Once known as an open-minded and forward-thinking cleric, Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used to come under criticism from conservative elements for going against the accepted clerical norms. Since becoming Supreme Leader – the country’s senior political and religious authority – in 1989, however, he has adopted a fundamentalist and conservative approach.
Looking back on the first few years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, people remember Khamenei from his Friday prayer sermons in Tehran as a tall and slender cleric with a thick beard and black turban – indicating his descent from the Prophet Mohammed – who had a loud voice and was well versed in political and mainstream trends. Even in his traditional clerical garb, Khamenei managed to look smart and took care of his appearance.
He raised eyebrows by smoking a pipe while commentating on the Koran, seen by some as infringing the dignity of his office, and he appeared to enjoy breaching such norms.
The chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Commander Hossein Firouzabadi, who met Khamenei before the revolution, said, “We loved the scent … he would sit in the mosque, fill his pipe, light it and start smoking. Everyone usually says clergy have a sanctity that must be observed, [but he didn’t care].”
Of all the clerics who rose to power following the revolution, Khamenei stood out as a rebel. Despite his history of resistance against the Shah’s regime – he was arrested seven times during the 1960s and 70s – his attitude of going against the accepted clerical norms and associating with intellectuals meant he was not taken seriously.
He acquired a love for poetry and literature at an early age under the influence of his mother, an educated woman who would recite the works of Hafiz, the well known Persian lyric poet, to her son.
This led the young Khamenei to the Ferdowsi Literary Association in Mashhad, where he became friends with leading Iranian poets and writers like Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, Amiri Firouzkouhi, Mehrdad Avesta, Mohammad-Reza Shafii-Kadkani and Mohammad Mokhtari.
Khamenei himself has said that he asked Mehrdad Avesta and Mehdi Akhavan-Sales to compose poems about the revolution. Avesta complied but Akhavan-Sales refused, telling the ayatollah, “We have always been against power, not for it.”
Three years after the revolution, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales was forced to retire from government service without a pension and live modestly until his death in 1990. Khamenei never criticised him, saying, “Unlike his contemporaries Akhavan had the quality to never fight the revolution.”
However, Mohammad Mokhtari, another poet and writer who befriended the ayatollah in the Mashhad Ferdowsi Association, suffered a different fate. He was kidnapped and killed by intelligence agents during the serial murder of intellectuals in 1998. The case was never solved and its perpetrators were never brought to justice but to his supporters it was clear that the alleged agents responsible for the crime were close to Khamenei. Officially, the murder was committed by rogue elements within the intelligence ministry.
When Khamenei went to the Qom seminary to further his education, he continued to hold poetry sessions and even composed his own poems under the pen name Amin. This was unheard of in the overly conservative seminary. He even translated the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran’s A Tear and a Smile into Persian while in Qom but never published it.
The stories his mother had told him from the Koran also sparked Khamenei’s interest in novels. The Razavi library in Mashhad, which housed only religious books, could not quench his thirst for reading material and he would pay to borrow novels from the local bookstore every night despite having little money.
He called Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables “the best novel of all time”. His favourite books also included Dante’s Divine Comedy, War and Peace by Tolstoy, Romaine Rolland’s The Enchanted Soul and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flow the Don.
Classic works of Persian literature such as One Thousand and One Nights – now banned in the Islamic republic – were among the books he read in his youth.
Khamenei has also said that he enjoyed the work of French existentialist writer Jean Paul Sartre, naming Hurricane Over Sugar as an example. He also liked the books of leftist French writer Frantz Fanon, especially his critiques of French colonialism.
Will Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy was another one of Khamenei’s favourites. He said about it, “This book is like poetry and he [Durant] turns a philosophy book into a sweet and delicious dish for the reader.”
Different reports suggest that Khamenei has maintained his book-reading habits. He has even read Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which recounts the plight of the people of Afghanistan under Taleban rule, and described the novel as a great read.
As well as his encounters at the Ferdowsi association, Khamenei also associated with intellectuals while in prison before the revolution.
From his first detention for ten days when he was aged 24, Khamenei was arrested for supporting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over speeches he gave in mosques and his Koran interpretation sessions, which he used to turn people against the Shah. Once he spent time in solitary confinement which he found difficult.
In 1974, he became cellmates with leftist journalist Houshang Asadi and their friendship lasted until the revolution. In his memoirs, Asadi talks about his meetings with Khamenei and another young communist named Rahman Hatefi. Hatefi became the editor-in-chief of the popular Kayhan newspaper and played an important role in supporting the revolution. He was arrested later under the Islamic regime and died in prison in suspicious circumstances.
Not many clerics would associate with communists, the majority regarding them to be najes (unclean) for denouncing God. Houshang Asadi wrote in his memoir that Khamenei fed his sick communist cellmate.
While poetry had some fans among the clergy, they never approved of reading novels. Perhaps it was because of his hobbies and mannerisms that some of the clerics in Mashhad had nicknamed Khamenei “Wahhabi” – a reference to the fundamentalist sect within Sunni Islam that is considered the toughest enemy of Shia believers. It implied Khamenei was not even considered to be a Shia.
While studying at his seminary, Khamenei also pursued a conventional education at night school and obtained his high school diploma. In this, too, he was different from the other seminarians who rarely underwent a conventional education.
Khamenei also had a passion for music. He was a friend of renowned sitar player Ahmad Ebadi and some of his old neighbours in Mashhad claim he had a good voice. A Tehran University professor says when Khamenei, then Iran’s president, visited the faculty of law in 1988, a student asked him about the status of music. “Music is not haram (religiously forbidden) by its nature unless it is accompanied by alcohol,” he said.
When students asked what if a person could not tell whether the music they were listening to was halal (religiously permissible) or haram, Khamenei replied, “When in doubt whether it is halal or haram, listen to it.”
After the 1979 revolution, the performance of music, even traditional Persian music, was forbidden until 1988. In that year, then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree which led to certain kinds of music becoming permissible. Khamenei’s decrees in recent years have declared music halal except for lyrical music, which is regarded as lewd.
Here also his view has changed; in a meeting with former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and his cabinet, Khamenei harshly criticised the government’s policy of promoting music in universities and declared it to be in conflict with Islam.
Khamenei was also one of the few clerics who paid attention to mainstream trends in India and the Arab world before the revolution. He published a book on the role of Muslims in India’s independence and has carried out unpublished research into Persian literature in India. He has translated into Persian two books by Egyptian Muslim scholar Seyyid Qutb and one book by Sheikh Razi Al-e Yasin on Imam Hassan’s peace.
Hassan was the second Shia imam and the older brother of Hussein – both were grandsons of the Prophet Mohammed. Hussein, the most popular imam among Iranian Shia, was killed for revolting against and fighting the caliph of the time, and Hassan is the imam who made peace with the caliph and did not seek to take the reins of power.
At the time of the 1979 revolution, many Iranians saw themselves as followers of Hussein revolting against tyrannical rule of the time, in that case the shah. However, Khamenei has said that translating “Imam Hassan’s peace” was his dream.
In 1984, during the Iran-Contra affair, Khamenei, as Iran’s president, took part in negotiations with an American delegation along with the then Majlis (parliament) speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani without the knowledge of Khomeini. President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy, Robert McFarlane, came to Iran to negotiate the release of American hostages in Lebanon in exchange for arms.
An enraged Khomeini ordered the authorities to tell the public about the negotiations. Rafsanjani became Khamenei’s scapegoat and shouldered the responsibility for explaining the matter to Iranians at Friday prayers.
CHALLENGE TO CLERICAL RULE
Despite considering himself a disciple of Khomeini, Khamenei challenged the Absolute Rule of the Just Jurisprudent (Velayat-e Motlagheh-ye Faghih), the religious basis for Iranian lawmaking that effectively makes the Supreme Leader infallible, in a Friday sermon in 1987.
But Khamenei retreated and told Khomeini in a letter that he accepts his decrees.
However, after the death of Khomeini, Khamenei advocated that he be replaced by a leadership council, which signalled his concern about the absolutism of power.
The idea has recently been decried by Mesbah Yazdi, Khamenei’s biggest supporter and his closest friend among the ayatollahs, who says that the concept of a leadership council is a satanic one born out of corrupt western ideologies.
Once he had replaced Khomeini, Khamenei’s views hardened and he came to advocate the absolute Rule of the Just Jurisprudent, saying it took precedence over the will of the people.
That was very different from his view in 1982, when he declared, “It is the people that rank highest in the country… they elect the Supreme Leader … everything ultimately goes back the choice the people make.”
The two men also took a different line over Khomeini’s fatwa (decree) in 1988 that writer Salman Rushdie was apostate and should die for insulting the Prophet Mohammed in his book The Satanic Verses.
Three days after the fatwa, Khamenei declared in a sermon, “If Rushdie repents and … apologises to the Muslims of the world… people might forgive him.”
A day later, Khomeini’s office issued a statement that said, “Even if Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of his time it is still the duty of all Muslims to use their lives, wealth and efforts to dispatch him to hell.”
After Khomeini died in June 1989, and Khamenei succeeded him as Supreme Leader, Khamenei announced that his predecessor’s decrees still stood. However, some years later the Iranian government quietly told the British government that Iran would not be sending anyone to kill Rushdie. The majority of analysts believe that such a statement could not have been made without Khamenei’s approval.
It was not the first time that Khamenei had tried to prevent a death. In 1988, he went to the then deputy Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, and informed him that certain individuals wanted permission from Khomeini to execute 500 communist prisoners, asking Montazeri to speak with Khomeini and prevent the massacre.
In the first years of his reign as Supreme Leader, the same Khamenei who once spoke of the possibility of pardoning Rushdie, declared Saeedi Sirjani, a Tehran University literature professor, an apostate and unbeliever. Sirjani was arrested shortly after writing a letter criticising Khamenei and was killed in 1993. His death was initially announced as cardiac arrest but was later attributed to intelligence ministry agents.
According to credible sources, during student protests in Tehran in 1999, Khatami, the then president, sat in Khamenei’s office for an entire day in order to have the death sentences handed to students annulled. Khamenei insisted on having a few students executed so that others would learn a lesson.
Khamenei, a man who once wanted a world in which bards could compose their poems, writers and intellectuals would be given the opportunity to apologise and make up for their mistakes, communists would not be executed and the youth could listen to the music they wanted, has gradually transformed.
It is hard to tell, however, to what extent this transformation has roots in changes in his beliefs or to what extent it has been shaped by his position as the most powerful man in Iran. Khamenei recently said he wished he could still walk freely into the series of bookshops that stand in front of the Tehran University – a place which is known as one of the most intellectual corners of Iran.
He seems to miss the happy days of his youth, which suggests he is not a happy man.
First published by Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR).
Ali Reza Eshraghi is IWPR’s Iran editor. Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist based in Tehran.