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Shariati on Religious Government


31 Aug 2009 12:56Comments
1-1-1386-4-11-16-8-49-888EThe Islamic Revolution once looked more like Ali Shariati than like Ali Khamenei -- though it is said that Khamenei, who hails from Mashhad as did Shariati, was once a fan of the scholar. The Supreme Leader did not condone Shariati's views of clerics, however.

[ profile ] Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-77) was a distinguished sociologist whose work focused on the sociology of religion. Regardless of how one views him and his work, he remains one of Iran's most influential intellectuals of the past century. Many, including the author, consider him the ideologue of the 1979 Revolution. He certainly had a great influence on the author while in college.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Shariati was active in the national movement that supported Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran's popular prime minister and national hero. After graduating from the Teacher Training College, he moved to France and received his doctorate in sociology from the Sorbonne in 1964. He was greatly influenced by the anti-colonial struggles of third-world countries, and in particular Algeria, whose struggle for independence from France was at its height during Shariati's years in France. He worked for a while with Algeria's National Liberation Front during which he encountered and was influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon (1925-61), the revolutionary philosopher from Martinique.

When he returned to Iran in 1964, the battle between modernity and tradition was already raging. Dr. Shariati put forth a new paradigm critical of both secular and Islamic traditions, as well as the modernity he believed Western colonial powers were imposing on developing countries. His thinking was a mixture of leftist ideas infused with Shia's culture of martyrdom. He was a prolific writer and published nearly 30,000 pages over his short 44-year lifespan.

This had a heady effect on the Iranian youth in the 1960s and 1970s. Shariati's ideology meant they could be leftists -- to stand up for social justice and rail against exploitation, colonialism and imperialism -- and remain a devout Shia Muslim at the same time. Dr. Shariati's writings and lectures essentially trained a generation of young Iranians who went on to actively take part in the 1979 Revolution. Mir Hossein Mousavi is said to have been a follower of Dr. Shariati.

In the 1960s, Dr. Shariati's critique of Islamic tradition became increasingly sharp with respect to the role of clerics in Islamic history, and the last four hundred years of Iran's history, since the Safavid dynasty, in particular. Hence, he divided Islam and Shiism into two kinds: One, Alavi Shiism (also called red Shiism), going back to Imam Ali, the Shiites' first Imam, and cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. This, in Shariati's view, represented true, genuine and pure Islam.

The other, Safavid Shiism, referred to the religion that the ruling class uses to oppress and repress the masses, and in which the clerics, who have forfeited Alavi Shiism, play a greedy, self-serving and corrupt role. For that reason, Dr. Shariati rejected a special role for the clergy in society.

Due to this outlook, Dr. Shariati was criticized and attacked by many clerics. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini criticized him for some of his views. Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the ultra-reactionary cleric and the spiritual advisor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, went even further and accused Dr. Shariati of heresy. So even though Dr. Shariati played a fundamental role in igniting the Revolution, he was not appreciated by the establishment after 1979. Today, only a long street running from the north to the south of Tehran is named after him.

Thirty-two years after his death, Dr. Shariati remains an influential figure. Certainly, times have changed, and some of his ideas are no longer applicable to the present situation in Iran. There are also scholars who believe that Dr. Shariati erred in some of his writings about Islam, which is certainly possible, given the volume of work that he produced in his short life. But Dr. Shariati's thinking about how a religious government works remains totally valid and relevant today.

Here is how he described a religious regime:

A religious regime is one in which, instead of the political figures, religious figures take up political and governmental positions. In other words, a religious regime means the rule of the clerics. One natural consequence of such a regime is dictatorship, because the cleric views himself as God's representative who carries out His orders on earth, and therefore, people have no right to express their opinions, or criticize and oppose him.

A religious leader considers himself automatically a leader [of the state] due to being a cleric and religious scholar, not due to the people's vote, view and approval. Thus, he is also a ruler without any responsibility [for whatever he does], and this [thinking] is the mother of the dictatorship by one person [over the masses]. And because he considers himself the shadow and representative of God [on earth], he also rules over people's lives and belongings. He allows no doubt [to be expressed] in any oppression and repression that he commits, because he sees God's approval [satisfaction] in it [in what he does]. Aside from this, he also does not recognize any rights, even the right to live, for the opposition and followers of other religions, because he considers them as the target of God's wrath, deviated from the true path, unclean, and an enemy of [his] religion's path, and views their oppression as God's justice.

The similarities are striking between Dr. Shariati's description of a religious government and what hard-line clerics and their supporters advocate in Iran. It is thus not surprising that most clerics intensely disliked Dr. Shariati.

Dr. Shariati passed away on June 19, 1977. The author vividly remains the announcement of his death. At that time, it was thought he had been murdered by the Shah's secret service (this turned out not to be true). As soon as word spread that he had passed away, huge demonstrations broke out on the campus of the University of Tehran against the government of the Shah. I was taking a final exam when the demonstrations began. I left the exam and joined the demonstrations.

The great French philosopher and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) once said,

I have no religion, but if I were to choose one, it would be Shariati's.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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