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Ali Shari¶ati: between Marx and the Infinite
An Islamic Utopian, by Ali Rahnema (IB Tauris)

Nathan Coombs
posted 11 May 2008 When Culture Wars approached me to review a release from Verso¶s Radical Thinkers series, I responded µgreat, give me Ali Shari¶ati.¶ But Shari¶ati was not in the collection. And when a copy of An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari¶ati (by the not particularly lefty IB Tauris) arrived, none other than my own Middle East politics lecturer Professor Charles Tripp was quoted on the back cover giving it a glowing review. Such are the small circles in which Shari¶ati¶s name resonates. That is, one of the key ideologues of the greatest mass uprising in human history, the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The power of Utopia Shari¶ati¶s obscurity in the West is not without context, since the relationship between the left and political Islam is a troubled one. Shari¶ati, at least in pre-revolutionary Iran, almost single handedly crossed the line between the two. So whilst it might be easy to lapse into talking about a clear µleft¶ and µright¶ in the construction of such bitterly debated terms as µIslamo-fascist¶, what if his legacy indicates that things are

and even its latest move into the lifestyle politics of the middle classes. in itself. perhaps what they really fear is the Maoist call to arms underlying the tacit romance . in the French Communist Party¶s refusal to support the Algerian independence struggle. all of which are nominally dubbed µleft¶. the predictable tropes of pre-determined protest politics. And what makes Shari¶ati so much more fun. Although those on the old left and right decry the attraction.µIt is right to .has a good chance to become a giant powder keg« And in regard to the Palestinian liberation movement: What would it be if this cause encompassed the dynamism of the Islamic movement. Nothing in his work suggests a return to the good old days. fatalistic left is in part what compelled the French philosopher Michel Foucault to embrace the Iranian revolution wholeheartedly: As an µIslamic¶ movement. Leninist. a bad thing. which aimed at a complete social-political-moral-existential rebirth of society and the subject. but rather leans towards existential concerns about the role of the intellectual and the necessity of decisive action.really not that simple? As the title of this biography indicates. Arguably we have now arrived at a paradoxical reversal in fortunes. overturn the most unstable regimes. but an entire way of life. What the whole µIslamo-fascist¶ debate attempts to foreclose is that this attraction is in no way. whereas the µleft¶ presses for restraint. and adherence to a history and civilization . The categories of left or right are also not immediately useful because the existential concerns of utopia and the realities of the left have a peculiarly divergent route in the history of 20th century Marxism. it can set the region afire. than the repetitive religious dogma of many political Islamists. something much stronger than those with a Marxist. is that he knows Western philosophy inside out. with the µright¶ having colonised the imaginary of utopia with the ideology of liberal globalisation. and disturb the most solid. Precisely because of the death of a progressive utopian leftist vision and its caving into crass forms or modernisation theory. echoing aspects of Kierkegaard. Fanon. From an historical perspective too. caution and for holding onto what we have. A dried up. from a decidedly Western perspective at least. Husserl and Sartre. in the Islamist the Western left finds its perfect Other. or Maoist character? (1) Here we get to the heart of the curious combination of attraction and repulsion the left feels and exerts toward political Islam. utopia played a large part in Shari¶ati¶s political cosmology. it is hard to see much sign of utopia in the Stalinist-Kautskyist bureaucracy. in Adorno¶s pathetic renunciation of the student protests. or in the reactionary tendencies of the contemporary environmentalist movement. Islam which is not simply a religion.

µthe time is now¶. Shari¶ati died in Southampton. the post-revolutionary state¶s veneration of Shari¶ati proves him post-ante to be merely an intellectual apologist for the regime. and surprise surprise. laid the ground for a solely reactionary religious despotism. the true character of his work remains veiled. as a blueprint for a really existing state ideology. but which. The ambiguous Idea of Ali Shari¶ati It would be all too easy to strike at Shari¶ati with the same stratagem as the aforementioned writers. is what made his writings ascend to public prominence and set their trajectory to affect the revolutionary outcome. But alas the Idea of Shari¶ati will never buckle to such a convenient formula. Terry Eagleton and Giorgio Agamben have all in recent years released works that in some way return to the Christian canon to underscore the importance of revolutionary subjectivity. a number of common contentions also help complicate any attempt to approach his thought without bias.and furthermore that temporal positioning which has always split the leftist radical from their more moderate colleagues . of all places. Alain Badiou. Religion is inscribed deep within his thought. but that even in his native Iran. On the edge of leftist scholarship there is a return to this reactivation of the revolutionary subject. Firstly. who were in the thick of things from beginning to end. Shari¶ati¶s writings. a year before the outbreak of the Iranian general strikes of 1978 and the subsequent capture of the Iranian state in 1979. a puppet philosopher on Ayatollah Khomeini¶s strings (see the µofficial¶ website of Shari¶ati for an amusing demonstration of this (2)) . And thirdly. as a supposed degenerate hodge podge of Marxist and Islamist liberation theology. To have their cake and eat it. On the topic of Shari¶ati¶s continuing obscurity. naïve West we don¶t have the gumption to truly know Shari¶ati. where is the left turning for its vision but to religion itself. Slavoj Zizek. This has led to the widespread belief that his influence was at best marginal compared to that of Mao or Lenin. in fact the authors hope only to extract the universal. Secondly. In the introduction to this book. secular. But there is trickery at work here. ie to find within his philosophy the radical break and attempt to shake off the religious baggage. are perceived to have no lasting value other than as an ideological curiosity that united the left and conservative religious factions strategically.rebel¶ . utopian epistemic break from religious texts. Thus it is not just that here in the complacent. in other words. yet I have never honestly understood this . author Ali Rahnema remembers telling a Tehranese bookseller about his biographical project and getting this reply: µSo much is being said about Shari¶ati. Whilst making a performative wager that revolutionary communism and religious radicalism elide happily into one another. ultimately in the service of materialist theory.

And it only gets murkier. Yet despite all this. Algar still boldly claims the text as definitive proof of the anti-Marxist truth of Shari¶ati. In December¶s issue of the Monthly Review prominent leftist campaigner Samir Amin launches an all and out assault against political Islam as a consistently reactionary force in the Middle East. mistrust. The first print of Marxism and other Western Fallacies in Farsi. And it is in this context that Ali Rahnema¶s book provides a real breakthrough. to providing a biased anti-communist slant to his thought. Algar dismisses the group as an agent of the United States who aimed to spread dissent and create tension between Khomeini¶s rule and Shari¶ati¶s ideological blueprint. in the introduction to Shari¶ati¶s Marxism and other Western Fallacies (not his title by the way. does that justify concluding that the left must seek to include political Islamic organizations in alliances . Much has been made of the Muslim and socialist factions joining forces in the Stop the War protests. Yet. but bestowed upon the collection by the book¶s editors. issuing a stark warning to the left to stay clear: Even if it were agreed that political Islam actually mobilizes significant numbers. counter-accusations and all the usual political manoeuvrings associated with a country still in the throws of revolutionary aftershocks. Algar himself admits that at this point in the game the Americans were far behind: it had only been a few months earlier that the µState Department began making enquiries concerning his thought and influence¶ (p9). since it was always the red peril that mistakenly kept the Shah of Iran awake at night. All his books still bear prefaces and introductions by translators dating from 1978 to 1980. in accordance with a trend of Iranian-Islamist pun titles like Westoxification by Jalal Al-e Ahmad) Hamid Algar recounts that soon following the establishment of the new revolutionary government. Reasons offered for its publication range from an attempt to discredit his work. was only released at the instigation of the authorities and without the consent of Shari¶ati. accusations. then this critical thaw in more objective English language studies of Shari¶ati comes at a not-coincidentally pivotal moment in world political history. who was imprisoned at the time. Was he a saint or the devil himself?¶ (px) To give some background to the confusion. as if arriving from the future.man. and the tide seems to be turning against the multiculturalist relativism that paved the path for this uneasy alliance. Against the leftist negation of political Islam If it is true that those really prescient philosophers travel to us from the past. in April 1979 a renegade group known as Furqan conducted a wave of assassinations of high ranking government members in the service of Shari¶ati¶s true. penned during the politically charged days of the interregnum. I think it should be clear that Shari¶ati¶s work remains to this day inextricable from the paranoia. anti-clerical message.

From this point of view. makes more than apparent the cardboard cut outs . Let us return to Shari¶ati. (4) the coalition with Islamists is a necessary legitimating factor. even a critical discursive engagement that attempts to pull Islamists leftwards (in Egypt¶s case the Muslim Brotherhood).for political or social action? «If. which is known for having sheltered Nazi Germany¶s war criminals and for its Latin American variant that went on to provide the theological bedrock of the most radically egalitarian liberation theologians and political movements on the continent since the death of Che Guevara. would be to liquidate their burdensome ally with extreme violence. and to the reactive subjects that busy themselves with denying that ruptures are necessary in order to invent humanity worthy of the name. and who moreover flaunt the established order as the miraculous bearer of a continuous emancipation. The idea that the left in the Middle East should absolutely negate political Islam is frankly ludicrous and. Alain Badiou. at this moment in history at least. as was the case in Iran with the Mujahideen and the Fidayeen Khalq (3). who as revealed in Rahnema¶s biography. Where real change in the region is being affected. in his eagerly anticipated follow-up to Being & Event. The polemical necessity of Badiou¶s recourse to pigeonholing all political Islamists as obscure advocates of eternal Law is too crude to be of any use at this stage. Political Islamism is nothing but one of the subjectivated names of today¶s obscurantism. some unfortunate leftist organizations come to believe that political Islamic organizations have accepted them. but as a Marxist he should also realise that straining within this dialectic are the roots of the negation of its reactive features. There is no more a predilection towards fascism in political Islam than there is in the Catholic Church. by chance. Not only does he well know the diversity and contradictions of the lineage of political Islam. both to the faithful subjects that produce the present of political experimentation. politically suicidal. the first decision the latter would make. political Islamism is absolutely contemporary. in particular its ultrareactionary variants. by means of a full Tradition or Law. the Logic of Worlds. But there is insincerity in Amin¶s polemic. in for instance the escalating workers and trade union strikes in Egypt. This political Islamism is a new manipulation of religion²from which it does not derive by any natural (or µrational¶) inheritance²with the purpose of occulting the post-socialist present and countering. after having succeeded in coming to power. which rival the Westerners for the fruits of the petrol cartel through unprecedented criminal means. (5) But we have heard enough. the fragmentary attempts through which some try to reinvent emancipation. also denies that a progressive revolutionary subjectivity can arise from political Islam: «it is in vain that one tries to elucidate genealogically contemporary political Islamism.

a time of great ideological ruptures in Iran. by the late 1940s a dialectical relationship between Islam and Marx had been set in motion. this embryonic political Islam was forced to absorb many of their ideas. Thus. as time went on. In 1941 the socialist/communist Tudeh party was born and in 1947 Ali Shari¶ati¶s father. how it could do more to address the social inequalities and imperial subservience that had penetrated the country. the Islamic left must be distinguished from the conservative revivalist school. justice and liberation«Shari¶ati could. a translation of Abd al-Hamid Jowdat atShar¶s book Abu Zarr-e Qifari. which although committing new ideas of Islam into the political realm. it was in fact reformist and. The Flesh and Blood: 1933 to 1977 Ali Shari¶ati was born in 1933. was involved in the establishment of the µCentre for the Propagation of Islamic Truths¶. His first published work was an aborted project of his father¶s. mainly through the dynamics of the Islamic left and through a bewildering array of parties. in its very origins. both men . As a student Shari¶ati gradually became politicised. whether bearing any resemblance to historical reality or not. By positioning the Centre as a rival to the secular Tudeh Party. therefore. an increasingly radical Islamist interpretation centre. for which he was murdered in 1946. is portrayed as an Islamic ultra-communist willing to risk everything for what he believes in. revolutionaries and musty French academics. informal satellite groups and splinter organisations. The Iranian philosopher-theologian Ahmad Kasravi had written a book dismissing the role of the clergy and questioning the validity of Sh¶ia Islam. In this way. In 1962 he attended a lecture by Jean PaulSartre on Franz Fanon¶s The Wretched of the Earth. proudly claim that µAbu Zarr is the forefather of all post French Revolution egalitarian schools¶ (p59) This is the first instance where Shari¶ati¶s demonstrates his Leninist proclivities.Amin and Badiou cast in their world historical drama. This eclectic tendency was to gather momentum when he moved to Paris in 1959 and fell under the influence of a motley crew of philosophers. Abu Zarr. revolutionary Muslim who preaches equality. The increasing popularity of the Tudeh amongst Iran¶s progressives forced Shari¶ati¶s father to engage with their Marxist ideas. MohammedTaqi Shari¶ati. seeking to address how Islam had arrived in a blind alley of obedient ritualism and clericism. Ali-Rahnema describes Shari¶ati¶s creation: Abu Zarr is the signal. Despite its fundamentalist ring. code or allegory for the committed. by making a strategic intervention in the aim of incitement regardless of strict factual or ideological coherence. fraternity. defiant. were trying to resuscitate an ideal past rather than engaging in a comprehensive critique of society and the religion.

One of the Fidayeen¶s key theorists Mas¶ud Ahmadzadeh-Heravi . Marx and Durkheim. part Sufi. part humanist and part sceptic¶ (p370). part Mazdaki. It would be fair to say that in the heady environment of 1960s Paris. part heretic. He also came under the influence of renowned orientalist Louis Massignon. In his attempt to absolve Marxism of any accusation of reductionism. When do we want it? . part existentialist. This split between the voluntarist school and. When is the perfect time for egalitarian class levelling? . Shari¶ati accused Stalin of µeconomism¶ and the coining of the term µhistorical materialism¶. His political Islam dismantles all those easy dichotomies that cloud our perceptions: he was an advocate of total equality for women and a reformation against clericalism and in favour of unmediated Sufi spiritualism. When he finally landed a job at Mashad University in Iran. economism or materialistic determinism were confusing official Marxism with scientific Marxism. amongst many others. (p342) The central voluntarist message is important.never.now. for want of a better word. in Eslamshenasi Shari¶ati reiterated that those who attacked Marxism on the grounds that it was based on reductionism. SAVAK. particularly those of the Marxist-Leninist Fidayeen guerillas in the 1970s. part Buddhist. his lectures became as popular amongst the students as they were unpopular with the University bureaucrats and Iranian intelligence service. part Christian. issue and point. questions were raised about the necessity and appropriateness of revolution in the country. Frequently attended by hundreds of students. they became something of a phenomenon.were formative in his liberation theology. a deterministic school also replicated itself in debates on the Iranian left. Shari¶ati was exposed to perhaps the broadest and most concentrated mix of philosophies to be found anywhere in the world. At university he attended sociology classes that covered Weber. From these transcriptions his ideas were gradually edited into books and circulated throughout the country. he was part Muslim. who is perhaps now best remembered for creating greater understanding of Islam in the Catholic Church. On Marx. with multiple syntheses and nuances on almost every conceivable topic. And this probably helps explain why Shari¶ati went beyond the chauvinistic nationalist tendencies of many Third Worldists. his was a subaltern reading: In Eslamshenasi. economism or materialistic determinism. with students from completely unrelated courses skipping class to hear him speak whilst a loyal circle of admirers recorded and transcribed his words. but not in the service of a liberal order of tolerance and respect but instead as a means of inciting a radicalisation of the populace. When the Shah¶s µWhite Revolution¶ of 1963 introduced progressive reforms in Iran. His ideas were nothing if not varied. he was a µfirst class eclectic. part Jew. As Rahnema describes it.

as he is by some. as the ideologue of the revolution. if at no point there was an explicit Shari¶atian ideological organisation. it was up for grabs. not its conclusion. Whatever Islam was. All we do know is that his ideas were propagated on the university scene and occasionally in the mosque. the question of voluntarism was a divisive issue on the Italian left in the 1970s. at first glance it is hard to see how Shari¶ati can seriously be credited. Theoretical endgames. admittedly more than matched by state and far-right terrorism in 1970s Italy. it was a transformative revolutionary theology designed to not only purge Iran of imperialism. the Iranian left legitimated its guerrilla violence by a philosophy that was repeating itself across the world at the time. the historic missed opportunity to realise this antagonism. allowing for the collapse of the left and a deflection from examining Iran¶s inner contradictions and internal social oppression. that they were popular amongst elite intellectual circles and reached some in the Mujahideen and the Fidayeen and finally that at some point Khomeini must have run across . If Shari¶ati¶s Marxist interpretations were matched by those on the left. or. Their enmity was irreconcilable since it was based on an antagonistic contradiction. But as for Shari¶ati¶s direct influence on revolutionary factions. one which posited armed violence as the prerequisite of revolution. did a Saint mediate the Devil? These ideas about the existential power of voluntarist violence have an uncanny resemblance to those of Franz Fanon and the Latin American theorists of the time.¶ (p360) Yet it was the relentless focus on imperialism that led to Mujahideen. Therefore. Indeed. the working classes were not rising up against the regime. were contradictory. the collapse of the workers¶ moment and a decade of leftist violence. For Shari¶ati though.tried to explain why. Shari¶ati¶s followers did not themselves coalesce into an influential political movement of their own. he claimed. then so too on the topic of µimperialism¶ there is a certain synchronicity between the two: µThe objectives and principles of Islam and colonialism. breaking away from a teleological Marxism and reliance on an activist working class. There is la logic that ties together Mario Tronti¶s theorisation of the centrality of immediate antagonism between workers and capital. His conclusion was the level of oppression was so great that an historical consciousness of revolutionary agency had not had time to develop and consequently only an armed vanguard could reawaken the masses from their zombie-like slumber (6). With the exception of the shadowy Furqan group. but also fundamentally transform the country to a state of equality across every social vector. the Fidayeen and Ayatollah Khomeini putting aside their differences in the revolutionary build up. it is here that things become more difficult. Similarly. considering all the conditions amenable to revolution in the country.

Rahnema¶s biography leaves a tantalising mystery. it is for keeping his cards close to his chest. We still do not know whether Shari¶ati¶s philosophy is culpable for the conservative µsecond revolution¶ of 1979-81 or whether it remains pure . did Shari¶ati¶s philosophy. it also seems almost inconceivable that Shari¶ati and the Islamic left did not in some way mediate the left into the hands of the Ayatollahs. Ayatollah Khomeini. even for all its uncertainty and ambiguity. His PhD research will focus on the Iranian Revolution in the ideological dialectics of the twentieth century and its relevance for contemporary leftist theory.ac. as a journalist for the Corriere della Serra was also surprised by Khomeini¶s move from the silent focus of a nation¶s µcollective will¶ to becoming the charismatic lord of the post-revolutionary scene. There is scant evidence of this admittedly.uk Notes 1) These quotes and indeed all of Foucault¶s writings on the . provide the perfect bridge for the cooption of the left by the clerics? If Khomeini is incontestably known for anything. but at least Shari¶ati¶s legacy. But more fundamentally. through its ill-conceived eclecticism and anti-systematic ontology. the question asked of Rahnema ± whether Shari¶ati was a µsaint or the devil himself¶ ± remains unanswered.a transformative model for a leftist political Islam yet to be realised. There is however the unavoidable fact that in the final years of the revolution the charismatic exiled leader of the radical wing of the clerical establishment. Some of his inner circle never even understood his concept of the supreme religious jurist (velayat-e faqih) until after the revolution. we remain in the dark. In a sense. Michel Foucault. homed in on class analysis and populist rhetoric and attempted to monopolise the ideological space of the left. Will a genuine Islamic left be reborn or is it destined to ever be the depressingly reactionary force portrayed by Badiou and Amin? It is hard to know.his writings. On this point. but then we are still faced with the reality that Shari¶ati is held by some as the philosopher of the revolution. Khomenei¶s move into a synthetic Islamist-leftist rhetoric could be simply explained by a well-known canniness on his part to bring as many subjects under his tent as possible. You can contact him at 222757*a*soas. Nathan Coombs is a Masters student in International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. However. makes you want to take the risk. So it is possible Khomeini adopted the language and iconography of the left in a purely opportunistic and cynical fashion. This raises the question of Shari¶ati¶s role in providing a bridge for the ideological co-option of the left.

¶ www. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2) www. JUSUR 6: 1-39 All articles on this site © Culture Wars. the liberal daily al-Masri al-Yawm estimated that no fewer than 222 sit-in strikes. In March. In the first five months of 2007. Samir. or. Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism. The Bourgeois and the Islamist. hunger strikes and demonstrations had occurred during 2006. 1980.com It is unclear who runs this site. 1990. 2006.org 6) Quoted in Toscano.merip. and upon what authority it is deemed µofficial.shariati. . Behrooz.Iranian Revolution for the Corriere della Serra can be found in Afary and Anderson¶s (2005) Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Berkeley: Mizan Press 4) Amin.¶ 3) Shari¶ati. Dec 2007. The Other Subjects of Politics 7) For an excellent account of the ideological developments on the Iranian left see Maziar. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies. Iran¶s Fadayan 1971-1988: µA Case Study in Iranian Marxism¶. 5) µThe longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II is rolling through Egypt. work stoppages. 2007. Monthly Review. Alberto. the paper has reported a new labor action nearly every day. Ali.