In His Name, the Most High
“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good advice and discuss with them in a manner that is best. Indeed, your Lord knows best those who stray from His way, and He knows best those who are guided.”
Quran, Surah an-Nahl (The Bee) (16), Verse 125
On January 3, 1988, a historic letter was delivered from Imam Khomeini1 to President Mikhail Gorbachev2. This letter has since been entered into the annals of history as a piece of remarkably insightful and indeed prophetic writing from one head of state to another.
However, it should be understood, that given who Imam Khomeini was, given how the writings of such people are not just restricted to a specific moment in time, but that rather their message permeates the entirety of history, it was felt that it would be pertinent and useful to revisit this letter, nearly 30 years after it was scribed.
Especially considering the global situation today, be it in Iran, or in America, in Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, in Norway or Sweden, in the United Kingdom or France, it was thought that examining this letter and seeing what pearls of wisdom can be garnered from it; to help and indeed understand the situation of the Muslims across the world, and indeed, of all of humanity moving forward, in these difficult, and testing times.
Firstly, we need to provide some context and background, that the lessons in this letter can be understood better; and if appropriate the context can be mapped to that of our day and age – nearly 30 years after it was scribed by the great Leader of the Islamic Revolution and Founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Imam Khomeini, may God rest his pure soul.
An important aspect of all revolutions – irrespective of where they occur and what their basis – is the ideological aspect. Every revolution, from the Russian to the French, from the American to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, has as part of its core make up an ideological component.
This component forms the backbone of any revolution. Irrespective of any other component of the revolution, should the ideological backbone become damaged, then the aspirations and lofty goals of a given revolution begin to erode, and ultimately, even though every other aspect of it may be secure, the revolution will ultimately die.
To understand this, we must look at the revolution of Imam Husayn in Karbala. The fact that even after 1400 years this revolution continues to inspire and motivate, that it serves as a beacon for justice, honour, dignity, hope, and resistance to tyranny and terror; is a testament to the fact the ideological core of this revolution is, has and will always remain intact.
The same can be said of the revolution of Prophet Muhammad and the delivery of Islam to the world.
Indeed, one can rightly say that the revolution of Imam Husayn served to bolster the revolution of Prophet Muhammad.
As mentioned by many scholars, the revolution of Imam Husayn, was, in fact, the continuation and indeed re-perfection of the message of the true Islam of Muhammad, and the injection of the Karbalai spirit into the equation, vaccinated and made immune the true Islam of Muhammad and its revolutionary spirit, from ever being harmed and damaged, lost and forgotten at the hands of those who wish it harm – be they internal or external foes.
Having said that, securing the revolution, doesn’t mean stagnation, it doesn’t mean that there is no evolution or adaptation to changing circumstances. It does, however, mean that there are a set of principles that are sacrosanct and that are not subject to alteration.
The core principles of any revolution, the core ideological principles that brought about the revolution in the first place, are immutable, unchanging; however, their understanding can be understood through the lens of the changes that time ultimately requires on any given construct.
After all, Imam Ali, teaches us when talking about raising our children (I have paraphrased but ensured the meaning is intact):
“Do not raise your children, in the same manner, your parents raised you; because they have been created for a different time”
This also applies to a society and a people, for after all, what is a society but a collection of children and their parents?
At the start of any revolution, there is a fervour, a fire that drives and motivates the revolutionaries to make their stance and give the many sacrifices that are needed for a revolution, any revolution, to bear fruit.
However, in the years following the victory of a revolution, as the generations move forward, the original revolutionaries passing on and retiring, and the new generation of revolutionaries rising to the fore, there needs to be an understanding, that the situation for the new revolutionaries will be different to that of the original ones.
This is very normal, and nothing that should surprise anyone. Times change. Circumstances change.
This is what Imam Ali is discussing in the quote mentioned above.
In the time of Prophet Muhammad, the early years of the original Islamic Revolution were indeed different to those in the time of even Imam Ali, or Imam Hasan or Imam Husayn and so on.
People had changed, the passage of time had eroded the fire of revolution from many people; people were concerned about their own welfare and well-being, and less about the ideals that gave them the freedoms they currently live within. This is a very important point; and needs to be understood by every revolutionary; to safeguard their revolution.
Now there are two ways that the revolution can proceed.
It can either stay locked in a specific time, staying with its original values and slogans, or it can adapt – but ensuring that the underlying principles are retained and not in any way compromised.
If a revolution adopts the approach of locking itself to a specific time, an approach of stagnation so to speak; then such a revolution will ultimately become redundant. The future generations will no longer understand the ideals that were fought so dearly to obtain, the sacrifices given, will over generations, be forgotten, except maybe in museums and academia. But the fire of the revolution – since it hasn’t been perpetuated and since the revolution has stagnated – will over time be extinguished.
The second approach is to continue and make perpetual the revolution. The same way that the Divine Revolution of Tawheed:
“There is none worthy of worship, except Allah”
The same way that the Divine Revolution of Tawheed is a perpetual revolution. It is perpetually moving and is in a constant state of evolution. Where at any time, any who suggests that they should be worshipped (or revered and there are many forms of worship, such as the worship of wealth, or power, and such), are constantly kept in check, by this very simple yet most beautiful revolution of Tawheed.
If a given revolution doesn’t adapt to its circumstances. If it doesn’t understand that times have changed and that the needs of the people are different from what they were when the revolution was initially victorious; then ultimately that fire of revolution; while maintaining its veneer, will be extinguished over the generations; with nothing left of it except a silhouette, marking that there was a fire of revolution that once lived here, and perhaps as some exhibits in a museum.
This is what happened in the Soviet Union back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The difficulties of the so-called Cold War, the conspiracies and plots of the enemies, the instigation of internal strife, and the presenting of the Western lifestyle as a model of excellence, over time, eroded the ideological backbone of the Communist Revolution.
It made everything that was “not communist” into an attractive proposition and made everything that was “communist” into a hindrance, a kerb on freedoms and civil liberties and so on.
I am not going to discuss the merits or pitfalls of communism, as I am merely using this as an example; I could just as easily have used the example of the original Islamic Revolution realised by the Prophet Muhammad, nay by all the Prophets of yesteryear.
For example, over time, as the Prophets passed on and the people began to forget the original reasons for the Prophetic Revolution. The tribulations that they lived under until the Prophets came and liberated them from their shackles of bondage were forgotten. Instead, the people began to idealise that which was the exact opposite of the revolutions brought about by the Prophets.
An example that I will not elaborate on since it is very well known, is that of the Israelites and Moses. How quickly the teachings and revolution of Moses were forgotten, even before he passed on, the golden calf was brought into play. But I digress; this is not a paper that is designed to discuss the history of the Prophets, rather the examples are given as but an indication to illustrate the point.
Returning to communism, the problems that the Soviet Union faced, economically, socially, culturally and so on, led to an internal situation that can even be described as a counter-revolution on an ideological front, amongst the population.
The masses began to move away from the original ideals since they had lost sight of what said ideas were; looking only at the here and now. Feeling that the sanctions applied to the Soviet Union were a major problem, feeling the isolation as a major problem, and instead of introspection, they looked to the West and capitalism as the saviour; based on the illusion that in the Western Capitalist countries and societies everything was wonderful and indeed the streets were paved with gold!
As history tells, this was clearly an error of judgement of epic proportions, that ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
It should be noted that the demise of the Soviet Union was not because of military weakness, or even economic or industrial weakness, rather it fell because of ideological bankruptcy.
The ideals espoused by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and others, who worked to establish the Communist System in Russia and then what became the Soviet Union, were forgotten and rendered only to the musings of some bygone year that no longer held relevance or credence.
This was the underlying problem. A failure to evolve with time, a failure to evolve while ensuring that the core principles remained immutable, to evolve to deal with the needs and aspirations of the future generations.
Now, this is not an article about the history of the Soviet Union or its formation, or its downfall, much has been written, and no doubt will continue to be written about this revolution.
The point that I am attempting to make, is that since the ideals of the Russian Revolution were forgotten, or diluted – both by the external propaganda, the constant climate of psychological war, as well as a complete lack of introspection and evolution on the part of the future generations of Communist revolutionaries; this led to the ultimate downfall of the Soviet Union.
These are very important lessons, and much can be learned from just these simple examples, for all revolutionary societies – be it Cuba, Iran, Zanzibar or elsewhere.
After all, another example of a revolutionary society that failed through a yearning for the greener grass on the other side was that of Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. But I will leave the discussion of Libya for another paper. This paper has already become somewhat lengthy.
All revolutionary societies can, and indeed must learn from these examples.
This includes the French, who had their French Revolution, the Americans who had their American Revolution.
A revolution founded to establish a society, a country, that was identified as “one nation under God”; that rejected the oligarchy of the British, rejected their plutocracy, but instead, worked – and indeed gave much by way of sacrifices – to create a system that was designed to ensure that everyone had the opportunity to become successful and live a good life, irrespective of their background, or whether they came from a wealthy family or were indeed peasants.
The American revolution aspired to embrace those who were outcasts in their own nations, and who were ostracised for having a set of beliefs; providing every type of person, from every background, the ability to live freely and in peace, and ultimately attain success for themselves and their families.
Again, I’m not going to spend time discussing the merits and pitfalls of the American Revolution, like the Russian Revolution, there are many books and papers written on this, and that again is not the point; I am merely speaking of the American Revolution to illustrate my point.
The point is, that at some time when a revolution is happening, there are a set of ideals and principles; if either of these are not evolved to match the understanding, circumstance and desires of each generation, then said revolution has a very short shelf-life.
That if the original revolution, if left uncared for – ideologically speaking – will only become a shell of what it was, and will remain a revolution only in name.
It is critical for every revolutionary to understand and reflect on this indisputable and sadly proven fact.
Staying with the Soviet Union, we can see, that there were policies that led to the destruction of the Soviet Union.
Amongst these policies was the idea of Glasnost – which means the idea of openness and discussion with the people and the government. This means opening the door to potential reforms (provided they don’t break with the core principles upon which the revolution is founded); it opens the door for a revolution to evolve; and indeed, works closely with the maxim from Imam Ali that I quoted above.
This is the idea, where the parents of the revolution, need to discuss with, train and inspire in their children – the future generations – the ideals of the revolution in a manner that they will understand; this is a good thing, and very much required.
However, if we examine the second component; that of Perestroika – which means (loosely) – the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system.
The idea of Perestroika, opened the door to the invasion of the Soviet Union by the vultures of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; and ultimately it was the lack of control within the restructuring; the lack of an adherence or even any memory of the original ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution – that resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Again, these are very important points to remember and reflect on.
Now that this concept is understood, another important aspect that must be considered is the idea of the level of propaganda and “soft war” against a given revolution.
It should be noted that a soft war rarely translates into a hot war. This is because when a soft war is initiated, the option for a hot war has already been ruled out (even though some from the side instigating a soft-war will habitually say that “all options are on the table”).
History has proven this is just sabre rattling, and indeed, the instigation of uncertainty and the politics of fear; make up the key components of any soft war.
The idea of a soft war is to create a situation where the target begins to lose hope, begins to start to believe that the grass is greener on the other side, begins to doubt the principles of the revolutionary system they live in and for which their predecessors gave so much to realise.
Because of this, ultimately it is the people living within the revolutionary environment, who forget the original ideology that the revolution was based on and thereby end up destroying the revolution from the inside out.
A clear and open example of this can be seen in the reaction of the people of Kufa to Imam Husayn and indeed to his emissary Muslim ibn Aqeel.
When Muslim ibn Aqeel first arrived in Kufa to verify the claims that the people of Kufa were with the Imam, he was met by many, if not all, of the Kufans.
Indeed, some of the elders and leaders of the people of Kufa cried and insisted that Muslim immediately send a message to Imam Husayn and tell him to travel to Kufa swiftly, as the people of Kufa were pledging their allegiance and loyalty to the Imam.
However, what happened?
Because of their weak adherence to the ideals of the revolution of the Prophet Muhammad, because of their fear that the status-quo would be harmed, because they forgot the core principles of the revolution of Prophet Muhammad, the idea of social justice, of resistance to tyranny, the failure to rely on God and other such reasons; the people of Kufa were easily manipulated by the representative of the despotic and corrupt Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiyah, Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad; and what should never have happened, tragically happened.
They were manipulated and damaged – due to being completely ideologically bankrupt – to such an extent, that many of those who wrote letters filled with love and yearning for the rule of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, were ranked against Imam Husayn, and indeed became responsible directly – as well as indirectly – for the murder of Imam Husayn and his 72 loyal and heroic companions on the fateful Day of Ashura in the year 680. A mere 50 years after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad.
In this, there are countless lessons for all who wish to see and wish to prevent themselves from falling prey to a fate that is no less disastrous.
Yet therein lies both the problem, as well as the answer; for all revolutions and revolutionaries.
Since the revolution of Imam Husayn in Karbala on the Day of Ashura in the year 680; is a revolution that has never been compromised. A revolution that is to this day as strong with its ideological concepts as it was on the fateful Day of Ashura. A revolution that continues to inspire and move forward. This revolution can be understood as the model revolution for all revolutionaries.
If you want to understand revolution. Understand Ashura, and you will understand revolution, how to enact it, how to preserve it, and how to ensure it never gets compromised.
The revolution of Karbala provides a plethora of lessons that can be learned. After all, wasn’t it the late Founder of the Islamic Republic, and Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomeini, who said (again paraphrased but the understanding is ensured):
“Everything that we have (i.e. the victory of the Islamic Revolution), is from (the eternal revolution of) Ashura”
The question that every revolutionary must now ask themselves, is what makes the revolution of Imam Husayn on Ashura in Karbala, so timeless, so eternal, so unbreakable?
Is it because somehow there has been no ideological soft war waged against it?
Not at all.
There have been countless barrages of soft (and indeed hard) attacks against this revolution; but it has weathered all the storms, and even after all of that, this revolution moves only from strength to strength; much like those 72 pure souls who gave everything for the sake of God, not tiring or losing resolve, even when one by one they were being massacred – including the six-month-old infant – Abdullah ar-Radhee (Ali al-Asghar) – of Imam Husayn. Still, they continued their stance. This by itself requires reflection. In this is a lesson for those who reflect and think.
The revolution of Imam Husayn, was continued and perpetuated and immortalised both by the sacrifice in Karbala, and the on-going resistance and perpetual revolution initiated initially by Lady Zaynab and Imam Ali ibn al-Husayn, Zayn al-Abedeen following the events of Ashura in Karbala, and subsequently carried forward by the Imams, the lovers of God and the revolutionaries across time.
Each of them ensuring the principles of the rise of Imam Husayn were kept intact and untainted, but that their understanding and presentation was adapted to cater for the generation that was being addressed and spoken to.
The way Ashura was and is presented provides us with countless lessons when it comes to the protection and perpetuation of any revolution.
Granted, one might argue that Imam Husayn (and indeed Prophet Muhammad) were, and are, infallible, and as a such, they were prevented from error by divine decree, but that doesn’t mean that somehow God has become perfidious! (Far is God from such attributions!)
That somehow, He provides humanity with a solution to its problems, to a way of perpetuating a revolution against injustice and tyranny, a revolution that enjoins the good and forbids from the evil; only to then say that the lay-person cannot implement it since it was initiated by an infallible. This is not how we understand God and His infinite kindness and justice.
God is not like this and it is unjust to even consider that he is.
God tells us in the Quran:
“Verily in the Prophet of God, you have the best of examples, for those who have hope in God, and the last day, and who remember God much.”
Quran, Surah Al-Ahzab (The Tribes) (33), Verse 21
If God says to us that in the Prophet there is the best of examples; then we must understand; that everything that the Prophet and his infallible progeny (his successors) – the twelve Imams – did is a deep lesson for us; a lesson that we can and indeed should implement within our lives; not just as a theoretical concept, but as a practical exercise.
We must reflect on these ideas, and not merely relegate them to matters of ablution, and crying.
These lessons – be they from Prophet Muhammad directly, from Imam Ali, all the way through to the lessons that can be found in the occultation of the Twelfth Imam – Imam Mahdi, may our souls be his ransom, and may God hasten his return – are priceless pearls of wisdom; that can protect us, and prevent us from falling into weakness and falling into situations where our ideals, those revolutionary ideals that countless have given their lives for, are betrayed and their sacrifices squandered for little more than thirty pieces of silver.
Betrayed for the sake of an electronic gadget, for the sake of an illusion that fools us into believing that the grass is greener on the other side and other such whimsical thoughts, that destroy the very fabric of our beings.
We should be sure, that should we fall into this trap, we will be the greatest of losers, and just like the victory of the soft war against some of the historical revolutions, from French, to American, through to Soviet, once you sacrifice your ideology, once you pollute your principles – in the name of “reforms” – you have headed down into an abyss from whence you are unlikely to emerge unscathed, if at all!
Indeed, you are not reforming anything; rather you are cutting away at your very self. You are cutting off your arms to spite your face, to quote a colloquialism.
Having said that, reformation has its place; certainly, as per Imam Ali’s maxim quoted above, we must move with the times so to speak. However, we must move with the times in a Karbalai manner, where we ensure that our principles are never sacrificed, compromised or diluted, not even an iota.
This is very important; as this is a very slippery slope, that of compromising your ideology, your beliefs, to somehow appease others.
This will ultimately lead to the erosion of your belief; such that, at the start of the month, you call for your Imam to come and lead you, and before the end of the month you are ranked against him and are actively involved in battling and murdering him.
So, now I hear the reader ask – how is this relevant to the letter written by Imam Khomeini to Mr Gorbachev, after all, that’s what you started your discussion with?
I will tell you my dear reader; the relevance lies in the fact that Mr Gorbachev, seeing the situation – economically and in terms of the soft war against the Soviet Union – decided to sacrifice his principles, decided not to listen to words of guidance from Imam Khomeini – who had said to him:
“If you hope, at this juncture, to solve the economic problems of socialism and communism by appealing to the centres of the Western capitalism, you will, far from remedying any ill of your society, commit a mistake which those to come will have to erase.”
Imam Khomeini, Letter to President Gorbachev, January 3, 1988
Now a country, such as the Soviet Union, that was a military powerhouse, that had its own industry, culture and strength. While having its share of economic problems due to crippling sanctions, could – with some sensible restructuring and reform (that didn’t compromise its ideology) – become self-sufficient. How did such an entity succumb so catastrophically to the illusions presented by those who were instrumental in the soft war against her?
Indeed, we can see in history, as clear as day, that Mr Gorbachev in his “wisdom” denounced and rejected the advice of Imam Khomeini, and subsequently oversaw the demise of the Soviet Union, at the hands of the capitalist entities that he had gone to with a begging bowl.
The entire episode humiliated the entire socialist and communist system in a manner from whence it could not recover, and one might argue still hasn’t.
We must understand this same predicament can befall other revolutionary societies that sacrifice their principles. All the while justifying their treason to their revolution, using arguments of reforms, alleviating difficulties and such things.
Reforms that are enacted while forgetting the core underlying principles of a revolution are not reforms, rather they are a dagger in the heart of the revolutionaries who gave their very lives and souls for the victory of the revolution.
Indeed, it can be posited that they are a dagger to the very heart of the father of all revolutionaries – Imam Husayn.
This is the case, irrespective of whether the revolution has an Islamic flavour or not.
This discussion is not pointing the finger at any specific country or any specific revolution, far from it.
In fact, if we look at one of the last bastions of true revolution in our world today, the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
This is a strong and robust revolution. The people are supportive of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic System of Wilayat al-Faqih; they honour the blood of the countless martyrs and remember the sacrifices that have been given – be it during the eight-year war, the nuclear program and the many martyred scientists and across all aspects of both Iran and the Glorious Islamic Revolution.
Testimony to this can be found in the massive turnout for the 2017 Iranian President Elections and indeed in presidential elections prior to that.
These massive turnouts serve as testimony to the strength of conviction that the revolutionary people of Iran have for their system of the Islamic Republic and the system of Wilayat al-Faqih.
This is honourable and a sight extremely beautiful to behold; but, we must always be vigilant and careful. We must never let complacency and apathy take root, for we would do so at our own peril.
Rather, this document serves as a very simple primer on understanding the wisdom behind the letter of Imam Khomeini to Mr Gorbachev and examines the pitfalls that any revolution can be subjected to, from those who wish to destroy its ideological principles, from enemies both foreign and domestic.
And from God alone is all ability, and He is our ultimate recourse in all matters.
Note: This article came about following a discussion with a close friend of mine about the letter of Imam Khomeini to President Gorbachev, and I would like to acknowledge my good friend Mr Ingve Iversen for his insight and contribution in this work.
Due to the length of this article, I have now decided to make a text-to-speech version available, so that it can be listened to as well as read, for the convenience of the viewer.
On January 3, 1988, a historic letter was delivered from Imam Khomeini to President Mikhail Gorbachev. This letter has since been entered into the annals of history…
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- Imam Khomeini was the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Leader of the Islamic Revolution. For a complete biography of Imam Khomeini please see here
- For the whole story of the delivering of this historic letter from Imam Khomeini to Mr Gorbachev please see the excellent article over at imam-khomeini.ir that explains this entire event