Since the mid-1990’s, political theorists have become increasingly interested in studying works of political theory produced by authors who wrote in unfamiliar intellectual contexts, in languages other than English, and outside of the canon of political philosophy commonly taught to students in Western universities. This emerging subfield, comparative political theory, still sits uneasily within the discipline, with theorists asking important and difficult questions about the subfield’s aims. In my project, I show how comparative political theorists, by studying non-Western thinkers and the traditions of thought that provided them with their conceptual vocabulary, can shed light on contemporary politics. Recent political events in the Muslim world, from the aftermath of the Arab Spring to the contested 2009 Iranian elections, have reinvigorated commonly asked questions about whether Islamic principles are compatible with democratic forms of government. My work focuses on an influential theorist and leader of an Islamic government, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seeking to understand his political writings by tracing their origins in several intellectual traditions. In my study, I show that Khomeini was influenced by a modern Islamic constitutionalist tradition, a tradition that provided him—and continues to provide contemporary scholars and actors—with the theoretical resources to articulate democratic yet distinctly Islamic political principles.

While most of the secondary literature on Khomeini has been written by scholars of Middle East studies who claim that Khomeini writes within a neoplatonic tradition of thought, granting a jurisprudent or philosopher sovereign and absolute political power, the Khomeini I present is one whose thought is influenced significantly by the Islamic constitutionalist tradition. His Islamic government is one that includes a parliament, cannot be imposed upon a public that does not consent to it, and implements a form of the shari’a that must be responsive to contingent circumstances and the public welfare. Khomeini often says that parliament must determine when and how the shari’a may be molded to address circumstances and promote welfare. This Khomeini is one whose theory of government overlaps, in its constitutionalism, with principles that may be more appealing to theorists of democratic government, and these shared principles may be starting points of a dialogue.

Deepening our understanding of Khomeini’s thought may not only benefit our normative discussions of political theory, but it helps us to understand contemporary politics in the Islamic world. Countless thinkers and political actors in Iran—ranging from politicians such as Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to scholars such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi or activists such as Akbar Ganji—continue to be engaged with Khomeini, whether by drawing on him for support or by contesting his views. In addition, many contemporary thinkers and actors draw not only on Khomeini directly, but on the same traditions of thought that became resources for Khomeini—including, importantly, the constitutionalist tradition. My intimate knowledge of Khomeini’s thought and his intellectual world allows me to comprehend contemporary debates. I have found that, in part because Khomeini’s ideas are complex and often in tension, his theory is interpreted by both conservatives and reformists to authorize diverse political theories and to promote or obstruct democratic participation.

My book begins with the historical study of Khomeini’s political thought that is needed to engage with him and those influenced by him. In the first chapter, I show that Khomeini is influenced primarily by three traditions of thought: the Islamic constitutionalist tradition, the Usuli legal tradition, and the Shi’a jurisprudential tradition of Islamic political theory. Khomeini’s Usuli perspective on the law underlies his constitutionalism. Usuli theorists justify the law in terms of its ends and hold that the letter of the law may be molded to serve the principles of the law, and Khomeini blends Usuli principles with constitutionalism by arguing that parliamentary representatives must supplement and mold the law based on its principles. At the same time, Khomeini draws on the Shi’a jurisprudential tradition of political theory, and in particular the principle that the jurisprudent would have a legislative role in government, a role that Khomeini was preoccupied with clarifying through the end of his life.

Beginning in my third chapter, I apply the arguments from my first chapter to Khomeini’s political works, seeking to understand these works by identifying the concepts and arguments that he drew from these three traditions. In Chapter 3, I discuss Unveiling of Secrets, in which constitutionalist ideas are most evident. In this book, he defends the principle of popular consent, argues that parliament must draft law to supplement the shari’a based upon its principles, and urges citizens to use their reason to develop standards for assessing their representatives and the law that they pass. In Chapter 4, I examine his better-known Islamic Government, published in 1970, and I argue that though Khomeini in this work often stops short of expressly endorsing constitutionalist principles such as popular consent or parliamentary government, he opens the theoretical space for these principles by comparing his own theory to those of constitutionalist thinkers and speaking of the possibility of legislative activity in a government that implements the shari’a. In Chapter 5, I study Khomeini’s speeches and correspondence from after the Revolution, in which he encourages the public to participate in elections and hold their representatives accountable. In these writings, he also articulates a significant role for the jurisprudent in government, arguing, at times, that the jurisprudent’s expertise entitles him to exercise sovereign legislative authority. At other times, however, he indicates that parliament has the authority to pass legislation that responds to new circumstances unaddressed by the shari’a, circumstances that the jurisprudent does not fully understand. I move to contemporary Iran in the last chapter of the book, where I examine how elements of Khomeini’s thought, as well as the traditions of thought that influenced him, have been adopted, developed, contested, and invoked for current political purposes by conservative and reformist scholars and political actors.

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