Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah

The following is an article in The International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (New York: MacMillan Reference, 2007).

Resident Scholar Michael Rubin
Resident Scholar
Michael Rubin
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 Khomeini's education after their mother died in 1918.

At nineteen, Khomeini traveled to nearby Arak, where he studied religion under Ayatollah Abd al-Karim Ha'iri, a well-known Islamic scholar. Khomeini followed Ha'iri 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 Ha'iri's death in 1937, he became an assistant to Ayatollah Husayn Boroujerdi, one of the leading Shi'ite authorities of the day. Khomeini's 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 circumstances: His 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, women's suffrage, and a provision which would allow the religious minority Baha'is 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 Shi'ite opposition to direct clerical rule. Khomeini's followers smuggled many of his sermons into Iran by audiocassette.

Protests erupted on January 7, 1978, after a state-controlled newspaper questioned Khomeini's 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.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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