Ruhollah Khomeini became a religious scholar and in the early 1920s rose to become an ‘ayatollah’, a term for a leading Shia scholar. In 1962, Khomeini began protesting the intentions of the Shah, then ruler of Iran who was promoting secularism. Khomeini’s first act of defiance was to organize the ulama (religious leaders) against a proposed law of the Shah’s that would effectively end the requirement for elected officials to be sworn in on the Qu’ran. Khomeini was arrested by the shah’s security service for his outspoken opposition to the pro-Western regime of the Shah. His arrest elevated him to the status of national hero. In 1964, he was exiled, living in Turkey, Iraq and then France, from where he urged his supporters to overthrow the shah. By the late 1970s, the shah had become deeply unpopular and there were riots, strikes and mass demonstrations across the country.
In January 1979, the shah’s government collapsed and he and his family fled into exile. On 1 February, Khomeini returned to Iran in triumph. There was a national referendum and Khomeini won a landslide victory. He declared an Islamic republic and was appointed Iran’s political and religious leader for life. Islamic law was introduced across the country. His denunciation of American influence led to militant Islamic students storming the US Embassy in Teheran in November 1979. Some of the American hostages were held captive for more than a year.
In September 1980, after a territorial dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iraq launched a surprise invasion of Iran. The resulting war lasted eight years and between half and one-and-a-half million people died. Neither side achieved their aim of toppling the other’s regime. The war extinguished some of the zeal of the Islamic revolution in Iran and led some Iranians to question the capabilities of their leaders. In February 1989 Khomeini provoked international controversy by issuing a ‘fatwa’, ordering Muslims to kill the writer Salman Rushdie for his novel ‘The Satanic Verses’. Khomeini died the same year. Iran remains a religion-based society, and Khomeini’s life’s work and decade of rule will no doubt continue to influence the country far into the future.