Book reviews are usually written about new publications. But it is surprising how often important works by major writers are forgotten simply because they are perceived to belong to an earlier generation. I would like therefore to remind Crescent readers of the work of an important Iranian thinker who made an enormous contribution to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but whose name seldom arises in discussions of it nowadays: Shaheed Ali Shari’ati, who was martyred in London in 1977 after being released from imprisonment in Iran and allowed to go into a short-lived exile.
Shari’ati came from a family of ulama in Mazanin, near Mashhad in eastern Iran, but supplemented his traditional education with the study of sociology at Masshad University before going on to do a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he became active in Iranian opposition groups, while also being influenced by Jalal Al-e Ahmed, author of the landmark Gharbzadeghi (‘Occidentosis’ or ‘Westoxication’), which discussed the impact of Western influence on Iranian society and thought.
Shari’ati returned to Iran in 1964 and was imprisoned for some months for his political activities in Paris, before being allowed to take up a teaching post in Mashhad. It was there that he began delivering the lectures on the nature of Islam and its role in modern society that made him famous. This was a time of considerable political and intellectual turmoil in Iran, after Imam Khomeini had been exiled in 1963.
Some ulama and others in Tehran, including Ayatullah Murtaza Muttahari, had established the Hussainiyyah Irshad in northern Tehran, as a venue for lectures on Islam as part of a concerted effort to reverse the alienation of Western-educated Iranian youth from their Islamic culture and traditions. In the late 1960s Shari’ati was invited to lecture there. He soon became the Hussainiyyah’s main attraction, drawing both massive crowds and the attention of the authorities. In the early 1970s the Hussainiyyah was shut down and Shari’ati imprisoned. Soon after his release he died in controversial circumstances in London; it is widely accepted that he was murdered by SAVAK, the Shah’s notorious secret police.
Shari’ati deserves credit for playing a major role in the Islamic Revolution. His main contribution was to reinterpret Islam for a Westernised generation that had come to think of it as irrelevant to their lives and the problems facing them in the modern world, at a time when relatively few ulama in Iran were able to offer the radical and revolutionary leadership embodied by Imam Khomeini (ra). (It may be argued that many ulama in Iran still have this problem.) More than a quarter of a century after his death, many of Shari’ati’s writings are as fresh and relevant as they ever were.
There are a number of reasons that may explain why Shari’ati has slipped from popular attention. One is that he died before the Revolution, and his writings were seen as having been overtaken by events, and relevant only in the pre-Revolutionary context. Another is that his legacy was claimed, quite falsely, by some anti-Revolutionary groups after his death, including Marxists and other secularists, who claimed that he was anti-ulama and would have opposed the Islamic state.
This argument, however, is quite false. Although Shari’ati was highly critical of the ulama in many of his writings — he coined the well known distinction between Alawi and Safavid Shi’ism (the former radical, active and committed to social justice, the latter conservative and politically quiescent) — the grounds of his criticisms were not dissimilar to those being made even by some ulama at the same time, including Imam Khomeini (ra). Shari’ati did not argue for the abolition of the ulama, as some of his supposed followers have claimed, but argued that they should accept their responsibilities and be better prepared to fulfil them.
Shari’ati never produced a major single work rounding up his ideas. Most of his works available to us are transcripts of lectures, many of them not prepared for publication by himself. This causes problems for the reader. He expressed himself in different ways to different audiences, and his thinking clearly evolved over time. After the Islamic Revolution, an authoritative, 35-volume collection of his writings, including lectures, articles and correspondence, was published in Iran. Relatively little, however, is available in English.
During Shari’ati’s lifetime many translations of his speeches were published in pamphlet format, but few of these survive. What are still available are various collections of his lectures published around the time of the Revolution. The best and best-known of these is On the Sociology of Islam: Lectures by Ali Shariati translated by Hamid Algar (Mizan Press, Berkeley, CA, 1979). The introduction to this volume, written by a contributor identified only by his initials, is among the best introductions to Shari’ati’s life and work, and the main lectures in it, including ‘Approaches to the Understanding of Islam’ and ‘Man and Islam’ are excellent starting points for understanding Shari’ati’s thought.
Other useful collections of Shari’ati’s lectures in English include Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique, translated by R. Campbell, edited by Hamid Algar (Mizan Press, Berkeley, CA, 1980), Man and Islam, translated from the Persian by Dr Fatollah Marjani (Filinc Publications, Houston, TX, 1981) and What is to be Done? – The Enlightened Thinkers and an Islamic Renaissance, edited and annotated by Farhang Rajaee (The Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, Houston, TX, 1986.) One thing which shines through these books is the clarity and directness of Shari’ati’s exposition, which makes them far easier to read than many books of their sort.
Secondary sources on Shari’ati need to be approached with great caution. Some Western-influenced writers have failed to understand the Islamic essence of his ideas and dismissed them as Islamicised versions of Western ideologies. These include Hamid Dabashi, author of a substantial work, The Theology of Discontent: Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1993). Social scientists, such as Akhavi Shahrough, have had trouble accepting that, for any Islamic intellectual, there are certain positions which have to accepted a priori. The best analyses have come from writers who have direct understanding of Shari’ati’s concerns, including Algar in the introductions to his editions of Shari’ati’s writings, and Abdulaziz Sachedina, in John Esposito’s volume Voices of Radical Islam (1983). There is also a substantial biography of Shari’ati by Ali Rahnema: An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariati, I B Taurus, 1998, which is useful despite certain flaws.
Shaheed Ali Shari’ati was just one of numerous Muslim intellectuals who have sought to provide answers to the problems confronting Muslims in the modern, West-dominated world. Unlike some, however, whose works have not aged well, many of his writings remain as relevant and useful today as they were when they were first written. At a time when the Ummah continues to face many of the problems that Shari’ati addressed, his work constitutes a legacy that the contemporary Islamic movement cannot afford to ignore.