Alastair Crooke

Imam Khomeini was a revolutionary leader and a noble philosopher: analyst

Imam Khomeini was an Islamic cleric, a philosopher and a poet of high standing: pursuing what is often a private and personal voyage of inner intellectualism. He somehow, incredibly, in the words of Jaques Berques, “took in hand his people” ; gave them healing, authenticity and a solution to their crisis. He gathered up a tradition and forged a new equilibrium: one which would offer renewal through a grand ‘sewing together’ of dispersed parts, making the present ‘an organic whole’, not some mere syncretic assembly of parts. The tradition, on which he drew, was of Mulla Sadra, Ibn Arabi, Mir Damad’s.

In an interview with Author and Director of Conflicts Forum Alastair Crooke answers questions: on the Islamic Revolution, JCPOA and the neo-cons vs neo-liberals in Middle Eastern politics. The following is a full text of the interview:

We celebrated the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran which eradicated the dominion the U.S. held over Iran and paved the ground for Iran to rank 1st in the world in terms of scientific growth in 2011. What do you think the Revolution’s greatest achievement for the world is?


I have written the following (from an, as yet, unpublished piece) about what I see as the significance of the Islamic Revolution and of the Imam’s intellectual contribution to the world:

“He was an Islamic cleric, a philosopher, and a poet of high standing, pursuing what is often a private and personal inner intellectual voyage, but who, somehow, improbably, in Jaques Berques words, “took in hand his people”, gave them healing, authenticity and a solution to their crisis.   He both embodied the missing dimension of interiority, and reconnected this to the outer world in a wholeing synthesis of inner and outer: even the symbolic doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih seemed to hint at this.  Wali in Arabic does have the connotation of guardianship, but it also has a depth of other meaning.  It means too, a sage; someone possessed of inner knowledge.  It intimates the possibility of a linkage between inner knowledge and transmitted knowledge: of a synthesis of the two poles of human knowing.

He gathered up a tradition, and forged a new equilibrium – one which would offer renewal through a grand ‘sewing together’ of dispersed parts: making the present ‘an organic whole’, and not some mere syncretic assembly of parts.  And that tradition, on which he drew, was Mulla Sadra,  Ibn Arabi, Mir Damad  and there in the background to these authors, as Christian Bonaud perceives, one finds – beyond the Islamic Masters, the ancients: the Neo-Platonists and, notably, Plotinus.

It was Mulla Sadra however who wove the template for the new Islamic nation.   The fourth stage of the Asfar indicated that one who had succeeded in integrating inner and outer, who had ‘emptied’ the snares of ego and other arbitrary restraints, to reach a higher reason, must then reverse his tracks, and return to multiplicity, in order to finally rise above all polar opposites.  Imam Khomeini saw that a political path, a path fixed within the extent of being, was something integral to this journey, rather than be disdained, and from which those who had the intellectual capacity, should not hold aloof.  This was the intent of Sadra’s fourth stage, he believed.  Similarly, this insight also underlay his notion of rulership.

But how to realize the Islamic nation?  Here, transformation of society was key, and the symbol of ijtihad yielded multiple Sadrist meanings:  The dynamic, ever changing, quality of nature, in itself, impelled the need for ijtihad; but the very awareness of being, of tawhid (monotheism) is in itself transformatory. 

The metamorphosis of consciousness comes not from transmitted knowledge, but from actualizing the understanding of tawhid as a value, as well as a metaphysical real.  Such a realization takes one out of linear, historical time.  Awareness is not contingent on the momentary circumstance of a community: Victory or defeat now is not of import, but what matters is the progress of transformation – the change to the mode of being.  The nation had to be shaped around the principle of tawhid which alone could ‘shock’ it into a different mode of consciousness, and empower it.

The idea of tawhid as a transformatory principle, of ijtihad as symbol of that transformation, of a wholeing synthesis of inner and outer, of bringing past and future into the present through the symbols of revelation and the preparation for al-Mahdi, can be understood as a preparing for justice.

But there was something else which he shared with Sadra: both were recipients of the antipathy of the orthodox for their pursuit of interiority and Irfan.  The Imam himself relates how one day when he was speaking with fellow clerics, his eleven year old son asked for a glass of water, but when the boy had finished drinking, none of the assembled clerics would touch the glass from which the son of a teacher of Irfan (mysticism), a teacher of philosophy, had drunk his water.

But, as we have seen, any such attempt to steer a people by the compass of a meaning-giving ‘interiority’ inevitably constitutes a hugely fragile vessel, and its particular ‘moment’ often has proved ephemeral, though its consequences resound through the centuries – e.g. an Empedocles or an al-Hallaj.  The rhizome, the matted, invisible, underground knotting of root, from time to time, thrusts up through the earth, a solitary flower; it blossoms in the light, but fades away, with the passing of summer.  

It is too early to tell; but nonetheless – after half millennia - the ‘other’ tradition, always present but so long obscured, has broken surface again – and at a singular moment of hunger and neediness in our world. 


What is the main point you want to make in your book “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution”? What is Imam Khomeini’s role in forming the resistance in the Islamic world?


The main argument is that the crisis in Islam, which was to provoke both resistance and revolution, originated with the project of the European powers to intervene in the Middle East in the name of ‘modernization’.  This project, still afoot in the contemporary era, has its roots stretching far back, into the eighteenth century. 

It was the impact of the drive to construct the powerful, ethnically unitary, centralized nation-states in the western Ottoman provinces that originally precipitated a rolling disaster:  It was a tragedy that created millions of victims – just as a similar social upheaval had so done, a century earlier, in Europe and the US.  Then, in the West itself, it had brought European societies to the brink of revolution – and beyond.  It was to do no less in the Islamic world.

Five million European Muslims were ‘cleansed’ from their homes between 1821 and 1922 - as the West leveraged-up Christian-majority nation-states in the former Ottoman western provinces. And in the Ottoman heart, the anti-religious Young Turks, inspired by this European redemptive vision, determined on emulating Europe’s secular, liberal-market modernization. It came at terrible cost: competing identities and affiliations were perceived by Europeans to dilute the homogeneity necessary to empower a strong top-down, central government from emerging.  In the attempt to create an ethnically unitary and secular Turkey one million Armenians died, 250,000 Assyrians perished, and one quarter of a million Greek Orthodox Anatolians were expelled. Kurdish identity was suppressed, and finally Islam was demonized and suppressed by Ataturk.  Islamic institutions were closed; and the 1400-year-old Caliphate was abolished.

It was precisely the enforced secularization of Turkey – with its contingent metaphysics of modernity, which more than any other aspect, threatened the very existence of Islam.  It was in response to this threat, taken up and replicated in Persia and Egypt, that resistance sprung.

The Imam’s role, as described above, was to gather up the elements of a nearly lost tradition, to lift up his people; to offer them an explanation for their pain and tribulations; to show them a vision of the future, to draw out for them another ‘way of being’ – beyond that of economic determinism, and to renew the metaphysics of a meaning- giving world, in the face of the meaning-less cosmos of the West.

Read the full text of the interview here.