November 14, 2014 By Ashraf. k

Who was Ali Shariati to us?


The question put forth by Hamid Dabashi was answered by Iranian filmmaker Mohsin Makmalbhaff. The time and the place which Makmalbhaff points to corresponds to Iran of the early 70s. He was brought up in a religiously charged atmosphere, visiting the scholar at the Masjid every day and coming to know about a new speaker who brushed off religion. His problem? He would talk about arts and theatre to the students in the city. Being shaken to the hilt, young Makmalbhaff decided to kill him. He went to Shariati armed with a dagger poised around his waist only to find himself entranced by his sermons. The dagger was left untouched. On resuming to his senses, Makmalbaff returned home plotting ways to kill Reza Shah.

Shariati was like that. It was indeed an arduous task to distinguish between Shariati’s life and his writing, particularly for readers outside Persia. He was branded as Shia, Sunni, Islamist, Marxist and Muslim fundamentlist at the same time due to the mutually exclusive rational lives he was leading. All these are incorporated in the biography penned by Ali Rehnma in 1988. The new revised version of the book has been released this year. The 400- page book unveils Shariati’s life and the formation of his own thinking. (An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati. Ali Rahnema. I.B. Tauris. 2014).The biography has been realized after rendezvous with seventy seven people closely connected to Shariati and analyzing his 35 volumes of works.

Shariati was born into a traditional family of clerics. But his father Muhammad Thaqi Shariati went beyond the traditional field of work, striving to understand and raise his voice against not only the religious teachings but also social service and the changing political scenarios in which he dwelled. In a period which witnessed conflicts between the theories of nationalism, Shiism and Marxism, he belonged to an intellectual species which carved out its own path. He opened the Centre for Propagation of Islamic Truth in 1947 and it would not be wrong to say that he was able to highly impact the future of his 14 year old son. He was known as the ‘Socrates of Qurasan’. Thaqi Shariati, having backed the nationalization policies of Muhammad Musadaque (1882 – 1967), was in deep dilemma after Musadaque being toppled by the military aided by CIO in 1953.Musadique was deposed for backing British oil companies and for making efforts to reinforce Iran’s democratic self-determination. The military coup paved the way for the despotic rule of Reza Shah, landing Thaqi Shariati in prison for his counter political activities in 1957.

Thaqi Shariati laid the foundation for a new culture of critical reading in Iran. Masood Ahammad Saadhik, who was an exponent of the Marxist leninist theories, was Thaq iShariati’s student and acolyte. Musadque failed to establishing democracy in Iran, but Iranians experienced the beautiful foretaste of democracy like social justice, anti-imperialism and anti-autocratism. For Ali Shariati, the presence of his father, who taught him that thinking was an art, was most crucial. Shariati shared a special relationship with his mother Zahra, who supported her only son deeply and kept a special relation with him. Despite poverty, there was no dearth of enhanced outlook on enlightenment. Shariati maintained an intellectual intimacy with the lower classes in the society. Marginalized people especially women were closely linked to his childhood experiences. Shariati was a lonesome student in his classroom and an introvert, who dwelled in his own imaginary world and abstained from the football matches played by other children. He would always take hours to choose his dress and never turned up for the classes on time. Never dressing appropriately and wearing different coloured socks to school, Shariati was known as a ‘lazy lad.’ He hated the school curriculum and was an independent reader. How gleeful it is to know that Shariati who spent late nights among his father’s collection of books, was backward in class. Passing out of school somehow, Shariati attended college in the early 50s, focusing his attention only on Tasawwuf and philosophy. He engaged in discourses with the left students, who opposed Musadque and Tudeh Party during the period with the support of Soviet. It was said that when the heated debates ended up in clashes, Shariati rested in prison for a few days. It was during his days at the University education period that he broke his shell and discovered himself. He was not someone who should be wasting his time living happily; that the future of Shia martyrs, he would later say, were much close to his heart.. He pondered over several things frequently doubting whether his problem was spiritual or a mental ailment.

Before leaving for France to pursue higher studies (1947 – 1959), Shariati’s reading interests were centered on philosophy, Tasawwuf, politics and literature. Belgium writer and Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck was Shariati’s favorite writer. His question, “when we blowout a candle light, where the light goes?” is said to have sparked a fire in his teenage years. Sharaiti who had been indulged in the ethereal pleasure of sufi readings was redirected towards the political readings by Musadque’s nationalizing activities. Decolonization became his political belief. During this time, he translated many Arab poems into Persian. Shariati, who entered into active writing in 1955, began to write about contemporary thinkers in journals. He read the writings of Jamaludhin Afghani, Sigmond Freud and Alexis Carrel. Shariati critisised Freud from the foundation set by his readings on Tasawwuf, though he said that he would continue to read Freud in future. He became a teacher during the period and turned into a full time translator, writer and politician. In 1957, Shariati was arrested and imprisoned for taking part in a movement of nationalizing of Iran’s oil.

He was released from prison in 1958 after which he married Puran, his classmate. Puran had turned down the marriage proposal by Shariati several times saying that he was unemployed. So he completed his education and then married her. Coming late for his own wedding, Shariati proved his friends’ taunts right. One year after his marriage, Shariati received a scholarship for higher studies in France and left for the country in May 1959.


Shariati learnt French during the first year in Paris and began learning sociology under  Raymond Aron. He was threatened by the Iranian officials for receiving scholarship in literature. At the beginning he stayed away from politics and concentrated on his studies. The student activism as part of Iranian Expat Students’ community was plodding along during vacations. He later kept a distance from them and began to work in cooperation with the Algerian Liberation Front movement. He started a journal and he wrote an obituary about his comrade Frantz Fanon when he died. During 1962-63 he started to publish Iran-e-Azad from Paris. He discussed and debated issues like Indo-Chinese problem, Algerian liberation, Che Guevara’s guerilla war, Cuban politics, Stalinism and the drawbacks of Soviet Marxism. In 1963 he submitted his PhD thesis, the translation of the book Safial- Din Balkhi by Fazayel-e-Balkh. He got low grade for the thesis because he was not much interested in thesis and he started to pack his bags after completing study.

Paris of 1960’s was a diverse space for intellectuals, the cultural capital of the world. But Shariati found himself in the midst of cultural critics who wielded domination and authority. Shariati and students from the colonialized countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Congo and Tunisia gathered in Musalman Restaurant where Jean-Paul Sartre was talking about Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Shariati, a chain-smoker, read and wrote from there, sipping at times coffee served cheap. Shariati and his comrades were arrested and imprisoned by the police for the attack on the Belgium embassy, as reaction to the assassination of Congo President Patrice Lumumba. He kept a diary then, writing in it a memorable reflection of his: Those who suffer pain belong to a nation.

Shariati worked as a research assistant under Louis Massignon, the famed islamologist. His research was about Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) family. From there he developed the link of his renowned work Fathima is Fathima. Shariathi once told that Massignon is his Shams Tabrizi. Georges Gurevich, a strong Marxist sympathizer who opposed Stalinism and left indelible marks of class analysis in Shariati. From the speech of Gurevich, Shariati learned more about Marx, Engels, Lucács, Trotsky,etc…

It was when Fanon was the editor of Algerian Magazine Al-Mujahiddinn that he first met Frantz Fanon .That time he translated Fanon’s Dying Colonialism to Persian. Though Fanon agreed to write a foreword to the Persian edition, it did not turn up. The French translation of Fanon’s posthumous work The Wretched of the Earth, was translated into Persian by several hands, the translation was credited to Shariathi, for promoting the sales of the ] book. Shariati and Fanon generally discussed and argued about the role Islam could play in the anti-colonial struggles both in Africa and Asia. Paris transformed Shariati a lot. Shariati turned out to be an intellectual with different ideas of the world by the time he reached Iran. Iranian Police arrested Shariati and imprisoned him for six weeks in connection with an old case. It led to a new career for him in the country. Firstly He did small works there, and engaged in the translation works of Massignon’s Salman to Persian at his free time. After an year of obstacles, Shariati joined Mashhad University as a history professor.

Shariati began his popular sermons by that time. He preached in a small class room for only forty students. Later students from across the country gathered to listen to him. They recorded, printed and distributed his speech to people. The aversion of the University administration towards Shariati began to grow and they tried to expel him from university. Grown tired of the university politics, Sharaiti decided to resign; but owing to the commitments to the young students, he did not. Shariati was severely attacked for being absentminded about exams and timetable in the University.

Jalal Al-e Ahmad, a prominent Iranian writer, thinker, and social and political critic, became close to Shariathi and discussed with him terms such as Westoxication. Jalal Al-e Ahmad demanded to translate Albert Memmi’s work The Colonizer and the Colonized, but Shariati could not complete it. When Jalal Al-e Ahmad died in 1969 Shariathi lost his own shadow. Ahmed thought seriously about power and the role of intellectuals. His observations had later played a crucial role in the reflections and thoughts of Shariati. Sharaiti sermons came under the surveillance of the Savak, a secret police run by the Shah administration. Savak banned the sermons of Shariati and fellows By that time Mashhad University had expelled him from his position. Then Sharaiati moved to Tehran and joined the camp of Murtaza Mutahhari at Husseiniyah Erash in northern Tehran. After this set back from Savak Shariati started his pilgrim jouney to Mecca in that year end. After seven months, the ban was removed and Shariati made his popular speech “Hajj”. He also made his popular speeches like “The Responsibility of the Intellectuals in Today’s Society”, “Religion against Religion”, etc. Shariati was haunted by the government and his existence became in more danger. Murtaza Mutahhari also criticized Shariati at that time.

The youth in the country were been thrown into an armed revolution, in December 1971. Ahmed Raeesi, a young man from the audience contemptuously responded to Shariati’s speech. He shouted at Shariati saying that the latter was a mere enticer with empty words. Savak killed Raeesi months after the incident, and Shariathi conducted a speech in memory of Ahmed Raeesi in February 1972.The speech “Martyrdom” was held on an Ashura evening. Shariti hailed the Mujahidheen movement and the fight against injustice in his speeches. He praised the dream of martyrdom. In six month the government closed the Husseiniyah Erashad and imprisoned Shariati for his provocative speech”. The reason for the arrest was that several militants who had been arrested claimed to have read Shariati.Violent clash between the police and students went onto the street of Tehran. Ali Shariati went to his hide to escape from the arrest. Police threatened him with the life of his father and he eventually surrendered. Widespread pressure from people and an international outcry from the Algerian Liberation Front eventually led to his release eighteen months after the solitary confinement. He was released on 21 March 1975 from the small cell.

Shriati came completely under the surveillance of Savak. They closed all avenues of communications. The sermons and writings were stopped, which eventually led to his depression. His home became a jail to him. Ihsaan Shariati, his son was 16 at that time. Shariati saw him taking the course of militancy. Sharaiti sent his son to United States under a fake ID, and saved his life from Savak. Shariati became lonely after the flight of his son, who was also a close friend .The state tried to hunt Shariati with Ihsan. Shariati also tried to flee. Seeking political asylum, he departed to London with fake passport. But Iran military blocked his wife and a daughter in Airport; only two daughters were sent to his father. His family had earlier agreed to join him. These incidents weakened his sensitive heart .Due to increasing tension he increased smoking. On June 18, 1977 he went to bed early, he asked his daughter for some water at midnight. The tragic incident happened next day. Ali Shariati was found dead lying back in the floor beside his bed at the age of 44.Shariatiwas buried five days later in Damascus, Syria, close to the shrine of Zainab, Imam Hossein’s sister.

Ali Rahnema’s biography helps to fill the gap of serious explorations into the lives and works of Ali Sharaiti. This is not a critical biography about Shariati with deeper analysis on his religious or political stands. However this work leaves open newer questions and reflections on his life though, reading from critical perspectives of Hamid Dabashi and AsefBayet the book can be seen as full of critically fragile remarks.

Translated by:  Navas Machingal

Posted in: Books