Upon his release from prison, Imam Khomeini continued to speak out against the government’s un-Islamic and autocratic practices. He declared that by signing the infamous status of forces agreement granting American personnel in Iran complete immunity, the Shah had surrendered the sovereignty of the Iranian nation. Eventually, the Imam was sent into exile, first to Turkey and then to Iraq. By sending him to Iraq, the Shah had hoped that the Imam would be dwarfed by other prominent scholars of Najaf, such as Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim and Sayyid Abul Qasim al-Khoei.
In Najaf, Imam Khomeini began teaching jurisprudence in the Shaikh Murtadha Ansari School. In addition, he began lectures on Islamic political theory and governance, which were very well-attended by students of all backgrounds. Imam Khomeini argued that in the period of the 12th Imam’s (may Allah hasten his reappearance) occultation, a system of government can only be truly Islamic when it is under the supervision of qualified jurists. These lectures were transcribed into the famous treatise entitled Wilayat-e-Faqih or Guardianship of the Jurist. His speeches, articles, and letters were smuggled into Iran, where they were propagated among the masses by such dedicated students as Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Beheshti and Shaikh Murtadha Mutahhari.
Opposition to the Shah continued to grow, but it was often met with brutal repression techniques by the SAVAK. On an anniversary of the famous 15 Khordad uprising, students in Madressa Fayziyya staged another demonstration against the government. The helpless demonstrators were fired upon from helicopters, and dozens were killed. The regime reacted similarly against the dozens of demonstrations that erupted throughout Iran. In one instance, over 400 people were burned to death behind the locked doors of a cinema in Abadan. On the infamous Black Friday, over 2000 protestors calling for the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic government were killed in Tehran at which is now referred to as Maydan-e-Shuhada (Martyrs’ Field).
From Najaf, the sermons of the Imam were recorded onto audio cassettes and smuggled into Iran. He praised the Iranian nation for their sacrifices and enjoined upon them patience and perseverance. He famously said, “These demonstrations that break down tyranny and advance the goals of Islam are a form of worship that is not confined to certain months or days, for the aim is to save the nation, to enact Islamic justice, and to establish a form of divine government based on justice.”
When he saw his plan fail, the Shah had the Imam exiled from Iraq. He thereafter traveled to Paris and settled in the suburb of Neauphle-le-Chateau. The Shah had hoped that this would serve to minimize contact between the Imam and his followers in Iran. On the contrary, thanks to the Shah’s own attempts to closely link Iran and Europe, communication with his associates became even easier for the Imam! Furthermore, he was often visited by Western journalists and reporters in Paris, and the whole world soon knew about Imam Khomeini and his vision of an Islamic state based upon the teachings of the Qur’an and the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them).
As the Muharram season approached, the Imam declared that the Iranian must follow in the example of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) in rising up against tyranny and injustice. On the eve of Ashura in 1399 AH, over a million people donned in white martyrdom shrouds marched through the streets of Tehran. They called for a list of 17 demands, topmost of which was the establishment of an Islamic government in Iran. Thousands of protestors were gunned down by government helicopters, but to no avail. Around the country, workers in one industry after another declared periods of national strike. The Revolution had begun.
From Paris, the Imam proclaimed the establishment of the Council of Islamic Revolution, which would replace the government of Prime Minister Bakhtiar. The Shah fled Iran, never to return. The only thing between Iran and an Islamic government now was a military coup d’état. Millions of protestors came out to face the soldiers, but instead of using violence, they invoked their brotherhood. They brought gifts for the soldiers and placed flowers in the barrels of their guns. Massive desertion followed.
On 2nd Rabi al-Awwal, 1399 AH (January 31, 1979 CE), the Imam took a chartered Air France flight to Tehran. He was greeted at the airport by millions of followers. Upon arriving in Iran, the Imam traveled first to the Behesht Zehra cemetery to pay his respects to the martyrs of the Revolution. A few days later, a provisional Islamic government was established under Mahdi Bazargan. As the military completely disintegrated, Bakhtiar imposed a curfew in Iran. In response, the Imam urged his followers to defy the curfew and declared that if his followers were opposed or attacked, he would declare Jihad against the government. The military finally withdrew its support from the Bakhtiar regime, and on 14 Rabi al-Awwal, 1399 AH (February 14, 1979), the imperial regime finally collapsed. The Revolution had triumphed.
A referendum was shortly held, and the people voted overwhelmingly in favor of the establishment of an Islamic government. An Assembly of Experts (consisting of jurists) convened to approve the proposed constitution. Towards the end of the year, the constitution was also approved by the people. Article Five of the constitution declared that during the occultation of the 12th Imam, “the governance and leadership of the nation devolve upon the just and pious jurist who is acquainted with the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability; and recognized and accepted as leader (Rahbar) by the majority of the people.” Imam Khomeini was unanimously chosen as the first Rahbar of the newly-proclaimed Islamic Republic of Iran.