An Iranian Gramsci?

Raza Naeem remembers Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), intellectual and leading light of the movement that toppled the Shah of Iran

An Iranian Gramsci?
Earlier this month, on the 19th of June, 40 years ago, agents of SAVAK, the murderous secret service of the Shah of Iran, assassinated and prematurely extinguished Dr. Ali Shariati, one of the leading lights of Iran’s intellectual and democratic resistance in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a Gramsci, Guevara, Fanon, Malcolm X and Iqbal rolled into one. I was first introduced to this revolutionary and extremely interesting thinker more than 15 years ago in college in Lahore by my friend Raza Gardezi (who I am still privileged to call my comrade). Fast forward to 2004 in Karachi, where upon meeting the eminent intellectual Mahmood Mamdani (who was here to deliver a talk based on his best-selling book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim), he remarked to me that Shariati’s greatest single misfortune had been that he has been marginalised by Sunni scholars – confining him to Iran and Shi’ism. In fact, the person who was the first to raise a voice against the Shia clergy in the Pahlavi period was Dr. Ali Shariati. He presented the Shi’ism as a creed of refusal and jihad rather than obedience and following. And he tried to emphasise amongst Shias, especially the educated youth, that opposing the oppression and cruelty of the Shah and Western imperialism is ‘actual’ Shi’ism.

Dr. Ali Shariati was born in an educated household. He started teaching in a high school at the age of eighteen.  During this time, he took a diploma from a teachers’ training college and went to Paris in 1958 for higher education. There he earned a doctorate in Religious Studies from the Sorbonne and also studied Western philosophy and sociology deeply; but he was arrested as soon as he returned to Teheran in 1964 because during his stay in Europe he had also been taking part in political activities. Ali Shariati was released after ten months and he was appointed a teacher in Mashhad University, but the authorities in charge at the University did not like his interpretation of Islamic sharia in the light of modern knowledge; so he was dismissed. In 1968, he set up an educational center by the name of Hussainiya-e-Irshad in Teheran and began teaching there. Shariati’s lectures became very popular amongst university and college students and the tapes of these lectures began to travel from one city to another.

Ali Shariati and his wife Pouran Shariat Razavi

Shariati was re-arrested in August 1973 but was released after one and a half year. He was permitted to visit the United States in May 1977 but a few days after reaching London, he suddenly passed away. He is the author of 20 works. These works are still read avidly in Iran. His lecture tapes are also to be found in numerous homes.

Shariati never directly criticised the Shah’s government in his lectures and writings but, he would seriously critique Iran’s social and political system – sometimes using the reference of Islamic history; sometimes with the aid of the Quran, Hadith and teachings of the Imams; and sometimes with the help of aphorisms of Western philosophers. For him, the Shia faith was a revolutionary creed whose spirit had been mutilated by the Safavid-era ulema.  He considered the Shia martyrs to be revolutionary heroes and to follow them was the only source of salvation in Iran. He was against imperialism, fascism, feudalism and the capitalist system and considered the economic principles of socialism to be equitable and Islamic. He was also in favour of nationalising private property. So in the journal Ummat-o-Imamat (The Nation and the Leadership), arguing about the meaning of “imam”, he writes:

“Imam means to make private property national, socialist, or to change special property into general property, collective property and to declare the nation its owner.”

According to Ali Shariati human society was divided into two classes:

“Man is either the bearer or giver of sorrow, making or taking hard work, one who earns without work and the other who works without earning.”

His loyalty is clearly with the working class. But he firmly believes that Western democracy is not the solution. He sees Western democracy as the deception of the rich. For Shariati the elections held in Western democracy on the principles of adult franchise are a deception and a lie.

Shariati was one of the most important figures of the Iranian revolution,
though he did not live to see it

“When we observe the contemporary politics of Europe and America, to say that so-and-so person who has been elected by the opinion of a majority, is society’s most suitable and ideal person, is not only a great insult to the people of Europe, but to human society.”

Ali Shariati blames the capitalist system for this fallacy. He enumerates two types of democracy. The first as free democracy, and the second, as guided democracy. Free democracy is the same old ‘bourgeois democracy’ rejected by Shariati although in his opinion the guided democracy is founded upon a progressive revolutionary manifesto; its function is to change the shape of people’s thoughts, culture, collective relations, standard of living and society and to encourage its best form. It has an ideology and a clear point of view

“This guided democracy and guided leadership is what takes society towards an intellectual and collective destination based on its revolutionary manifesto instead of the ancient path.”
He tried to emphasise that opposing the oppression and cruelty of the Shah and Western imperialism is 'actual' Shi'ism

Ali Shariati is totally unconvinced about the political and social acumen of the people. His opinion is that people – sometimes concerned by blood ties, sometimes by the pressure of caste, tribe or sect and sometimes influenced by the propaganda of the elite – end up electing  those who do not deserve representation, therefore the right of vote should only be given to ‘conscientious’ and ‘educated’ people. But this limited democracy is no substitute for bourgeois democracy. The complaint Ali Shariati has against bourgeois democracy is that the people are not properly represented in it – in fact the representatives of the elite who are both ‘conscientious’ and ‘educated’ get elected but after disenfranchising the people, the task of the elite gets much easier. In bourgeois democracy, it is possible for even two, four, ten or twenty true representatives of the people to get elected; but in a limited democracy there is not even a possibility of the same. Ali Shariati also doesn’t inform us what will be the criteria for a ‘conscientious’ and ‘educated’ candidate and who will determine it. The best web models want to talk to you right now. See the best selections free webcam porn online girls from all over the world undress in front of Webcams and arrange real porn. A lot of sensual Amateur porn is filmed on a webcam. Pretty beauty loved to masturbate in front of the pupil of the camera, and enjoy fucking with men, knowing that then it will be possible to look.

While his work was a synthesis of various currents in Islamic and left-wing thought, Shariati was outspoken in his opposition to the official clergy

If we look closely, Ali Shariati’s thought is very similar to Allama Muhammad Iqbal (Pakistan’s national poet, to whom the very idea of a separate Muslim state in colonial India is attributed). Like Iqbal, he too does not consider Islam to be a static religion, rather a dynamic one; and he is also strictly against mullahs and Sufis who educate Muslims about being obedient like a sheep. He emphasises living dangerously rather than opportunism. He considers action to be the foundation of faith and jihad as the criteria for valuing the truth of faith. Like Allama Iqbal, Ali Shariati is also very hostile to Western imperialism and the capitalist system; for him, too, Western civilisation has fallen from favour.

Radical youth carry images of Dr. Shariati and Ayatollah Khoemini

Iranian mullahs opposed Ali Shariati tooth and nail but his popularity kept increasing amongst the educated youth. It is said that his lectures were attended by up to 6,000 people at a time, and were so crowded that there wasn’t even space for a needle at Hussainiya-e-Irshad. The Mujahideen-e-Khalq organisation wase founded under the influence of Shariati’s teachings and while he was alive, he was their spiritual leader.

Dr. Ali Shariati was assassinated by SAVAK in London and he could not live to see the spectacle of the rise and fall of the Iranian Revolution with his own eyes; although his services in creating a perception about the need for revolution amongst Iran’s religious circles cannot be ignored.

Protesters with pictures of Ali Shariati (front) and Prime Minister Mohamad Mossadegh - Photo credits - Maryam Zandi

Shariati with his family after his release from prison

Like Iqbal, Shariati too does not consider Islam to be a static religion, but rather a dynamic one

But the harvest he sowed is now being reaped by the Iranian mullahs.

It is a meaningless question to ask had Ali Shariati been alive, what his reaction might have been to the policies and actions of Ayatollah Khomeini and later his associates. In the light of the integrity and humanism we find in his writings, it can be said without doubt that Ali Shariati could never have endorsed the obscurantism and anti-people attitude of the clergy.

Raza Naeem is a social scientist and an award-winning translator currently based in Lahore. He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in the UK and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore. He may be reached at

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979