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Khomeini in Najaf: The Religious and Political Leadership of an Exiled Ayatollah

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The thirteen years Khomeini spent in exile in the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf is still a little-known page of his life. Based on a collection of published interviews with Iranian clerics, this article explores the social mechanisms of his growing authority, both as a religious scholar and a revolutionary figure. His leadership practices were, the article argues, a mirror of his position of in-betweenness characterized by his physical presence in Najaf and his continued attachment to the home country. The social dynamics at work inside the Iraqi seminaries are explored first to situate Khomeini in his place of exile. While he was kept at a distance by Najaf’s most influential clerical groups, he also had access to a social base of his own, a group of supporters composed mainly of Iranian students and low-ranking scholars. The local and transnational development of Khomeini’s religio-political leadership is addressed next. His scholarly and social activities among Najaf’s community of learning allowed him to consolidate and spread his religious influence. His political activities were less overt than generally assumed; he kept a low profile in Najaf’s public sphere yet maintained a political presence transnationally through his network.

Affiliations: 1: School of Culture and Society – Arab and Islamic Studies, Aarhus University


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