Ali Shariati: The Return to Self

“If you are not on the battlefield, it doesn’t make much difference whether you are in the mosque or the bar”, Shariati provocatively stated. 

“If you are not on the battlefield, it doesn’t make much difference whether you are in the mosque or the bar”, Shariati provocatively stated. 

Ali Shariati, an eminent Iranian thinker of the 20th century, was one of the emblematic figures of the struggle against intellectual colonialism in the Muslim world. Considered one of the ideologists of the Islamic revolution in Iran, he is part of a school of thought that differs from his contemporaries such as Morthada Motahhari or Rouhollah Khomeini, theologians who embody a traditional theological-political current.

As for Shariati, he represents a more modern thinking approach which is a combination between Islam, Third-Worldism, and major philosophical school of thoughts born in the West which could inspire anti-capitalist resistance, such as Marxism and existentialism, while highlighting their contradictions or disagreements with Islam. 

Ali Shariati

These ideological encounters allowed Shariati to develop an Islamic form of the current of thought called “liberation theology“, strongly resembling the movement developed by the theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. Indeed, Shariati combined a relevant class analysis with a vision of original Islam that is revolutionary and liberating with the aim of creating ideal social, political, and economic conditions for human beings.

While a student, Shariati took part in the protest movements that agitated his country and was imprisoned for several months in 1958. After graduating, he moved to France to pursue his studies. A fine connoisseur and respectful of Islamic moral values ​​and his cultural heritage, Shariati did not become a stranger to himself” during his years spent in the land of the Enlightenment, which was a pivotal period for the development of his thought.

There, Shariati studied the culture and history of the Western world in depth in order to understand the origin of its arrogance and the means it used to establish its domination and de facto allow the “cultural westernisation” of many thinkers of his time, a phenomenon of alienation criticized in particular by Aimée Césaire and Frantz Fanon.

Indeed, the Iranian thinker asserted that the Western coloniser understood that as long as a nation believed it had an identity consisting of a culture and a history, it was difficult to penetrate it. Drawing on Dominique Sourdel’s dialectic, Shariati argued that the relationship between the East and the West in the colonial context should not be based on the principle that the Western man denies the culture, history, and personality of the Eastern thinker, as this would have led to the adoption of a defensive attitude by the latter.

On the contrary, the West adopted a position that led the Eastern thinker to reject his own faith in his culture, history, and personality by convincing him that all of these components are decadent.

Without reference points, uprooted and feeling ashamed, the alienated thinker, refined in appearance […] but internally empty and without consistency“, has no other way out than to consciously or unconsciously to get closer to the culture of the dominant which has become a model in its view.

His reflections led him to develop the theory of the return to self“, allowing one to oppose imperialism by studying and re-appropriating Islam not as it is represented by tradition, heritage, or doctrine but as an ideology carrying a revolutionary message capable of achieving miracles.

It was therefore an authentic left-wing and anti-imperialist Islam, concerned with the future of the people and their salvation that Shariati proposed to Iranian youth. This Red Shi’ism” was opposed to theBlack Shi’ism” orSafavid Shi’ism“, which resulted in emptying Islam of its political dimension and encouraged inaction, by relying among other things on the theory of divine determinism.

This return to self requires a revolution that the Muslim must first carry out within himself in order to remain faithful to the message of Islam. The Iranian sociologist develops the different aspects of this philosophy of life in a book entitled Building the Revolutionary Identity“.

Contrary to monasticism, the concept of self-building means preparing oneself in a revolutionary way, as much in terms of foundation as in terms of authenticity and purpose, in other words, ensuring that the existential essence leads the self towards its perfection“. It is a personal development work that is necessary for anyone who wants to participate in the defense of the poorest.

Self-building as a basis of returning to self

Before undertaking this work of introspection, the human being must recognise several fundamental principles. 

Aware that humans are lofty and superior beings, he must accept the idea he assumes a role in his historical march and the evolution of its social status” while avoiding falling into narcissism, the cult of the individual, or of the personality.

Secondly, aspiring to build himself from an ideological point of view by getting rid of the traditions that limit his development, the revolutionary can only show faithfulness, sincerity, and loyalty in a social revolution if he is consistent with the principles he claims.

Finally, while not denying that man is shaped by his history, the society in which he lives and the class from which he comes, Shariati argues that the human being is not always the result of the environment in which he is immersed. 

Indeed, the man aspiring to perfection and constantly evolving overcomes all these factors that partly determine him and tends towards what he wishes to be. This last principle is in total agreement with the conception of man in the Quran.

Indeed, God says, Truly We created man in the most beautiful stature” (Quran, 95:4), which means that man has the highest possibilities of perfection and closeness to God. This conception of the human being transcends any social class and encourages the thinker to throw off his chains and help the needy. 

By studying the various historical movements and the ideas of thinkers such as Pascal, Marx, and Buddha, Shariati finds that self-building has three major dimensions.

The first is the gnostic sensation, which originates in the spiritual journey of the ascetic towards his Creator, whose blessings and satisfaction he seeks, while at the same time enabling him to obtain transcendent energy that transforms him into a revolutionary. It is precisely such magnificent human beings and such wonderful souls that industrial and bourgeois civilisation […] are incapable of creating“.

By combining the two, Shariati criticised the liberal philosophy composed of a twofold thought: cultural liberalism on the one hand and economic liberalism on the other. 

Shariati argued that bourgeois vision and culture, representing cultural liberalism and advocating materialism, hedonism, and individualism, replaced past societies sharing moral values and virtues with societies of alienated men whose souls have been degraded in the throes of daily life and have fallen into the traps of the cult of individualism and consumerism imposed by economic liberalism.

Under these conditions, how then can a modern society create altruistic men endowed with a “pure and divine essence” when the system in which these individuals live offers a modus vivendi that encourages the endless expansion of the market economy and the erasure of all moral and philosophical values, questioned Shariati.

The second dimension is the revolutionary’s total dedication to the people, who were victims first of the traditional feudal system and then of economic liberalism. These injustices allowed the people to develop values based on the anthropology of giving, solidarity, and human rights, and at the same time to discover their misfortunes, the enemies of their class, and the origin of their sufferings, to finally discover the path of justice, of the suppression of the elites who oppressed them. 

These values cannot be explained by the fact that the man belonging to the people is an ideal being. The latter is a complex being capable of the best and the worst. However, despite the numerous attacks of modern society on the working classes in their pursuit of power and wealth, the latter are capable of acts of solidarity.

It would be wrong to think that these three dimensions are contradictory. They are part of a dependent relationship. Indeed, no one can call himself an authentic socialist before he has constituted a pure, selfless soul and become a representative of God on earth by adopting His attributes: true humanism is a set of divine values in the heart of man, constituting his moral, cultural and religious heritage“. 

Through them, the thinker gets closer to his Creator, receives the divine light within himself, and breaks the chains of the ego that push him not to claim his individual rights within his society as long as a single individual does not enjoy all of his rights. It is from this moment that his life connects with those of the oppressed and fights for their salvation.  

Pathways to self-building

By invoking the concept of worship, Shariati does not refer to the performance of obligatory acts such as prayer or fasting, but to the strengthening of the existential bond between the creation and the Creator. This connection is made possible by the total surrender of the ego.

Indeed, the human being is simultaneously attracted by the life of this world and the life of the hereafter. Thus, man is faced with multiple choices. By using his free will responsibly, Rumi asserts that he gets rid of the multiple, different and contradictory states in a war that he is waging in his inner self “.

The role of worship is more important than ever today. Indeed, in a world that is progressively devoid of moral virtues in the name of the ideology of progress, this awareness allows man to prevent his soul from falling into baseness and the trap of the cult of consumption.

By going beyond the framework of the class to which he belongs and finding in himself a divine energy enabling him to achieve his own salvation, the intellectual will feel in the depths of his being the sufferings of the masses, their fears, and their aspirations, in order to put himself at their service. This is how the revolutionary succeeds in discovering the path to justice, to the removal of all their evils and of all the forces and systems that have oppressed them“.

The second mean is related to the virtues of labour. Indeed, the Quran and prophetic traditions highlight the importance of action, of labour in Islam. When the Prophet of Islam was asked, what is Islam?” he replied, labour“.

Labour plays an essential role in self-building. Its role is to free the privileged thinker from his family, social, and class moulds so that he engages in a struggle, in favour of the class to which he feels a responsibility, and so that he feels part of the most destitute and disinherited people. In the absence of this labour, this bourgeois thinker, who certainly denounces social misery during discussions with his friends, will continue to go home thinking only of the means of entertainment he will choose to spend a pleasant evening.

In fine, the relationship between this intellectual and the mass is purely theoretical, as it is achieved exclusively through books. Shariati believes that this kind of intellectual embodies “the ugliest and lowest form of thinking”. This thinker forgets that books and action are inseparable and both influence the formation of man. 

Thus, revolutionary action must enable this thinker to appropriate his theoretical ideas within himself and to find a pure and elevated essence despite the environment in which he evolves.

Drawing on Aristotle’s definition of man as a “political animal”, Shariati argues that human beings are endowed with a political consciousness, which he considers to be their main characteristic. The latter allows the human being to feel that his destiny is linked to the society in which he lives. As a result, this man understands its problems, participates in the fate of the latter, feels a social responsibility and a fortiori fights against the liberal elite advocating economic and cultural liberalism which tries to divert man’s attention from these social issues.

It uses not only economic liberalism by pushing human beings to meet every weekend in one of the many temples of consumption, but also of cultural liberalism, by encouraging the liberalisation of morals standards, the widening of sexual freedom, the transgression of all moral virtues. Thus, by falling into this trap, the man with no political and social conscience has in fact put an end to the highest and noblest manifestation of what characterises him as an individual.

Social struggle is a crucial factor in the development of the revolutionary’s self-building. Indeed, according to Shariati, the authentic intellectual“, regardless of his relationship to religion, is one who defends his intellectual, social, and political ideas to encourage revolutionary change: If you are not on the battlefield, it doesn’t make much difference whether you are in the mosque or the bar”, Shariati provocatively stated. 

The thinker, surrounded by a multitude of books and engaging in intellectual discussions with his friends by evoking theories or ideological texts, will never be able to evolve his thinking if he does not invest himself in social action that allows him to move from theory to practice. This is how he is confronted with problems and realities that are not to be found in the world of books and intellectual and philosophical concepts.

This revolutionary experience also allows this new man, trained by books and studies, to learn the language through which the masses express their needs, desires, fears, and aspirations and not to feel alienated.

Thus, the intellectual revolution carried out by the revolutionary must enable him to realise the unity between the concepts of worship, action, and social struggle through sincere experience and to make these three principles an integral part of his being.


  • The Liberation Theology of Ali Shariati – Mohamed Tahar Bensaada.
  • Ali Shariati and the Future of Social Theory: Religion, Revolution and the Role of the Intellectual – Dustin J. Byrd and Seyed Javad Miri.
  • Building the revolutionary identity – Ali Shariati.
  • Return to self – Ali Shariati.
  • Ali Shariati and Politicized Islam: A Transition from Passivity to Activit – Hannah Volmar.

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