Ali Shariati through the eyes of 'enlightened Shia thinkers'

Ali Shariati through the eyes of 'enlightened Shia thinkers'
5 min read
06 Nov, 2014
The late revolutionary's articles criticising Shia Ashura practices are being widely quoted on social media.
Shariati is now widely quoted on social media [Getty]
Ali Shariati (1933-1977) was an Iranian thinker and leading anti-Shah revolutionary who is now, nearly four decades after his death, being widely quoted on social media networks. Those quoting him include a group known as "enlightened Shia thinkers", who seem to promote any of his writings that criticise Ashura practices among the Shia community. They are a diverse group, mainly concentrated in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon who criticise aspects of Shia Islam, without adhering to any uniform intellectual framework. 

They clearly named their group in an understated act of self-glorification. But they show no signs of serious critical endeavour as based on any solid 
intellectual foundation. They are not critical intellectuals, but Facebook fans who love long-winded discussions and consider that to be enlightened discourse.

The main problem is they operate within sectarian binaries - despite repeatedly claiming to reject sectarianism and affirming coexistence and tolerance. They still view themselves as part of a socio-political bloc organised along tribal lines. They do not think outside the sectarian box, but compete with Shia activists or traditionalists from within their sect for the right to represent the Shia and formulate its official line.

This reveals their sectarian leanings, despite the fact they present themselves as secularists and liberals. It shows they do not understand how sectarianism is developed, and that it cannot simply be fought by calling for an end to sectarian hate speech.
     The main problem is they operate within sectarian binaries .


Despite their use of Shariati's quotes and concepts, their arguments do not conform to his ideas. Shariati was one of the main theorists of a Shia activism based on a revolutionary re-reading of Shia history, and he presented the Shia identity as one that revolts against injustice and oppression.

Shariati believed the Safavid dynasty, which ruled Persia in the 16th to 18th centuries, distorted this identity and made the Shia submissive and more concerned with ritualistic mourning than revolution. Shariati described this idea by coining the terms "Alid Shiism" and "Safavid Shiism".

The first being a Shia religious philosophy based on a revolutionary reading of the legacy of Ahlul Bayt
[the prophet's household] as identified with the first Shia imam, Ali. "Safavid Shiism", meanwhile, refers to a Sufi order that goes back to the days of Safi al-Din - a 13th century poet - which is characterised by being ritualistic and submissive.

Shariati wanted to inspire the Shia in Iran by criticising two aspects of the Safavid state's Shiism. Firstly, that it was saturated with Persian anti-Arabism, and that stories were fabricated to elevate the status of the Persians. Secondly, that the Ashura rituals for mourning Imam Hussain had become the objective in and of themselves, stripped of their revolutionary value, and used to mobilise the masses against the Sunni Ottomans.

Furthermore, Shariati believed that some rituals were invented and others imported from Eastern Europe to ensure Shia were absorbed in a ritualistic state, without realising the values of freedom and justice embedded in Imam Hussain's revolution.

Shariati criticised Ashura rituals for being steeped in the supernatural. The "enlightened Shia" use the same point to criticise today's rituals, however, Shariati was only opposed to the rituals that give rise to submission and did not encourage revolutionary ideals. Shariati was a theorist of the Shia activism that is criticised by the "enlightened Shia" of contemporary social media. Shariati promoted brotherhood with other Islamic sects, working within a general Islamic framework, perceiving political identity through its own sect, and opposing tyranny, injustice and colonisation.
    The discourse [of the 'enlightened Shia'] is contrary to Shariati's revolutionary ideas.

The Shiism of the ruling establishment in Iran is heavily influenced by Shariati's concept of Alid Shiism, given that he was one of the main ideologues of the Islamic revolution in Iran, despite passing away two years previously. Yet Shariati did not propose a state-model, as his priority was the mobilisation of the population for the revolution.

The description of the ruling establishment in Iran as following Safavid Shiism is inaccurate, as it is a philosophy that rejects anti-Arabism and Persian nationalism. The Iranian establishment views the rituals as a revolutionary catalyst, which it commemorates in a politicised manner. Therefore, accusing the Iranian establishment of being Safavid-influenced is ridiculous, and is telling of a lack of understanding regarding the establishment's theoretical basis.

This accusation does not consider that Iran's role in inflaming sectarianism in our Arab region is due to its politicisation of Shia identity, despite raising slogans of Muslim fraternity.

The "enlightened" generally criticises its own societies and focuses on the Ashura mourning rituals and their lack of rationality. They overlook the role of governments in stirring sectarianism, do not take a stance against authoritarian regimes, and often pander to these regimes and make excuses for them. Therefore, the use of Ali Shariati quotes by this group in its critical discourse is amusing, as their discourse is contrary to Shariati's revolutionary ideas - and it exposes their lack of awareness of Shariati's core concepts. This lack of awareness has even driven some to quote Shariati against the politicisation of the Shia, whereas he was one of its spiritual leaders.

Ali Shariati did not live to see the sectarian strife between Shia and Sunni activists or the results of the politicisation of the region's sects. If he had witnessed all of this I wonder if he would have revised some of his ideas.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.