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Khomeini’s Face is in the Moon. Limitations of Sacredness and the Origins of Sovereignty



In 1979 Iran, the establishment of a durable Islamic state system demanded the utilitarian use of Ayatollah Khomeini's charismatic appeal with references to messianic sensitivities. However, to fulfil his own concepts of an ideal Islamic state, Khomeini had to remain an ordinary human being and nothing more than the hero of the revolution. In my paper I shall illustrate the complexity of the interrelations and transitions between the macro level of system behaviour and the micro level of individual action by dint of the depiction of a widely known episode of late 1978 in which it is said that the believer would be able to see Khomeini’s face in the moon, and the Ayatollah’s later refusal of this ‘natural phenomenon’. After depicting this episode through references in several autobiographical accounts as well as contemporary newspaper articles, its interpretation has to be read against the background of the meaning of symbols in the Iranian-Shi’ite community. In doing so, the analysis of Ayatollah Khomeini’s deeds and words will show that he deliberately relinquished the claim to be sent by God, as offered to him by the people of Iran. Further, it will be shown that shortly after his return to Iran, he was zealous in building up a legitimation which invoked notions of rational-legal authority in a Weberian sense. In doing so, Khomeini presented himself as acting as the sovereign on the authority of the people, hence, as being the hero of the people’s struggle and the leader of the community – and not being sent from God, or representing an aloof saint reflected in the moon.
Khomeini’s Face is in the Moon
Limitations of Sacredness and the Origins of Sovereignty
Olmo Gölz
During the course of the year 1978, the person of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini1
became regarded as the leading figure of the Iranian Revolution who “ultimately
engineered the downfall of the Pahlavi monarchy”.2 From his exile, first in Iraq
and since September 1978 in France, he maintained his grasp on the events in
Iran through his local network and developed a distinct charismatic, if not messi-
anic appeal – so that the later success of the revolution was closely associated with
both the abscondence of the detested Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in January
1979 and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran some days later, culminating
in the public opinion that the Shah had left by the force of the Ayatollah.3
In his persuasive evaluation of the source and significance of Ayatollah
Khomeini’s charisma during the Iranian Revolution of 1977–1979, the political
scientist Daniel Brumberg came to the conclusion that the revolutionary leader’s
gravity drew on a rather multi-faceted foundation.4 On the one hand, the Ayatol-
lah’s example would validate Hannah Arendt’s theory that mass leaders tend to
use the notion of infallibility as a propaganda effect and therefore often an-
nounce “their political intentions in the form of prophecy”.5 In this regard, cha-
risma is explained as the effect of deliberate use of cultural symbols by elites,6 and
Brumberg admits that Khomeini grasped this logic, for example, when in 1978 he
publicly legitimized out of exile the deviant actions of his followers as the fulfil-
ment of a divine prophecy. On the other hand, he argues, Khomeini’s alluring
power was not entirely the result of his conscious efforts to manufacture it. Rather
his charismatic appeal was the product of his own biographically explained demand
for charismatic experience in juxtaposition with the Shi’ite community’s expecta-
1 Note on transliterations: This article follows the rules for transliterations of the modern
Persian language formulated by the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (DMG). However,
for the sake of readability the contemporary actors’ names are given in European spelling.
2 H. Dabashi, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest, Cambridge, MA 2011, p. 273.
3 D. Harney, The Priest and the King: An Eyewitness Account of the Iranian Revolution,
London/New York 1998, p. 157.
4 Cf. D. Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran, Chicago 2001,
p. 95–96.
5 H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1973, p. 349.
6 Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini (Fn. 4), p. 12.
tion of the saviour’s imminent arrival. In effect, “Khomeini’s charisma intensified
the longings of his followers because it articulated a messianic sensibility deeply
rooted in Shi’ite, and possibly Persian, culture”.7
Having started as a heterogeneous movement, predominantly led by leftist
intellectuals but also consisting of nationalist and secular as well as Islamist
elements, the anti-shah demonstrators increasingly articulated their demands in
religious terms during the critical year of 1978.8 By the end of that year, the
Islamists controlled the slogans on the streets.9 By the same token, Khomeini
managed to maintain the “general impression that he could be a figurehead for all
forms of Islamic radicalism”.10 Accordingly, even the Marxist-Islamist guerrilla
group Moğaedīn-e alq declared him to be “a famous hero and the symbol of the
Iranian struggle”.11 Additionally, it can be observed that by September 1978
Khomeini was increasingly regarded as a messianic figure and was even stylized as
being the long awaited saviour himself. This might paradigmatically be shown by
the references to him published in Iranian newspapers of that time: until the
closure of the daily newspaper “Eṭṭelāʿāt” on November 1978 due to a general
strike, Khomeini was solely referred to by the title “Grand Ayatollah”,12 which he
had obtained in the ranks of the Shi’ite clergy. By contrast, starting with the day
of the newspaper’s reappearance on 6 January 1979 he was named “Emām”,13 a
title which in Shi’ite thinking is reserved for the early descendants of the Prophet
considered the only true leaders of the Islamic community. This culminated in
the headline of the newspaper after Khomeini’s return to Iran on 1 February 1979
Emām āmad 14 (“The Emām arrived”) – a slogan which distinctly alludes to the
arrival of the Messiah.
However, it is precisely this messianic appeal which raises some questions on
Khomeini’s perceptions of his own position in the Iranian Revolution as well as
on his intentions for the future of Iran and the implementation of the Islamic
Republic of Iran. Unambiguously, Ayatollah Khomeini had more in mind than
bringing about a successful revolution – which becomes particularly clear when
reading his publications on an Islamic government and will be discussed in this
paper. Nevertheless, the specific jeopardies that might arise while being too
charismatic have hitherto hardly been touched. Therefore, it is argued here that
Khomeini did not just have a utopian vision of a better Iran in mind, with him-
7 Ibid., p. 31 and p. 96.
8 A. Ashraf, Theocracy and Charisma: New Men of Power in Iran, in: International Journal
of Politics, Culture, and Society 4.1, 1990, p. 113–152, here p. 121.
9 J. Afary / K. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of
Islamism, Chicago 2005, p. 1.
10 B. Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, London 1999, p. 176.
11 Ibid.
12 Cf. Eṭṭelāʿāt, 9 Ābān 1357 (31 Oct. 1978), p. 1.
13 Eṭṭelāʿāt, 16 Dey 1357 (6 Jan. 1979), p. 1.
14 Eṭṭelāʿāt, 12 Bahman 1357 (1 Feb. 1979), p. 1.
self being the country’s saviour. Rather, he was about to enforce a rationalized
concept of an Islamic state which left no room for a saint.15 Admittedly, the
establishment of a durable Islamic state system demanded the utilitarian use of
his charismatic appeal with references to messianic sensitivities, and Khomeini
might indeed have had a sense of mission and an intrinsic feeling of ‘chosen-
ness’. However, to fulfil his own concepts, Khomeini had to remain an ordinary
human being and nothing more than the hero of the revolution.
The complexity of the interrelations and transitions between the macro level of
system behaviour and the micro level of individual action – how it is problema-
tized in rational choice theory16 – is best to be explained through the depiction of
a widely known episode in which it is said that the believer would be able to see
Khomeini’s face in the moon, and the Ayatollah’s later refusal of this ‘natural
phenomenon’. After depicting this episode through references in several autobio-
graphical accounts as well as contemporary newspaper articles, its interpretation
has to be read against the background of the meaning of symbols in the Iranian-
Shi’ite community. In doing so, the analysis of Ayatollah Khomeini’s deeds and
words will show that he deliberately relinquished the claim to be sent by God, as
offered to him by the people of Iran. Further, it will be shown that shortly after
his return to Iran, he was zealous in building up a legitimation which invoked
notions of rational-legal authority in a Weberian sense.17 In doing so, Khomeini
presented himself as acting as the sovereign on the authority of the people, hence,
as being the hero of the people’s struggle and the leader of the community – and
not being sent from God, or representing an aloof saint reflected in the moon.
The Man is in the Sky
The writer and journalist Tara Bahrampour in her autobiographical work “To See
and See Again: A Life in Iran and America” remembers a remarkable episode of
her childhood during the turbulent weeks of the Iranian Revolution:
“Khomeini’s face is in the moon. Everyone’s talking about it. Taxicabs brake in the
middle of traffic so people can jump out and look up at the sky, and neighbors gather in
the alleys at sunset to point at the outlines of his eyes. [...] That night, Leila-Khanoum
looks up at the moon, sees Khomeini and faints. Another night, Baba looks up and sees
the face there too, beard and all, before he shakes his head and it goes away. Naneh still
15 Please note: Although the term “saint” undeniably refers to a Christian configuration, it is
used here in accordance with the scholarly literature on Islam for phenomena addressed in
the Shi’ite context in order to avoid confusion caused by simplified translations.
16 J. S. Coleman / T. J. Fararo, Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique (Key Issues in
Sociological Theory; 7), Newbury Park, CA 1992, p. x; D. Friedman / M. Hechter, The
Contribution of Rational Choice Theory to Macrosociological Research, in: Sociological
Theory 6.2, 1988, p. 201–218, here p. 201.
17 M. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Grundriss der Sozialökonomik; III. Abt.), Tübingen
1922, p. 124–130.
stands in her doorway, wrapped in a black chador, but she no longer complains about
her sons beating her. ‘God is great,’ she says, her voice high and creaky and filled with
delight. ‘Agha is in the sky.’”18
As it has been put by another autobiographical account, besides being appar-
ently just a memory of a little child, seeing “Khomeini’s face in the moon was a
typical belief in those days and reflected the changes in thinking, belief, and
behaviour of the masses at that time”.19 Furthermore, this anecdote gains pivotal
importance for the analysis of Ayatollah Khomeini’s charismatic appeal when it
is put in context.
During his exile, Ayatollah Khomeini was expelled from Iraq in October 1978.
He then moved to France on 12 October, where he attracted world media atten-
tion. Simultaneously, the social unrest in Iran continued to grow after the Shah’s
government responded to the Tehran protests of 8 September with military ac-
tion. On that crucial day, soldiers were ordered to shoot at demonstrators.20 The
so-called “Black Friday” took a huge toll on human life and marked the im-
plementation of martial law in Iran, forbidding any gathering of more than two
people in Tehran from that date on.21 Against the background of both the escala-
tion in Iran and Khomeini’s new public scope in France,22 his strategy “consisted
of emerging as the only credible alternative to the Shah”.23
As the chronographer of the revolution, Amir Taheri, and many others24 vividly
show, the longing for Khomeini’s return was dramatically illustrated by the follow-
ing episode:25 A rumour was spread that an old, pious lady from the holy city of
Qom found a hair of the prophet in her Koran. On the same evening she had an
epiphany from which she learned that the devout believer would see the face of
18 T. Bahrampour, To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America, New York 1999, p. 101–
102; Note: the term Āqā [here Agha] literally means “Mister” or “Sir”. It is often attributed
to Ayatollah Khomeini while speaking about him in the 3rd person.
19 S. M. Redjali, A Symphony of Life: Triumph of Education over Adversity, Bloomington,
Ind. 2013, p. 347.
20 Moin, Khomeini (Fn. 10), p. 188.
21 Eṭṭelāʿāt, 18 Šahrīwar 1357 (9 Sep. 1978), p. 1.
22 Cf. E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, Berkeley/Los Angeles
1993, p. 11.
23 A. Taheri, The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution, 1. U.S. ed., Bethesda,
Md. 1985, p. 241.
24 See further different versions of the event: E. Abrahamian, The Crowd in the Iranian Revo-
lution, in: Radical History Review 105, 2009, p. 13–38, here p. 28; J.-P. Filiu, The Return of
Political Mahdism, in: H. Fradkin [et al.] (ed.), Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 8,
p. 26–38, here p. 29; M. Golābdarehī, Laḥẓe-hā, Tehrān 1986, p. 178; Harney, The Priest
and the King (Fn. 3), p. 157; A. Minu-Sepehr, We Heard the Heavens then: A Memoir of
Iran, New York 2012, p. 120; A. Sreberny-Mohammadi / A. Mohammadi, Small Media, Big
Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution, Minneapolis 1994,
p. 132; K. L. Pliskin, Camouflage, Conspiracy, and Collaborators: Rumors of the Revolu-
tion, in: Iranian Studies 13.1/4, 1980, p. 55–81, here p. 74; Taheri, The Spirit of Allah,
(Fn. 23), p. 141.
25 Ibid., p. 141.
Ayatollah Khomeini during the next full moon. It is said that the story was spread
all over Iran in less than a day.26 At the awaited day of 27 November, millions of
people received the moon with cheers, actually recognized the image of Ayatollah
Khomeini and shouted “āllāhu akbar” from the rooftops of their houses – which
became an established sign of political disobedience in the subsequent days and
weeks. The emotional change transported through this mass phenomenon was ex-
ceptional: The people of Iran “experienced a festive moment that sharply con-
trasted with the rest of that bleak bitterly cold and bloody autumn. Tears of joy
were shed and huge quantities of sweets and fruits were consumed as millions of
people jumped for joy, shouting ‘I’ve seen the Imam in the moon.’”27
While it was still unclear how the leading clerics or Ayatollah Khomeini him-
self would react to this event, it was not only being celebrated by local clerics in
thousands of mosques,28 but also secularists and communist activists, who were
keen to confirm the Ayatollah’s appearance in the moon. As a matter of fact,
even the Soviet-sponsored journal of the communist Tūdeh-Party “Navīd”29
wrote: “Our toiling masses, fighting against world-devouring Imperialism headed
by the blood-sucking United States, have seen the face of their beloved Imam
and leader, Khomeini the Breaker of Idols, in the moon. A few pipsqueaks can-
not deny what a whole nation has seen with its own eyes.”30
Regrettably, it cannot easily be ascertained how or whether at all Khomeini re-
sponded to this episode soon after it occurred; due to the general strike in Iran,
no public discourses can be found in the newspapers. However, the belief that
Khomeini’s face could be seen in the moon and “that only miscreants and bas-
tards would fail to see”31 it became so widely held that it demanded response at
least two months later when history repeated itself. On 13 January, just when the
first rumours of the Shah’s imminent abscondence and the Ayatollah’s return to
Iran were being spread by the newspapers,32 the “people spoke of an Islamic govern-
ment starting the following day, and that evening people were in the streets, ec-
static at what they saw: Khomeini’s face appearing on the moon”.33 Allegedly,
this time some people in the province of Hamadan decided to sacrifice a sheep
in order to celebrate this amazing phenomenon.34
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid., p. 242.
28 Ibid.
29 Cf. S. Zabih, The Left in Contemporary Iran: Ideology, Organisation, and the Soviet Con-
nection (Hoover Press Publication; 342), Abingdon 2011, p. 50.
30 “Navīd”, quoted in Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (Fn. 23), p. 242.
31 Ibid., p. 241–242.
32 Eṭṭelāʿāt, 23 Dey 1357 (13 Jan. 1979), p. 1.
33 Pliskin, Camouflage, Conspiracy, and Collaborators (Fn. 24), p. 74.
34 Sreberny-Mohammadi / Mohammadi, Small Media, Big Revolution (Fn. 24), p. 132.
In connection with this occasion, the public response of the religious estab-
lishment in Iran as well as from Khomeini’s bureau in Paris can be determined.
The newspaper “Eṭṭelāʿāt” which, after the end of the general strike, was very
much in line with the Islamist movement of Ayatollah Khomeini – published an
article on 14 January 1979 in which leading clerics from Tehran and Hamadan
(where the sheep had been sacrificed) disavowed the appearance of the Ayatollah’s
face in the moon and depicted it as a deliberate attempt to divide the “Islamic
movement of our people” (nahżat-e eslāmī-ye mellat-e mā) – a term attributed to the
movement of Khomeini’s supporters before it had been labelled as a revolution:
Clerics from Tehran and Hamadan:
The rumour about the appearance of Emām Khomeini’s image in the moon is the propagation of
fraud and superstition.
Yesterday, some of the leading clerics from Tehran and Hamadan issued a telephonic
pronouncement to the newspaper Eṭṭelāʿāt on the news that Emām Khomeini’s image
appeared on the surface of the moon, which has been spread by mysterious groups to
cause a split in the unified movement of the Iranian people. The clerics declared: ‘These
groups seek to mislead the movement of the Iranian people. Since they currently know
no other trick to divide the serried ranks of the people, they started to spread fraud and
superstitious stories in order to picture the Islamic movement of our people as reaction-
ary and superstitious. Thus, they faked the news about the appearance of Emām
Khomeini’s image on the surface of the moon.
But there are things more important than the moon: the image and figure of Emām
Khomeini is in the heart and spirit of our people. We will find his image if we follow his
will, which equals the will of the Iranian people.’”35
Additionally, the historian Ervand Abrahamian reports a press conference held in
Paris by Khomeini’s advisers after the growth of the rumours about the Ayatollah’s
face in the moon, in which they accused the regime of the Shah for their attempt
to discredit the whole opposition through the spreading of absurd stories.36
Finally, Ayatollah Khomeini disavowed the phenomenon and “issued a statement
from Paris asking people not to be fooled by such deliberate attempts to confuse
This denial is a rather remarkable act which indicates the intentions of
Khomeini regarding his role in the Iranian Revolution and his plans for the coun-
try after his return, and it raises the question why the revolutionary leader refused
35 Eṭṭelāʿāt, 24 Dey 1357 (14 Jan. 1979), 2. Original headline: “Šāyeʿeh-ye uhūr-e tawīr-e
Imām omeynī bar māh entešār-e ğaʿāliyāt va orāfāt ast”
36 Abrahamian, The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution (Fn. 24), p. 28.
37 Sreberny-Mohammadi / Mohammadi, Small Media, Big Revolution (Fn. 24), p. 132.
Srberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi transferred this event to “autumn of 1978”.
Though, since it is depicted against the background of the events in Hamadan and the
communiqué of local clerics from that region, a mistake in regard to the dates is very likely.
It must have been after the events of January 1979.
to accept the devotedness of the masses – at least in these terms. Reading the
events against Max Weber’s conceptions on charisma,38 one could unambiguously
state that Khomeini was to be regarded as the possessor of supernatural (über-
natürlichen) and superhuman (übermenschlichen) qualities. Furthermore, the country-
wide celebrations on 27 November 1978 and 13 January 1979 represent pre-
cisely the distinct moments in which Khomeini was consensually recognized as a
revolutionary leader, thereby justifying his claim to power as a charismatic leader.
Following Weber, the recognition of such a claim by the discipleship is psycho-
logically “a matter of complete personal devotion to the possessor of the quality,
arising out of enthusiasm, or despair and hope”.39 Actually, all three points apply
and can be found in the episode. Why then the repudiation of the offered fealty
in this regard?
In anticipation of the result: Khomeini had far more in mind than a trium-
phant charismatic return to Iran. Regardless of any alleged intrinsic feeling of
chosenness and his public declarations on the establishment of an “Islamic uto-
pia” on earth,40 in order to accomplish his goals, he could not be of divine origin
but had to be an ordinary human being chosen by nothing but the people of
Iran. To elaborate on the words of the above quoted clerics: There are more im-
portant things than the moon – the Iranian people.
The Sun rises in the West
For the evaluation of Khomeini’s intentions in this case, one has to recast any
possible interpretation against the meanings of symbols in the Iranian-Shi’ite con-
text. Accordingly, one has to evaluate how the underlying feelings of individuals
within the community have been addressed by the symbolism evident in the
events discussed here.
The mainstream Shi’ite tradition (‘Twelver-Shi’a’) claims that the just govern-
ance of the Islamic community can only be accomplished through the leadership
of the direct descendants of the Prophet Muammad’s daughter Fāṭima and her
husband ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, who was to be regarded as the Prophet’s first just heir.
The ʼimāma, i.e., the right to rule, was thereby transmitted from father to son
only. According to belief, the twelfth Imām in this line, Muammad al-Mahdī,
did not die. Instead, during childhood he was taken to occultation by God, so
that since the year of 941 A.D. he lives on in the ‘great occultation’ (al-ġaiba al-
kubrā), while the pious Muslim awaits his return. The Shi’ite religious expecta-
38 Cf. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Fn. 17), p. 140–142.
39 Ibid., p. 140; English translation quoted from Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Out-
line of Interpretive Sociology, ed. by Guenther Roth / Claus Wittich, Berkeley 1978, p. 242.
40 Abrahamian, Khomeinism, (Fn. 22), p. 49.
tions are dominated by the belief that one day the Twelfth Imām will emerge as a
saviour (mahdī), return some time before the judgment day, defeat his enemies,
and establish a just rule on earth until the Last Judgement.41 Despite his absence,
the rightful ruler of the community is the Twelfth Imām.42
This paradigm caused some serious problems for the legitimation of monarchy
in Persian history since consequently every claim to power had to be considered
as usurpation.43 The Safavids, who ruled the Persian Empire from 1501 to 1722,
solved this problem through references to an older concept that had been promi-
nently developed and formulated during the 11th century in order to meet with
the obstacle that the religious authority “still resided in the office of the caliph
although power was in the hands of the sultan.”44 Although formulated in a Sunni
context, at that time the tradition was firmly established that the actual ruler
would act as ‘Shadow of God on Earth’.45 Implementing Shi’i Islam for the first
time as the official religion of the Persian realm, the Safavids used the notion of
the ruler as ‘Shadow of God’ in a slightly different (i.e. Shi’ite) context to legiti-
mize their claim to power after it had become obvious that the first rulers of the
dynasty could not persuasively claim the status of mahdī.46 Similar references were
established later by the early representatives of the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925)47
so that the rule of the Shahs had endurably been legitimized without further
authorization being needed.48
Precisely at this point, the first reason for the denial of the episode with the
moon emerges: As Abrahamian suggests, the success of the story in Iran “was
probably an unconscious inversion of the ancient claim that the shah was the
shadow of God on earth”.49 Consequently, the Shah’s antagonist had to forcefully
reject these perceptions of his person. Instead, Khomeini was keen to applicate
41 M. Ourghi, Schiitischer Messianismus und Mahdī-Glaube in der Neuzeit (Mitteilungen zur
Sozial- und Kulturgeschichte der islamischen Welt; 26), Würzburg 2008, p. 46.
42 V. Martin, Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran, New Ed.,
London/New York 2003, p. 115.
43 Ibid., p. 115–116.
44 A. K. S. Lambton, Concepts of Authority in Persia: Eleventh to Nineteenth Centuries
A.D., in: Iran 26, 1988, p. 95–103, here p. 97. For a detailed elaboration of the concept of
the “Shadow of God” see also the further works of Ann K. S. Lambton, in particular:
A. K. S. Lambton, Quis custodiet custodes? Some Reflections on the Persian Theory of
Government: I,” in: Studia Islamica 5, 1956, p. 125–148; Ead., Quis custodiet custodes?
Some Reflections on the Persian Theory of Government (Conclusion), in: Studia Islamica
6, 1956, p. 125–146.
45 S. A. Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and
Societal Change in Shi’ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890 (Publications of the Center for
Middle Eastern Studies; 17), Chicago 1984, p. 94.
46 Ibid., 180–181. See for a more detailed analysis of the Safavids claim to power: H. Halm,
Die Schia, Darmstadt 1988, p. 107–120.
47 Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam (Fn. 45), p. 229.
48 Lambton, Concepts of Authority in Persia (Fn. 44), p. 101.
49 Abrahamian, The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution (Fn. 24), p. 28.
the concept of the ‘Shadow of God’ to the masses, arguing that every ordinary
man who raised up against tyranny would act as such.50
Thus, if he does represent the ‘Shadow of God’ on earth in a different way than
the ordinary people fighting against oppression, could the Ayatollah, by the same
token, not be the mahdī himself? Or at least the long awaited harbinger of his
imminent return? In fact, it is this specific second possible complex of explana-
tions for the appearance of Ayatollah Khomeini’s face in the moon that caused
even worse problems for the implementation of an Islamic Republic.
Shi’ite tradition assumes that the return of the mahdī will be heralded by a set
of dreadful omens. The world will be thrown into turmoil and multifarious
portents of the saviour’s impending coming will appear. There will, for example,
be signs of societal chaos and anarchy, so that immoral behaviour will spread.
Falsehood becomes commonplace; the suppression of indigents increases; ethical
values vanish; sexual licentiousness grows.51 Finally, the power of infidels will
expand and false prophets will raise and fight bloody encounters all over the
world.52 During the revolution, the activation of Shi’ite sensitivities was repeat-
edly achieved through references to these well-known signs for a distinct apoca-
lyptic mood. Accordingly, Ayatollah Khomeini himself used this diction when he
divided the world, its peoples and its governments into the oppressors (mostak-
berīn) and the oppressed (mostażʿafīn), arguing that the Western powers are among
the oppressor camp,53 what surely pointed to the notion of the ‘growth of power
of infidels’. Additionally, the terms he and his entourage used to describe the
situation were very much related to the omens of the mahdī’s return, like the
accusations pointing at the decadence of the oppressors, the abasement of morality
or the aggravation of the situation of the poor. Thus, the evaluation of the socie-
tal status quo in Iran showed the situation’s compatibility to the signs and the
Shah’s regime was stigmatized in terms reserved for the enemies of the Twelfth
Imām.54 As Hamid Dabashi puts it: “The enormous arsenal of Shi’i rebellious
symbolism was put to effective political use. God Almighty, the Prophet, the
Twelve Infallible Imams, and all other major and minor Shi’i saints were all mobi-
lized in the service of the revolution against tyranny. Shi’ism was in full insurrec-
tionary posture […].”55 In this regard, the apocalyptic diagnosis of society
indicated on all levels the imminent return of the much longed for mahdī.
50 B. Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Divine, the People, and the Faqi h: On Khomeini’s Theory of
Sovereignty, in: A. Adib-Moghaddam (ed.), A Critical Introduction to Khomeini, New York
2014, p. 211–238, here p. 230.
51 Ourghi, Schiitischer Messianismus (Fn. 41), p. 47.
52 Halm, Die Schia, (Fn. 46), p. 46.
53 S. Hunter, Iran and the Spread of Revolutionary Islam, in: Third World Quarterly 10.2,
Islam & Politics, 1988, p. 730–749, here p. 734.
54 S. V. R. Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future, New
York 2007, p. 131.
55 Dabashi, Shi’ism (Fn. 2), p. 314.
Furthermore, the Shi’ite tradition knows some preternatural incidents accom-
panying the societal shifts. There will be lunar as well as solar eclipse; rivers will
burst their banks; fire will rain from heaven; earthquakes will cause devastating
effects; and finally, the sun will rise in the West.56 The appearance of Khomeini’s
face in the moon was put into this context while being celebrated in mosques all
over Iran, “with mullahs reminding the faithful that a sure sign of the coming of
the Mahdi was that the sun would rise in the West. Khomeini, representing the
sun, was now in France and his face was shining in the moon like a sun”.57
Additionally, the cataclysmic earthquake of 16 September 1978 near the city Ta-
bas in eastern Iran,58 as well as a subsequent quake in the neighbouring region of
Khorasan on 16 January 1979,59 has been interpreted as signs of the imminent arri-
val of the saviour and brought together not only with other ‘supernatural’ events –
such as the Ayatollah’s face in the moon – but also with the social turmoil of the
times. On the day of the earthquake, which coincided with the Shah’s escape from
Iran, the eyewitness of the revolution Desmond Harney wrote the following:
“What of the Old Man in Paris? […] Will he release the seven avenging furies of popu-
lar revolution? A new chapter opens. To herald all this, the latest ‘supernatural’ event
occurred: yesterday all over Iran the faithful believed they saw Khomeini’s features on
the surface on the moon. And yet another earthquake struck Khorasan. Oh Iran, what a
year of events! But to return to the popular reaction. Irresistible not to go out. Scenes of
great excitement in the streets round us. Every car hooting rhythmically, flashing its
lights. Crowds gathering at every junction: men grinning and giving the V-sign; girls in
chadors singing and laughing; boys prancing about shouting at us to put on our lights or
to slap pictures of Khomeini on the windscreen; groups shouting ‘Everyone is free now’;
small demonstrations brandishing portraits of Khomeini aloft crying, ‘By the force of
Khomeini, the Shah has fled.’”60
The Guardianship of the Jurist
Theologically speaking, the only admissible hypothesis for the interrelation of all
the societal and ‘natural’ factors and phenomena would have been that Ayatol-
lah Khomeini himself was the mahdī, or, at least, that he was the harbinger of the
Twelfth Imām. And presumably, the people would indeed have accepted this if
he had publicly claimed to be the awaited saint himself or in contact with him –
56 Halm, Die Schia (Fn. 46), p. 46; Ourghi, Schiitischer Messianismus (Fn. 41), p. 47.
57 Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (Fn. 23), p. 242.
58 See Eṭṭelāʿāt, 26 Šahrīwar 1357 (17 Sep. 1978), p. 1. The newspapers headline reads: “The city
Tabas was flattened by an earthquake” (“Zelzeleh šahr-e Tabas rā bā ḫāk yeksān kard”). The esti-
mated death toll is 15,000 people. See:
significant/sig_1978.php, 27 March 2015.
59 See Eṭṭelāʿāt, 28 Dey 1357 (18 Jan. 1978), p. 8. Headline: “A thousand people died by an
earthquake in Khorasan” (“Hezār nafar dar zelzeleh-e orāsān košte šodand”). See: http://earth, 27 March 2015.
60 Harney, The Priest and the King (Fn. 3), p. 157.
this is certainly the subtext transmitted by the above depicted episode with the
moon.61 Yet, the Ayatollah never claimed to be more than an educated scholar
and he consistently avoided performing in any manner to be in contact with the
‘hidden world’.62 One might argue that he simply did not believe to have been
sent by God. However, as many well developed works on Khomeini’s mysticism
and gnostic affectations have shown,63 this leads to no definite answer, but rather
to the presumption of an intrinsic feeling of chosenness. The discussion on his
self-reflection is even up to this day the subject of theological and political de-
bates in contemporary Iran – culminating in a dramatic incident, when in 2008
Ayatollah Tavassoli died in front of a camera from a heart attack. Prior to this, he
had reported that Khomeini became furious and refused to see any religious fig-
ure who publicly declared Khomeini was in contact with the Hidden Imām.64
In order to avoid speculations in this regard, it is argued here that the reasons
for the disavowal of the status as a saint can be found in extrinsic factors and
that these extrinsic factors demanded decisions by Ayatollah Khomeini on the
basis of rational choice, in order to produce optimal social outcomes.65
These extrinsic factors are represented through three fundamental problems
for an alleged mahdī or his harbinger in the specific Iranian context of the late
1970s. The first obstacle: historical consciousness shows examples of rulers who
dealt with the idea of being the mahdī themselves. Paradigmatically, the founder
of the Safavid dynasty Ismāʿīl (ruled 1501–1524) is to be named here. He lost his
messianic appeal after the defeat at the Battle of Chaldiran (1514) against the Ot-
toman Empire.66 Thus, history exemplifies that relying on a mahdī-status only
promises short-term success for the individual. Second, the impending appear-
ance of the Twelfth Imām would have serious implications for the society, since
it would put an end to all notions of futurity in hitherto familiar forms:
“Planning for any material future, concern about day-to-day issues, interest in social,
political and cultural topics and following domestic and international events suddenly
become trivial and peripheral. Worldly and material life and preoccupations dim before
the magnanimity of the promised return of the Messiah. How could a believer con-
vinced of the imminent end of the world and history as we know it keep interest in daily
and mundane affairs if the end was so clearly in sight?“67
61 Nasr, The Shia Revival (Fn. 54), p. 131.
62 A. Rahnema, Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics: Majlesi to Ahmadinejad (Cam-
bridge Middle East studies; 35), Cambridge/New York 2011, p. 61.
63 See Ashraf, Theocracy and Charisma (Fn. 8), p. 115–121; B. Moin, Khomeini’s Search for
Perfection: Theory and Reality, in: A. Rahnema (ed.), Pioneers of Islamic Revival, London
1994, p. 64–97; Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini (Fn. 4), p. 39–54; L. Ridgeon, Hidden
Khomeini: Mysticism and Poetry, in: A. Adib-Moghaddam (ed.), A Critical Introduction to
Khomeini, New York 2014, p. 193–210.
64 Rahnema, Superstition as Ideology (Fn. 62), p. 82.
65 Cf. Coleman / Fararo, Rational Choice Theory (Fn. 16), p. xi–xii.
66 Halm, Die Schia (Fn. 46), p. 46; Ourghi, Schiitischer Messianismus (Fn. 41), p. 109.
67 Rahnema, Superstition as Ideology (Fn. 62), p. 74.
In other words: how to bring about a revolution while the people wait for the
mahdī? Admittedly, this question is highly suggestive and it is very likely that an
emotionally conducted Islamic revolution would have been successful even if
Khomeini had approved the episode with all its interpretations. However, the
second question is of bigger importance: how to build up a durable Islamic state,
when there is no necessity for planning the future any longer? Again, there would
have been just short-term success – this time for the individual and the society. In
addition, it is this question which transcends to the third and probably most
important obstacle: Khomeini aimed at implementing an Islamic government and
he himself developed the foundations for the accomplishment of this task.
In his recent evaluation of the history of Shi’ism, Hamid Dabashi argues that
this Islamic tradition has “doctrinally and historically been a religion of protest”
which typically lost its moral legitimacy as soon as it was politically successful in
the course of history.68 In comparison, Ayatollah Khomeini developed a theory
on the Islamic state (okūmat-e eslāmī) aiming to implement a durable religio-
moral legitimized Shi’ite government. The theory on the just Islamic state is again
based on the assumption that the rightful ruler of the Muslim community is the
Twelfth Imām. In Iraqi exile during the late 1960s he further developed his early
idea that in the time of the greater occultation ‘general agents’ of the Imām
would be his rightful representatives in political matters.69 Back then teaching
religious seminary students in Najaf, he delivered a series of lectures between
21 January and 8 February 1970 in which he elaborated his views on the ‘guardian-
ship of the jurist’ (velāyat-e faqīh),70 later published under the title okūmat-e eslāmī
(‘Islamic government’).71 Here he argued that during the infallible Imām’s occul-
tation, the jurisconsult (faqīh) has the mandate and the responsibility not only to
teach the Islamic community on matters of personal affairs – representing the
quietist position promoted by most leading Ayatollahs in Iran and Iraq until the
1960s – but also to guide the people “in the social realm, and to manage the
state’s affairs on behalf of the Imām. In other words, the jurisconsult’s authority is
an extension of that enjoyed by the infallible Imāms.”72 In effect, the whole
political apparatus must not be composed of religious scholars. Rather, officials
need to obey the faqīh in any affair. However, this by far does not indicate that
the faqīh is conceptionally raised to a level above an ordinary human being.73 On
the contrary, according to Ayatollah Khomeini, the “governance of the faqīh is a
68 Dabashi, Shi’ism (Fn. 2), p. 313.
69 Martin, Creating an Islamic State (Fn. 42), p. 119.
70 Moin, Khomeini (Fn. 10), p. 152.
71 R. Khomeini, okūmat-e eslāmī, transl. by Hamid Algar,
government, np., 30 March 2015.
72 H. Mavani, Ayatullah Khomeini’s Concept of Governance (wilayat al-faqih) and the Classi-
cal Shi’i Doctrine of Imamate, in: Middle Eastern Studies 47.5, 2011, p. 807–824, p. 807.
73 Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Divine, the People, and the Faqih (Fn. 50), p. 224.
rational and extrinsic matter; it exists only as a type of appointment”,74 which
may be contrasted with the intrinsic spiritual pre-eminence of the Imāms,
deriving from their personal qualities.75 Consequently, the leading jurist is nothing
more than a well-educated religious scholar who is considered to be the right
person to interpret the Islamic law (šarīʿa) in all affairs.76 Apart from his learning,
the faqīh is an ordinary believer with no claims on divinity or the infallibility of
the Imāms,77 so that “any impression that they may aspire to supernatural status,
higher than that of ordinary human beings, is dispelled.”78
The educational system of the Shi’ite jurisprudence defines who is qualified for
the position of the leading jurist. However, it is the role of the people to choose
the faqīh – again with the guidance of the clergy.79 These conceptions became part
of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was formulated by
Khomeini and his followers during his French exile.80 The later implemented
constitution states in Article 5 that during the occultation of the Twelfth Imām
the leadership of the Muslim community “devolve[s] upon the just and pious
person, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age, courageous, resource-
ful, and possessed of administrative ability, will assume the responsibilities of this
office in accordance with Article 107”. Article 107 on the “Religious Leader”
determines that the faqīh is to be appointed by experts who are elected by the
people. By the same token, he “is equal with the rest of the people of the country
in the eyes of law”.81
That being said, due to Khomeini’s own conception of an Islamic state, the
Ayatollah had to remain an ordinary human being – equal to the rest of the
people. Therefore, not being a saint was the best Ayatollah Khomeini could wish
for and it promised the best outcome for himself and the community he felt
responsible for. Only through a close connection to the people would it be possi-
ble to successfully transform the ‘religion of protest’, as Dabashi coined it, to a
morally legitimised ‘religion of rule’.
As has been shown at the beginning, the messianic appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini
helped to create a charismatic gravity in the frame of the Shi’ite community of
Iran. Furthermore, it was precisely this allure which during the revolutionary
74 Khomeini, okūmat-e eslāmī (Fn. 71), np.
75 Martin, Creating an Islamic State (Fn. 42), p. 121.
76 M. Axworthy, Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic, London 2013, p. 137.
77 Martin, Creating an Islamic State (Fn. 42), p. 116.
78 Ibid., p. 121.
79 Moin, Khomeini (Fn. 10), p. 155.
80 Halm, Die Schia (Fn. 46), p. 46; Ourghi, Schiitischer Messianismus (Fn. 41), p. 163.
81 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran,, 30 March
2015, np. Effective since 3 Dec. 1979.
process culminated in the enthusiastic devotedness of the masses – far beyond
narrow circles of disciples. The episode with the moon shows that this enthusiastic
devotion was directly connected to the substantial hope raised by the belief in the
imminent arrival of the awaited saviour. By the same token, the analysis of the
Shi’ite expectations in juxtaposition to revolutionary rhetoric and processes has
documented that the camp of Ayatollah Khomeini performed in accordance with
the messianic sensitivities in order to mobilize the masses. Especially while
addressing the grievances of the societal status quo in Pahlavi Iran, he himself rhet-
orically pointed to the imminent return of the mahdī and brought his movement
in connection to the fulfilment of a divine prophecy. Furthermore, during these
turbulent years he never publicly disclaimed any links to the ‘hidden world’. It is
even reported that he just did not answer when he was asked if he was the prom-
ised saviour.82 Therefore it can be affirmed that Khomeini used the “propaganda
effect of infallibility” as stated by Brumberg with reference to Hannah Arendt.83
However, the investigation of the nationwide rumour of Khomeini’s face in the
moon also indicates the utilitarian limits while playing with the messianic sensitivi-
ties. These limits arise from the fact that on the one hand, the Shi’ite tradition
recognizes no conceptual opportunity for a durable mundane state of affairs in the
face of the impeding return of the Messiah – at least until the establishment of the
Islamic Republic of Iran. On the other hand, the person who formulated a solu-
tion for the implementation of a legitimised Shi’i state system (deliberately) did
not incorporate a position for a saint. Therefore, it has been argued that the denial
of being sent by God in any way, might be explained through regress on intrinsic
aspects. However, this denial has been presented here as an actor’s strategy of
optimizing the societal outcomes of his individual behaviour.84 Therefore, regard-
less of the answer to the question if Khomeini believed he was the mahdī or in
contact with him, his own as well as his advisers’ and cohorts’ disavowal of the de-
picted episode was purposive and intentional85 – because it represented the only
path to the implementation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This hypothesis can further be verified through a short look at Khomeini’s
first speech after his return to Iran on 1 February 1979 when he presented him-
self as being the one “who decides on the exception”, therefore as the sovereign
in the sense of Carl Schmitt.86 While doing so, he did not perform as God’s
“acknowledged representative on earth”,87 but rather identified himself “directly
82 Cf. Nasr, The Shia Revival (Fn. 54), p. 131.
83 Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini (Fn. 4), p. 95.
84 Cf. Coleman / Fararo, Rational Choice Theory (Fn. 16), p. xi–xii.
85 Cf. Friedman / Hechter, The Contribution of Rational Choice Theory to Macrosociological
Research (Fn. 16), p. 202.
86 C. Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, transl. by
G. Schwab, Chicago 2005, p. 5.
87 Ibid., p. 10.
with the people”:88 When he arrived in Tehran, up to five million people lined
the streets to welcome the Ayatollah.89 He directly moved to the Cemetery of
Martyrs Behešt-e zahrā south of Tehran, where he delivered a long speech to
approximately 250,000 listeners.90 In a remarkable section of this speech, the
Ayatollah claims: “I will appoint the government! I will strike the present govern-
ment on the mouth! With the support of the people, I will appoint the govern-
ment! I will do this, because the people approved me!”91 Hence, he claimed to
do so, not because God sent him, but rather because the people chose him. He
thus acted as the hero who is the subject of the community’s sovereignty –
because it helped him to create the Islamic Republic of Iran and become its
legitimate Supreme Leader for life.
88 Ibid.
89 BBC, “Exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran”,
dates/stories/february/1/newsid_2521000/2521003.stm, 21 November 2016.
90 The live broadcast of Khomeini’s arrival and his speech can be seen here: baharaan, Return of
Imam Khomeini to Iran on Feb 1, 1979, Youtube, 16 February 2012,
com/watch?v=0lTsee9TllE, 30 March 2015.
91 Eṭṭelāʿāt, 14 Bahman 1357 (3 Feb. 1979), p. 3. The newspaper published “The full speech of
Imam Khomeini at Behešt-e zahrā” (“Matn-e kāmel-e soanān-e Imām omeynī dar Behešt-e
zahrā”). The text of the quoted passage: “Man doulat taʼyīn mīkonam. Man tū-ye dahan-e
īn doulat mīzanam. Man beh poštībānī-ye īn mellat doulat taʼyīn mīkonam. Man beh
vaseehī-ye keh īn mellat marrā qabūl dārad.”
Sonderdruck aus:
Herausgegeben von
Ronald G. Asch, Barbara Korte, Ralf von den Hoff
im Auftrag des DFG-Sonderforschungsbereichs 948
an der Universität Freiburg
Band 6
Sakralität und Heldentum
Herausgegeben von
Felix Heinzer – Jörn Leonhard –
Ralf von den Hoff
Gefördert durch die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
J. M. Mixelle, Honoré Gabriel c.te de Mirabeau: député de la
Sénéchaussée d’Aix à l’Assemblée nationale en 1789 […], Paris 1792
(Radierung, Paris, BnF, Coll. de Vinck, t. 11, Inv. 1928)
Bibliografische Information der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek
Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek verzeichnet diese Publikation in der
Deutschen Nationalbibliografie; detaillierte bibliografische Daten sind
im Internet über abrufbar.
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ISBN 978-3-95650-259-0
ISSN 2365-886X
Felix Heinzer / Jörn Leonhard / Ralf von den Hoff
Vorwort ................................................................................................................... 7
Felix Heinzer / Jörn Leonhard / Ralf von den Hoff
Relationen zwischen Sakralisierungen und Heroisierungen................................... 9
Wolfgang Eßbach
Welche Religionsbegriffe eignen sich zur Analyse
sakraler Dimensionen des Heroischen? ................................................................ 19
Jan N. Bremmer
From Heroes to Saints and from Martyrological to
Hagiographical Discourse...................................................................................... 35
Michael N. Ebertz
Heroische Tugenden.
Mehrung und Vernichtung, Kontrolle und Funktionalisierung
des religiösen Heldencharismas in der römisch-katholischen Kirche ...................67
Bernhard Lang
Elija, Mose und Josef.
Drei biblische Gemeinschaften, ihre Leitgestalten
und die Vielfalt des antiken Judentums.
Eine These über alttestamentliche ‚Helden‘ ..........................................................87
Gabrielle Oberhänsli-Widmer
Die Entheroisierung des Mose im klassischen Judentum................................... 105
Klaus Herbers
Schlüsselfiguren des christlichen Spanien im Mittelalter.
Wege vom Helden zum Heiligen........................................................................ 115
Karin Steiner
Mensch, Held, Gott.
‚Fluid identities‘ in hinduistischen Traditionen.................................................. 129
Andreas Schlüter
Leidenshelden im Transzendenzdruck.
Skizze einer aristokratischen Heldenfiguration
in England und Frankreich (ca. 1586 bis 1646).................................................. 143
Anne-Julia Zwierlein
The only righteous in a world perverse“.
Sakraler Heroismus, Republikanismus und ‚einsame Gerechte‘
bei John Milton und Lucy Hutchinson...............................................................167
Christina Schröer
Helden im Dienst der Revolution.
Symbolpolitische Strategien zur Sakralisierung
des Nouveau Régime (1789–1799)..........................................................................187
Benjamin Marquart
Napoleons Golgota.
Sakralisierende Heldenverehrung zwischen Restauration
und Julimonarchie............................................................................................... 215
Olmo Gölz
Khomeini’s Face is in the Moon.
Limitations of Sacredness and the Origins of Sovereignty ................................ 229
Johanna Pink
Helden der Verkündigung, Helden des Kampfes.
Nāǧi Ibrāhīm und die ägyptische Ǧamāʿa islāmiyya ab 2011.......................... 245
Friederike Pannewick
Grenzgänger des Umbruchs.
Der symbolische Kampf um das Gedenken an Helden
und Märtyrer des ‚Arabischen Frühlings‘............................................................ 263
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