History 118: Ayatollah Khomenei on the eve of the Iranian Revolution (1978-1979)

Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei was the exiled voice of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Disdainful of both the capitalist and Marxist west, he merged radical Shi’a pietism with an anti-Imperialist message that appealed to a wide range of Iranian discontents. Here are excerpts from two of his 1978 speeches from Paris.

1. The imperialists’ study into the customs, mentality and resources of the East

“From the time of Riza Shah – may God punish him severely – until the present day, Iran has suffered under a government which has handed over the whole of the country’s dignity and respect to the oil-devourers on a silver platter. Look at the state of our economy, you will see that in the name of “land reforms” – an idea of the Americans – our agrarian economy has been totally disrupted. Such disasters these land reforms brought upon us . Our agriculture was completely destroyed. Our country once had a thriving agrarian economy, the produce of its Azerbayjan province or its Khurasan province alone could meet the needs of the whole nation, but now agricultural production is only sufficient to meet domestic demand for thirty-three days of the year! So what does the regime do to satisfy demand for the rest of the year? It imports from abroad. The Shah and his regime have turned Iran into a consumer market for American goods! The Americans produce a surplus of goods which they either burn or throw into the sea. Now however, they give it to us and in return take money or oil for it!

The destruction of our agriculture was one aspect of their reforms that resulted in our country being turned into a consumer market for American surplus goods. Another damaging effect of the land reforms was that it led to mass migration of the villagers into the towns. When these villagers – whom initially he had said had been taken from their peasant status and were now on a par with the landowners – lost their land, they swarmed into the towns and cities, into Tehran in particular. They settled in areas around Tehran where they now live with their families in hovels, in tents or mud houses. They live at subsistence level and suffer many hardships. They have neither electricity nor water, and there is no asphalt on the roads. They live in pits, in large holes in the ground, and in order to obtain a jugful of water for their children, the poor women, even in the middle of a biting winter, have to take their jugs and climb up scores of steps, perhaps a hundred, out of this pit until they reach a water tap, and then climb back down again. This is how these big farmers that they claim to have created now live and this is the state of their “great civilisation!”

Our agriculture is now totally paralysed; we no longer have any agriculture. Where will it all end? They give our oil to America and what do they get in return? I have spoken about this before, but I feel I must repeat myself every day so that someone who is not aware of the situation may hear my words. They give our oil to America and they get weapons in return. What kind of weapons? Weapons that Iran is unable to use, our army doesn’t know how to use them, so why does the government get these weapons for us? It does this in order to build bases for the Americans in the country. Do not suppose that the Americans pay for the oil they take from us with money. They devour our oil and in return they give us arms, arms which have no equal, not even in France. But do they give them to us for Iran to use? No, they create bases for themselves with them. They not only take the oil, they take that which they give in exchange for it as well!”

2. The comprehensive and edifying dimensions of the Islamic school of thought

“Islam is a school of thought which has come for the edification of mankind; and we are both to examine the different dimensions of this mankind, whose true nature, some argue, remains unknown, and are also to examine his needs. We must ask whether Islam, which has come for man’s edification, only means to develop the animal nature in him, or whether it means to develop his spiritual nature; or yet again, whether its intention is to develop human beings as a whole. Human beings are unlike other creatures. Other creatures, such as animals for example, which are considered to exist on a superior plane to that of plants and minerals, merely exist on a physical plane, whilst also possessing a minute sense, a little but also perverse understanding of the metaphysical, other than this they don’t have a metaphysical state of being. Mankind however, can pass through several phases of being, he can advance from his initial physical state of being until he finally reaches a spiritual state of being. Thus, man can transcend the physical to the metaphysical, and can then transcend the metaphysical to the divine until he then reaches the stage where he is actually able to comprehend this superior state of being.

Man is a multifaceted being; he is not a creature of but one or two dimensions. Some other creatures are often uni-dimensional, some bi-dimensional, and yet others possess several dimensions; but none of these other creatures possesses all of the different dimensions collectively. It is only man who, amongst all other creatures, is a multi-dimensional being; a being who has needs for each of the dimensions he possesses. In order for him to develop in every dimension he has certain needs which have to be satisfied. With the exception of Islam, all of the other schools of thought are materialist schools – schools which have perceived man as an animal, as a creature which simply eats and sleeps, but which does so in a more desirable manner. This is true for all schools. Although it is true that animals share the same need as we humans to eat and sleep, these schools of thought have perceived man to be an animal like all other animals whose needs and development revolve around those corporeal criteria, those corporeal matters, which they have called “matters of reality.” They mistakenly consider reality to be composed of this physical world only; whereas there are in fact other worlds that they have not perceived, worlds which are indeed more tangible – that is, worlds which are endowed with a more tangible reality than the physical world.

The physical world has been placed last in the scheme of creation; it has been given the least recognition. Therefore, this world in which we now exist, this physical world, is the lowermost world. The lowest of all the worlds in the universe is the physical world. It is not a case of there just being man and this physical world, and of there being no other stages of existence to which man can ascend. There are several stages to mankind’s existence. He who has simply concerned himself with the metaphysical aspect of mankind’s existence and who has neglected to consider these other lower stages of his being has erred; and so too, he who has concentrated solely on this physical world, recognising only the physical stage and ignoring the metaphysical, has also erred.

Islam has a set scheme; it has a programme which can be followed by this comprehensive, multifaceted human being – this being who is capable of going beyond the physical stage of existence to reach the metaphysical, and then of transcending the metaphysical to reach the divine. Islam wants man to develop into a complete being, meaning it wants to allow him to grow in accordance with his true nature. If man wants to make the most of this physical world, then Islam teaches him how to do so; if he wants to make the most of his stay in purgatory, then Islam teaches him how to do so; if he wants to make the most of a spiritual existence, then Islam teaches him how to do so; if he wants to make the most of the powers of reason, then Islam teaches him how to do so; if he wants to make the most of religious learning, then Islam teaches him how to do so. All religions have come to develop those properties with which man is endowed; properties which are imperfect and which are presently immature. All religions have come to enable this unripe fruit to ripen; to allow this undeveloped fruit to fully develop.

Those of you who have now come to reside in the West – the West which is obsessed with the material aspects of the world, and where no attention is paid to the metaphysical – must not be deluded by these Western schools of thought and thus mistakenly believe that man is nothing more than a creature who eats, sleeps and so on, and that no other considerations are involved. This is a mistaken belief which has developed because of those who have misunderstood Islam by concentrating wholly on these material issues and by retracing all of the verses and teachings in Islam to these same issues – verses and teachings which have come to allow man to grow. Yes, these people are in error; and so too were those before them who retraced every Islamic verse and teaching to metaphysical issues.

Each of man’s dimensions must be developed in turn. Man must develop on a physical level as much as he possibly can. He must make the most of this physical world, but within reasonable limits, limits which must obviously be determined by taking factors of temperance and virtue into consideration. Then once he has developed in this physical stage of his existence, he must go on to develop in the next, higher stage, and then again in the next. All of man’s different dimensions must develop without exception in order for him to become a true human being.

To become a true human being is a difficult task, but nevertheless it is a task which man needs to undertake. The point I wish to make in saying these things is that you are not to mistakenly believe that Islam has come to train an animal; that it has come to prescribe the sleeping and eating habits of an animal. This is but one of its intentions. Yes, it gives such prescriptions, but this is merely one of its dimensions and the least important one at that. Islam also has other dimensions which relate to the training of mankind. It wants to train man to become a complete, mature being; a being which encompasses all of the different human dimensions in their entirety. And it has instructions which relate to these dimensions. Islam contains instructions concerning Islamic government; it contains instructions on its organisation; it contains instructions on how to kill its enemies during battle; it contains instructions on how to motivate a society; it contains instructions on how to reach the metaphysical stage of existence; it contains all of these different kinds of instructions. Islam is not merely uni-dimensional whereby one could claim to have understood it in its entirety were one to have a knowledge of its history for example, of its social history, or of its rules concerning the material aspects of life and so on. No, this is not the case. The issues with which Islam deals are loftier than these meanings which are ascribed to them; and Islam’s dimensions are manifold.

Whoever wishes to become acquainted with Islam must make an accurate study of the Qur’an, for this is the key source of reference. He must take note of all the dimensions found therein. He must not make the mistake of accepting only those verses which relate to the physical world, and with issues concerning government, rejecting the verses which relate to resurrection. He who makes this mistake is unaware of the meaning of resurrection, or of what will happen when the Day of Resurrection arrives. He thinks that there is no truth in it; that it is but a fantasy. But he is gravely mistaken. It is indeed true, and its truth is more real than the reality of this physical world; but we have not yet reached the level of understanding required for us to grasp this fact.

Be that as it may, I wanted to advise those studying in Europe, may God grant them all success, against categorising Islam and thereby believing it to be a school of thought like that of Communism; believing the issues it covers to resemble those found in the Marxist doctrine; believing it to be a school of thought like other schools of thought; for this is not the case at all. Those who are unacquainted with Islam however, mistakenly believe it to be some such school.”

These are fair use excerpts from IRIB World Service.

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