Khomeini's Departure from Tradition and Fundamentalism


This was my final paper for REL 263, Islam in the Modern World, taught by Prof. Louise Marlow at Wellesley College in spring 2008. Olin and Wellesley have an agreement allowing students to cross-register in classes, and I'm very thankful I could take this opportunity to make progress on my Modern Islamic studies humanities concentration.


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the figurehead of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the first Supreme Leader of Iran, remains strongly associated with Islamic fundamentalism, especially in the stereotypical American mind. Pointing to his support of the execution of apostates as well as his government’s call for women to veil, many see Khomeini as a rigid religious hardliner. The contemporary American press of his time largely treated him as such. TIME Magazine called him “wholly consistent—and totally unbending” immediately after his revolution, while the New York Times declared his ideology a “revolutionary fundamentalism” at his death in 1989. However, a close comparison of his thoughts and actions against historical Shia doctrine reveals that Khomeini’s ideology represented a significant break with traditional theology and politics. Driven more than anything by a strong anti-imperialist agenda, Khomeini borrowed some ideas external to Shiism and invented new ones to radically reconceive the role of the clergy, the ideal form of Islamic government, and the proper guiding principles for day-to-day rule of law. Although he leveraged Shia symbols as tools to incite revolution and maintain order during his reign as Supreme Leader and viewed religious clergy as ideal rulers, Khomeini while in power eschewed traditional Shia piety and on numerous occasions even implemented policies found in violation of sharia ordinances. After a decade as Supreme Leader, Khomeini’s concern for security over Islamic justice within Iran caused him to reject the authority of religious clergy and instead advocate a pragmatic system of Islamic government ruled by clergy trained in political and social affairs. Khomeini’s ideology, decisions, and actions ultimately favor activism over quietism, utilitarianism over dogmatism, and innovation over traditionalism. He can hardly be called a strict Islamic fundamentalist.


PDF available for viewing and download below.
Mike Hughes,
Jan 15, 2009, 1:01 PM