Man of God or sultan of spin?

Khomeini
July 23, 1999

Shusha Guppy surveys the life of the man the West loved to hate.

It is just ten years since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Islamic revolution that brought him to power stands out as one of the most significant events of the 20th century. Yet the revolution's central figure and architect, an obscure cleric with a dour mien who stood up to the might of America and imposed a theocratic regime on his country, has remained an enigma.

Baqer Moin's biography is the first comprehensive account of Khomeini's life and thought. His book is based on exclusive interviews with Khomeini's relatives and associates, on archives and on unpublished materials. Moin's objectivity seems to have shielded his mind from the fierce partisanship of Khomeini's votaries and foes. The result is a magisterial portrait of one of this century's complex and charismatic leaders.

Ruhollah Khomeini was born in 1901 into a clerical family in Khomein, a small town near Isfahan in central Iran. His father was a rich landowner and a mujtahid (one who has achieved the necessary religious qualifications to interpret the sharia - Islamic law) and enjoyed the prestige that goes with the title. When Ruhollah, the last of six children, was six months old his father was killed by local tribesmen, but his family was sufficiently well off to continue living in seigneurial style.

Khomeini's childhood coincided with the turbulent years of the constitutional revolution of 1905-06 and its aftermath, as a result of which the absolutist rule of the Qajar kings was replaced by a constitutional monarchy based on parliamentary democracy, and the country's modernisation began. He was a beneficiary of the changes he would later deplore; the school he attended was one of the scores built by the new government in its effort to modernise education. He grew up in an atmosphere of piety and learning, where daily life was punctuated with religious rituals, the recitation of epic and mystical poetry and story-telling. He was ambitious: "Even as a child my father always wanted to be the shah in the games he played," his son Ahmad wrote. He entered the madrasa (seminary) at 16 and pursued lengthy studies with famous masters in traditional subjects - theology, Arabic grammar, jurisprudence - first near his home town and later in Qom, which became the clergy's power base.

Moin is very good at conveying the atmosphere of the madrasa : the seminarists' routine of study and prayer, their austerity and aspirations. He explains clearly the doctrinal tenets that enabled Khomeini to justify his political ambitions and autocratic rule. After some 15 years, Khomeini completed his studies and was pronounced mujtahid , or faqih (jurist), the equivalent of a bishop, and could become a marja'-e-Taqlid (source of emulation), by which time he had begun teaching at the madrasa . In 1929 he married the daughter of another ayatollah, with whom he lived happily to the end of his life.

Meanwhile, the country had undergone drastic changes: the Qajar dynasty had come to an end in 1921, and Reza Shah, a forceful soldier who had risen in the ranks of the army and taken charge of the country, was crowned shah in 1925, founding the new Pahlavi dynasty. Modelling himself on Turkey's reformist leader Atatürk, Reza Shah unified the country and started a radical programme of rapid modernisation. The clergy's progressive elements supported him, partly to retain their own power, and those who opposed him were silenced. Later in a pamphlet Khomeini would denounce "these renegades" who had colluded with Reza Shah.

The late shah succeeded to the throne in 1941, and during the early democratic years of his reign in the 1940s and 1950s political parties mushroomed, of which those representing the nationalists and the communists were the largest. Khomeini did not take part in political activity, but he wrote a few pamphlets in which he ominously outlined his idea of "an Islamic government", which would "follow religious rules... ban publications which are against the law of religion... and hang those who write such nonsense".

He entered the political fray in 1963, at the time of the shah's "white revolution", a six-point reform programme that included the vote for women. More than any other measure, this issue had a strong resonance among the mass of the people, and Khomeini opposed it vigorously in fiery sermons and articles, describing it as "the work of the devil". He became the symbol of resistance for all factions of the opposition. The shah responded by calling the clergy "the black reaction", "worse than the communists", but instead of co-opting or eliminating Khomeini, he exiled him. At first he lived in Turkey, but later he moved to Najaf, in Iraq, one of the centres of Shia learning, where he taught at a madrasa .

In Najaf Khomeini was not encouraged by the senior Grand Ayatollah Khoi, the marja' of the world's Shias, but he became the focus of opposition groups abroad, including tens of thousands of Iranian students in Europe and America. He refused to be affiliated to any faction, concentrating instead on "getting rid of the shah", promising justice and freedom for all. They believed him - even women, who had everything to lose in his "Islamic" republic, rallied round him.

In 1973 Opec quadrupled the price of oil and upset the world's economic stability. The shah became a hate figure in the West, while in Iran the economic boom brought its own problems: corruption, iniquity, inefficiency. Most important, his autocratic rule had alienated the middle classes, his natural allies. He had discarded all elder statesmen, relying only on the army and his American "friends", and he had terminal cancer.

Khomeini exploited the shah's worldwide unpopularity and intensified his campaign against him. In 1977 he was expelled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein and took refuge in France, where he settled in Neauphle-le-

chateau near Paris, which became a place of pilgrimage for his supporters and the world media. Moin describes Khomeini's shrewd manipulation of the media. He used the West's political discourse and technology while rejecting its modern culture. He promised democracy, including the vote for women and their participation in government, while he himself would retire to Qom and resume his teaching. Thus he hoodwinked not only his countrymen but also some western intellectuals, notably Michel Foucault, who saw in Khomeini a new Gandhi, to be admired for his resistance to America and rejection of American cultural hegemony.

Despite the shah's efforts at reconciliation, Khomeini would not compromise - he wanted revenge. Eventually the shah left Persia in January 1979, and on February 1 Khomeini arrived in Tehran, where an ecstatic crowd of three million awaited him. Says Moin: "Leaving the airport in 1964, he had asked his minder whether he knew that he was being exiled because he had defended the honour of his homeland. Now, as he re-entered Iranian air-space, he was asked what emotions he felt after nearly 15 years of exile. None! he replied bluntly. For those Iranians who hoped to find in him a mainstream nationalist leader, Khomeini's reply was a warning."

He dropped the mask, and proceeded to eliminate all opposition to his "Islamic" rule. He revoked the reforms of the previous 50 years, forced women to wear the chador and to stay at home, and entrusted the judiciary to clerics. The leftist organisations that had helped his climb to power were crushed and the nationalists were marginalised.

The eight-year war with Iraq further sapped Iran's energy and resources. It could have ended after four years, when Iraq was about to lose the war it had started, asked for peace and offered to pay reparations. But Khomeini refused:

"Saddam must go," he insisted, as he had done with the shah, and, indeed, if foreign powers had not helped Iraq, Khomeini would have won. Eventually, however, he had to "drink the poison cup" and end the war at a disadvantage, thereby losing his mystique of invincibility.

But luck came to his rescue in the shape of Salman Rushdie. According to Moin, Khomeini knew of The Satanic Verses for months and at first he dismissed it:

"The world has always been full of lunatics who have talked nonsense," he said. But "the timing of the fatwa served his domestic and foreign policy ends", enabling him to regain the authority he had lost as a result of the Iran-Iraq war. Moin believes that "by issuing the fatwa, Khomeini made a serious bid for the leadership of the entire Islamic world (became) the spokesman for the frustration and ambitions of Muslims in general, and not just those in the Islamic world".

In the last years of his life, having eliminated all opposition, Khomeini became less actively involved in the daily affairs of government. He was old and ill with cancer and heart trouble. He became sad, and began to write mystical poetry again. Without a trace of irony he compared himself to the great Sufi martyrs of the past - Hallaj, Sohravardi and others - all of whom were burnt at the stake by the ayatollahs of their day.

The man who emerges from the pages of this fascinating biography is a consummate politician - shrewd, ruthless, unscrupulous. But he is not a man of God; his kingdom is of this world alone. Perhaps deep down he knew it, hence his sadness.

Shusha Guppy is a writer born in Tehran whose father's philosophical lectures were attended by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah

Author - Baqer Moin
ISBN - 1 85043 128 0
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £24.95
Pages - 352

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments