Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography is a profound display of Algar’s knowledge on the life of Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Historians have decided to look at the former and latter separately, but it must be noted that in order to truly understand and appreciate the magnitude of the Revolution, one must be familiar with the life of its leading supporter.
Twenty years after the Islamic Revolution swept Iran and brought forth a wave of social reform unrivaled in the 20th century, the first comprehensive English biography of its founder, Imam Khomeini, was published. Thirty-one years have passed since the Revolution, and Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography by Hamid Algar remains one of the few objective and accurate biographies of Imam Khomeini in the English language. This conflicts with the precedent which existed following the Soviet Revolution and even the French Revolution, where literature on its founders was widely circulated and published. However, the reader must appreciate the challenges a biographer would be presented with in attempting to convey the social, intellectual, and spiritual rigor of such a preeminent figure in recent Islamic history.
The book is a quick read, and its information is concise but sufficient. Dr. Algar is one of the very few individuals qualified enough to write such a book. He is one of the most prominent scholars of Iranian history in the past two centuries, and has done extensive writing on the Islamic Revolution and in general Iranian history and scholars. Among his more influential and widely circulated works is Religion and State in Iran, 1785-1906: the Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. In 1972, Algar predicted the Islamic Revolution would take place in Iran, despite detraction from Western political commentators and intellectuals who felt the movement could be easily sidelined.
Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography is a profound display of Algar’s knowledge on the life of Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Historians have decided to look at the former and latter separately, but it must be noted that in order to truly understand and appreciate the magnitude of the Revolution, one must be familiar with the life of its leading supporter. The book is split into five sections, and each is representative of a major point in Imam Khomeini’s life. Section one concerns itself with the early life of Imam Khomeini and his family, section two is dedicated to his life as a student and then teacher in the Qom Seminary, sections three and four begin with the “white revolution” of 1963 and end with the toppling of the despotic Shah, and section five focuses on the last decade of Imam Khomeini’s life.
Section one is a sufficient introduction to the life of a man revered by many but understood by few. However, as the book progresses – and due to its length, it does so quickly – we begin to see the character of Imam Khomeini emerge towards that of the leader of the last great revolution in history. Section two is primarily responsible for establishing his rapport as the paragon of scholarly nobility and dedication. These traits would come to define the Islamic Revolution which Algar argues cannot “be regarded as the work of a single man”; however, he demands we give the appropriate credit to the Mosque which was the essential mechanism for the revolution of 1978-1979.
Despite its relatively brief length, the book achieves what its more dense counter parts are eluded by in that it provides the readers with a true understanding of the Islamic Revolution. In contemporary times, the revolution is viewed simply as the events of 1978-1979. The years of struggle from 1963-1978 are neglected, and suspicion is that this is intentionally done to make the revolution seem more spontaneous and with less purpose than its Western counterparts which took place in France and Russia. Beyond that, the reader is given a significant amount of insight on Imam Khomeini’s tenure in the Qom seminary. Algar does this brilliantly and it sets the stage for the sections on the revolution of 1979. However, the book extends this and introduces us to Imam Khomeini’s mentor and primary instructor during his tenure as a student and instructor at the Seminary, Ayatollah Mirza Muhammad Ali Shahabadi. Under the guidance and inspiration of Ayatollah Shahabadi and other illustrious teachers, Imam Khomeini cultivated “the fusion of Gnostic and political concerns that came to characterize his life.” In his greatest work, Shadharat al-Ma’arif, Ayatollah Shahabadi describes Islam as “most certainly a political religion” and was among the very few scholars to challenge and speak out against the Shah’s oppressive regime which disregarded Islamic and human rights scripture.
Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography also narrates the incidents of June 1963, which marked Ashura, a day of mourning for Shia Muslims, when Imam Khomeini drew parallels between the oppressive Shah regime and that of Yazid, the tyrant who stood behind the killing of the third Shia Imam. Algar correctly concludes the movement of the 15th of Khurdad, 1963, which was caused by the arrest of Imam Khomeini following his Ashura speech decrying the policies of the Shah and the subsequent six days of protests was “characterized as the prelude to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79; the goals of that revolution and its leadership had already been determined.” Despite arresting the Imam and through superficial hopes held by the Shah that if the Imam was out of the picture physically, the momentum of the inevitable revolution would somehow be silenced, the Uprising of 15th Khurdad became a focal point for the movement to oust the tyrannical regime which served as the catalyst of the United States and Israel at the cost of the Iranian people’s rights and freedom.
The book also addresses Imam Khomeini’s forced exile in Najaf, Iraq, and later on in France. Many narratives insist that during his exile, the revolution had somehow died down or lost its zeal. This is an incorrect notion, and Algar refutes it quite eloquently. The book also dedicates attention to the Martyrs of Qom incident of 1978, which other books have been reluctant to follow suit because it establishes an unequivocal image of the Ulama (scholars) as that of sacrifice, dedication, and bravery in the face of a tyranny, something unheard of when entering a discourse on Iran according to the imperialistic perspective we are given today. Section four of Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography covers the period from 1978-1979, which leads to the establishment of the first Islamic government in contemporary history. The last section deals with the first decade of the Islamic Republic, also the last decade of Imam Khomeini’s life.
The political achievements of Imam Khomeini could not have been possible had he not been devoted to God and establishing justice for the sake of God. Indeed, Imam Khomeini is the pride of the Muslim world for his insistence on establishing a true Islamic system in the Muslim world which had for too long been chained by imperialism and economic exploitation. The vestige of the founder of the Islamic Revolution is found in his piety, steadfastness, and loyalty to Islamic principles. Hamid Algar delivers a profound telling of the life of a man who has forever changed the world, and Imam Khomeini: A Short Biography is unrivaled in its effect and inspiration.
The book is available online.