By Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi
The Iranian public intellectual, sociologist, and lay theologian, Ali Shari‘ati (1933-1977) was one of the most significant figures in conceptualizing Islam as a political ideology. Drawing from multiple philosophical traditions, he rearticulated key concepts in Islamic theology in order to advance a theory of religion as emancipatory consciousness. He gave new meanings to the notions of “Man,” creation, salvation, love, God, and brought them together in a novel reading of Islamic eschatology. Although he was not directly influenced by Nietzschean ideas, he shared a particular affinity with Nietzsche on the notion of suffering and pain as the recurring condition of humanity.
The anti-colonial and liberation movements of the 1950s-60s and its reflection in the French intellectual scene, of which he was a part, markedly informed Shari‘ati’s reading of Islam. His contribution lies neither in his sophisticated knowledge of western philosophy, nor in his thorough re-examination of Islamic theology. Shari‘ati took upon himself the task of re-writing the whole “distorted” history of Shi‘ism, to re-claim its “original progressive core,” and to restore what he called the “Alavid Shi‘ism,” the Shi‘ism of Imam Ali, the true Islam of the “disinherited.” Shari‘ati’s Alavid Shi‘ism was an ideology that advocated a world-view and a particular consciousness through which human beings become aware of their social location, class position, national condition, historical and civilizational direction. “Ideology,” he contended, “gives meaning to the individual’s historical experience upon which [his/her] ideals and values are constructed.” In his view, ideology embodied the contradiction between the existing (is) and the ideal (ought).
The distinction between the [Alavid] Islam of “movement” (nehzat ) and the [Safavid] institutionalized Islam (nahad) was the core of Shari‘ati’s Islamic hermeneutics. His Islam was Shi‘ism in a movement for constant reproduction of itself and in the process of becoming, rather than an institution of “mourners” and “dead rituals.” Shari‘ati’s Islam consisted of succession of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for just ends. He was inspired by the St Pauls and Aarons of Islam, rather than by its St Augustines and Maimonides, by those who choose Islam consciously and deliberately, by those whose Islam was realized in exile, prisons, and combat, rather than in seminary quarters.