0909 GMT August 12, 2022
To have a better understanding, let’s first have a look at the word “charisma” and its definitions and then continue with the emergence of charismatic leadership and its formation.
What is charisma?
The word is taken from the Greek word “khárisma,” meaning intrinsic attraction – attraction of an individual with public influence. Among sociologists, great thinkers have tried to define charisma. Why is the subject so challenging and controversial?
As a branch of social science, sociology reviews human societies, reactions and processes which create stability or change. In fact, charismatic characters determine the society’s path and even its major and minor events. This influence will even have impact on the formation of all individual and social behaviors, actions or reactions. These charismatic characters will also influence “social class”. An example in Imam Khomeini’s life is the story of Edoardo Agnelli who was from a special social class but inspired by Imam Khomeini and defended his belief until his death.
Emergence of charismatic leadership
The German sociologist Max Weber was the first Western figure who seriously wrote on this concept. He proposed to consider it under the subject of “Ideal Type,” which was divided into three sections: Traditional authority, rational-legal authority, and charismatic authority.
This indicates that the concept of charisma has been widely used in political science. However, under special circumstances, it can be used for certain groups of people known as celebrities.
To capitulate, there are two approaches on the emergence of charismatic leaders: Leader-centered approach and follower-centered approach.
In the book, ‘Economy and Society’, Weber states: “The perfection of charismatic leaders has a profound effect on their contemporaries. It creates a wave of enthusiasm and followers.”
Endorsing Weber’s view, sociologist Reinhard Bendix argues that “a charismatic leader addresses the root of the problem, radically challenging traditional ingrained methods, and asserting his dominance over human beings by questioning traits that are unattainable for others or is incompatible with the rules of human life.”
However, in a follower-centered approach, a charismatic leader needs followers to transfer his message and give him social legitimacy. Jack Saunders, for example, does not believe that a charismatic leader can be charismatic just by relying on himself because his charisma highly depends on his followers’ will and situation.
Theoreticians like Schiffer went a step further: “Charismatic leaders are created by the people.”
In the meantime, there is still a missing part. Does having merely certain traits, spirits, and social theories, make a person charismatic?
The answer is one word which some sociologists believe will help a charismatic person emerge, or even persist, and this word is ‘crisis,’ as Turner et al. have written.
In a study by Barnes, he concluded that 14 out of the 15 charismatic leaders surveyed in the study made an impact during times of crisis. Interestingly, Ayatollah Khomeini has been mentioned as one of these leaders. Chávez in Venezuela and Fujimori in Peru are also named.
An example given is Winston Churchill’s story: Someone who conveyed a great sense of confidence to the people in times of crisis and marked a new starting point for Britain and its Western allies. As long as there was a crisis, he was considered by all to be great and beloved. When the crisis was over, the need for a strong leader subsided and waves of criticism started until he was fired from his office.
Now the question is: “Is Imam Khomeini a charismatic character, or should he and the Islamic Revolution that took place under his leadership be described in a different way?”
Characteristics traits and personality of Imam Khomeini
If the leader-centered or follower-centered approaches are examined in the characteristics of charismatic leaders, by addressing each of these approaches and their existential components, we can achieve similarities and functional differences in each of these leaders.
Those similarities and differences that are partial are completely natural. But what if we come to big differences which are called paradoxical propositions, with the paradigm defined in the subject of charisma? In other words, it has conflict with the principles defined at the beginning of this article.
In the view of those who believe in a leader-centered approach, including Weber, everything revolves around a capable and powerful leader with special qualities. If the leader is not strong, he will not have strong followers. In contrast, in follower-centered approach, everything revolves around strong followers who create or display the charisma of a leader and spread it in the minds of the people.
Examining Imam Khomeini’s leadership before and after the Islamic Revolution shows us that his efforts were to form a basis, not to create followers. The reason is that his thinking, as the son of a great scholar and as a source of Shia religious reference, is critical thinking in the shadow of the culture of Shia jurisprudence. For example, Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, Beheshti, Khamenei, and some other contemporary Shia Muslim thinkers were all his students. However, if there was any deviation in the principles of Islam, they were excluded from the circle of Imam Khomeini’s friends. But why did Imam Khomeini’s popularity not diminish, but make him even more popular?
The point is that Imam Khomeini’s charisma was not limited to his personality traits. There was an important difference in his method and character from those used by thinkers about the charismatic leader. His thinking was defined by “jihad and martyrdom,” on the one hand, and “hope and expectation,” on the other, which have been spoken by both Iranians and Shia Muslims, and even non-Muslims like Mahatma Gandhi.
In fact, being attributed to these two aspects of pure Islamic thought attracted people to him. The people, whose religion had been attacked for years by the communists, on the one hand, and British propaganda and BBC Radio, on the other, suddenly manifested themselves with the emergence of a Shia ideology at the right time.
Like a volcanic mountain, which had been dormant for years and occasionally erupted with the uprising of a religious or patriotic man, and became inactive again; it was suddenly directed after a few unsuccessful uprisings against the ruling regime, when a brave religious leader was found.
And with a patience of 15 years, and the successive mistakes of the regime of the time, it became a complete puzzle that showed an entirely regular form.
Studying his movement showed that he was very afraid of the person-centered uprising, so even in meetings where he was admired with certain titles, he reacted abruptly by saying words like, “We are all nothing ... or whatever we have now are derived from the lunar months of Muharram and Safar.” He tried to redirect the people’s attention from himself to God.
With the above explanation, we can say in one word that if Imam Khomeini wanted, the people would accept him as a charismatic leader.
This is while he tried to erase the image of being a charismatic leader because he knew that the charisma-seeking people would confine and limit the Islamic Revolution and its leadership in his lifetime.
The second disadvantage of charisma-seeking thought is what Jerrold M. Post has mentioned. He has even mentioned Ayatollah Khomeini several times in his book ‘Narcissism and the Charismatic Leader-Follower Relationship’ and considered the Islamic Revolution as a product of the crisis made by the second Pahlavi. That is, the crisis-oriented nature of the revolution.
Imam Khomeini’s intelligence also removed this danger. He told the people that the revolution happened by you and is for you. He handed over the administration of the uprising and the Islamic Revolution to the people, the oppressed ones, and according to him, the huts and slum dwellers.
* Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Hedayati is an expert in religious studies and a researcher in the social sciences.