Dr. Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi grew up in a pious family that was at the pinnacle of
the religious hierarchy in Iran, enabling him to become intimately acquainted
with Iran's leading clergy. As an adult, he was a noted theologian, philosopher
and teacher. Among Iran's scholars, Hairi-Yazdi was one of the few who combined
a rigorous study of Islam and Western philosophy. He was also a participant
in many historical events, making his memoirs an important primary source for
the study of contemporary Iranian history.
Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi was born in 1923 in the city of Qom, Iran's major religious
center. His father, Ayatollah Abdolkarim Hairi-Yazdi, was the leading marja'
al-taqlid of the Shiites from 1922 to 1937. His father was also the founder
of the Qom Seminary, where nearly all of Iran's leading clergy studied-many
as his students. Given this background, Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi came to know and work
closely with some of Iran's most powerful ayatollahs: Seyyed Hossein Boroujerdi,
Seyyed Mohammad Behbahani, Seyyed Abolghassem Kashani, Seyyed Mohammad-Kazem
Shariatmadari and Rouhollah Khomeini.
Hairi-Yazdi completed his primary and secondary education in his home town
under the guidance of his father. Subsequently, he attended Qom Seminary and
studied under Ayatollah Boroujerdi, attaining the title of mujtahid.
In 1951, he moved to Tehran as representative of Ayatollah Boroujerdi on the
High Council of Education, Iran's highest policy making body on education. At
the same time, he began teaching at the Sepahsalar Seminary, Tehran's premier
school for the clergy. Four years later, he was appointed associate professor
at Tehran University Faculty of Divinity. A few years later he was promoted
to full professor.
In 1959, Hairi-Yazdi journeyed to Washington, D.C. as representative of Ayatollah
Boroujerdi. While there, he helped establish the Association of Islamic Students
in the United States and Canada, whose leaders later played important roles
in the establishment of the Islamic Republic. This period coincided with his
growing interest in Western philosophy. In his view, one could not become a
true Islamic scholar without also having a broad knowledge of Western philosophy.
A true scholar had to understand the relationship between the two world views
and their influence on each other. In his words, "I said to myself, if
we want to become familiar with the fundamentals of Western thought, we must
temporarily put aside our own methodology and start from scratch."
To pursue his goal, he registered in the undergraduate program at Georgetown
University in Washington, D.C., where he received his BA in Western philosophy.
After Georgetown, Hairi-Yazdi studied at the University of Michigan and subsequently
earned a masters and a doctorate in analytic philosophy from the University
During his stay in the West, Hairi-Yazdi taught at a number of academic institutions
including Oxford, McGill, Toronto, Harvard, Yale, Michigan and Georgetown University's
Kennedy Institute of Ethics.
In February 1979, the Islamic Revolution overthrew the monarchy and Ayatollah
Khomeini became the supreme leader. The Hairi-Yazdi and Khomeini families had
a long standing relationship. Ayatollah Khomeini had studied under Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi's
father, while Hairi-Yazdi had been a student of Ayatollah Khomeini. Also, his
niece was married to Ayatollah Khomeini's eldest son, Mostafa. More than these
family ties, Ayatollah Khomeini and Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi had been intimate friends
for nearly twenty years.
So it was not surprising that when the Iranian embassy in Washington needed
an acting ambassador immediately after the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called
on Hairi-Yazdi to take charge. Within a few weeks, however, Hairi-Yazdi found
the experience frustrating and the factionalism at the embassy directed from
Tehran intolerable. When he learned that government funds in New York had been
withdrawn by a man of uncertain repute, he wrote Ayatollah Khomeini outlining
the misdeed. As he did not receive a response to his letter, he withdrew from
In the summer of 1980, during his break from teaching, he returned to Iran
and met with the Ayatollah. At the end of the summer, he was prevented from
leaving Iran. As Hairi-Yazdi states, "the Leader of the Revolution prevented
me from leaving Iran. He had issued the order-I don't know for what reason-he
was [perhaps] afraid of me or feared that when I returned to America, I might
undermine his position. At any rate ... [I] was in fact [under] house arrest."
By 1983, the restriction on his movements lapsed for he was able to travel
to England to teach at the University of Oxford. But his friendship with Ayatollah
Khomeini had been permanently changed and the two did not meet again.
The memoirs of Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi provide a window into the world of Iran's
clerical elite and their center Qom. Because of his close relationship with
Ayatollah Boroujerdi, he is able to provide us with authoritative information
regarding the personal characteristics of the ayatollah, as well as his administrative
organization, his relationship with the central government and the differences
between his political perspective and that of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Mr. Hairi-Yazdi has many recollections regarding Ayatollah Khomeini, including
a meeting between the ayatollah and the Shah in mid 1950s. As a representative
of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, Ayatollah Khomeini asked the Shah to restrict the Bahais
as was done by his father, Reza Shah. Hairi-Yazdi quoting Ayatollah Khomeini
says, "The Shah sighed and replied, 'Mr. Khomeini, do not compare [my father's
era] with the present. In those days, all cabinet ministers and political figures
obeyed my father. They did not dare do otherwise. Now, even the minister of
court does not listen to me. How can I do what you ask?' I realized that he
was telling the truth and was convinced."
In another part of his memoirs, Hairi-Yazdi contends that the 1979 Revolution
was not inevitable. He blames the Imperial Court for breaking the long standing
tie between the court and the clergy by slighting Ayatollah Khomeini in 1961.
He also believes that "senseless acts" by the former regime such as
changing the official calendar from Islamic to Imperial contributed to the fall
of the monarchy.
After the Revolution, Hairi-Yazdi became a controversial figure among the proponents
of rule by the clergy, primarily for his opinion that velayat-e faqih had no
basis in Shiite law. He presented his judgment in a book entitled, Hekmat
va Hokumat, published in London in 1995. The final chapter of this book
is included in Appendix 1.
The memoirs of Hairi-Yazdi total five hours and were recorded by my late colleague,
Zia Sedghi, during three sessions. The first session was held on January 28,
1989 and the last on April 29, 1992 in Bethesda, Maryland.
Given that Hairi-Yazdi had placed no restrictions on the use of his memoirs,
we intended to publish them as part of the Harvard Iranian Oral History Series
in 1995. While the manuscript was being edited, one of my colleagues told me
that Dr. Hairi-Yazdi was under surveillance in Tehran because of his statements
against velayat-e faqih. He urged me to ask Hairi-Yazdi for confirmation before
publishing his memoirs. I telephone Dr. Hairi-Yazdi and explained our plans.
His response was that "there is no need to rush" and that we should
send him the transcript to review before its publication.
Dr. Hairi-Yazdi died in Tehran on July 8, 1999. A year later, Mr. Saeed Alaghband,
his brother-in-law, contacted me and sent the manuscript that had been corrected
in Hairi-Yazdi's own handwriting. The primary difference between the old and
the new version is in the markedly softened tone of the latter, and it is this
version that we have published as part of the Harvard Iranian Oral History Series.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- On Mehdi Hairi-Yazdi
- Notes on the Interview
- Family Background
- Establishment of Qom Seminary
- Sardar Sepah and the Republican Movement
- Study in Qom
- Teaching at Sepahsalar Seminary and Tehran University
- Study in the United States
- First Trip to Iran after the Revolution
- Prime Minister Mossadegh and his Administration
- Candidacy for the Parliament from Yazd
- Representative of Ayatollah Boroujerdi in the U.S.
- Ayatollah Boroujerdi's Relations with the Government
- Ayatollah Behbahani and Coup of August 1953
- Opposition of Ayatollah Boroujerdi to the Tudeh Party
- On Ayatollah Seyyed Abolghassem Kashani
- Meeting of Ayatollah Khomeini with the Shah
- Opposition to Bahais
- Role of Ayatollah Boroujerdi in the Political Arena
- The Veil and the Goharshad Mosque Incident
- Leader of the Shiites and Marja' al-Taqlid
- Lack of Basis for the Concept of Velayat-e Faqih
- Meaning of Marja' al-Taqlid of Shiites
- Marja' al-Taqlid after the Death of Ayatollah Boroujerdi
- On Ayatollah Khomeini
- On Ayatollah Shariatmadari
- Rift between the Clergy and the Monarchy
- June 1963 Uprising
- Ayatollah Khomeini in Exile
- Supervision of the Washington Embassy
- Ayatollah Khomeini and the Assembly of Experts
- Senator Edward Kennedy and the Release of Hostages
- Last Visit with Ayatollah Shariatmadari
- Sardar Sepah and His Inclination toward a Republic
- Ayatollah Boroujerdi - Ministry of Education Dispute
- On Imam Musa Sadr
- Meeting Prime Minister Alam after June 1963 Uprising
Habib Ladjevardi has been the director of the Iranian Oral History Project
at Harvard University since 1981. Born in Tehran, he grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y.,
and was educated at the Yale Engineering School and the Harvard Business School.
Dr. Ladjevardi returned to Iran in 1963 and began work as personnel manager
in his family's business. Subsequently he was responsible for founding the Iran
Center for Management Studies in Tehran, where he taught until 1976. He also
served on a number of boards and councils in the private and public sectors.
Dr. Ladjevardi received his Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 1981.