By Mojtaba Mahdavi

Ali Shariati: a master synthesizer, a three-dimensional man?

November 29, 2017 - 10:31

 Ali Shariati (1933–1977), born into a religious family, received his doctorate in 1963 from the Sorbonne’s Faculte´ des Lettres et Sciences Humaines, and died in London in 1977. He is widely regarded as the Voltaire of the 1979 revolution. His popularity came to exceed that of almost all other religious and secular intellectuals in pre-revolutionary Iran. And yet, Shariati was ‘‘ignored by the secularists, admonished by the clerics, and punished by the Shah’s regime... .

The first camp considered him peripheral, the second treated him as an enfant terrible, and the third viewed him as a troublesome IslamicMarxist who needed to be silenced’’ (Boroujerdi, 1996: 105). Shariati’s discourse is debated among his passionate disciples, his relentless antagonists, and academic analysts.

Was he a revolutionary secular thinker who used religious idioms to please the religious masses, or an original Muslim intellectual who developed novel critical synthetic theories suited to the Iranian context? Was he a totalitarian ideologue who rejected democracy, or a radical democrat with egalitarian leanings? Was he an anti-Western fanatic, or a modern critic of the imperialist West and hegemonic Westernization? Was he a modern theorist of the Islamic state or a critic of clericalism and organized religion? (Hunter, 2009: 50).

Answers to these questions vary, depending on which aspects of his works are examined. Shariati shifted his position during different stages of his life and there are differences between the earlier Shariati and the later Shariati. Shariati’s thought must be historicized and contextualized. As such, Ehsan Shariati (2008) argues that one needs to challenge the conventional reading of Shariati’s Islamist revolutionary discourse on two levels.

First, there is a clear distinction between Shariati’s core and contingent ideas. While Shariati’s contingent ideas were more relevant to the pre-revolutionary Iran, his core ideas contributed to the critique of the post-revolutionary conditions in Iran.

Moreover, like other thinkers, Shariati’s ideas were in the making and developed over time; he shifted his positions on a number 14 Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 14 Downloaded from at UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA LIBRARY on December 16, 2013 of issues.

As such, a clear distinction must be made between the mature Shariati, especially in his post-prison period, and the young Shariati, especially before and during the Hosseinieh Ershad period.9 The young Shariati delivered his lectures at Mashhad University and Hosseinieh Ershad in Tehran (1963–1973).

After the latter’s closure, he was imprisoned and later banned for life from giving public lectures (1973– 1977). The terms ‘‘young Shariati’’ and ‘‘mature Shariati’’ are attributed to these periods, respectively. It is worth noting that even the ideas of the young Shariati during his time at Mashhad University and at the Ershad in Tehran were not identical. As for the mature Shariati, his new ideas were developed before and during his imprisonment after the closure of the Ershad but were clearly manifested in his post-prison writings (Mahdavi, 2011). Second, Shariati died in London in June 1977, shortly before the revolution. Whether Shariati, the ideologue of the revolution, anticipated that a revolution under the banner of religion would bring clerics to power is a question that warrants further examination.

Shariati argues that, as a necessary phase for the attainment of a true Islam, the Imam is to be neither elected by people nor appointed by other sources of power.However, what is clear is that Shariati’s thought developed before the 1979 revolution. The post-revolutionary context requires new thinking, and Shariati’s core ideas potentially contribute to such a new thinking/context. Shariati is an unfinished project and there is much to develop in his thought (Ehsan Shariati, 1379/2000). Shariati’s Discourse: Core Ideas. In Shariati’s absence, the intrinsic meaning of his ideas based on a radical deconstruction of Islamic thought was lost in the excitement of the revolution. One of Shariati’s intrinsic/core ideas concerns the concept, nature, and function of religion, and deserves a closer examination. (a) Religion.

Interpreting the role and function of religion in a sociological context in line with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim was one major source of separation between Shariati and the ulama. Weber was preoccupied ‘‘with ‘economic contributions of Protestant ethics’ and Durkheim with contributions of religion ‘to a sense of membership in human society’’’ (Yousefi, 1995: 93).

In his attempt to illustrate a progressive notion of religion in contrast to a reactionary and archaic approach to it, Shariati followed the Durkheimian dichotomy of the ‘‘state of effervescence’’ and ‘‘mechanical or organic solidarity.’’ In Shariati’s view, religion as a movement is a modern school of thought/ideology and religion as an institution is a collection of dogma, or mazhab-e sonnati (traditional religion).

Shariati himself stressed these differences emphatically: ‘‘Religion has two aspects; one is antagonistic to the other. For example, nobody has hatred against religion as much as I do and nobody has hope in religion as much I do’’ (Yousefi, 1995: 73).

Shariati succeeded in producing ‘‘a radical layman’s religion that disassociated itself from the traditional clergy and associated itself with the secular trinity of social revolution, technological innovation, and cultural self-assertion.’’ He, indeed, ‘‘produced exactly what the young intelligentsia craved’’ (Abrahamian, 1982: 473). A radical and critical account of the status quo was in many ways congruent with the demands of the university students, middle class intellectuals, and the urban classes of workers and migrants.

Shariati’s central argument urged two interconnected and concurrent revolutions in Iran: Mahdavi 15 15 Downloaded from at UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA LIBRARY on December 16, 2013 A national revolution to end all forms of imperial domination and to vitalize... the country’s culture, heritage, and national identity; and a social revolution to end all forms of exploitation, eradicate poverty and capitalism, modernize the economy and most important of all, establish a just, dynamic, and classless society. (Abrahamian, 1988: 292) The task of carrying forth these two revolutions, Shariati argued, is in the hands of the Iranian rushanfekran (enlightened thinkers, intelligentsia), who are privileged by living ‘‘in a society whose religious culture, Shiism, was intrinsically radical’’ (Shariati, 1979a: 19–20, quoted from Abrahamian, 1988: 292).

For Shariati, ‘‘social objectivity creates religious subjectivity,’’ not the other way around. This is how the socio-political hierarchy creates polytheism. The struggle between monotheism (towhid) and polytheism (shirk) is a social and not a theological struggle between two social forces in history.

Polytheism is a religion of polytheistic social formation, such as unjust, racist, and patriarchal forms of domination; it aims to justify the status quo. Monotheism, in its socio-historical terms, is the struggle for human emancipation; it aims at self- and social awareness (khod agaahi)/responsibility (Shariati, 1981b: 30). ‘‘If I speak of religion,’’ Shariati argued, ‘‘it is not the religion which has prevailed in human history, but a religion whose prophets rose for the elimination of social polytheism. I speak of a religion which is not realized yet. Thus our reliance on religion is not a return to the past, but a continuation of history’’ (Shariati, 1998: 18).

One of Shariati’s intrinsic/core ideas concerns the concept, nature, and function of religion, and deserves a closer examination. (a) Religion.In Religion against Religion he argues that organized/institutionalized religion has always undermined the emancipatory aspect of religion. Religion is ‘‘human awareness,’’ a ‘‘source of existential and social responsibility’’ against the structures of domination (Shariati, 1978, 1991: 221–223).

According to this formulation, structures of domination rest on a triangle of economic power, political oppression, and inner ideological/cultural justification. Shariati provided a critique of the three pillars of the ‘‘trinity of oppression’’: zar – zur – tazvir (gold – coercion – deception) or tala – tigh – tasbih (gold – sword – rosary), meaning material injustice (estesmar); political dictatorship (estebdad); and religious alienation (estehmar).

He offers a three-dimensional ideal type – a trinity of freedom, equality, and spirituality (azadi, barabari, and erfan) – in opposition to the trinity of oppression and in recognition of both existential and social responsibility, self- and social awareness. Each of these ideals emerged in response to human problems. However, they soon created a new set of problems as they were disassociated from each of the other two. Freedom without equality degenerated into a freedom of markets, not human beings; equality without freedom undermined human dignity; and spirituality without freedom and equality created the worst form of polity. They all turned into regressive forces, new means of domination, and served the status quo (Shariati, 1982: 37).

The unity of three ideals would free human beings from the bond of divine and materialistic determinism. It ‘‘frees mankind from the captivity of heaven and earth alike and arrives at true humanism’’ (Shariati, 1987: 85, 90). More specifically, the core of Shariati’s discourse is about freedom and democracy without capitalism, social justice and socialism without authoritarianism, and modern spirituality without organized religion and clericalism.

For Shariati, the existing democracies offer only a minimum requirement of an ideal radical democracy. A maximalist Shariati tends to agree with a radical democracy. Similarly, Shariati’s strong egalitarian 16 Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses 16 Downloaded from at UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA LIBRARY on December 16, 2013 leanings and constant critique of class inequality make him a socialist thinker; however, for him socialism is not merely a mode of production but a way of life. He is critical of state socialism, worshipping personality, party, and state; he advocates humanist socialism.

For Shariati, freedom and social justice must be complemented with modern spirituality. Shariati is well aware that the shortcomings of mysticism become ‘‘a shackle on the foot of the spiritual and material evolution of mankind’’ and it ‘‘separates man from his own humanity. It makes him into an importunate beggar, a slave of unseen forces beyond his power; it deposes him and alienates him from his own will. It is this established religion that today we are familiar with’’ (Shariati, 1982: 52–53, 59–60). However, he favors modern critical erfan and spirituality, as it offers a critical dialogue with other religious traditions and modern concepts. It is, in fact, a post-religious spirituality. According to Shariati, ‘‘by pursuing values that do not exist in nature, [the] human being is lifted above nature and the spiritual and essential development of the species is secured. Erfan is thus a lantern shining within humanity’’ (Shariati, 1982: 64).

For Shariati, the trinity of freedom, equality, and spirituality is not a mechanical marriage of three distinct concepts. Rather, it is a dialectical approach toward self- and social emancipation; it puts together three inseparable dimensions of individual and society. (b) State and democracy. Shariati’s position on democracy and the role of intellectuals in the state and the Islamic state is most controversial. Shariati was a man of his time; his thought developed in the context of pre-revolutionary Iran. He thought that Iran still remained in the age of faith, as Europe had in the late feudal era, on the eve of the European Renaissance. The rushanfekran (intellectuals/intelligentsia), Shariati argued, were the critical conscience of society and obliged to launch a ‘‘renaissance’’ and ‘‘reformation.’’ As such, a young Shariati favored the concept of ‘‘committed/guided’’ democracy.

In Ummat va Imamat (Community and Leadership) he advocated the idea of ‘‘committed/guided democracy,’’ meaning that the rushanfekran are obliged to raise public consciousness, and guide public opinion in a transitional period after the revolution. Such a revolutionary leadership would transform the ignorant masses (ra’s) into informed citizens (ra’y), and a procedural formal democracy into a substantial radical democracy (Shariati, 1987).

The young Shariati described ummat as the ideal Islamic society, characterized by commitment, dynamism and evolution. Since ummat is in constant motion and its innate characteristic is ‘‘becoming’’ rather than ‘‘being,’’ it requires a leadership (Imamat) to guide the ummat as it is threatened by stagnation and the danger of joy, which replaces betterment and perfection. Shariati argues that, as a necessary phase for the attainment of a true Islam, the Imam is to be neither elected by people nor appointed by other sources of power. Since the Imam has all the virtues of being an Imam, it is immaterial whether he becomes the choice of all members of society or that of only a few. Here, Shariati refers to the prophecy that the rushanfekran carry on their shoulders to guide their society, which is the same one as the prophets fulfilled in the past (Shariati, 1979a). Therefore, at least for a short period, a young egalitarian Shariati was skeptical of procedural democracy in the Third World; his skepticism was primarily based on the experience of the newly independent countries after World War II Mahdavi 17 17 Downloaded from at UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA LIBRARY on December 16, 2013 where the ignorant and conservative masses ‘‘would not be attracted by a progressive leadership concerned with the total transformation of society’s old modes of thought, concepts and ways. If the people were to vote under such circumstances, Shariati argues that their vote would be for ignorant and conservative leaders like themselves’’ (Rahnema and Nomani, 1990: 67).

Shariati’s position should be examined in the context of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Bandung in 1954, where the revolutionary leaders advocated ‘‘committed/ guided democracy’’ to stop the manipulation of public opinion in the electoral process in post-colonial new states.

In the phase of transition from the old order to the new society ‘‘the principle of democracy (was) considered to be in contradiction with the principle of revolutionary change, progress and leadership’’ (Rahnema and Nomani, 1990: 67). Nonetheless, the mature Shariati changed his earlier position and explicitly rejected dictatorship of any form or of any social class (Shariati, 1979a: 257–258, 342). According to the later Shariati, the principal agents of change in history and society are the people, not political or religious elites. In the social context, he explicitly argued, the notion of God in the Qur’a¯n can be equated with the people: ‘‘We can always substitute the people for God’’ (Shariati, 1994: 153). As such, the theory of committed/guided democracy does not capture the core of Shariati’s political theory. Did Shariati advocate a religious state? Shariati articulated a humanist Islamic discourse in that people are the only true representative of God on earth.

In Religion against Religion Shariati accused the clergy of monopolistic control over the interpretation of Islam in order to set up a clerical despotism (estebdade ruhani); in his words, it would be the worst and the most oppressive form of despotism possible in human history, the ‘‘mother of all despotism and dictatorship.’’ The religious state, he argued, is a clerical oligarchy. It is a clerical despotism. It is not accountable to people because it projects itself as God’s representative on earth. The basic rights of the opposition groups, nonreligious and religious other, are denied because they are God’s enemy. Brutal injustice is justified in the name of God’s mercy and justice (Shariati, 1987: 206). However, for Shariati, modern spirituality, not organized religion, still plays a constructive role in the public sphere.

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