Parisian-educated Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati has been severely discredited as an ideologue of the Islamic Revolution. Despite that, the turmoil of this year calls for a reexamination of his work. Shariati made critical insights that are necessary to move beyond 2014’s bloody malaise. 

Top Five, Ten, Fifty, and Hundred lists usually reflect on a year. They are relatively easy to write, and function as the article equivalents of “remember when?” That is all well and good, but it is important that as we think about the vicious turmoil of 2014, we use the New Year as an opportunity to place ourselves in historical context. The rise of ISIS and the ongoing war in many Muslim-majority states makes the role of Islam in future social struggles a particularly important discussion. Shariati is a springboard for that, and these five quotes provide great material for discussion.

1) “In the worldview of tauhid, man fears only one power, and is answerable before only one judge. He turns to only one qibla, and directs his hopes and desires to only one source. And the corollary is that all else is false and pointless all the diverse and variegated tendencies, strivings, fears, desires and hopes of man are vain and fruitless.” on the sociology of Islam lectures, compiled 1979.

This is a reinterpretation of the indivisibility of Allah that is a major theme in revolutionary Islamist thought. The oneness of Allah is believed to also imply the oneness of creation, and thus, the oneness of humanity. Thus, the path forward is seen as anarchic, with humanity surpassing its need to be governed and instead obeying the divine principles that it attributes to Allah. Shariati is like other Islamic revitalist thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb in that he reinterprets religious ideas like these even as he claims they have more authenticity than Western ones, and he is shy on crucial social and economic details.

It is still important to understand, mainly because the details aren’t really the point. Details are important for a just replacement of the prevailing order, but Islamic fundamentalists and militants still find solace in the idea of an ethical alternative. Modern society comes with a huge variety of material and spiritual backage, which creates a desire for something that can cleanse those who feel violated by it. The yearning is for something that can fill the spiritual void. The details become important later, when it is time to prevent that yearning from being channeled into violence and dogma. Instead, anarchic visions like this one need to fuel projects of substantive democratization, which is what Shariati saw in Islam as a non-Communist revolutionary force.

2) “Islam is the first school of social thought that recognizes the masses as the basis, the fundamental and conscious factor in determining history and society not the elect as Nietzsche thought, not the aristocracy and nobility as Plato claimed, nor great personalities as Carlyle and Emerson believed, not those of pure blood as Alexis Carrel imagined, not the priests or the intellectuals, but the masses.” – on the sociology of Islam lectures, compiled 1979.

Shariati’s historical perspective is wrong. It may be true that Islam can serve as an ideology of the oppressed masses, but it is innacurate to claim that it has always recognized the masses as its popular basis. Islam did not emerge in a context that even had “masses” in the modern sense. It was radically egalitarian in its outlook, but that is because of how Meccan society was structured at the time. It was transitioning from nomadic tribal communalism to the inequalities of a society based on permanent settlement, triggering intense suffering, and cognitive dissonance for even the relatively prosperous like the Prophet Muhammad.

While it holds inspiration for modern practice, Islam cannot be seen as an ahistorical phenomenon. It must be placed within history, to emphasize the point that it emerged as an antidote to problems in its respective historical and geographic context. If that point is lost, we arrive at a situation where a mythologized notion of Islam is heroized uncritically as a solution for every modern problem. This is exactly why the Islamic Revolution ended with religious authoritarianism.

Hammer and sickle redux. Tunisia, 2012.

Hammer and sickle redux. Tunisia, 2012.

3) “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.” Where Shall We Begin, compiled 1997 – 2013.

4) “Similar to the prophets, the enlightened souls also neither belongs to the community or scientists nor to the camp of unaware and stagnant masses. They are aware and responsible individuals whose most important objective and responsibility is to bestow the great God-given gift of “self- awareness” (khod-agahi) to the general public.” – Where Shall We Begin, compiled 1997 – 2013.

Shariati was mainly popular because of passages like this which sought to Islamize the canon. These two quotes are particularly telling. Number three constructs the idea of an “enlightened soul” in terms that recalls Immanuel Kant’s famous argument that the ultimate goal of Enlightenment is the ability of the enlightened to speak for themselves and understand the responsibility of that awareness. Number four takes this notion even further, incorporating a somewhat Gramscian idea that the role of the intellectual is to help the masses build a counter-hegemony. This remains a strong theme in Islamist discourse, with Tariq Ramadan reiterating an emphasis on ijtihad to fuel a movement of anti-power.

However, the question that frequently gets lost is, “why should we Islamize this?” Do we really gain insights from retooling existing thinkers and couching everything in religious language? It seems clear that the impulse towards Islamizing ideas like these come from an exhaustion with classical models of social transformation, especially with the failures of orthodox Marxist approaches. Islamism thus becomes a force for reemphasizing the ethical undercurrent in many of these ideas. This does not necessarily have to be done through Islamization. What is the role of Islamization, then, and how should Islam be partnered with Enlightenment values to produce a just social outcome? Shariati must be critiqued for answers.

5) “Modernity is one of the most delicate and vital issues confronting us, the people of non-European countries and Islamic societies. A more important issue is the relationship between an imposed modernization and genuine civilization. We must discover if modernity as is claimed is a synonym for being civilised, or if it is an altogether different issue and social phenomenon having no relation to civilisation at all. Unfortunately modernity has been imposed on us, the non-European nations, in the guise of civilization.”Reflections of Humanity, compiled 1984.

This is another case of Shariati being right about the problem, but hazy when it comes to solutions. It is true that there has always been a contradiction between the spirit of Western liberal values, and the structural realities of the modernization process. This is mainly because of the latter’s reliance on capital accumulation and systematic dehumanization. The resulting contradiction is why “modernization” cannot be seen as implying “genuine civilization,” especially since it functions with increased effectiveness in states that abandon the liberal project. The latter has been proven to devastating effect by the progression of Chinese development.

The issue is that by using a neat dichotomy of “modernity” and “non-European countries and Islamic societies,” Shariati frames the problem as being one of East and West. This conclusion is essential for the spiritual extremism and xenophobia that frames Islamic fundamentalist rejections of anything that is seen as Western infiltration. There is a reason why revolutionary Iran was galvanized by the idea of gharbzadegi (“Westoxification.”) Modernization cannot be overcome by simply overthrowing things associated with the traditionally-defined “West.” Ultimately, it is not Western. It is a system of governance that emerged in the West, and also happens to alienate Westerners to a similar degree and tempt large-scale resistance.

The problem is therefore that the process of modernization has not been undergone with an emphasis on the democratic concepts that form its philosophical core, which becomes a farce. Shariati was writing about Iran under the Shah, but this reality is still with us. How then, should we shift modernity towards a realization of “genuine civilization”? What strategic decisions need to be made against which pressure points to change modernity and force it to place focus on human suffering? There are no simple answers, but the questions need to be taken seriously. It is an inability, and often an outright refusal, to address them that opens the door to despair and fundamentalist excess. That will continue to be true in 2015, and we must be ready to tackle these issues from the beginning.


Photographs courtesy of Pooyan Tabatabaei and Wassim Ben Rhouma. Published under a Creative Commons License.