My friend was wrong

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 to excerpts

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 scratch.”

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 . 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 convinced.”

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 . He presented his judgment in a book entitled, Hekmat va Hokumat, published in London in 1995.

Excerpts from
“Memoirs of Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi, Theologian and Professor of Islamic Philosophy”

* Reza Shah and Republicanism

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