Islamic Fundamentalism and Khomeini in Iran

Wealth is a gift from God.” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

yasaman.hashemi20130604035755053The founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Leader of the Revolution, and, to some, an Imam of Shi’a Islam, known commonly across the Western world as Ayatollah Khomeini, achieved more than just the overthrow of a monarchical dynasty. He was a theological and socio-political activist that turned history – both tangible and spiritual – on its head for more than 40 million Iranians in 1979. Khomeini’s material and theoretical legacies were fundamentally tied up with each other. After all, he spent more than 17 years in exile, during which time he produced a huge amount of work on the health of the Iranian polity and economy, and the nature of Shi’a Islam in relation to the conditions he observed, not only in Iran, but in all Muslim nations. The nature of such a legacy is fiercely debated. Some argue that Khomeini’s actions in 1979 betrayed the wishes of a significant majority of Iranians; others critically assess the underpinnings of the Islamic trends in his thought. Was Khomeini an Islamic fundamentalist? If so, what is a fundamentalist and how does one apply this in the contemporary world? This article attempts to outline the relationship between Khomeini’s theological thoughts on Islam, and his political views on Iran and the concept of statehood, to argue, as Ervand Abrahamian does, that Khomeini was not so much a fundamentalist but a populist. I.e. he adapted his ideology to suit the socio-political conditions within which he worked. The key ideas contained here are drawn from superbly analytical papers written by Abrahamian, mainly contained within his 1993 collection Khomeinism.

Fundamentalism or Populism?

The term ‘fundamentalism’ carries distinct connotations and contains certain essential criteria that make it a problematic label for Khomeini’s political ideology. In essence, fundamentalism condones an adherence of strict orthodoxy, a return to, or revival of, basic principles, and the rejection of modernity or development. Applied to a modern context, it is very difficult to create a fundamentalist ideology, primarily because of the overwhelming tendency of contemporary society to lean towards liberalism, as methods of communication and technology have revolutionised the ways in which humans live their lives.

Abrahamian points out several specific problems with comparing Khomeinism to fundamentalism. Firstly, the motivation of Khomeini’s ideology is focused mainly around the rejection of Western influence in Iran, rather than the more fundamentalist approach, which would have centred on the ‘saving of souls’, or revolution from the ‘theological below’. The use of his ideology to achieve a material political aim, an intra-national one at that, immediately suggests that there are more populist notions to Khomeinism that fundamentalism does not account for. Secondly, the program that Khomeini advocates for Iran, discussed in the second part of this article, relies on the existing notions of states and boundaries; i.e. the effective hedging of Shi’a Iran as a distinct unit from the other Middle Eastern Sunni Islamic states. Of course, these Sunni Islamic states also contain Shi’a populations, and so a fundamentalist ideology would reject the idea of an independent Iranian state in favour of a worldwide Shi’ite revolution. The alignment of Shi’ism and Iranian nationalism in this case suggests a more populist approach to Khomeinist politics than a fundamentalist one. Finally, the absolutist nature of Islam as a political religion causes problems within the divisions that already exist; for instance, how does fundamentalist Shi’ism deal with Sunni Muslims? It is almost impossible to contemplate a genuinely fundamentalist Shi’ite political ideology. [The details of the major split in Islam have been discussed on this website previously, see]. Hence, the adaptability of Khomeini’s ideology for the benefit of the revolution is perhaps closer to populist than it is to fundamentalist.

Khomeinist Politics

Despite, perhaps, the fundamentalist first impression of the politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khomeini’s theoretical and material programmes have distinctly diverse undertones. As mentioned, his advocacy of the modern notion of the nation-state, with territorial boundaries, a unique nationalism and its own political and economic agendas, is, to use an oxymoron, fundamentally non-fundamentalist. Khomeini argued for increased religious engagement with the state, and the presence of Shi’ite clerics at the highest levels of government, but the doctrinal belief in the return of the 12th Imam left space for a nation-state that did more than just fight for the conquest of Shi’a Islam. In fact, Khomeini argued that, for the time being at least, the Shi’a clergy should remain apolitical, and that the socioeconomic and political problems Iran faced should be solved through a blend of Islam and political pragmatism.

It may be simply the correlation between revolutionary ideas, but there are also many similarities in theory and practice between Marxism and Khomeinism. Marxism here, or perhaps more correctly historical materialism, is taken to mean the method of analysis that regards the distribution of capital and the material reproduction of life as the primary concerns of human existence. It does not refer to the secular, communist regimes that had popped up during the ‘era of extremes’ in the early Cold War. Khomeini’s rhetoric focused significantly on class conflict, the role of the state in the protection of private property, and the rejection of capitalist imperialism. There are therefore, firstly, Marxist undertones beneath the exterior of Khomeinism, but secondly, contradictions, in that the Ayatollah both promotes the dynamics of capitalism with Islamic characteristics, but rejects the developments and eventualities; i.e. imperialism and loss of religious purity. There is distinct academic debate as to the compatibility of Islam with democracy – especially fundamentalist Islam – but attention should be given to the compatibility of Islam with capitalism. Comparative examples point at interesting discussions for another time, including the theocracies in the Arab Gulf, the Ba’athist governments in Syria and Iraq during Khomeini’s time, and the political confusion that has taken over Egypt since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.


Ayatollah Khomeini used his ideology to achieve popular goals, however much he went back or altered its focus after the 1979 revolution. In reality, the Islamic government that took power after the deposition of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi acted in a very similar way to many other revolutionary governments – they invoked war. Although Iran did not start the war with Iraq, which would last for eight bloody years between 1980 and 1988, the rhetoric of Shi’ite revolution across the Middle East scared Saddam Hussein’s government into attacking their neighbour; more than half of the Iraqi population was, and is Shi’a Muslim.


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