Ali Shariati was a Muslim reformer who laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the Iranian revolution of 1979. His inspiring speeches and written works aroused the people, particularly the students, to the state, where they were easily mobilized by Khomeini and his co-workers. Killed by the Shah’s agents in London in 1977, he is still remembered as a great martyr to their cause. His ideas on the nature of Islam are of interest to us today. Ali Shariati was born in 1933 in the village of Mazinan near Sabzawar in Khurasan, Iran. He came from a family whose members were known for their scholarship, knowledge, and righteousness. He attended the Teacher’s Training School, and taught in high school for some years before pursuing graduate work in Europe. He was also active in his father’s Center for the Propagation of Islamic Truth.
Shariati’s views were greatly influenced by his learned father who was fortunate enough to acquire a personal library of nearly two thousand books. He was also influenced by the political events in Iran, especially during Dr. Muhammad Mosaddeq’s premiership, and by the various underground movements after the fall of Mossadeq in 1953. Particularly important was the Muslim Socialist Movement founded in the early 1940’s in Tehran. This group believed in Islamic ideals but emphasized the socialistic tendencies of its economic system. In the manner of Amir Ali, the author of Spirit of Islam, Shariati wanted to emulate the lives and ideas of early Muslims whom he admired. He often referred to Prophet Muhammad, Abu Dhar al-Ghaffari, Ali, Husayn, and others as men who ought to be followed as examples.
In his formative years, he was influenced by many people including Frantz Fanon, al-Afghani, Taleqani, and Muhammad Iqbal. In my opinion, Shariati was more influenced by Iqbal than any other’ scholar, whether in the East or the West. I have pointed out this influence in my book, Ideological Revolution in the Muslim World. “The greatest success of Iqbal,” wrote Shariati, “is that relying upon the rich cultural heritage of the old and the new, he built a model which he considered to be his school of thought. That model was Islam. This is the reason for his importance and his success in our society and our century.”
Referring to Iqbal’s efforts to influence reform, Shariati pointed out that, though Iqbal was a mystic in nature, he did not believe in seclusion. He believed in continuous effort and activism. Following in the footsteps of Iqbal, Shariati called for restructuring of Islamic ideology.
After studying the Qur’an, Shariati was able to formulate his theory in social change and development. Many factors affect change in society. However, Shariati found many references in the Qur’an which state that it is al-Nas, the people or the masses, who are the prime movers of revolution. It is the collective human will which is of primary importance not the individual will.
No one denies the fact that righteous individuals can exist in a society, but clusters of righteous individuals do not constitute the collective will of the society. To bring about a lasting change, there must be a profound change. Shariati urged people to return to the Qur’an and to study it intently. Islam is a movement of masses. It opposes oppression, imperialism, and exploitation. The individual does not have the option to overlook injustice in the world. An awareness of Islamic ideology would set man, the individual and the collective masses in the right direction.
Iqbal, according to Shariati, understood the very heart of the Islamic message. He was an aware anti-imperialist who worked diligently to free the Muslims from the yoke of British power and control. His goal was establishment of a Muslim state based upon the concept of the ummah. Iqbal did not look at Pakistan as a country but as a first step towards the creation of an Islamic state.
It is clear that in Islam the will of man, that is the collective will of the masses, is responsible for the destiny of a society. There is no clerical hierarchy or ecclesiastical clergy. Shariati wrote:
Perhaps the greatest revolution of Islam in human, social, and intellectual history is changing the direction of the power of religion as a whole.. .Islam destroyed the power structure of despotism and exploitation, eradicated mass ignorance, strengthened the spirit of freedom, expanded knowledge, and urged the study of sciences. This is the only path to the “reform of man”, to cleansing the soul, to achieving moral perfection and piety, to the reforming of self.2
When Islam repudiated the clerical structure, it made man individually responsible to God, responsible both for himself and his fellow man. That is why Shariati claimed that the reform of individuals was not possible in Islam. Reforms must be collective, total, general, and must take place among the masses as a whole. Reforms of individuals are only an extension of collective reforms and not vice versa. “It is not possible to reform oneself through seclusion from Society,” wrote Shariati. One cannot, therefore, forget his social responsibility in Islam.
Social responsibility supersedes individual responsibility. Social awareness, in Islam, takes precedence over personal self-cleansing. Of course, this does not mean that reform of the individual is not important. It is a derivative of the reform of the society and not vice versa. These ideas are abundant in the Qur’an and Islamic heritage. The constant reference to al-Nas or the people, the eradication of intermediary between man and God i.e. the abolition of the ecclesiastical order, the concept of “enjoin the lawful and forbid the sinful act”, etc.
Shariati maintained that it is important to clarify Islamic ideology, because Islam seems to be in a jumble when compared together schools of thought. Islamic points of view are not clear-cut. Shariati wrote that Muslims ought to “know the direction of their school, its aims, and their place in the framework of the realities of the present tirne.” Shariati believed that history consisted of a struggle between truth and falsehood, a clash between the oppressed and the oppressor, a battle between monotheism and polytheism, i.e. tauhid and shirk. This struggle is set in symbolic terms in the Qur’an, for example the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh, and the struggle between Cain and Abel. Shariati believed that Western concepts and terminologies were useless in analyzing Third World societies. Terms and expressions native to the culture and its literature must be used. Translation and repetition of European sociological concepts have no value at all because they have nothing in common with the realities of lie in the Third World. European concepts of society and sociology are not applicable to Africa, Asia, or Latin America.