Decolonial Translation Group


The Islamic Liberation Theology of Ali Shariati, by Mohamed Tahar Bensaada

The path taken by Ali Shariati (1939-1977) is quite different from the one taken by Motahhari1. Shariati did not study in a theological institute but in the Faculty of Arts at Tehran University. Unlike Motahhari, who never studied abroad, Shariati studied sociology and the history of religion in Paris. Back home in Iran, he is excluded from the university for his political positions just like Motahhari. While he had already begun participating in the nationalist movement led by Dr. Mossadegh in his youth, Shariati was also part of the Islamic renewal movement, the “Socialist Adorers of God.”

From the beginning, then, Shariati distinguishes himself by a kind of synthesis between Islamism and revolutionary nationalism. In the 60s and 70s, he was the representative of radical left Islamism among Iranian youth. His political involvement led to prison, torture and exile. His premature death under suspicious circumstances in England in 1977, at the age of 44, has never been solved but a number of observers tie it to the Shah’s secret police, the Savak. His death was a great loss for the Islamic renewal movement and, more broadly, the liberation movement in Iran, given the extent to which his positions could have influenced the subsequent debates during the Iranian revolution.

Starting from anti-imperialist national-revolutionary positions, Shariati found an inspiration in Islam that enabled him to develop an approach that was independent of the two sides in the Cold War. Well before his time in France, Shariati learned about major currents in philosophy that could inspire anti-capitalist resistance, such as Marxism and existentialism. Even when raising their internal contradictions and their discord with the Islamic conception of the world, Shariati doesn’t hesitate to borrow a methodological approach, and even an analysis, shaped by particular social and political phenomena. Shariati is not only interested in the major European authors but also in the authors marked particularly by the experience of colonization/decolonization, such as Franz Fanon, whose writings he translated into Persian.

For Shariati, the “authentic intellectual” – whether religious or secular – is one who sticks to the intellectual, social and political struggle for revolutionary change: “If you’re not in the struggle, it doesn’t make much difference whether you are in the mosque or the bar.” In Shariati’s work, liberation does not depend fundamentally on the renaissance of religious thought. It is more a question of reconstructing an “Islamic-Iranian identity.” The religious and civilizational element is linked in solidarity with other constitutive elements of the Iranian society and nation.

It is this factor that leads him to consider that the role of the Muslim-secular intellectual is as important in the process of revolutionary change as that of the religious intellectual and member of the clergy insofar as the Muslim-secular intellectual is situated at the point of conflict between the Muslim Iranian society and the system of modern domination. The Muslim-secular intellectual is, then, better placed to express the aspirations of Muslim society and to fight knowledgeably the oppressive aspects of the modern capitalist system.

It is the realization that the struggle for liberation cannot ignore cultural and religious factors that led Shariati to open himself up to the theological dimension. That’s what leads John Esposito to write that “Shariati preaches what we can call a liberation theology that brings together a reinterpretation of the Islamic faith with modern socio-political thought.”2 At Motahhari’s initiative, Shariati joins the Islamic association “Huseynia Ershad” and participates in its research and teaching. However, Shariati’s participation in the institute’s activities did not prevent him from continuing to defend his original positions, sometimes in opposition to Motahhari himself.

Shariati’s key theological originality was in the introduction of certain methodological approaches borrowed from the social sciences into his historical critique of Scripture. His theological and ideological differences with Motahhari never affected their friendship or their collaboration through the association. Shariati’s openness is not limited to questions of method.

His relationship to modernity and the West is akin to Motahhari’s selective approach. Muslim renaissance cannot do without the contribution of Western modernity. This modernity is presented as a universal fact that is not limited to the countries that initiated it: “Contemporary civilization is the most grandiose of all human civilizations…Apollo doesn’t belong only to America, neither to the Whites or the Blacks, but to the whole of human civilization3.” The necessity of independence and national renaissance does not imply isolation from the world. Europe and the West cannot be rejected as a whole as if they represented a monolithic doctrine: “An intellectual’s condemnation of the Westernization of their society is only legitimate if they have a deep knowledge of European culture and civilization as well as their own history, society, culture and religion.”

But if he draws a distinction between modernization and Westernization, Shariati still does warn his compatriots against the temptation of blind imitation. For him, modernization is not a technical product. It cannot therefore be limited to an import operation: “Civilization and culture are not import products. They cannot be moved like a television set or a radio or a refrigerator from one place to another and work again thanks to electricity. They require the ground to be prepared, the earth to be worked, patience, research, intelligence and vigilance on the part of the cultivator. They require the transformation of man, of thought, the knowledge of the environment.”4

Shariati takes up the central critique of Western modernity offered by Muslim reformism, its slide toward a “materialist” civilization, which is in contradiction to the humanism proclaimed since the Renaissance. In a text with Marxist accents, Shariati writes: “Wanting to escape the oppression of the powerful and the slavemasters, man turns to the great religions and listens to the prophets: But he suffers the combat and the martyrs only to become prey to the magi, the khalifs, the Brahmins, and even worse, the dark and mortal chaos of the Medieval church… Generations fought and died to bring about a renaissance, to mobilize humanity to conquer science and liberty in order to be freed from that it had to suffer in the name of religion … Won over by liberalism, humanity chose democracy instead of theocracy as the key to liberty. It was caught in a hard-line capitalism in which democracy turned out to be as disappointing as theocracy. Liberalism is revealed as a regime in which liberty exists only for the titans that fight to outdo each other in plunder.”5

The process of dehumanization in contemporary capitalism, founded as it is on a logic of exploitation, is inseparable from the historical process in which cultural identity is lost, which explains the importance of marginalizing religion in social life: “Under the pretext of attacking fanaticism, colonial powers fought religion, particularly early on… They launched assaults against tradition in order to produce a people without history, without roots, without culture, without religion, and without any other form of identity.”6 There is therefore in Shariati a direct link between capitalism’s tendency toward general exploitation, on the one hand, and the tendency toward the loss of cultural identity and spirituality on the other, for people without history and culture are more easily exploitable.

Michael Amaladoss draws out the correlation in these terms: “The relationship of injustice in inequality between a few powerful people and the destitute and powerless masses represents a fundamental structure of human society in every era, although the means and expression of this relationship of domination varies over time… Shariati develops in a more detailed way the notion of oppression in contemporary imperialism through economic domination and the effort to make people into simple consumers. To spur on this process, there is a campaign to spread a materialist and uniform culture. There is a related effort to remove people’s cultural and religious roots from within their own tradition. Shariati senses how much ripping people from their cultural roots serves to deny them their identity and their humanity in order to create handy objects of exploitation.”7

Shariati’s liberation theology incorporates the central element of the Islamic approach that considers that humanism is impossible without the spiritual dimension that defines man. “Real humanism is a set of divine values at the core of man that form his moral, cultural and religious heritage.” Those who see a contradiction between religion and liberation don’t understand the dialectic of Tawhid (unity) in Islam: the adoration of a single God signifies the rejection of any shirk (associationism) and therefore a rejection of the idealization of everything other than God: material goods, money, power, etc. The relationship of men with a single God establishes their radical equality upon which Muslim liberation theologists should construct their egalitarian political discourse.

Almadoss very correctly describes this Tawhid dialectic in Shariati’s work: “A society unified in equality and justice corresponds to the affirmation of a single God. Once this social unity is broken into different classes and groups, polytheism makes its appearance in religious spheres. That means that fighting inequality and injustice in the world becomes a religious obligation because it is about taking on polytheism and idolatry.”8 However, the rejection of polytheism and its contemporary forms does not lead Shariati to turn his back on material civilization and the imperative of modernization.

Islam allows one to confront the world but offers no escape from it, no matter how unjust it is. Realism and spiritualism are not mutually exclusive in Islam. Shariati reminds us forcefully of this: “Islam is a realist religion: it loves nature, strength, beauty, wealth, abundance, progress and the satisfaction of human needs…instead of being preoccupied with metaphysics and death, its literary production is concerned with nature, life, the world, society and history.”9

English translation: Karen Wirsig


1 Mortadha Motahhari (1920-1979) embodies a political-theological effort rather traditional, even though he played an important ideological role in the Iranian “Islamic revolution”. Motahhari’s profile is that of a classical theologian. He studied Philosophy and Fiqh (muslim law) in the Islamic universities of Mashad and Qom, and then dedicated his entire life to Islamic teaching in alternative schools after being expelled of the official university. As soon as he graduated from Qom, he gets involved in the Islamic movement led by the imam Khomeyni, becomes one of his closest collaborators and take the head of the underground created “clergy council”.

2 Cited in N. Yavari-D’Hellencourt, Modernisation autoritaire en Turquie et en Iran, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1989, p. 89.

3 Op.cit, p. 97.

4 Op.cit, p. 98.

5 Shariati, Ali, Marxism and other Western fallacies, Mirzan Press, Berkeley, 1980.

6 Shariati, Ali, What is to be done? p. 31.

7 Amaladoss, Michael, Vivre en liberté, Bruxelles, Lumen.

8 Op.cit, p.188.

9 Ali SHARIATI : What is to be done ? p. 43.