This day, 33 years ago, millions of people streamed into the streets of Tehran to bid a tearful adieu to the charismatic leader of the Islamic Revolution, the man who forever changed the course of history.
The emotionally-charged mourners almost took the casket from the guards as the cavalcade made its way to the sprawling Behesht e Zahra cemetery in south Tehran.
It was a spectacle with virtually no parallel in modern history. The world watched in awe as people gathered like moths around the flame to bid farewell to their leader with heavy hearts and moist eyes.
Imam Khomeini’s funeral features in the Guinness world records, which puts the number of participants at 10.2 million, roughly one-sixth of the country’s population at the time. No one has come closer to it.
What made Ayatollah Rohullah Mosavi Khomeini, popularly known as ‘Imam Khomeini’, so enigmatic? What brought people into the streets in such large numbers when he issued protest calls from exile, when he returned home on February 1, 1979, or when he breathed his last on June 3, 1989?
A year after his death, New York Times journalist Philip Shenon visited the tomb of Imam Khomeini and made an intriguing observation for his Western readers.
“Even from the grave, Ayatollah Khomeini — so reviled and feared in the west, still so beloved by millions of the faithful here — is continuing to command influence in the nation that he led as its supreme spiritual leader for nearly 10 years," he wrote.
Thirty-two years down the line, the illustrious life and legacy of Imam Khomeini continue to be a beacon of inspiration for the campaigners of truth, justice, and freedom across the world, including in the West.
Born on May 17, 1900, into a scholarly family, Imam pursued religious studies for years and rose to become the top-most authority in the Shiite jurisprudence.
Unlike his contemporaries who consciously separated religion from politics, Imam Khomeini saw the two domains intertwined, so much so that he came up with the theory of Vilayah e Faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist).
He demonstrated the theory, the nitty-gritty of which is mentioned in great detail in his book ‘Hukumat e Islami’, through action after laying the foundation of a sovereign republic in place of a puppet dictatorship.
Imam was in a different league. He was spiritually at a higher station while his statesmanship and political acumen were incomparable. From a simple dwelling in a north Tehran village tucked away in the mountains, he shook the entire world.
On the face of it, it was a lop-sided fight between a simple cleric and a powerful emperor. Shah had everything at his disposal, except of course people's support and goodwill. That’s where the cleric prevailed.
Shah enjoyed the patronage of Western powers, while the Imam solely banked on his people. He was a leader of the masses who valiantly led from the front. That's what gave jitters to the rubber-stamp monarch who derived his power and authority from outside.
Imam Khomeini’s socio-political thoughts were centered on the welfare of people, especially the weak and underprivileged, and on the firm refusal of Western hegemony. He rejected the Pahlavi rule for being anti-Iran and pro-West. The monarch had his coffers full while people were starving.
The founder of the Islamic Republic sought to bring people back into the mainstream, to return power and privilege to them, and transform the Iranian society from being subservient to the Western powers to being a sovereign, independent, and proud nation.
In the 1960s, when resistance against the West-backed despot in Iran gained momentum, Imam was at the forefront. When Shah embarked on a hideous mission to ‘westernize’ the country, Imam became a hurdle in his way. The playboy monarch was clearly outsmarted.
Imam’s power-packed speeches at the Fayziyeh School in Qom gave a sense of hope and purpose to those who were resisting the imported regime. He presented his followers with a worldview they could relate to, which allowed him to bring together various political and religious currents in the country.
In a historic address in 1963, he exhorted people to “stand firm against the illegal measures of the regime”, adding that “no force, however great, can silence us.” That's how he infused courage and confidence in people, especially the younger generation.
When the Imam was arrested, oceans of people poured into the streets, chanting “Either death or Khomeini”. They used their blood to write “Death to the Shah”. This astounding popularity of the Imam and animosity for the monarch sparked concerns in the royal palace.
Imam was finally forced to leave the country. He spent over 14 years in exile, from Turkey to Iraq to France, but he didn't let the distance distract him from his mission. His protest calls from overseas would fill the streets across the country.
Shah relied heavily on his secret police force SAVAK to crush the popular resistance against his unpopular rule. All close aides of the Imam were imprisoned in Tehran, while he was living in exile, but the resistance continued until the edifice of the regime crumbled.
Imam was a flame that attracted moths. One of his closest associates, Martyr Murtaza Mutahhiri, in one of his books refers to him as “the greatest and dearest of all heroes and pride of the Iranian nation”.
Even Western scholars and writers couldn’t hide their admiration for him. Richard Falk in an article in 1979 wrote that the religious core of Imam Khomeini’s movement was “a call for social justice, fairness in the distribution of wealth, a productive economy organized around national needs and simplicity of life and absence of corruption that minimizes differences between rich and poor, rulers and ruled.”
His protégé and successor, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, on the first anniversary of Imam’s passing in 1990 described him as an “ever-living truth”.
"His name is the flag of this revolution, his path is the path of this revolution, and his goals are the goals of this revolution,” the leader of the Islamic Revolution said, vowing to keep his legacy alive.
Imam Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution paved the way for new world order and marked the beginning of the decline of Western imperialism. His unflinching faith and lofty spiritual values helped him to take on mighty powers in hostile environments, something that won him legions of admirers worldwide.
The ripples of the revolution were felt far and wide, from South Asia to Latin America. Imam Khomeini became a household name. Freedom fighters got someone to emulate, and Iranians swelled with pride.
Imam Khomeini-led revolution was unlike any other in modern history. It was one man's fight against the world's superpowers, who had planted a puppet regime in Tehran.
How he brought people together against the Pahlavi dictatorship and overthrew it will be recorded in the annals of history. It was the defeat of powers that backed the regime.
After Imam passed away, the baton passed to his most trusted lieutenant, who had previously served in key government positions, including president and defense minister. He was well equipped and ideally positioned to carry the torch forward.
Ayatollah Khamenei, born in the northeastern city of Mashhad in 1939, joined the movement against Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's regime in 1962 as a young, devout disciple of Imam Khomeini. According to his admission, his political thoughts were shaped by the Imam and his revolutionary vision of Islam.
Ayatollah Khamenei has over the years followed the same path as shown by his predecessor, and his political stances have also been perfectly in sync with that of his mentor. Although it's not the same world as it was 33 years ago, some things remain the same.
Imam described the United States as the 'Big Satan' that cannot be trusted. The leader of the Islamic Revolution has followed the same line, constantly cautioning officials against trusting Americans, especially in negotiations to salvage the 2015 deal.
Today, taking a leaf out of Iran's resistance manual, many countries are bravely defying the diktats of the US, thus breaking the shackles of slavery. That's the gift of the Islamic Revolution to the free world.
Like Imam, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khamenei has laid deep emphasis on support and solidarity with the oppressed people of the world, be it in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, or Kashmir. Most of these crises have been manufactured, aided, or abetted by the US and its allies, which means the Islamic Republic is their only challenger.
On the domestic front, the Leader has always encouraged advancements in scientific technologies as well as military and nuclear power, which has helped Iran become self-reliant in many key areas.
On nuclear weapons, both the former and incumbent leaders hold the same view — Iran does not seek a bomb. But it does need nuclear program for energy purposes. At the same time, it will defend itself from any aggression, and is fully equipped to do that.
Syed Zafar Mehdi is a Tehran-based journalist, editor and blogger. He has reported extensively from Kashmir, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran for leading publications worldwide.