Home Culture The Charisma of Ali Shariati

The Charisma of Ali Shariati

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo of Ali Shariati

The Iranian icon advocated progressivism despite opposition from the forces of the shah and the clergy

Abbas Amanat, professor of history at Yale University, has penned the monumental 979-page Iran: A Modern History (Yale University 2017), sketching a portrait of Ali Shariati, the teacher who captured the imagination of Iran under the Shah and Pakistan under dictatorship.

Shariati (1933-1977), was a “generational icon” with an eclectic worldview. In the 1960s his fiery sermons, numerous popular books, pamphlets, and cassette recordings made him a new messiah of revolutionary Islam opposing the Shah of Iran. Born in Mashhad to a religious family from a village around Sabzevar—an old stronghold of Shiism—Shariati’s father was a preacher of some fame, running a religious center with a revivalist agenda. The National Movement of the early 1950s, and the dissident political culture that followed it into the 1960s, shaped high school teacher Shariati’s worldview. A supporter of the anti-Shah National Front, his path diverted once he moved to France on a government fellowship where he earned a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne in “sociology of religion” with a dissertation analyzing Persian mystical texts. The degree landed him in the faculty of Mashhad University.

Shariati and Allama Iqbal

He taught Iran to appreciate the poet of Pakistan, Allama Muhammad Iqbal: “Iqbal is a multi-faceted individual. He thinks like Bergson. He loves like Rumi. He plays the songs of his faith like Nasir Khusrow. He fights colonialism for the liberation of Muslim nations as Syed Jamal had done. He endeavors to save civilization as Tagore had tried to do from the tragedy of calculating reason and the pest of ambition. Like Carrel, he holds the hope and the aspiration to be able to revive love and spirit in the harsh life of modern man. Like Luther and Calvin, he makes his goal the revival of his religious thought and an Islamic Renaissance in the age.”

Shariati took from Allama Iqbal a basic concept that Islam was a synthesis of politics and spirituality and that it penetrated man’s entire life. He corrected his Gnosticism through Allama’s rejection of mysticism as escape. Rumi was the guide to life not to monasticism. He was also converted to Allama’s rejection of both the West and the Muslim clergy. The Iranian clergy objected to Shariati’s views on Iqbal because they saw the poet as a Sunni philosopher. Some detractors even claimed that Iqbal had insulted Imam Jaafar Sadeq in one of his poems; it turned out that the offending poem was actually about Jaafar and Sadiq of Deccan and Bengal, not the sixth Imam.

Shariati and Fanon

The greatest influence on Shariati, however, came from Caribbean-born Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) and his revolutionary anticolonial thesis then in vogue among intellectuals of the Left. He translated into Persian Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth soon after it was published in 1961. Shariati came to view the struggle against colonialism, then epitomized by the Algerian Revolution, as an existential struggle for human liberation in which suffering and sacrifice of the oppressed were to restore not only political freedom but also human dignity and moral responsibility.

Fanon had become the voice of passionate intellectuals and activists of the so-called third world widely employed to define a geography of deprivation and dependency on the West. Still socialist in its core, Fanon’s anti-colonialism went beyond mass struggle to emphasize national, cultural, ethnic, and religious ties. These he held as crucial tools for struggle, even armed struggle, to cast off alien ideologies on both sides of the global divide. Shariati absorbed that message but refashioned it to fit his own historical reading of Shiism.

Shariati the great orator

Returning to Iran in 1964, he was inevitably harassed by the Shah’s secret police Savak and was detained for his dissident activities abroad; but soon, possibly after giving assurances, he was allowed to hold his university position, teaching sociology of religion and history at Mashhad University. He made a name for himself as a motivated teacher with radical views about Islamic history who provided it in a novel context to his growing audiences.

Shariati arose as a speaker of great strength and was invited to many places of learning. The government had so far ignored him but his rising popularity forced Savak to examine his work. The result was fatal: Shariati’s lectures were banned. In 1963, reputed scholar Murteza Mutahhari had set up a ‘discussion forum’ named Husseinyeh Ershad in Tehran, which became functional in 1969, featuring speakers like Ali Khamenei, Hashemi-Rafsanjani and German-educated Beheshti. Mutahhari had liked Shariati’s early writings and chose to publish them under the aegis of Husseinyeh Ershad. In 1969, Mehdi Bazargan, who had influence at Husseinyeh Ershad invited him to lecture there. He gave two series of lectures under the rubrics of Beyat va Vesayyat and Ali a mythical reality. Meanwhile, Savak, aroused by Shariati’s almost overt invitation to revolution against despotism under the Shah, banned him from Mashhad University. That left him only the platform of Husseinyeh Ershad, but here too his published lectures aroused the ire of the clergy, which now condemned the forum as a hot-bed of heresy.

Master of the Hosainiyeh Ershad

Hosainiyeh-e Ershad was a modern religious institution in northern Tehran established in 1964 to promote a fresh Islamic perspective palatable to mostly university students and educated professionals. Reminiscent of Catholic establishments in France or Evangelical halls in the United States, or closer to home Tehran’s former Baha’i center, it was entirely different from the familiar environment of mosques and traditional “takkiyehs” where Muharram mourning was staged.

For nearly a decade, Shariati’s message of Islamic rediscovery and his activism in a language of restrained metaphors ruled in the hearts and mind of Iranian youth. For audiences who came in droves to listen to him, Ershad’s surroundings presented something more bright and dignified, an ideal setting for a charming lecturer, handsome, well dressed in suit and tie, shaved, smiling, and speaking with a trace of a delightful Khorasani accent. He was a novelty even the secularized middle-class Iranians could not Ignore.

Liberation through the Quran

Considering himself a theistic existentialist, Shariati sought a message of liberation in the Quranic narrative and in the Shia past. He was not interested in an empirical, factual history of Islam, which he dismissed as irrelevant and misleading, produced by oppressive powers and Westerners. Rather, he looked to the early Shia archetypes for his vision of revolt against political and religious oppressions.

In his message there existed a potent amalgam of Fanon, Sartre, and Massignon, alongside Marx, Mosaddeq, Algeria’s National Liberation Front, and Al-e-Ahmad, not to mention Shariati’s own father’s advocacy of “true” Islam. Such characters were synthesized and amalgamated in Shariati’s mind to make his early Islamic heroes speak his revolutionary message. They ranged from Ali, Husain, and Fatima to such early companions of Islam’s Prophet as the emaciated Abyssinian slave Bilal and the pro-Ali figures, Abu-Dharr al-Ghifari and Ammar ibn Yasir.

In the vocal and written universe of Ali Shariati all these personalities turned into champions of social justice, self-sacrifice and revolt against the oppressors. The early deniers of Islam’s Prophet among the Quraysh and their Umayyad descendants, Muawiya and his son Yazid, were the predictable villains. They were timely signifiers in his lectures who actually presaged the Pahlavi regime.

In this sacred past, the age of the early believers, Shariati imagined an Islamic course when the pure, egalitarian, and self-sacrificing Imams and their companions actively resisted their corrupt oppressors. This he called the Red Shiism. Here in the House of the Prophet, the so-called Five (of the Prophet), more popularly known as the Five Bodies (panj tan) namely Mohammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Hosain, and their loyal supporters, he sought a “religion of protest.”

Against Safavid Shiism

In this narrative of revolutionary Shiism Shariati was a modern “promoter” (maddah) and a contemporizing “reciter of the sufferings,” who assigned to his “wronged” heroes the urgent task of revolutionary rebellion against their oppressive villains. By contrast, his “Safavid Black Shiism” stood for clerical conservatism, which he characterized as compromising, pedantic, and rapacious. The dichotomy of the two forms, Safavid Shiism was devoid of plausible historical reference. Furthermore, he believed that the rise of Safavid Shiism against the Sunni Ottomans was the outcome of a conspiracy to divide Islamic unity, a conspiratorial perspective he shared with Al-e Ahmad. Yet his version of history was electrifying to his audiences who could contrast Shariati and his valiant and dynamic Islam with the stagnant world of turbaned Shiism.

Shariati’s criticism of the Pahlavi regime was understandably implicit though not entirely veiled. Nor were his allusions beyond the grasp of the Savak agents who routinely monitored his activities and occasionally harassed him. Despite much disruption by Savak, and a break with institutional head Mortaza Motahhari, Shariati went on lecturing and publishing until the closure of Ershad in 1972. (Imam Baragah is called Hosaynieh in Iran). His publications, widely available to people from all walks of life, were a source of anxiety to the regime.

Mutahhari (later, Ayatollah Uzma) defended him but became increasingly skeptical of his views as time passed. He had to stay away from the Husseinyeh for seven months but when he returned he was to become its most famous lecturer, attracting audiences from universities and high schools till they spilled out of the forum’s precincts. He began his second stint with a lecture titled Eqbal the Reformer of this century. He took from Allama Iqbal the basic concept that Islam was a synthesis of politics and spirituality and that it penetrated man’s entire life.

The return to Hazrat Ali

Shariati’s counter-attack on the clergy was intense. His redefinition of tauheed (oneness of God) dubbed the clergy part of the polytheism rampant in despotic Iran. Murtaza Mutahhari, losing control of the Husseinyeh, was by 1971 opposed to Shariati’s ‘extremism’. The clergy now demanded that Shariati begin his lectures in the name of Allah, condemn the enemies of the House of Islam’s Prophet, namely, Sunni Islam, and make the audience weep about the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Shariati instead divided Shiism between Ali’s Islam and Safavi Islam and excluded the ulema from Ali’s Islam. Around this time he was taken to Hejaz by Mehdi Bazargan to perform haj. On his return he read his famous lecture on haj entitled A meeting with Abraham and gave it a revolutionary meaning, extracting new meaning from the ‘fact’ that Abraham was ordered by God to build the Kaaba on the grave of his slave wife Hajar: it is the downtrodden that God held up by making the Muslims circumambulate the Kaaba. Later the ulema brought historical evidence to show that Shariati’s reference to Hajar’s grave was incorrect.

In 1972, at the height of urban guerrilla clashes, Shariati was seen as a serious threat. He was accused of collaboration with the People’s Mojahedin and spent 18 months off and on in solitary confinement, before being released with the shah’s consent when international publicity for his release was loud enough to make the shah realize the disadvantage of keeping a popular Shariati in detention. For two years after his release he lived under virtual house arrest with his health in serious decline.

In early 1977 he was allowed to leave the country after Savak forced him to publish, or forged on his behalf, a statement in praise of the White Revolution. When he arrived in England in March, he was suffering from depression and other ailments. Soon after he died of a massive heart attack in a hospital in Southampton.

The book notes: “Oddly enough, the circumstances surrounding his death did not alarm the British authorities enough to hold an inquest. According to author Abbas Amanat, Shariati was to be remembered by the Iranian opposition as another victim of the Savak, even though his premature death, like that of Al-e Ahmad, was due to health reasons, most likely heavy smoking.”

Related Articles

Leave a Comment