My friend was wrong
Memoirs of a senior ayatollah
February 25, 2002
From the preface to "Memoirs of Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi,
Theologian and Professor of Islamic Philosophy" (Ibex
Publishers, 2001, ) edited by Habib Ladjevardi of
the Iranian Oral History project at Harvard University. Go
Dr. Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi grew up in a pious family that was
at the pinnacle of the religious hierarchy in Iran, enabling him to become intimately
acquainted with Iran's leading clergy. As an adult, he was a noted theologian, philosopher
and teacher. Among Iran's scholars, Hairi-Yazdi was one of the few who combined a
rigorous study of Islam and Western philosophy. He was also a participant in many
historical events, making his memoirs an important primary source for the study of
contemporary Iranian history.
Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi was born in 1923 in the city of Qom, Iran's major religious center.
His father, Ayatollah Abdolkarim Hairi-Yazdi, was the leading marja' al-taqlid of
the Shiites from 1922 to 1937. His father was also the founder of the Qom Seminary,
where nearly all of Iran's leading clergy studied-many as his students. Given this
background, Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi came to know and work closely with some of Iran's most
powerful ayatollahs: Seyyed Hossein Boroujerdi, Seyyed Mohammad Behbahani, Seyyed
Abolghassem Kashani, Seyyed Mohammad-Kazem Shariatmadari and Rouhollah Khomeini.
Hairi-Yazdi completed his primary and secondary education in his home town under
the guidance of his father. Subsequently, he attended Qom Seminary and studied under
Ayatollah Boroujerdi, attaining the title of mujtahid.
In 1951, he moved to Tehran as representative of Ayatollah Boroujerdi on the High
Council of Education, Iran's highest policy making body on education. At the same
time, he began teaching at the Sepahsalar Seminary, Tehran's premier school for the
clergy. Four years later, he was appointed associate professor at Tehran University
Faculty of Divinity. A few years later he was promoted to full professor.
In 1959, Hairi-Yazdi journeyed to Washington, D.C. as representative of Ayatollah
Boroujerdi. While there, he helped establish the Association of Islamic Students
in the United States and Canada, whose leaders later played important roles in the
establishment of the Islamic Republic. This period coincided with his growing interest
in Western philosophy. In his view, one could not become a true Islamic scholar without
also having a broad knowledge of Western philosophy. A true scholar had to understand
the relationship between the two world views and their influence on each other. In
his words, "I said to myself, if we want to become familiar with the fundamentals
of Western thought, we must temporarily put aside our own methodology and start from
To pursue his goal, he registered in the undergraduate program at Georgetown University
in Washington, D.C., where he received his BA in Western philosophy. After Georgetown,
Hairi-Yazdi studied at the University of Michigan and subsequently earned a masters
and a doctorate in analytic philosophy from the University of Toronto. During
his stay in the West, Hairi-Yazdi taught at a number of academic institutions including
Oxford, McGill, Toronto, Harvard, Yale, Michigan and Georgetown University's Kennedy
Institute of Ethics.
In February 1979, the Islamic Revolution overthrew the monarchy and Ayatollah
Khomeini became the supreme leader. The Hairi-Yazdi and Khomeini families had a long
standing relationship. Ayatollah Khomeini had studied under Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi's father,
while Hairi-Yazdi had been a student of Ayatollah Khomeini. Also, his niece was married
to Ayatollah Khomeini's eldest son, Mostafa. More than these family ties, Ayatollah
Khomeini and Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi had been intimate friends for nearly twenty years.
So it was not surprising that when the Iranian embassy in Washington needed an acting
ambassador immediately after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called on Hairi-Yazdi
to take charge. Within a few weeks, however, Hairi-Yazdi found the experience frustrating
and the factionalism at the embassy directed from Tehran intolerable. When he learned
that government funds in New York had been withdrawn by a man of uncertain repute,
he wrote Ayatollah Khomeini outlining the misdeed. As he did not receive a response
to his letter, he withdrew from embassy affairs.
In the summer of 1980, during his break from teaching, he returned to Iran and met
with the Ayatollah. At the end of the summer, he was prevented from leaving Iran.
As Hairi-Yazdi states, "the Leader of the Revolution prevented me from leaving
Iran. He had issued the order -- I don't know for what reason -- he was [perhaps]
afraid of me or feared that when I returned to America, I might undermine his position.
At any rate ... [I] was in fact [under] house arrest."
By 1983, the restriction on his movements lapsed for he was able to travel to England
to teach at the University of Oxford. But his friendship with Ayatollah Khomeini
had been permanently changed and the two did not meet again.
The memoirs of Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi provide a window into the world of Iran's clerical
elite and their center Qom. Because of his close relationship with Ayatollah Boroujerdi,
he is able to provide us with authoritative information regarding the personal characteristics
of the ayatollah, as well as his administrative organization, his relationship with
the central government and the differences between his political perspective and
that of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Mr. Hairi-Yazdi has many recollections regarding Ayatollah Khomeini, including a
between the ayatollah and the Shah in mid 1950s. As a representative of Ayatollah
Boroujerdi, Ayatollah Khomeini asked the Shah to restrict the Bahais as was done
by his father, Reza Shah. Hairi-Yazdi quoting Ayatollah Khomeini says, "The
Shah sighed and replied, 'Mr. Khomeini, do not compare [my father's era] with the
present. In those days, all cabinet ministers and political figures obeyed my father.
They did not dare do otherwise. Now, even the minister of court does not listen to
me. How can I do what you ask?' I realized that he was telling the truth and was
In another part of his memoirs, Hairi-Yazdi contends that the 1979 Revolution was
not inevitable. He blames the Imperial Court for breaking the long standing tie between
the court and the clergy by slighting Ayatollah Khomeini in 1961. He also believes
that "senseless acts" by the former regime such as changing the official
calendar from Islamic to Imperial contributed to the fall of the monarchy.
After the Revolution, Hairi-Yazdi became a controversial figure among the proponents
of rule by the clergy, primarily for his
opinion that velayat-e faqih had no basis in Shiite law. He presented
his judgment in a book entitled, Hekmat va Hokumat, published in London in
"Memoirs of Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi, Theologian and Professor
of Islamic Philosophy"
meeting on Bahais
Shah and Republicanism
of Velayat-e faghigh
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