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IDÉ | Ali Shariati and the Ideologization of Religion


30 Oct 2011 01:41Comments
5-5-1386-4-11-15-58-51-b49e.jpgAn introduction to the influential thinker's views on revolutionary Shiism and the 'warrior intellectual.'

[ IDÉ ] No effort will be made here to undertake a comprehensive overview of Ali Shariati's life and thought. The purpose of this brief introductory essay is merely to consider a particular strain of his thought that has received a great deal of attention and criticism in Iran's postrevolutionary intellectual climate: the so-called "ideologization of Islam."

Ali Shariati (1933-75) was undoubtedly among the most important of the prerevolutionary Islamist ideologues, particularly insofar as he made Islam a politically respectable force for many young men and women in Iran's traditional middle classes. Many of them had come from provincial towns and villages to embark on a course of study at Tehran University or the more recently founded Arya Mehr University of Technology (today known as Sharif University of Technology), often as the beneficiaries of government largesse. Shariati, among others, offered an enchanting and seductive rendering of Shiism, especially for those who were educated in the modern sciences, and to a lesser extent the humanities, and had been born and raised in devout Shia households.

These young men and women were politically alienated from the Pahlavi regime and the traditional clergy, with its strict hierarchy of Marja and compliant follower practicing taghlid. They were often both emotionally and psychologically bound to the faith they grew up in, while at the same time demanding that their religion respond to their contemporary needs and aspirations, which increasingly became political and politicized. In the case of those who were attracted to the rhetorical fervor of Shariati and political groups such as the Sazeman-e Mojahedin-e Khalgh,1 the political struggle against the Shah's autocracy along with burgeoning socioeconomic injustices were foremost in their minds. By fusing the archetypal figures, myths, and narratives of the early Islamic and, specifically, Shia community, an apparently religious discourse and rhetoric emerged as a formidable rival to numerous secular ideologies and the varieties of Marxist doctrine advocated by the communist Tudeh Party and the Fadayan-e Khalgh. Shariati also had a marked impact upon prominent revolutionary groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalgh and vice versa.2

His timely criticisms of clerical passivity and the clergy's pretension to act as the sole legitimate "representative" of the Hidden Imam also resonated with many pious, socially mobile, and educated Iranian youth. For this reason, he ought to be viewed as a transitional and divided figure of sorts. On the one hand, he was the propagator of a new and uncompromising dogma, which arguably harbored a multitude of authoritarian, elitist, and potentially violent implications. On the other hand, he struggled to break the clerical monopoly on religious knowledge, promoting the individual right to exercise ejtehad without any of the requisite training for which the seminaries had been expressly established. This considerable break with "tradition" allowed him to interpret Shiism in a highly unorthodox fashion and earned him the plaudits and adulation of many, as well as numerous enemies in the clerical establishment. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, prior to the Revolution very adeptly managed to remain ambiguous on Shariati, wishing to alienate neither a possible ally, nor the many young people who had accepted him as their ideological guide and teacher.3

Shariati's thinking undoubtedly influenced a number of members of the Islamic Republic's elite and even if they discarded many of his ideas,4 in particular his not uncommon anticlerical sentiments, they nonetheless imbibed a great deal of his discourse, which empowered them to land blows on their leftist rivals and demonstrate their familiarity with modern political ideas and philosophies. This process of osmosis -- which itself came about as a form of competition, best symbolized in the serious rift that emerged between Shariati and Morteza Motahari, a student and close ally of Khomeini -- further demonstrates the ambiguous relationship of the clerical leaders of the postrevolutionary state to the charismatic layman and ideologue, who died just as Iran was on the cusp of revolutionary upheaval. Motahari, whom one prominent scholar has gone so far as to name the "chief ideologue of the Islamic Revolution,"5 undoubtedly played a very significant role in both the "ideologization of Islam"6 and the emergence of the "new theology" (kalam-e jadid),7 which Iran's postrevolutionary religious intellectuals would take up themselves and develop in a number of distinct directions.

Shariati's most celebrated attempt to turn Shiism into an ideology of revolutionary activism was embodied in the fabulated dichotomy between Ali's Shiism (Tashayo-e Alavi) and Safavid Shiism (Tashayo-e Safavi). Alavi Shiism or the Shiism of Ali and his descendants is conceived by Shariati as first and foremost a "no," an act of denial in protest of the status quo (eteraz beh vaz mojud)8 (much like that of Albert Camus's rebel, with which Shariati was familiar):9

Islam was a religion that entered human history with the "no" of Muhammad -- heir to Abraham and apotheosis of the religion of divine unity and the unity of creation: A "no" that begins with the slogan of divine unity [towhid], a slogan that Islam began in the face of polytheism, the religion of the aristocracy and expediency.

And Shiism was an Islam that with the great Ali's "no" -- heir to Muhammad and the apotheosis of the Islam of justice and truth -- made both its character and direction clear in the history of Islam.10

He continues:

[I]n the school of Ali, the Shia, as the embodiment of the sufferings and hopes of the innocent masses and aware of and rebellious against the oppression of the ruler, obtained its most fundamental slogans:

For liberation from the guardianship of tyranny [velaayat-e jowr]:

"The guardianship of Ali [velaayat-e Ali]!"

For the branding of trash and stamping of unbelief and usurpation [ghasb] on the forehead of the Caliphate:


And for the overthrow of the regime of contradiction and discrimination that is ownership [malekiyat]:


16-16-1386-4-11-16-48-46-888E.jpgIn the view of Shariati, Safavid Shiism came to stand for order, the state, political passivity and inaction, political despotism, stasis, class exploitation, and a reactionary and ossified reading of Shiism.12 Ali's Shiism for Shariati provided an answer to the question "What is to be done?" (cheh bayad kard?), a question he posed regularly in his writings, no doubt cognizant of Lenin's famous tract of the same name.13

In another text, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam" (Shiism, A Complete Party), Shariati goes so far as to say that action takes precedence over belief.14 Ali's Shiism, according to Shariati, was a revolutionary force in history that engaged in perpetual jihad (jihad-e mostamer) in both theory and practice against any and every despotic regime wedded to oppressive class-systems and discriminatory hierarchies.15 This is because Ali's Shiism is an "armed revolutionary party" (hezb-e enghelabi-e mojahhaz), in possession of a profound and clear ideology (dara-ye idiolozhi-ye besyar amigh va rowshan). In this respect, the Islam Shariati was advocating in the course of his lectures and speeches, with their many rhetorical flourishes, was essentially a "this-worldly" (in jahani) and resolutely political venture. It was a creedal doctrine that played the role of an "enlightener" (agahi dahandeh), and promoter of social responsibility (masuliyat avar), and this is why Islam for Shariati uniquely, and in contradistinction to other world religions, was inseparable from politics (beguneh-ye bi-naziri az siyasat tafkik-napazir [ast]).16

This brings us to what might be called "Shariati's paradox," since while Shiism for Shariati was indubitably political, with the establishment of its own governmental interests and priorities (masaleh-e hokumati) it was bound to forsake its original verve and objective of bestowing an enlightened and revolutionary consciousness to the masses: "after the seizure of power, Shiism becomes ruler over its destiny and society, but comes to a standstill."17 In this sense, Shiism's imbrication with state power is by definition corrupting.

While this is certainly a pervasive theme in Shariati's work, another one also recurs in his writings of the early 1970s concerning political organization and mobilization. If the purpose of such organization and mobilization was not ultimately the abolition of the existing order and its replacement with a new one free of all the ills and deficiencies prevailing in the status quo, such activities would then seem to slide into mere superfluidity. This does not seem to be the case, and Shariati's repeated assertions of man's utopian impulses would also seem to run counter to the idea that he did not have at least a vague idea of the ideal political order he saw replacing the regime against which he fought and deemed a font of oppression and injustice. It should be added that Shariati's "internationalism" and "emacipatory project" were not restricted to the territorial state, or even the Muslim ommat. Ultimately, every human being was responsible for the "salvation" (rastegari) of humanity.18

Quite unlike many Islamists, Shariati was willing to recommend that the sharia be tailored to the circumstances of time and place and the basic needs of the people.19 Despite such apparent pragmatism and laxity, deciding what circumstances demand and what the people's basic needs constitute would be stringently dictated by political considerations. Shiism was, in Shariati's mind, a complete party (yek hezb-e tamam),20 a party with a powerful ideology of its own, which he called Abrahamic ideology (idiolozhi-e ebrahimi): "Abrahamic ideology is that shared doctrine [maktab] of all of history's prophets and the people's guides to redemption and justice to which humankind has been invited in all times and all regimes."21 Moreover, "ideology is a faith that is based firmly upon the concepts of self-awareness, guidance, redemption, fulfillment [kamal], value, ideal [arman], and responsibility."22 Ideology engenders self-awareness and creates values -- it impels one to act, while it recreates its subject in the process. He exclaims at one point and in all seriousness: "Ideology creates you."23 Echoing Marx's 11th thesis on the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach,24 Shariati proclaims that while the philosopher and scientist are essentially observers of the world, ideologues, by contrast, command the good and prohibit the evil and have an unparalleled capacity for both destruction and creation:25 "Ideology says: it must be thus; philosophy and science say only: thus it is."26

The clear attraction of ideology for Shariati is that he believes by means of it man is endowed with the capacity to transform the world around him. More specifically, he can radically transform his society and the prevailing social relations within it. Ideology in conjunction with praxis allows man to break free of his consummate bondage and liberate himself and those around him. Shariati claims that ideology, in its most lofty (ali-tarin) and progressive (motaraqi-tarin) sense, and Islam, which is the perfect religion (kamel-tarin din-e elahi), speak with a single voice.27 The difference between Islam and progressive ideology is barely discernible:


Message -- Mission [resalat] -- Commitment -- Responsibility -- Struggle -- People [mardom]!


Invitation [davat] -- Mission -- Duty -- Responsibility -- Jihad -- People [nas]!28

A little further down, Shariati in fact unambiguously states that "Islam is an ideology, not a culture, philosophy, or science."29 Both "ideology" and "Islam" stress a sense of mission and committed struggle in the name of the masses. For Shariati, man's true nature, or his philosophical anthropology, as a "utopian" (utopist) and "rebel" (osiyan-konandeh)30 is realized in the disposition cultivated by an ideological cast of mind. Man, by his lights, is a "builder of heavens" (behesht-saz). "Perhaps every human being in every historical era built a utopia in his mind in accord with his own understanding and excellence."31

Much like in the writings of Iranian Islamists such as Navvab-e Safavi and Khomeini, a concerted effort to imagine an ideal society free of contradictions and failings runs through Shariati's musings and rhetorical fulminations. Whether their respective visions were qualitatively different is, of course, another question, but in all of their writings a certain utopian impulse to imagine an ideal and pristine political order repeatedly comes to the fore.

One interesting difference is that Shariati speaks little about the state per se, while Navvab-e Safavi and Khomeini focused squarely on the powers and duties of the modern nation-state (hokumat), albeit in rather broad terms.32 Shariati's own reintroduction of hierarchy and order manifests itself in the form of the party, the cadre, and the enlightened warrior intellectuals whose task it is to save the masses, perhaps even in spite of themselves. Those who remain unenlightened and fail to reach self-consciousness vis-à-vis their political destiny remain "imperfect" and in some sense "paralyzed" (falaj).33

In demarcating a certain philosophical anthropology, or conception of "human nature" he is thereby able to ascribe a norm to human conduct. Those who fail to abide by this norm or behave in the manner it prescribes are deemed fundamentally deficient or incomplete. Man's aspiration for utopia in Shariati's mind is one of the key features that separate him from the rest of God's creation.

Another relevant point to bear in mind is that Shariati was novel for the time in terms of his education and intellectual influences. Unlike other Iranian Islamists, he was a layman who never donned the turban and never claimed to speak on behalf, or represent the interests, of the clergy. In fact, many of his statements were dismissive of -- indeed, often replete with pointed attacks against -- the traditional clergy, whom he perceived as thoroughly reactionary and apologetic for the status quo.

Despite some postrevolutionary attempts to paint Shariati as a committed advocate of the guardianship of the jurist (Velaayat-e Faghih), the guides and saviors he actually had in mind were people much like himself, committed or engaged intellectuals (rowshanfekran-e motaahed).34 These committed intellectuals are presented as explicit alternatives to the clergy, who had not only cravenly worked in the service of despotic regimes across the ages,35 but had falsely presented themselves as the only true and legitimate mediators between God and the faithful.

On many occasions, Shariati in the strongest of terms denounced the clergy as harbingers of reaction and despotism. In his essay "Bazgasht beh Khishtan" (Return to Self), for example, he states, "Clerical despotism is the most severe and detrimental of all forms of despotism in human history."36 This anticlerical discourse would reappear political in the rhetoric of groups like the Sazeman-e Mojahedin-e Khalgh (post-June 1981), Forghan, and Arman-e Mostazafin, the very first political group to be proscribed after the Revolution.37 Shariati's regular jibes at the clerics ironically did not slow the revolutionary and politicized clergy from absorbing many of his ideas to the end of increasing their own popularity and supporting their concerted efforts to mobilize the broader population in favor of their ideological and political goals.

Consideration of Shariati's elitist conception of the intellectual vanguard or the "warrior intellectual" (roshanfekr-e mojahed) becomes relevant here. He often depicts the warrior intellectuals as a committed cadre who, having espied man's true nature and political destiny, shine light upon the darkness enveloping the toiling masses. By means of the warrior intellectuals' benevolent intervention, a new self-consciousness and a form of "this-worldly" redemption would be imparted to the masses, without which the latter would have remained blinded by their own inveterate ignorance.38 These committed warrior intellectuals are the true successors to the Prophet and the rightful inheritors of his legacy.39 They were more than mere armchair revolutionaries in Shariati's view. They were warriors prepared to fight in the name of justice and the establishment of a new "monotheistic regime" (nezaam-e tohidi).

Shariati's own discourse of revolutionary insurrection and armed struggle themselves were part of a broader political and intellectual shift which began to gain ground among political activists and the intelligentsia post-June 1963, in the aftermath of the White Revolution and the Shah's repression of the subsequent protests. This paradigm shift, led by a number of politically active men and women, including the founders of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh, incited many to break with groups such as the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI) and the idea that peaceful political reform from within the parameters laid down by the Shah had any genuine chance of realizing its objectives.40

Support for the idea of armed struggle as the only remaining alternative steadily accumulated supporters and was itself under the influence of international developments and the intellectuals who defended them, to wit, the Algerian War of Independence and the American quagmire in Vietnam. Armed resistance to imperialist penetration and the Third World's ability to proffer just and indigenous solutions to the unjust and exploitative practices of one-time colonial masters had captured the imagination of a huge swathe of Iranian intellectuals, just as it had captured the imaginations of many members of the intelligentsia and educated across the developing world.

In Shariati's mind, the warrior intellectuals are first and foremost preoccupied with action not contemplation, and specifically with enacting justice in the here and now, much like the Prophet Muhammad himself when he embarked upon his own prophetic mission.41 According to Shariati, there is one Islam that takes the form of "uninformed and hereditary devotional rulings, ceremonies, and rituals for the backward [aghab mandeh]" and another Islam that requires scientific and technical expertise or "technical Islam" (Islam-e fani). The first Islam belongs to the unthinking and uncritical hereditary believer, and the second to the rule-obsessed clergyman.

Shariati dismisses both in favor of the Islam of the warrior intellectual. The Islam of the warrior intellectual is a "light" (nur) that illuminates one's heart (nuri ast keh del ra rowshan mekonad).42 This Islam is not a form of "technical awareness," he tells us, but natural or innate self-consciousness (khod-agahi-ye fetri), which he then proceeds to identify with "enlightenment" (rowshanfekri), "recognizing the path" (shenakht-e rah), and the "science of guidance" (elm-e hedayat).43 The "correct path" or "just society" to which Shariati's committed warriors will lead the oppressed masses often remains vague. He frequently describes it with adjectives such as "just" and "emancipated" without going into further detail. At one point, for instance, he speaks disdainfully of the sources of "Westoxification" and its negative impact on Irano-Islamic culture:

They [the West (farang)] have polluted our world with their capitalism and our religion with their churches! They teach our modernists dandyism [gherti-bazi], dancing, cocktail partying, wine drinking, and mere sexual freedoms in the name of civilization.... They slowly roused the depths of our hearts and minds and our rational faith and progressive, practical ,and humane religion. They obscured and ruined all that we previously held dear: the soul [ruh], intercession [shefaat], invocation [tavasol], trusteeship [velaayat], and martyrdom.44

What is somewhat intelligible is that Shariati both esteemed and demanded action and commitment to a cluster of associated political values, which while certainly grounded in a cultural-symbolic milieu drawing upon the great personalities and myths of early Islamic history, went little beyond rhetorical sloganeering. While denigrating the West as a corrupting influence and denouncing Western cultural practices and lifestyles, Shariati himself was thoroughly in the thrall of the Western, and particularly the Parisian, intellectual scene. Echoes of Camus, Sartre, Fanon, and numerous Marxist ideologues and theoreticians abound in his corpus.

Perhaps it would not be too great an exaggeration to say that Shariati's depiction of Shiism actually owed a great deal more to the leitmotifs of French existentialism, Fanonite "Third Worldism," and Camus's rebel, than to those sources that were the traditional backbone of Shia learning and apologetic literature. The warrior intellectual's role was not to excessively dwell on these values but to proclaim them boldly, not because he had rationalized them and could support his position with a host of valid and epistemically justified reasons, but because he felt and yearned viscerally for such values' realization, at the level of his innermost nature. This attitude was exemplified best in the Prophet's companion Abu Zarr, who was often depicted by Shariati as a proto-socialist.45

Shariati does speak of a transitional period in which the Muslim community would choose leaders who best exemplify the community's revolutionary ideals.46 This period of leadership would come to an end with every member of the ommat's revolutionary transfiguration and avowed willingness to martyr him or herself in the name of the people. The "ommat chooses its martyr [shahid], the symbol of all its transcendent and ideal values, as leader, till it is itself able as martyr to take up that leadership role and every individual within the ommat can be a martyr in the cause of the people.... Every individual of Muhammad's community is a leader for the people."47

The question of how to determine the procedure or mechanism by which members of the community will be sufficiently empowered or revolutionized to embark upon their own martyrdom for the greater good is left unaddressed by Shariati. Thus, as in the case of the Marxist promises of the state's eventual "withering away" along with the dissolution of proletarian dictatorship, the skeptic is left to wonder whether the day of transition to a truly "liberated society" would indeed ever arrive. While the Imamat is accepted on the basis of the "authenticity of its thought" (esalat-e fekr) and the "truth of the doctrine" (haghaniyat-e maktab) with their manifest self-evidence in the course of revolutionary upheaval, there is virtually no consideration of the relinquishment of its power.48

In his essay "Ommat va Imamat" (Community and Leadership), Shariati speaks candidly of the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat" (hokumat-e tabagheh-ye kargar) and the accompanying antipathy toward liberalism and "Western democratic freedom" it entails.49 He lambastes those Iranian intellectuals who continue to be caught up in the passé assurances of 19th-century liberalism and shrugs off the criticisms to which he has been subject for his condemnation of democracy and defense of "ideologically committed leadership" (rahbari-ye motaahed-e idiolozhik). Liberalism and "its slogans of freedom of expression [azadi-ye ara] and free elections weaken the battle front and justify undemocratic regimes and one-man despotisms [estebdad-ha-ye fardi]," he proclaims in his characteristically bombastic style.50 The life that members of the ummah ought to be leading is not free and disengaged (azad va raha), but committed and responsible (motaahed va masul). This is guaranteed for Shariati by the Imamat, the community leadership, which at least during this phase of his career, becomes synonymous with the aforementioned enlightened cadre of revolutionary intellectuals.

As Shariati stresses on a number of occasions, the Imam is human, but acts as a model or paragon (osveh) upon which the ummah's members ought to be modeled,51 and if someone considers themselves part of the community, the ummah, they must accept the leadership.52 It gradually becomes clear that here Shariati is advocating a Shia counterpart to the Marxist-Leninist "dictatorship of the proletariat," or in his own words, a "guided democracy" (demokrasi-ye hedayat shodeh) or "committed democracy" (demokrasi-ye motaahed), by means of which the society would be ruled by a small elite or perhaps even a single man.53

At one point, he even refers to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the theory of the Übermensch or "Superman" as proof of humanity's repeated need for great men to lead the masses as the manifestation of "sacred transcendence" (mazaher-e moqaddas-e moteali) on earth and awaken them from their petrified and satisfied indifference to the decrepit state of their tawdry lives.54 He then goes on to attribute a quote to the Victorian essayist and satirist Thomas Carlyle, stating that "history consists in the creation of history's heroes by means of the mediocre, and were it not for these heroes the mediocre would possess nothing except a monotonous and bestial existence."55

The individual counts for nothing on this view. The individual is mere fodder for the great men of history, who are themselves history's makers and final arbiters. In a similar vein, and despite having earlier in the text brazenly dismissed the Sufi notion of fana or "annihilation" in God, Shariati -- without regard for his preceding dismissal -- invokes the Sufi notion of the ensan-e kamel, or "perfect man." in support of his argument for "great men" as models of emulation.56 Ironically, in these pages he reproduces exactly the same dichotomy of "emulated" and "emulator" defended by Usulism and the Shia ulema of his time -- a dichotomy that, in its clerical guise, Shariati expended a great deal of time and effort criticizing and ridiculing.

Such arguments clearly attest to Shariati's implicit and explicit spiritual and political elitism, which sits well with his conscious defense of the revolutionary leadership's prerogative to decisively execute its revolutionary ideological program irrespective of the traditions and capricious whims of the led.57 In fact, the committed leadership, Shariati tells us, is not bound by the views and opinions of the majority.58 Shariati's "guided democracy," like Tito's Yugoslavia or Sukarno's Indonesia, would be a one-party state or lifetime appointment for the revolution's leader (entekhab-e madamolamr-e rahbar-e enghelab), spurning "liberalism and Western free democracy."59 This is because the people, who he happily compares to sheep, will follow wherever their stomachs lead them. Without the necessary ideological awakening, the people will be bewitched and bedazzled by the "spell of money," "demagogic magicians," "puppet masters" (kheimeh-shab-bazan), and the clergy.60 Because of such a serious lack of confidence in the masses' own ability to better their condition, he deems the right to vote guaranteed in Western liberal democracies as little more than a "free vote for abgusht" (aray-e azad-e abgushti) -- a traditional Iranian stew of meat, potatoes, and chickpeas, generally eaten by the poorer segments of society.

The revolutionary leadership would have to continue for several generations until the requisite levels of "self-consciousness" were reached.61 Then progressively, as more and more people assimilated the leadership's revolutionary message, suffrage would be expanded to permit them the vote.62 Once again and somewhat ironically, Shariati found himself echoing comparable arguments put forward by another putative nemesis, the Shah, albeit this time in defense of a benevolent and paternalistic despotism. Western liberal democracy could not provide any answers since it stood for little more than "democracy of the elites."63 Revolutionary leadership was the only feasible political alternative that could break down and rebuild a "reactionary" and "traditional, backward society" such as Iran.64

Shariati exudes confidence as he proclaims that under a "great and exalted leadership" the society would be propelled toward "absolute perfection" (kamal-e motlagh), "absolute knowledge" (danai-ye motlagh), "absolute self-consciousness" (khod-agahi-ye motlagh), and the discovery of "transcendent values" (arzesh-ha-ye moteali).65 "The ummah is a society becoming eternal [abadi], toward absolute transcendence [taali-ye motlagh]!"66 This "absolute transcendence" is nothing but God himself.67 God for him becomes the revolutionary process itself, which mysteriously leads to something he calls "eternity" (abadiyat) and the "absolute" (motlagh), in a process of "infinite evolution" (takamol-e layetanahi).68 Those traditions and ways of thinking that promote stagnation and retard progress must be destroyed and condemned. There is little elaboration on how such a process is to be evaluated and whether it could go awry. Except for an allusion to Maxime Rodinson, the famous French Marxist biographer of the Prophet, Shariati simply asserts that "Islam is committed government [hokumat-e motaahed], the Prophet is a committed leader [rahbar-e motaahed]."69 In this way, we see how Shariati not only advocates a conception of political leadership comparable to the Marxist-Leninist "dictatorship of the proletariat," but also an image of the Prophet and the first Islamic government from Rodinson, who explicitly described Islam as a political ideology that after Muhammad's demise went on to conquer half the known world.70

Shariati recognizes that the Imamat leads the community toward "eternity" or "perfection" and that it is not a transformation that will easily or automatically materialize. He acknowledges these are goals to which the revolutionary leadership aspires and strives to engender in society. But what are the criteria for the leadership's decision-making process in forging this earthly utopia or embarking upon the process of its realization? To what values is the leadership obliged to adhere in the process of uncovering "transcendent values"? What policies could possibly bring about a sociopolitical system said to embody "absolute transcendence"?

The leadership proceeds to implement a program not on the basis of the "public interest" (maslahat) but on the basis of "truth" (haghighat) -- "a truth shown by ideology and doctrine believed by the individuals of the ummah."71 The goals of the leadership, he states, are predicated on the dictum of "that which must be" (ancheh keh bayest bashad).72 There seems to be little room for the evaluation of revolutionary values themselves, since Shariati elevates commitment to such values into the criterion of determining the esteem in which they should be held, overshadowing all other considerations. His praise of conviction and revolutionary leadership dispenses with issues of dialogue and consent and instead conflates mundane political action on the part of the warrior intellectual elite who benevolently guide the ummah in the name of its own "interest" as he defines it, with the construction of an ideal or utopian society, and even with a process of becoming God himself. In the revolutionary process, the transcendent inheres and becomes immanent in sociopolitical relations and processes.

According to Farzin Vahdat, this political vision owes a great deal to Shariati's view of human existence as a theomorphic "journey" or "movement," a journey in which human beings begin as "matter" and progressively ascend to the level of the divine spirit.73 But how mundane human relations, political organization, and activism partake in the traversal and actualization of such a "theomorphic journey," and on a macro-societal scale at that, is left obscurely and obtusely in the dark. Ideology plays a tautological role in this equation. What is true is ideological and ideology is what is true. Moreover, there is no capacity for criticism, because to criticize is also, by default, to lack commitment. This is but one strand of Shariati's intellectual and political legacy, one that will no doubt continue to spark fierce debate.


1. For instance, see the Mojahedin's early tract Nehzat-e Hosseini, which bears a number of similarities with several of the most important texts of Shariati's corpus, some of which are examined in greater detail herein. Sazeman-e Mojahedin-e Khalgh and Ahmad Rezaei, Tahlili az Nehzat-e Hosseini (Springfield, Mo.: 1975).

2. Ervand Abrahamian, Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin (London: I.B. Tauris, 1989), p. 103. The Mojahedin-e Khalgh and its intellectual architects such as Ahmad Rezaei seem to have come up with a revolutionary and thoroughly political conception of Shiism independently of the writings of Shariati. The Mojahedin's Nehzat-e Hosseini, authored under the supervision of Rezaei and Masoud Rajavi, advocated a comparable image of Imam Hossein as the leader of a protest movement calling for an end to all forms of oppression and exploitation. If anything, Shariati himself seems to have fallen under the sway of the Mojahedin. Rahnema, for instance, has argued that Shariati explicitly used the title mojahed in some of his writings of the early 1970s to surreptitiously allude to the Mojahedin's contemporaneous activities, which involved the assassination of foreign advisers and led to the arrest and execution of many of its members, including its three founders, Mohammad Hanifnezhad, Said Mohsen, and Ali Asghar Badizadegan, at the hands of the Shah's regime. See Ali Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariati (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998), pp. 310, 287.

3. Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian, p. 275. We also know that Khomeini closely read Shariati while in Najaf. Rasul Jafariyan, Jaryan-ha va Sazman-ha-ye Mazhabi-Siyasi-e Iran: Az Ruy-e Kar Amadan-e Mohammadreza Shah ta Piruzi-ye Enqelab-e Islami, pp. 603-5.

4. For instance, we know that Seyyed Ali Khamenei regularly participated in poetry circles along with Shariati and other literati in Mashhad. Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian, pp. 77-78. Also see Khamenei's speech on the anniversary of Shariati's death delivered in the Azam Mosque in Qom during June 1980 and reproduced in the newspaper Jomhuri-ye Islami, June 25, 1980. Ali Khamenei, "Majmueh-ye Nazarat-e Ayatollah Khamenei Piramun-e Doktor Ali Shariati," ed. Mostafa, p. 18. For a taste of some of Khamenei's prerevolutionary views, see his introduction to Qutb, Ayande dar Qalamro-e Islam, pp. 1-8.

5. Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, rev. ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2006), p. 147.

6. Murtaza Mutahhari, Fundamentals of Islamic Thought: God, Man and the Universe, ed. Hamid Algar, trans. R. Campbell, Contemporary Islamic Thought, Persian Series (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1985), p. 51.

7. Abdolkarim Soroush, of course, was an avid reader and something of a disciple of Motahari. For instance, he informally studied with one of Motahari's students and had close contacts with the ayatollah. Abdolkarim Soroush, Mahmoud Sadri, and Ahmad Sadri, Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 4-5. Soroush was also among the very first people to rush to Southampton after hearing of Shariati's untimely death. Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian, p. 368.

8. Ali Shariati, Tashayo-e Alavi va Tashayo-e Safavi, vol. 9, Majmueh-ye Asar (Tehran: Entesharat-e Chapkhash va Bonyad-e Farhangi-e Dr Ali Shariati, 1388/2009), p. 7.

9. "What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation." Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, foreword by Sir Herbert Read ed. (New York: Vintage, 1991), p. 13. For Shariati on Camus, see in particular "Kamu va Falsafehash" (pp. 70-90) and "La Revolte-e Kamu (Man Osiyan Mekonam, Pas Man Hastam)" (pp. 115-23) in Ali Shariati, Ensan-e Bikhod, vol. 25, Majmueh-ye Asar (Tehran: Qalam, 1389/2010). Also see p. 23, where Shariati asserts that "rebellion is one of the most eminent and salient qualities of man."

10. Shariati, Tashayo-e Alavi va Tashayo-e Safavi, p. 5.

11. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

12. Ibid., pp. 129, 221, 258-63.

13. Ibid., p. 7. We know Shariati was familiar with Marx and a whole raft of major Marxist thinkers, including Lenin, from the time he spent at the Sorbonne attending the lectures of the neo-Marxist sociologist Georges Gurvitch. Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian, pp. 124, 125, 288. Shariati throughout his writings invokes Lenin's writings and his deeds, often favorably. See, for example, Ali Shariati, "Ommat va Imamat," in Ali (Tehran: Nashr-e Amun, 1386/2007), p. 428.

14. In this text, he describes the ommat as a "committed group" (goruh-e motaahed) in which action (amal) takes precedence over belief (aghideh). Ali Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," in Shieh (Tehran: Elham, 1362/1983), pp. 79-80.

15. Shariati, Tashayo-e Alavi va Tashayo-e Safavi, p. 8.

16. Ibid., p. 125.

17. Ibid., p. 180. The question then, of course, presents itself: What is Shiism's purpose if its raison d'être is first and foremost to protest and thereby change the status quo on the basis of its own values, which Shariati argues spurn all forms of inequality, hierarchy, and injustice? Is it destined in Shariati's view to merely dwell on the margins, protest, and never see its actual values instituted? Shariati often seems to have advocated the effervescent and unbridled "solution" of "permanent revolution," a phrase used by some important Marxist theoreticians such as Leon Trotsky and Régis Debray, though it doesn't seem that Shariati's own use of this term bears much resemblance to the actual theories of permanent revolution proposed by these thinkers. Only ever described in the most rudimentary fashion, it perhaps comes through best in the opening sections of Tashayo-e Alavi va Tashayoe Safavi, where he lays out the stark dichotomy of "movement" (nehzat) versus "order" (nezaam) -- he sees the two as mutually exclusive and the latter as essentially corrupting the former. Only in "movement" can revolutionary verve be preserved and carried through. "Everything changes when movement [nehzat] reaches its goal, or without reaching its goal, it reaches the height of power. But when it has reached that point its antagonism and struggle is destroyed...when it reaches power, it changes character and it comes to a halt. It stops! It loses its mobile and revolutionary state and becomes conservative in demeanor." Shariati, Tashayo-e Alavi va Tashayo-e Safavi, p. 31. Such an account, however, does seem to be totally at odds with his account of the Prophet's own "state" in "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," in which he says that the Prophet was compelled to establish a "powerful central government" (hokumat-e ghodrat-mand-e markarzi) and use all the powers at his disposal. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 129.

Given the extemporaneous nature of Shariati's intellectual interventions, which were largely delivered in the form of lectures at the Hosseinieh Ershad and elsewhere, one would be wise to exercise caution in the pursuit of consistency within his corpus. While there are key ideas and themes that run through his life and thought, he was wont to the regular enunciation of apparently contradictory views and positions regarding specifics in different lectures and at different points of time.

Finally, it should be noted that Shariati was not alone in advocating "permanent revolution." Ahmad Fardid also defended the idea of "permanent revolution" in his lectures, which were delivered after the Revolution and published posthumously by a former student. See Fardid, Didar-e Farahi va Fotuhat-e Akhar al-Zaman, p. 35.

18. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 59.

19. Ibid., p. 91.

20. Ibid., p. 90.

21. Ibid., p. 92.

22. Ibid., p. 93.

23. Ibid., p. 94.

24. "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." Karl Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach," in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 173. Shariati actually paraphrases Marx's 11th thesis in Jahatgiri-e Tabaqati-e Islami, p. 171.

25. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 95.

26. Ibid., p. 98.

27. Ibid., p. 95.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., p. 103.

30. "Taarif-e Din" in Shariati, Ensan-e Bikhod, p. 21.

31. Ibid.

32. At one point in "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," Shariati does speak of the Prophet's founding of a "powerful centralized state" (hokumat-e markazi-ye niru-mandi) upon his migration to Medina in glowing terms. He claims it was necessary for the Prophet to go beyond the more limited project of "individual reform" -- or more literally "individual-building" (fard-sazi) -- to the founding of a government (hokumat) as a prerequisite of its identity as a global and universal (jahani) movement. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 128.

33. Shariati, Ensan-e Bikhod, p. 23.

34. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 105.

35. Shariati, Jahatgiri-e Tabaqati-e Islami, pp. 130, 170.

36. Ali Shariati, Bazgasht, vol. 4, Majmueh-ye Asar (Tehran: Elham, 1384/2005), p. 224.

37. Jafariyan, Jaryan-ha va Sazman-ha-ye Mazhabi-Siyasi-e Iran, pp. 677-89.

38. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 95.

39. Ibid., pp. 101, 126-27.

40. Abrahamian, Radical Islam, p. 85.

41. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 100.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., pp. 100-1.

45. As we know, Shariati translated the Egyptian author Abd al-Hamid Jowdat al-Sahar's book on Abu Zarr under the title Abu Zarr-e Ghaffari: Khoda-parast-e Sosialist in the 1950s; this is when he first became enamored with this early Islamic historical personage, who throughout his career held a special place in his heart. For more details, see Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian, pp. 57-61. Abdolkarim Soroush argues that for Shariati, "Abu Zarr was the most important and lofty personage of Islam.... Shariati's fondness of Abu Zarr was even greater than his fondness for the Prophet and Ali." Soroush, Farbehtar az Idiolozhi, p. 102. Khomeini also astutely referred to Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Taleghani as the "Abu Zarr of our age" upon the latter's death, perhaps seeking to attract Taleghani's many supporters on the Islamic left.

46. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 104. In another work, "Ommat va Imamat," Shariati speaks directly on the Marxist theory of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and the implied dismissal of democracy that accompanies it. Shariati, "Ommat va Imamat," p. 347.

47. Shariati, "Shieh, Yek Hezb-e Tamam," p. 104.

48. Shariati, "Ommat va Imamat," p. 395.

49. Ibid., p. 347.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid., pp. 386, 388.

52. Ibid., pp. 348-49.

53. Ibid., p. 426.

54. Ibid., p. 372.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., p. 364.

57. Ibid., p. 427.

58. Ibid., p. 428.

59. Ibid., p. 433.

60. Ibid., p. 431.

61. Ibid., pp. 433-34.

62. Ibid., p. 433.

63. Ibid., p. 431.

64. Ibid., p. 430.

65. Ibid., p. 349.

66. Ibid., p. 350.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid., p. 428.

70. Maxime Rodinson, Mohammed, trans. Anne Carter (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), pp. 299-300.

71. Shariati, "Ommat va Imamat," p. 347.

72. Ibid., p. 349.

73. Farzin Vahdat, God and Juggernaut: Iran's Intellectual Encounter with Modernity (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002), p. 140.

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral candidate in modern Middle East studies, Queen's College, University of Oxford. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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