Lessons of Ali Shariati - II

Raza Naeem revisits some of the core concepts associated with the Iranian-born giant of revolutionary thought

Lessons of Ali Shariati - II
Shariati’s work is not really a book but inflammable material which at least 8 years before the Iranian Revolution invited – and more than 40 years afterwards still invites – the reader to ask troubling questions. For instance, it forces the reader to ask themselves whether the Shi’ite Muslim faith itself is merely azadari (mourning) and remembrance? Undoubtedly without the practices, no school of thought can keep its strength. In history very many faiths, -isms, schools and movements remained confined to books or just a few individuals because of a lack of practices and eventually became totally extinct. So, many common Shi’ite Muslims accept that the example of Imam Hussain (AS) is the foundation of their faith.

The commemorative majalis (assemblies), mourning and processions at one level are a guarantee for the permanence of the Shi’ite school – an undeniable fact. But can mourning one Imam and organizing a festivity on the occasion of the birth of another Imam be the extent of the faith? Shariati forces one to ponder as to whether the faith of the Imams was merely this? Was the faith of the people of the Imams, too, limited merely to commemorate the birth and martyrdom or hagiography?

If the answer is in the negative, then where did this faith limited to rituals come from? Shariati wrestles with such issues.

Red Shi'ism vs Black Shi'ism (Urdu)

In addition, after one has participated in Shi’ite congregations and assemblies, further questions boggle the mind. In Pakistan, the network of lectures (congregations and festivities) is much wider than any university network in the world. Every other day in every nook and corner of Pakistan, a common Shia does listen to a majlis sitting before a religious scholar – and yet comes away with little in the way of actual training. It deserves attention as to why such a large educational and knowledge network is not giving satisfactory results after all?

On the other hand, when one turns an eye to the Tablighi Jamaat, we see that this network is seen to be compiling systematic results. Granted that the Shi’ite school has an ideological dispute with them, but to look away from the facts is unsuitable in every way. The Jamaat has shown its ability to revolutionize the lives of ordinary persons – like a worker and hawker – right up to individuals from other fields like acting, singing, law and justice, medicine, police, army and science, etc. - even transgender communities.

When one reflects upon this deeply, one notices a difference between the Shi’ite preachers and speakers and the Tablighi Jamaat and that is ‘compromise’! Shi’ite speakers often avoid narrating bitter things and we know that matters related to training are bitter indeed. Advice is always bitter. Therefore by limiting faith to rituals, merely the rituals have been made the means of salvation.
Thus to read Ali Shariati today is to know that Shi’ism was previously not in the same form as it is in today’s period. Shi’ism took on a new facet in the 16th century

For 25 years continuously, a revered and venerated personage speaks to thousands of individuals from the biggest pulpit of the city but despite this cannot claim with a hand over his chest that he has created a revolutionary transformation in the lives of even ten individuals! A common Shia of the city has been listening to his speech in the first ten days of Moharram for 25 years but his conduct, speech, way of life, domestic environment, matrimony, manner of business, office matters, etc. did not change one bit.

Radical youth carry images of Dr. Shariati and Ayatollah Khoemini

Why? Because this Pakistani Shia takes their faith from the pulpit. And on the pulpit most of the speakers only tell them that the Imams were great and oppressed figures. Therefore the common Shia of today does kiss the likeness of the Zuljanah with devotion but treats the family at home unethically. Then one is forced to think as to whether this Shia was always like this. Was Shi’ism like this from the very beginning or did it become so lifeless afterwards that it did not have anything left except for the praise and glorification of the true leaders and mourning over them?

Thus to read Ali Shariati today is to know that Shi’ism was previously not in the same form as it is in today’s period. Shi’ism took on a new facet in the 16th century. To understand the lessons of Shariati today is to understand that even today two types of Shi’ism are alive on an ideological level: one limited to merely rituals while the second stepping out towards revolution further from these rituals.

Protesters with pictures of Ali Shariati (front) and Prime Minister
Mohamad Mossadegh

As he wrote in the book, contrasting Red Shi’ism, which is concerned with salvation for the masses, with the Black Shi’ism of the clerics:

“The history of Islam follows a strange path; a path in which gangsters and ruffians from the Arab, Persian, Turk, Tartar and Mongol dynasties all enjoyed the right to the leadership of the Muslim community and to the caliphate of the Prophet of Islam, to the exclusion of the family of the Prophet and the rightful Imams of Islam. And Shiism begins with a ‘No’; a ‘No’ which opposes the path chosen by history, and rebels against history. It rebels against a history which, in the name of the Qur’an, kings and caesars, follows the path of ignorance, and in the name of tradition, sacrifices those brought up in the house of the Qur’an and the Traditions!

Shiites do not accept the path chosen by history. They deny the leaders who ruled the Muslims throughout history [...] Shiites turn their backs on the opulent mosques and magnificent palaces of the caliphs of Islam and turn to the lonely mud house of Fatima. Shiites, who represent the oppressed, justice-seeking class in the caliphate system, find in this house whatever and whoever they have been seeking [...]

The minds of the people are prepared. The hearts of the enslaved masses are throbbing for revolt under the curtain of secrecy. One spark will be sufficient.” 

Note: All translations are by the writer.

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 razanaeem@hotmail.com

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: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979