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IRAN: The Unknown Ayatullah Khomeini

16 minute read

A portrait of the Islamic mystic at the center of the revolution

Once again, Iran last week appeared to be drifting toward anarchy. The Cabinet of Premier Mehdi Bazargan was on the verge of collapse. Appalled by the overcrowded condition of prisons in Tehran, Attorney General Abolfazl Shahshahani instructed the police not to “arrest or pursue criminals” until further notice—thereby giving the capital’s organized criminals free rein. As if to prove the government’s impotence, a group of disaffected young Iranians, seeking to leave the country on expired passports, seized 150 hostages at gunpoint and closed down Tehran’s international airport for more than 20 hours.

Iran is by now accustomed to fever charts of brinkmanship, and the crisis suddenly dissolved. After being guaranteed safe passage to Syria, the airport skyjackers released their hostages unharmed. Attorney General Shahshahani then rescinded his no-arrest order. And the Bazargan Cabinet, following a conference in Qum with the country’s real government, the secret Islamic Revolutionary Council appointed by the Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, carried on the affairs of state by announcing the nationalization of all major businesses and industries in Iran.

The Cabinet’s pilgrimage was further proof, if any were needed, that the real seat of power in Iran is not in Tehran but at an Islamic academy called the Madresseh Faizieh in the holy city of Qum. There the berobed Ayatullah Khomeini, now 79, receives a steady stream of visitors, ranging from government officials to impoverished peasants seeking his blessing and aid. But Khomeini did not really create the Iranian revolution, the revolution created him. That is the conclusion of Senior Correspondent James Bell, who first reported on Iranian politics for TIME in 1951. Traveling widely in Europe and the Middle East, Bell spent nearly two months searching out the all-but-unknown background of the remote, aging mystic who seemingly appeared from nowhere last year to oust the Shah and transform his country into an Islamic republic. Bell’s report:

When asked to define the essential character of the Ayatullah Khomeini, a family friend recalls the scene at the drowning of Khomeini’s infant daughter in Qum some 35 years ago. Khomeini’s wife was tearing her hair in despair. When the friend arrived, the bearded savant was praying quietly over the body of the youngest of his six children. “I looked into his face and could see no trace of disturbance,” says the friend today. “I knew he loved this child very deeply. Yet he showed no emotion, no sorrow, no excitement.” After a while Khomeini said quietly: “God gave me the child, and now he has taken her back.” Then he resumed his prayers. Remembers the friend: “He experienced no grief or turmoil, for he believes God is ever beside him.”

Even to the few Iranians who have spent time in his company, Khomeini remains an enigma. He is known as a “practicing mystic.” His detachment, some feel, may explain how he is able to order or tolerate the abrupt trials and swift executions of so many people who have, in his words, “done Satan’s work.” One longtime acquaintance of the Ayatullah speaks of the “rage and anger he feels toward men in authority,” possibly stemming from the efforts of the Pahlavi dynasty to curtail the power and prerogatives of the clergy for the past 40 years. Friends insist that in private the Ayatullah has a keen sense of humor and is a highly emotional man. But an American academic who is an expert on Iran observes, “He is absolutely determined to be serene. He doesn’t allow himself even the appearance of rage. Detachment is his predominant characteristic.”

Khomeini is a philosopher-theologian, and a brilliant one. He is also a populist who writes political tracts, has an earthy sense of justice and strong opinions about private property, reasonable food prices and the availability of water and electricity. He detests the Pahlavi dynasty and everything the Shahs stood for. He hates foreign influence, especially from the Americans. He is anti-Soviet. He has always advised the Iranian masses to shun Communism. He said earlier this year that he would never collaborate with the Marxists. His view: “We know they would stab us in the back.”

He is anti-Israel. He appears to believe the thousands of Iranians killed by the Shah’s troops and secret police were in fact victims of the Israelis. He has declared: “The Shah imported the Israelis and dressed them up in Iranian clothes.” He is, foremost of all, an Islamic rather than an Iranian nationalist. Says a former politician in Tehran: “In the Islam that Khomeini thinks about, there are no borders. Geography has no role in Islamic nationality.”

Many of the details of Khomeini’s life are shrouded in mystery or folklore. In large part, this is because he does not seem to know or care very much about his antecedents. His family is believed to have come from Khorasan, which lies in the windswept northeastern part of the country and is the home of Iranian Sufiism, a mystical and somewhat unorthodox strain of Shi’ite Islam. His grandfather, Seyyed Ahmad Moussavi, who may have been a Sufi, is known to have lived for a time in India. Eventually, Moussavi returned to Iran and settled in Khomein, a village 180 miles south of Tehran.

His son, Seyyed Mostafa al Moussavi, had six children, the youngest of whom was Ruhollah, which in Farsi means Sign of God. A few months after Ruhollah’s birth—for which one plausible date is May 17, 1900—his father was murdered on the road between Khomein and Arak as he set out on a pilgrimage to the Shi’a holy city of Najaf in Iraq. In later years there have been stories circulated that Mostafa’s death was somehow caused by Reza Shah, father of the recently exiled Emperor. In fact, Reza was only about 22 years old at the time and did not seize the throne in a coup that ousted the Qajar dynasty until 25 years later. There is a more likely explanation: Mostafa was killed in a fight with another landlord over irrigation water. In a remarkably daring act for a Persian woman of that period, Ruhollah’s mother, Hajar Saghafi, journeyed to Arak and testified at the trial of her husband’s murderer, who was found guilty and executed.

Ruhollah was by all accounts a bright child. He loved to play soccer and has retained an interest in the sport; he occasionally watched soccer matches on TV during his four-month exile in Neauphlele-Château, outside Paris, in 1978-79. He attended Koranic school in Khomein, and was later sent to Arak to study under a well-known Islamic scholar, Abdul Karim Haeri. In 1920, when Haeri moved to Qum and established the famed Madresseh Faizieh, a center of Islamic learning, Ruhollah went with him. Except for his years in exile, Khomeini has lived and taught there ever since.

It was during these years that Ruhollah embraced mysticism, studying Man, which is the conceptual foundation of mysticism, and a kind of Islamic existentialism taught by the scholar Mohsin Faiz. He also became fascinated with Aristotle and Plato, whose Republic provided the model for Khomeini’s concept of the Islamic republic, with the philosopher-king replaced by the Islamic theologian. He wrote lyric poetry under the pseudonym “Hindi”—a fact that SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, later used to insist that he was Indian rather than Iranian by birth.

Some time in the late 1920s, Ruhollah added “Khomeini” to his name. The reasons are unknown, although the word clearly refers to his birthplace. He also took a bride, whose name is usually given as Quesiran, or Khadijeh. It is typical of the confusion concerning Khomeini’s life that he is sometimes said to have two wives, but family friends insist he has been married only once. Khomeini has said “One wife is enough,” though he did not say whether he meant simply one at a time. In any case, Khomeini is known to have had six children. His wife is younger than the Ayatullah by several years. “I run the inside and he runs the outside, but we always consult,” she has said.

About the time of his marriage, Khomeini made the devout Muslim’s obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. On his way back from Islam’s holiest city, he got into a squabble with a group of Sunni Muslims in a Damascus mosque. In keeping with his own Shi’a tradition, Khomeini had placed a handful of earth on his prayer rug, and was preparing to put his forehead upon it. The Sunnis angrily objected to this practice, Khomeini deftly answered that it was wrong to place one’s forehead directly on a rug, that one should be more humble than that. He was let go.

Back in Qum, Khomeini remained something of a theological maverick. At the Madresseh Faizieh, he lectured on the need for Islamic mullahs to involve themselves in politics, as the prophet had done. Khomeini also taught a course in ethics that was, in reality, a discussion of political science from an Islamic viewpoint. Despite his unorthodox ways, or perhaps because of them, he became increasingly popular with students.

“As soon as classes were over, the instruction really began,” recalls one former student and colleague, Ayatullah Mohammed Javad Bahonar. “The discussions would go on for hours. He was never pleased unless you could stand up to him. He demanded research and curiosity. He wanted you to ask, to probe, to argue. The two issues he emphasized were the necessity for Islam and Iran to be independent of both Eastern and Western colonialism and the need to get the clergy put of the mold of an academic straitjacket. He said the clergy had a responsibility for humanity not only in Iran but wherever people were hungry and oppressed. In this way Khomeini trained 1,200 religious leaders who are the elite of the country today.”

Says Professor Mehdi Haeri, one of his students from this period: “Every weekend, when there were no classes, he used to have a large open class for anyone who wanted to come. He discussed ethics and morals, describing very complicated subjects simply. His secret was that he convinced you he was teaching from the bottom of his heart. You felt the immanence of God; God was ever present with Khomeini.”

During the late 1930s, the religious community in Qum came under heavy pressure from the Reza Shah, who had undertaken a campaign to modernize his country, in the manner of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. By 1941, as a result, the number of students at the Faizieh had dropped from several thousand to 500. Khomeini urged the new director of the school, the Ayatullah Boroujerdi, to oppose the Shah more openly. When Boroujerdi refused, Khomeini was bitterly disappointed. Thereafter he called on his superior only once a year, as required. Shortly after Reza Shah was deposed by the British and the Soviets in 1941, Khomeini published a polemic attacking the Pahlavi dynasty for its efforts to bring down the clergy. In 1944, he acquired further recognition by being the only cleric who refused to rise when the new Shah came to visit the school.

When Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh came to power as Iran’s Premier in 1951, Khomeini welcomed his anticolonialism and his opposition to the Shah, though he considered Mossadegh too secular. Khomeini had much more sympathy for the Ayatullah Abolqasem Kashani, who was then Mossadegh’s partner. Kashani later split with him and may even have cooperated with the CIA-backed coup that toppled Mossadegh’s government in August 1953 and enabled the Shah to return to his throne. Khomeini still identifies himself with Kashani, whose memory is reviled by Iranian nationalists because of his alleged betrayal of Mossadegh. One link between Kashani and Khomeini is the Fedayan Islam, a group of fanatical Muslim nationalists who opposed the secular government.

Despite his Credentials as an opponent of the Shah, Khomeini’s curious blend of mysticism and activism still made him slightly suspect in the eyes of the Islamic Establishment— as a holy man who tried to run around with the Mob, one might say —but his following was growing steadily. In the late 1950s he became an Ayatullah, a title that is earned, more or less, by developing a following and gradually gaining the recognition of one’s superiors. Khomeini’s first significant political victory came in November 1962, after the Shah’s government decided that a witness in court could henceforth swear by the “divine book” rather than the Koran. The new Ayatullah led the clergy in a general strike, and the government backed down.

Khomeini confronted the government again a few months later after it had confiscated the property of a family that contributed much of its income to the religious institutions of Qum. The Shah’s police attacked the Madresseh Faizieh, killing as many as 18 young mullahs, and Khomeini fired off angry telegrams of protest to the Shah. At this point, for the first time since the days of Mossadegh, university students in Tehran came to the support of the clergy against the Shah. Khomeini wrote to then Premier Asadollah Alam: “My heart is ready for the bayonet of your troops. I shall never keep quiet ” By the spring of 1963, Khomeini was preaching to crowds of 100,000 in Qum, telling them that only “a flick of the finger” was necessary to sweep the Shah away.

The Shah was greatly annoyed. Khomeini’s home was raided, and he was placed under house arrest. After his release a few months later, Khomeini protested even more loudly as the Iranian parliament considered a bill that would allow members of the U.S. armed forces in Iran to be tried in their own military courts. Khomeini was arrested again: this time he was held for a half a year. upon his second release, he was brought before Premier Hassan Mansur, who tried to convince Khomeini that he should apologize and drop his opposition to the government. Khomeini refused. In fury, Mansur slapped Khomeini’s face. The Ayatullah did not blink. Two weeks later, Hassan Mansur was assassinated on his way to parliament. Four members of the Fedayan Islam were later executed for the murder.

In the spring of 1964, Khomeini was exiled to Turkey, from where he soon moved to the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, in Iraq. He remained there for nearly 15 years, lecturing in a Muslim academy and writing a treatise on his concept of the Islamic republic. His supporters in Iran and Pakistan sent him more than $100,000 a year, most of which he distributed quietly to students and the needy. He regularly sent back to colleagues in Iran taped messages that were reproduced and distributed to mosques throughout the country. One particularly fiery sermon attacked the Shah’s October 1971 grandiose celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. (The estimated cost: $11 million.) Khomeini denounced the “imperial feast” and urged the clergy to rise up against this “counterpart of Attila the bloody.”

In May 1977 a distinguished Islamic teacher from Mashad, Dr. Ali Shariati, died mysteriously in London. His students in Tehran assumed that Shariati had been murdered by SAVAK. Six months later Khomeini’s son Mostafa, 49, died suddenly in Najaf a day after he had been visited by two “strangers.” Khomeini has never claimed that his son was murdered, but throughout Iran it was widely assumed that SAVAK was responsible. On the occasion of his son’s death, the Ayatullah wrote a letter to the Iranian people that is now regarded as the crucial document of the revolution. After denouncing the “absurdities of this incompetent agent [the Shah] and his family of looters,” Khomeini declared, “it is the responsibility of the Iranian army and its heads to liberate their country from destruction.” Khomeini thus established himself as leader of the revolution by calling upon the armed forces to overthrow the Shah. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the letter were distributed in Iran. As a Tehran University professor put it: “We were struggling against autocracy for democracy, by means of Xerocracy.”

The Shah’s government then made three mistakes, the effect of which was to give Khomeini even greater prominence First, it tried to discredit him with implausible charges, such as contending that Khomeini was an Iraqi spy. Secondly in mid-1977 it asked Iraq to expel Khomeini, and Baghdad complied. The U.S., among other countries, refused to take him in, lest such an act offend the Shah. Since he was permitted automatic entry if he had a valid passport, he decided to go to France, whose government took the precaution of asking the Shah whether he had any objections. The third mistake was the Shah’s answer to France: he did not care what happened to Khomeini. For the first time, the world press had easy access to him, and he to it.

Events in Iran now moved even more quickly than the Ayatullah himself could have expected. Within four months of his arrival in France, Khomeini was able to make his triumphant return to Iran, where he quickly replaced the post-Shah government with a Cabinet of his own. A month later he was back in his old house in Qum, where he has been ever since, trying to guide his country’s unfinished revolution.

When he is not meditating or receiving guests at the Madresseh Faizieh, Khomeini lives in his family home at 61 Kuche Yakhchal Ghazi. It is a soiled white, one-story house, perhaps 100 years old, on a narrow lane in the center of Qum. There is a courtyard out front and a pond, and the walls are covered with vines. The only notable piece of furniture inside is a wooden desk that Khomeini has owned for years. The Ayatullah relies heavily on his surviving son Seyyed Ahmed Khomeini, 35, who serves as a sort of chief vizier cum majordomo The Ayatullah walks with a kind of shuffling gait, but otherwise seems in fair health for a man of his years. Still, he is 79; he tires easily and rarely works more than five hours a day.

The Ayatullah, according to many who have seen him lately, seems increasingly out of touch with his own revolution, bewildered by the pace of events. But he will never surrender power easily. On his return to Qum, he told a nationwide radio and television audience: “The remaining one or two years of my life I will devote to you to keep this movement alive.” He will surely try to do so for throughout his life he has rigidly held to his commitments. The real question is whether Iran has not become too secular over the past 50 years to submit for long to the rule of a philosopher-king. ∎

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