That Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts put their mark on the Islamic Revolution was more than an accident of history. At least since 1961, and with a greater resolve since 1970, clerical Shi‘ism explored ideological Islam and contemplated juridical authority as an alternative to secular power. Although political activism was well-trodden territory, contemplating a conscious, if not consistent, political theory was new to the clerical experience. Shi‘i jurists by and large remained loyal to the idea of political nonintervention.

The shift in political climate required a new approach and new rhetoric. To secure the loyalties of their followers and to remain relevant to a changing society, the clergy could no longer cling to merely promoting devotional acts and intricate details of jurisprudence. Mobilizing urban multitudes, even the bazaar constituency, called for a proactive role. Competitions from lay Islamists, such as Shari‘ati, and from Mojahedin Khalq added to the urgency, not to mention competition from the secular left. Even in Qom, to preserve loyalties of the clerical core, the leadership could no longer remain indifferent to the outside world, especially to anticolonial struggles and postcolonial discourse in the greater Islamic world. Isolation in the clerical teaching circles, the howzeh, no longer paid off, and Khomeini and his students and supporters began to fill the gap as a voice of radical dissent against the Pahlavi state.


Already in 1969 in Najaf, Khomeini had delivered a series of lectures on the subject of the governance of the jurist, a pivotal notion that came to define the ideology of the revolution. Welayat (or, in Arabic, wilaya) is a broad and complex term with multiple legal, mystical, and historical nuances. As a legal principle in Shi‘i jurisprudence, it entrusted the jurist (s. fqih; pl. foqaha) with a set of legal supervisory duties to serve as a guardian, a custodian, a legatee, or a public advocate. In its broadest sense these duties are roughly equivalent of those of an attorney general or a public advocate in a modern legal system, though largely devoid of the latter’s centralized and hierarchical structure. These duties included custodianship of minors, orphans, the mentally incapacitated, and such who were deemed incapable of looking after their own affairs and lacked other guardians. The jurist also acted as the trustee of charitable endowments that lacked a named trustee and undertook fair allocation of unclaimed inheritance. By any standard, the question of wilayat was viewed as a dry academic debate in the books of jurisprudence. It had preserved its arcane character since the tenth century with little change.

A few jurists in the Safavid period entertained, in theory, that guardianship of the jurist could mean something beyond such fiduciary duties. More specifically, they saw a public duty for the jurist on behalf of the community and in its dealings with the state. The mainstream Shi‘i jurists, however, made only passing references, if any at all, to the public aspect of welayat and never established a framework for it. Nor did it serve, it is important to note, as legal ground for any form of political action or a springboard for the clergy’s opposition to the state in the Qajar or Pahlavi eras. Contrary to what has often been claimed, the most widely quoted source on the subject of guardianship, Mulla Ahmad Naraqi (1772–1829), an Usuli jurist of early nineteenth-century Kashan, never explicitly claimed welayat as ground for jurists’ political authority. On the contrary, he was known for his firm support for the Qajar state and his advocacy of the separation of clerical from temporal duties. Likewise, Sayyed Mohammad Baqer Shafti, another powerful contemporary of Naraqi, clearly observed such a division.

Khomeini’s novel reading of the notion of guardianship of the jurist as the only legitimate alternative to “unjust” temporal rule was at odds with the traditional Shi‘i aversion toward political power, avoiding government offices, and, for the most part, engaging in state affairs (except the mostly hereditary post of serving as leaders of Friday congregational prayers in major cities). Shi‘i law generally held the position that in the absence of the Imam of the Age, any form of government, presumably even a government led by the jurists, is fundamentally “unjust” and therefore theoretically illegitimate. Only the savior Mahdi—in Twelver Shi‘ism, the Twelfth Imam who is considered to be in occultation—upon his return to the material world at the outset of a process that leads to the End of the Time will, with divine blessing, restore justice and equity to earth and establish the utopian society (or dystopian, if we consider its apocalyptic finale) that was lost with the death of the Prophet of Islam. While the Twelfth Imam is absent (i.e., in occultation), any form of temporal power, including kingship, is essentially unsanctified and hence “tyrannical.”

Aside from historical circumstances that led to such a drastic, almost anarchistic, position, in practice the Shi‘i jurists were generally accommodating toward temporal rulers, even if the sultans and the shahs were not particularly known for their religiosity or fair treatment of their subjects. They had established a kind of modus vivendi loyal to the old Persian sisterhood pact of kingship and “good religion” that had survived for more than a millennium in the Persianate world. In the case of the Safavid shahs, whose private lives were scandalously negligent of shari‘a obligations, this ancient alliance was as applicable as in the case of the seemingly God-fearing Qajar rulers. Rulers, even unjust rulers, were to be abided, even though they were not legally legitimate, so long as they confessed to be Muslims. The idea of resisting “oppressive” rulers was a mere philosophical ideal foreign to the mostly sheepish jurists taking refuge in the madrasa.

Even the rulers’ essential duties of defending the realm of Islam against foreign intrusion, maintaining security and order in the community, and enforcing the laws of the shari‘a were treated with great latitude. Shi‘i jurists were content with virtually any form of temporal power so long as it remained mindful of their jealously guarded clerical privileges and their shari‘a legal domain. They were generally complimentary, if not always laudatory, toward the Safavid and the Qajar shahs, for these rulers honored a division between the authority to rule (wilayat-e hokm), which was the domain of the rulers, and the authority to judge (wilayat-e qada), which was that of the jurists. Even if in practice the latter authority was curtailed by the state, in and of itself it hardly ever established the grounds for disqualifying temporal power. The doctrine of confessional disguise (taqiyya) in Shi‘ism always allowed jurists, under the pretext of self-preservation, to conveniently dodge the state’s harshest treatments. Even in the Pahlavi era, when clerical power and privileges were curtailed or assumed by the state, the clerical establishment before Khomeini, despite its deep resentments, did not contemplate an Islamic alternative, let alone the political guardianship of the jurist.

The strongest precedent for conceptualizing clerical authority, perhaps, was the notion of the mashru‘eh (i.e., a system of government compliant with principles of the shari‘a), advanced by Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri and his supporters during the Constitutional Revolution. Nuri, who eventually abandoned the mashru‘eh and turned into a staunch royalist supportive of Mohammad ‘Ali Shah’s anticonstitutional regime, demanded, at most, compliance with the shari‘a in framing the constitution and insisted on a supervisory role for the mojtaheds in the Majles. His end at the gallows silenced his supporters, although his ambitions for restoring some measure of clerical agency were never discarded. Khomeini’s guardianship of the jurist can be viewed as an indirect descendant of Nuri’s mashru‘eh.

By contrast, Mohammad Hosain Na’ini, a contemporary of Nuri, offered a new reading of the shari‘a whereby, in the absence of the Imam of the Age, popular representation and a democratic constitutional regime (mashruteh) could be considered the legitimate, and expedient, form of government. He was backed for a while by a minority of mojtaheds in Najaf and Iran. Yet in the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution, senior jurists, even Na’ini himself, frustrated with the outcome of the revolution, rejected democratic representation, and the mashruteh as a whole, essentially because it proved unmindful of their corporate authority. Once the ramifications of a constitutional order in any form became more apparent, the clerical desire to create even a shari‘a-based alternative, namely the mashru‘eh, subsided. What remained was passive but nontheoretical resistance to the Pahlavi state by some activist jurists.

Khomeini’s “governance of the jurist” (a more apt translation for welayat-e faqih, in the political context) thus was a drastic departure from the Shi‘i jurists’ political quietism. He argued that contrary to the conventional view held by conservative and pro-regime jurists, in the absence of the Imam of the Age it is the inalienable duty of the jurists to try to erect a relatively just Islamic government. As jurists, he stressed, they possessed “accredited guardianship” (welayat-e e‘tebari), parallel to that of the Prophet and the Shi‘i Imams, to discharge public duties necessary to defend the bastion of Islam against foreign intruders. This was a controversial view, for it substituted, in effect, the divine mandate with human agency. He insisted that “belief in the necessity of establishing the [Islamic] government and creating its executive and administrative components, are parts of the welayat and struggle toward establishing it also requires belief in the welayat”:

Remember you are obligated to establish the Islamic government. Have self confidence and know that you will be able to do it. The colonizers laid the ground for three or four hundred years; they started from zero until they arrived here. We too will start from zero. Do not be intimidated by the uproar of a few western-stricken (gharbzadeh) individuals and servial lackeys of colonialism. . . . If you don’t interfere with the colonizers’ schemes and [instead] consider Islam only the [devotional] acts that you [i.e., the traditional jurists] always discuss and never go beyond them, they too don’t ever bother you. You perform as much prayer as you like [but] they want your oil; what do they care about your prayers? They want your mines; they want our country to be the market for their products. It is by this rationale that their [subservient] client states prevent us from becoming industrialized; they build instead assembly factories and dependent industries. They don’t wish to see us as human beings, since they are afraid of humans.

As if referring to his own defiance against the conservative clergy and the shah’s government, Khomeini’s tone turns sharper. “They would say this clergyman [akhund] is political. So was the Prophet [of Islam]. Such fabrications comes from political agents of colonialism in order to drive you out of politics and prevent you from engaging in social issues and prevent you from struggling against traitorous governments and [their] anti-nationalist and anti-Islamic designs so as to allow them to do whatever they wish and whatever damned thing they want [to achieve] and no one can stop them.”1

In Khomeini’s view the Western colonial powers (which in his eye were not different from his contemporary Western superpowers) entertained conspiratorial designs to subjugate all Muslims in cultural, economic, and political spheres. In due course, he believed, they intended to destroy the very essence (bayzeh, or “seed”) of Islam. Since the holders of temporal power, he asserted, were facilitators of such hegemonic designs, they were no longer capable of discharging their traditional duty to defend the Muslim community. They were, he asserted, guilty of collaborating with the infidels in plundering the realms of Islam, and Iran in particular, of its riches, violating Islam’s chastity and honors (navamis), and displaying servitude toward Western masters. They had encouraged immorality, irreligion, and corruption on earth and had weakened the foundations of the clerical establishment, the last bastion of true Islamic values.

Khomeini’s provocative tone appeared in his Hokumat-e Islami (Islamic Government), laced with a conspiratorial worldview and curious antimodern anxieties. The work stood at the center of his radical theocracy. Originally a series of Persian lectures on the subject of guardianship in Shi‘ism given at the behest of his clerical and lay loyalists in Najaf, it was published as a booklet first in Beirut in 1970 and clandestinely distributed in Iraq and Iran. His views were primarily indicative of a grudging rage that had accumulated toward Reza Shah and his successor, a rage that later burst into the open in the isolation of exile in Najaf (fig. 14.1). In his Hokumat-e Islami, a manifesto of the sort, he painted a bleak picture of Pahlavi Iran while displaying a sense of victimization and a disdain toward dissipation of clerical solidarity. He relied heavily on the Qur’anic verses, the prophetic hadith, citations from the Shi‘i Imams, and the works of medieval Shi‘i scholars—mostly out of context—to underscore the duty of the jurists to defend the community against alien intrusions. Jurists, he claimed unabashedly, are the most virtuous, and hence the most eligible, to uphold justice and communities’ moral standards. Legally the most qualified leaders of the community, he prescribed, the jurists must aspire toward the creation of an Islamic government.

Figure 14.1. Khomeini in Najaf, c. 1976.

Contemporary photograph, Jamaran.ir. http://www.jamaran.ir/PhotoNews-gid_72547–id_80875.aspx.

Responding no doubt to his clerical critics, Khomeini elaborated on the necessity of welayat of the jurist to establish the Islamic government. “To further clarify I ask this question”:

From the time of the minor occultation [of the Shi‘i Twelfth Imam; i.e., 784] more than one thousand and few hundred years have passed and it may not be expedient for him [the Mahdi] to return for another hundred thousand years. In such a long period of time are the teachings of Islam supposed to remain ignored and unenforced? And do people allowed to do whatever they wish? Is there going to be a state of chaos? . . . Such beliefs are worse than confessing to the annulment of Islam. [But] no one can say that it is unnecessary to defend the frontiers of the Islamic homeland and its territorial integrity or not collect the taxes, the poll tax [jiziya, from the “nonbelievers”], the land tax, the one-fifth tax [khoms] and religious alms or [say] that Islamic punitive laws and obligations and laws of retribution [qesas] should be abandoned. Anyone who asserts that establishing the Islamic government is not necessary, [if effect] rejects the need to enforce the Islamic law and denies the universality and eternity of the blessed Islamic teachings.2

In Khomeini’s view the secular rulers are unlikely candidates to enforce Islamic law because:

If the ruler is not knowledgeable about [Islamic] legal affairs, he is not fit to rule for if he would just follow ([taqlid] a jurists), his authority will be wrecked. And if he doesn’t follow [a jurist], he cannot enforce the Islamic law. It is an obvious fact [therefore] that “the jurists are rulers over the sultans” [al-fuqaha hukkam ala al-salatin]. If the sultans are obedient to Islam, they must abide by the jurists and ask them about laws and injunctions in order to enforce them. In that case the jurists are the true ruler and therefore authority to rule [hakemiyat] must officially rest with them and not with those who because of their ignorance of the [Islamic] law must abide by the ruling of the jurists.3

In a worldview such as this there were many enemies with evil designs lurking in every corner. These enemies were not only the corrupt rulers—a reference to the Pahlavi regime in everything but name—but also their presumed masters: the United States and Britain being the most obvious, but also Jews, Christian missionaries, the Freemasons, and the Baha’i. His condemnation of the Jews, a term he conflated indiscriminately with Zionists, for contemplating world hegemony echoed anti-Semitic literature such as the turn-of-the-century Russian Protocol of the Elders of Zion. Traditional tirades were not rare either: “May God curse them” is how Khomeini addressed the Jews. The establishment of the state of Israel, of course, loomed large as a prelude to this colonial master plan for Jewish hegemony. Coming in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Khomeini’s allegation of Jewish hegemony implied a broader concern. Since in his view the entire Muslim world was in danger, the bar dividing Shi‘i and Sunni was to be lowered, if not fully crossed.

In the opening page of Hokumat-e Islami Khomeini states: “Islamic movement from the outset encountered the Jews and they were the first to spread anti-Islamic propaganda and hatch intellectual conspiracies. And as you can see these continued to the present. Then it came the turn of those who in some way more sinister than the Jews. From three hundred year ago or earlier they in the guise of colonizers penetrated into the Islamic countries and to achieve their colonial objectives, they found it necessary to prepare the grounds for destruction of Islam. . . . They realized that what stands against their vested interests and their political domination is Islam, its teachings and people’s faith in Islam. So through different means they propagated and conspired against Islam.”4

The Hokumat-e Islami saw the United States in particular as the archenemy, though not yet as the “Great Satan.” In this designation one could sense not only shades of third-worldist ideology, and the unavoidable bitter aftertaste of 1953 and 1963 events, but also the United States’ unconditional support for Israel and Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Wider coverage of the Palestinians’ plight in the Arabic press and the aftershocks of the 1967 disaster no doubt also caught his attention while in Najaf. His disillusionment at the time with the rhetoric of the leadership in the Arab world, above all Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism, along with increased anti-Westernism among Iranian intellectuals of the left and their greater awareness of political Islam all served as a backdrop to Khomeini’s evolving political outlook and his doctrine of an Islamic government. Likewise, the increased presence of the United States in Iran throughout the 1960s, a major target of his criticism, also played a role in his ideological formation.

In assigning to the United States the primary blame for the sad state of affairs in the Muslim world and elsewhere, Hokumat-e Islami was a blueprint for what was to come less than a decade later during the Islamic Revolution. Here the “guardian jurist” was portrayed as the supreme head of the clerical pyramid, which is collectively empowered to conduct the affairs of the Islamic state. Quite tellingly, the text refrained from any reference to the marja‘-e taqlid (the supreme exemplar) and other customary clerical titles, as if bypassing the Shi‘i informal hierarchy by envisioning an inherently all-encompassing office superior to the negotiated authority of the marja‘s. Moreover, much of what later gained currency in the revolution was presaged in Khomeini’s manifesto, as were key concepts and institutions of the future Islamic Republic. From the recruitment (basij) of an Islamic army (sepah-e Islam) to characterization of the shah and the ruling elite as idol worshippers (taghuti) and to those condemned in the revolutionary courts as corruptors of the earth (mufsid fi’l-ard), all were anticipated in the text.

In many respects Khomeini’s outlook in the Hokumat-e Islami, his frequent calls for the return to an “authentic Islam,” reveal a subtle affinity with the Sunni Salafi views widespread for at least two centuries before his time. Despite sharp attacks in his earlier writings on the Wahhabi teachings and those who echoed these teachings in a Shi‘i guise—such as Shari‘at Sangelaji, Khomeini essentially approved of a trait of activist Islam that intended to replicate an early Islamic community albeit a Shi‘i one. In this he was conceptually ahistorical and politically radical. This activist Islam imagined a theocratic state on the model of ‘Ali’s caliphate, but one that would be presided over by the jurists. It is likely that he was familiar not only with lives and works of such figures as his countryman Jamal al-Din Asadabadi (better known as Afghani) but also with the influential Syrian writer and theologian Rashid Rida (1865–1935) and the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brothers, Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949). The radical theoretician of the Muslim Brothers, Sayyid Qutb, and Abul ‘Ala Mawdudi (1903–1979), the Pakistani Islamist and founder of Jamaat-e Islami, both could have influenced Khomeini in his formative years and helped him articulate his own model of an Islamic revolution and an Islamic government.

The idea of creating an Islamic government, or even the denial of the temporal state, it is important to note, came late in Khomeini’s career. Up to the 1970s he still was abiding by the Shi‘i principle that in the absence of the Imam of the Age, the community could refrain from allowing oppressive rulers or at the most could advise and admonish. In the early 1960s Khomeini was still doing just that when he rebuked Mohammad Reza Shah for not listening to the clergy, the ruhaniyun (the spiritual authorities, as they came to be known in the Pahlavi era), and accused him of collaborating with Western enemies of Islam. Hosain-‘Ali Montazeri, an early student close to Khomeini recalls that once, presumably in the early 1960s, he and Moretza Motahhari, another early student of Khomeini, debated the question of leadership of the community in the absence of the Imam of the Age: “We finally came to the conclusion that in the age of occultation the leadership of the community will be rested on the choice of the people but according to the principles and values defined by Islam. And this is not contrary to the Shi‘ism.” When they raised the issue with Khomeini and emphasized that in their view the “elected Imam should be an all-embracing qualified mojtahed,” he begged to differ. “In Shi‘ism the Imam must be infallible and designated [by another Imam]. At the time of occultation it is people’s fault that Imam is in in occultation. . . . It is because we don’t deserve him that the Imam is in occultation and it is on us to prepare the ground for the Imam of the Age to come.” When they pointed out that as such occultation is the age of chaos, Khomeini replied: “This is people’s own fault. God has provided us with the [divine] favor but we should make ourselves worthy of the Imam to return.” At that time, Montazeri recalls, Khomeini “did not make any reference to guardianship of the jurist.”5

The emerging idea of the Islamic government, which he embraced from 1970 on, in part was to satisfy the radical trends in his own camp. He also was frustrated with how “dear Islam,” a catchphrase of his, was being pummeled under the feet of heedless Pahlavi secularism. Invariably, Khomeini also shared with many Islamist thinkers a sense of decline in the community, moral decrepitude, intrusion of alien powers, and an urgency to reconstruct an Islamic state. Like his cohorts elsewhere in the Islamic world, Khomeini also rejected temporal powers as weak and immoral, incapable of defending Islam against domestic corruption and foreign encroachments, and like them, he also prescribed a radical break from the secular state and the Western model of political change. Commonality with Sunni Islamist trends, however, did not devalue Khomeini’s scheme or diminish the place of the Shi‘i victimization narrative of Islamic past, of the caliphate of ‘Ali, the first Imam, and the revolt of Hosain ibn ‘Ali, the Third Imam. He, moreover, deeply adhered to a Shi‘i juristic tradition as it developed over the course of a millennium. Yet these ideals meant to him something diametrically opposed to the conservative Shi‘i jurists of Qom, let alone the Pahlavi secular values against which he had revolted. The dawn of the revolution reassured Khomeini of his political convictions and for the first time gave him a realistic hope of implementing some of the views he articulated in the Hokumat-e Islami. That throughout the years of his exile he had remained in contact with his senior students and lay supporters and preserved a network of patronage and exchange of ideas made him all the more reassured.


A number of Khomeini’s former students were indeed crucial in organizing support and articulating his message throughout the 1970s. Among them, Mortaza Motahhari, a teacher of Islamic philosophy and a prolific religious writer, was the most rigorous. For years he had advanced a revamped version of Shi‘i theology, as understood by the Qom madrasas, with a pedestrian modernist veneer. Like Shari‘ati, though somewhat less of a populist, he strived to “enlighten” the youth from the tribune of Hosainiyeh Ershad by highlighting Islam’s “true” humanitarian vales and its solution for the problems of modern times. Staying away from Khomeini’s doctrine of the guardianship of the jurist, at least on the surface, Motahhari was in favor of peacefully incorporating Islamic values into the Iranian cultural landscape rather than conspiring for the downfall of Pahlavi regime and its replacement with an Islamic alternative. His subtext of Islamist dissent was partially tolerated by the Pahlavi regime because he maintained sufficient rapport with the Islamically inclined cultural figures of the late Pahlavi era.

Yet by 1977, Motahhari, typical of Khomeini’s students in the middle ranks of the Qom hierarchy, was carried away by revolutionary momentum and tilted more forcefully toward the radical Islamic alternative. The author of a vast number of semischolarly works in theology, ethics, and other Islamic topics, often in the form of lecture series and proceedings from his study groups, they represented a rationalized approach to Islam that was attractive to a religiously inclined younger audience. Offering a more palatable Islam in modern guise, he borrowed concepts and terminology from Western philosophy and social sciences and engaged secular modernists, a bridge between Qom madrasa culture and lay Islamist such as Shari‘ati and Mahdi Bazargan.

Motahhari was not the only one to undergo a metamorphosis toward radical Islam. More typical among Khomeini’s students was Mohammad Beheshti (1929–1981), arguably the chief strategist of the clerical wing of the revolution. He, too, had exposure to the world outside Qom’s conservative enclosure and acquired a somewhat modernist outlook. In the early 1960s he had spent five years in Germany as the clerical resident in the Islamic Center in Hamburg, a Shi‘i institution. Like Motahhari, he held a PhD from the School of Religious Sciences of Tehran University, but more than his colleague he was inclined toward political activism. On and off he was detained by the Savak, often more as a precaution than punishment. He was in contact with Khomeini during his exile and more regularly after the start of the unrest in 1977. Likewise, Mohammad Mofatteh (1928–1979), another product of the Qom seminary with a doctorate in philosophy from Tehran University came to the forefront of pro-Khomeini activists in the late 1970s. Preaching an antiregime message in a Tehran mosque, Mofatteh was sent to internal exile in 1978 but was freed soon enough to play his part in the early stages of the protests along with his two better-known cohorts.

The three stood at the forefront of the Islamic protest movement in 1977 while most other pro-Khomeini clergy were either in detention or in exile. Educated and relatively nuanced they projected an alluring image of political Islam: cordial, inclusive, and in essence Iranian nationalist. By implication they also projected an amiable image of Khomeini as a spiritual guide who was reluctant, even unwilling, to hold the reins of political power and was tolerant of most, if not all, political outlooks. Tellingly, all three were early victims of the postrevolutionary scramble, having been assassinated during the first twenty-five months after the victory of the revolution. Had they survived, it may be argued, the revolutionary course could have taken a different trajectory, even though such a prospect was fairly dim given Khomeini’s towering presence and his resolute, almost innate, appetite for making a tilt toward greater militancy. Beheshti’s own conduct during the two years after the revolution was far from moderate and, as has often been noted, rather devious.

Beyond this, a larger number of clerical and lay supporters made up of Khomeini’s former students and loyalists spread the message of revolution. They were mostly from Khomeini’s days in Qom, and less so in Najaf. They also included those who aligned themselves rather opportunistically with his brand of Islam. Most prominent were the anti-Pahlavi activists who had been harassed by the Savak for their fiery sermons. Yet there were others who all the way up to the dawn of the revolution were political quietists and coexisted with the regime. Even the militant clergy who were sent into internal exile or imprisoned seldom were treated by the shah’s regime as harshly as the Marxist guerrillas or other lay critics of the Pahlavi regime.

The shield of clerical immunity inherent to Iranian Shi‘i society protected them even at the height of Pahlavi power. Many during internal exile sustained their social status in the community and even thrived once the Savak’s restrictions were relaxed. Inadvertently, it was as if banishment to remote towns and cities of Iran was a blessing in disguise, for it allowed them access audiences who had otherwise remained untouched by the message of religious dissent. Case in point were the future president of the Islamic Republic, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1934–2017); the chief judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts, Sadegh Khalkhali (1926–2003); and the future leader (rahbar) of the Islamic Republic, Sayyed ‘Ali Khamenei. They were younger than their aforementioned cohorts and more extreme in their ideologically orientation.

The turbaned advocates of Khomeini were mostly from rural or low-income urban backgrounds. They often had a combined, and at times simultaneous, secular public education and madrasa training. Those of the older generation more likely had only received a madrasa education, but they were not entirely devoid of secular Pahlavi education. Nor were they sanguine toward the use of modern means for radical ends. The most senior among them, including Borujerdi, recalled the troubled postwar years and had witnessed, on the sidelines, the early 1950s struggle under Mosaddeq. As a wary observer of the National Movement Khomeini, and many like him in the howzeh, were supporters of Kashani and backed his break with Mosaddeq. Only a handful of the clergy, among them Sayyed Reza Mowsavi Zanjani (1902–1983) and the young Mahmud Taleqani, remained loyal to Mosaddeq’s camp and later cofounded with Mahdi Bazargan the Freedom Movement. Yet even they were not fully adherent to liberal nationalism of the National Movement.

Only gradually and from the early 1960s the activists among the clergy subscribed to the anti-imperialist message of the Mosaddeq era and came to see themselves as victims of the Pahlavi regime. Only a few were deprived of their social network and material benefits that the majority of the clergy came to enjoy in the years of economic growth under the shah. Their dual education prepared them for an activist life beyond the madrasa and made them better informed on domestic and international affairs, ideologies of the left, and anticolonial popular struggles abroad, ranging from Nasser and Egypt during the Suez Crisis to the Algerian Revolution, the Vietcong, and the most lasting, the Palestinian struggle (fig. 14.2).

These events helped shape their anti-Western convictions. Nasser, in particular, was favored for his open attack on the shah and his anti-Western posture, despite the Egyptian president’s autocratic rule and enmity toward the Muslim Brothers. Likewise, the Vietnam War was crucial in sharpening the clergy’s anti-American sentiments. Mostly through Iranian and Arabic presses but also through the radical literature of the Arab world, especially publications of the Muslim Brothers, as well as Persian broadcasts of Radio Moscow and clandestine publications of the Marxist and Islamic guerrilla organizations, they acquired a more sophisticated and radical perspective of global affairs. Even Colonel Qaddafi of Libya in his earlier years was revered as an anticolonial champion. His support for radical Islamic movements, including the Mojahedin-e Khalq, as well as some radical seminarians in Qom, sidelined his eccentricities, his unconventional interpretation of Islam in his Green Book, and his ruthless suppression of critics at home.

Figure 14.2. Yasser Arafat (center front), chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was the first foreign visitor to revolutionary Iran in February 1979. He was received warmly by Khomeini and his clerical supports, including (front row from right) Mohammad Beheshti, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Hosain-Montazeri, and Abol-qasem Lahuti.

© A. Abbas/Magnum Photos. Arafat in Tehran, 1979 (PAR232690).

Not only in outlook but also in style, Khomeini’s students represented a new hybrid. In contrast to the often coarse and ungrammatical Persian of most mullahs of the older generation—often heavily Arabicized, culturally alienated, and of arrogant demeanor—the new generation of clergy, thanks to the Persian they learned in the state schools of the Pahlavi era, could communicate to their audiences with grater proficiency. Their fiery sermons and politicized theology, orally and in writing, were more palatable and easier to grasp by the younger audiences in mosques and rallies. They handled themselves with greater ease and confidence as advocates of a proactive Islam and eventually as leaders of a revolutionary movement. Encounters with lay Islamists such as Shari‘ati and taking part in debates in Hosainiyeh Ershad and other forums deepened their grasp of the public mode and honed their rhetorical style. Their hybrid training and their humble social background gave the new mullahs an edge over their ideological contenders on the left and the mostly affluent liberal veterans of earlier years. Far more effective than children of the middle and lower-middle classes who were captivated by the lure of the guerrilla movements, the younger clergy were able to share on the pulpit of mosques their veiled narrative of deprivation, criticism of the Pahlavi state and call for social justice.

During the 1960s mosque congregations steadily grew in size as urban populations grew. Along with the prosperity that came with the oil price hikes, the senior clergy also acquired greater economic benefits and expanded their networks through the collection of alms and other religious dues. New mosques were built, or enlarged and improved, in poorer neighborhoods. By broadening their social network of schools with Islamically inclined curricula and staff, they also added to their followers. And this was at the time when the Savak was busy harassing intellectuals and university students. The more senior among the clergy in provincial centers often curried favor with their politically active devotees while maintaining an uneasy coexistence with the government and its agencies. Though a majority was discontented with the regime, only a small number of clergy were vociferous and hence sustained the brunt of the pressure from the security forces.

One such example, Hosein-‘Ali Montazeri, senior among Khomeini’s former students, was from a small and religiously conservative town of Najafabad nineteen miles west of Isfahan. He was born to a peasant family, had studied mostly jurisprudence and usul al-fiqh in Isfahan, and later in Qom under Borujerdi, and later in his career he gravitated toward Khomeini. Like many of his cohort, he was the product of the Hawzeh-ye ‘Elmiyeh Qom, a conglomerate of seven teaching circles established in 1922 under ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’eri, Khomeini’s teacher and patron. Fayziyeh, a madrasa from the early Safavid period, thrived in the postwar era under Borujerdi and became a core to the Shi‘i studies only second to Najaf (pl. 14.1). The Qom howzeh was a new notion in Shi‘i Iran, aiming to bring some centrality and academic discipline to the otherwise dispersed Shi‘i madrasas and teaching curricula. In essence, it resembled the original notion of the university, consisting of mostly independent colleges (and itself probably influenced by the early Islamic teaching institutions such as the Isma‘ili al-Azhar in tenth-century Fatimid Egypt and the Sunni-Ash’ari Nizamiya network created by Nezam al-Molk in the eleventh-century Saljuq domains). Yet in practice, Qom howzeh under Ha’eri and Borujerdi only partially succeeded in homogenizing clerical education in Qom and other cities.

Montazeri’s activist career began in earnest in the 1950s with anti-Baha’i campaigns in his hometown Najafabad. At Borujerdi’s behest he repeatedly called on Najafabad believers to impose sanctions on the Baha’i “heretics” and demanded concerted anti-Baha’i action in Isfahan and other places. Like many mullahs of that era anti-Baha’i campaign was the point of departure for Montazeri’s activism and a communal and doctrinal challenge to his clerical core. Like many Qom students, too, Montazeri’s initial training was largely focused on the intricacies of the Islamic law. Under Khomeini’s influence, perhaps, he later developed an interest in a “reformed” theology that relied more on Islamic philosophy, which largely aimed to buttress the otherwise paralyzed Shi‘i scholasticism of the era. In the early 1940s Montazeri attended in Qom Khomeini’s teaching circle:

For us his class had a great appeal. . . . Of course in his teaching of ethics there was much about mysticism. He discussed some of the litanies of Khwajeh ‘Abdollah Ansari [the eleventh century Sufi of Heart]. His articulation was fascinating. He elaborated on themes of repentance, supplication and the Day of Return is such manner that many would weep. For us his lessons were very attractive and very constructive. My acquaintance with him started there. He also taught philosophy but I was not attending that class. . . . He was not then teaching jurisprudence and Usul (al-Fiqh). His ethics class was for the public; a group of well-known bazaaris regularly attended and so did many of the preachers of Qom.6

In later years anti-Pahlavi activism rather than ethics or close examination of the Shi‘i fiqh became Montazeri’s preoccupation. What made sense to him, and to many of his cohort, was to render a political reading of Islam rather than reexamine the tenets of the Islamic law, and its inadequacies in the face of modern challenges, something that normally should have fallen within a jurist’s area of expertise. For politically engaged students, his criticizing the shah and the Pahlavi regime, its excesses, and its alleged anti-Islamic stance were far more appealing than the dispassionate study of the modern applicability of Islamic law. As a critic of the Pahlavi regime and supporter of Khomeini, Montazeri was repeatedly arrested, sent to internal exile, and imprisoned. Between 1966 and 1975 he was exiled to five different parts of Iran: Masjed Soleiman in Khuzestan, Najafabad in Isfahan, Tabas in the central Iranian desert, Khalkhal at the western edge of Gilan province, and Saqqez in the Iranian Kurdistan. He was at last released from a four-year term in the months leading to the revolution.

Nearly all of Montazeri’s works before 1979 were on arcane treatment of such aspects of Shi‘i jurisprudence as religious alms, religious taxes, religious punishments and unlawful gains. He uncritically complied lectures of his teachers Ayatollah Borujerdi and Ayatollah Khomeini on roots of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) as well as on the Friday prayers and on travelers’ devotional obligations. He also published an anti-Baha’i polemic indicative of his strong anti-Baha’i sentiments. None of these works, published or unpublished, dwelled in the realm of politics. Before the revolution his political activism was more on the pulpit than in writing. It was only in the years leading to the Islamic Revolution that he and like-minded jurists of his generation fully engaged in the discourse of political Islam. His lectures on legal foundations of the doctrine of the guardianship of the jurist, which was rendered in Arabic and later translated into Persian, was one of several works articulated immediately after the revolution with clear political connotations. His extensive commentary on Nahj al-Balagha, a series of lectures on the sermons attributed to ‘Ali, the First Imam, was another. They indicated a shift from earlier studies of jurisprudence and his preoccupation with ritualistic aspects of Shi‘i Islam.

As one of the framers of the 1979 constitution and as the designated successor to “Imam Khomeini,” Montazeri played an important part in the early consolidation of the Islamic Republic (fig. 14.3). Only isolation in the years following his fall out with Khomeini in 1988-1989 and the experience of harassment by hard-liners brought Montazeri to a more tolerant legal and moral perspective atypical of Qom’s clerical activists of his time.

Of the same generation as Montazeri, and equally instrumental in the early consolidation of the Islamic regime, was Mahmud Taleqani. He was a cleric of radical convictions but with a wider horizon than his cohorts. His atypical interest in writing a Qur’anic commentary with a politico-moral message was reminiscent of Sayyid Qutb. Born to a family of village mullahs in the Taleqan region in northwestern Iran, Taleqani, too, was a product of Fayziyeh. A onetime supporter of the Fada’iyan-e Islam, in 1953 he harbored their leader, Navvab Safavi, and later in 1965 helped fund the assassination of the premier Hasan-‘Ali Mansur. As a vocal member of Mahdi Bazargan’s Freedom Movement, he was detained, convicted by a military court, and spent long years in jail. More as a collaborator than a follower of Khomeini, he was sympathetic to the Mojahedin-e Khalq, with whom he spent time in prison. His relatively independent stance in the postrevolutionary days briefly made him a champion of the moderate Islamists and a fatherly figure for the Mojahedin-e Khalq.

Figure 14.3. Hosain-‘Ali Montazeri as leader of Friday prayer, Tehran University, c. 1980. The poster calls on university students, as the arm of the great Islamic power, to liberate the deprived people of the world. A rifle with bayonet represents the military authority of the Islamic state.

Made by Jihad-e Sazandegi (The crusade for construction), c. 1981. Middle Eastern Posters. Collection, Box 4, Poster no. 25, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Taleqani’s study of the concept of property in Islam displayed his faint socialist sympathies, an aspect that set him apart from mainstream Qom authorities. After the victory of the revolution, his pluralist approach and greater tolerance for other readings of Islam and secular ideologies were increasingly at odds with Khomeini’s exclusivist brand. His death from a heart attack in September 1979, in the heat of the postrevolutionary struggle, was the first of several losses that deprived the Islamic Republic of its relatively moderate and broader-minded leaders. If he had survived, he could have potentially served as a counterweight to Khomeini’s radicalizing agenda, even though in his first public face-off with the leader of the revolution, when he criticized the arrest of some sympathizers of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, he quickly yielded to Khomeini’s reverse decision.

Of the second tier of students loyal to Khomeini were Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Sayyed ‘Ali Khamenei. Their numbers exceeded no more perhaps than a half dozen, but they constituted a core for wider support within and beyond the clerical establishment. Rafsanjani, who was born to a family of landowning pistachio growers in Bahreman, a small village forty-five miles north of Rafsanjan in Kerman province, had never traveled beyond the vicinity of his village until he was fourteen years old, when in the fall of 1948 he first traveled to Qom to receive clerical training. “Listening to radio was not conventional. . . . Before leaving my village, I had never seen a receiver,” recalled Rafsanjani. “This was my first trip outside my village. Before then I only once had travelled about one farsakh [four miles] outside. From the village to the main road we ride on a donkey. There were no cars in our village. . . . I guess we waited [in another village close to the main road] for three days for a truck to appear. . . . We sat atop the cargo.”7

In Qom, young Rafsanjani gravitated toward antiregime dissent and became one of the founders of the journal Maktab-e Tashayyu‘ (the school of Shi‘ism), one of the two major journals in Qom that since 1959 debated modern themes from an Islamic perspective with the hope of engaging a wider religiously inclined readership outside Qom. In contrast to the better-known Maktab-e Islam, which since 1958 had appeared as the organ of the Qom howzeh and enjoyed the patronage of Borujerdi and later Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari, the Maktab-e Tashayyu’s approach was proactive and mildly critical of the regime. When Rafsanjani and his colleagues appealed to Khomeini for his patronage, he declined, no doubt to the great disappointment of the contributors, many of them later among supporters of Khomeini and active in the revolution. Decades later, Rafsanjani went to a great length to justify Khomeini’s inaction:

All in all, we had a well-rounded impression of the Imam [Khomeini]. We could not spot any weakness or fault in him. Even if there were some issues, which were contrary to our expectation, such as his reclusive predisposition, reluctance to appear on the stage and take a stance in such political currents as the oil [nationalization] movement and [support for] Fada’iyan-e Islam, later it became clear that he was right. If he acted in accordance with our wishes, perhaps it would have left some ill impression on others. Besides, at the time of Ayatollah Borujerdi, honoring his wishes was a necessity; without his consent no movement in Qom would have fully succeeded.8

Like Montazeri, here Rafsanjani’s portrayal of Khomeini is reverential and yet indicative of his reluctance to politically engage. Further, in their accounts both authors attribute Khomeini’s quietism to attacks that he was sustaining at the time from the ultraconservative quarters in Qom who objected his interest in philosophy and mysticism, and especially in the great thirteenth-century Andalusian mystic Muhi al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi. Only in the years following the death of Borujerdi and with the completion of moderate marjas in Qom and Najaf did Khomeini begin to draw the support of such radicalized clergy as Montazeri, Rafsanjani, Motahhari, and Beheshti and emerge as the only outspoken Qom critic of the Pahlavi state.

In contrast to the small-town and village backgrounds of Montazeri and Rafsanjani, another student of Khomeini, Sayyed ‘Ali Khamenei, was born in 1939 in the city of Mashhad to a middle-ranking clerical family. He received most of his clerical education there before going to Najaf for a brief period and then in 1958 to Qom, where he studied under Borujerdi and Khomeini. He returned to Mashhad some years later and taught there for some time. In the aftermath of the 1963 uprising, Khamenei’s activism let to his brief detention in 1966 in Birjand, in central Khorasan, and later in Tehran. Not known for his scholarship, Khamenei came to be known for his translations from Arabic into Persian. Among them were a number of works by Sayyid Qutb, whose impression of Khamenei’s worldview cannot be denied. He had a side interest in Persian poetry as well not only Mohammad Iqbal’s Persian poems but also works of some of the new-wave Iranian poets. Only in the months leading to the Islamic Revolution, however, did Khamenei gain some visibility in Khomeini’s inner circle as a skilled orator capable of articulating his mentor’s message.

These students in one way or another shared the marginality of the madrasa environment. Donning clerical garb, a stigma of a sort in the age of Pahlavi secularism, set them apart from the majority. Experiences of interrogations, exile, and detention, though seldom severe for clerics, also gave them a sense of solidarity with one another. These experiences allowed them to forge ties with other political tendencies in prison and in exile and helped sharpen their rhetorical skills in encounters with the Mojahedin, Marxists, and other shades of political dissent while absorbing many of the themes and arguments proposed by other forces of opposition and making them their own.

Khomeini’s revolutionary bandwagon in the days leading to 1979 also had a network of middle and upper clerical ranks. Even during his Najaf exile Khomeini had preserved an impressive array of agents in Iranian towns and cities, another testimony to Savak’s misplaced focus on the left rather than the radical clerical circles. These agents collected alms and religious dues on Khomeini’s behalf and soon became conduits for spreading his words orally and in print and on cassette tapes. They often were at the forefront of the protest rallies and responsible for recruiting lay followers to the revolutionary cause. A growing number of these clerical activists served as the backbone of the revolutionary institutions that would soon take root in the Islamic Republic.


Beyond his clerical following, Khomeini relied primarily on the bazaar for moral and financial support and for manning his revolutionary ranks. In the urban economy in the 1960s and 1970s much of the large-scale business and international trade gradually moved out of the bazaar and into the streets. The new middle classes who generally ran big businesses generally had little or no traditional ties to the bazaar. Deprived of much of its economic muscle, the bazaar’s mostly small merchants and wholesalers all over the country survived, and even occasionally thrived. The bazaar also preserved some of its traditional functions. The export of Persian carpets, textiles, and commodities, as well as wholesale trade and retail sales of domestic and imported consumer goods, small-scale workshops, and a host of intermediaries and dealers in promissory notes still served a sector of the middle class and poorer urban populations. The bazaaris who ran large wholesale and petty businesses in the bazaar’s stores and caravansaries within a sprawling cloister of roofed space or its virtual extensions in adjacent low-income neighborhoods had preserved professional loyalties. They also held ties with the clerical establishment and contributed, at times generously, to their coffers. They made up the mosque congregations, funded the Muharram mourning associations, and their rank and file packed Muharram and Ramadan events.

The neighborhood associations, in and out of the bazaar, often named “association of mourners of Hosain” or after other Shi‘i saintly patrons or after “His Majesty the Imam of the Age” represented indigenous civic organizations. Financed and often supervised by neighborhood elders, they organized the Muharram procession (dasteh) and were responsible for the upkeep of the takkiyehs and mosques. They allowed men, and especially youth, to uphold a group identity and were fertile ground for Islamist activism. The novelty of the revolution, and the thrill of massive marches, distribution of clandestine tracts, and street clashes with the police and the troops excited the youth, especially when invoking paradigms of sacrifice and martyrdom rooted in Iran’s Shi‘i culture.

Disgruntled with years of Pahlavi disdain toward the bazaar, many petty merchants and retailers alike sought in the revolution a message of deliverance and social mobility. To those who were brought up in the closely knit and religiously conscious environment of the bazaar, or in poorer neighborhoods associated with the bazaar, the Pahlavi economy had offered relative prosperity but did not engender political loyalty to the regime in power. Ties to the mosques and to the mullahs in charge of the mosques were made through the payment of religious dues and new recruits to clerical ranks from the children of the bazaar’s petty merchants. The memory of the bazaar as a political powerhouse challenging the state was still alive, even though the bazaar’s ability to effectively shut down the cities’ economies was far smaller than before.

The Coalition of Mourning Associations (Hay’atha-ye Mow’talefeh), crucial in mobilizing mass support, was first formed in the early 1960s in the Tehran bazaar and adjacent neighborhoods, and later in religious centers such as Qom, Kashan, Isfahan, and Yazd. Some of the members had been active since the 1940s as supporters of Ayatollah Abol-Qasem Kashani and affiliates of Fada’iyan-e Islam, and later in the 1960s acted as the mobilizing arm of Khomeini’s protest movement. In 1960 they backed Khomeini’s leadership and encouraged him to produce a “treatise” (resaleh) on intricate details of jurisprudence, a prerequisite for marja‘iyat leadership. As much as they were eager to turn a mystical philosopher like Khomeini into a mainstream faqih, the leaders of the coalition were keen to sharpen his political rhetoric as well. Leaders of the coalition, among the small merchants in the Tehran bazaar, such as Habibollah ‘Askarawladi (1932–2013) and Mahdi ‘Eraqi (1930–1979), had close ties with the Fada’iyan-e Islam and were convicted and incarcerated for taking part in the 1965 assassination of Hasan-‘Ali Mansur. In the 1963 uprising, as in 1979, they helped organize rallies; they produced placards, posters, and tracts; and they disseminated Khomeini’s cassette messages. During Khomeini’s exile ‘Askarawladi also served as Khomeini’s agent, collecting religious dues from his followers. The bazaar survival as a cloister of religio-political loyalties buttressed the morale of Khomeini and his lieutenants and topped up their coffers throughout the revolt.


Khomeini’s message was alluring to an assortment of lay Islamists who served him in the early days of the revolution but were mostly disillusioned shortly afterward. They felt they had been used by Khomeini and abused by his clerical clique. To Khomeini and his turbaned cohorts, these tie-wearing advocates of the revolution were ultimately outsiders and therefore more readily disposable, even though they had paved the way for him, idealized him as a national liberator, and worked hard to make him acceptable to the middle classes as the “spiritual father” of the revolution.

Mahdi Bazargan, the prime minister of the provisional government appointed by Khomeini in February 1979, and his colleagues in the Freedom Movement, were prime examples of this brand of Islamic modernism embellished with rationalized religiosity and a positivist outlook. The Freedom Movement was a league independent of Khomeini’s cohorts that had loomed on the horizon for some time. Bazargan, a longtime advocate of a new reading of Islam and a supporter of constitutional democracy with an Islamic coloring, was born in 1908 in Tehran to a bazaar merchant family with firm religious ties. He was among the first group of Iranian students who in 1927 under Reza Shah received a scholarship to pursue his higher education in France. He completed his studies in thermodynamics in Paris in 1934 before joining the School of Engineering of the newly established Tehran University. Despite his impressive academic and administrative record, Bazargan was first detained for his close collaboration with Mosaddeq after the 1953 coup, and again in the aftermath of the 1963 uprising when he sustained five years imprisonment and internal exile together with other members of the Freedom Movement. Besides the Freedom Movement he was also pivotal in founding the Islamic Association (anjoman-e Islami) at Tehran University as well as several Islamic associations for teachers, engineers, and physicians.

Bazargan’s “scientific” reading of Islamic doctrines and practices may well be attributed to his exposure to the revival of neo-Catholicism in France in the interwar period. What may appear to a secular mind as an outlandish take on Islamic faith were to Bazargan, and his school of thought, “scientific” evidence of Islam’s veracity, its endurance, and its applicability to the needs of modern societies. His articulation of the existence of God based on the laws of quantum physics and his advocacy of the aerobic benefits of setting the daily prayers five times were just two examples. As early as 1936 he published the earliest version of his Namaz (Prayer), on scientific functions of daily prayer in Islam that went through numerous editions. Rationalizations such as these went a long way toward assuring like-minded people of the infallibility of Islam as a comprehensive system of beliefs and practice. A prolific writer, beyond publications in his own field, Bazargan published more than 230 books and pamphlets of varying size and quality on diverse religious, social, and political topics from an Islamic perspective, including Religion in Europe in 1942, Conversion Ratio between Materialism and Spirituality in 1943, Islam and Pragmatism in 1949, Love and Worship or Human Thermodynamics in 1953, a guide to the study of the Qur’an between 1959 and 1964 in six volumes, and Boundaries between Religion and Politics in 1962.

A veteran of the National Movement of the Mosaddeq era, Bazargan capitalized on his past association and his record of resistance and arrest under the shah to make the image of a firebrand Khomeini more agreeable to ambivalent middle classes. Yet Bazargan and his colleagues were the first to go. Though respectful of Khomeini, Bazargan was a critic of the postrevolutionary excesses. Not surprisingly, his tumultuous relations with Khomeini and his cohorts led to his resignation eight months after assuming office.

Bazargan’s colleague Ibrahim Yazdi (b. 1931), a member of the Freedom Movement and another early aide to Khomeini, was instrumental in promoting his cause first within the university Islamic associations in the United States. In Paris he served as a prominent though informal spokesman for Khomeini (especially in dealings with the English-speaking media). He became minister of foreign affairs in April 1980, after Karim Sanjabi resigned his post in protest, but he was forced to resign his post seven months later at the outset of the hostage crisis, along with the rest of the Bazargan cabinet. He was sidelined in the turbulent years that followed to the point of becoming an outcast and was labeled along with Bazargan as a “compromising liberal” (liberal-e sazeshkar).

Abol-Hasan Banisadr (b. 1933), the first president of the Islamic Republic who earlier had hosted Khomeini in Paris and served as his French-speaking facilitator, fared even less favorably. Coming from an old clerical family in Hamadan, he had earned a law degree from Tehran University and was active in the second National Front. His Islamic orientation soon turned him into an advocate of Khomeini during and after 1963. His advocacy of a unitarian (tawhidi) economy and society was a syncretic notion rooted in the socialist reading of Islamic doctrines then in vogue among the Islamic left. With Khomeini’s implicit blessing, in February 1980 he was elected as first president of the Islamic Republic, only to be ousted in disgrace sixteen months later and driven out of the country into exile in France.

Sadeq Qotbzadeh (1936–1982), an activist in the early days of the Confederation of Iranian Students (and reportedly at one time a student in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service), had an idealized view of political Islam that was dismissive of the conservative clergy. As a longtime advocate of Khomeini, and his fashionable facade for the Western media, he gained prominence after the revolution as the head of the NRTI broadcasting services and later as minister of foreign affairs; but he, too, soon witnessed his downfall. He was sent to the gallows in September 1982 on charges of conspiracy to stage a coup.

These and a host of other lay supporters of Khomeini mostly had tinkered with their own version of Islamic discourse in the semisecular milieu of exile in Europe and the United States. Despite serious differences among themselves, these advocates of revolution shared varying degrees of aversion toward the akhund element, as the clergy somewhat pejoratively were known. They also were critical of the clergy’s populism, rather unflatteringly in popular parlance called akhund-bazi. Secular Iranians viewed these lay advocates of the Islamic cause as a cunning bunch who had found their place in the sun, a place that, though unstable, was the only chance to save the revolution from the mullahs. But no love was lost between them and the clerical camp, which was anxious to see their rapid downfall. The mullahs viewed the Islamic modernists as a convenient ladder for ascending to power, or as opportunists who rode to office at the back of the revolution.

At stake was not merely a struggle for popular support but warring ideological worldviews in which the radical clerics and their allies, now to be defined as Khomeinists by their critics, held the upper hand. Contrary to the mullahs, the Islamic opposition of Bazargan’s brand believed in evolutionary, step-by-step change. They barely upheld their inner cohesion either, which in turn made them susceptible to Khomeini’s whims and wishes and dependent on his diminishing favor. They were crucial, no doubt, in the transition period and deemed indispensable in the early days of the Islamic Republic. They mellowed Khomeini’s image, ran the provisional government, and gave the inexperienced clergy and their allies time to whet their political appetite and learn about the machinery of the state. Their sad fate clearly showed how expendable they were to Khomeini. They were outsiders no matter how regularly they said their prayers in public or how studiously they demonstrated Islamic loyalty to the Imam of the revolution.

The downfall of the “compromising liberals” came about in part also because of a host of other lay Islamists loyal to Khomeini camp. Serving as technocrats and advisers to the clergy, the latter group filled the place of the lay moderates. Mohammad Ali Raja’i (1933–1981), a high school teacher and Islamic activist, was typical of the Khomeinists at odds with the revolution’s moderate wing, and was rapidly propelled to power as second president of the Islamic Republic. Mir Hosein Musavi (Moussavi; b. 1942), who had studied interior design at the Tehran School of Design and pursued that subject further in England, became a long-serving prime minister in the early 1980s during the difficult years of the Iran-Iraq War. Mostafa Chamran (1932–1981), a former member of Bazargan’s Freedom Movement and a Berkeley-educated electrical engineer who, for some years in the 1960s, had worked in various US research institutes, was another example.

Driven by the success of the Cuban Revolution and the revolutionary spirit of the period, in the early 1960s Chamran moved to Cuba and later to Nasser’s Egypt to be trained in guerrilla warfare. In 1971, at the outset of Lebanon’s civil war, he moved to Beirut. By then he had become a de facto leader of an Islamic “international brigade” that helped organize dissidents in Syria and Palestine, mostly under Nasser’s auspices. In Lebanon he collaborated with the Iranian-born cleric Musa Sadr, the charismatic leader of the Shi‘is of Lebanon, and was instrumental in the founding of the Shi‘i Amal movement (whose radical wing later evolved into Hezbollah of Lebanon). Upon his return to Iran at the outset of the revolution, Chamran was appointed an early leader of the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic Republic’s first minister of defense. In 1981, in the early stages of the Iraq-Iran War, when he was leading Revolutionary Guards in the battlefield, he died from shrapnel wounds. As a martyr of the “Holy Defense” against the Iraqi aggressor, Chamran occupies an iconic place in the narrative of the Islamic Revolution. As a loyal soldier of the revolution appearing in military fatigues, his image in gigantic murals in Iranian cities is often interspersed with those of clerical martyrs of the revolution, presumably to highlight clergy-lay symbiosis.

What differentiated Chamran and other lay activists from Bazargan and Banisadr were not only their willingness to comply with the emerging hierocracy under Khomeini and go along with its radical course but also a generation gap. Whereas Bazargan and his cohorts were shaped by the National Movement of the 1940s and 1950s, the younger activists mostly remembered and idealized the revolt of the 1960s led by Khomeini and were motivated by the 1960s guerilla warfare and radical trends in the Arab world.


Beyond the circle of aides and cohorts with similar worldviews, Khomeini’s appeal extended to the urban lower middle classes and the poor neighborhoods in big cities as well as in smaller towns. The “disinherited” (mostaz‘afin) of the land, at least a good portion of them, began to view him as a liberator who would improve their lot in a fast-changing society. It was these multitudes and their strength in numbers that kept him in power despite all odds.

Originally a Qur’anic concept (e.g., 28:5–6), “disinherited of the earth” became a current in Khomeini’s speeches and among the advocates of the Islamic Revolution. They consciously used it to supplant the favored catchphrase of the left: the “deprived masses.” The term has gone through a metamorphosis since it was first used by ‘Ali Shari‘ati to reconceptualize Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth,” a notion he may well have taken from the first line of “The Internationale”: “Stand up, damned of the Earth!” In the early 1970s the term quickly was sponged into the lexicon of Ayatollah Khomeini, where it found currency for years to come. The merger of the Qur’an and socialism via Fanon, Shari‘ati, and Khomeini became a signifier of class to be applied to the urban poor living in the slums of southern Tehran and on the fringes of Iran’s rapidly growing provincial centers. It was meant to define those who were down and out among the rural immigrants and dismayed by the affluent lifestyle of the elite: the unskilled construction laborers, factory workers and small workshop apprentices, the lowly of the bazaar, menial wage earners, and the growing body of unemployed youth. The downtrodden aside, the term also included the somewhat better-off but still discontent sectors of the lower middle classes: shopkeepers, public school teachers, technicians, and low-paid government employees.

The men and women who were motivated through mosques and mourning associations were led to believe that Islam, and especially Shi‘i Islam, packaged as an ideological miracle pill for all of Iran’s ills, was not primarily a set of monotheistic beliefs, devotional acts, and moral principles, nor even loyalty to the House of the Prophet and belief in the coming of the Mahdi, but instead a religion of protest and political action against oppression and exploitation, monarchical power, and its global allies. It was among these awakened multitudes that Khomeini shrewdly managed to harness energies for his revolutionary cause. He repeatedly paid homage to what he called “our valiant Islamic nation” and invariably acted on a presumed mandate on behalf of the disinherited to further the “true” (rastin) objectives of his “dear Islam.”

Inimical to the “disinherited of the earth” in Khomeinists’ emerging revolutionary universe and the manic rhetoric that erupted with the revolution stood the “arrogant” (mostakbarin)—the other end of the binary derived from another Qur’anic reference to the “unheeded” people of privilege who succumb to idolatrous tyrants (2:87). The taghut of the Qur’an (4:51) were idol worshippers who rebelled against God and by implication denoted all transgressors unafraid of God’s ultimate vengeance. In the language of revolutionary Iran, taghuti thus became a code word for the Pahlavi regime and its associated elites. They were enemies of true Islam who were about to be purged in the punitive inferno of the revolution so as to pave the way for restoring just rule and returning to the disinherited of the earth what justly belonged to them. Not only did the revolution unseat the taghut and its domestic cliques at home; it also promised to deter the forces of “global arrogance” (estekbar-e jahani), a code for global hegemony.

A range of newly coined expressions brought to the surface the perception of a battle of good versus evil, a faint reflection, perhaps, of the old dichotomy inherent to Iranian culture. By underscoring this dichotomy, Khomeini and his supporters consciously aimed to dismantle the Marxist-inspired vocabulary of dissent, which the left perceived as an inevitable outcome of the revolution. In contrast to the left’s vision of a class struggle, Khomeinists advocated a moral struggle along the path of God, a struggle that shaped history of humanity, a sacred movement driven by faith and by “commitment” (ta’ahhod).

The “hope of the disinherited” of course was “Imam Khomeini,” as he quickly came to be known weeks after his advent in Paris. His hybrid of Shi‘i jurisprudence, precepts of Greco-Islamic philosophy, mystical outlook with a neo-Platonic flavor, and radical political viewpoint influenced by ideologies of the left and fused into an Islamic agenda, were combined to bring out in him an enduring leadership. A shrewd, almost cunning man, he enjoyed an extraordinary gift for identifying and taking advantage of opportunities. Assertive and intimidating, he was a quick study, adjusting to new realities, negotiating when the situation called for it, and persuading others by means of coercion, intrigue, and charm. Seemingly distant but seductive, in his advanced age he was resolute, confident, and mostly uncompromising. Discreet, emotionally detached, and ruthless when need be, he mesmerized his audiences and won them over with seeming effortlessness.

Added to these complexities were his stern appearance in clerical garb and his imposing comportment. Wearing a black turban and a white beard, in his late seventies he was unapologetically distinct from conventional images of twentieth-century revolutionary leaders ranging from Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin to Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara. To most Iranian people, who for decades had not seen a turbaned man in a position of power, Khomeini appeared unique. Often unsmiling, his piercing eyes underneath frowning eyebrows, his monotonous but solemn voice—which betrayed a central Persian countryside accent with an Arabicized mullah intonation—spawned an image of an ascetic from bygone times. To many of his countrymen, such unconventionality was awe inspiring, even terrifying, and yet appealing. His austerity, fearless and fierce, stood in stark contrast to the formalistic militarism of the Pahlavi era and especially to the shah’s royal opulence. In his plain cloak, he appeared deceivingly authentic in contrast to the shah’s dazzling appearance in military uniform, rich with fringes and accoutrements.

The ayatollah’s coterie was smart enough to capitalize on this image, and Khomeini cleverly allowed them to do so. No one seemed to have been able to resist the rising star of the new political prophet—not the self-deceiving liberal nationalists, the rationalizing intellectuals, the radicalized left and guerillas with Kalashnikovs, the intimidated pro-Pahlavi middle class, the shah’s army and Savak, or even the Islamically correct Freedom Movement. Listening to the mood in the Iranian streets and cleverly negotiating the unique window of opportunity opened before him, Khomeini stressed national unity and Islamic solidarity against the “corrupt and repressive” Pahlavi idol and the “idol-worshiping” institution of kingship itself.

References to an alternative political order, an Islamic republic, soon made their entry into his many statements and public addresses. In a matter of months, in mid-1978 explicit demands for an Islamic republic became an integral part of the street slogans and revolutionary rallies: “Sovereignty, Freedom, the Islamic Republic” (esteqlal, azadi, jomhuri-e eslami). As if a utopia were being ushered in before their eager eyes, the marching crowds echoed the rhymed slogans that called on the Imam, the “savior,” to lift tyranny and lead them to a promised land. The Shi‘i messianic motifs behind Khomeini’s image as “imam of the community” (imam-e ommat) were unmistakable—motifs that inspired millions to call on him to save the country and the world.

Sovereignty, on the other hand, harkening back to memories of the postwar National Movement for control of Iran’s oil resources, found in the revolutionary imagination a new lease on life a quarter of a century later. Revolutionaries began to see the United States rather than Britain as the prime culprit responsible for Iran’s economic dependency and presumed subservience. The concept of freedom (azadi), too, gained prominence among its proponents who were mindful of half a century of Pahlavi autocracy. They demanded an open political space and aspired to a just and tolerant society. Khomeini and his cohorts were riding on the back of these ideals, all the while pushing the project of the Islamic Republic and thrusting it forth into the still-amorphous revolutionary sphere. The nature of the Islamic government was ambiguous, at least to the majority who called for it, and perhaps even to its chief advocates.

How spontaneous Khomeini’s Islamic message was remains a matter of debate. There is little doubt that his idea of a revolution with Islam as its defining principle substantially changed along the way from Najaf to Paris to Tehran. Even more than other classic revolutions, the dynamics of the popular movement in Iran had not been set at the outset by any one individual or ideological trend. It was more the outcome of a turbulent push and pull. To a great extent, Khomeini’s talent for adjusting to different situations, incorporating multiple concepts, adopting various strategies, and utilizing various political tools allowed him to glean current ideas and vocabularies from diverse quarters—the radical left, dissident intellectuals, Islamic radicals, the media, and even army jargon—so as to tinker his own ideology.

It is possible to speculate, on the basis of Khomeini’s statements and conduct, that in early 1977 he had hoped for the political space to open up and Iran’s constitutional order to be redeemed. At the time, he probably was satisfied with Qom’s greater say in the affairs of the country and greater respect for conservative Islamic values. Encouraged by the rapid course of events, he later that year may have started envisioning the departure of the shah and investiture of an emasculated constitutional monarch, though he hardly could have hoped for or predicted the collapse of the Pahlavi order.

By the beginning of 1978, however, he began to contemplate a greater role for himself as the prime mover behind a revolution mandated by the Iranian people and governed by Islamic principles. By then the senior clergy, too, almost unanimously had joined the revolutionary fold and were willy-nilly rallying behind him. Earlier on, Khomeini preferred to speak of a movement (nahzat) rather than a revolution (enqelab), the latter being a modern notion still alien to his conservative tastes. He had his moments of hesitation, no doubt, but was adamant about his immediate objectives. “He must go” (bayad beravad) was his call for the shah to abdicate, which he relentlessly demanded despite the many cautionary messages from his own advisers. To this end he called for solidarity (vahdat) among all popular forces. “All together” (hamah ba-ham) became his catchphrase calling for a united front that ranged from the liberal nationalists to Islamic reformists, diverse clerical tendencies, disgruntled intelligentsia, secular or Islamist intellectuals, the Mojahedin-e Khalq, and even various shades of Marxist. To such a diverse assortment, he was careful to convey a tantalizingly simple message of unity that ordinary people could easily grasp. After years of silence, the thrill of enormous multitudes, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, crying out, “Neither Eastern nor Western [but] the Islamic Republic!” (na sharqi, na gharbi, Jomhuri-e Islami), was intoxicating even if the true ramifications of an Islamic republic were not yet understood even by Khomeini’s close allies.

That Khomeini became the Imam of the Islamic Revolution and its “guardian” (wali) was particularly remarkable, given the connotations of both terms in the Shi‘i messianic context. In the long history of Shi‘ism, no other mojtahed or any other mainstream figure had ever assumed the title of imam or was referred to as such by his following. Imam in Twelver Shi‘ism was exclusively reserved for the Twelve Imams, whom the Shi‘is considered loci of divine inspiration and true successors to the Prophet of Islam. In effect, Khomeini no longer was a mere jurist or a marja‘; he appropriated qualities of a “deputy” of the Shi‘i Mahdi. He theoretically was assumed to be a “deputy of the Imam” (na’eb-e Imam), yet he was routinely addressed as imam in everyday parlance, and that was what mattered in a revolutionary environment. Even claim to individual deputyship on behalf of the Imam of the Age (as opposed to the collective authority of the mojtaheds) was pure novelty. No established authority since the ninth century had ever claimed to be the deputy of the Imam. Even ‘Abd al-‘Āli Karaki’s claims in the sixteenth century were coached in a cautious legal language that limited the implication of jurists’ deputyship. Ironically, any such claims by messianic prophets stood to be denounced by the mojtaheds and gravely punished as in the case of nineteenth-century Sayyed ‘Ali Mohammad the Bab.

Likewise, the term wali and welayat with historical reference to ‘Ali ibn Abi-Talib, the Fourth Caliph and the First Shi‘i Imam, connoted a politico-moral authority for the guardian jurist and a true vicarage of that community. The mystical undertone associated with the idea of welayat in Sufism, particularly Shi‘i Sufism, injected an element of the sacred to the otherwise worldly office. In effect, it may be argued, the revolution finally brought the messianic process within Shi‘ism to a head. The Mahdi paradigm was employed not by a charismatic prince-warrior like Islam‘il I, the founder of the Safavid Shi‘i state. Nor did an antinomian Noqtavi Qalandar claim it or Sayyed ‘Ali Mohammad Shirazi, the Bab. Rather, here a representative of the jurist orthodox establishment, a mojtahed and a marja‘, crossed the long-protected boundaries of normative and messianic Shi‘ism to appropriate the mantel of the prophet and become the savior of an Islamic revolution.

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