Early Life and Education

Sayyed Ali Khamenei had a deeply religious upbringing and modest economic background before ascending to the highest levels of religious and political power in the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was born on July 16, 1939, in the northeastern Iranian holy city of Mashhad, which is the country’s second most populous city and home to the Imam Reza Shrine, a renowned site visited by millions of religious pilgrims each year. Khamenei was the second son among eight children born to a clerical father of Azeri descent. According to his official biography, Khamenei’s father, Javad Khamenei, was born and received religious education in Najaf, Iraq, historically the holiest city in Shi’a Islam and the main center of Shi’a scholarship. After completing his religious studies, Khamenei’s father settled in Mashhad, although he briefly returned to Najaf for further training. He was recognized as a mujtahid, a scholar capable of independent reasoning in interpreting of religious law, and he served as a locally prominent religious educator and public prayer leader who was held in high esteem by the community.  

Khamenei describes his father as a devout ascetic, unconcerned with materialistic goods or worldly affairs. He describes his mother as highly educated in religion, history, literature, and poetry, who was dedicated to the education of Khamenei and his siblings. Khamenei tends to romanticize his impoverished upbringing, which was the norm of clerical families at the time. He recalls growing up in a small house with only one-room and a gloomy basement, and his family sometimes had no food but bread and raisins for supper. Despite the economic hardships, Khamenei attributes his early life’s enrichment to his close-knit family and their shared love for Islam, literature, and poetry.

Khamenei came of age during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a secular monarch who had close ties with the United Kingdom and the U.S. while showing hostility toward institutionalized religion. Despite the Shah’s efforts to modernize the country, Iranians generally retained their religiosity and continued to hold the Shi’a clergy in high esteem. Encouraged by his parents, Khamenei followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the seminary after completing his primary education. According to Mehdi Khalaji of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Khamenei became a cleric at the age of 11 and began dressing in clerical garb, which made him stand out and elicited mockery from his peers.