With the anniversary of Dr. Ali Shariati’s death, many articles have appeared on various newspapers and sites. Since I never developed any feeling for him, I turned the page to the more interesting subjects. However, there were a few articles I couldn’t resist reading. Among them was Ahmad Zaidabadi’s Why I Praise Shariati. The fact that it had been recommended by Massoud Behnoud on strengthened my urge to read it.
While I generally agree with Zaidabadi, I could not disagree more on what he said about Shariati. Since he has decided not to answer those who make unfavorable comments about Shariati, I feel comfortable to pour my heart out on what I have been keeping pent up there for some thirty years.
I was in university when I become familiar with Shariati along with a few others who had lectures in the Hoseiniyeh Ershad about social and political Islam. I recall one by Hasheminejad titled Revolution and Counterrevolution in Imam Hosein’s Time. One can imagine what sort of crowd a lecture like this would gather. I did not go to any of them simply because I lacked belief not in the religion, but in political religion. Even if I accept that the original intent of most religions was political, still I refuse to give in to the idea that the institution of religion falls into such a depth.
Thought I participated in the demonstrations, and whatever else the intellectual atmosphere of Tehran would consider as oppositional at the time, I avoided certain activities which I simply could in no way bring myself to do, like listening to Soussan or Aghassi, who were very popular among everybody because they were “khalqi” (roughly, “populist”). Their music lacked whatever I needed music to stir in my soul, a sense of harmony and rhythm to balance me in the world I lived in. But with Shariati it was a different story. Not only did he make us more unbalance, as much as I gathered from his incomprehensible ideas, but I was always wary of those who form their deconstructionizing views of Islam in the Sorbonne, while Al-Azhar or Feiziyeh would have been a much suitable place for that kind of inspiration.
In his article, Zaidabadi tries to explain why he admires Shariati. After giving a general background on the Iran of his childhood, by which I think he means the seventies, how rough and corrupt society was in the poor neighborhoods in particular, he says there were two alternatives: one was Marxist materialism which would encourage class hatred. The other was Shariatism. Naturally he chose the latter. Then he argues that what Shariati advocated was the right cause or better, the right issue. He says, “Given the atmosphere of that time, if he would talk of liberalism, whom would he have attracted?” And I agree. This was one of the Shariati’s main problems: to attract. Mr. Zaidabadi probably won’t like to know that thinkers do not say something to attract. Thinkers talk out of conviction; they talk about liberalism because they believe in liberalism and not because there is a good market for liberalism. I agree with Zaidabadi, Shariati’s main attraction to Islam, very likely, was to have a unique commodity; first to write his dissertation on, second to bring back home as a new marketable hybrid.
And what was this hybrid? Bringing the much-delayed reform to the religion, just as was done in Christianity, just as the Calvinists did, for example. With a very good intention, however, he rushed into action. He returned to Iran and started preaching what he was not so sure of, and what he had not studied well. He found some “Abuzarr, who had a sword with which he could meet out love with one its side and death with the other.” He was right of course, he found the right commodity for the market. Kind, gentle, loving Iranians who were frustrated by what was going on would buy his product and many of them would pay dearly for such a weapon.
But above all did not Zaidabadi study physics and biology at school? And maybe a little calculus? Plato and Aristotle? What we know of social and political, psychological and other social and human science are all modeled after scientific laws and are just footnotes to those great old thinkers. That is where we all started to learn how to think, even if we were dismissed for being privileged with having a culture and a way of living which required thinking and encouraged thinking simply to manage our daily lives.
He claims, “Were it not for Shariati’s, I would have turned to violence rather than what I’m now: a liberal, and human right activists.” Mr. Zaidabadi falls into several fallacies in the way he portray his life. The either-or, reductionism, appealing to fear, and hasty generalization embedded in this statement is more akin to George Bush’s arguments before marching to Iraq than what I know of Zaidabadi’s. Many of us are quite decent and care for other human being and did grow up in the same Iran and went to same schools there, and did grow up well without owing any of it to Shariati. Moreover, Shariati’s writings fitted very well into the seventies’ appetite for violence and bloodshed. (See for example, the reference to Abuzarr’s sword.) Let's remember that Shariati's main political interest in France was Franz Fanon, whose chief message was the efficacy of revolutionary violence not so much for smashing an oppressive political system, but to validate the manhood of the oppressed.
Zaidabadi admits that “although Shariati had an exaggerated language and sometimes could lead his audience to idealism…, he makes the Iranian atmosphere gentler and more humane.” Exaggeration, bitterness, anger, sarcasm and worse of all depression, these were all Shariati’s trademarks. None of these traits would produce a healthy atmosphere, but a suffocating one, in which no one would survive. He himself, rest in peace, was its first casualty.
Finally, Zaidabadi writes, “Shariati was the best humanistic and spiritual alternative to the materialism advocated by left and others.” He holds that whatever was not Shariati was materialistic and therefore devoid of spirituality and humanity. I wish to know where he got this ridiculous idea. At best we may say that materialism contradicts idealism (with lots of compromise, of course), but materialism does not necessarily contradict spiritualism or humanism. Materialism advocated by many leftists in no way is a hindrance to the humanism or spirituality. The fact that some people consider poverty as an Omm ol-Khabaes (roughly, "root of evil"), is nothing unique to the leftist or the materialist. The first person who wisely saw the evil in poverty and encouraged his followers to avoid it was our good prophet Zaratoshtra who was the champion of humanity and spirituality. And if it is too ancient for Zaidabadi, I summon Voltaire and the dahri school as witnesses.
But if I may ask our friend Zaidabadi to do us all a favor, since he understood what Shariati said, please, in a language of his own which we all understand well, tell us what Shariati is saying which is so compelling. Here in New York University’s library we have twenty six volumes of Ali Shariati’s collected works. I have read only twelve of them but have looked through all of them. Aside from their being overwhelmingly repetitive, they all have the scattered quality of free association preaching. They do not read well and do not make sense. He bases his arguments on his own newly-minted concepts. And instead of reasoning he makes one assertion after another. Those of us who studied here have learned to read differently and as a result his writings sound either ambiguous or worse, meaningless. But if those who like him and understand him, instead of praising him, try to tell us what he said, they will have done a favor to him and to us as well. His turbulent soul would rest much peacefully.