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An Interview with the International Quran News Agency (IQNA) on Ali Shariati in commemorating the 43rd Anniversary of his death | 18th June 2020
June 18, 2020
Ali Shariati, (born 23rd November 1933, Mazīnān, Iran—died 18th June, 1977, England), Iranian intellectual and critic of the regime of the Reza Shah Pahlawi. Ali Shariati developed a new perspective on the history and sociology of Islam and gave highly charged lectures in Tehrān that laid the foundation for the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Shariati received early training in religion from his father before attending a teachers college. He later studied at the University of Mashhad, where he earned a degree in Arabic and French. He became active in politics while a student and was imprisoned for eight months. He received a Ph.D. in sociology from the Sorbonne in Paris, and while there he met Jean-Paul Satre, French sociologists, and Iranian student dissidents. Profoundly influenced by his experience in Paris, Shariati returned to Iran and was jailed for six months in 1964. After his release, he taught at the University of Mashhad until his lectures and popularity were deemed threatening by the administration. He then went to Tehrān, where he helped establish the Husayniya-yi Irshad (a centre for religious education) in 1969. In the following years Shariati wrote and lectured on the history and sociology of Islam and criticized the current regime, Marxism, Iranian intellectuals, and conservative religious leaders. His teachings brought him great popularity with the youth of Iran but also trouble from the clerics and government. He was imprisoned again in 1972 for 18 months and then placed under house arrest. He was released and left Iran for England in 1977. Shortly after he arrived Shariati died of an apparent heart attack, but his supporters blamed the SAVAK, the Iranian security service, for his death.
Shariati’s teachings may be said to have laid the foundation for the Iranian revolution because of their great influence on the Iranian youth. His teachings attacked the tyranny of the Shah and his policy of Westernization and modernization that, Shariati believed, damaged Iranian religion and culture and left the people without their traditional social and religious moorings. Shariati called for a return to true, revolutionary Shiʿism. He believed that Shi’ite Islam itself was a force for social justice and progress but also that it had been corrupted in Iran by its institutionalization by political leaders.
This interview was conducted by Mohsen Haddadi (MH) from IQNA News Agency with Dato’ Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa (AFM), Founder and Director of the Islamic Renaissance Front.
MH: To what extent Shariati is known in south East Asian academic circles? And which of his books are translated into local languages?
AFM: I guess any south East Asian scholars who study sociology or are interested in the leftist ideology would have read Ali Shariati’s work. Shariati’s strong egalitarian leanings and constant critique of class inequality made him a socialist thinker. However, for him socialism is not merely a mode of production but a way of life. He was critical of a state socialism that worshipped personality, party, and state and proposed a “humanist socialism”. My understanding of Shariati is that the state’s legitimacy derives from public reason and the free collective will of the people. For him, freedom and social justice must be complemented with modern spirituality. His trinity of freedom, equality, and spirituality is a novel contribution to the idea of an “alternative modernity”.
I first came across Shariati’s work in my younger years in the early 80’s through Hajj, a monumental work that transformed my understanding about the fifth pillar of Islam. Hajj to Shariati is a show of creation, a show of history, a show of unity, a show of the Islamic ideology and a show of the Ummah.
Shariati sheds philosophical light on the rituals in Hajj. Knowledge (Arafat), Consciousness (Mashar) and Love (Mina) are the three essential ingredients that comprise the fabric of a true Muslim. And the most impactful words were on his description about stoning the idols at Mina. The three jamrahs denote Pharaoh, the symbol of oppression, Qarun, the symbol of capitalism, and Bal’am, the symbol of hypocrisy, are the three idols that the hujjaj (pilgrims) are expected to destroy. Shariati explains the significance of pelting these idols with seven stones, seven times, which symbolizes number of days of creation, seven heavens and seven days of a week. “This implies an everlasting struggle which started with the beginning of creation and continues on into the hereafter; a battlefield without a ceasefire; and the absence of a peaceful relationship with any idol”. Nothing has moved me so much than his words in his book Hajj.
Apart from this book – Hajj – which has been translated into Indonesian/Malay, the Islamic Renaissance Front which I headed also translated his book Religion Versus Religion. This book was based on Shariati’s two speeches about religion which has two faces, a ‘religion of revolution’ and a ‘religion of legitimation’. The difference between them is sharply drawn: the first is a religion working to overcome differences in class and economic status, while the second is a religion legitimating and perpetuating such differences. But as opposed to some socialists who draw the line between religion, as supporter of class divisions, and non-religion, which overcomes these divisions, Shariati places the dividing-line within religion itself. From his perspective, it is thus not religion itself that needs to be rejected as the ‘opium of the people,’ but only one type of religion, the ‘religion of legitimation,’ while true religion remains unscathed. This is where Shariati departs from Marxism.
And the consequences of this impressive analysis are far-reaching. Not for nothing has he been called the architect of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Since World War II the Muslim world has been shaken by two powerful forces, socialist ideology and, more recently, what is now called Islamic fundamentalism. The line Shariati draws binds these two movements together: true Islam, according to Shariati, is true socialism, and true socialism is true Islam. It is the kind of slogan for which thousands of people have been prepared to die and for which thousands have already died. That has been the impact of Shariati to Iran and to the Muslim world at large.
MH: What are the main attractions of Shariati’s thoughts for Malaysian thinkers and people?
AFM: I guess it is difficult to explain about the attractions of Shariati thought to the Malaysians. I can say only about myself and how Shariati’s thought was so powerful to bring about regime change in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Sadly not many of his books have been translated into our language. But what I can say is that to me, Shariati has argued that Muslims need a new kind of leadership, embodying the dynamic, open-minded, selfless and visionary qualities of Islam. He characterised these leaders as ‘raushanfikr’ which is usually translated as ‘enlightened souls’ although the instinctive association with the European ‘enlightenment’ must be resisted. In Where Shall We Begin?, Shariati writes:
What is an enlightened soul? In a nutshell, 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. And if he happens to be educated, he may be more effective and if not perhaps less so. But this is not a general rule…
In fact, many of Shariati’s writings discuss this idea, and call for young Iranians to aspire to these qualities. As examples, he constantly refers back to Islamic history and great figures of the past. This is an area in which his ideas appear to have evolved considerably over time. In Approaches to the Study of Islam for example, he gives a simple list of the areas of study in which traditional Islamic studies have been deficient. In Where Shall We Begin?, he talks of an “Islamic reformation” and an “Islamic protestantism”, which appear to be explicitly related to Euro-Christian precedent. In the paper What is to be Done?, he presents his vision of a programme of research for Hussainiyyah Irshad that appears to be the closest thing he produces to a programme of action. Notably, however, despite his criticisms of the Shi‘i establishment, accusations that he is anti-clerical appear to be inaccurate, given his emphasis on knowledge of Islam. Rather his drive seems to be to create a new kind of ulama, with a better understanding of Islam than their predecessors, who are capable of taking on the responsibilities that their predecessors failed to carry out.
Yes, Shariati was an intellectual first and foremost, whose thought was ultimately directed to a regeneration and rebirth of Islam and Muslim society. But some have argued that his ideas have precursors in other Muslim thinkers, and many of them Sunni, such as the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, whose work was well-known and influential in Iran. Many were also strongly influenced by his studies of Western philosophies and ideologies. But there can be little doubt, given Shariati’s background in a traditional Islamic environment and the strength of emphasis on Islam in his writings, that he was first and foremost a Muslim concerned, like so many of his contemporaries all over the Muslim world, to address the sorry plight that Muslim societies found themselves in, and to seek solutions in Islam. Shariati’s great contribution was to express these ideas in a Shi‘i environment; his essay Red Shiism Vs Black Shiism is a good example. In this essay he discusses his ideas on the perceived dual aspects of the Shi’a religion throughout history. Red Shi’ism, which he sees as the pure form of the religion, which is concerned with social justice and salvation for the masses and is devoid of idolatrous rituals and established clergy. Black Shi’ism, on the other hand, to him is the deviated form of the religion, which is under the domination of both monarchy and clergy, out of touch with the needs of the masses, and which came to be established in Iran under the Safavids.
Without doubt, Shariati will always be remembered because of the Islamic Revolution which came so soon after his premature death, and which many believe was only possible and successful because of the commitment to Islam as a dynamic force for change that his ideas had engendered among a generation and a class of young Iranians who would otherwise have become even more alienated from Islam than they had already become before Shariati’s work.
MH: Are there any south East Asian thinkers could be compared to Shariati?
AFM: If you are asking if there are any Southeast Asian scholars comparable to Ali Shariati, in terms of bringing a revolution with his ideas, the simple answer is no. But we have had great thinkers in the Malay archipelago early in the twentieth century that had created a huge paradigm shift in Islamic understanding that changed the entire society and survived until today. It was more of an evolution rather than revolution. One name that came to my mind in between many others was Ahmad Dahlan.
Kiyai Ahmad Dahlan was the founder of Muhammadiyah, a reform movement of the 20th Century that survived until today and had millions of followers who are committed to social work and education in uplifting the Malay-Indonesian Muslim society in every aspect of their lives. And this movement had created a tectonic shift in the Malay Sunni Muslims understanding of Islam from their predecessors. But this is not the place to discuss on this issue since our focus is on Ali Shariati and his thoughts.
MH: Do you think that Shariati is a thinker for the past or he has messages for contemporary Muslim world?
AFM: Is Shariati a thinker relevant for the past only? I do not think so. Shariati’s legacy and his thought are relevant until today and contributed to a deconstruction of the false binaries of Islam & modernity, Islam & West, and East & West. In advocating a third way between these two extremes, Shariati’s thought finds common ground with other contemporary reformism including the Islamic liberalism of Abdolkarim Soroush, and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im. Ali Shariati’s contributions to sociology take as their premise the continued dominance of Western civilization in non-Western societies. To me, many of his writings stay as relevant and useful in contemporary world as they were when they were first written. To re-articulate his view, a new cultural reorientation that recognized individual agency and autonomy could help Muslim societies overcome the structural causes of their stagnation and underdevelopment. And when we look at his anti-colonialist discourse, Shariati underlines the role of religion in liberating society, a kind of Muslim liberation theology, and this point remains pertinent until this day.