Ayatollah Khomeini: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Ayatollah Khomeini was the religious leader of Iran from 1979-1989. His presence as leader was a polarizing one. In this lesson, you will explore Khomeini's early life, exile from Iran, and influential control of the country.

A Polarizing Figure

What comes to mind when you think of the Middle East? This region has a long and tumultuous history, and one of its countries, Iran, is a prime example. In the 20th century, Iran saw the fall of a ruling family, a revolution, a hostage crisis, and ascension to leadership one of its most polarizing religious figures, Ayatollah Khomeini, who ruled from 1979 to 1989. His legacy endures to this day.

Early Life and Studies

Ayatollah Khomeini was born Ruholla Mousavi in Khomein, Iran, in either 1900 or 1902; his exact birthdate is a matter of speculation and misinformation. You might notice a similarity between birthplace and name; he later used this hometown as a basis for his last name.

Ayatollah Khomeini

During Khomeini's childhood, many family members died, and he was raised by his older brother. He had a penchant for learning and attended prestigious Islamic schools. Khomeini's dedication to Islamic scholarship paid off in the long run. He earned the title 'Ayatollah', a designation reserved for only the most educated Muslims. This label meant that he would be looked at as a leader and guide by Iran's Muslims, and that his religious ideas and views were to be followed.

Exiled From Iran

In his formative years, the scholar Khomeini grew increasingly upset about how the Pahlavi dynasty (who controlled Iran for many years) and its figurehead, the Shah, were running Iran. But he didn't do much about it. Other Ayatollahs and religious leaders felt it was not appropriate for them to dabble in governmental affairs, and so he too remained passive in this area and focused on teaching.

Eventually, the Shah crossed a line many Muslims (including Khomeini) balked at. He began forming relationships with Western nations, notably the United States, for economic, political, and other reasons. This angered many Muslims, who saw such a relationship as a threat to Islam. Despite this, religious leaders remained passive about the Shah's actions as they had in the past.

Then, in what seemed like perfect timing, some of the more senior Ayatollahs passed away in the early 1960s, and Khomeini found himself now a ranking religious leader. Khomeini abandoned his predecessor's passive tactics and started to speak out against the Shah and the Pahlavi dynasty. He was especially critical of the relationship the Shah forged with America. In the early 1960s, Khomeini made several public speeches that called out the leadership of the Shah. As an Ayatollah, he had a great deal of influence on Muslims in Iran, and people took him quite seriously.

Khomeini delivers a speech denouncing the Shah of Iran

Khomeini wanted Iranians to rise up and get rid of the Shah. His anti-government stance got him arrested several times, and he was eventually exiled, spending more than a decade in Turkey, Iraq, and France.

Khomeini in exile from Iran
in exile

During his exile, he encouraged his followers, who were demonstrating and rioting against the Shah, to overthrow the Shah, insisting that, 'The people will not rest until the Pahlavi rule has been swept away and all traces of tyranny have disappeared.' Khomeini used his time in exile to create his vision for an ideal Iran, hoping to soon return and realize it.

Supreme Religious Leader and Later Life

In 1979, the Shah fled Iran fearing for his life; he was now effectively exiled himself. Khomeini returned to Iran and was recognized as the country's new Supreme Leader. He now bore the title of Imam (the highest rank in Iran's branch of Islam) and immediately started implementing the plan for Iran that he designed while away. A national election certified that Iran was now an official Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, the exiled Shah needed cancer treatment, and the U.S. hesitantly allowed him to enter. Angered, Iranians sympathetic to Khomeini took U.S. Embassy workers hostage for more than a year. Khomeini presided over this crisis in order to flex his muscles and show the West he would not back down.

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