The forgotten revolutionary
By Lawrence Reza Ershaghi
February 24, 2003
The fall of the bloodstained shah and triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran
was not only one of the most remarkable events of the 20th Century, but I would argue
of human history. The collective will is a theoretical tool which nobody had seen
until the Islamic Revolution. In the words of Professor Hamid Algar:
"The revolution was genuinely a people's movement. One can say that the Islamic
Revolution in Iran was an example of mass political participation, unique in modern
times. It makes the parliamentary elections of the western countries appear as a
mere game by contrast. In the United States a minority of the electorate turns out
at the elections, and yet is celebrated as an expression of the popular will. In
Iran, in the face of massive pressure, the danger of death, dismemberment, and torture,
a whole nation took to the streets to enforce its demands."
The revolution defied all secularists' assumptions of religion having no effective
Twenty four years later the Islamic Republic is still in power despite all the false
predictions of its demise. However, it is confronted with grave problems which are
to be expected after a revolution. Whoever the problems are attributed to, whatever
the causes of the problems are, and whatever the solutions may be, we must never
forget the fervor and unity which made the revolution successful.
It appears that many Iranians have forgotten the ideals which were fought for
and have simply given up on them. I do not wish to go into the intricacies of the
problems which Iran faces today, but I want to explore an individual, more specifically
an intellectual who served as a catalyst for the Islamic Revolution, but never witnessed
its triumph. I wonder what he would have thought of all this. The man I am referring
to is none other than Dr. Ali Shariati, the ideological father of the Islamic Revolution.
Hardly is there any discussion about Dr. Shariati, who must be regarded as the
second-most important catalyst after Imam Khomeini. A man whom not many outside of
Iran are acquainted with, but who yielded so much influence amongst the educated
and youth in pre-revolutionary Iran. He is a man who has a street named after him
in Iran today, but whose works are pretty much banned. He justifiably distrusted
the clergy of his time as do the people of today.
However, rather than walk away from his roots, which were embedded in Shia Islam,
he opted to reclaim and retain them. He was not the conventional religious thinker,
but Dr. Ali Shariati was a deeply religious man and because of that he saw things
with Islam in that day going in the wrong direction. As a result of that he created
a new understanding of the religion which attracted friends and foes alike.
According to Professor Ali Rahnema,
"Shariati was a man of his times. He reflected the mood, conditions, problems,
pains and conceivable solutions of his times . . . He does not fit into any classical
stereotype. Those who try to portray him as such, simply deform the man. Whatever
he wrote, whatever he said and whatever he did which excited and roused him was filled
with riddles and puzzles. Such was his life. A true product of the fertile cultural
soil of Khorasan, the land of epics and mystics, Ali Shariati was at case with words,
the principal tool of his forefathers."
He was the personification and embodiment of what an intellectual should be. He
used to say "I come to disquiet the quiet" and argue that the task of the
intellectual is to awaken the masses and this is what he did. He was an agent in
the awakening of the Iranian people, which culminated in the revolution. He gave
fiery speeches at Hosseiniyeh Ershad, which drew the interest of large crowds from
all segments of Iranian society. He did not shy away from controversy, but rather
embraced it. He constantly invited the people to think and question.
He saw and identified the plague of Westernization amongst his people and he sought
a cure from the malignant cancer in Islam because Islam was and is a direct threat
to the rampant consumerism and materialism prevalent in the West. He was a man who
studied and understood the west and saw its inherent weaknesses.
He was not like the modern day Islamic Thinkers which allows the West to dictate
the discourse and generate an inferiority complex amongst Muslims, but rather he
exposed and displayed the west's inherent weaknesses and flaws. He learned about
the ideas of cultural alienation and psychological damage wrought by the excesses
of imperialism. He revolutionized and modernized people's understanding and interpretation
of Islam. He used to always tell the religious scholars of the time to tell the people
to read about Marx and once they read it they will see it for what it's worth, which
Rather today what we see amongst all "Muslim" governments is a suppression
of these very ideas. He understood the truism that banned ideas and books become
more popular than they might otherwise be. The Shah's repression of communism gave
it a certain modish panache. This is why most Iranians joined the Tudeh party then
or why they appeal to anything Western today. We as Iranians must shy away from this
cultural schizophrenia which we suffer from.
To be sure Ali Shariati would have rejoiced at the sight of the Islamic Revolution,
but at same time would not have been satisfied with the course it took. He would
have demanded a more open atmosphere to live and breathe in. The reason he would
have demanded all these things is simply because these would have been the very same
demands of our exalted prophet and imams.
To quote our beloved Imam Ali, he wrote in a letter instructing the governor of
Egypt at the time,
1"Maintain justice in administration and impose it on your own self and seek
the consent of the people, for, the discontent of the masses sterilizes the contentment
of the privileged few and the discontent of the few looses itself in the contentment
of the many. It is the common man who is the strength of the State and Religion.
It is he who fights the enemy. So live in close contact with the masses and be mindful
of their welfare."
Unfortunately many Muslim "leaders" have either forgotten or grossly
under emphasized this essential part of Islam; it's denunciation of exploitation
and injustice and its tolerant nature.
As Shariati always said Islam was a becoming, not being in a static sense, but evolution.
He reinterpreted the notion of waiting for the reemergence of the 12th imam, which
might be taken as the pretext for a mere passive stance of idleness and inactivity.
He taught the people that waiting for the Imam meant
trying to pave the way for him by bringing a just and pious society. This is why
the Islamic Revolution was not a return to the 7th century, which was the time of
the prophet, but rather a preparation for the coming of the 12th imam. We must continue
this strive towards justice and help prepare the hastening of the 12th imam, which
Insha'allah will rescue us from the injustices of our time.
Recently we saw a man emerge from the political scene in Iran which delivered
a Shariati like speech and was subsequently arrested for it by the name of Hashem
Aghajari. Ironically the speech was delivered during a commemoration of the 25th
anniversary of the death than yours truly Dr. Ali Shariati.
In his fiery speech Aghajari said:
"For years, young people were afraid to open a Koran. They said, `We must
go ask the mullahs what the Koran says.' Then came Shariati, and he told the young
people that those ideas were bankrupt. [He said] you could understand the Koran using
your own methods." Mr. Aghajari concluded: "Today, more than ever, we need
the `Islamic humanism' and `Islamic Protestantism' that Shariati advocated. Shariati
used to say that the relationship between [the clergy] and the people should be like
the relationship between teacher and pupil - not between leader and follower, not
between icon and imitator; the people are not monkeys who merely imitate."
Aghajari and the likes are continuing the message which
Shariati himself began. I ask that we follow in their footsteps.
Lastly, while President Khatami today talks about "dialogue of civilizations,"
what is really needed today is dialogue amongst Iranians. Many Iranians knowledge
of the current political and social state of affairs in Iran is extremely outdated.
Amongst these people are Iranians who firmly opposed the revolution and Iranians
who are interested in the revolution and committed to Islam, yet dogmatically and
blindly defend the events inside the country. Both groups seem to live in a time
when the revolution was just born.
However, the fact of the matter is the revolution is now 24-years old and many
of the ideas and ideals have changed. There are new circumstances and personalities
in Iran today. Amidst all the turbulence going on in Iran today I ask for people
to re-visit and re-examine the forgotten revolutionary: Dr. Ali Shariati, before
it is too late!
Lawrence Reza Ershaghi, B.A. Political Science, University of California, Irvine.
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