The expression “camel, cow, leopard” is commonly used among Iranians as a metaphor for anything irrelevant and unclear, whose components do not match and cannot be understood; whether it be an animal, an object, or the ambiguous character and behavior of a person! This term can be used to explain Ali Shariati and the diverse range of his thoughts.

Ali Shariati was definitely a game-changer for how a ton of young, educated Iranians thought about stuff. He kind of reshaped their ideas by mixing Islam with the latest social science vibes. This was a fresh take that the old-school religious leaders hadn’t even thought of. He handed out these super firm ideological tools to his followers, but they weren’t really the bendy type.

The Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring” by Asef Bayat offers a detailed analysis of Ali Shariati’s influential role in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 among of the Islamist. Bayat portrays Shariati not just as an intellectual who criticized Western ideologies, including Marxism, from a radical Islamic perspective but also as a revolutionary thinker who employed Marxist social ideas to challenge both capitalism and traditional religion.

Shariati’s unique approach blended Islamic principles with modern social theory, providing new ideological tools that resonated with many educated Iranian youths. He redefined Islamic understanding, setting himself apart from traditional clerics and other Islamic thinkers like Sayyid Qutb.

Bayat recalls the college campus atmosphere in the late 1970s, where ideological battles were fought fiercely, with Shariati’s teachings being central to many debates. This period saw a clear division of ideological camps, each with its distinct language, activities, and heroes. Shariati’s ability to intertwine intellectualism with revolutionary politics made him a moral leader and a significant figure during the 1979 revolution.

Despite his popularity, Shariati’s thoughts differed markedly from other Islamic currents, positioning him uniquely in the political and intellectual landscape. His ideas have continued to inspire Islamic left groups globally, including in Turkey.

Bayat also delves into Shariati’s background, his education, political activities, and the influences that shaped his thinking. The journey through Shariati’s life, from his early education influenced by his father to his transformative years in Paris and his impactful lectures at Hosseinieh Irshad in Tehran, is illuminating. The book discusses the closure of Hosseinieh, his subsequent arrests, and the controversies surrounding his teachings and his untimely death in London in 1977, which left a profound impact on the opposition movements in Iran.

Overall, Bayat’s book offers a comprehensive view of Shariati’s life and ideas, highlighting his significant role in Iranian history and the broader Islamic political discourse. It provides valuable insights into the complexities of Islamic and revolutionary thought during a pivotal period in the Middle East.

An “ideologue” and “architect” of Islamic movement

Ali Shariati, not Ayatollah Khomeini, is considered the “ideologue” and “architect” of the Islamic movement during the revolution of 1979.

Shariati was quite the thinker, really shaking things up with his tough take on Marxism and all that “Western nonsense,” all while coming from this edgy Islamic angle. But get this, he also had a revolutionary side where he sort of borrowed from Marxist social vibes to throw some serious shade at capitalism and traditional religion. Everyone pretty much agrees that Shariati was a game-changer, totally flipping the script for a whole bunch of smart Iranian youngsters.

Shariati had a real gift for taking high-level ideas and making them accessible to his listeners, especially when it came to blending Islamic thoughts with Marxist ones. He was all about putting a modern twist on Islam, getting science and social theories involved in a way that blew past what traditional clerics or thinkers like Sayyid Qutb could handle.

The late 70s at Tehran University were wild. Debates were super popular — everyone tossing around Islamic and leftist ideas like nothing else mattered. And the folks who were all about the Islamic viewpoint? They were totally into Shariati. If you were into activism back then, it wasn’t just messing around with civil society or NGO stuff like before the Arab Spring. Nope, it was all about getting deep into political ed and shaking things up.

So, it was these different cliques in colleges. Each one has its own club, book meetings, its own little library, and they even plan hikes and have a special way to dress. But the real deal was the way they talk to each other; it was like they’ve got their own secret code or something. And they love to get newbies to join their squad. Sometimes though, they’d buddy up for the big stuff, like when there’s a strike going on, passing out flyers, and all those hush-hush operations. They all had their big-time idols, and the other side had theirs.

The men mostly students praised included Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Fanon, Che Guevara, and similar people. Their heroes ranged from al-Afghani, Iqbal Lahouri, and Imam Musa Sadr to Mirza Khuchik Khan Janghali, the Mujahedin Rezaei, and Ayatollah Khomeini. For them Shariati, however, was the greatest of heroes.

What defined Shariati’s unique moral leadership was his ability to interweave his seeming intellectual sophistication with unrelenting revolutionary politics, which captured the spirit of his audience in those unsettled and repressive moments in Pahlavi Iran. Such a political-intellectual makeup at the time of the revolution was reflected in the perplexity among many observers about what kind of intellectual he was, if indeed they ever seriously engaged his disquieting ideas.

Shariati was a big deal during the 1979 revolution because so many people were sharing his lectures and pamphlets. He wasn’t just a hit in Iran; people all over the world got into his stuff, translating it into English, Arabic, German, Malay, Turkish, you name it. He really made a name for himself as one of the Islamist thinkers of his day.

Yet his intellectual and political project was significantly different from the Islamist currents of the conservative Salafis, the violent jihadist, or the post-Islamist variants of the AKP (Justice and Development Party in Türkiye), which take neoliberal orthodoxy for granted. Shariati is too liberal for Islamists and too socialist for the post-Islamists. His revolutionary ideas on Islam particularly have inspired the groups of the Islamic left around the world, including the Turkish anti-capitalist Muslims and their leader, Ihsan Eliacik. But his paradigm, just like Qutb’s, developed at the cost of turning Islam as a religion and spirituality into an ideology of revolution.


So basically, there were no pictures or anything from the Islamist crew, who hadn’t really gotten their act together yet. They were just starting to get organized into a movement when bam!—an Islamic revolution happened. Before all this kicked off, though, there were these groups of devout folks and a mishmash of Islamic political ideas floating around. After the revolution, that’s when their ideas really started to pick up steam.

They were all looking up to these big-shot clerics for guidance, like Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari and Mahmud Taleqani. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a big deal too; he was hating on the Shah so much that he got exiled to Iraq in ’64. Over there, he started cooking up this idea of Vilayat-i Faqih, which is like a political system where a religious scholar calls the shots. He even wrote a whole manifesto on it called ‘Hokumat-e Eslami’ or ‘Islamic government’ back in the early 70s.

Even though this mostly unknown text was originally intended as a matter of Shia jurisprudence, Islamist zealots used it during the revolution as a blueprint for governance. Another intellectual inspiration came from the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, whose well-known pamphlet Ma‘alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones) had been translated into Persian by the cleric Ali Khamenei, who would become the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In this text, Sayyid Qutb had articulated an elaborate vision of Islamic revolution. He argued that since capitalism failed the majority of the people, liberal democracy had to borrow ideas from socialism to remedy the system. But socialism itself is no panacea. Marxism, which promised salvation and attracted much support, has been reduced to mere “thoughts” because the decline of the Russian economy displayed the failure of Marxism in practice, which after all is “antithetical to the nature of human instincts and its needs.”

Qutb was totally over capitalism and Marxism, saying they’re both flops and now that the West’s run the show for so long, it’s pretty much done for. Why? Well, because he thinks it’s lost all the good stuff, the ‘values’, that made it boss in the first place. So, according to him, it’s Islam’s turn to step up because nothing else left has the chops to do it.

He was all about Islam being the one true path to saving humanity and making things better for everyone. Nationalism and all those land-focused movements? He thought they’ve hit a dead end. In his view, it’s like the Quran already called dibs on Islam being the top dog by naming the umma, that’s the community of believers, as the heir to the throne on Earth.

But here’s the kicker – he didn’t just want to sit back and wait for it to happen. Nope, he believed Muslims had to dust themselves off and get back in the game, taking advantage of all the cool stuff European science, tech, and even colonialism had brought to the table.

The suggestion of Islamist was to assume the leadership of humankind, Muslims should not focus on material achievements, in which Europe is certainly superior; rather, they should build on “faith” and “way of life.” It is only these values that can overturn thier current state of jahiliyya (a term Qutb borrowed from the Indian Abul A‘la Maududi), where God’s sovereignty has given way to that of man through the system of laws and norms. Muslims should reinstate the worship and sovereignty of God. This “absolutely perfect” model is totally new and needs to be put into practice. To this end, a dedicated “vanguard” unpolluted by jahiliyya values must be set up to prepare the way for an Islamic order.

This vanguard should receive its “signposts” from the primary source of Islam—the Quran, the “way of life.” All other sources—Greek, European, Persian, or Chinese inspirations—must be discarded. This, according to Qutb, was the Prophet’s way but has been ignored through centuries of innovations and additions. The vanguard, just like the early companions of the Prophet, must pursue “learning for action” while avoiding the pollution of the jahili ideas, culture, and leadership that has dominated Muslims live lives today. “We must return to the beginning,” Qutb insisted, “to the unadulterated source from which [the first-generation Muslims] derived guidance, the content of which was unalloyed and free of defect.”

So, here’s the deal — Qutb was totally aiming to shake things up in the Muslim world, kind of like the bigshots of revolution back in the day—think guys like that intense Russian like Chernyshevsky and, of course, Lenin. John Calvert, who wrote a whole book on Qutb, says that’s the sort of league he was playing in. Revolutions were all the rage back then, and Qutb, well, he wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines.

He started out as a part of the intellectual crowd in Egypt’s days of walking on the wild side, but by the late ’40s, Qutb had leveled up. He was the go-to guy for all things Islamism, especially after he got back from chilling in the States for a couple of years. Turns out, American culture wasn’t his cup of tea — he wasn’t feeling the surface-level vibes, the pleasure-chasing, or how everyone just mixed and mingled without giving it a second thought.

From joining the Muslim Brothers after 1952 and supporting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution, Qutb continued to disparage anything that had to do with jahili society. Yet he maintained an admiration for a socialist economy, embracing the ideas of welfare, distribution, and justice; he considered labor as the sole source of value and the state as the regulator of the economy; he called for a national economy and denounced imperialism, accumulation of wealth, and business monopoly.

While Qutb lamented the “absence” of moral values and spirituality in communism, he revered its egalitarian ethos. Yet he found social justice intrinsic to Islamic ethics, something that, unlike communism, was indigenous to Muslims’ psyche. His was a notion of social justice that combined the egalitarian tenet of socialism and the spiritual depth of Christianity.18 Such a third-way strategy, exemplified in “neither East nor West,” became a prominent theme in the thought of the postcolonial radical intelligentsia.

Qutb was a big name in the game when it came to economics with an Islamic twist. His stuff really got the ball rolling for a bunch of Arab writers, including this Iraqi Shia bigwig, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. The guy wrote a series called “Iqtisaduna” or “Our Economics,” and it was a smash hit among those Iranian revolutionaries in the late ’70s. Even Abolhassan Banisadr, the first prez of the Islamic Republic, took a page out of his book and came up with something called Divine Economics.

Qutb had this catchy idea of being independent, summed up as “neither East nor West,” and he threw around terms like “tawghout” meaning tyrant, and “hizballah” which is the party of God, and wouldn’t you know it, the new bosses in Iran after their own shake-up were all over these ideas.

He also had this concept of “jahiliyya” which is all about ignorance of divine guidance, kind of like what the Persian thinker Ahmad Fardid meant when he talked about “westoxification” – being poisoned by Western influence. But when it comes to Ali Shariati, a guy whose thoughts were all about setting people free and had the young folks and smart people in Iran all revved up before things went boom, Qutb was on a totally different page.

Intellectual Life of Shariati

Ali Shariati was born in 1933 in a village in the northern province of Khorasan, where he completed his primary and secondary school education.

His mother was from a landowning family, and his father was a well-known local Islamic thinker and teacher who introduced modern critical thinkers to his students. Shariati’s father had formed a short-lived Movement of God-Worshipping Socialists, in which Ali was a member and through which he acquired his first critical Islamic education. During his college years in the Mashhad Teachers’ College, he studied Arabic and in 1956 translated Abuzar Ghafari: The God-Worshipping Socialist, the story of the legendary companion of the Prophet who voiced dissent against the early caliphs and was a model combatant for justice.

Shariati continued his studies at Mashhad University in Arabic and French languages. In the meantime, he was involved, together with his father’s group, in reviving the outlawed National Front—a political coalition originally founded by the nationalist prime minister Mosaddeq in the late 1940s. For this activity, Shariati and his comrades spent eight months in prison.

He traveled to Paris in 1956, spending over a decade in this capital of a major colonial power. The journey proved to be a watershed in Shariati’s political life and intellectual development. The Paris years had coincided with the escalating anticolonial struggles throughout the world, in particular Africa, where France had many colonies. He began to study philology at the Sorbonne, became engaged in anti-imperialist and student politics, and edited two antiregime Persian journals. Meanwhile, he worked on translating books by radical, Marxist, and Orientalist writers such as Che Guevara, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and Louis Massignon (a well-known scholar of Islamic mysticism) and developed a keen interest in Western Orientalism and radical Catholicism. He was also exposed to the ideas of French sociologists such as Raymond Aron, Roger Garaudy, Georges Politzer, and especially the eminent French dialectician Georges Gurvitch.

After his return to Iran in 1965, Shariati was immediately put into prison for eight months for his political activities abroad. In the following years he spent five years in the city of Mashhad teaching at the College of Literature and lived most of the remainder of his life in Tehran, where he began the most productive period of his political and intellectual life. From 1969 to 1972, he lectured at the Hosseinieh Irshad, a modern Islamic center located in the northern Tehran district of Gholhak. His lectures were mostly taped and then published in several dozen volumes; of these books the most important was the multivolume Islam-Shenasi (Islamology). They were circulated widely among Muslim youth in the 1970s.

The Hosseinieh center was shut down in 1972 by the government on the grounds that it had become a breeding ground for the activities of Mujahedin Khalq, a radical Islamic-Marxist group that had launched armed struggle against the shah’s regime. For many the Mujahedin Khalq were the children of Shariati’s political vision, and indeed Gholhak in my own experience had become a locus of underground activities associated with Shariati’s ideas.

This included the Forqan group, whose militant anticlericalism led to the assassination of one and an attempt on another prominent cleric just after the Iranian revolution. In the view of historian Ervand Abrahamian, however, the conservative clerics also played a crucial part in hampering Shariati’s lectures at the Hosseinieh, for they suspected that Shariati was promoting not Islam but Western philosophies, in particular Marxist sociology.

After the closure of the Hosseinieh center, Shariati was arrested and charged with having connections with the Mujahedin organization. This time he was to endure eighteen months behind bars. After his release, a series of essays titled “Insan, Islam va Marxism” (Man, Islam, and Marxism) appeared in the widely circulated official daily Kayhan and were attributed to Shariati. In 1977, a year before the beginning of the revolutionary protests, Shariati managed to leave the country for Europe. A month after arriving in England, he suspiciously died in London. His death brought a deep sorrow and sadness to Iran’s opposition groups, including us, the leftists.

Even though the British authorities attributed his death to a massive heart attack, SAVAK was blamed and Shariati was remembered as the first martyr, martyr of the revolution. Shariati’s death, contrary to the hopes of those who shunned him, enhanced his reputation, rendering him a virtual legend among millions of enthusiasts.

Islamic Marxism

The key to Shariati’s undisputable reputation, intellectual influence, his perceived danger was his Islamic Marxism—his attempt to implant major Marxist concepts—imperialism, exploitation, class struggle, classless society, infrastructure, and suprastructure—into the teachings of such Shiite leaders as Imam Ali, Imam Hussein, and Abu Zar Ghaffari (whom Shariati called the first “God-worshipping socialist”) to articulate an indigenous radical project, an Iranian theory of revolution.27 In those unnerving prerevolutionary years of the late 1970s, and against the background of the grand left-Islamic divide, Shariati’s ideas provided the grounds for a possible discursive link between the two political trends, a strategy that was badly needed.

In the 1970s in Iran, two main radical political trends appeared to raise the banner of armed struggle against the shah’s regime: first, the Islamic trend whose militant expression was embodied in the organization Mujahedin Khalq, on which Shariati’s ideas had left deep imprints; and second, the Marxist trend identified with the organized activism of the Fedaian Khalq, a Leninist guerrilla movement. Despite their vanguardist makeup, the social reverberation of their armed operations on the political class was quite considerable. Apprehensive of the consequences, the regime attempted to prevent cooperation and alliance of any sort between the two political trends.

The clerical leaders remained uninterested in forging or encouraging such an alliance. If anything, they would not hesitate to publicly denounce the Marxists, expressing the kind of mistrust to which a crude Marxism, dependence on the Soviet Union, and the political misdeeds of the Tudeh Communist Party had contributed. I can recall the systematic attacks against the “materialists” by the leading clerics of the Hosseinieh center, Ayatollah Mutahhari and Ayatollah Mofatteh, as well as Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic, in the Qoba Mosque in Gholhak in the autumn of 1977.

But unlike the positions of these religious leaders, the overall position of the more influential Ali Shariati would be against sectarianism or denunciation of the Marxists as atheists or immoral. On the contrary, Shariati would praise the “revolutionary left” because they “work for the benefit of the deprived people.” At this time when pro-Western Muslim states (Egypt, Morocco, and Indonesia) were bolstering Islamism as the ideological enemy to undermine Marxist opposition, Shariati’s vision to unite both forces was deemed politically dangerous. It is not surprising that the shah’s regime attempted to generate suspicion and division. One such attempt was the fabrication in 1977 of one of Shariati’s key texts in the state-run daily Keyhan in which Marxism was disparaged.

Was Shariati, then, a Marxist who disguised himself under the Islamic mantle? Certainly Shariati was not a Marxist, but he did consider himself a socialist and was indeed influenced by Marxist social ideas. Reportedly, he even stated that “if I were not a believer, I would have been a Marxist.” The atheist Jean-Paul Sartre had stated about Shariati’s religion, “If I were to choose one [religion], it would be that of Shariati’s.” Shariati drew considerably from Marxist concepts, applying them systematically in his critical works. As historian Ervand Abrahamian observes, Shariati’s paradoxical attitude toward Marx originated from his identification of not one but three Marxes.

First was the younger Marx, predominantly a philosopher who was seen by Shariati as a strongly anti-religion economic reductionist and atheist. The second was the mature Marx, mainly a social scientist who discovered the laws of motion of societies, developed a theory of historical determinism, and promoted the notions of praxis and revolutionary practice. And the third, the older Marx, was chiefly a politician whom Shariati saw in a similar vein as other Marxist politicians such as Karl Kautsky, Friedrich Engels, and even Joseph Stalin, who in his opinion compromised the ideals of the oppressed classes in their political practice. Shariati rejected the first and third Marx but embraced the second one.

In his “Human, Islam and Marxism”, Shariati takes to task the Western humanist philosophies, chiefly Marxism, by drawing on a radical “Islamic conception of man.” Shariati argues that Western philosophies, including liberalism, existentialism, and Marxism, do possess a humanistic perspective, but their humanism is materialistic. Western humanism rests firmly on Greek mythological perspective in which a constant struggle exists between humanity and the gods who want to maintain man in darkness and ignorance. Here, man is praised and given higher value than that of the gods.

But, according to Shariati, this kind of humanism establishes a distance between man and god. All of the great Western humanists from Denis Diderot and Voltaire to Ludwig Feuerbach and Marx have erroneously equated the tyrannical and antihuman Greek gods with the spiritual gods such as Ahuramazda, Rama, the Tao, the Messiah, and Allah. Thus, since these Western philosophers incorrectly generalize the Greek distinction of human versus God/spirituality, their humanism remains earthly, unheavenly, and materialistic. This explains why the “communist societies” are not much different from their bourgeois counterparts in their understanding of humans; for in both everything culminates in man, and both disregard “the spiritual dimension of the human essence.”

Indeed, Western humanism is atheistic in another sense, Shariati argues, in that it considers man by nature to possess a moral conscience that shapes his values and therefore acts as a substitute for God. In establishing a distance between man and God, the Western humanist philosophies exhibit ignorance of the Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Islam, and Sufism, which are grounded in the unity, not distance, between God and man. Eastern humanism, unlike its Western counterpart, is heavenly.

Whereas Marx, drawing on Greek humanism, perceives religion as an irrational entity built on human helplessness, Shariati believes that religious notions like heaven and hell are rational and scientific. In addition, Shariati opposes Marx’s consideration of religion, ethics, morality, and virtues as elements of a “superstructure” shaped by economic forces. In the Marxist paradigm man has neither independent and noble reality nor any significant place in history; lacking agency, he is the creation of his environment. Consequently, historical events according to Marx are not the outcome of human acts but of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. So, Shariati wonders, where is the place of all those martyrs in history and all those social upheavals and revolutions in Marxist thought? In truth, this Marxism that boasts of being a ruthless critique of capitalism has ended up sharing the same values as its enemy—productivism, mechanism, techno-bureaucracy, acquisitiveness, economic competition, and materialism.

Only Islam through third worldism

Shariati had this conservative idea that real humanism is only found in Islam. In Islam, humanism isn’t just about manners and culture. It’s about mix of godly values shaping who we are. Here’s the kicker in Islam’s view, called tawhid: we’re this wild combo of clay and divine spirit. Basically, we’re part earth, part divine, caught in a cosmic tug-of-war.

So, what it boils down to is that human worth isn’t just about them being awesome by themselves. No, it’s all about human link to the Big Guy upstairs – God. And human are not just wandering around aimlessly; they have got a destiny to chase and choices to make.

Making choices means human have got this heavy load of “responsibility” to ditch their dusty selves and level up towards being one with God. Shariati was super into this and thought it wasn’t just some deep theological stuff. He believed this idea of responsibility was massive and could totally change the game in politics and beyond.

In this vein, Shariati implicitly calls on the Third World masses in general and Muslims in particular to elevate themselves from captivity to deliverance, to become “God’s regents on earth.” “Responsibility to liberate ourselves” implies self-reliance—more precisely, cultural, political, and strategic self-reliance, which in plain Cold War language means “neither East nor West,” neither capitalism nor communism, but “return to self”—to a historical, cultural, and religious self—an idea that resonates in Qutb.

While critical of Marxian humanist philosophy, Shariati embraced Marx’s social theory, the theory of history. In his last two books, Jahatgiri-ye tabaqati-ye Islam (The class bias of Islam) and Ommat va imamat (Community and leadership), Shariati systematically employs Marxian concepts to elaborate on the political economy of Islam, even though he attempts to reformulate them to address the historical specificity of Iran and the Middle East. For instance, Shariati borrowed his theory of knowledge from Marxism, but he ultimately moved toward phenomenology.

He inverted Marx’s ideological superstructure into ideological infrastructure to stress the role of ideas, faith, and the Shia doctrine in political and economic transformation. His envisioned classless society was rendered “divine”; his historical determinism appeared more like the will of God; and his notion of class, influenced by the prominent French sociologist Georges Gurvitch of the 1960s, was not limited to simply economic class formed by material interests but also political class shaped by religious beliefs, symbols, traditions, customs, and cultural norms. With such a political conception of class, Shariati suggested that in the Third World, especially in the Muslim Middle East, the only class capable of bringing about a profound change and providing leadership was not the proletariat but the intellectual class (rowshanfikran)—notably, university students and the literate milieu. He considered this formulation significant because Iranian class formation in the Marxian sense was only in its nascent stage—very different from the European experience where “the intellectual is dealing with a worker who has gone through three centuries of the Middle Ages and two centuries of the capitalist system” and where the proletariat “has attained a higher degree of growth and self-consciousness.” But in Iran, “we still do not have a working class in our society. What we have are groups.”

Just as Shariati refashioned certain Marxist concepts, he also redefined a number of fundamental notions of Islam. For him, the biblical story of Cain and Abel is only a symbolization of Marxian “historical determinism”—that is, the class struggle between the oppressors/exploiters represented by Cain and the oppressed/exploited symbolized by Abel. But these forces are not economic classes in the orthodox Marxian scheme; they are “political classes.” In a sense, Shariati’s emphasis on the primacy of the political over the economic and of masses over economic classes as the agents of historical change represents a redefinition of historical determinism when applied to the particular situation of Iran.

It was particularly well suited to Iran’s Shia Islam, which, according to Shariati, uniquely differed from other religions in its greater potential to serve as a revolutionary ideology. In other words, Shia Islam functioned as a key element in the “ideological infrastructure” to transform society and shape its economic structure.37 In this understanding, the Shia belief in intizar, or anticipation of the resurrection of the hidden twelfth Imam, does not mean passively waiting for justice; it means an active involvement in struggle against injustice to realize justice. This is a struggle in which, according to Shariati’s historical determinism, victory is a certainty. But Shi‘ism itself is not free from contestation; it is subjected to an intense struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.

The oppressors tend to turn Shi‘ism into a religion of domination, the “Safavid Shia,” and the oppressed class renders it an ideology of liberation as manifested in the Alavid, or “red Shia,” of which the historical Imam Hussein was a champion. Shariati places the heaviest charge on the ulema for establishing or nourishing the oppressive Shi‘ism. Because of their simplemindedness, fatalism, and monopolistic control over the interpretation of religion, according to Shariati, the ulema have kept “true Islam” away from the masses, while their alliance with the political and economic elites has changed Shi‘ism from a revolutionary creed to a conservative ideology in the service of power. While he insisted, against Fanon, on critically reviving religious legacy in the fight against imperialism, Shariati vehemently opposed any form of “religious government.” For the “natural consequence of such a government is dictatorship, because the cleric views himself as God’s representative who carries out His order on earth.”

Thus, what determined Shariati’s stand toward political forces was not whether they were religious or nonreligious, but how revolutionary they were. Similarly in his view, kufr (blasphemy) should never apply to “those who deny the existence of God and soul”; rather, it should take to task those who are unwilling to take “concrete” action for the cause of liberation, that is, to establish a “divine classless society.” Consequently, Shariati, unlike most of the clerics, refused to disparage the Marxists on the grounds that they were philosophically materialists, atheists, amoral, and kafir (blasphemous).

Instead, he developed a sustained critique of the clerical class and their raison d’être, the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). “Our mosques, the revolutionary left, and our [underdog] preachers,” Shariati declared, “work for the benefit of the deprived people and against the lavish and lush.” But “our clerics who teach jurisprudence and issue fatwas are right-wingers, capitalists, and conservative; simply, our fiqh is at the service of capitalism.” Shariati then presents a wholly different understanding of Shi‘ism as an ideology of class struggle:

It is shortsighted to consider Shi‘ism in terms of the conflicts between Ali and Abu-Bakr or Umar. Rather, Shi‘ism was the continuation of a movement that, in human culture, notably in the history of Abrahamite culture, fought against class disparity, exploitation, coercion, and injustice to safeguard tawhid; it fought for human unity against racism, for class justice against oligarchy and obedience, for rights against deceit, ignorance, and magic. In the history of Islam, this struggle expressed itself in the battle between the Prophet and the Quraysh oligarchy; then, between Islam and the Persian and Roman Empires. And when Islam itself turned into a system at the service of the ruling power, Shi‘ism . . . now embodied in the person of Imam Ali continued this historic mission to struggle for freedom and justice.

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