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Islamic Movement

The continuing relevance of the thought of Ali Shariati

Iqbal Siddiqui

Dr Ali Shariati, who died in London in June 1977, was among the most important figures of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which unfortunately he did not live to see; and yet, 30 years after his death, his contribution and legacy are largely forgotten. During the 1970s, his lectures and writings played a crucial role in preparing young Iranians, brought up during the secularising and “Westoxicated” policies of the Shah’s regime, for the possibility of Islamic rule.
In this paper, IQBAL SIDDIQUI analyses major elements of his thought, particularly his belief that Muslims need what Dr Kalim Siddiqui would later call “an intellectual revolution” in their under-standing of Islam.

Ali Shariati died at only 44 years of age, in controversial circumstances in London on June 19, 1977, three weeks after leaving Iran for exile. It is widely assumed that he was assassinated by SAVAK, although British authorities ruled that he had died of natural causes. This early death may explain why much of his work has a sense of being part of a work in progress — the work in question being Shariati’s own intellectual development. His ideas clearly evolved over time, and he was reportedly prone to thinking out aloud and developing his ideas as he went. Unfortunately for those trying to analyse his thinking, he never produced a major single work rounding up the completed form of his ideas in even one of the many areas in which he worked.

What we have instead are materials ranging from polemical pamphlets to the transcriptions of lectures, many of them published without his knowledge and edited in ways that we can only guess. Many of these were first published in underground, samizdat form, which process hardly lends itself to the application of rigorous production values. The precise dating of many works — even in the authoritative 35-volume collection of his works published after his death — is often unclear. These problems are compounded by two further considerations. Firstly, relatively few translations of Shariati’s works are available for non-Farsi-speaking Muslims, and the quality of the translations is often uncertain at best. Secondly, Shariati’s work has become a highly politicised issue in post-Revolutionary Iran because his writings have been claimed and exploited by supporters of particular political positions, including opponents of the Islamic Revolution; this, combined with the difficult relationship he sometimes had with the Islamic establishment in Iran, has led to Shariati and his legacy being viewed with unjustified suspicion by some in the Islamic movement.

Nonetheless, Shariati’s historical importance should not be forgotten, and many of his ideas remain highly relevant today. This analysis of his ideas is based primarily on four of his works. The first is Man and Islam, a lecture reportedly delivered at the Petroleum College of Abadan, although no date is available. The second is Approaches to the Understanding of Islam, which is “a complete translation of Ravish-i Shinakhti-i Islam, comprising two lectures given at Husayniya-yi Irshad in Aban 1347/October 1968”. The third is Where Shall We Begin?, which is a lecture delivered at the Technical University of Tehran in November 1971. The fourth is What is to be Done?; this is a long lecture originally given at the Hussainiyyah Irshad and published in English in two parts, along with the lecture Where Shall We Begin? However, the translation gives no date for the original lecture, citing only Shariati’s collected works.

This selection of Shariati’s works is intended to cover both major elements of Shariati’s thought, the “religious” and the “social/political”. Shariati’s work is an example of the irrelevance of this perceived distinction to Islam. Shariati’s understanding of ‘religious’ issues — such as the nature of God, the origin of man, and man’s relationship with God — reflect his broader concerns, being part of a greater body of ideas which he attempted to present as a single, integrated worldview. In Man and Islam, for example, Shariati is concerned not only with the Islamic view of the creation of man, but with its implications for man’s collective nature and role in the world. His understanding of the process of creation is basically orthodox in Islamic terms; it is his interpretation of it, and the conclusions he draws, which are telling. While many religious scholars stress God’s omnipotence and benevolence to man, and man’s debt and subservience to Him, Shariati emphasises the status and honour God grants man and the qualities He gives him:

First God addresses the angels saying, “I wish to create a vicegerent for Myself upon earth.” See how great is the value of man according to Islam! Even the post-Renaissance humanism of Europe has never been able to conceive of such exalted sanctity for man.

Central to Shariati’s understanding is that man is “bi-dimensional”:

One dimension inclines to mud and lowliness, to stagnation and immobility... But the other dimension, that of the divine Spirit, as it is called in the Qur’an, aspires to ascend and mount up to the highest summit conceivable — to God and the spirit of God.

Shariati emphasises that all creation is part of a single realm under God, which elsewhere he links to the Islamic concept of tawheed (one-ness). The great and unique gift God has given man is the freedom of choice. So far, so routine; but the conclusions Shariati draws are important, particularly the contrast he draws between stagnation and assertive action, rather than the more orthodox pious and impious. And what is the nature and object of this action?

From the point of view of Islam, man is the only being responsible not only for his own destiny but also for the fulfilment of a divinely entrusted mission in this world; he is the bearer of God’s Trust in the world and in nature.

This action, then, is the pursuit of a Divine mission; and what is this mission? For that, Shariati turns to the Qur’an, and the Seerah of the Prophet (saw). And in them he finds that, in contrast to the traditional understanding of Man’s purpose as being to worship God, and to perfect his piety, in fact Islam is “a religion which will also be two-dimensional and exert its force in the two different and opposing directions that exist in man’s spirit and human society”. Thus:

As for the book of Islam, the Qur’an, it is a book that like the Torah contains social, political and military provisions, even instructions for the conduct of warfare, the taking and setting free of prisoners; that is interested in life, in building, in prosperity, in struggling against enemies and negative elements; but it also a book that concerns itself with the refinement of the soul, the piety of the spirit, and the ethical improvement of the individual.

The Prophet of Islam also possesses two contrasting aspects, aspects which would be contradictory in other men, but in him have been joined in a single spirit. For he was a man constantly engaged in political struggle against his enemies and the disruptive forces in society, concerned with building a new society and a new civilisation in this world; and also a guide leading men to a particular goal; that is a man of prayer, piety and devotion.

Thus does Shariati reach a conclusion which (although not without precedent) was radical in the context of Iran at the time he was lecturing, and of the understanding of Islam that predominated there: that Islam is a religion not simply of piety and scholarship, but also of action and social progress. Traditional Shi‘i scholars were politically quiescent, although some were beginning to take a more assertive attitude; and Iran’s modern-educated youth were increasingly alienated from Islam as taught in traditional institutions, regarding it as offering no solutions to their modern concerns. Shariati tried to bridge this chasm by presenting Islam as a total system which included the essential elements of both religiosity and of socio-political activism. In the process he opened himself open to misunderstanding and criticism from many quarters.

For the traditional ulama, Shariati appeared guilty of questioning their long-established interpretations of Islam. It did not help that Shariati was prone to basic errors in his presentation of Islamic history and doctrine; but even without handing the ulama that ammunition, Shariati would have been attacked for criticising the scholars’ restrictive interpretations of Islam and political quiescence. At the same time, some ulama were more balanced in their responses. Imam Khomeini, for example — who himself criticised some of his fellow ulama on similar grounds — found nothing objectionable in his writings and appreciated his contribution to the Iranian Islamic movement. At the same time, Shariati was attacked by other non-traditional intellectuals in Iran for his appeal to Iran’s Islamic traditions, which many — in particular those influenced by Marxist ideas — regarded as part of Iran’s problems, rather than their solution. A similar division can be found among academics who have discussed Shariati’s works. Those who attempt to approach him as a religious intellectual have criticised him for “theological innovation,” as though theology cannot be a work in progress and interpretations that differ from traditional wisdom must automatically be invalid. At the same time social scientists approaching his ideas have had trouble accepting the fact that, for a believer, there is ultimately a position beyond which certain propositions must be accepted a priori.

By far the greater part of Shariati’s work concerns the social and political action which he believes to be an essential and integral part of Islam. The other three works under discussion all focus on this element. Two of them, Approaches to the Study of Islam and Where Shall We Begin?, examine the state of Muslims’ present existence, the state of their understanding of Islam, and why Islam as it is presently understood does not address the issues confronting modern societies. This is perhaps the core of Shariati’s thought. The third paper, What is to be done?, elaborates some of the answers to these questions, proposing programmes of intellectual work. Nowhere, however, does Shariati address the explicitly political questions that seem to emerge naturally from the social issues he raises. This is usually attributed to the circumstances in which he wrote, in Iran under the extremely repressive regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Shariati had served his first term in jail upon his return from Paris in 1965, for his political activities there, and so knew the risk he was taking in raising political issues; indeed, lectures such as these were to cause the Hussainiyyah Irshad, where he lectured, to be closed down in 1973, and himself to be jailed again in 1975. Having said that, these writings do not give the impression of disguising a more directly political programme, and there is evidence that he deliberately withdrew from the political implications that certain of his supporters drew from his work in the early 1970s, when he refused to endorse, even implicitly, the activities of the Marxist fedayeen, who were supported by many who attended his lectures.

The reason for this may be found at the beginning of Approaches to the Understanding of Islam. Here Shariati explains his emphasis on intellectual work at a time when others were disparaging that in favour of action; he argues that Iranians complain about the problems besetting their society without understanding their causes, and that such an understanding, and planning on its basis, are required before any effective action can be undertaken. Shariati is equally clear on what the basis of these discussions must be, and where the solutions must be found: “We are a religious society; the basis of our work must be religious; but we do not know our religion...”

The duty of today’s intellectual is to recognise and know Islam as a school of thought that gives life to man, individual and society, and that is entrusted with the mission of the future guidance of mankind

Again, Shariati briefly reminds his listeners of the true, dynamic, bi-dimensional nature of Islam, concluding:

The duty of today’s intellectual is to recognise and know Islam as a school of thought that gives life to man, individual and society, and that is entrusted with the mission of the future guidance of mankind...

This seems to have been the main object of Shariati’s work; if Shariati did not formulate a political programme of any kind, and refused to give his support to any existing programme, it may have been not only out of caution, but also because he did not consider that the necessary understanding had been achieved. It may well be that this is an area which he would have addressed had he lived longer; although in that case his ideas would have been overtaken by the Islamic Revolution, and one can only speculate about how he might have responded to that.

In other writings, Shariati appears to have approached the question of the intellectual work required in different ways, which may reflect differences in the audiences he addresses (virtually all Shariati’s works are transcriptions of lectures) or a maturation of his thought over time, or both. However, a number of themes can be found running through them all. Among them are two main ones: first, a need to understand and counter the impact that Western colonialism had on both Iranian society and the minds of Iranians, both intellectuals and generally; and second, the need to achieve a better understanding of Islam, of why Muslims have failed to fulfil their historic mission, and what is required for this to change.

In his understanding of the West, Shariati may be considered to be following the lead offered by Jalal Al-e Ahmed in his famous polemic Gharbzadgi (‘Occidentosis’ or ‘Westoxification’), published in the mid-sixties. In Where Shall We Begin?, for example, Shariati discusses and criticises the impact of Western ideas of sexual freedom and the supposed emancipation of women, and also the idea that eastern languages need to be ‘modernised’ by the adoption of Western scripts, as has been done to Turkish. But a concern with the impact on the minds of young Muslims of the pervasive influence of Western ideas, and the distance being created from Islam, runs through much of his work. In Approaches to the Study of Islam, for example, he offers brief critiques of the understandings of the processes of social change in various Western systems of thought, before putting forward his own ‘Islamic’ understanding. His last major work, Marxism and Other Western Fallacies, written during his final imprisonment, addressed these issues in far more detail. Abdulaziz Sachedina, an Iranian academic who knew Shariati in the 1970s, recalls him complaining that Iranian youth were so shallow and so enamoured of Western ideas that they only “accepted the validity and value of their own spiritual legacy if it was recounted on the authority of a Western scholar or with reference to a Western school of thought.”

Shariati’s greatest concern, however, was to persuade Iranian Muslims of the value of looking to their own Islamic heritage, rather than importing foreign ideas that were both vehicles for foreign control and unworkable in the Iranian environment. This involved two elements: first, seeking an understanding of Islam which was relevant in the modern world; and second, explaining why this was so different from the traditional version being promoted by established ulama. Shariati’s understanding of Islam undoubtedly evolved over time. We have seen how he presented Islam as a religion of action and social justice in Man and Islam. In Approaches to the Understanding of Islam, having emphasised the need for analysis and understanding of society, and then critiqued Western understandings of the processes of social change, he then comes to discuss Islam itself. He now argues, on the basis of his reading of the Qur’an and Islamic history, particularly the history of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and the Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet’s family) that in Islam the basic motor of social change are al-nas, i.e. “the people”:

It is for this reason that we see throughout the Qur’an address being made to al-nas, i.e. the people. The Prophet is sent to al-nas; he addresses himself to al-nas; it is al-nas who are accountable for their deeds; al-nas are the basic factor in decline — in short, the whole responsibility for society and history is borne by al-nas...

The task for which “the people” -- i.e. humanity as a whole -- are responsible is the application of the principles and guidelines that Allah has offered to mankind to the ordering of society in this world. This requires, Shariati tells us, the dynamic study and understanding of Islam by a particular kind of intellectual in order to respond to challenges of human progress. Man has been given the gifts of knowledge and freedom of will to decide how to use these gifts, but the best option is in line with the guidance offered by Allah. This includes a methodology, expounded in the Qur’an and demonstrated by the Prophets and other great figures of Islam. The key need at this time, therefore, is the study of Islam’s history:

The choice of correct method is the first matter to be considered in all the different branches of knowledge — literary, social, artistic and psychological. The first task of any researcher must therefore be the choice of the best method of research and investigation... We must make full use of the experiences of history, and we must consider ourselves obliged, as the followers of a great religion, to learn and know Islam correctly and methodically.

It was when Shariati began on this enterprise that he found himself getting into trouble. Inevitably he had to face up to the reality that “unfortunately the study of the Qur’an and the study of Islamic history are very weak, as they presently exist in our corpus of Islamic studies”. He also had to attribute the present plight of Iranians to a failure of traditional Islamic leaders, who had evidently failed to live up to the standards of Islamic scholarship and leadership required. To explain this Shariati developed the understanding of “‘Alawi Shi‘ism” and “Safavid Shi‘ism” — Alawi Shi‘ism being the ideal example of dynamic Islam represented by Imam Ali (ra), and Safavid Shi‘ism being the stagnant version that emerged once the ulama of Iran had accepted patronage from the Safavid monarchy in the sixteenth century. There are strong parallels here with the Sunni understanding that the quality of Islamic leadership suffered when the khilafah was converted to monarchy by the Umayyads. But it was new in Shi‘i thought, and was bound to attract the anger of many in Iran’s Shi‘i religious establishment.

What is an enlightened soul? In a nutshell, the enlightened soul is a person who is self-conscious of his “human condition” in his time and historical and social setting, and whose awareness inevitably and necessarily gives him a sense of social responsibility. And if he happens to be educated, he may be more effective and if not perhaps less so. But this is not a general rule

Shariati argued instead that Muslims need a new kind of leadership, embodying the dynamic, open-minded, selfless and visionary qualities of Alawi Islam. He characterised these leaders as “roshan-fekr”, usually translated as “enlightened”, although the instinctive association with the European ‘enlightenment’ must be resisted. In Where Shall We Begin?, Shariati writes:

What is an enlightened soul? In a nutshell, the enlightened soul is a person who is self-conscious of his “human condition” in his time and historical and social setting, and whose awareness inevitably and necessarily gives him a sense of social responsibility. And if he happens to be educated, he may be more effective and if not perhaps less so. But this is not a general rule...

Many of Shariati’s writings discuss this idea, and call for young Iranians to aspire to these qualities. As examples, he constantly refers back to Islamic history and great figures of the past. This is an area in which his ideas appear to have evolved considerably over time. In Approaches to the Study of Islam, he gives a simple list of the areas of study in which traditional Islamic studies have been deficient. In Where Shall We Begin?, he talks of an “Islamic reformation” and an “Islamic protestantism”, which appear to be explicitly related to Euro-Christian precedent. In the paper What is to be Done?, he presents his vision of a programme of research for Hussainiyyah Irshad that appears to be the closest thing he produces to a programme of action. Notably, however, despite his criticisms of the Shi‘i establishment, accusations that he is anti-clerical appear to be inaccurate, given his emphasis on knowledge of Islam. Rather his drive seems to be to create a new kind of ulama, with a better understanding of Islam than their predecessors, who are capable of taking on the responsibilities that their predecessors failed to carry out.

This is another area in which we may draw parallels with the ideas of Imam Khomeini. The emergence of a new class of intellectually and political aware and responsible ulama to positions of leadership in Iran was one of the achievements of the Islamic Revolution, even if it has not proceeded as smoothly as some might like. Ironically, perhaps, one reason for this has been the continuing presence of ulama who have failed to rise above the ossified attitudes condemned by Shariati, and who have benefited from the success of the Revolution, and even taken it as confirmation and legitimisation of their traditional positions. Debate between different understandings of the role of ulama continues in Iran to this day, complicated both by the broader contexts of the Iranian political situation and the traditions of the Shi‘i Islamic establishment against which they take place. The fact that Shariati’s writings and ideas have been largely removed from this debate because of their appropriation by opponents of the Revolution is a major loss to the Islamic movement.

Shariati was an intellectual first and foremost, whose thought was ultimately directed to a regeneration and rebirth of Islam and Muslim society. Few of his ideas were totally original; many have precursors in other Muslim thinkers, many of them Sunni, such as the Punjabi poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, whose work was well-known and influential in Iran. Many were also strongly influenced by his studies of Western philosophies and ideologies, although critics overstate the matter when they suggest that Shariati basically took a mishmash of Marxist and other ideas and gave them an Islamic veneer. There can be little doubt, given Shariati’s background in a traditional Islamic environment and the strength of emphasis on Islam in his writings, that he was first and foremost a Muslim concerned, like so many of his contemporaries all over the Muslim world, to address the sorry plight that Muslim societies found themselves in, and to seek solutions in Islam. Shariati’s great contribution was to express these ideas in a Shi‘i environment; he will always be remembered because of the Islamic Revolution which came so soon after his premature death, and which many believe was only possible and successful because of the commitment to Islam as a dynamic force for change that his ideas had engendered among a generation and a class of young Iranians who would otherwise have become even more alienated from Islam than they had already become before Shariati’s work.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 7

Sha'ban 19, 14282007-09-01

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