Islam and the State in the Middle East:
Ayatollah Khomeini's Vision of Islamic Government

About the Document
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989) was born in the Iranian city of Khomein, the son of a Shi'i cleric, and began his own study of religion at an early age. While studying at the Feyziyeh Medrese in Qom, Khomeini became known as an activist, although he refrained from engagement in political matters until the death of his mentor, Ayatollah Borujerdi, in 1962. In June 1962 Khomeini was arrested for speaking publicly against Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's (1941-1979) "White Revolution," a set of reforms aimed partly at decreasing the influence of the ulema in Iran. After his exile in 1964, Khomeini settled in Najaf, Iraq, a center for Shi'i pilgrimages and learning, where he continued to denounce the Shah as an oppressor and puppet of the West. As an alternative to the monarchy, Khomeini developed his theory of Velayet-e Faqih (governance of the jurist), which he claimed was in accord with the example of Ali and the twelve Imams recognized by most Shi'is as the true leaders of the Muslim community. For Khomeini and his supporters, this was the only form of government that could meet the demands of the modern world while remaining in accord with the Quran and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, since it would replace a secular monarchy with the authority of the highest ranking Shi'i ulema, the Ayatollahs. From his exile in Iraq, then Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini became the leading symbol and inspiration for opposition to the regime of the Shah. On January 31, 1979, Khomeini returned from exile in triumph, two weeks after the departure of the deposed Shah. For the next ten years he guided the Iranian Revolution and creation of the Islamic Republic, following his precepts of governance of the jurist. Ayatollah Khomeini died June 5, 1989.

The Document

Need for Executive Agencies

A collection of laws is not enough to reform society. For a law to be an element for reforming and making people happy, it requires an executive authority. This is why God, may He be praised, created on earth, in addition to the laws, a government and an executive and administrative agency. The great prophet, may God's prayers be upon him, headed all the executive agencies running the Moslem society. In addition to the tasks of conveying, explaining and detailing the laws and the regulations, he took care of implementing them until he brought the State of Islam into existence. In his time, the prophet was not content with legislating the penal code, for example, but also sought to implement it. He cut off hands, whipped and stoned. After the prophet, the tasks of the caliph were no less than those of the prophet. The appointment of a caliph was not for the sole purpose of explaining the laws but also for implementing them. This is the goal that endowed the caliphate with importance and significance. The prophet, had he not appointed a caliph to succeed him, would have been considered to have failed to convey his message. The Moslems were new to Islam and were in direct need for somebody to implement the laws and to make God's will and orders the judge among people to secure their happiness in this world and in the hereafter. . . .


. . .The Shari'a and reason require us not to let governments have a free hand. The proof of this is evident. The persistence of these governments in their transgressions means obstructing the system and laws of Islam whereas there are numerous provisions that describe every non-Islamic system as a form of idolatry and a ruler or an authority in such a system as a false god. We are responsible for eliminating the traces of idolatry from our Moslem society and for keeping it away from our life. At the same time, we are responsible for preparing the right atmosphere for bringing up a faithful generation that destroys the thrones of false gods and destroys their illegal powers because corruption and deviation grow on their hands. This corruption must be wiped out and erased and the severest punishment must be inflicted upon those who cause it. In His venerable book, God describes Pharaoh as "a corrupter." Under the canopy of a pharonic rule that dominates and corrupts society rather than reform it, no faithful and pious person can live abiding by and preserving his faith and piety. Such a person has before him two paths, and no third to them: either be forced to commit sinful acts or rebel against and fight the rule of false gods, try to wipe out or at least reduce the impact of such a rule. We only have the second path open to us. We have no alternative but to work for destroying the corrupt and corrupting systems and to destroy the symbol of treason and the unjust among the rulers of peoples.

This is a duty that all Moslems wherever they may be are entrusted--a duty to create a victorious and triumphant Islamic political revolution.

Need for Islamic Unity

. . .The only means that we possess to unite the Moslem nation, to liberate its lands from the grip of the colonialists and to topple the agent governments of colonialism, is to seek to establish our Islamic government. The efforts of this government will be crowned with success when we become able to destroy the heads of treason, the idols, the human images and the false gods who disseminate injustice and corruption on earth.

The formation of a government is then for the purpose of preserving the unity of the Moslems after it is achieved. This was mentioned in the speech of Fatimah al-Zahra', may peace be upon her, when she said: ". . . In obeying us lies the nation's order, and our imamhood is a guarantee against division."

Need for Rescuing Wronged and Deprived

To achieve their unjust economic goals, the colonialists employed the help of their agents in our countries. As a result of this, there are hundreds of millions of starving people who lack the simplest health and educational means. On the other side, there are individuals with excessive wealth and broad corruption. The starving people are in a constant struggle to improve their conditions and to free themselves from the tyranny of the aggressive rulers. But the ruling minorities and their government agencies are also seeking to extinguish this struggle. On our part, we are entrusted to rescue the deprived and the wronged. We are instructed to help the wronged and to fight the oppressors, as the amir of the faithful ('Ali) instructed his two sons in his will: "Fight the tyrant and aid the wronged."

The Moslem ulema are entrusted to fight the greedy exploiters so that society may not have a deprived beggar and, on the other side, someone living in comfort and luxury and suffering from gluttony. The amir of the faithful ('Ali) says: "By Him Who split the seed and created the breeze, were it not for the presence of the Omnipresent, the presence of the proof of the existence of the Victory Giver, and were it not for God's instructions to the ulema not to condone the oppression of a tyrant nor the suffering of the wronged, I would let matters go unchecked and would get the end mixed up with the beginning and you would find this world of yours less significant to me than a goat's sneeze."

How can we stand nowadays to keep silent on a handful of exploiters and foreigners who dominate with the force of arms when these people have denied hundreds of millions of others the joy of enjoying the smallest degree of life's pleasures and blessings? The duty of the ulema and of all the Moslems is to put an end to this injustice and to seek to bring happiness to millions of peoples through destroying and eliminating the unjust governments and through establishing a sincere and active Moslem government.


Distinction from Other Political Systems

The Islamic government is not similar to the well-known systems of government. It is not a despotic government in which the head of state dictates his opinion and tampers with the lives and property of the people. The prophet, may God's prayers be upon him, and 'Ali, the amir of the faithful, and the other imams had no power to tamper with people's property or with their lives. The Islamic government is not despotic but constitutional. However, it is not constitutional in the well-known sense of the word, which is represented in the parliamentary system or in the people's councils. It is constitutional in the sense that those in charge of affairs observe a number of conditions and rules underlined in the Koran and in the Sunna and represented in the necessity of observing the system and of applying the dictates and laws of Islam. This is why the Islamic government is the government of the divine law. The difference between the Islamic government and the constitutional governments, both monarchic and republican, lies in the fact that the people's representatives or the king's representatives are the ones who codify and legislate, whereas the power of legislation is confined to God, may He be praised, and nobody else has the right to legislate and nobody may rule by that which has not been given power by God. This is why Islam replaces the legislative council by a planning council that works to run the affairs and work of the ministries so that they may offer their services in all spheres. . . .

Yes, government in Islam means obeying the law and making it the judge. The powers given to the prophet, may God's peace and prayers be upon him, and to the legitimate rulers after him are powers derived from God. God ordered that the prophet and the rulers after him be obeyed: "Obey the prophet and those in charge among you." There is no place for opinions and whims in the government of Islam. The prophet, the imams and the people obey God's will and Shari'a.

The government of Islam is not monarchic, not a shahin-shahdom and not an empire, because Islam is above squandering and unjustly undermining the lives and property of people. This is why the government of Islam does not have the many big palaces, the servants, the royal courts, the crown prince courts and other trivial requirements that consume half or most of the country's resources and that the sultans and the emperors have. The life of the great prophet was a life of utter simplicity, even though the prophet was the head of the state, who ran and ruled it by himself. This method continued to a degree after him and until the Ommiads seized power. The government of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib was a government of reform, as you know, and 'Ali lived a life of utter simplicity while managing a vast state in which Iran, Egypt, Hejaz and Yemen were mere provinces under his rule. I do not believe that any of our poor people can live the kind of life that the imam ('Ali) lived. When he had two cloaks, he gave the better one to Qanbar, his servant, and he wore the other. When he found extra material in his sleeves, he cut it off. Had this course continued until the present, people would have known the taste of happiness and the country's treasury would not have been plundered to be spent on fornication, abomination and the court's costs and expenditures. You know that most of the corrupt aspects of our society are due to the corruption of the ruling dynasty and the royal family. What is the legitimacy of these rulers who build houses of entertainment, corruption, fornication and abomination and who destroy houses which God ordered be raised and in which His name is mentioned? Were it not for what the court wastes and what it embezzles, the country's budget would not experience any deficit that forces the state to borrow from America and England, with all the humiliation and insult that accompany such borrowing. Has our oil decreased or have our minerals that are stored under this good earth run out? We possess everything and we would not need the help of America or of others if it were not for the costs of the court and for its wasteful use of the people's money. . . .

Qualifications of Ruler

The qualifications that must be available to the ruler emanate from the nature of the Islamic government. Regardless of the general qualifications, such as intelligence, maturity and a good sense of management, there are two important qualifications:

1. Knowledge of Islamic Law

2. Justice

A. In view of the fact that the Islamic government is a government of law, it is a must that the ruler of the Moslems be knowledgeable in the law, as the Hadith says. Whoever occupies a (public) post or carries out a certain task must know as much as he needs within the limits of his jurisdiction and the ruler must know more than everybody else. Our imams proved their worthiness of the people's trust by their early search for knowledge. What the Shiite ulema fault others for revolves mostly around the level of knowledge attained by our ulema -- a standard that the others failed to rise to.

Knowledge of the law and of justice are among the most important mainstays of the imamate. If a person knows a lot about nature and its secrets and masters many arts but is ignorant of the law, then his knowledge does not qualify him for the caliphate and does not put him ahead of those who know the law and deal with justice. . . .

B. The ruler must have the highest degree of faith in the creed, good ethics, the sense of justice and freedom from sins, because whoever undertakes to set the strictures, to achieve the rights, and to organize the revenues and expenditures of the treasury house must not be unjust. God says in his precious book: "The unjust shall not have my support." Thus, if the ruler is not just, he cannot be trusted not to betray the trust and not to favor himself, his family and his relatives over the people. . . .

Rule of Jurisprudent

If a knowledgeable and just jurisprudent undertakes the task of forming the government, then he will run the social affairs that the prophet used to run and it is the duty of the people to listen to him and obey him.

This ruler will have as much control over running the people's administration, welfare and policy as the prophet and amir of the faithful had despite the special virtues and the traits that distinguished the prophet and the imam. Their virtues did not entitle them to contradict the instructions of the Shari'a or to dominate people with disregard to God's order. God has given the actual Islamic government that is supposed to be formed in the time of absence (of caliph 'Ali ibn Abi Talib) the same powers that he gave the prophet and the amir of the faithful in regard to ruling, justice and the settlement of disputes, the appointment of provincial rulers and officers, the collection of taxes and the development of the country. All that there is to the matter is that the appointment of the ruler at present depends on (finding) someone who has both knowledge and justice.

Source: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic Government, trans. Joint Publications Research Service (New York: Manor Books, 1979), pp. 17-19, 25-28, 31-38.



Following the death of Muhammad, the majority of the Muslim community (Sunni) accepted the leadership of a Caliph, or "deputy," as the rightful leader of the community. The title was used by the rulers of the Umayyad, Abbasid and other Muslim dynasties, including the Ottomans (1300-1922), until the Turkish parliament voted to abolish the position in 1924.

The collected sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad; it is seen by Muslims as one of the guides (second in importance to the Quran) to correct behavior.

Plural of alim, meaning a religious scholar, judge, or theologian trained in a medrese.

Umayyads (Ommiads, or (661-750 C.E.)
Dynasty founded in Damascus by Mu'awiyah (661-680 C.E.). In the generations following the death of Muhammad (d. 632 C.E.), the Umayyads led the conquest and creation of an empire stretching from Spain to western China, bringing millions into the Muslim community. The Umayyads began the process of creating a state, with legal and educational systems, and developing a distinctly Muslim form of culture, before being overthrown by the Abbasids.

Analysis Questions

  1. According to Khomeini, what are the main causes of injustice? How can the people fight injustice, and what role should the ulema play in the people's struggle against injustice?
  2. According to Khomeini, what is the importance of the executive branch of government? Why is executive authority more vital to good government than legislative or judicial authority?
  3. According to Khomeini, what role did the Prophet play in establishing executive authority in Muslim society?
  4. Compare Khomeini's vision of the Shi'i ulema to that of Mirza Husayn-i Hamdani (doc. 27.5). In what ways are their views similar, and different? Who do they identify as the enemies of the people, and in what ways do their proposals for change overlap or diverge, and why?
  5. What does Khomeini mean when he says that Islamic government is constitutional? What is the difference between Islamic government and constitutional monarchies and republics?

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