Many people only know Iran’s supreme religious and political leader for life for one thing—the 60 American citizens who were held hostage by his supporters at the end of the 1970s.
But you might not know that Ayatollah Khomeini had a long journey to power, and conducted many of his power moves while exiled from Iran for over a decade.
Here are 10 interesting facts on Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power.
Ayatollah Khomeini: 10 Fascinating Facts about Iran’s Leader for Life
1. His given name means “inspired of God.”
Ruhollah Mousavi was born on September 24, 1902. He was born into a scholarly family from the small village of Khomein in Iran, of Shi’ite faith. Mousavi took the name of his village as his surname later in life, becoming known nationally—and later, internationally—as Ruhollah Khomeini. When he was only a baby, Khomeini’s father—Seyed Moustafa Hindi—was murdered.
2. He was orphaned at 16.
After losing his father when Khomeini was less than 6 months old, he was raised by his mother. At the age of 16, his mother died of Cholera in the village he had grown up, a sad fact about Ayatollah Khomeini. Seyed Mourteza—Khomeini’s older brother—became the head of the household.
Both brothers were avid scholars and faithfully practiced their religion. They also both attained the status of Ayatollah, a status only bestowed on the most learned Shi’ite scholars.
3. He was leapfrog champion of Khomein.
As a child, Khomeini was a fit, healthy, active boy, and excelled at sports. At one point in his childhood, he was well known as the leapfrog champion of Khomein and its surrounding area, an interesting fact about Ayatollah Khomeini.
Despite his love of sports and the outdoors, Khomeini was also a studious kid. He had a good memory for religious poetry, classic poetry, and stood out in his learning of the Qu’ran.
4. He learned from the best.
Khomeini’s older brother, at this stage the head of his family, recognized Khomeini’s affinity for religious study and scholarly pursuits. He decided to send the 18 year old Khomeini to Sultanabad in 1920. Khomeini would spend 3 years studying under Yazdi Ha’iri—the famous Islamic scholar. When Ha’iri left Sultanabad for Qom in 1923, Khomeini went with him to continue his learning and teach younger students.
5. His mentors stayed out of politics.
Ha’iri passed away in the 1930s, and was succeeded by Ayatollah Boroujerdi as the most important Islamic figure in Qom. Khomeini continued his teachings under Boroujerdi, and continued to educate new pupils to the school.
Ha’iri subscribed to the belief that religion should not involve itself with government. Boroujerdi shared this belief, and taught it to his students. Reza Shah, the leader of Iran, worked tirelessly to reduce the powers and influence of religious leaders. Meanwhile, the most powerful religious leader in Iran, like his predecessor, stayed silent. They encouraged their followers to do the same.
6. Khomeini was muted by his senior leaders.
In the 1950s, Reza Shah’s son—Mohammed Reza Pahlavi—turned to the U.S. for assistance as protests for democratic reform grew in Tehran. Khomeini was not permitted to voice his frustrations over what he viewed as his country rejecting its Islamic values. Frustrated, Khomeini turned his focus towards teaching.
He grew a dedicated following of students, who—much later—would become his supporters in the revolution, a fascinating fact about Ayatollah Khomeini.
7. He became an idol.
In 1961, Ayatollah Boroujerdi passed away, and Khomeini filled the shoes of the most powerful religious leader in Iran. He published writings on Islamic doctrines, and caught the attention of many Shi’ite followers. Iranians everywhere viewed Khomeini as Marja-e Taqlid—in English, a person to be emulated.
The following year, he organized the religious leaders of Iran against the Shah’s newest proposal. The Shah was pushing a bill that meant officials no longer had to swear on the Qu’ran. This began a chain reaction that would completely change politics in Iran.
In the middle of 1963, Khomeini publicly denounced the Shah, saying that if he did not change Iran’s political direction, the people would be happy to see him leave Iran. Khomeini was imprisoned, which triggered massive unrest and protest by the people. The protest—which was met with military force by the Shah’s government—went on for a week.
When Khomeini was released from prison, he returned to Qom.
The Shah continued to build bonds with the U.S., who were also involved in Israeli politics at the time. This lead Khomeini to state that Jews would take over Iran and that the U.S. viewed Iranians as slaves to western ideals. He was arrested and deported to Turkey. He was forbidden from wearing his traditional religious attire in Turkey, so he went to Iraq. He lived in Iraq for the next 12 years.
8. He influenced Iran even in exile.
In the mid- to late 70s, Khomeini’s supporters continued to protest in Iran, despite the religious leader not being allowed in his home country. Because of the continued protests, the Shah of Iran met with Iraqi officials to have Khomeini moved further away from Iran. He hoped that by removing Khomeini from the area, he could remove the influence on Iran’s people.
Khomeini was given an ultimatum by Iraqi soldiers—cease and desist all political activity, or leave Iraq.
The Shah’s plan backfired—Khomeini moved to Paris. He would only be there for a few months.
9. He became Supreme Leader of Iran without being there.
While living in Paris, Khomeini was still causing problems for Iran. People were rioting in the streets, and the Shah had again gone to the U.S. for support. As the Iranian Revolution grew, the Shah left Iran to escape the political heat, and was given asylum in the U.S.
Khomeini returned to his homeland to rebuild the country as he had long wanted, and was greeting by adoring supporters and a country ready for change, an interesting fact about Ayatollah Khomeini.
He put clerics to work on the new Islamic Constitution of Iran, and issuing orders to the people about the poisons of democracy and nationalism.
10. Khomeini used U.S. citizens to prove a point.
Iranians were angry that the U.S. sheltered the Shah, and a small group of protestors stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Khomeini recognized this as an opportunity to defy Western influence.
The hostage crisis went on for two years, until Iran buckled under the pressure of oil embargoes and trade sanctions, and a war attacked by Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
The war with Iraq would go on for eight years, and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
After everything that Khomeini inspired—good and bad—in his life, he died in 1989 as the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His last legal declaration—a fatwa—called for the death of the author, Salman Rushdie.
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