“Indeed, I would say that the explosion of ecstasy and power that greeted the Imam was itself not so much a simple reflex based upon a fixed idea of the Imam; it was rather the natural and exuberant hymn of praise, of celebration that was demanded by the very majesty and overpowering charisma of this man. For once the door opened for him, I experienced a hurricane of energy surge through the door, and in his brown robes, his black-turbaned head, his white beard, he stirred every molecule in the building and riveted the attention in a way that made everything else disappear. He was a flowing mass of light that penetrated into the consciousness of each person in the hall. He destroyed all images that one tried to hold before one in sizing him up. He was so dominant in his presence that I found myself organized in my sensations by that which took me far beyond my own concepts, my own way of processing experience. I had expected – no matter what the apparent stature of the man – to find myself scrutinizing his face, exploring his motivation, wondering about his real nature. But his power, grace, and absolute domination destroyed all my modes of evaluation, and I was left to simply experience the energy and feeling that radiated from his presence on the stage. A hurricane he was, yet immediately one could see there was a point of absolute stillness inside that hurricane; while fierce and commanding, he was yet serene and receptive. Something was immovable inside him, yet that immovability moved the whole country of Iran. This was no ordinary human being; in fact, even of all the so-called saints I had met – the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks, Hindu sages – none possessed quite the electrifying presence of Khomeini.” – Robin Woodsworth Carlsen, The Imam and His Revolution
He was born Sayyid Ruhullah al-Musawi in 1320 AH. His grandfather, a prominent scholar by the name of Sayyid Ahmed al-Hindi, had migrated from Lucknow, the center of Shia learning in the Indian subcontinent, to Khomein, and it was in this small town southwest of Qom that young Ruhullah grew up. His father was murdered at a very young age, and Imam Khomeini was therefore primarily brought up by his mother and paternal aunt. However, he soon lost them as well, and responsibility of his caretaking went to his older brother Sayyid Mustafa.
He began his religious education quite early on. By the age of seven, he had already committed the entire Qur’an to memory. He first traveled to Arak for higher education, and then to Qom, which was about to become a major center of Shia learning with the arrival of Shaikh Abdul Karim Hairi. In Qom, he studied spirituality and philosophy under Mirza Javad Maliki-Tabrizi and Mirza Muhammad Ali Shahabadi. Meanwhile, he studied the traditional seminary subjects of jurisprudence under Shaikh Abdul Karim Hairi and other prominent jurists of the time.
Upon the demise of Shaikh Abdul Karim Hairi in Qom and later of Sayyid Abul Hasan Isfehani in Najaf, a need was felt for a strong leader in the Shia community. Imam Khomeini and the other junior teachers of the seminary arranged for Sayyid Hussain Burujardi to come to Qom and assume leadership of the seminary.
During this time, the Pahlavi dynasty went about instituting a secular and autocratic regime in Iran. Any opposition to government policies was dealt brutally by the SAVAK, the infamous intelligence agency of the government. Basic religious practices and observances were outlawed, as the Shah attempted to remove Islam from the public sphere. His radical fiscal policies and extravagant military spending essentially bankrupted the Iranian economy. His excessive reliance upon Western regimes further contributed to widespread opposition to his regime.
Some people are quick to criticize Ayatollah Burujardi for maintaining a “quietist” attitude towards the government during this time. However, it must be noted that a revolution can never be successful without committed leaders, and both Ayatollah Burujardi and Imam Khomeini were busy training the future leaders of the Islamic Revolution during this period. Among the most notable students of Imam Khomeini included Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Beheshti, Sayyid Muhammad Ali Qadhi, Sayyid Ali Hussaini Khamenei, Sayyid Abdul Karim Musawi Ardbeli, Shaikh Murtadha Mutahhari, Shaikh Fadhil Lankarani, Shaikh Ali Quddusi, and Shaikh Haidar Ali Hashmian.
Upon the demise of Ayatollah Burujardi, Imam Khomeini was recognized as one of the leading teachers of the seminary. He was therefore accepted as a religious authority by many people in Iran. From the famous Madressa Faiziyya, he wrote and published many works on Gnosticism, spirituality, philosophy, and jurisprudence, eventually attracting hundreds of students to his lessons.
As the Shah went about implementing his radical secularization policies, Imam Khomeini openly denounced them. He instructed his students to reach out to the Iranian masses and educate them about the dangerous future the nation would face if the trend was allowed to continue. He also declared that passiveness towards the regime in the name of Taqayya (dissimulation) was prohibited in this case.
The Shah reacted violently. In 1382 AH, paratroopers were sent into Madressa Faiziyya, where they attacked and killed several students. A few weeks later, after giving a sermon during Ashura commemorations where he drew parallels between the Shah’s tyrannical policies and those of the Omayyads under Yazid, the Imam was arrested. Mass protests erupted all over Iran calling for his release. Although the government did release him several months later, the famous uprising of 15 Khurdad perhaps foreshadowed a similar uprising that would take place 16 years later at the Imam’s behest, when the entire Iranian populace would rise up to overthrow the yoke of neo-imperialism, secularization, and totalitarianism in favor of a true Islamic government.