CRUCIBLE: The Morality of Nation-Building – A Glimpse on the Life and Struggle of Imam Khomeini

(A lecture delivered during the forum “Morality in Nation-Building” held at GC Hall, UP Diliman, Quezon City on June 1, 2022.)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 20 July) – In the Name of God the Most Gracious and the Most Merciful.

His Excellency Ambassador Alireza Totonchian, the Ambassador of Iran to the Philippines. Fellow guests and lecturers, our friends, good morning!

It is a breath of fresh air to be able to go out and mingle with friends and fellow pilgrims in peace. We were almost hostaged for two years by this pandemic. It feels different to interact again face to face with officials of many organizations and colleagues in the University.

Upon receiving the invitation of Counselor Morteza Sabouri of the Cultural Section of Iran in Manila, I was elated prodding me to jot some notes and do a few date calculations given that today is the 33rd death anniversary of the late Imam Khomeini.

Forty-one years ago, Imam Khomeini was at the helm of Islamic Revolution. Ten years thereafter, he was successful in architecting the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Sixteen years before that eventful year in 1979, Imam Khomeini led the opposition against the Shah, particularly when he stood up in the so-called White Revolution in 1963. Five decades back, the young Khomeini lived a normal life in Khomayn, a small town in Iran where he studied under his early teachers; and later, devoted his life as a student and a faculty member at Qum Theological Seminary. Imam Khomeini was then 51 years old, a crucial period that led into his exile in Iraq, Turkey and France.

Reflecting on the life of the Great Imam with other historical figures in revolution, we could say that the late Imam Khomeini was already more than his midlife when he started his struggle. Revolutionaries or reformists when they threw themselves into struggle were usually in their late 20s or early 30s – like the Young Turks when they rose against the dying Ottoman Empire and put up the Turkish Republic. It was similar with the group of Gamal Abdelnasser of Egypt: they were relatively young when they removed King Farouk from power in 1952. Close to home, the leaders of the Philippine Reform Movement like Dr. Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Jacinto and few others were in their late 20s and early 30s.

What separates Imam Khomeini from those who waged struggle and revolution is that they did not see the fruits of their labor; they were executed, killed and martyred. Again, a classic case is Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero of Filipinos. He had to die at 35 years old for the Philippine Republic to be born few years or decades later.

It is also the same story amongst the so-called Islamic revivalists like Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Hassan Al-Banna, Syed Qutb, Abul A’la Mawdudi and many others, including a countless number of leaders in contemporary Islamic movements. Where they raised their voices against tyranny and dedicated their lives in fighting against oppression, many of them ended up executed, killed and martyred. They never saw the fruits of their struggle. Very few died in old age with their causes often squandered by the ones they left behind.

This is not the case of Imam Khomeini. In his old age, he led the Islamic Revolution and succeeded in establishing a new republic while shepherding government for another 10 years. After realizing that his mission was already accomplished, sometime in 1989 he summoned younger, qualified and promising leaders to join him in prayer. Eventually, it was Ali Khameini who arrived and unequivocally accepted the responsibility to serve as a new guardian of the Islamic Republic. A few days later, the Imam got ill, brought to a hospital and passed away in complete peace and serenity to face his Lord. It is rare to see a leader as prepared as Imam Khomeini. He realized the limits of power and the time to transfer power.

The history of the Arab and Islamic world, including many countries in Asia and Africa, is punctuated with a cycle of leaders becoming authoritarian and tyrants while staying in power the rest of their lives. They simply do not know the limits of power with many of them getting intoxicated by it.

We have seen this malaise recently as many Arab leaders falling one by one from power. They had to be humiliated and, in many instances, killed after they had been in power for a long time. There are two prominent exceptions in Southeast Asia: Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia. Even then Prime Minister Mahathir returned in the so-called Mahathir 2.0 only to suffer a humiliating defeat in parliamentary politics that he previously bid goodbye. It is not the case of Imam Khomeini. He knows how to handle power and knows its limits and, most of all, he knows when to transfer it to young and competent leaders.

Why do we square power with morality in nation-building?

The question of morality and power is central in both Western and Islamic thought. I am very happy that Ambassador Totonchian has alluded this point earlier particularly the intertwine relation between politics and morality.

Without going into niceties on Plato’s “Republic” and Al-Farabi’s Madinatu l-Fadilah or Ideal City with which Imam Khomeini’s Islamic thought and his Wilaayatu l-faqih (Rule of Jurisconsult) resonates strongly, let us zero in on the nature of power as reflective in both the Holy Qur’an and, to some extent, the Bible. From the perspective of the two Divine Books, the primary cause in the fall of Adam (AS) (and his wife) is when he succumbed into the prodding of Shaytan on power and immortality. The Holy Qur’an says:

Fawaswasa ilayhi s-shaytaanu qaala hal adullaka ‘alaa shajaratu l-khuldi wa l-mulk laa yablaa. But Satan whispered evil to him: he said, “O Adam! Shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a Kingdom that never decays (20: 120)?”

Adam (AS) and his wife were told by God not to get near into that Tree (shajarat) of Eternity (khuld) and Kingdom (mulk) or power. But they succumbed into the whisper of Shaytan. As such, they were placed from what is known as Garden of Eden to earth.

This story suggests the fundamental weakness of human being relative to power. If not handled properly, power could be intoxicating. It could be the recipe to one’s fall. It is the story of countless leaders in the past and at present and, with all surety, in the future. Yet, some amount of quwwa (strength) is undeniably a necessity for human being to effect order and social justice.

But for power not become absolute, morality is key in taming it. As the saying goes “absolute power corrupts and power corrupts absolutely.” Morality must serve as guidepost of life and ethics as norm in social relation. Short of that, the children of Adam (AS) would always be vulnerable from the whisper of Shaytan.

Imam Khomeini must be aware of all this. From his younger years until the time he went to Qum, Imam Khomeini was already honed in the tradition of morality known as akhlaq or ethics. He lives a life of righteousness and remains an upright man until his last breath. At Qum Theological Seminary, he reformed the curriculum by introducing the subject of Ethics. He noticed that the Seminary was strong in Shari’ah or Law but weak in Philosophy, Metaphysics and Ethics. He reversed or balanced the curricular flaws of Qum. In so short a time, he became a magnet attracting many students near and far. This was the life of Imam Khomeini before he was thrown into struggle.

With the excesses of the Shah worsening, there were instances when the late Imam was triggered to stand up, but his fidelity to his teachers and in reverence with his superiors, he did not step upon their functions and responsibilities. In other words, even when there was already the fire in his heart to engage, Imam Khomeini respected authorities among his superiors. Again, this episode represents an important trait of Imam Khomeini.

We may ask: apart from being aware of the central position of morality in politics and struggle, who is truly Imam Khomeini?

We have to note that Imam Khomeini before he became a great leader was a mystic, a Sufi in traditional parlance; or more particularly, Waliyu-llah (Friend of God). And he remained so until his demise. His leading the Islamic Revolution until he became the Supreme Leader of Iran did not change a dint of his life. Hence, when you read his early works, you’ll find that most of his writings are about purification, worship, submission, remembrance, Oneness, and so on. His early writings would seemingly impress that he has a strong anathema against politics and revolution. It’s not. His mysticism is progressive and revolutionary as could be seen in his latest writings.

Now, what is there in the study of mysticism that is cognate with ethics and morality? This is where knowing some fundamental concepts are important. Probably, some of my Muslim friends in attendance would be familiar with this.

The concept of akhlaq or ethics is the same root word with that of khalq or creation. It is also the same root word with that of Khaaliq or Creator. If you are familiar with Arabic, you will note that this trilateral letters (Kh, L, Q) constitute the three important terms – Creator, creature or creation and ethics or akhlaq. As such, there must be a fundamental value in creation that has been embedded to it by the Creator, a reason why there is a system in creation; say, why the cosmos is in order, planets do not collide, and atom works with certain order and symmetry. It is because they follow certain akhlaq amongst themselves. This value when translated into man, becomes one’s virtue. Hence, we say a person who is virtuous who recognizes the rights of others and so on and so forth. He must possess khuluq (excellent conduct), the same root word with that of akhlaq or Khaliq and makhluq.

Hence, you will read in the Holy Qur’an that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is not praised by God by any quality like power, wealth, beauty, or intelligence. The Prophet is praised with his excellence of characters or khuluqun azeem. The Qur’an says:

Wa innaka la’alaa khuluqin azeem. “And thou (standest) on an exalted standard of character (68: 4).”

What I am trying to draw is that Imam Khomeini must be familiar with the essential trait of creation which is the same embodiment in human self with Prophet Muhammad (SAW) with his khuluq as the best exemplar. A human being is, by essence, virtuous; every person therefore is a potentiality of righteousness. It is just that, at times, when he is not able to tame his self particularly his lower nafs, then one’s virtue would be clouded and another layer of nafs or what is known as the animalistic soul (nafsu l-ammaara) would govern himself. Then, that person becomes unethical and immoral, incapable in establishing relationship with God, his fellow human being and the rest of creation.

We could surmise that Imam Khomeini had learned this fundamentals of ethics even in his early days. A reason why we said that he was already advancing the cause of ethics in his studies when he became part of administration at Qum Seminary School and, by extension, until he waged the struggle against the Shah and led the Islamic Revolution and eventually governed the Islamic Republic of Iran for 10 years.

I could actually dwell on many subjects about Imam Khomeini. But let me just mention a few items about Imam Khomeini’s life that may struck you how spiritual the man was.

When he was a student at Qum, accordingly, his contemporary would often see him in a small mosque alone in the middle of the night sobbing while in state of worship. While everybody is slept at night, Imam Khomeini is awake in deep contemplation and prayers. Prayer and study is a trait of Imam Khomeini. These are common traits of waliyu l-llah.

With the success of Iranian revolution, some of his allies thought that Khomeini now the new leader must be given a proper place to stay. By the way, up until the revolution was won, Imam Khomeini lived in a modest house – that if you will see that kind of house he lives you will shed tears. According to a Filipino visitor from Mindanao who had seen the place, what he saw was just a kettle on the table used by Imam Khomeini whenever he drinks tea. Indeed, Khomeini lives a vow of poverty unlike many leaders that often get intoxicated with wealth and power.

So, they offered the Imam to occupy the palace where the Shah used to live. You know the palace of the Shah is incomparably grand. Malacañang Palace would probably does not qualify even as a kitchen of the Shah’s Palace. Imam Khomeini refused to stay in the palace. Up until the time he was already the leader of Iran, Imam Khomeini continued to live as a simple man in a simple house doing his Saturday lecture with his students.

In December 2016, I was privileged to be invited by the former Iranian Ambassador to the Philippines, Ambassador Muhammadi, to participate in the International Conference of Muslim Scholars held in Tehran. In two separate meetings, I was able to audience with President Hassan Rouhani and Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The meeting with the Supreme Leader was memorable. It was held in the place where Imam Khomeini used to stay, particularly in an area where he used to deliver his lecture. That time, when Imam Khomeini would come into that place his audience would wail and cry with just seeing his face. That is the power of the Great Imam.

One time, Imam Khomeini recalled a box or container that had been in the place where he used to stay in Qum. It is a tradition among Iranian students when they would attend lectures of the Imam they would give him some charity or sadaqah. But Imam Khomeini never accepted even a single cent from his students. As such, they would just leave their donation in that container. That was a long time when he was in Qum before the Revolution. Now came the time when he became the Supreme Leader of Iran when he asked to get that container with no one knew what it was. It was only then they knew it was a box of sadaqah. The Imam had not touched it since then. He ordered that it be distributed to the poor. These are just few tidbits of Imam Khomeini’s life.

His scholarly body of works is equally amazing. From being the leader of a revolution until he became the Supreme Leader of Iran, Imam Khomeini was able to publish books and other writings every year. One of which was Imam Khomeini’s letter to USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev inviting the latter to reconsider his philosophy of Marxism and even inviting the Soviet leader to visit Iran and, if he wants to, to learn Islam. This is the mark of a contemporary leader reflective of Prophet Muhammad’s sending of letters and in conducting diplomatic engagement to different leaders of empires.

There are many simple yet powerful stories that speak of Imam Khomeini’s life. There is a quotation I still remember that despite being a moralist, a man of ethics, and of righteousness, Imam Khomeini faced power squarely. That quotation reads: there are only three idol breakers of history. The first is Prophet Ibrahim or Abraham. The second is Prophet Muhammad. And the third is Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini.

It is indeed worthy to reflect on the life of a great man even if he has passed away more than 30 years ago. It is something that we have to continuously engage.

As a final remark, you must note that the founding Fathers of the Philippine Revolution were also engaged in the discourse in putting God at the center of struggle and in placing morality as the cornerstone of nation-building and progress. You probably still remember the “True Decalogue of Mabini,” wherein it could be characterized into three areas. By the way, Apolinario Mabini is, like Jose Rizal, the “Brain of the Philippine Revolution.” First, he emphasized the importance in understanding God in one’s life. Second, loving our neighbors. Third, the importance of the nation and the need to struggle for independence.

There is even an emphasis that if there are powers that would defile and oppress the Filipino people everyone should be ready to defend the country. This is the True Decalogue of Apolinario Mabini. I mentioned it because somehow Mabini, Rizal, Hassan Al-Banna, and Imam Khomeini and many others lived in almost the same period of time – except that the Great Imam was relatively late, as previously noted, when he engaged in the Revolution.

I am very sorry as I talk so much in this discussion. Finally, I’d like to extend my thanks to Counsellor Sabouri and Ambassador Totonchian, my fellow speakers and friends. It is indeed an honor to be engaging with you again in this uncertain time.

So that this kind of affairs would not be the last, we hope other parishes, institutions of the Protestant Church, including our friends in the Catholic Church, would also be enticed to engage in the same activities so we could reflect further and be inspired not only the life of Imam Khomeini but other great men and women in history as well.

Wa ba’ad was-salamu alaykum wa rahmatu l-lahi wa barakatuh.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaViews. An extemporaneous lecture delivered during the Forum “The Role of Morality in Nation Building,” jointly organized by the Cultural Section of the Embassy of Iran-Manila; the Church of the Risen Lord, UP; Manila Church People Ecumenical Fellowship; Diocese of Greater Manila; and Iglesia Filipina Independente, held at GC Hall, The Church of the Risen Lord, UP Diliman, Quezon City, on 01 June 2022. Except in providing some flows and emphasizing points, this lecture remains as it was delivered. Julkipli Wadi is Professor at the University of the Philippines and Dean of UP-Institute of Islamic Studies.]