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Theology

Ali Shariati and contemporary Islamic social theory (Part I)

Ali Shariati: Ideologue of Iranian Revolution

Having coined phrases like “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala”, Ali Shariati’s revolutionary and scholarly work has left an indelible mark on the Iranian, and by extension, the Muslim psyche. Unfortunately, there is little that the majority of the umma now knows about him. “At the centre of Shariati’s thinking is Islam”, writes one scholar reviewing his seminal publications, “and not an Islam simply embodied in a theocratic state, but an Islam conceived as a relation to God that shapes everything from individual consciousness to personal relations to state policy.” Irrespective of one’s personal convictions towards theocratic religious state like Iran, Shariati’s understanding of Islam can and has been appreciated universally within the Muslim and global scholarly community.

“At the centre of Shariati’s thinking is Islam and not an Islam simply embodied in a theocratic state, but an Islam conceived as a relation to God that shapes everything from individual consciousness to personal relations to state policy.”

Shariati’s premature demise in 1977 was a great loss, but his ideologues helped support a revolution that stood against capitalist and socialist influences of its time. As to how he would have reacted to the theocratic direction of post-revolution politics in Iran, remains a matter of little speculation. Hamid Algar, Professor Emeritus at University of California, Berkeley, clarifies in the preface to one of Shariati’s seminal articles how Shariati saw leadership (ulama) as indispensable for “cultivation of expertise in religious knowledge” (ibid). However, what he differed on was in regards to religious scholars and their treatment “akin to being ordained a Christian priest” (ibid). Yet surprisingly, not many know about the alignment of Shariati’s opinions on institutionalization of religious leadership with opinions of Khomeini himself—especially on the social and political shortcomings of the ulama.

Non-traditional orientation to religious scholarship or not, Shariati’s engagement with western political economic philosophies and their critique underpins Islamic social theory—social theory that draws its ontological character from Islamic concepts and tenets. In this three part series, Ali Shariati’s work on the subject of Islamic social theory is celebrated: Part I outlines his methodological approach in contrast to contemporary as well as existing Islamic scholarship, and a description of his academic rigor; Part II describes his analytical perspective on Tauheed (Oneness of Allah) and its relationship to social and political organization in a society; in Part III I will endeavor to draw out the implications of Shariati’s analyses for contemporary environmental issues.

Islamic Social Theory and Shariati’s Methodology

Shariati critically assesses socialism and capitalism on humanist terms first, to highlight their indefensible justifications based on shaky religious theology, to only then introduce Islam as an undeniable solution.

Among the academically rigorous critiques of normative political economic thought, Ali Shariati’s polemics against Capitalism, and especially Marxism, hold a unique position. Due to his placement of Islam as the centerpiece for deconstructive analysis of entrenched economic systems, Shariati’s work is regarded as one that departs from a liberal tradition, broadening the landscape of discourse. It is important to note that Shariati’s work contrasts with that of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who in his three-volume book Iqtisaduna (Our Economics) engages deeply and rigorously with the underlying philosophical foundations of economic theories, their specific mechanics of social and political organization, and ensuing manifestations. Shariati’s work, on the other hand, is neither as deep nor rigorous, yet its relevance is critical for modern social theory, not only because of the historical contexts within which it was conducted (preceding the Islamic Revolution in Iran) but also due to the author’s outlook on the subject.

Insights in both Shariati’s work in Marxism and Other Western Fallacies and On the Sociology of Islam as well as in al-Sadr’s Iqtisaduna arise as a result of viewing existing economic systems—both Marxism and Capitalism—under an Islamic lens. But where al-Sadr is explicit in his analytical treatment of the task within the confines of Islamic theology, Shariati covers more ground considering various contemporary ideologies and religious perspectives on humanity and nature of man, albeit not as rigorously as al-Sadr’s pointed focus on Islamic tenets and conceptions. Shariati, nevertheless, eventually draws home the significance of Islamic ideology in resolving issues created by the adherence of these contemporary ideological approaches, aside from resolving issues that remain unresolved through them. Shariati critically assesses socialism and capitalism on humanist terms first, to highlight their indefensible justifications based on shaky religious theology, to only then introduce Islam as an undeniable solution. In spite of the centrality of Islam, Shariati’s analysis does not distract him from instilling structural clarity in his arguments where he reserves introducing Islam until later in the discourse. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies especially demonstrates this helpful approach—which especially helps a western reader understand issues in normative economic systems on their own terms first, before justifying seeking solutions in Islam. Shariati’s approach, in my opinion, shows how one has to inevitably resort to seeking assistance from Islam having foreclosed all other possible non-religious and religious avenues.

Externalizing Bias: Strengthening Academic Rigor of Critical Analysis

Shariati’s arguments offer a fresh perspective on foundational aspects of different economic systems.

The approach that Shariati follows allows him to isolate his critique of contemporary economic theories from accusations of their biased treatment. This is clear because the issues that he raises with Marxism—for instance, the inevitability of its totalitarian manifestations in Russia and China—are also found in the critique of Marx, and his authoritarian convictions, by Anarchist scholars like Marcus Graham and others. The issue here may be more complex than it appears and it is undeniably far from settled as evidenced by the contemporary discourse composed of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals from different ideological positions. Yet, in this landscape of contentious and lively debate, Shariati’s arguments offer a fresh perspective on foundational aspects of different economic systems.

Shariati’s analysis of capitalism seems to lament the contempt that man has come to embrace for himself, by trading morality in exchange for “lunatic competition for luxuries and diversions”. His critique of Marxism is even more scathing, where he derides similar patterns of growth in so-called non-capitalist economies, for being capitalist in every sense. These evaluations of political economic theories lets Shariati comment on the obvious and non-obvious aspects; the perversion of the concept of freedom—across individualistic and collectivist societies—albeit in different ways, and the faulty conceptions—let alone corrupt manifestations—of man in both economic theories.

In Part II, we will look at Shariati’s treatment of the concept of Tauheed (Oneness of Allah) in context of the issues he uncovers in capitalism and socialism.

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