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The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini


Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution overthrew the US-backed Shah, Reza Pahlavi

Photo of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Shi'a cleric and leader of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran in 1979.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Shi'a man bends over Ayatollah Khomeini's hand after Islamic Revolution in Iran, 1979

Ayatollah Khomeini greeting the Shi'a faithful in Iran, 1979

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

His stern, bearded visage is familiar to people around the world. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution in Iran from exile, and turned that country into the only present-day theocracy on Earth.

As the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah fought off invasions by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army, and issued fatwas including the infamous one that sentenced author Salman Rushdie to death. But who was the Ayatollah Khomeini? How did he come by his iron-clad belief system, which would have such a profound effect on the modern Middle East?

Early Life:

On September 24, 1902, a baby boy was born in the village of Khomein, Iran. His family was locally famed as Shi'a religious scholars, and claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. They named the baby Ruhollah Mousavi, meaning "inspired by God"; later in life, he used his home village's name as a surname instead.

When the baby was only five months old, his father Mostafa Hindi was murdered, leaving mother Hajieh Agha Khanum to raise the child and his older brother with help from an aunt called Sahebeh. Young Ruhollah began to study the Farsi language and the Koran at the age of six. At seven, he entered a local maktab for an education that emphasized Islamic studies.

Ruhollah Khomeini excelled in his religious studies. He had a prodigious memory for poetry and Koranic verses, but also loved to play sports. However, when he was 16 years old, tragedy struck his family once again. In 1918, both his mother and his aunt Sahebeh died in a cholera outbreak.

Khomeini's Higher Education:

Once the disruptions of World War I were over, Ruhollah Khomeini decided to continue his education at a seminary in Arak, under Ayatollah Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi. In 1920, the 18-year-old moved to Arak, but then moved on to the holy city of Qom in 1921, because Ayatollah Haeri Yazdi had accepted a position at the Dar al-Shafa theology school there.

In Qom, Khomeini studied sharia, or Islamic law, jurisprudence, philosophy, and poetry. Khomeini also taught lessons to younger scholars, and gained the status of "ayatollah." He avoided politics, since Haeri Yazdi and other senior clerics had a firm policy of non-involvement, although Reza Shah's increasing secularization of the country angered Khomeini intensely.

In 1929, Khomeini married 16-year-old Khadijeh Saqafi, daughter of a Tehran cleric. They went on to have five children who survived to adulthood, although both of their sons died under suspicious circumstances while in their 40s.

Early Political Activity:

In 1937, Ayatollah Haeri Yazdi died, and Ayatollah Boroujerdi replaced him as head of the Shi'a clerical class in Qom. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khomeini quietly began to build a followership of students, many of whom would become major supporters of the Islamic Revolution decades later. Khomeini developed a reputation as a marja-e Taqlid, or "person to be emulated."

On March 31, 1961, Ayatollah Boroujerdi passed away, and Khomeini became the leader of Qom's ulama. The following year, Khomeini began to organize protests against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's secularization program, called the "White Revolution," first targeting a law that repealed the requirement for elected officials to place their hand on the Koran while being sworn into office.

The ayatollah's protests grew in size and reach; in June of 1963, Khomeini called for the Shah to abdicate or face popular dissatisfaction, and the Shah had him arrested. Khomeini was imprisoned for 10 months, before being released in April of 1964. His supporters staged street demonstrations to protest his imprisonment; the Shah sent in army troops to quell them. The following autumn, the ayatollah once more made anti-Shah speeches, stating that the ruler was soft on Israel and was a slave of the United States. This time, the Shah had him deported to Turkey.

Into Exile:

In thoroughly secular Turkey, the Ayatollah Khomeini could not legally wear clerical garb, a restriction he found intolerable. In September of 1965, he moved to Najaf, Iraq, where he would live in exile for the next 13 years.

In Najaf, Khomeini developed a new following, mostly among other Iranian expats. Followers videotaped his sermons, and smuggled them into Iran. Khomeini advocated a new political theory called velayat-i faqih, his vision of a clergy-led, Islamic state. His videos were distributed in bazaars all over Iran, making him the most popular opposition leader in the country.

As protests heated up in Iran during the 1970s, and the Shah resorted more and more to military force to put down the demonstrations, Khomeini grew ever more prominent among the opposition forces. By 1978, the Shah had convinced Iraq to suppress the gadfly. Baghdad gave Khomeini two options - to stop all political activity, or to leave the country. Khomeini chose to move to Paris.

Revolutionary Leader of Iran:

On January 17, 1979, the government collapsed and the Shah left Iran "for a vacation." Two weeks later, Khomeini departed from France for his triumphant return to Tehran, where a jubilant crowd of millions greeted him.

Any Iranians who hoped that the new government might prove more democratic than the old were soon disillusioned; the ayatollah proclaimed, "Don't listen to those who speak of democracy. They are all against Islam... We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things." As for the moderate opposition government appointed by the Shah before he fled, Khomeini said, "I shall kick their teeth in."

At the end of March, 1979, a popular referendum in Iran supported the replacement of the monarchy with an Islamic Republic by 98% of the vote. The Ayatollah Khomeini appointed his own president and government, and had himself proclaimed the Supreme Leader of Iran under the new constitution in November of that year.

Hostage Crisis:

In October of 1979, the United States granted entry to the exiled Shah, who needed treatment for advanced-stage cancer. Khomeini objected, and demanded that the Shah be returned to Iran to be tried and executed for his crimes. Tension mounted between the US and Iran's new government, with Khomeini calling America the "Great Satan."

In reaction, on November 4, a group of religious students took control of the US Embassy in Tehran, seizing 52 members of the embassy staff as hostages. The Iran Hostage Crisis dragged on for 444 days; Khomeini ordered the hostages released on the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as US president, a deliberate slap at Jimmy Carter. More than thirty years later, relations between the two countries remain tense.

Iran/Iraq War:

The Ayatollah Khomeini also antagonized his former host-country, Iraq, by calling for a Shi'a Islamic revolution there to overthrow the secular Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. Believing that Iran was too disorganized after its revolution to resist, Saddam launched an invasion in September 1980, seizing the oil-rich province of Khuzestan.

What followed was a bloody, eight-year-long stalemate called the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), which pitted Iraq's superior firepower against Iran's larger population and revolutionary fervor. Although in the end, Iran did successfully push Iraq back to the prewar boundaries, it lost somewhere around half a million men in the effort. This high death toll, and the interminable length of the fighting, caused many Iranians to have doubts about their new Islamic government's leadership abilities. Khomeini himself called signing the ceasefire "more deadly than taking poison."

Salman Rushdie Fatwa:

In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini gained additional international infamy by issuing a fatwa calling for the assassination of Indian-born Muslim novelist Salman Rushdie. Khomeini was outraged by passages in the author's 1988 book The Satanic Verses, which allegedly were blasphemous against the Prophet Muhammad. (Many sources note that Khomeini himself had not read the book, and was basing his opinion on second-hand accounts.)

The ayatollah called upon "every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send [Rushdie] to Hell." As a result, the novelist had to go into hiding for years, and Islamic radicals murdered the book's Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi.

Death and Legacy:

On June 4, 1989, not long after he issued the Rushdie fatwa, the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini died. He was succeeded as Supreme Leader by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khomeini's funeral procession in Tehran turned into a near-riot, with millions of mourners turning out to see his coffin pass. In fact, the first funeral had to be cancelled when mourners smashed the wooden coffin to get a last look at the ayatollah, and his body nearly rolled onto the pavement as people tried to grab bits of his shroud as religious relics.

Ruhollah Khomeini left behind the world's only modern theocracy. In his Iran, sharia law became the law of the land, women once more wore the chador (veil) that had been outlawed under the Shah, and freedom of speech and the press was suppressed by religious leaders. He hoped that it would serve as a model for other predominantly-Muslim nations, but thus far, it has not.


"Ayatollah Khomeini," BBC History, accessed Feb. 5, 2012.

"Ayatollah Khomeini Biography," Biography.com, accessed Feb. 5, 2012.

Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, London: I.B. Tauris, 1999.

Willett, Edward. Ayatollah Khomeini, New York: Rosen Publishing, 2004.


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