One of the most important political theorists in Iran over the past century was Ali Shariati. Shariati was a well-known Iranian intellectual active during the 1960s and 1970s. Shariati developed an entirely new perspective on the history, philosophy, and sociology of Islam based in part on Marxist political thought, and gave highly charged lectures that laid the foundation for the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, which ignited only 7 months after his death at the age of 43.
Ali Shariati was born in the Iranian city of Mashad on November 23, 1933, to a religious family. His father was a teacher and Islamic scholar. From an early age, Shariati came into contact with individuals from the less privileged economic classes and was exposed to the massive levels of poverty and hardship evident within much of Iran during the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time, he was exposed to Western philosophy and political thought. He attempted to provide solutions for the problems faced by Middle Eastern societies through traditional Islamic principles interwoven with the point of view of modern sociology and philosophies such as Marxism and Socialism.
Ali Shariati became a high-school teacher in 1952 and was an active member of the Islamic Association of Students. In 1953, Shariati became a member of the National Front and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mashhad in 1955. In 1957, he was arrested by the Iranian police, along with 16 other members of the National Resistance Movement due to his leading a protest critical of the Pahlavi Regime. Shariati managed to obtain a scholarship for France, where he continued his graduate studies at Sorbonne University and worked towards earning his doctorate in sociology. During this period, Shariati started collaborating with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1959.
In 1961, Ali Shariati founded the Freedom Movement of Iran along with Ebrahim Yazdi, Mostafa Chamran and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, three individuals who would become the leaders in the first post-revolutionary government of Iran in 1979. Shariat returned to Iran in 1962 and was arrested for taking part in the June 5, 1963, protests against the Iranian government and the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He was released after a few weeks, at which point he began teaching at the University of Mashhad. Shariati subsequently moved to Tehran, where he began lecturing at the Hosseiniye Ershad Institute. These lectures proved to be hugely popular among his students and were spread by word of mouth throughout all sectors of Iranian society
Shariati’s continued success again aroused the interest of the government, which arrested him in late 1975. Widespread pressure from the populace and an international outcry eventually led to his release after eighteen months in solitary confinement in June of 1977. Shariati was allowed to leave the country for England and d died three weeks later in a Southampton hospital under mysterious circumstances. It is argued by many that his time in captivity within Iran and torture at the hands of SAVAK contributed to his death.
Ali Shariati developed an entirely novel approach to religious study and interpreted Shi’a Islam under the lens of revolutionary ideologies such as Socialism and Marxism. In particular, Shariati discussed the dual aspects of the Shi’a Islam throughout its history. The pure form of Shi’ism was known as Red Shi’ism, which is the pure form of the religion and focuses on social justice and salvation for the common person. Additionally, Red Shi’ism lacks the rituals and an established clerical hierarchy. In contrast, Black Shi’ism is the less pure form of the religion and is under the domination of several distinct groups such as the monarchy, the clerical establishment, and the Bazzari (the traditional merchant class of Iran), thus being out of touch with the needs of the common person. According to Shariati, Black Shi’ism was established in Iran under the Safavid monarchy during the 16th Century and was embodied by the Pahlavi monarchy.
The idea of Red Shi’ism as promoted by Ali Shariati shares some similarities with Liberation Theology, which was established by the Catholic Church in Latin America during the 1960s in response to massive human rights abuses and continued economic inequalities within the region. Liberation Theology stresses the active involvement of religious organizations in addressing social inequalities and promoting the belief that religion can play an active role in improving societal conditions.
Ali Shariati argued that a moral and proper society would conform to Islamic values. Shariati suggested that the role of government was to guide society in the most moral manner rather than to manage society in the best possible manner. Shariati also believed that the most experienced and knowledgeable members of the clergy were the best suited for guiding society due to their in-depth understanding of the Islamic values system. Due to their knowledge of such traditions and beliefs, Shariati felt that the clergy was uniquely suited to advance the individual towards their greatest potential and to not give into to the hedonistic desires of individuals as evident in much of the Western world.
In contrast to Western philosophers such as John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill, Ali Shariati was critical of the idea of liberal democracy, pointing out that the induction of liberal democracy correlates with the plundering of nations for economic reasons. Shariati believed that the idea of liberal democracy is the main enemy of humankind and progress and that the economic structure characteristic of it promotes inequalities and harms the rights of individuals. Shariati does not accept the definition of Democracy based on western explanation and viewed religious government as the best form of democracy. According to Shariati, the religious government is the main right of Muslim citizens in terms of democracy and governmental type because it promotes the highest level of social equality and respects the rights of all citizens regardless of their differences in appearance, status, and social class.
Ali Shariati sought to translate his ideas into the cultural symbols of Shi’a Islam that many Iranian citizens could relate to such as Ashura. Shariati believed that Shi’a’s should not only actively await the return of the Twelfth Imam but should work to hasten his return by fighting for social justice at any cost. Additionally, Shariati believed that people do not have to put away and hide their religious and cultural practices in the fight against imperialism and inequality and that the people could fight such problems the most effectively through the recovering of their cultural and religious identity.
In conclusion, Ali Shariati was one of the most influential Iranian philosophers of the 20th Century. Shariati believed that the application of both Marxism and Islamic principles is the most effective way to address social inequalities and further social justice, and sought to spread his ideas through symbols associated with Shi’a Islam and Iranian culture. Additionally, many of Ali Shariati’s ideas are still influential today and have been used by numerous groups worldwide seeking to create an equal society and move away from the legacies of imperialism and colonialism.