The Rise of An Ayatollah

By Angela Sager

Iran’s complex culture, intertwined with political and religious authority, has been the catalyst of problems throughout Iran’s long history. Under a government that was conceived with religious ties, an ongoing power struggle was long fought between the ruler of Iran, the Shah, and the religious authorities, the ayatollahs. This internecine struggle came to a head in the 1960s and 1970s. As the great revolutionary of this struggle, Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini captured and united the hearts and minds of a people whose government had been allowing corruption and material exploitation by the United States, and he led a uniquely successful, mostly nonviolent revolution against an entrenched dictator. It was Khomeini’s political savvy and acute understanding of the Iranian citizens and their plight that allowed him to recognize the revolutionary potential of the citizens’ nationalistic protests against the Shah.  However, his authentic religious piety and austere lifestyle won him popular standing among people outraged by corrupt politicians. These combined strengths formed the core of Khomeini’s movement in which he fought to restore honor and integrity to the government by ending the monarchy.

Provocation for Khomeini’s revolutionary movement came in 1963. At the beginning of this year, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the ruler of Iran, sought to achieve his personal vision for Iran by exorcising that part of Iranian identity that subscribes to the Shia branch of Islam. He did this through the implementation of the White Revolution – a six-point socioeconomic reform package consisting of agrarian reform, forest nationalization, the sale of public factories, votes for women, profit sharing in industry, and the eradication of illiteracy. To better enforce these laws, the Shah also began the abandonment of Iran’s Islamic tradition and institutionalized a more secular state. 

These reforms marked a dramatic shift from the intertwined relationship of the Iranian government and religious clergy that had existed for millennia. Iranians claim two complex and interlocking historical traditions: one originating in ancient Persia and the other from Islam. These two traditions have led to deadly struggles over the control of Iranian culture and government. In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus and then Darius led Persian armies out of the Iranian plateau to conquer and to rule a vast empire that stretched from the IndusRiver in the east to Egypt in the west. It was during this time that the religion of Zoroaster was formed, and this religion created the political philosophy, the art and architecture, the mores, and the traditions that characterize the Persian culture. However, in the seventh century CE, Persia, defined as a political-territorial unit, was invaded by Arab armies set to conquer the world for Islam. Consequently, Persian culture was infiltrated by a people shaped by the constant fight for survival in the harsh desert of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arab invaders, notwithstanding their rich oral tradition, were uneducated. The ultimate merging of the Persian and Arabian cultures between the eighth and eleventh centuries culminated in the Golden Age of Islam, when the religion of Muhammad combined with Persian art and knowledge.

However, Persia’s distinct identity eventually led it to break from the main body of Islam and refine the Shia sect of Islam. Shiism was not established in Iran until 1501, when the Turkoman tribes in northern Iran attacked the existing order in Persia. By the sword and the word, Ismail and the great king Abbas mobilized Shiism to bind Persia’s ethnically and linguistically diverse population. In declaring Shiism the state religion, the Safavid dynasty began the process which would define Iran by Shia theology as well as Persian culture.[1]

Both religion and monarchy became indispensable for the governing of Iran. For more than four centuries, between the time the Safavids established Shiism as Iran’s state religion and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the king wielded the power of the state, and the Shia clergy exercised the moral authority of the faith. In many respects, secular and religious authorities were always intertwined: “At the birth of the Iranian nation, monarchy arrived wrapped in swaddling clothes woven of religion. In the seventh century, Islam combined secular and religious authority. The caliph, the heir of Muhammad, was the king ruling over the Ummah, the Islamic state.”[2] When Iran emerged as a Shia state, the king of the nation continued to act as the servant of the faith.

In expectation, if not in reality, the concept of secular leadership blessed by religion survived almost as long as the Iranian monarchy. For the fabric of Iranian life was, and is, woven on the loom of Islam. Its endlessly repeated motif is God rather than king. And religion instead of the state embroiders it with the expectation of equal justice for the masses so often victimized by kingship and hierarchy.[3]

In the nineteenth century, Shia Persia met the Christian West, and this confrontation started to undermine the traditional principles of Iranian government. Until 1979, it was an uneven encounter in which Western nations sought individually and collectively to use Iran as a pawn of their own interests. This unsettled many Iranians, who felt helpless against these large colonial powers and abandoned by a series of Shahs who did not take steps to stop the encroachment.  These Western powers also introduced many new ideas about technology, religion, culture, and government that challenged former ways of Iranian society. 

Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s attempt to modernize Iran through the White Revolution was an attempt to bring Iran and its people in line with the westernized world and economy as well as to transform Iran’s power structure through land distribution schemes intended to disadvantage the traditional aristocracy and religious institutions. Although many considered the White Revolution a drastic measure, on 25 January 1963 the Shah’s plan was endorsed by 99.9% of those participating in the referendum.[4] 

From its very outset in 1963, Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini had declared the White Revolution specious.  He saw it as a threat to the Islamic identity that he believed was crucial to Iranian society, and he directly blamed the Shah for the economic divisions the White Revolution was creating. Khomeini’s deep aversion to the monarchy and the White Revolution was rooted in his local upbringing and education. He was born in 1902 in Khomein, a town 220 miles southwest of Tehran. One of six children, Khomeini came from a long line of Shiite scholars. Mustapha Mousavi, Khomeini’s father, was a leading Islamic cleric and a chief clergyman of Khomein at the time of Khomeini’s birth. He was murdered when Khomeini was five months old. Khomeini later lost his mother and aunt in 1918.[5] To many Iranians these losses later illustrated that Khomeini was as vulnerable as they to the tragedies that befall all human beings, and yet Khomeini overcame hardship to thrive as a respected cleric. To those fallen on hard times, this gave a hope that he could help them realize a new and better life than the one they had under the Shah.

Khomeini’s education followed the same pattern of humble beginning and auspicious ending. He began his education at the age of six by memorizing the Quran at a maktab (traditional religious school), and he finished his Persian education at fifteen. He then studied for four years under the guidance of his eldest brother, Murtaza Pasandidam, and afterwards joined the religious school in Arak, 40 miles from Khomein. In 1922, Khomeini followed his instructor, Ayatollah Abdul Karin Hairi-Yazdi, to Qom to help reorganize the city’s religious education. Khomeini completed his studies in the Sharia in 1925,[6] and in 1941 he published a book attacking secularism. In 1945 he graduated to the clerical rank of hojatalislam (proof of Islam) which allowed him to gather disciples and teach his interpretation of the Sharia. The publication of his book the Clarification of Points of the Sharia secured him a promotion to ayatollah in 1961.[7] Khomeini remained in Qom until 1963, when the Shah, enraged at his outspoken opposition to the White Revolution, sent him into exile in Turkey. Khomeini became the first ayatollah of prominence whose formation took place entirely in Iran.[8] His local background made him not only more sensitive to the people’s difficulties, but it also gained the Iranians’ trust. Unlike the extravagance of the Shah, Khomeini’s moderate upbringing was one with which Iranians could identify.

Khomeini’s past not only molded his beliefs, but it also influenced his lifestyle. Characterized by modesty, humility, and a commitment to faith, Khomeini’s lifestyle represented his commitment to the Iranian state and to Shiism. Khomeini kept an average house and participated in daily life and chores with his family. When notable visitors from around the world came to see him, he received them at his home, sitting on a carpet under a tree in his garden. He was also known for exercising financial caution both with his own and with other people’s money. Wealthy Iranian merchants and rich Shiites newly converted to his cause showered him with money, but he monitored how much the family spent. Despite his hectic schedule, Khomeini’s strict daily routine throughout the revolution included rigorous study and prayer. Through this asceticism and regimentation, Khomeini protected himself from any hint of corruption bred of materialism and worldly power. His simple and quiet lifestyle attested to his commitment to the Iranian people and augmented his stature in the eyes of many Iranians.[9]

For Khomeini, nationalism and piety were inextricable, and he believed the Shah ignored both. In his censure, Khomeini addressed both the religious and political destruction that he felt was associated with the White Revolution, while evoking the corruption of past monarchies to undermine trust in the current Shah. In a speech from exile, Khomeini denounced the Shah and his regime by saying,

Tradition relates that the Prophet said that the title of King of Kings, which is [today] borne by the monarchs of Iran, is the most hated of all titles in the sight of God. Islam is fundamentally opposed to the whole notion of monarchy … Monarchy is one of the most shameful and disgraceful reactionary manifestations.”[10]

Khomeini’s ability to speak as a native Iranian, drawing on the common memories of the people, undoubtedly strengthened the effectiveness of his rhetoric.

After condemning the monarchy, Khomeini sought to identify himself with Iranian nationalism. He gained strength by his opposition to the unpopular 1964 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), whereby the United States military personnel were exempted from Iranian law. This law evoked bitter memories of the capitulations granted by the Qajar Dynasty in the Turkmanchay Treaty in 1828. This treaty had exempted all foreign citizens from Iranian jurisdiction and deeply humiliated the Iranian people. The Turkmanchay Treaty had also led to the domination of Iranian trade and even of Iranian politics by Britain and Russia.[11]

Public reaction against SOFA exploded, and Iranians deemed SOFA a Pahlavi capitulation to the United States.[12] On 26 October 1964, opposing the Status of Forces Agreement, Khomeini made a powerful speech that captivated Iran and pinned the United States as a colonial power. He spoke not just as a Shia cleric but also as an Iranian nationalist:

Does the Iranian nation know what has happened in recent days in the Assembly [Majlis]? Does it know what crime has occurred surreptitiously and without the knowledge of the nation? Does it know that the Assembly, at the initiation of the government, has signed the document of enslavement of Iran? It has acknowledged that Iran is a colony; it has given America a document attesting that the nation of Muslims is barbarous; it has struck out all our Islamic and national glories with a black line. … I proclaim that his shameful vote of the Majlis is in contradiction to Islam and has no legality…[13]

More than anyone else, Khomeini now symbolized opposition to absolute monarchy. With the denunciation of the SOFA, he stood as the great avenger of Iranian nationalism.

Once he was aligned politically with Iranian nationalism, Khomeini’s use of religion in his message was the key to raising popular fervor. Khomeini’s resistance to the Shah’s reforms focused on religion as the basis of his message.[14] Criticizing his own forced exile, the ayatollah drew parallels between his circumstance and historical precedents of oppressed religious leaders; in particular he cited the Prophet Muhammad, who was driven from Mecca by Quraysh, and Ali, the true heir of Muhammad, who was opposed by the evil Umayyed usurper Muawiya. These descriptions roused many more Iranians to fight not only for the good of their country, but also for the sanctity of their religion. Almost a year after he arrived in Turkey, Khomeini further cemented the religious aspect of his message by moving to Najaf, Iraq, the great theological center of Shia Islam where tradition holds that Ali, the first Imam, died.[15]

From Najaf, Khomeini continued to stir opposition against the Iranian monarchy. The Shah’s reaction to his movement proved the effectiveness of Khomeini’s approach. In order to enforce the White Revolution, the Shah used military muscle. The number of SAVAK (secret police) activities increased sharply during this time, and a series of repressive measures by the government led to increased opposition. To intimidate opponents, SAVAK harassed, tortured, and murdered dissidents, as well as interfering with mail and telephone service and denying jobs, promotions, passports or exit visas to those suspected of sedition.[16]

When he could not create an actual revolution, Khomeini sustained anti-Shah sentiment through religious devotion. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, Khomeini’s main base of support was predominantly concentrated in Qom, in the Tehran bazaar, and a few other old commercial centers scattered around the country.[17]  While these followers were a menace to the Shah, they did not constitute a serious political challenge. For the rest of Khomeini’s devotees, the connection between the white-bearded Ayatollah and themselves existed on a mystical plane. In the context of the Shia psyche, Khomeini’s otherworldliness gave him a potent appeal. Because he lived in exile, he was both absent and present – the paradox in which the Shia collective memory remembers its last figure of cosmic authority, the Hidden Imam. This suggested parallel between Khomeini and the Twelfth Imam did not need to be absolute to be compelling.[18] It did not even need articulation. Religious symbolism and social and political realities drew numbers of Iranians to the man in Najaf. There, year after year, Khomeini seemed to hover over Pahlavi Iran, an ethereal figure who was absent but present, persecuted but powerful.

Khomeini’s exile aided him politically, too. His influence grew precisely because he lived in exile. From the safety of Iraq, he could speak fiery words with a freedom denied those resident in Iran. In 1971, he published Islamic Government: Rule of the Faqih, in which he declared that the Shia clergy must attempt to oust corrupt officials and repressive regimes and replace them with ones led by just Islamic jurists.[19] In Iran, security forces censored secular opponents of the Shah, and dissenters were forced to code their protests in symbolic language hidden in poetry and prose. But Khomeini, able to criticize without fear of reproach in Najaf, became the champion of “justice,” the single most important concept in Iranian political culture.

The Shah’s base of support began to fragment in the early 1970s, as the economic gains of the White Revolution were consolidated in the hands of social elite—politicians, military leaders, wealthy landowners, scholars and diplomats. This created a wide economic divide between classes which many felt was deliberately designed by the Shah to help his political allies. The reform had also included the redistribution of land belonging to and managed by the religious trust, and many clerics organized protests in response. As the Shah continued to develop ties to the West and the economic situation in Iran worsened, he further alienated himself from all sections of society except the upper class.

Public hostility reached a breaking point on 15 October 1971 at the celebration of Persepolis.  In commemoration of the 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy, the Shah held a grand celebration to entertain 68 kings, queens, princesses, and heads of state at an expense of $120 million. To fund the festivities, the government exacted contributions from the entrepreneurial class and other citizens. This festival created a major upset not only because of the amount of money that was spent, but also because of the irony of its being celebrated in Persepolis, one of the most poverty stricken areas of Iran. From the site of Ali’s tomb in Najaf, Khomeini denounced the celebrations by combining religion and politics: “Anyone who organizes or participates in these festivals is a traitor to Islam and the Iranian nation.”[20] Many Iranians noticed the contrast between Khomeini’s way of life and the lavishness of the Shah. Protesting the festival, hundreds of thousands of dissident students and bazaar merchants in Tehran and elsewhere undertook a token fast.[21]

Khomeini’s promulgation of his message reflected his political savvy and his identification with Iranians. Aware that illiteracy was a major problem in Iran, Khomeini seized the opportunity afforded by the stream of Iranian pilgrims Najaf and Karbala to smuggle tape recordings of his sermons back to Iran.[22] Through these cassettes and radio broadcasting, Khomeini’s message of disobedience to the Shah quickly spread throughout the country.[23] Khomeini’s use of this technology contributed to the first electronically operated revolution in world history, reaching previously ignored audiences.[24]

Khomeini’s political visions soon began to become manifest in Iran. Massive and repeated demonstrations and strikes occurred in Qom and throughout the country and were eventually suppressed by military forces. To further stir resistance, Khomeini criticized the strong-armed tactics of the government against the people, and he declared that the uprisings were a sign of hope that “freedom and liberation from the bonds of imperialism” were at hand.[25] 

On 8 January 1978, the anti-Shah sentiments culminated when millions of protestors assembled in Tehran, and the protestors galvanized a mass revolutionary movement demanding the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime and the installation of an Islamic government. Students, the middle class, bazaar merchants, workers, and the army successively abandoned the regime.[26] By November 1978, operating from Neuphle-le-Chateau, a Paris suburb, and using politics and religion to identify with Iranians, Khomeini had put the Shah on the defensive.

Khomeini now concentrated on revealing the Iranians’ struggle to the world. Journalists from across the globe made their way to France, and the image and the words of Ayatollah Khomeini were daily features in the world’s media. He became the acknowledged leader of the opposition and shaped the revolutionary doctrine. Faithful to his original cause, he carefully used Shia history and Iranian nationalism to provoke and intensify anti-royalist militancy among a rapidly growing circle of Iranians. He condemned the Shah’s servility to America and his secularism.[27] When Khomeini called for strikes, his followers shut down the banks, the postal service, the factories, the food stores and most importantly, the oil wells, bringing the country close to paralysis.[28] On 13 January 1979, three days before the Shah’s final departure from Iran, Khomeini asserted the authority of his movement by appointing the Islamic Revolutionary Council (IRC), with Shapour Bakhtiar of Jabhe-yi Melli (The National Front) as the prime minister, to facilitate the formation of a provisional government and to produce a constitution for an Islamic republic in Iran.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and his wife fled Iran for Egypt on 16 January 1978.  On 1 February 1979, Khomeini, now 78 years old, returned to Iran after 14 years in exile. He was greeted by 1,500 religious and political leaders in the terminal, as well as large crowds outside of the airport clamoring to catch a glimpse of the man who had become their spiritual inspiration. Khomeini demonstrated his commitment to faith and appreciation for those who lost their lives by having his convoy stop not in Tehran, but rather having it make a 12-mile journey south to the Cemetery of Martyrs, where he addressed 250,000 supporters.[29] Two months later, on 1 April, a referendum declared an Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution by appealing to the basic desires of the Iranian people for a government that included their interests. The Pahlavi regime had isolated the people from the government by class and religion, and Khomeini sought to reverse this repression. He employed political savvy to develop and promulgate the revolutionary vision, and he used religion to sustain it. Iranians identified both with Khomeini’s strong sense of nationalism and his piety, and these two aspects were indispensable in effecting the revolution. His emphasis on Iranian tradition and the inextricable nature of politics and religion enabled Khomeini to articulate a distinctly Iranian identity and politics.



[1] Sciolino, Elaine. Persian Mirrors; The Elusive Face of Iran, (New York, 2000),

p. 38-39.

[2] Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians; Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, (New York, 1996), p.102.

[3] Ibid, p.102.

[4] Hiro, Dilip. The Essential Middle East; a Comprehensive Guide, (New York, 2003),

p. 275.

[5]http://www.iranchamber.com/history/rkhomeini/ayatollah_khomeini.php

[6] Hiro, Dilip. Iran under the Ayatollahs, (New York, 1985), p. 49-50.

[7] Hiro, Dilip. The Essential Middle East; a Comprehensive Guide, (New York, 2003), p. 276.

[8]http://www.iranchamber.com/history/rkhomeini/ayatollah_khomeini.php

[9] Ibid, p. 191-193.

[10] Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians; Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, (New York, 1996), p. 237.

[11] Moin, Baqer. Khomeini; Life of the Ayatollah. (New York, 1999), p. 274-275.

[12] Hiro, Dilip. Iran under the Ayatollahs. (New York, 1985), p. 54.

[13] Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, (New York, 1977), p. 245-246.

[14] Moin, Baqer. Khomeini; Life of the Ayatollah, (New York, 1999), p.192.

[15] Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians; Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, (New York, 1996), p. 275.

[16] Sciolino, Elaine. Persian Mirrors; The Elusive Face of Iran, (New York, 2000), p. 237.

[17] Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians; Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, (New York, 1996), p. 275.

[18]http://www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/khomeini_related.html.

[19] Hiro, Dilip. The Essential Middle East; A Comprehensive Guide, (New York, 2003),

p. 275.

[20] Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians; Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, (New York, 1996), p. 237.

[21] Hiro, Dilip. Iran under the Ayatollahs, (New York, 1985), p. 56-57.

[22] http://www.mideastweb.org/algiersaccord.htm

[23] Moin, Baqer. Khomeini; Life of the Ayatollah, (New York, 1999), p. 184-185.

[24] Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East; a Brief History of the Last 2000 Years, (New York, 1995), p. 13.

[25] Moin, Baqer. Khomeini; Life of the Ayatollah, (New York, 1999), p.184-185.

[26] http://www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/khomeini.html

[27]http://www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/khomeini.html

[28]http://www.time.com/time/time100/leaders/profile/khomeini_related.html

[29] Moin, Baqer. Khomeini; Life of the Ayatollah, (New York, 1999), p. 199-202.