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Ali Shari’ati: between Marx and the Infinite

An Islamic Utopian, by Ali Rahnema (IB Tauris)

Nathan Coombs
posted 11 May 2008

When Culture Wars approached me to review a release from Verso’s Radical Thinkers series, I responded ‘great, give me Ali Shari’ati.’ But Shari’ati was not in the collection. And when a copy of An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati (by the not particularly lefty IB Tauris) arrived, none other than my own Middle East politics lecturer Professor Charles Tripp was quoted on the back cover giving it a glowing review. Such are the small circles in which Shari’ati’s name resonates. That is, one of the key ideologues of the greatest mass uprising in human history, the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

The power of Utopia

Shari’ati’s obscurity in the West is not without context, since the relationship between the left and political Islam is a troubled one. Shari’ati, at least in pre-revolutionary Iran, almost single handedly crossed the line between the two. So whilst it might be easy to lapse into talking about a clear ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the construction of such bitterly debated terms as ‘Islamo-fascist’, what if his legacy indicates that things are really not that simple?

As the title of this biography indicates, utopia played a large part in Shari’ati’s political cosmology, which aimed at a complete social-political-moral-existential rebirth of society and the subject. And what makes Shari’ati so much more fun, from a decidedly Western perspective at least, than the repetitive religious dogma of many political Islamists, is that he knows Western philosophy inside out. Nothing in his work suggests a return to the good old days, but rather leans towards existential concerns about the role of the intellectual and the necessity of decisive action, echoing aspects of Kierkegaard, Fanon, Husserl and Sartre.

The categories of left or right are also not immediately useful because the existential concerns of utopia and the realities of the left have a peculiarly divergent route in the history of 20th century Marxism. Arguably we have now arrived at a paradoxical reversal in fortunes, with the ‘right’ having colonised the imaginary of utopia with the ideology of liberal globalisation, whereas the ‘left’ presses for restraint, caution and for holding onto what we have. From an historical perspective too, it is hard to see much sign of utopia in the Stalinist-Kautskyist bureaucracy, in the French Communist Party’s refusal to support the Algerian independence struggle, in Adorno’s pathetic renunciation of the student protests, or in the reactionary tendencies of the contemporary environmentalist movement, all of which are nominally dubbed ‘left’. A dried up, fatalistic left is in part what compelled the French philosopher Michel Foucault to embrace the Iranian revolution wholeheartedly:

As an ‘Islamic’ movement, it can set the region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid. Islam - which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, and adherence to a history and civilization - has a good chance to become a giant powder keg…

And in regard to the Palestinian liberation movement:

What would it be if this cause encompassed the dynamism of the Islamic movement, something much stronger than those with a Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist character? (1)

Here we get to the heart of the curious combination of attraction and repulsion the left feels and exerts toward political Islam. Precisely because of the death of a progressive utopian leftist vision and its caving into crass forms or modernisation theory, the predictable tropes of pre-determined protest politics, and even its latest move into the lifestyle politics of the middle classes, in the Islamist the Western left finds its perfect Other. What the whole ‘Islamo-fascist’ debate attempts to foreclose is that this attraction is in no way, in itself, a bad thing. Although those on the old left and right decry the attraction, perhaps what they really fear is the Maoist call to arms underlying the tacit romance - ‘It is right to rebel’ - and furthermore that temporal positioning which has always split the leftist radical from their more moderate colleagues - ‘the time is now’.

On the edge of leftist scholarship there is a return to this reactivation of the revolutionary subject, and surprise surprise, where is the left turning for its vision but to religion itself. Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Terry Eagleton and Giorgio Agamben have all in recent years released works that in some way return to the Christian canon to underscore the importance of revolutionary subjectivity. But there is trickery at work here. Whilst making a performative wager that revolutionary communism and religious radicalism elide happily into one another, in fact the authors hope only to extract the universal, secular, utopian epistemic break from religious texts, ultimately in the service of materialist theory. To have their cake and eat it, in other words.

The ambiguous Idea of Ali Shari’ati

It would be all too easy to strike at Shari’ati with the same stratagem as the aforementioned writers, ie to find within his philosophy the radical break and attempt to shake off the religious baggage. But alas the Idea of Shari’ati will never buckle to such a convenient formula. Religion is inscribed deep within his thought, is what made his writings ascend to public prominence and set their trajectory to affect the revolutionary outcome. On the topic of Shari’ati’s continuing obscurity, a number of common contentions also help complicate any attempt to approach his thought without bias.

Firstly, Shari’ati died in Southampton, of all places, a year before the outbreak of the Iranian general strikes of 1978 and the subsequent capture of the Iranian state in 1979. This has led to the widespread belief that his influence was at best marginal compared to that of Mao or Lenin, who were in the thick of things from beginning to end. Secondly, Shari’ati’s writings, as a supposed degenerate hodge podge of Marxist and Islamist liberation theology, are perceived to have no lasting value other than as an ideological curiosity that united the left and conservative religious factions strategically, but which, as a blueprint for a really existing state ideology, laid the ground for a solely reactionary religious despotism. And thirdly, the post-revolutionary state’s veneration of Shari’ati proves him post-ante to be merely an intellectual apologist for the regime, a puppet philosopher on Ayatollah Khomeini’s strings (see the ‘official’ website of Shari’ati for an amusing demonstration of this (2)) .

Thus it is not just that here in the complacent, naïve West we don’t have the gumption to truly know Shari’ati, but that even in his native Iran, the true character of his work remains veiled. In the introduction to this book, author Ali Rahnema remembers telling a Tehranese bookseller about his biographical project and getting this reply: ‘So much is being said about Shari’ati, yet I have never honestly understood this man. Was he a saint or the devil himself?’ (px)

To give some background to the confusion, in the introduction to Shari’ati’s Marxism and other Western Fallacies (not his title by the way, but bestowed upon the collection by the book’s editors, in accordance with a trend of Iranian-Islamist pun titles like Westoxification by Jalal Al-e Ahmad) Hamid Algar recounts that soon following the establishment of the new revolutionary government, in April 1979 a renegade group known as Furqan conducted a wave of assassinations of high ranking government members in the service of Shari’ati’s true, anti-clerical message. Algar dismisses the group as an agent of the United States who aimed to spread dissent and create tension between Khomeini’s rule and Shari’ati’s ideological blueprint. Yet, Algar himself admits that at this point in the game the Americans were far behind: it had only been a few months earlier that the ‘State Department began making enquiries concerning his thought and influence’ (p9).

And it only gets murkier. The first print of Marxism and other Western Fallacies in Farsi, was only released at the instigation of the authorities and without the consent of Shari’ati, who was imprisoned at the time. Reasons offered for its publication range from an attempt to discredit his work, to providing a biased anti-communist slant to his thought, since it was always the red peril that mistakenly kept the Shah of Iran awake at night. Yet despite all this, Algar still boldly claims the text as definitive proof of the anti-Marxist truth of Shari’ati.

I think it should be clear that Shari’ati’s work remains to this day inextricable from the paranoia, mistrust, accusations, counter-accusations and all the usual political manoeuvrings associated with a country still in the throws of revolutionary aftershocks. All his books still bear prefaces and introductions by translators dating from 1978 to 1980, penned during the politically charged days of the interregnum. And it is in this context that Ali Rahnema’s book provides a real breakthrough.

Against the leftist negation of political Islam

If it is true that those really prescient philosophers travel to us from the past, as if arriving from the future, then this critical thaw in more objective English language studies of Shari’ati comes at a not-coincidentally pivotal moment in world political history. Much has been made of the Muslim and socialist factions joining forces in the Stop the War protests, and the tide seems to be turning against the multiculturalist relativism that paved the path for this uneasy alliance. In December’s issue of the Monthly Review prominent leftist campaigner Samir Amin launches an all and out assault against political Islam as a consistently reactionary force in the Middle East, issuing a stark warning to the left to stay clear:

Even if it were agreed that political Islam actually mobilizes significant numbers, does that justify concluding that the left must seek to include political Islamic organizations in alliances for political or social action? …If, by chance, some unfortunate leftist organizations come to believe that political Islamic organizations have accepted them, the first decision the latter would make, after having succeeded in coming to power, would be to liquidate their burdensome ally with extreme violence, as was the case in Iran with the Mujahideen and the Fidayeen Khalq (3).

But there is insincerity in Amin’s polemic. Not only does he well know the diversity and contradictions of the lineage of political Islam, but as a Marxist he should also realise that straining within this dialectic are the roots of the negation of its reactive features. There is no more a predilection towards fascism in political Islam than there is in the Catholic Church, which is known for having sheltered Nazi Germany’s war criminals and for its Latin American variant that went on to provide the theological bedrock of the most radically egalitarian liberation theologians and political movements on the continent since the death of Che Guevara. The idea that the left in the Middle East should absolutely negate political Islam is frankly ludicrous and, at this moment in history at least, politically suicidal. Where real change in the region is being affected, in for instance the escalating workers and trade union strikes in Egypt, (4) the coalition with Islamists is a necessary legitimating factor, even a critical discursive engagement that attempts to pull Islamists leftwards (in Egypt’s case the Muslim Brotherhood).

Alain Badiou, in his eagerly anticipated follow-up to Being & Event, the Logic of Worlds, also denies that a progressive revolutionary subjectivity can arise from political Islam:

…it is in vain that one tries to elucidate genealogically contemporary political Islamism, in particular its ultra-reactionary variants, which rival the Westerners for the fruits of the petrol cartel through unprecedented criminal means. This political Islamism is a new manipulation of religion—from which it does not derive by any natural (or ‘rational’) inheritance—with the purpose of occulting the post-socialist present and countering, by means of a full Tradition or Law, the fragmentary attempts through which some try to reinvent emancipation. From this point of view, political Islamism is absolutely contemporary, both to the faithful subjects that produce the present of political experimentation, and to the reactive subjects that busy themselves with denying that ruptures are necessary in order to invent humanity worthy of the name, and who moreover flaunt the established order as the miraculous bearer of a continuous emancipation. Political Islamism is nothing but one of the subjectivated names of today’s obscurantism. (5)

But we have heard enough. The polemical necessity of Badiou’s recourse to pigeonholing all political Islamists as obscure advocates of eternal Law is too crude to be of any use at this stage. Let us return to Shari’ati, who as revealed in Rahnema’s biography, makes more than apparent the cardboard cut outs Amin and Badiou cast in their world historical drama.

The Flesh and Blood: 1933 to 1977

Ali Shari’ati was born in 1933, a time of great ideological ruptures in Iran. The Iranian philosopher-theologian Ahmad Kasravi had written a book dismissing the role of the clergy and questioning the validity of Sh’ia Islam, for which he was murdered in 1946. In 1941 the socialist/communist Tudeh party was born and in 1947 Ali Shari’ati’s father, Mohammed-Taqi Shari’ati, was involved in the establishment of the ‘Centre for the Propagation of Islamic Truths’. Despite its fundamentalist ring, it was in fact reformist and, as time went on, an increasingly radical Islamist interpretation centre, seeking to address how Islam had arrived in a blind alley of obedient ritualism and clericism, how it could do more to address the social inequalities and imperial subservience that had penetrated the country.

The increasing popularity of the Tudeh amongst Iran’s progressives forced Shari’ati’s father to engage with their Marxist ideas. Thus, by the late 1940s a dialectical relationship between Islam and Marx had been set in motion. By positioning the Centre as a rival to the secular Tudeh Party, this embryonic political Islam was forced to absorb many of their ideas. In this way, in its very origins, the Islamic left must be distinguished from the conservative revivalist school, which although committing new ideas of Islam into the political realm, were trying to resuscitate an ideal past rather than engaging in a comprehensive critique of society and the religion.

As a student Shari’ati gradually became politicised, mainly through the dynamics of the Islamic left and through a bewildering array of parties, informal satellite groups and splinter organisations. His first published work was an aborted project of his father’s, a translation of Abd al-Hamid Jowdat at-Shar’s book Abu Zarr-e Qifari. Abu Zarr, whether bearing any resemblance to historical reality or not, is portrayed as an Islamic ultra-communist willing to risk everything for what he believes in. Ali-Rahnema describes Shari’ati’s creation:

Abu Zarr is the signal, code or allegory for the committed, defiant, revolutionary Muslim who preaches equality, fraternity, justice and liberation…Shari’ati could, therefore, proudly claim that ‘Abu Zarr is the forefather of all post French Revolution egalitarian schools’ (p59)

This is the first instance where Shari’ati’s demonstrates his Leninist proclivities, by making a strategic intervention in the aim of incitement regardless of strict factual or ideological coherence. This eclectic tendency was to gather momentum when he moved to Paris in 1959 and fell under the influence of a motley crew of philosophers, revolutionaries and musty French academics. In 1962 he attended a lecture by Jean Paul-Sartre on Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; both men were formative in his liberation theology. He also came under the influence of renowned orientalist Louis Massignon, who is perhaps now best remembered for creating greater understanding of Islam in the Catholic Church. At university he attended sociology classes that covered Weber, Marx and Durkheim, amongst many others. It would be fair to say that in the heady environment of 1960s Paris, Shari’ati was exposed to perhaps the broadest and most concentrated mix of philosophies to be found anywhere in the world. And this probably helps explain why Shari’ati went beyond the chauvinistic nationalist tendencies of many Third Worldists.

When he finally landed a job at Mashad University in Iran, his lectures became as popular amongst the students as they were unpopular with the University bureaucrats and Iranian intelligence service, SAVAK. Frequently attended by hundreds of students, they became something of a phenomenon, with students from completely unrelated courses skipping class to hear him speak whilst a loyal circle of admirers recorded and transcribed his words. From these transcriptions his ideas were gradually edited into books and circulated throughout the country.

His ideas were nothing if not varied, with multiple syntheses and nuances on almost every conceivable topic, issue and point. As Rahnema describes it, he was a ‘first class eclectic, he was part Muslim, part Christian, part Jew, part Buddhist, part Mazdaki, part Sufi, part heretic, part existentialist, part humanist and part sceptic’ (p370). His political Islam dismantles all those easy dichotomies that cloud our perceptions: he was an advocate of total equality for women and a reformation against clericalism and in favour of unmediated Sufi spiritualism, but not in the service of a liberal order of tolerance and respect but instead as a means of inciting a radicalisation of the populace. On Marx, his was a subaltern reading:

In Eslamshenasi, Shari’ati accused Stalin of ‘economism’ and the coining of the term ‘historical materialism’. In his attempt to absolve Marxism of any accusation of reductionism, economism or materialistic determinism, in Eslamshenasi Shari’ati reiterated that those who attacked Marxism on the grounds that it was based on reductionism, economism or materialistic determinism were confusing official Marxism with scientific Marxism. (p342)

The central voluntarist message is important. When is the perfect time for egalitarian class levelling? - never. When do we want it? - now. This split between the voluntarist school and, for want of a better word, a deterministic school also replicated itself in debates on the Iranian left, particularly those of the Marxist-Leninist Fidayeen guerillas in the 1970s. When the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ of 1963 introduced progressive reforms in Iran, questions were raised about the necessity and appropriateness of revolution in the country. One of the Fidayeen’s key theorists Mas’ud Ahmadzadeh-Heravi tried to explain why, considering all the conditions amenable to revolution in the country, the working classes were not rising up against the regime. His conclusion was the level of oppression was so great that an historical consciousness of revolutionary agency had not had time to develop and consequently only an armed vanguard could reawaken the masses from their zombie-like slumber (6).

Theoretical endgames, or, did a Saint mediate the Devil?

These ideas about the existential power of voluntarist violence have an uncanny resemblance to those of Franz Fanon and the Latin American theorists of the time. Similarly, the question of voluntarism was a divisive issue on the Italian left in the 1970s. There is la logic that ties together Mario Tronti’s theorisation of the centrality of immediate antagonism between workers and capital, the historic missed opportunity to realise this antagonism, the collapse of the workers’ moment and a decade of leftist violence, admittedly more than matched by state and far-right terrorism in 1970s Italy. Therefore, breaking away from a teleological Marxism and reliance on an activist working class, the Iranian left legitimated its guerrilla violence by a philosophy that was repeating itself across the world at the time, one which posited armed violence as the prerequisite of revolution, not its conclusion.

If Shari’ati’s Marxist interpretations were matched by those on the left, then so too on the topic of ‘imperialism’ there is a certain synchronicity between the two: ‘The objectives and principles of Islam and colonialism, he claimed, were contradictory. Their enmity was irreconcilable since it was based on an antagonistic contradiction.’ (p360)

Yet it was the relentless focus on imperialism that led to Mujahideen, the Fidayeen and Ayatollah Khomeini putting aside their differences in the revolutionary build up, allowing for the collapse of the left and a deflection from examining Iran’s inner contradictions and internal social oppression. Whatever Islam was, it was up for grabs. For Shari’ati though, it was a transformative revolutionary theology designed to not only purge Iran of imperialism, but also fundamentally transform the country to a state of equality across every social vector.

But as for Shari’ati’s direct influence on revolutionary factions, it is here that things become more difficult. With the exception of the shadowy Furqan group. Shari’ati’s followers did not themselves coalesce into an influential political movement of their own. Indeed, at first glance it is hard to see how Shari’ati can seriously be credited, as he is by some, as the ideologue of the revolution, if at no point there was an explicit Shari’atian ideological organisation. All we do know is that his ideas were propagated on the university scene and occasionally in the mosque, that they were popular amongst elite intellectual circles and reached some in the Mujahideen and the Fidayeen and finally that at some point Khomeini must have run across his writings.

There is however the unavoidable fact that in the final years of the revolution the charismatic exiled leader of the radical wing of the clerical establishment, Ayatollah Khomeini, homed in on class analysis and populist rhetoric and attempted to monopolise the ideological space of the left. This raises the question of Shari’ati’s role in providing a bridge for the ideological co-option of the left. Khomenei’s move into a synthetic Islamist-leftist rhetoric could be simply explained by a well-known canniness on his part to bring as many subjects under his tent as possible. But more fundamentally, did Shari’ati’s philosophy, through its ill-conceived eclecticism and anti-systematic ontology, provide the perfect bridge for the co-option of the left by the clerics?

If Khomeini is incontestably known for anything, it is for keeping his cards close to his chest. Some of his inner circle never even understood his concept of the supreme religious jurist (velayat-e faqih) until after the revolution. Michel Foucault, as a journalist for the Corriere della Serra was also surprised by Khomeini’s move from the silent focus of a nation’s ‘collective will’ to becoming the charismatic lord of the post-revolutionary scene. So it is possible Khomeini adopted the language and iconography of the left in a purely opportunistic and cynical fashion. However, it also seems almost inconceivable that Shari’ati and the Islamic left did not in some way mediate the left into the hands of the Ayatollahs. There is scant evidence of this admittedly, but then we are still faced with the reality that Shari’ati is held by some as the philosopher of the revolution. On this point, we remain in the dark. Rahnema’s biography leaves a tantalising mystery.

We still do not know whether Shari’ati’s philosophy is culpable for the conservative ‘second revolution’ of 1979-81 or whether it remains pure - a transformative model for a leftist political Islam yet to be realised. In a sense, the question asked of Rahnema – whether Shari’ati was a ‘saint or the devil himself’ – remains unanswered. Will a genuine Islamic left be reborn or is it destined to ever be the depressingly reactionary force portrayed by Badiou and Amin? It is hard to know, but at least Shari’ati’s legacy, even for all its uncertainty and ambiguity, makes you want to take the risk.

Nathan Coombs is a Masters student in International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His PhD research will focus on the Iranian Revolution in the ideological dialectics of the twentieth century and its relevance for contemporary leftist theory. You can contact him at 222757*a*


1) These quotes and indeed all of Foucault’s writings on the Iranian Revolution for the Corriere della Serra can be found in Afary and Anderson’s (2005) Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
2) It is unclear who runs this site, and upon what authority it is deemed ‘official.’
3) Shari’ati, Ali. 1980. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies. Berkeley: Mizan Press
4) Amin, Samir. 2007. Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism. Monthly Review. Dec 2007. 
5) ‘The longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II is rolling through Egypt. In March, the liberal daily al-Masri al-Yawm estimated that no fewer than 222 sit-in strikes, work stoppages, hunger strikes and demonstrations had occurred during 2006. In the first five months of 2007, the paper has reported a new labor action nearly every day.’
6) Quoted in Toscano, Alberto, 2006. The Bourgeois and the Islamist, or, The Other Subjects of Politics
7) For an excellent account of the ideological developments on the Iranian left see Maziar, Behrooz. 1990. Iran’s Fadayan 1971-1988: ‘A Case Study in Iranian Marxism’. JUSUR 6: 1-39


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