Speaking to IQNA on the anniversary of Dr Shariati’s demise, Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, founder and director of the Islamic Renaissance Front, said the Iranian thinker contributed to a deconstruction of the false binaries of Islam & modernity, Islam & West, and East & West.
Born in 1933 in Mazinan, a small village near Mashhad, Iran, Shariati was deeply concerned with the idea of illuminating the minds of his countrymen.
He devoted his life to reviving religious thinking and fighting against the darkness of ideological pressure and ignorance in the country.
Following is part of the interview with Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa (AFM):
IQNA: To what extent is Shariati known in Southeast Asian academic circles? Which of his books have been translated into local languages?
AFM: I guess any Southeast Asian scholars who study sociology or are interested in the leftist ideology would have read Ali Shariati’s work. Shariati’s strong egalitarian leanings and constant critique of class inequality made him a socialist thinker. However, for him socialism is not merely a mode of production but a way of life. He was critical of a state socialism that worshipped personality, party, and state and proposed a “humanist socialism”. My understanding of Shariati is that the state’s legitimacy derives from public reason and the free collective will of the people. For him, freedom and social justice must be complemented with modern spirituality. His trinity of freedom, equality, and spirituality is a novel contribution to the idea of an “alternative modernity”.
I first came across Shariati’s work in my younger years in the early 80’s through Hajj, a monumental work that transformed my understanding about the fifth pillar of Islam. Hajj to Shariati is a show of creation, a show of history, a show of unity, a show of the Islamic ideology and a show of the Ummah.
Shariati sheds philosophical light on the rituals in Hajj. Knowledge (Arafat), Consciousness (Mashar) and Love (Mina) are the three essential ingredients that comprise the fabric of a true Muslim. And the most impactful words were on his description about stoning the idols at Mina. The three jamrahs denote Pharaoh, the symbol of oppression, Qarun, the symbol of capitalism, and Bal’am, the symbol of hypocrisy, are the three idols that the hujjaj (pilgrims) are expected to destroy. Shariati explains the significance of pelting these idols with seven stones, seven times, which symbolizes number of days of creation, seven heavens and seven days of a week. “This implies an everlasting struggle which started with the beginning of creation and continues on into the hereafter; a battlefield without a ceasefire; and the absence of a peaceful relationship with any idol”. Nothing has moved me so much than his words in his book Hajj.
Apart from this book – Hajj – which has been translated into Indonesian/Malay, the Islamic Renaissance Front which I headed also translated his book Religion Versus Religion. This book was based on Shariati’s two speeches about religion which has two faces, a ‘religion of revolution’ and a ‘religion of legitimation’. The difference between them is sharply drawn: the first is a religion working to overcome differences in class and economic status, while the second is a religion legitimating and perpetuating such differences. But as opposed to some socialists who draw the line between religion, as supporter of class divisions, and non-religion, which overcomes these divisions, Shariati places the dividing-line within religion itself. From his perspective, it is thus not religion itself that needs to be rejected as the ‘opium of the people,’ but only one type of religion, the ‘religion of legitimation,’ while true religion remains unscathed. This is where Shariati departs from Marxism.
And the consequences of this impressive analysis are far-reaching. Not for nothing has he been called an architect of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Since World War II the Muslim world has been shaken by two powerful forces, socialist ideology and, more recently, what is now called Islamic fundamentalism. The line Shariati draws binds these two movements together: true Islam, according to Shariati, is true socialism, and true socialism is true Islam. It is the kind of slogan for which thousands of people have been prepared to die and for which thousands have already died. That has been the impact of Shariati to Iran and to the Muslim world at large.
IQNA: What are the main attractions of Shariati’s thoughts for Malaysian thinkers and people?
AFM: I guess it is difficult to explain about the attractions of Shariati thought to the Malaysians. I can say only about myself and how Shariati’s thought was so powerful to bring about regime change in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Sadly, not many of his books have been translated into our language. But what I can say is that to me, Shariati has argued that Muslims need a new kind of leadership, embodying the dynamic, open-minded, selfless and visionary qualities of Islam. He characterized these leaders as ‘raushanfikr’ which is usually translated as ‘enlightened souls’ although the instinctive association with the European ‘enlightenment’ must be resisted. In Where Shall We Begin?, Shariati writes:
“What is an enlightened soul? In a nutshell, the enlightened soul is a person who is self-conscious of his ‘human condition’ in his time and historical and social setting, and whose awareness inevitably and necessarily gives him a sense of social responsibility. And if he happens to be educated, he may be more effective and if not perhaps less so. But this is not a general rule…”
In fact, many of Shariati’s writings discuss this idea, and call for young Iranians to aspire to these qualities. As examples, he constantly refers back to Islamic history and great figures of the past. This is an area in which his ideas appear to have evolved considerably over time. In Approaches to the Study of Islam for example, he gives a simple list of the areas of study in which traditional Islamic studies have been deficient. In Where Shall We Begin?, he talks of an “Islamic reformation” and an “Islamic protestantism”, which appear to be explicitly related to Euro-Christian precedent. In the paper What is to be Done?, he presents his vision of a program of research for Hussainiyyah Irshad that appears to be the closest thing he produces to a program of action. Notably, however, despite his criticisms of the Shia establishment, accusations that he is anti-clerical appear to be inaccurate, given his emphasis on knowledge of Islam. Rather his drive seems to be to create a new kind of ulama, with a better understanding of Islam than their predecessors, who are capable of taking on the responsibilities that their predecessors failed to carry out.
Yes, Shariati was an intellectual first and foremost, whose thought was ultimately directed to a regeneration and rebirth of Islam and Muslim society. But some have argued that his ideas have precursors in other Muslim thinkers, and many of them Sunni, such as the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, whose work was well-known and influential in Iran. Many were also strongly influenced by his studies of Western philosophies and ideologies. But there can be little doubt, given Shariati’s background in a traditional Islamic environment and the strength of emphasis on Islam in his writings, that he was first and foremost a Muslim concerned, like so many of his contemporaries all over the Muslim world, to address the sorry plight that Muslim societies found themselves in, and to seek solutions in Islam.
IQNA: Are there any Southeast Asian thinkers who could be compared to Shariati?
AFM: If you are asking if there are any Southeast Asian scholars comparable to Ali Shariati, in terms of bringing a revolution with his ideas, the simple answer is no. But we have had great thinkers in the Malay Archipelago early in the twentieth century that had created a huge paradigm shift in Islamic understanding that changed the entire society and survived until today. It was more of an evolution rather than revolution. One name that came to my mind in between many others was Ahmad Dahlan.
Kiyai Ahmad Dahlan was the founder of Muhammadiyah, a reform movement of the 20th Century that survived until today and had millions of followers who are committed to social work and education in uplifting the Malay-Indonesian Muslim society in every aspect of their lives. And this movement had created a tectonic shift in the Malay Sunni Muslims understanding of Islam from their predecessors. But this is not the place to discuss on this issue since our focus is on Ali Shariati and his thoughts.
IQNA: Do you think that Shariati is a thinker belonging to the past or he has messages for the contemporary Muslim world?
AFM: Is Shariati a thinker relevant for the past only? I do not think so. Shariati’s legacy and his thought are relevant until today and contributed to a deconstruction of the false binaries of Islam & modernity, Islam & West, and East & West. In advocating a third way between these two extremes, Shariati’s thought finds common ground with other contemporary reformism. Ali Shariati’s contributions to sociology take as their premise the continued dominance of Western civilization in non-Western societies. To me, many of his writings stay as relevant and useful in contemporary world as they were when they were first written. To re-articulate his view, a new cultural reorientation that recognized individual agency and autonomy could help Muslim societies overcome the structural causes of their stagnation and underdevelopment. And when we look at his anti-colonialist discourse, Shariati underlines the role of religion in liberating society, a kind of Muslim liberation theology, and this point remains pertinent until this day.
Interview by Mohsen Haddadi