Ayatullah Ruhullah Khomeini

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Ayatullah Ruhullah Musawi Khomeini
Ayatullah Khomeini
Born 24 September, 1902
Place of Birth Khomeyn, Iran
Died 3 June, 1989
Buried Tehran, Iran
Ayatullah Ruhullah Musawi Khomeini was the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to this day continues to be a religious and spiritual authority for many Shi’a Muslims around the world. He is most well known for leading the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979 which consequently abolished the government of the Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi). Also, notable is his expanding and implementing of the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih which combines politics with Shia Islam since it ensures that government be over seen by a single most powerful cleric or a group of clerics.

In 1979, the American newsmagazine TIME chose him as the Man of the Year and he is considered one of the most influential people of the 20th century.


Birth and Childhood

Ayatullah Khomeini was born on the 24th of September 1902 in the small provincial town of Khomein which is located in central Iran near the city of Isfahan. He came from a deeply religious family who are from the lineage of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through the seventh Shi’a Imam Musa al-Kadhim. 'Musawi' is a part of his name due to him being a descendant of the Imam, while ‘Khomeini’ indicates his birth place. Ruhullah (spirit of God) is his given name. He came from a long line of scholars and it is believed that the origins of his his family lie in Nishapur (near city of Mashhad) in Iran. However in the early eighteenth century his family migrated to Lucknow, India which was one of the centres of Shi’a learning at the time. His grandfather Seyyed Ahmad Musavi Hindi was born in India and was the relative of the great Ayatullah Mir Hamed Hussain Hindi. Finally, due to the persuasion of his friend Yusuf Khan, Seyyed Ahmad moved back to Iran.[1] This link to India was later used by the Shah of Iran in a failed attempt to project Ayatullah Khomeini as an evil foreigner.[2]

Ayatullah Khomeini was orphaned at the age of six months when his father Mustafa was killed by two thieves. Ayatollah Khomeini was raised by his mother and his aunt in bleak times where raids by armed tribesmen were the norm in the small town of Khomein. His childhood was filled with fun and games as he was known to be a local champion in leapfrog and enjoyed many other sports including wrestling. However, he also witnessed the oppression of the people around him and at times had to use a rifle to protect his family from the armed tribesmen.

Political Life

Ayatullah Khomeini was an extremely outspoken man and he was fearless in his nature. He opposed imperialism to its very core. He believed there was no need for a secular government in a country that was populated mostly by Shi’a Muslims. Ayatullah Khomeini’s early involvement in politics was minimal. During the time of Reza Shah, Ayatullah Khomeini waited for the leading clergy to voice their opposition against Reza Shah’s secularization of the country. At this time, Ayatullah Khomeini was still a junior cleric and did not have an extensive following like the leading clergy. The clergy’s concerns were ignored by Reza Shah as he ruled like a cruel dictator where opposition meant death. Ayatullah Khomeini’s political involvement grew in the time of Muhammad Reza Shah (son of Reza Shah), now known as the Shah of Iran. During the early days of the reign of the Shah, Ayatullah Khomeini kept a passive approach however he used the political freedom given in this time to his advantage and developed his following. Later, he was openly critical of the Shah.

Ayatullah Khomeini was a firm supporter of implementing an Islamic government based on the Shari’a (Islamic Law). The concept of Wilayat al-Faqih (guardianship of the jurist or rule of the jurist) states that government must be overseen by a cleric and or a group of clerics so that the law of the land does not go against Islam. He analyzed the consequences of other forms of government and of Islamic government in his books and lectures. His concept of Islamic government forms the basis of the constitution of Iran today.

Life in Exile

Ayatullah Khomeini was exiled by the Shah of Iran on numerous occasions in order to eliminate Khomeini’s opposition to his style of governance. The Shah of Iran came to power after a CIA-organized coup in 1953. Ayatullah Khomeini by this time had developed a large following and had become somewhat of a successor to Ayatollah Burojerdi.

Confrontation with the Shah occurred on many separate occasions. The Shah was seen as a puppet of the Western powers (notably America, Britain and Israel) by many in Iran. Before the Iranian revolution, more than 50% of Israeli oil needs were fulfilled by Iran.[3] Given the sentiments of Muslims in general regarding the state of Israel, this action seems extremely contradictory for a largely Muslim nation unless its people were not consulted. This point is further supported by the fact that only 5% of Iran’s population was wealthy during this time while the rest lived in poverty. This was the regime being opposed by Ayatullah Khomeini and during this time people who supported his cause were killed in ruthless manners. He was exiled to Turkey for opposing the Shah on a law which granted Americans immunity from prosecution in Iran. His time in Turkey, was spent in observing the Turkish lifestyle and writing books while keeping up to date with the news from Iran. The Ayatullah was later moved to Najaf, Iraq by the Shah and he stayed there for thirteen years. In Najaf, the Ayatullah kept his distance from the Iraqi government and instead delivered lectures on Wilayat al-Faqih which reached Iran through audio tapes. His activities in Paris mainly consisted of listening to the news from and about Iran while dealing with matters related to the revolutionary movement.

Return to Iran

The Ayatullah had been in exile from approximately 1964-1978 however he was not forgotten for a moment in Iran during his exile. There are many factors responsible for this, mainly that he kept his followers informed as to what his opinion was for every move the Shah made. In addition to this, the Ayatullah also had great supporters like Ayatullahs Muttahari, Khamenei and Beheshti. These men devoted their time and energy to informing the people by writing informative books about the cause of the revolution and most importantly by writing refutations of other forms of government. Therefore, when the Ayatullah returned, it was as if he had never left. People celebrated the Shah’s departure from Iran as they celebrated Ayatullah Khomeini’s arrival to Iran. The revolution that people had shed blood for was triumphant and they truly rejoiced.

Establishment of a new government

Ayatullah Khomeini in partnership with the Revolutionary Council, appointed Mr. Bazargan as the provisional prime minister. His job was to have a referendum where the people would vote for or against an Islamic government. Mr. Bazargan resigned as a result of difference of approach between him and the Revolutionary Council even though Ayatullah Khomeini had tried to reconcile the two parties. The first elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran was Mr. Bani Sadr however this was not for long since disagreements arose between him and the newly formed Islamic Republican Party. Ayatullah Khomeini again tried to reconcile the differences among the parties but to no avail. Furthermore, Bani Sadr assumed that he could replace Ayatullah Khomeini since he was popular at the polls. This was more a case of exaggerated thinking than reality. This ended in the dismissal of Bani Sadr since an independent commission found him guilty of violating the constitution. Mr. Bani Sadr fled to Paris while a terrorist group called Mujahideen-e-Khalq began assassinating prominent leaders in order to dismantle the revolution. They assassinated key figures such as Ayatullah Muttahari and Mr. Ali Rajai (president that succeeded Bani Sadr). Finally, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei was elected as the president of Iran until the passing away of Ayatullah Khomeini. Ayatollah Khamenei was not an Ayatullah when he became president which demonstrates the commitment of Ayatullah Khomeini to keep clerics in a role of guardianship.[4]


Iranian Hostage Crisis

See main article: Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979 - 1981)

The Shah was admitted into United States which enraged many Iranians since he was seen as someone that became rich by plundering the nation’s wealth. A group of students, in protest took over the American Embassy and demanded the Shah’s return to Iran for trial and prosecution. Ayatullah Khomeini extended his support for the students as this ensured Iran’s defiance against a super power. An American attempt to rescue the hostages ended in humiliation when two American planes collided with one another during a sand storm.

Rushdie Fatwa

Ayatullah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling on all Muslims to execute Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses, a book which primarily insults the Prophet (pbuh) of Islam. This step showed immense leadership once again on the part of the Ayatullah and won him the admiration of Muslims around the world for correctly translating their sentiments into words. This also served as a clear warning for all authors to realize the love and respect that Muslims have for the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and that if Rushdie had the right to free speech in insulting the Prophet (pbuh) then Ayatollah Khumeini had the right to exercise his free speech and condemn Rushdie to death.


The Ayatullah's image in the West became one of a radical cleric who imposed Islamic government on the people of Iran. As someone who was arrogant, uncompromising, outdated, ignorant about the modern world, unable to use modern devices and a harsh, narrow minded man who enjoyed war. These perceptions are not true, however the reason why people developed this image of him was due to strong media propaganda. Islamophobia was common in the press at the time and the readership were mainly investors who could no longer benefit from Iran’s natural resources because of Ayatullah Khomeini.

Carlsen, a Canadian journalist that visited Iran for the third time, wrote a description of the Ayatullah. Though he did not agree with many of the acts carried out by the Ayatullah or the Islamic Republic of Iran, he still stated:

I would never become Muslim. . .But I would forever honour Ayatollah Khomeini as an absolutely pure and remarkable human being. . .a human being who demonstrated the glory of God"[5]

Though, other Westerners who met him him did not come to similar conclusions about him.

The views in the East varied greatly from country to country. Many a times, views of the people on the Iranian revolution itself are good indicators of their views on the Ayatullah. For many South Asian Shi'a Muslims, Ayatullah Khomeini is a spiritual leader who deserves a great deal of respect. Many South Asian Sunni Muslims simply admired his courage. In the Gulf states, the Sunnis saw him as a figure of Shi’a dominance and arrogance. In Egypt on the other hand, the new regime was idealized and so was the Ayatullah however this enthusiasm did not last very long. In Indonesia, Ayatullah Khomeini was a hero. Iranians in general still respect and follow Ayatullah Khomeini as a spiritual leader.


The Ayatullah’s popularity took even the government by surprise, a decade after the revolution, the people poured onto the streets in a show of spontaneous grief to pay their last respects to their leader. Ayatullah Khomeini passed away due to a heart attack on Saturday 3rd June 1989. Grand Ayatullah Golpayegani led the funeral prayers on the 6th of June, 1989 however due to the crowd (estimated to be close to 9 million people), the actual burial could not occur until June 11th, 1989 and even then the body had to be transported via helicopter. According to biographer Baqer Moin, his final words were: “This is a very difficult path…Watch all your words and deeds…I have nothing more to add. Those who want to stay, may do so; those who don’t may go. Put the light out. I want to sleep."


  1. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, by Baqer Moin | ISBN 1850431280
  2. Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography by Hamid Algar
  3. Tell The American People: Perspectives on the Iranian Revolution by David H. Albert | ISBN 0865710015
  4. Islam and revolution: writings and declarations of Imam Khomeini, by Hamid Algar | ISBN 0933782039
  5. The Imam and His Islamic Revolution. A Journey into Heaven and Hell by Robin Woodsworth Carlsen | ISBN 0920910173
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