By Sara Faraji & Somaye Rezaei

Shariati was intellectually open to all religious and ideological horizons

October 25, 2017

The late Dr. Ali Shariati is one of the most significant and influential intellectuals of the contemporary era in Iran. Even though many summits and conferences are still being held on Ali Shariati, nowadays it seems that his legacy is not used to its fullest in the scientific and intellectual assemblies and only some of his quotes and sayings are mentioned in social contexts. 

Ali Shariati’s children have all followed his example and turned to philosophy. His eldest son, Ehsan Shariati (born: Shahrivar 12 1338/September 3 1959 in Mashhad) has studied philosophy at Paris-Sorbonne University in France. He has worked as a guest professor at the University of Tehran and Islamic Azad University’s Science and Research Branch in Tehran. His books include Heidegger’s Philosophy and an Iranian Reading of it, Religion and Government and The Philosophy of Self in Muhammad Iqbal’s Thought. 

We sat with him to talk about a range of issues including Ali Shariati’s relationship with philosophy and ideology and power, his intellectual methodology, his role and place in contemporary thought, the traditions that he belonged to as well as the reason behind the occasional attacks against him. Here is the full text of the interview:

Q: Before starting our discussion about Dr. Ali Shariati and his relation with philosophy and ideology, I would like to know your opinion on the philosophy/ideology dichotomy and their respective tasks. 

A:  Ideology, similar to religion is a general, ambiguous, elusive and ambivalent term. The word ‘idea’ (form) has a history in philosophy. Its initial meaning from the Greek root of eïdomaï was “aspect, appearance and to be seen” (the Latin counterpart ‘species’ meant shape-aspect and typical form) which later acquired the metaphysical meaning of “eidos” (the essence or nature of things). Plato turned this word into the key concept and symbol of his philosophy; e.g. the world of ideas and the ideas (forms). Therefore, ‘idea’ has an ancient history and one can even say that the history of philosophy is the history of ‘idea.’

Shariati was a scholar of comparative studies. Namely, by ideology, he is not referring to constructing a dogmatic system in which explanation manuals (risalas) are written and all questions are answered; what he does is drawing a table, where all these schools can be compared to one another.In the technical sense, after Pythagoras coined the word philosophia, Plato is the first person who has done philosophy. He is the head of philosophers and Idealism – in its realist concept. In contrast, our modern ideology, influenced by Condillac and Locke, is a criticism of Idealism through learning ideas and recognizing the sensory origin of the development of ideas. Let us not discuss the way the word ‘idea’ is translated into Farsi. For instance, the late Ahmad Fardid translated it as ‘didar shenasi’ [knowledge of what is seen].

Since the beginning of the 19th century, after the French Revolution, some revolutionary liberal theoreticians like Destutt, Comte de Tracy, and his fellow thinkers introduced “ideology” as a branch of epistemology. A branch that was dealing with ideas, and the origin of ideas and knowledge (in fact the subtitle of Destutt’s book Elements of Ideology is for use in the central schools of the French Republic). Thus, in this sense, ideology is the discipline of the development of ideas or the origin of the ideas and sensory knowledge. In contrast to Idealism and metaphysics, these theoreticians claimed that the origin and development of ideas are more important than the ideas themselves. 

However, Napoleon fell out with them and called them ‘ideologues,’ namely theoreticians and people who makes doctrines. Thus, for the first time, ideology was used with a negative connotation, in the sense that ideologues are theoreticians who sit in their ivory tower and criticize the circumstances without having paid attention to pragmatic aspects and the real politics and power. Later in the survey of changes in the definition of ideology, this Napoleonic meaning was favored. The reason is that in 1845, Marx and Engels wrote a book named The German Ideology, which was not published at the time. It was published before the WWII in 1932.   

In this book, ideology and Idealism were considered synonymous. There Marx attacks “German Idealism,” because the left-wing Hegelians thought that the ideas are moving the history forward and one can only reform the society by criticizing the religious ideas and beliefs; however, it is the life and the lifestyles that realize ideas. Therefore, Idealism is a kind of “reverse thinking,” like in a photography dark room, where photo negatives show reality inverse. After Marx, Karl Manheim in his book called Ideology and Utopia, discussed ideology as “false consciousness” in the Marxist sense. 

Therefore, the first person to present a negative scientific definition of ideology is Marx. It is a paradox that the biggest and most comprehensive ideology in history is named after Marx. Thus, today we literally are talking about Marxism when we talk about ideology. After WWII, when fascist, right-wing authoritarian and left-wing communist ideologies gave rise to ideological regimes, ideology was redefined and criticized. In short, ideology has been defined differently in different eras. 

Q: What is the history of the concept of ideology in Iran? 

A: In Iran, before Dr. Ali Shariati, the late Mr. Bazargan published two books called The First Revelation and Ideology and Islam, the Contester and Productive

Being open to all the horizons of all religions and ideologies is among his characteristics, but it does not mean that he is positively eclectic or syncretic or a negative mixer of incongruous elements.
If Shariati were present now, he would have remained a teacher and a researcher. He did not like running for the office, or working in the government as a minister or getting a position

School.  At the time, the Muslim intellectuals were trying to come up with an ideological criticism with regard to the religious tradition. Their goal was to transform religion from its superstitious, hereditary, and unconscious state –which was deterrent to social changes that could result in a better, more developed, freer and more just world- into the moral and spiritual backing of progress. It is in this critical sense that Shariati says that he has changed religion from a hereditary and unconscious superstitious tradition into an ideology. Nowadays, by religion we refer to the theist worldview, a school of thought instructing social action, and all the philosophical, ethical, and mystical meanings and bases. My point is that the concept of ideology similar to the concept of religion has constantly changed. 
Usually we consider positive connotations for the word religion. However, in Quran, God calls on the pagans saying that you have your religion and I have my religion. It means that paganism is a religion. Similarly, we think that imamah (religious leadership) is a positive concept; however, it is not the case and there are Imams of paganism [in Quran]. Therefore, religion is a general term with positive and negative connotations. The case of ideology in history is the same. The day I arrived in Iran, I proposed that we should start “a battle of definitions,” namely; we should not accept the predominant definitions of terms at their face value without criticism. Some think that ideology has a fixed and determined definition; however, it is absolutely not the case. 

Q: What about the philosophy/ideology dichotomy then? Please talk about the relation between these two words. 

A: In the history of philosophy, ideological criticism is the equivalent of metaphysical criticism. Metaphysics is also an ambivalent concept. Namely, metaphysics has always been discussed throughout the history of philosophy, from Kant until now, either in analytical or phenomenological branch. Therefore, what we call ideology in sociology or politics is called metaphysics and Idealism in philosophy. 

Q: Some categorize philosophy as logocentric or anti-logocentric. For instance, Dr. Mohaddethi believes that Shariati’a thought was anti-logocentric and non-Idealist. What do you think? 

A: Essentially, western thought is logocentric or linguistic. In Derrida, logos has priority over writing. Socrates believed that one should live by philosophy. Therefore, one should express it in words. In the eastern tradition, there are people of the Book (Ahle-ketab) and Quran starts with [the words] ‘God of pen, and writing and education.’ 

Shariati was a scholar of comparative studies. Namely, by ideology, he is not referring to constructing a dogmatic system in which explanation manuals (risalas) are written and all questions are answered; what he does is drawing a table, where all these schools can be compared to one another. His lectures on geometrical Islamology in Hosseiynieh Ershad is such a comparative study. Inspired by the suggestion of the French epistemologist Bachelard, he draws a geometrical shape where all intellectual and religious systems are compared to each other and their characteristics are exposed. 

Q: Therefore, one cannot put Dr. Shariati under a certain –ism. However, some are of the opinion that this approach risks calling him eclectic. 

A: That is correct. Being open to all the horizons of all religions and ideologies is among his characteristics, but it does not mean that he is positively eclectic or syncretic or a negative mixer of incongruous elements. Syncretism is the amalgamation of non-related elements, which is the bad type of eclecticism. However, the positive sense of eclecticism refers to combining congruous elements; which is a constituent of all great ideologies and religions.  

In Shariati’s opinion, what is meant by religion is not religious forms but the religious, spiritual, mystical or ethical human being, or the human being who is a transcendental and superior manifestation of humanity’s encounter with the divinity. Shariati uses an open and dialogic method; for instance, he teaches history of religions with an interpretive-hermeneutic approach. He states that in order to understand Buddhism, one should learn about Buddha’s personality. Again, this is a methodology; he is not trying to convert anyone into Buddhism. In other words, it is a hermeneutic approach for sympathetic interpretation and search for meaning. 
Overall, he was neither a Marxist, nor Buddhist, nor existentialist, nor Christian or Protestant. He criticizes Marxism, stating that Marxist ethics is more bourgeois than the bourgeois ethics. His attacks on Marxism and modernism is unparalleled to any critic in the ethical and spiritual sense. 

Contrary to the popular belief, he was neither against modernism, nor against the west. In contrast, he believed that east and west are two aspects of human beings. Thus, he has the same relationship with western thinkers as with the eastern scholars; he says that he loves both Abu Dhar and Charlie Chaplin. Among the characteristics that makes him attractive to the young people is that all these aspects are not paradoxical in him. That is to say, many question the compatibility of being religious and being open to other issues and realms! Although, this also leads to some misunderstanding and misconceptions. 

Q: Shariati has harshly attacked some philosophers as well. Why has he done this and what is his goal? 

A: He attacks and defends certain kinds of philosophy (and mysticism). He says, “only philosophy and mysticism satisfy my soul’s thirst.” True philosophy is questioning and the freedom of thought; when he attacks philosophers, he is attacking the theoreticians who justify power, because a requirement of philosophy is criticizing power and being independent from it. Plato’s idea of philosopher-king as evidenced by his own fate, is an illusion because being a king and being a philosopher are two separate things. 

Q: So must a philosopher always be outside power?

A: Yes, but not in the sense that the intellectual is indifferent to power or does not participate in reform. In contrast, she or he always tries to help the better people gain power; however, an intellectual is considered a true intellectual when she or he keeps his critical distance from power –even the best kind- in order to see the deficiencies. 

Q: In my opinion, the philosophy/ideology dichotomy does not make any sense, because they are not parallel; philosophy is a top-down macro-process while ideology deals with actions. Therefore, it could be that comparing them is an insult to philosophy, lowering its status. I believe that philosophy can control ideology not reject it. Basically, what is the function of philosophy? 

A: Right, as I said ideology both had negative and neutral or scientific connotations. In the latter sense, in the modern democratic society, classes, parties and different ideologies compete with each other. A democratic society is a society in which a collection of ideologies competes and contests based on their politics and beliefs, in a free and organized way. 

Q: Has ideology always something to do with classes?

A: A society is made of classes with distinct ideologies. In Marx’s sociology, ideology is a superstructure that consists of cognitions, rights, politics, culture, knowledge and information. In the neoliberal modern times, power is invisible; for instance, we all think that we are looking at the internet, while it is the internet that is looking at us and controlling us. That is why this kind of ideology is far more totalitarian and dangerous, because in the fascist and communist totalitarian regimes, one could see the leader and be afraid of the government is controlling everything; but in this software ideology, one can see no one. 
Well, if we are to talk in scientific and not argumentative terms, having an ideology, similar to the existence of classes in the society, is an inherent and natural part of all classes, so that every class has its own distinct ideology and every government has its own ideology as well. 

Q: Thus, can we say that concurrent competition and dialogue between ideologies is natural, but exclusive ideologies are dangerous? 

A: Exactly. Exclusivity is dangerous, like the implementation of inquisition in the Middle Ages. In my opinion, ideology is the sum total of all its positive and negative connotations in history, I look at it as a scientific and neutral term referring to a systems of ideas that can be positive or negative. Therefore, there is no paradox between philosophy and worldview except that they have different functions and subject matters. 
In the modern era, in Heidegger’s words, the world has changed into the pictures of the worldviews. Namely, imagined pictures of the world make the basis of the new ideologies. In the modern era, Idealism has turned into an ideology; new ideologies are the new religions. 
In Jaspers’s opinion, in a certain historical epoch, great religions emerged and now that epoch is over. In religious terms, it is called “finality [of the prophethood].” The Middle Ages in the West or Europe were entirely religious times; however, the modern era is non-religious, common or secular. Generally, the secularity of spirit rules and ideologies emerge. Sometimes ideologies play the same role that religion used to play. 
For instance, in our country when religious youth turned to Marxism, they were still to some extent ‘religious,’ but they believed in Marxism-Leninism. Nowadays, the reigning religion is neoliberalism, which is not the original revolutionary anti Middle Ages democratic liberalism, but a nonchalant democracy, without any firm commitment to any value or belief. 

Q: In the survey of the current thought movements, where does Dr. Ali Shariati stand? What role did he play in our contemporary thought? 

A: We had a comprehensive debate on this in Rokhdad Institute entitled “The genealogy of the contemporary thought in Iran.” Since the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, there are two “thought groups” in the country, the traditionalist and the progressive. Clergies also follow one of these two tendencies. In the middle, there are people like Sayyid Jamal in Iran and Muhammad Iqbal in India who started Islamic Modernism. There were also people like Kasravi, Sanglaji among others from other thought movements, and later Bazargan, Sahabi, Taleghani, etc. and especially in Mashhad there was Mohammad Taghi Shariati who founded “The Center for Publication of Islamic Truths.” In fact, when Shariati is talking about national and religious reforms, he is following the path and the direction of these movements from 1320s to 1350s/1940s to 1970s.

Q: From political and intellectual perspectives, to which traditions does Dr. Shariati belong?

A: From a political perspective, he belongs to the national-popular movement originated during the Constitutional Revolution and continued by Dr. Mosaddegh; and from a religious perspective, he belongs to Islamic Modernism that Sayyid Jamal and Muhammad Iqbal set in motion. It is evidenced by the posters published in early years of the Islamic Revolution in which Sayyid Jamal, Iqbal and Shariati are depicted. Such depictions were not unique to Iran, it happened all over the Muslim World. Nowadays, there is a fallacy that states that since Sayyid Jamal was a proponent of revisiting the original true Islam and talked about Salaf-e-Salih (the virtuous predecessor), he belongs to the same Salafism that ISIS and Al-Qaeda are now part of. The word Salaf (predecessor) has confused these people to consider opposite tendencies the same, tendencies that are not related at all.

Sayyid Jamal and his associates were intellectuals supporting Islamic Modernism; in contrast, ISIS wants to return to Sharia and re-establish caliphate. The revisiting that Shariati talked about is not ‘returning.’ It is revisiting, namely, starting over, ‘a new beginning, and a different start.’ 

Q: As a concluding remark, in your opinion if Dr. Shariati were present in the decades after the Islamic Revolution, especially during 1390s/2010s, what could have his stand been?

A: If he were present now, he would have remained a teacher and a researcher. He did not like running for the office, or working in the government as a minister or getting a position. Although he would have remained politically active and committed, he would certainly have been critical of the existing circumstances and part of the popular and national opposition and would remain a committed and independent person. He would criticize the foreign powers and domestic problems. He was not and would not be solely critical of the current circumstances in Iran, but the entire world. 

However, such criticism and reformism would have not been an invitation to violence, because he had drawn his line regarding violence and was against all kinds of it. Although, he is been called “the Teacher of the Revolution” and is famous for his teachings, but in fact, he rejected all kids of “premature revolutions,” as he believed that a real revolution would entail a long-term process and that changing governments would not result in epistemological, moral and ideological break that a real revolution would bring about. 

His though was revolutionary in its truest form, not like the current shallow and political trends of revolutionary thought. Nowadays, some are blaming the revolutionaries because of their participation in the occurrence of the Islamic Revolution. However, it is better to say that one of our problems is that the revolution is not completed yet. Our Islamic Revolution happened extremely fast; the government and the rulers changed, but it seems that there has been no revolution in culture, structures and habits. That is to say, that change is not that simple; habits formed over 2500 years cannot be reversed overnight. If Dr. Shariati were present now, he would still have had a historically pro-change and revolutionary vision.  


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