rose up against the government. Having lost the loyalty of the army, the shah fled the country in January 1979 . Khomeini returned to Iran two weeks after the shah's departure, where he was hailed him as the leader of the revolution. A new constitution proclaimed Iran an Islamic republic. Khomeini sought to harness the forces of revolution to strengthen his position. His followers established the Islamic Republican Party (IRP). Khomeini and the IRP clashed with rival political leaders in Iran, but the ayatollah eventually gained the upper hand over his opponents. Using imprisonment, torture, and murder, Khomeini eliminated many who had worked for the shah's government and others perceived to be enemies of the revolution.

    Religious and Political Authority.

    Khomeini solidified his position as Iran's leader in the fall of 1981 . He had no interest in compromises or the sharing of power and made sure that his followers controlled Iran's three branches of government—a government dominated by Muslim clergy. As an expert on Islamic law, Khomeini had final authority. Some of his supporters even called him imam.

    Khomeini headed an oppressive regime, continuing with imprisonment and executions of political opponents. Much of the westernized middle-class fled the country as the government strictly enforced Islamic law. Women had to wear hijab in public and many were forced give up their jobs. The government banned alcohol and Western music and closed theaters and other places of entertainment. Non-Muslim Iranians faced arrest and persecution.

    In foreign policy, Khomeini sought to export his Islamic revolution. He urged Muslims to overthrow pro-Western secular governments. The regime in neighboring Iraq was one of his first targets, and in 1980 , the two nations went to war. The conflict dragged on for eight years and took a heavy toll on both sides. Thousands of Iranians died in combat and from Iraqi missile attacks. Ignoring the cost, Khomeini remained steadfast in his determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein . In 1988 , faced with heavy internal unrest, Khomeini finally agreed to end the war.

    In 1989 Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie , author of The Satanic Verses, calling the book's portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad blasphemy. He called for Muslims to assassinate Rushdie and the book's publishers. Although many Muslims throughout the world agreed with his evaluation of the book, most did not accept the fatwa as the correct response.

    The charismatic Khomeini, nonetheless, retained his popularity with Iran's Shi'i population. A massive and tumultuous outpouring of grief followed his death in 1989 . Shortly before he died, Khomeini had accepted a greater level of democracy in Iran's government, which helped facilitate a smooth transfer of power to his successor. Khomeini's revolution was one of the most significant political movements of the 1900s. See also Hostages; Iran; Iraq; Islamic State; Revolution; Rushdie, Salman.

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