Warren Lanes Where Khomeini Polished Revolutionary Theory

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini developed wilayat al-faqih, the basis for the Iranian political system, during his exile in a small house in the warren alleys ringing the shrine of the Prophet’s son-in-law, Caliph Imam Ali, in Iraq’s Najaf

Khomeini developed wilayat al-faqih, the basis for the Iranian political system during his exile in Najaf

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

A small house was the focus of attention in the alleys ringing the shrine of the Prophet’s son-in-law, Caliph Imam Ali, in Najaf. A small doorway led to the dwelling, where a room was only big enough to have a carpet to sit on. The rest of the house comprised a library and a prayer chamber. 

The house was being done up when I spent a day in the central Iraqi city as part of a media delegation in February 2016. It was turned into a museum in memory of the originator of the basis of the contemporary Iranian political system—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 

Wilayat Al-Faqih

Khomeini maintained a low profile in Najaf. He mostly focussed on developing his idea of governance wilayat al-faqih (the rule of the jurist theory) during his 15-year exile there. Khomeini implemented the theory in Iran after leading the revolution to oust the Shah in 1979. 

Elections have been regularly held and both reformists and hardliners have been elected to Iran’s top political post. But the basis for the Iranian political system remains the same—wilayat al-faqih. The system vests a supreme leader with absolute political, and legal authority. It gives him the right to arbitrate the state’s matters. Iran’s Council of Guardians, under the system, vets new laws and parliamentary candidates. 

The Core

Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in the 2021 Iranian presidential election brought the country’s reformist and hardline binary back under the spotlight. The ‘hardline’ Raisi replaced a ‘reformist’ Hasan Rouhani. But nothing really changes because the core of the system remains the same. It vests the real powers in the supreme leader Ali Khamenei. 

That the system has remained intact is extraordinary. It is not just because of the West’s hostility and efforts to undo it. Khomeini was able to implement it even as his fellow ayatollahs differed from him. They sought the continuance of traditional political quietism. 

Khomeini may have polished his theory in Najaf. But the city is the headquarters of the quietist school that rejects the idea of clerical rule. The influential Najaf school merely seeks an advisory role for clerics in the state’s affairs. 

Power Of Symbols

Author Reza Aslan writes Khomeini ‘unabashedly injected his moral authority into the socio-political machinations of the state.’ Khomeini did so successfully by understanding the power of religious symbols in mobilising the Iranians steeped in Shia ideals. He tapped into the symbols effectively. Aslan writes Khomeini thus transformed Iran into his personal vision of theocratic rule. 

Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri, one of Khomeini’s ideological heroes, and Ayatollah Kashani Khomeini formulated a similar idea in the early 20th century. But Aslan notes that wilayat al-faqih proposed two ‘startling modifications’ to traditional Shia doctrine and concentrated absolute authority in the hands of a single cleric, instead of all qualified clerics.

Khomeini argued when a learned jurist stands up for the establishment and organisation of the government, he will have all the rights in society’s affairs that the Prophet enjoyed. Aslan writes this was an astounding assertion and a radical religious innovation’ in Shiaism.

Most Iranian ayatollahs rejected Khomeini’s doctrine. They argued that clerics have a duty of preserving the state’s spiritual character but could not run it. 

Populist Rhetoric

The ayatollahs objected to Khomeini’s doctrine. They insisted it merely replaced one form of tyranny with another. Khomeini countered his critics by broadening his appeal. He couched his theology in populist rhetoric. 

Khomeini wooed Leftists by calling for an uprising of the oppressed masses, and secular nationalists by alluding to Iran’s fabled past. Aslan writes Khomeini did this ‘while purposely obscuring the details of his political philosophy.’ 

Khomeini insisted he did want the government to be in the hands of the jurist. He emphasised it must rather be run in accordance with God’s laws for the country’s welfare. Aslan notes Khomeini often failed to mention publicly that such a state would be infeasible without the supervision of the religious leaders.

Enduring Popularity

For all debates about his legacy, Khomeini’s popularity has endured almost four decades after he ushered in the revolution and created a state, where he had final authority over civil, legal, and religious matters. 

His modest and almost unfurnished house in Najaf underscored for Khomeini’s followers visiting it his lack of interest in worldly possessions and commitment to a larger cause. Khomeini’s lifestyle for them continued to greatly enhance his appeal as a leader, who served the people. 

Shah’s corrupt and incompetent rule also prepared a fertile ground for Khomeini’s revolution. Most Iranians were sick of the regime by the 1970s. The Shah deprived them almost of all basic political participation. He did away with the party system and abolished Iran’s constitution. 

The Shah’s reckless policies fuelled record inflation. Aslan writes a rapid militarisation and a widespread loss of national and religious identity united Iran’s clergy, intellectuals, the merchant class, and nearly every socio-political organization—from the communists to the feminists. 

The Loudest Voice

The Iranians put aside their ideological differences and joined hands to revolt against the monarchy. Aslan has argued the Iranian revolution was by no means monolithic and was not initiated at Khomeini’s behest alone. He writes diverse and sometimes conflicting voices were raised against the Shah and Khomeini ‘for better or worse, was merely the loudest.’

His popularity was such that when a frail and sick Khomeini died at 87 in 1989, most Iranians found it difficult to come to terms with it. Some of the mourners, who flooded Tehran’s streets to bid him a final goodbye, took away fragments of the shroud his body was wrapped in. Many refused to believe he could die and thought had merely gone into hiding to eventually return. 

Khomeini passed away after leading Iran in fending off US-backed Saddam Hussein’s invasion for eight years. The 20th century’s longest war, which is estimated to have killed around a million, ended a year before his death. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons prompted Iran to accept an UN-brokered ceasefire in September 1988.

Against All Odds

Iranians have since the 1980s survived crippling American sanctions. They have shown much resilience in retaining a sprawling industrial and scientific infrastructure and establishing the region’s most extensive manufacturing base. 

The base has propelled its growth as one of the world’s top steel, cement, and automobile manufacturers. Iran has featured among the leading countries in stem-cell research and nanotechnology. 

In 2012, Iran ranked as the world’s 17th biggest producer of scientific papers, above Turkey and Israel. Iranian universities have produced top scientists, including the first woman Fields Medal winner Maryam Mirzakhani. 

Years of vigorous economic growth even qualified Iran as a member of Goldman Sachs’ star economies. Iran has accelerated connectivity and invested heavily in developing robust internet infrastructure. 

Iran began developing drone technology during the war with Iraq. It has since developed both surveillance and attack drones despite sanctions. Iran has facilitated Russian use of drones in Ukraine and sent trainers and tactical advisers to assist the Russians 

In October 2022, air raid sirens were back in Ukrainian cities in a grim reminder of the early days of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Drones destroyed power grids and electricity substations, water pipelines, rail lines, dams, and other critical infrastructure. Russia is believed to have ordered 1,700 Iranian Shahed-136 drones, nicknamed ‘lawn mowers’ or ‘mopeds’ due to their incessant buzzing sound.

The Foundation

Many Iranian pilgrims, who made a beeline for Khomeini’s house in Najaf in February 2016, credited him for providing Iran with a strong moral foundation. They felt it has helped it overcome heavy odds over the last four decades. 

Najaf played a key role in shaping Khomeini, whose connection with the city predated his years of exile there. Born in 1902 to a family of Shia clerics, he spent several years as a prodigious student in Najaf learning law and theology. After studying in Najaf, Khomeini returned to Iran to quickly climb the clerical ladder. He first became a jurist at 32 and then an ayatollah, or high-ranking cleric. 

Khomeini rose to fame with his opposition to Iran’s monarchy for surrendering to Britain and the Americas. His repeated condemnation and calls to end the monarchy first led to his arrest and then exile in 1964. Khomeini went to Tukey before settling in Najaf, where he lived until 1978 when Saddam expelled him and forced him to seek refuge in France. 

A Few Takers

Despite his extraordinary success in Iran, the diversity of religious and political thought in Shiaism has meant that there have not been many takers for Khomeini’s doctrine in Iraq, the county with the second-highest concentration of Shias. 

With the exception of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Boroujerdi (d.1962), writes author and academic Vali Nasr, ‘there has never been a sole source of emulation—a universally accepted supreme ayatollah’. 

Khomeini sought to emulate Boroujerdi and establish a Shia papacy. But his fiat never extended beyond Iran. Shias everywhere, argued Nasr, ‘accepted him as a political leader, but many continued to look for religious guidance to Grand Ayatollahs Abol-Qasem al-Khoi and Ali al-Sistani:


After Khomeini died, the Islamic Republic failed to produce a leader of Khomeini’s or Sistani’s standing, and so the religious leadership of Shiism reverted to quietist ayatollahs in the seminaries of Qom and Najaf.

The Shia pride themselves on the pluralism of their religious authority and institutions. It is not permissible to adopt a dead marja (top cleric)’ as the source to follow; hence, Shia law continues to evolve. It is also discouraged for one marja’ to follow another, ensuring diversity of opinion. 

Khoei, a Khomeini contemporary in Najaf, believed even the most learned clerics do not have the right to rule. Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, one of the few supporters of the Iranian system in Iraq, has argued the doctrine of clerical rule is an idea whose time is yet to come. 

For Yacoubi, there is nothing wrong with Khomeini’s theory but ‘negative elements came from the implementation. The people can’t absorb and support the theory of an Islamic state. People are not mature enough. Even the Iranians were not mature enough.’

The doctrine may also not be feasible for Iraq considering its history and multi-ethnic society. The school of Najaf does not interfere with politics. It believes in respecting different views—unlike the Iranian system that propounds a supreme leader—and seeks a civil state rather than a religious one.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

One thought on “Warren Lanes Where Khomeini Polished Revolutionary Theory

  1. Informative and factual.
    I was there during the revolution.
    Arslan is right on spot. Kommeni exploited the lefts, liberals, the Bazaris and technocrats to topple the Shah.
    And once in power he discarded.Bani Sadr, Kareem Sanjabi, Mehdi Bazargan, the Todeh leadership.
    Even Sadiq Qutub Zadeh faced the sqaud.

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