‘How did Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini become an Imam? Much like the Holy Prophet Abraham. He carried out God’s Will, smashed idols, was willing to sacrifice his own son, rose up against tyrants, and led the mostazafin [oppressed] against their mostakberin [oppressors].’

Iranian Parliamentary Deputy, Kayhan-e Hava’i, 21 June 1989

The slippery term ‘fundamentalist’ has been thrown at Khomeini so often, from so many different directions, that it has stuck.footnote For conservatives, the label evokes xenophobia, militancy and radicalism. For liberals, it means extremism, fanaticism and traditionalism. For radicals, it conjures up the image of theological obscurantism, political atavism, and the rejection of science, history, modernity, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. For Orientalists—who still dominate Middle East studies—it reinforces their underlying presumption that the Muslim world is intrinsically unchanging, irrational, backward-looking, and incapable of freeing itself from its early history. The term has been used so often in the West that Khomeini’s disciples in Iran, finding no Persian or Arabic equivalent, but flattered by its implications, have coined a new word, bonyadgarayan, by translating literally into Persian the English word fundamental-ist. This is ironic considering that the same disciples relish denouncing their opponents as eltegari (eclectic) and gharbzadeh (contaminated with Western diseases).

Even though the word ‘fundamentalist’ has gained wide currency, I would like to argue that the transference of a term invented by Protestants in early twentieth-century America to a political movement in the contemporary Middle East is not only confusing and misleading, but also downright wrong. It is so for a number of reasons.

First, if fundamentalism means the conviction that one’s scriptural text is free of human errors, then all Muslim believers would have to be considered fundamentalists; for, after all, it is an essential article of Islam that the entire Koran is the absolute Word of God.

Second, if the term implies that the believer can grasp the true meaning of the religion by going directly to the essential text, bypassing the clergy (ulama), then Khomeini was by no means a fundamentalist. As a senior member of the Usuli School of Shiism, he opposed the Akhbari dissenters of the previous centuries who had argued that believers could understand Islam by relying mainly on the Koran. Khomeini, on the contrary, insisted that the Koran was too complex for the vast majority, and that even the Archangel Gabriel, who had brought the Koran to Mohammed, had not been able to understand the ‘inner meanings’ of what he conveyed. Khomeini frequently argued that these ‘inner layers’ could only be grasped by those who were familiar with Arabic, knew the teachings of the Twelve Shia Imams, had studied the works of the clerical scholars throughout the centuries, and, most nebulous of all, had somehow been endowed with irfan (gnostic knowledge).footnote1 Only the most learned clerics—and then only a few selected ones among them—could comprehend the inner essence of Islam.

Third, if fundamentalism means striving to re-create a Golden Age, then again Khomeini was not a straightforward fundamentalist. It is true that in his earlier years he implied that Mohammed’s Mecca and Imam Ali’s Caliphate were the models to replicate. But it is also true that in later years he often argued that even the Prophet and the First Imam had not been able to surmount the horrendous problems of their contemporary societies.footnote2 What is more, in the euphoria of revolutionary success, he boasted that the Islamic Republic of Iran had surpassed all previous Muslim societies, including that of the Prophet, in implementing true religion ‘in all spheres of life, particularly in the material and the spiritual spheres’.footnote3 In short, the Islamic Republic of Iran had supplanted Mohammed’s Mecca and Imam All’s Caliphate as the Muslim Golden Age. To some this smacks of blasphemy.

Fourth, if fundamentalism implies the rejection of the modern nation-state and with it the contemporary state boundaries, then Khomeini does not qualify, as Sami Zubaida has shown.footnote4 True, he at times claimed that imperialism had divided the Islamic Community (Ummat) into rival states and nations. It is also true that his early writings implicitly accept the existence of the territorial nation-state; and his later writings make this assumption more explicit. He increasingly spoke of Mehan-e Iran (Iranian Fatherland), Mellat-e Iran (Iranian Nation), Irandoust (Iranian Patriot), and Mardom-e Sharif-e Iran (Honourable People of Iran). He even disqualified one of his staunch supporters from entering the 1980 presidential elections on the grounds that his father had been born in Afghanistan. The nationalistic language, together with the use of exclusively Shia symbols and imagery, helps explain why the Khomeinists have failed to export the revolution outside Iran.