Ali Shariati and contemporary Islamic social theory (Part III)

Shariati on Tawhid and its application for Climate Activism


‘Polarized’ is perhaps the most defining characteristic of the age we live in. Any contemporary issue has vehement pro- and anti- proponents—be it the fate of refugees, the defunding for Planned Parenthood or the loyalties of Muslims in the West to the state. There is no respite from dealing with polarity in our societies wherever we go. Polarization is here to stay, and so is the crisis of opinion, particularly on the part of those who despite their common aspiration to overcome the challenges of xenophobia, environmental degradation, social injustice and so on, are so incredibly fragmented. Yet, I think there is reason to be hopeful.

In the recent past we have seen Palestinian and Black activists come together in a show of mutual solidarity. We have seen a religious leader in the form of Pope Francis indicate his disgust of the global moral bankruptcy. Examples of incredible solidarity across Europe towards refugees keep restoring our faith in humanity and our own humanness. But I argue that while these efforts are a source of peace and relief, there is need for more solidarity amongst the fragmented voices seeking change in order for the oppressive systems to collapse. A solidarity that aligns us, binds our efforts with complementary strength, and preserves our collective identities whilst giving voice to the diverse reasons for seeking change.

What identities should Muslims express in their pursuit for a better world? If we are to add our voice against the systems of oppression and hegemony, what aspects of the future should we seek to affect? In a day and age where Islam is singled out for ignorant scrutiny because of the actions of a fanatic few, I pose these questions in order to self-reflect and invite the same from my readers. Following up on the previous two parts on Ali Shariati, this article draws on his scholarship on Tawhid (Oneness of God) to consider these questions, in specific reference to man’s relation to his environment.


In the last two parts (one and two) of this three part series, we discussed the significance of Ali Shariati’s contributions to mainstream social theory from an Islamic lens and covered, in brief, his discussion of capitalist and socialist thought. As a reminder, the underlying Islamic philosophy renders Shariati’s understanding of human purpose in confrontation with Capitalism—where man is asked to seek his desires without remorse or recourse to the consequences that arise, as well as with Marxism where man is encouraged to struggle for the fruits of his labor against those who unjustly cease it from him, without any other purpose but for self-satisfaction and self-adoration. As a different way to organize society, Shariati sees Tawhid (Oneness of God) as a guiding principle moving away from capitalism and socialism, both of which have failed humanity on numerous accounts.

Tawhid, Shariati says, “provides the intellectual foundation for all the affairs of society.” For him, Tawhid does not remain a philosophical, theological and scientific engagement, but “the intellectual and ideological foundation of both a philosophy of history, uncovering the past fate of man and human society, and a prediction of their future destinies.” The ongoing struggles, be they movements for income equality, against racial and gender discrimination, or against climate change, all have the capacity to be reinterpreted through the lens of Tawhid, forcing us to ground the concept in practicality of actions and outcomes. And equally critically, this offers the ummah a chance to position the global Muslim consciousness on par with and alongside these popular movements. From Black Lives Matter to Global Climate Movement, that have so far remained outside the locus of concerns of the ummah. I argue that it is time, to stand with every struggle that compels us to express our belief in Tawhid in our daily lives. Here, I present a brief discussion of what Tawhid means in these terms. In order to make for a compelling argument, I will discuss this here only in relation to the relationship of man and his environment, although a case for its significance in other movements can also be made.

Tawhid and the Unity of Everything

One of the foundational percepts—within Capitalism and Marxism—is the objectification of man, as either a rational or a creative animal, respectively. Both these paradigms consider man as creators of material objects, such that value is delivered by virtue of objectification of human effort—capitalism seeks to sell it, while Marxism seeks to reclaim it. Shariati contends that both Capitalism and Marxism suffer from fixity of a singular principle; the materiality of human existence.

In particular, Shariati targets the subversion of self-awareness in Marxist thought, where “man’s alienation from himself before God is replaced by man’s awareness of himself in relation to himself!. Humanism gets interpreted and implemented as egocentrism. In contrast, Islam, according to Shariati, “resolves the oppositions of nature, man, and God through the principle of Tawhid” by establishing a fundamental bond, an existential relationship, between essential human reality and material actuality, regarding the two as arising from a single origin. Shariati further goes on to suggest that “since Islam bases its divine humanism on Tawhid, on the scientific level it defines man as of the earth, while on the level of existential analysis it raises him from dust toward God and absolute transcendental values.”

Man and Nature: A False Dichotomy

It isn’t difficult, therefore, to understand that the relationship, quite literally, between man and his environment, i.e., the natural world, is based on a false dichotomy. A divide that is socially constructed, and which has greatly informed the manner in which nature and its use has been conceived in mainstream economic thought. Murray Bookchin, the father of social ecology, which is the critical study of social and anti-ecological trends, argued that “the notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man.”

Islam, on the other hand, comes as a deliverance of humankind from the bondage of men by other men, and also of man from himself, i.e., from his desires and egocentricity. The interrelatedness of man and nature, as such is captured within the observance of human piety and submission to God, over and above the valuation of human desires. This effectively means that, as human beings are subject to rules of engagement and mutual solidarity on the basis of piety and brotherhood, so does God provide man the means of engaging with the natural world, through immutable rules and laws.

Immateriality and Oneness with Nature

But human likeness with nature is balanced by his distinction from it. Inasmuch as man is a part of nature, he is also a transcendental being in relation to God, who according to Tawhid, is independent of everything, including nature. This is great stature that God has conferred to man in his capacity to be, scientifically speaking, part of nature and existentially speaking, as part of God himself. Shariati informs that “Islam regards man as having a non-material nature. Maintaining that God has created man, it renders him independent of natural and material determinations.” This means that as much as man may endeavor to dominate nature through his control, his ultimate return to God is manifest.

What this means in context of Climate Activism?

This duality, of immateriality of man and his inherent indistinctiveness from nature are two balances that hold the human reality in receipt of human actions. What we see today in climate change was already declared as being due to the corrupt doing of man by the Quran, 1400 odd years ago when it declared: “Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea for what mankind’s hands have earned” (30:41). The breaching of natural limits due to human avarice, greed and hubris of a petty few, by way of which predetermined rules of God were disrespected, is being recompensed in the form of rising sea levels, temperatures and catastrophes.

It follows that climate activists who are agitating and revolting, declaring, quite appropriately, that “We are Nature defending itself” are perhaps more morally conscious than those of us who aren’t even paying attention to what is happening in Paris Climate talk and around the world. This is a call to action; to stand up and exert our role as nothing else but as Muslims, who see climate activism and activism for other social and political causes as our moral and religious duty—one that we are commanded to carry out by virtue of being a part of nature itself.



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