Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

(c. 1900–1989) Iranian religious and political leader

Ruhollah Khomeini, an Iranian religious leader known by the Islamic title of ayatollah, was the driving force behind the movement that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979; he then became Iran’s highest political and religious authority for the next 10 years.

Although Khomeini was born into a poor family, he was the grandson and son of mullahs (Shi’i religious leaders). When he was five months old, his father was killed in a dispute. The young Khomeini was then raised by his mother, later his aunt, and finally his older brother Murtaza. Khomeini was educated in various Islamic schools and received the sort of instruction expected of a mullah’s son. Khomeini was an attentive, intelligent, hardworking, and serious student. In about 1922 he settled in the city of Qom, and around 1930 he assumed the surname of Khomeini from his birthplace, Khomein (or Khomeyn). As a respected Shi’i scholar and teacher, Khomeini authored many works on Islamic philosophy, law, and ethics. It was his outspoken opposition to Iran’s ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, plus Khomeini’s resolute advocacy of Islamic purity, that garnered him support in Iran. In the 1950s Khomeini received the religious title of ayatollah by popular acclaim; by the early 1960s he had received the title of grand ayatollah, which made him one of the supreme religious leaders of the Shi’i community in Iran.

In 1962–63 Khomeini publicly opposed the shah’s land-reform program; he also spoke out against the Western-style emancipation of women in Iran. These criticisms led to Khomeini’s arrest, which quickly sparked antigovernment riots. After a year’s imprisonment Khomeini was forced into exile in November 1964; he eventually settled in the Shi’i holy city of Najaf, Iraq, from which he continued to call for the shah’s removal from power.

From the mid-1970s Khomeini’s stature inside Iran grew. When Khomeini’s continued denunciations of the shah caused political difficulties in Iraq, Iraq’s ruler Saddam Hussein expelled Khomeini from the country in October 1978. Khomeini and his second wife then settled in Neauphle-le-Château, a suburb of Paris. From there the Ayatollah Khomeini directed the movement to unseat the shah. Khomeini’s call for a general strike in October 1978 led to a crippling strike in the Iranian oil fields in November. These and other strikes resulted in massive demonstrations, riots, and civil unrest, which in turn forced the departure of the shah from the country on January 16, 1979. Khomeini arrived in the Iranian capital of Tehran on February 1 and was popularly acclaimed as the religious leader of Iran’s revolution. The Ayatollah Khomeini appointed a government on February 5 and then moved to live in the holy city of Qom. In December 1979 a new constitution was adopted, which created an Islamic republic in Iran. Khomeini was named Iran’s political and religious leader (fagih) for life.

Although the Ayatollah Khomeini held no official government office, he proved implacable in his determination to transform Iran into a theocratically ruled Islamic state. He directed the revival of traditional, fundamentalist Islamic values, customs, laws, and legal procedures, explaining how they were to affect all public and private activities in Iran. Khomeini also acted as arbiter among the various feuding secular and religious factions vying for power in the new revolutionary state. Still, Khomeini made final decisions on important matters requiring his personal authority.

The main theme of Khomeini’s foreign policy was the total abandonment of the shah’s pro-Western position and the adoption of an attitude of hostility to both the United States and the Soviet Union. At the same time, Khomeini’s Iran tried to export its version of Islamic fundamentalism to neighboring Muslim countries. After Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, Khomeini sanctioned their holding of U.S. diplomatic personnel as hostages for more than a year, souring diplomatic relations with the United States for many years. Khomeini also refused to permit an early peaceful solution to the Iran-Iraq War, which had begun in 1980, by insisting that it be prolonged in hopes of overthrowing Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein. Khomeini finally approved a cease-fire in 1988 that effectively ended the conflict.

Iran’s path of economic development almost came to nothing under Khomeini’s rule, and his pursuit of victory in the Iran-Iraq War ultimately proved pointless and extremely costly to Iran. Nevertheless Khomeini was able to retain, by sheer force of personality, his hold over Iran’s Shi’i masses, and until his death in 1989 he remained the supreme political and religious arbiter in the country.

See also Iran hostage crisis; Iranian revolution.

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