The Iranian philosopher, lecturer, romantic, and poet Ali Shariati was part of one of the most significant revolutions of the century, one that avoided the extremes of a military coup or a Marxist revolt.  It was a uniquely Islamic revolt, involving Shi’a paradigms such as the martyrdom of Hosain and the role of the scholarly mullahs, Islam’s confrontation with the West and the hopes for an ideal Islamic society.  Shariati was a hero of Iran’s youth during the 1970’s and a “patron saint” of the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution that he tragically (or mercifully) did not live to see. [1]   His passionate ideals involving a reformed, “true Islam” fired the imagination of Iran but would never be actualized in the democratic way that he advocated.


His independent vision of Islam was one primarily of social justice and reform, more universal than the isolated ivory tower of the Shi’a clerics.  The need for his message arose out of the brutal suppression of open political discourse at the hands of the Pahlavi regime, rising quickly in the fermented air of oppression. [2]   Yet his was not just a dated, historical reaction to particular circumstances. However unrealistic his vision for Iran’s future would prove to be, his legacy still has tremendous influence on Iranian students and intellectuals, a credit to the timeless universality of his message. [3]


Shariati was born in 1933, son of a progressive, nationalist preacher. [4]   He was raised in a village near the northeastern city of Mashad where he later studied and taught, developing his nationalist and reformist theories. [5]   He and his father shared a thirst to resolve the severe problems their country faced.  In 1957, they were arrested together for participation in the National Front, the political coalition led by the nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq (d. 1967). [6]   Shariati would later leave Iran to pursue his doctorate in France. [7]   There he was exposed to and influenced by many aspects of Western thought, evident in his writings, from Marxism to jazz.  However, instead of simple adaptation or mimicry of the philosophies and social theories he encountered, Shariati made a concerted effort to forge an Islamic ideal using these newfound tools. 


After achieving his doctorate in 1965, he attempted to return to Iran only to be arrested at the Turkish border. [8]   The Shah’s persecution of dissident thought was to haunt him over the course of his whole life.  This second imprisonment lasted around six months, and afterward he was sent back to Mashad University to teach. [9]   He proceeded to combine elements of sociological theory into his teachings about Islam, a novel approach that gained him a progressively bigger audience until the regime later terminated his position. [10]   Yet it was obvious at this point that Shariati could not be intimidated into silence. 


He later went on to teach at an institution called the Husainiyeh Ershad in Tehran, invited by its founding organization, the Monthly Religious Society. [11] He officially became a lecturer there in 1967, filling its religious meeting hall with lectures that became famous all over Iran. [12]   Tapes of his lectures at the Husainiyeh Ershad spread across the entire country, even in the villages, mostly among young literate men. [13]   Their popularity was a credit to his ideals and coincided with the vulnerability of the Shah’s decaying regime. 


This “Islamic sociology” he taught was a redefinition of humanism in the context of Islam and answered an ideological need among Iranians to search for progressive solutions beyond the stagnant debates of the mullahs and the wholesale Western-style corruption of the Shah.  The Shah responded with a third imprisonment in 1973, closing down the Ershad and jailing Shariati for two years, followed by his exile to Khurasan Province. [14]   He found his way to England later in 1977, where he would die mysteriously, inspiring rumors about his murder at the hands of SAVAK, the shah’s secret police. [15]


In the time between his death and the Iranian Revolution, many of his ideas played a direct role in the struggle of the average Iranian against the regime.  They would eventually be appropriated by the Islamic clergy as part of a revolutionary effort to return to a noble sense of Shi’a identity.  His book entitled “The Return To Ourselves” conveyed the message embraced by the mullahs during the revolutionary period: that “with a return to true Shi’a Islam, Iran would be free from the shackles of political and psychological subjugation to the West.” [16]   In fact, his teachings were used by the religious movement during the revolution, to inspire and even to be used as recognized slogans. [17] Memorable quotes from his teachings were used on huge banners: “The martyr is the heart of history!”and “Every day is Ashura; every place is Karbala!” [18] There was an immediate and palpable influence of Shariati’s “martyrdom”; in fact during many processions and protests, his picture was held alongside that of Khomeini’s, the leader of the Iranian religious establishment. [19]


Those same mullahs, however, felt that some of his views were far too extreme, and eventually considered him dangerous.  His independence as a thinker did not place him neatly in either extreme of the revolution; after being imprisoned by the Shah, he would still years after his death have his works banned in his native country through the efforts of the clerical establishment. [20]   His redefinition of Islam on an individual, personal level threatened their sense of a power base.  His huge audience listened to him speak of an Islam which did not focus on the institution of the mullahs (Islamic scholars). [21]   The mullahs tried to belittle and downplay the significance of his writing by accusing him of being ill informed in matters of Islam. [22]  


Despite this friction with Iranian clerics, Shariati was not by any means anti-Islamic.  To the opposite extreme we find in his writings and lectures ample evidence to suggest that he still identified his thought closely with a sense of deep religious identity, precluding even issues of race or nationality:


Since WWII, many intellectuals in the Third World, whether religious or nonreligious, have stressed that their societies must return to their roots and rediscover their history, their culture, and their popular language…Some of you may conclude that we Iranians must return to our racial roots.  I categorically reject this conclusion.  I oppose racism, fascism, and reactionary returns.  Moreover, Islamic civilization has worked like scissors and has cut us off completely from our pre-Islamic past.  Consequently, for us a return to our roots means not a rediscovery of pre-Islamic Iran, but a return to our Islamic, especially Shi’a roots. [23]


These Shi’a roots were to prove fertile for revolution, involving a refocusing of the prominent themes in Shi’a such as the martyrdom of Hosain.  No longer was Hosian thought of as simply a martyr, but a revolutionary who was determined to overthrow an unjust government. [24]   During this time in Iran, political marches were substituted for traditional mourning processions during ‘Ashura, an annual observance of Hosain’s martyrdom. [25]   As the Shah provided a blatant example of an unjust government, a popular movement grew around the analogy between him and Yazid, the betrayer of Hosain and a Shi’a embodiment of human cruelty and evil.  Yet this “return to the roots” that Shariati hoped for would also be a reaction to the competing Western philosophical and sociological theories of that time, including Marxism and capitalism.


There was an element of traditional Marxist “class struggle” to much of his thought, evident in his essay “Reflections of a Concerned Muslim: On the Plight of Oppressed People”:


Has God chosen His prophet from among our class?


I believed in the prophet Mohammed since his palace was no more than just a few rooms constructed of clay.  He was among the workers who carried the loads and built the rooms. [26]


Again, in his essay “Civilization & Modernization,” his thought apparently draws close to Marxist doctrine: “The machine emerged and developed during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in Europe in the hands of capitalists and the rich.” [27]  But Shariati would prove in his other writings that he felt distrust towards technology in itself, regardless who happened to own it.  He regarded industrialization as profoundly dehumanizing, turning his unique ideal of humanity into “the extension of a wrench.” [28]   Shariati in this way ingests Marxism while reacting to it as a reduction of humanity into “An economic animal whose only duty is to graze.” [29]   Marxism thus serves as support for Islam through providing a platform for claims of a unique Islamic “humanism” comprised of “a collection of the divine values in man that constitute his morals and religious cultural heritage.” [30]   These claims rendered Islam superior to the Western systems of both Marxism and capitalism, the goal of an ideal state.


This ideal, for Shariati, must first include aspects of social reform that still belie a Marxist influence, such as his essay “Where Shall We Begin”: “An empty stomach lacks everything. A society, which has economic problems also, lacks spiritual wealth. Whatever is called ethics in a poor country is nothing but deviant customs and habits, not spirituality.” [31]   It is evident that though his unique expression of Islam was based on a sense of economic justice, it went much further into realms of “spiritual wealth” that neither Marxism nor capitalism alone could fulfill.


The infusion of a consciously Islamic “class struggle” with a distrust of the “alienation” of Western science and technology was an innovative mix that influenced a generation of Iranians.  Religious identity is revitalized by its challenge put to the West of “a religion not lower than science, but rather one higher than it.” [32]   This sort of rhetoric by Shariati gave Iranians a sense of identity as the holders of a special tradition. 


In this way, though he had his work banned, was jailed, exiled, and possibly murdered by his native Iran, his influential response to the West and to the Shah’s nationalist stance utilizing the Shi’ite Islamic identity of his society proved to be an effective one.  Many of his basic messages survived him and still add voice to reform efforts in Iran.  The fact that they alienated the two main powers of Iranian society, the mullahs and the Shah, and focused instead on the universal identity and traditions of Shi’a Islam made them a potent mix that helped define the Revolution.






[1] Fischer, Michael M.J., Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution  (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980) 5.

[2] Fischer 5.

[3] Keddie, Nikki R., introduction, Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’sm From Quietism to Revolution Nikki R. Keddie, ed. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1983) 12.

[4] Keddie, introduction 12.

[5] Akhavi Shahrough, “Shariati’s Social Thought,” Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’sm From Quietism to Revolution Nikki R. Keddie, ed. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1983) 125.

[6] Sharough 125.

[7] Sharough 125.

[8] Sharough 126.

[9] Sharough 126.

[10] Sharough 126.

[11] Sharough 127.

[12] Mottahedeh, Roy, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (New York: Pantheon, 1985) 331.

[13] Mottahedeh 353.

[14] Sharough 127.

[15] Sharough 127.

[16] Mottahedeh 16.

[17] Fischer 5.

[18] Shariati, Ali. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique.  Trans. R. Campbell.  Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1980.

[19] Keddie, introduction 12.

[20] Fischer 74.

[21] Fischer 183.

[22] Fischer 83.

[23] Mottahedeh 331.

[24] Mottahedeh 353.

[25] Fischer 213.

[26] Shariati, Ali,  Reflections of Humanity: Two Views of Civilization and the Plight of Man  (Houston: Free Islamic Literatures, 1980) 6.

[27] Shariati, Reflections 27.

[28] Shariati, Reflections 22.

[29] Shariati, Marxism 39.

[30] Shariati, Marxism 39.

[31] Books and Speeches: Dr. Ali Shariati, ed. Mohammad Reza, 1997, Fullerton CA, 2 April 2002 .

[32] Books and Speeches: Dr. Ali Shariati, ed. Mohammad Reza, 1997, Fullerton CA, 2 April 2002 .




*Books and Speeches: Dr. Ali Shariati. Ed. Mohammad Reza.  1997. Fullerton, CA. 2 April 2002 .

*Fischer, Michael M.J.  Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

*Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi’ism From Quietism to Revolution. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

*Mottahedeh, Roy. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in IranNew York: Pantheon, 1985.

*Shariati, Ali. Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique.  Trans. R. Campbell.  Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1980.

---. Reflections of Humanity: Two Views of Civilization and the Plight of Man.  Houston: Free Islamic Literatures, 1980.

-May 6, 2002