Ali Shari’ati and the Shaping of Political Islam in Iran
by Kingshuk Chatterjee
Summary: 'Ali Shari’ati was highly influential in mobilizing the Iranian youth in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution, but his ideas, sidelined by the ruling regime in Iran, are losing their appeal in the emerging global village.
[Note: I have used the same spelling for names as the book’s author, mainly to reduce confusion when passages from the book are quoted.]
Many books have been published about Iran and Islam over the past three decades. I have studied a dozen or so such books, and have written reviews for some of them, including Defining Iran: Politics of Resistance (by Shabnam J. Holliday, Ashgate, 2011), which I reviewed a little over a month ago.
This one, written by an assistant professor of history at Calcutta University, is quite enlightening. The book consists of an introduction, seven numbered chapters, and a conclusion, and it ends with two appendices, on the history of Shi’ism and Shari’ati’s writings/lectures, and a glossary of Arabic and Persian terms. The book has an index, but it is rather incomplete. For example, neither “Safavid (Shi’i)” nor “Women (in Islam)” has an index entry.
Part of the book’s charm, compared with those by Iranian writers, is the author’s detachment from the various political groups that stand to gain from one or another interpretation of sociopolitical events leading to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The down side of a non-Iranian author is the inevitable inaccuracies in translation and transliteration. For example, constitutionalists are called “mashruteh-khwahis” rather than “mashruteh-khwahs” [p. 31] and Shari’ati’s lecture series “What is Islam?” is referred to as “Islam che ast?” [p. 86]. There are also problems in the book’s editing and proofreading, as there are numerous instances of redundant or repeated terms/phrases throughout the text. Setting these criticisms aside, I did learn a great deal from this book.
Throughout the Pahlavi era (the reign of Reza Shah, who came to power by overthrowing the Qajars, and his son Mohammad Reza, who took over in 1941 when World War II allies forced his father to abdicate, and was kept in power via a CIA-led coup against the popular government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953), the West had abundant influence in Iran. For example, Reza Shah’s abdication followed a BBC propaganda blitz, whose success took even the British by surprise [p. 34].
Tensions between religious fundamentalists, who believe in the primacy of Islam, and secular forces, that focus on Iranianism, while also allowing a role (though not a primary one) for Islam, has been part of the political scene in Iran for at least a century. To this date, the relative virtues of pre-Islamic vs. post-Islamic Iran are being hotly debated. Even Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ambivalent about secularization. While his father pursued harsh policies aimed at removing the outward symbols of religiosity from society, MRP rolled back some components of the secularization agenda, in an effort to gain popularity[p. 40]. In this approach, he was driven, in part, by his fear of communism [p. 48].
Opposition to the Shah fell under three general groups or coalitions: Constitutionalists, led by Mohammad Mossadegh, Marxists who had Jalal Al-e Ahmad as a key spokesperson, and Islamists personified by Ruhollah Khomeini [p. 49]. The author elaborates on these three opposing forces in during the Pahlavi era in Chapter 2.
Even Mossadegh and his followers, the first of the three opposition groups just mentioned, acknowledged Islam as a force to be reckoned with and developed a narrative in this regard. Mossadegh argued that after the initial “epoch of revelation and inspiration,” during which divine and infallible interpretation of God’s guidance prevailed, the clergy kept themselves within the restraints of the laws made by legislators, rather than discovered or interpreted by fuqaha [p. 50]. He is quoted as saying: “I am an Iranian and a Muslim, and I shall fight as long as I am alive, against anything that threatens Islam and Iran” [p. 53]. Mossadegh’s downfall started when the common agenda that held secular and religious forces together fell apart. In this separation, Ali Shari’ati took the side of Mossadegh, rather than Kashani, who represented the religious front [p. 76].
The second opposition group, exemplified by Jalal Al-e Ahmad, was more accommodating of the clergy, allowing them some influence, if not participation. Al-e Ahmad is often characterized as a communist-turned-Islamist, but some still doubt his sincerity in embracing Islam, rather than simply use it as a tool for mobilizing the masses [p. 62]. In fact, his praise of Israel made him quite suspect in this regard: “For me as an easterner, Israel is a model, better than any other, of how to deal with the West. How to extract from its industries … how to take ammunition from it and spend the capital thus obtained to advance the country” [p. 63]. In his magnum opus, Gharbzadegi, Al-e Ahmad writes: “We have failed to preserve our own historical and cultural character in the face of the onslaught of the machine. Indeed, we have been defeated. We have failed to take a resolute stand against this contemporary monster. Until we comprehend the essence, basis and philosophy of the western civilization, by only emulating the west outwardly and formally (embracing its machines) we shall be like the ass going about in a lion’s skin” [p. 60]. Admitting that we need to take certain things, but not everything, from the West, Al-e Ahmad continues: “From the west … we are looking for technology. Technology we have to import. We will also learn the science that goes with it. That in itself is not western; it is universal.”
The influence of the third opposition group, led by Khomeini and other clerics in his camp, is more recent. “The theory of a relentless struggle by the ‘ulema for ‘ten decades’ is mostly a myth.” It was Khomeini “who replaced this quietist orthodoxy [that prevailed till then] with a dynamic one, enunciating a doctrine of activist Islam” [p. 64].
Unlike Al-e Ahmad, “Shari’ati issued almost a blanket denunciation of the ‘ulema ... for having successfully robbed Islam of its dynamism by confining it to a deadening legalist system” [p. 2]. Beginning with Chapter 3, the author transitions from the three opposition groups just discussed to the role played by ‘Ali Shari’ati in the formation of the school of thought that brought about the current Islamic regime in Iran.
By combining his views, shaped at Sorbonne, with Islamic concepts and terminology, Shari’ati bridged the social divide between the traditional and modern segments of Iran’s youth, appealing to a broader spectrum of the society than anyone else [p. 117]. The fact that Shari’ati’s thoughts were influenced by Western thinkers was held against him by various opponents. “Subsequent claims by Shari’ati’s adherents of his familiarity with people like Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre seem more to be exaggerations of casual acquaintances than facts, but the impact that the intellectual ambience of Paris in the 1960s had on Shari’ati was undeniable” [p. 77].
In time, Shari’ati’s reputation spread and his lectures and writings became highly popular, leading SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, to intensify its monitoring efforts that had begun immediately following his return to Iran and imprisonement for his involvement in anti-Shah demonstrations in Europe. For much of his career, Shari’ati avoided direct criticism of the regime, opting instead for an emphasis on the human element [p. 100]. When Shari’ati began to criticize the religious leadership in his lectures, SAVAK seized upon the chance of using him “as a stick with which to beat the ‘ulema.” This perhaps explains why Shari’ati was allowed to take on a teaching position at Mashhad University, despite his opposition and imprisonment.
The Shah later came to regret this leniency and completely banned Shari’ati’s lectures in the early 1970s [p. 101]. Following the Shah’s intensified crackdown on all opposition groups in the early to mid 1970s, Shari’ati was jailed again in 1973, put under house arrest in 1975, and eventually left Iran in secret in 1977, dying of natural causes the same year.
At various points during his life, Shari’ati was distrusted by the Shi’i clergy for his unorthodox religious views. For example, in response to a question in 1969, “[Shari’ati] argued that in the early days of Islam, when the meaning of Islam was not clear to most Muslims, they needed guidance from those entrusted with preserving the faith and its values—hence, the Shi’i concept of visayat. However, once Muslims became more aware of their faith and its values, the trusteeship of the faith devolves upon the community as a whole. The ummah then has the responsibility to elect its own leaders to execute that trust—hence, the Sunni principle of showra” [p. 103]. “I as an individual human being must choose whether to move forward with history and accelerate its determined course with the force of knowledge and science, or to stand with ignorance, egoism and opportunism in the face of history and be crushed” [p. 94].
Another example that infuriated the clergy was Shari'ati's statement that “Islam is not a new religion because, in fact, throughout history, there has only been one religion. … The Prophet of Islam was appointed to complete the movement which has existed throughout history in opposition to deception, falsehood, polytheism, discord, hypocrisy, aristocracy and class differences” [p. 107].
In a third and final example, his criticism of the clergy is stern and direct: “Under the guise of observing and honoring religious rites, in the name of glorifying great religious personalities, and behind the façade of seeking blessings and sanctification from the Holy Qur’an, these actors hide the true essence of the Qur’an and the true teachings of the leaders of Islam by preventing the people from understanding them” [p. 115].
Interestingly, two versions of Shari’ati’s writings are in circulation. “Those who support the status quo in favor of the state choose to highlight Shari’ati’s role as an ideologue of the Islamic Revolution, and expunge much of Shari’ati’s critiques of the clergy; those who seek to reform the establishment in a more liberal direction highlight his opposition to authoritarianism and clerical predominance in Islamic society” [p. 79].
Whereas Al-e Ahmad criticized pseudo-Westerners for promoting a false image of the West that did not exist even in the West itself, Shari’ati went a step further by pointing to the clergy as willing participants in this deception [p. 115]. Shari’ati formulated his thoughts in terms of the trilogies istibdad/istismar/istihmar (despotism/exploitation/duping) or zar/zoor/tazvir (gold, representing bazar’s merchant class, force, exerted by those holding political power, and deception, wielded by the clergy) [p. 93].
In a letter to Khomeini, Morteza Motahhari, who had taken on the role of attacking Shari’ati on behalf of the clergy, wrote: “[It] is not deniable that the only issue that the different groups—from the regime’s supporters to the communists, the Munafiqin-i Khalq … and some seemingly religious groups who are pro Shari’ati—all share this same desire, that is to damage fundamentally the ‘alim and to remove this obstacle from the scene … As a consequence of his [Shari’ati’s] teachings, a cleric is, in the eyes of today’s youth, worse than a security officer” [p. 149]. Motahhari was conflicted about non-clerical Islamists: He liked the fact that some such people, including those educated in the West, were representing Islam with a modern style that appealed to the youth, but he had misgivings about marginalization of the clergy by those who had an inadequate training in Islamic sciences [pp. 150-151]. Shari’ati was equally disliked by the communist Tudeh party and its sympathizers, who branded him as “an agent of the US, the CIA and the Pahlavi regime” [p. 117] and by the clergy, who considered him as “both ignorant and irreligious” [p. 118].
One of Shari’ati’s barbs against the clergy was the distinction he made between Alavid (associated with Imam ‘Ali) and Safavid Shi’isms. He maintained that the latter version, which was introduced to counter the power of the Ottoman Empire by making the Iranian Islam different and unique, was what the clergy practiced. According to him, the Safavid clergy invented a hadith about the marriage between Imam Hossein and the daughter of the last Sassanid king, Yazdegard, “to fuse the concept of monarchy with Imamate. … Instead of becoming involved in politics, Safavid fuqaha focused on writing about mensturation, ejaculation, the rituals of going to the toilet, ordinances concerning slavery and the responsibilities of the slave to the slave owner” [pp. 137-138]. And they invented the notions of taqiyeh (dissimulation), taqlid (emulation), and intezar (waiting for the hidden imam to reemerge) to justify their inaction [p. 138].
One of the more serious criticisms leveled at Shari’ati by the educated elites arose from his nearly total lack of attention to the roles of women in society. Of the 37 volumes of his collected works, only one was devoted to women (titled “Zan”), and he gave one lecture, “Fatima is Fatima,” on the topic, in which he focused on Fatima as the dutiful daughter and the silently suffering wife, something that did not please women’s rights advocates [p. 164]. Shari’ati’s friends and other supporters have claimed that his lack of emphasis on women’s issues was due to his not wanting to offend the wide spectrum of people, including many traditional families, who attended his lectures, and that he treated men and women equally in his private life [p. 164].
In the end, even though Sahri’ati’s efforts were instrumental in mobilizing the masses of youth against the Shah, and whereas some of his ideas found their way into the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the supremacy of the clergy, as reflected in the office of Rahbar (the Supreme Leader) and various other powerful councils and oversight oragans, make the current Islamic regime in Iran as foreign to Shari’ati’s way of thinking as it was to the vast majority of top-level mujtaheds who were against the clergy’s direct involvement in the machinery of government. Shari’ati’s rhetoric differed from those of Khomeini, Bazargan, and other Islamists, who advocated some sort of state apparatus that was constituted according to Islamic laws, in that he spoke of the personal responsibilities of a Muslim, rather than a centralized authority that operated in an Islamic fashion [p. 153].
In the Islamic Republic, which was established following the death of Shari’ati, the responsibility for carrying his banner fell to a younger generation that had been influenced by his lectures and writings. One of these was Abdolkarim Soroush, who rose rather quickly from a bureaucratic university post to the head of the Council for Cultural Revolution in charge of purging and reforming Iranian universities. Soroush later fell into the regime’s disfavor, leading to a ban on his teaching, writing, and public speaking in Iran [p. 182].
The language of Islamic politics was also used by the former president Khatami, but by then, much of Shari’ati’s fiery rhetoric had been neutralized and the younger generation was looking to other models, not to political Islam, for personal fulfillment and social engagement. In his final paragraph [p. 201], the author opines that “it is perhaps premature to assume that political Islam has failed, as Olivier Roy had done [in his 1996 book, The Failure of Political Islam]. The jury is still out.”
In this article, I have provided an extensive sample of the ideas and analyses presented in the book under review, but there is much more. I recommend the book to anyone who is curious about the roots of the Islamic Revolution and the relationships among various Islamic groups in and out of power in Iran.
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