Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shariati - An Islamic Utopian

Ali Rahnema's excellent biography of Ali Shariati (An Islamic Utopian, 1998, I.B. Tauris) deftly portrays the fascinating and complex man who is often called the intellectual father of Iran's Islamic revolution.

Shariati grew up religious and poor. His political development began in Iran, but his time as a scholarship student in Paris helped to crystallize his world view. He condemned the excess and materialism of the west, but he also sensed that there were ideas in play that were absent in his own country. "I wish I had never come here and tasted the meaning of freedom," he wrote, "I should have stayed back there and read about it only in books."

Events in his own country, like the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and the 'westoxication' of Iran under the Shah also shaped his thinking.

It's clear from Rahnema's book that there was much spirited debate and political activity among Iranian students and intellectuals even under the Shah's repressive hand. Among those groups and individuals, Shariati was a religious star in a largely secular universe. His faith tended toward Sufi mysticism, seeking annihilation of self and union with God. Among his claims at one point in his life were visions and the ability to summon spirits. But Shariati eschewed the quietest style of Sufism for an activist approach that permitted him to express himself politically.

Shariati often seems not so much anti-western, as someone who wanted people to think for themselves - without uncritically accepting either the values of the west or those of Iran's religious hierarchy. He felt exiled between "the two barren deserts of mullahs and modernists." Shariati's deepest instincts were religious, but westerners influenced his philosophy and he creatively bent their ideas and those of Shi'ia Islam to fit his own beliefs. In the case of French Islamologist Jacques Berque, Shariati learned how the meaning of words can be adapted to reflect time and circumstance. Rahnema writes, "Berque had ignited something in Shariati. He [Shariati] took each commonly used term in the vocabulary of every Muslim and reinterpreted it until gentle lullabies became electric currents. Words and concepts resonating with resignation, fatalism and self-pity in the historical memory of Iranian Shi'i, were suddenly transformed into forceful and dynamic concepts for action."

Shariati achieved notoriety as an unorthodox and brilliant lecturer at Mashhad University, but it was in a series of lectures in Tehran at Hosseiniyeh Ershad that his vision of an Islamic Democracy came into focus. Initially he was convinced that no nation could be just, classless and free unless it's people were intellectually and politically mature. At one point he espoused an interim 'guided democracy', led by an enlightened and virtuous individual: an Imam chosen by religious leaders.

Rahnema tells us that Shariati's militancy grew in the early 1970s in response to the armed struggle of the Mojahadin in Iran. Shariati moved away from his belief that enlightenment of the people had to precede revolution. In his final lectures at Ershad, he maintained that 'a group of responsible intellectuals' or a 'conscious and alert individual' could accelerate the revolutionary process. He no longer believed that popular awareness must precede actions - he wanted to wield the message and the sword together. He still believed that a new government must be led by a deeply inspirational and religious figure, but now he contended that this person should be popularly elected.

Shariati's writings and lectures excoriated religious leaders as 'polytheists' and oppressors who legitimized the monarchy. At one point he wrote, "I feel more distant from them than from enlightened atheists." He saw them as adherents to what he termed "Safavid Shi'ism", subverting the religion of Imam Ali. In his view they had replaced the religious concepts of justice, protest and personal belief and interpretation with empty ritual, blind imitation and unquestioning subservience - rendering people resigned and harmless.

His lectures and writing elicited condemnation and alarm from the mullahs. (Interestingly Khomeini, at the time exiled in Iraq, refused to back his religious brethren in Iran. "I studied the cases referred to," he said in response to requests to read and condemn Shariati, "none of the reprobations or criticisms were valid.") Eventually some progressive members of the clergy came to Shariati's defense.

Shariati increasingly armed traditional religious concepts with revolutionary significance. It was the language of empowerment in a form all Iranians, even the least politically aware and engaged, could understand. For example, he used the traditional Islamic commandment to do good deeds to exhort people to political action. Shariati said that action, not longing and mourning was the proper religious response to Iranians' plight - and it was the only response that was true to the example and spirit of Imam Hossein's uprising at Karbala. It was, Rahnema writes, "the magic wand, awakening the dormant, subjugated and the unenlightened."

Rahnema tries to answer critics who accuse Shariati of lacking the courage of his convictions when brought before SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. In Rahnema's view the government saw Shariati as a religious figure and a helpful counter to the secular Marxist movement in Iran. Eventually it became clear that Shariati was calling for armed overthrow of the government and he was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months.

Afterward, in a series of controversial articles published in the government newspaper Kayhan, Shariati made critical revisions in some of his ideas. He retreated from his call for armed struggle. He returned to his belief that personal development and popular enlightenment, not resistance and struggle, were necessary to bring about change. He took up the cause of nationalism, which he had previously equated with Iran's dynastic rulers. For the first time he declared that a capitalist system was inevitable, but it must be tempered by a moral, Islamic system of government.

In Rahnema's view, whether Shariati's change of heart was due to a genuine evolution in his thinking (perhaps a product of 'conditions on the ground' and the deaths of close friends who had joined the Mojahedin and taken up arms against the government - or the closing of Ershad and his absence from it's charged atmosphere), or pressure and threats from the SAVAK, will never be known.

Interestingly the name of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei crops up a number of times in Rhanema's book. Khamenei was 6 years Shariti's junior. Both came from Mashad. Rhanema never gives us any details about the relationship between the two men, but they continued to see each other and it seems reasonable to think that Khamenei must have been in agreement with the basic tenets of Shariati's philosophy.

Shariati's death in England in 1977 was officially ruled a heart attack. Rhanema makes no mention of the theory that Shariati was murdered by SAVAK after he had slipped out of Iran. He died just over a year short of the beginning of Iran's Revolution. Rhanema doesn't dwell on how Shariati would view the Iran of today, simply writing that 'Shariati was a romantic, not a practitioner of revolutions'.

In an eloquent summary of his subject's life, Rhanema writes,in part, "Shariati was the unexpected rooster who took pride and pleasure in his own nocturnal crowing...He woke up the inquisitive, the inquisitors and the executioners..."