How did Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-89), a sinister and mysterious figure to the West, draw such fervent support from broad layers of Iranian society? Understanding Khomeini and his place in Iranian life is not easy, and the paucity of reliable information (as distinct from hagiography and hate literature) about the man complicates the task. In the best tradition of the BBC, where Moin is the director of the Persian service, he has produced an authoritative biography of Khomeini, drawing on every available scrap of information about the man and reporting it with studied neutrality. Writing in a clear and direct style, Moin illuminates not only what Khomeini did but how he viewed the world.
Khomeini emerges from Moin's pages as a revolutionary from his early days, determined to use politics to transform society. In a 1942 book published anonymously (The Discovery of Secrets), he already attacked the clergy for being insufficiently political. Moin's detailed account of the early 1960s shows how Khomeini was for years searching for a way to foment opposition to the shah—and that his issue of choice was women's suffrage. Unlike other senior clerics, he sought not to ensure that the shah's government followed practices mandated by Islam and had no interest in resolving conflicts with it; instead, he sought to confront the ruler, and for this was exiled in 1964. Moin establishes how, steadily over the years, Khomeini gave more and more importance to politics and less to piety, a trend that culminated in his remarkable 1988 decree stating that, the Islamic government of Iran being the continuation of the Prophet Muhammad's rule, it can overrule any religious commandment if necessary to advance the interests of the state. Khomeini's fascination with mysticism is of a piece with his politics: both reflect the conviction that ultimate power and truth are reserved for the select few, being too dangerous to be shared with the masses. His appeal ultimately lay in his ability to bend obscurantist traditions with the most up-to-date revolutionary rhetoric and behavior.