An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati 
by Ali Rahnema.
Tauris, 418 pp., £39.50, August 1998, 1 86064 118 0
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Some time in the middle of the Seventies in Iran, a Marxist revolutionary named Bizhan Jazani warned from prison against an appeal to religion in the struggle against the Shah. ‘This attempt to revive religion,’ he wrote, ‘is highly dangerous for it could play into the hands of the reactionary clergy.’ Jazani suffered the fate of Cassandra. For that, approximately, is what happened in Iran. The Muslim insurgents known as the People’s Mujahedin, Mehdi Bazargan and Ali Shari‘ati, the subject of the biography under review, made Islam palatable to a generation of young Iranians and thus delivered them up to a clergy with a long list of unfinished business. To borrow a phrase from another revolution, they were the useful idiots of Ayatollah Khomeini.

As late as 1974, when I first visited Iran, not merely the Court and officer class but a great number of townspeople were openly impatient with religion. Islam in its Iranian version, known as Shi‘a Islam, reeked to them of feudalism, passivity, poverty, the past, the previous dynasty, the bazaar and the provinces and what the Shah in a speech in Qom in early 1963 had called ‘black reaction’, meaning the clergy.

Shari‘ati reminded young Iranians that Islam was the religion of the FLN in Algeria and the Palestinian fedayin. His lectures, a cocktail of primitive Islam, French existentialism and anti-colonial Marxism, proved intoxicating to the young Iranians of the Sixties impatient with the compromises of their parents. Shari‘ati’s image of women – vigorous, independent, responsible, pious and chaste – enchanted a whole generation of Persian women torn between their historical seclusion and the femininity of the West. In the great demonstrations against the monarchy of late 1978, Shari‘ati’s picture was carried on placards.

Ayatollah Khomeini, a pure scion of a hereditary clergy and the seminary, whose interest in the West was such that he pretended not to distinguish Marxism and Judaism, duly returned from exile in 1979 and put a stop to all that. His concern was not primarily with individual rights or liberties but with the creation of a perfect community. He and his clerical supporters pushed through a constitution that enshrined a new theory of government that he had developed in lectures in exile in Iraq in the Sixties: velayat-e faqih, or the divine right of the clergy to govern until the Second Coming. For the purposes of European readers, the most disreputable instance of velayat in action is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

In this new order, there was no room for lay religious enthusiasts. Shari‘ati had died, in a sort of despair, in Southampton in 1977. Bazargan had a spell as prime minister but resigned when he found Khomeini would not let him govern. Those of the Mujahedin who had survived the prisons of the Shah were defeated in a ferocious battle with the clerical regime in 1981. The organisation is now based in Iraq.

Since then, Shari‘ati has gradually been expunged from the history of the Islamic republic. Those clerics who had been happy to associate with him in a common front against the monarchy, such as Khomeini’s successor as revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, are now far beyond such attachments; though often in speeches and Friday sermons one comes on exploded fragments of Shari‘ati’s language, still smoking. One can still buy his works in the bookshops opposite Tehran University, but they are no longer in the windows and the apprentice has to go out back. The sumptuous official history of the Revolution, Bar resi va tahlili-e nehzat-e Emam Khomeini (‘Investigation and Analysis of Imam Khomeini’s Movement’) by Seyyid Hamid Rowhani reproduces portions of Savak documents – Savak was the Shah’s security service – to argue that Shari‘ati was one of its agents.

Ali Shari‘ati was born in 1933 into a clerical family in Mazinan, a town on the edge of the eastern desert in Khorasan. Shortly after his birth, his father, Muhammad-Taqi Shari‘ati, who had broken off his seminary studies to teach in a secondary school, moved to the shrine town of Masshad and soon became well known as a preacher. In many ways, Muhammad-Taqi was an old-fashioned Persian patriot of 19th-century character, and so was his son. Ali too became a primary school teacher, began to write and translate works on the Shi‘a and engaged in the political movement associated with Mossadeq and the nationalisation of Iranian oil. While moonlighting as a teacher, he entered the new faculty of letters of Masshad, married a classmate, and served his first prison term. In 1959, he passed out top of his class and thus had the right to study abroad for a doctorate at government expense.

Ali went to Paris, where he was a sympathiser with Algerian independence, translated Fanon into Persian, and came under the influence of Sartre, Georges Gurvitch, Jacques Berque and, above all, the Catholic mystic and Orientalist Louis Massignon, with whom he embarked on the study of Fatima, the Prophet’s youngest daughter and wife of the Caliph Ali, the patriarch of Iranian Islam.

Shari‘ati was always an apologist of Islam, seeking in Western ideologies only confirmation of the universal and progressive character of Islam, and his understanding of European thought is not particularly deep. He was attracted to Marxism for its revolutionary eschatology, and to Existentialism for its cult of suicide. Yet his éloge of Massignon at the beginning of Fatameh Fatameh ast (‘Fatima is Fatima’) or of his Jewish teachers such as Gurvitch seems to belong to another age of cosmopolitan civility – an age before Khomeini. Paris also meant that Shari‘ati happened to be outside Iran during the riots of 1963-64 that brought Khomeini to prominence and led to the creation of the Mujahedin. According to Ali Rahnema, Shari‘ati never met or corresponded with Khomeini and only learned of the existence of the Mujahedin with the show trials of 1972.

In 1964, he gained his doctorate (actually in Persian literature, rather than sociology) and returned with his wife to Iran, where he was arrested at the border: it turned out that he was supposed to have been arrested on the way out, which says something about the efficiency of Savak in its early years. Shari‘ati became a teacher at Masshad University, where his followers among the students and the radical content of his lectures (taped and transcribed by the students and published as Eslamshenasi, ‘The Study of Islam’) led to his dismissal.

He moved to Tehran and began lecturing at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad, a progressive Muslim institute set up by a pious businessman in 1969: as many as 3500 students were to register for his course. With the outbreak of armed resistance to the Shah’s regime in 1971, Shari‘ati’s lectures became insurrectionary in tone and the Ershad was closed (with the approval, according to Rahnema, of some of the turbaned clergy) in 1973.

Shari‘ati went into hiding but his father and brother-in-law were taken hostage and he gave himself up to 18 months of solitary confinement in the Komiteh prison in Tehran. In the spring of 1975, he was released, but he fell into a severe depression. He sent his son abroad, and then, in the spring of 1977, he too managed to leave – apparently to set up a new Ershad in London. His family was supposed to follow him, but at the gate at Mehrabad Airport his wife and smallest daughter were denied permission to leave.

Ali Shari‘ati went from Heathrow with his older daughters to the house he’d rented in Southampton. He was found dead early the next morning. The coroner recorded ‘cardiac failure’ as the cause of death, and Rahnema will have nothing to do with the Iranian passion for martyrdom: he reminds us that Shari‘ati was, even by the standards of lranian intellectuals, a very heavy smoker. His body was taken to Damascus, where it was buried at the shrine of Zeinab, a Shi‘a saint to whom he was much devoted.

Iranians, more even than the British, love a heroic failure and the Ershad has published almost every word Shari‘ati wrote or spoke in 38 volumes, no fewer, in the Majmu‘eh asar-e mo‘alem-e shahid Doktor Ali Shari‘ati (‘The Collected Remains of the Martyred Professor Dr Ali Shari‘ati’). Rahnema has read everything, and though that cannot have been easy, he gives no sign that it was a labour. In addition, Shari‘ati’s widow, Puran Shariat-Razavi, wrote a memoir of her husband entitled Tarhi-e az yek zendegi (‘A Sketch of One Life’). It is not just the title that evokes Jenny Marx: Ali’s improvidence, chaotic work habits, passion for justice, and adoring daughters transport one to a sort of Masshadi Dean Street. Though this memoir is not intimate by European standards, Rahnema is reluctant to use it. As a result, readers of the English life may be baffled to know quite why Ali Shari‘ati inspired such affection. Nor will they know what it was like to have Savak living in your pocket year in year out. Let me quote a short passage to give the book’s flavour:

When the Doctor came back from his journey to Europe, he went to Mazinan for a few days. A local man named Gholamreza, who had lost the use of his legs through illness, heard that Ali had gone outside and come back a Doctor and so he had himself carried on the shoulders of his relations to Sheikh Muhammad’s house in Mazinan in the hope that the Doctor would cure him. The ladies of the house laughed at him, saying, He’s not that sort of Doctor, and sent him packing; but when Mr Ali heard what had happened, he was extremely upset, threw the book he was studying to the ground, ran after the man, rustled up a horse and directed them to bring the man to his sister’s house; and, though he’d planned to spend longer in Mazinan, he hurried back to Masshad to find a medical doctor of his acquaintance and prepare a bed for the sick man at the hospital.

Shari‘ati is not a consistent thinker, nor a very lucid one, and Rahnema’s book is sometimes so slackly edited it is hard to establish what Shari‘ati is saying without going back to the collected works. Yet at the heart of his political thought is a notion that is familiar to us from Fanon: ‘the return to the self’. The Third World, as it was then called, had been colonised not just by the armies but by the commercial products and ideologies of the West. For all its fathomless history and monuments of thought and literature, Iran was, in the famous term coined by Jalal Al-e Ahmad – another Iranian intellectual from a religious background – gharbzadeh or ‘West-struck’. In those circumstances, Shari‘ati writes, the Iranian intellectual must not take refuge in imitating the West; nor in a fabricated monarchical past, derived from Persian translations of Herodotus and celebrated in the Shah’s jamboree at Persepolis in 1971; nor yet in the traditional Persian vices of composing quatrains and smoking opium; but in Islam. By Islam, Shari‘ati was quick to point out, he did not mean the rituals of the official clerics, who reduced women to imbeciles, fostered hatred of the Sunni Muslims, fawned on the regime and wrote learned treatises on sex, washing and the duties of the slave to his master; but the heroic and ideal Islam of the Prophet’s family, and particularly his grandson Hosein, whose passion and death at the hands of the Sunni regime at Karbala in 680 AD is one of the dramas of Iranian self-consciousness.

Those heroes and saints of Iranian Islam, known as the Shi‘a Ali or the party of Ali, as well as others of varying historical authority – Abu Zarr, Horr, Salman the Persian – were recast by Shari‘ati as heroes of modern movements of liberation. It is not that Shari‘ati did not recognise any history between Karbala and the Mossadeq years or the uprising of 1963-64 but that these episodes are all synchronous: merely aspects of an eternal, Manichaean struggle of oppressor and oppressed. Reading his works, one seems to be an actor in an old passion play. Obviously, Shari‘ati was not the first Iranian to see the world in those terms, nor will he be the last. His innovation was to teach in a modern university seminar room, dressed as always in his suit and tie, standing at a lectern rather than sitting cross-legged on the floor, and using the language of modernity.

Shari‘ati turned the traditional dogmas of Islamic theology on their heads. Tawhid, the fundamental unity of God or monotheism in real existing Islam, becomes the perfect classless society, while shirk, polytheism, turns out to be any social system based on class exploitation. The reappearance of the Hidden Imam or Mahdi is synonymous with the social revolution that will give justice, equality and truth to the masses.

With the outbreak of armed struggle, when Shari‘ati was lecturing to packed halls of students in an increasingly hysterical atmosphere, those concepts become clues to the organisation of a revolutionary party. Taqild, the practice of attaching oneself to a single learned mullah, becomes revolutionary discipline; taqieh, translated by my Persian teachers as ‘prudent dissimulation’ of religious views in times of persecution, is revolutionary secrecy; and entezar, religious quietism pending the return of the Mahdi, is revolutionary vigilance.

By now, according to Rahnema, Shari‘ati was under unbearable pressure from all sides: from the Mujahedin, who were recruiting at the Ershad, from the professional or turbaned clergy, and from Savak. As at Horkheimer’s lectures at Frankfurt a year or two earlier, young men and women were standing up in the auditorium and saying: ‘With your permission, professor, the time has come for us to revolt, we can no longer remain subdued. Today, the worthiest children of Iran and the beloved Mujahedin of Islam are being killed one after the other.’

Once the darling of critical clerics such as Ayatollah Motahharri, Shari‘ati was now attacked by the professional clergy: not so much for his theology as for criticising ‘the clerical institution’ (rowhaniyat) and for such externals as not wearing a beard, wearing a tie and collar, admitting girls to the Ershad in miniskirts and so on. Fatwas were issued against him and the Ershad, though Khomeini, true to character, remained silent. Savak, which had seen a greater threat to the regime from straightforward left-wing revolutionaries, and no doubt hoped Shari‘ati might split the opposition, woke up to their mistake. In considering Rowhani’s charges of collaboration, Rahnema concludes that Shari‘ati was quite skilful at keeping Savak at bay. If he argued against armed struggle after his term in prison, it was not to placate the regime but from an authentic despair.

Shari‘ati seems to have come out of gaol in 1975 in pieces. The growing civil disorder of 1976-77 took its toll of his dearest pupils. When Hassan Aladpush and his wife, Mahbubeh Motahedin, were killed by the police, Shari‘ati wrote to the Motahedin parents: ‘Being alive, what a grave and unanswerable charge. It is as if we were carrying stolen goods. Oh what if one of those who have monopolised life and become its true owners were to see us with the gear, how shameful it would be!’ As his son, Ehsan, turned 16 and began to drift towards the Mujahedin, Ali sent him to Seattle: the cry ‘die, so others can live’ did not apply to an only son. In Southampton, he drew the curtains of his attic room lest the green fields of Hampshire drive from his memory the deserts and prisons of Iran. (In contrast, it is said that Khomeini, on the flight to Tehran from Paris, was asked what he felt to be returning to his homeland after 14 years of exile. ‘Nothing [hichi],’ he said. As a revolutionary, Ayatollah Khomeini was in a class of his own.)

According to Rahnema, Shari‘ati was quite simply wrong. His gifts as a writer, and even more as a speaker, ‘created an Islamic simulacrum far more attractive to his audience than the original’. Yet I don’t think he is suggesting that the adherents of velayat have got it right and that Iran must live with restricted civil rights and inequalities (between lay and clergy, men and women) until the Resurrection Day. Velayat remains controversial, and ever more so as the material conditions of Iranian life continue to deteriorate. A speech in the summer by Ayatollah Khamenei, in which he scolded Iranians for their grumbling and appealed to the self-sacrifice of the war years, was ill received by some Iranians of my acquaintance, who now fear that the velayatis want war with the Taliban precisely because it provides a distraction from domestic problems.

President Khatami, a much more disciplined mind than Shari‘ati and, if I may use such a phrase about a Shi‘a divine, a more worldly one, evidently has no interest in Marxism. He appeals to an earlier age of Western civilisation and the Enlightenment concepts of rule of law, an accountable magistracy and a thriving civil society. His popularity is immense and, as far as I can tell, growing. In dissociating the Islamic Republic – that is, the state – from the fatwa against Rushdie, he has struck a blow against velayat at its most chaotic. (Actually, his government claims that the state was never bound by the fatwa. That is violently disputed by the Right in Iran.)

The non-Muslim (or at least this one) comes away from Shari‘ati with three questions. If Islam is such a progressive doctrine, why has it so often and so long coexisted with despotism? If women truly are free and equal in the sight of God, then what are we to make of the fourth sura of the Koran, where females are granted only half the male right of inheritance and wives must submit to beating by their husbands? (Such questions can obviously be posed, mutatis mutandis, about Christianity.) Finally: what on earth or in heaven caused Ali Shari‘ati to believe that he could launch a revolution under the banner of religion and keep it out of the control of the professional religious?

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