Imam Khomeini remains very high caliber of philosopher and mystic

Imam Khomeini remains very high caliber of philosopher and mystic

It was during his first fourteen years in Qum that Ayatullah Khomeini became familiar with the intertwined traditions of philosophy and mysticism.

Ruhullah Musawi Khomeini studied in Qum until the death of Shaykh Ha’eri, in 1936 after which he began teaching theology, ethics, philosophy, and mysticism.

It was during his first fourteen years in Qum that Ayatullah Khomeini became familiar with the intertwined traditions of philosophy and mysticism which flourished during Iran’s Safawid period (16th and 17th centuries) and which continue to exert an enormous influence on contemporary Shi‘ite thought.

When he arrived in Qum, Imam Khomeini began to receive private instruction in ethics with Haj Mirza Jawad Maleki Tabrizi, the author of a book entitled, The Secrets of Prayer (Asrar as-Salat), Imam Khomeini also wrote a book on this topic, called The Secret of Prayer: Prayers of the Gnostics or Ascension of the Wayfarers (Sirr as-Salat: Salat al-‘Arifin ya Mi‘raj as-Salikin). His instruction under Mirza Jawad continued until the death of the teacher, in 1925.

Imam Khomeini also studied the mystic traditions from Haj Mirza Abu’l-Hasan Rafi’i Qazvini, who was in Qum from 1923 to 1927. Qazvini is known for his commentary on a supplication which is recited daily in the pre-dawn hours during the month of Ramadan. Later, Imam Khomeini would also write a commentary on this prayer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly among his spiritual guides, there was Aqa Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali Shahabadi, the author of Spray from the Seas (Rashahat al-Bahar), who was in Qum from 1928 to 1935. In the mystic tradition of which Shahabadi was a part, the phrase ‘spray from the sea’ may be taken as a symbol for inspiration from God.

It was with Shahabadi that Imam Khomeini is reported to have studied the Fusus al-Hikam [Bezels of Wisdom] of Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240) and the important commentary on that work by Qaysari (d. 1350).

Recalling his years as a student in Qum, Imam Khomeini himself has publicly commented on the hostility toward mysticism and philosophy which was to be found in certain quarters in Qum, feelings which are still harbored by some members of the clergy. The story is often repeated that when Imam had begun teaching philosophy in Qum and his first son was a small child.

Some seminarians felt it necessary to perform a ritual cleansing of a cup from which the child had drunk water because of his impurity as the son of a teacher of philosophy! Imam reports that his teacher, Shahabadi, sought to oppose this hostility by making people familiar with the doctrines of the mystics so they could see for themselves that there was nothing inimical to Islam in the teachings of the Gnostics.

Once a group of merchants came to see the late Shahabadi (may God have mercy on him), and he began to speak to them on the same mystical topics that he taught to everyone. I asked him whether
it was appropriate to speak to them of such matters and he replied: “Let them be exposed just once to these heretical teachings! I too now find it incorrect to divide people into categories and pronounce some incapable of understanding these matters.”

One of the most dramatic efforts of Imam Khomeini to bring mysticism to the people occurred after the Islamic Revolution with his Lectures on Surah al-Fatihah from which the above report has been quoted. After the Revolution, there were televised lessons on the interpretation of the Qur’an by Ayatullah Taleqani.

When Ayatullah Taleqani died on September 10, 1979, about a half year after the victory of the revolution, the televised commentary on the Qur’an was taken up by a younger scholar. Imam Khomeini suggested that a more senior authority might be sought for the program. After consulting among themselves, those responsible for the broadcast decided to request that Imam himself provide the commentary.

Imam responded that if the cameras could be brought to his residence he would comply with the request. The result was the Lectures on Surah al-Fatihah, a stunning mystical interpretation of the opening verses of the Qur’an, in which one of the dominant themes was the claim that the whole world is a name of God.

In these lectures Imam also contends that the philosophers of Islam, the mystics and the poets have used different terminologies to express the same insights, and he urges his viewers not to reject what is taught by members of these groups until they understand what is being expressed, even if
the language used raises suspicions of heterodoxy. Thus, Imam’s preaching in this area was very much a plea for tolerance.

Imam Khomeini’s emphasis on tolerance was not limited to mysticism and poetry. Imam Khomeini’s teacher in Islamic jurisprudence, Shaykh Ha’eri, was succeeded in Qum by Ayatullah Burujerdi, who came to be recognized as the supreme authority on the subject. After the death of Ayatullah Burujerdi, in 1961, Imam Khomeini came to be recognized as one of several supreme experts in Islamic jurisprudence, a marja‘-e taqlid.

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In this role, Imam Khomeini issued a number of decrees which were looked upon with suspicion by more conservative clerics.

Many of the religious scholars in both Sunni and Shi‘ite legal schools have ruled that music and chess are forbidden activities. Imam Khomeini ruled that some forms of music are permissible and that playing chess is not contrary to Islamic law. As a result, interest in traditional Iranian music has thrived since the Revolution.

Imam Khomeini has also encouraged women to play an expanded role in society, to the chagrin of more conservative interpreters of Islamic law.

The revolutionary Islamic movement led by Imam Khomeini may even be viewed as the exoteric dimension of the impetus to reveal Islamic mysticism to the public. The Islamic revolution was a means to bring Islam into public life, from which it was being marginalized during the reign of the Shah. The process of making Islam central to public life was also resisted by conservative religious groups, who saw in this movement a departure from tradition.

Imam Khomeini argued that the guardian jurist of Islamic law had the authority to modify the traditional understanding of the law in order to protect the Islamic order. Conservatives would argue that any break from tradition could only bring deviation from Islamic order.

The kind of judgment required by Imam Khomeini’s vision of Islamic government is one which goes beyond what is provided for in traditional discussions of Islamic jurisprudence. It is a kind of wisdom, however, which can be expected of the ‘perfect man’, the insan kamil, the goal of personal development in the mystic tradition.

An example of the way in which his political awareness demanded a tolerance not found among more conservative clerics may be found in his attitudes toward Sunni Islam. In traditional Shi‘ite circles it would not be considered permissible for a Shi‘ite to stand behind a Sunni prayer leader. Imam Khomeini ruled that such prayer was valid, and even himself publicly participated in ritual prayer behind a Sunni cleric.

Thus, the flexibility and tolerance which characterized Imam Khomeini’s thought do not stem from the libertarian element in Islamic thought, but from a commitment to a movement from the esoteric to exoteric dimensions of Islamic life, a movement which demanded the implementation of Islamic law as well as the propagation of mystical ideas.

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