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Khomeini’s Forerunners

In response to:

Muslims, Christians, and Jews: The Dream of Coexistence from the March 26, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

I hesitate to dispute so distinguished an authority as Professor Bernard Lewis about anything, but surely he was writing off hand, without sufficient reflection when he stated “Khomeini has no predecessors in Islamic history….” [NYR, March 26].

The history of Morocco alone provides two major and hundreds of minor precursors: Abdullah Yasin, in the 11th century, who led to the founding of the Sanhajan Empire; Mohammed ibn Tumart, in the 12th century, who subverted the Almoravid dynasty much as Khomeini undercut the Pahlevi; and numerous Marabouts, throughout the centuries, religious leaders who obtained military and political power, sometimes on a national scale.

A more recent and more notorious example from another country is Mohammed Ahmed (called the Mahdi) in late 19th century Sudan.

Certainly all these men derived their power, not from their hierarchical position, but from their presumed sanctity and bond to the Divine. Is not the same true of Khomeini?

Harry G. Parke
New York City

Bernard Lewis replies:

Mr. Parke is of course right in what he says. I am grateful to him for drawing attention to an ambiguity in my article, and thus giving me the opportunity to clarify it.

In making his point, Mr. Parke has also, in his final paragraph, suggested the answer. There were indeed many religious radicals in Islamic history who overthrew a regime and founded, or helped to found, another. But they were men from outside the religious establishment, which itself was very far from constituting a church or a clergy as these words are used in Christendom. They were, for the most part, charismatic popular preachers who indeed, as Mr. Parke rightly says, “derived their power…from their presumed sanctity and bond to the Divine.” The late Ayatollah Khomeini did indeed make the same claim, but he is surely the first to whom, as the chief of an entrenched hierarchy of professionally trained and certificated men of religion, one could apply the term “clergyman” and “prelate.”

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