The teacher who had the most profound influence on Imam Khomeini’s spiritual development was, however, Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali Shahabadi (d. 1328 Sh. /1950); to him the Imam refers in a number of his works as shaykhuna and ‘arif-I kamil, and his relationship with him was that of a murid with his murshid.
After his arrival in Qum in 1922 or 1923, the Imam first devoted himself to completing the preliminary stage of madrasa education known as sutuh; this he did by studying with teachers such as Shaykh Muhammad Riza Najafi Masjid-i Shahi, Mirza Muhammad Taqi Khwansari, and Sayyid ‘Ali Yasribi Kashani. However, from his early days in Qum, the Imam gave an indication that he was destined to become more than another great authority on Ja’fari jurisprudence. He showed an exceptional interest in subjects that not only were usually absent from the madrasa curriculum, but were often an object of hostility and suspicion: philosophy, in its various traditional schools, and Gnosticism (‘irfan).
He began cultivating this interest by studying the Tafsir-i Safi, a commentary on the Qur’an by the Sufistically-inclined Mullah Muhsin Fayz-i Kashani (d.1091/1680), together with the late Ayatollah ‘Ali Araki (d. 1994), then a young student like himself. His formal instruction in gnosticism and the related discipline of ethics began with classes taught by Hajji Mirza Javad Maliki-Tabrizi, but this scholar died in 1304/1925.
Similarly, the Imam was not able to benefit for long from his first teacher in philosophy, Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Hakim Yazdi, a pupil of the great master Mullah Hadi Sabzavari (d.1295/1878), for Yazdi passed away in 1305/1926. Another of the Imam’s early instructors in philosophy was Sayyid Abu ‘l-Hasan Qazvini (d. 1355/1976), a scholar of both peripatetic and illuminationist philosophy; the Imam attended his circle until Qazvini’s departure from Qum in 1310/1931.
The teacher who had the most profound influence on Imam Khumayni’s spiritual development was, however, Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali Shahabadi (d. 1328 Sh. /1950); to him the Imam refers in a number of his works as shaykhuna and ‘arif-I kamil, and his relationship with him was that of a murid with his murshid.
When Shahabadi first came to Qum in 1307 Sh. /1928, the young Imam asked him a question concerning the nature of revelation, and was captivated by the answer he received. At his insistent request, Shahabadi consented to teach him and a few other select students the Fusus al-Hikam of Ibn ‘Arabi. Although the basis of instruction was Da’ud Qaysari’s commentary on the Fusus, the Imam testified that Shahabadi also presented his own original insights on the text. Among the other texts that Imam Khumayni studied with Shahabadi were the Manazil al-Sa’irin of the Hanbali Sufi, Khwaja ‘Abdullah Ansari (d.482/1089), and the Misbah al-Uns of Muhammad b. Hamza Fanari (d. 834/1431), a commentary on the Mafatih al-Ghayb of Sadr al-Din Qunavi (d. 673/1274).
It is conceivable that the Imam derived from Shahabadi, at least in part, whether consciously or not, the fusion of gnostic and political concerns that came to characterize his life. For this spiritual master of the Imam was one of the relatively few ulama in the time of Riza Shah to preach publicly against the misdeeds of the regime, and in his Shadharat al-Ma’arif, a work primarily gnostic in character, described Islam as “most certainly a political religion.”
Gnosis and ethics were also the subject of the first classes taught by the Imam. The classes on ethics taught by Hajji Javad Aqa Maliki Tabrizi were resumed, three years after his death, by Shahabadi, and when Shahabadi left for Tehran in 1936, he assigned the class to Imam Khumayni. The class consisted in the first place of a careful reading of Ansari’s Manazil al-Sa’irin, but ranged beyond the text to touch on a wide variety of contemporary concerns.
It proved popular to the extent that the townsfolk of Qum as well as the students of the religious sciences attended, and people are related to have come from as far a field as Tehran and Isfahan simply to listen to the Imam. This popularity of the Imam’s lectures ran contrary to the policies of the Pahlavi regime, which wished to limit the influence of the ulama outside the religious teaching institution. The government therefore secured the transfer of the lectures from the prestigious location of the Fayziya madrasa to the Mullah Sadiq madrasa, which was unable to accommodate large crowds.
However, after the deposition of Riza Shah in 1941, the lectures returned to the Fayziya madrasa and instantly regained their former popularity. The ability to address the people at large, not simply his own colleagues within the religious institution, which the Imam displayed for the first time in these lectures on ethics, was to play an important role in the political struggles he led in later years.
While teaching ethics to a wide and diverse audience, Imam Khumayni began teaching important texts of gnosis, such as the section on the soul in al-Asfar al-Arba’a of Mullah Sadra (d. 1050/1640) and Sabzavari’s Sharh-I Manzuma, to a select group of young scholars that included Murtaza Mutahhari and Husayn ‘Ali Muntaziri, who subsequently became two of his principal collaborators in the revolutionary movement he launched some three decades later.
As for the earliest writings of the Imam, they also indicate that his primary interest during his early years in Qum was gnosis. In 1928, for example, he completed the Sharh Du’a’ al-Sahar, a detailed commentary on the supplicatory prayers recited throughout Ramadan by Imam Muhammad al-Baqir; as with all Imam Khumayni’s works on gnosis, the terminology of Ibn ‘Arabi is frequently encountered in this book. Two years later, he completed Misbah al-Hidaya ila ‘l-Khilafa wa ‘l-Wilaya, a dense and systematic treatise on the main topics of gnosis. Another product of the same years of concentration on gnosis was a series of glosses on Qaysari’s commentary on the Fusus.
In a brief autobiography written for inclusion in a book published in 1934, the Imam wrote that he spent most of his time studying and teaching the works of Mullah Sadra; that he had for several years been studying gnosis with Shahabadi; and that at the same time he was attending the classes of Ayatollah Ha’iri on fiqh.
The sequence of these statements suggests that fiqh was as yet secondary among his concerns. This situation was to change, but gnosis was for the Imam never simply a topic for study, teaching, and writing. It remained an integral part of his intellectual and spiritual personality, and as such infused many of his ostensibly political activities in later years with an unmistakably gnostic element.