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Abbas Manoochehri

Critical Religious Reason

Ali Shari'ati on Religion, Philosophy and Emancipation


The purpose of this article is to introduce one of the most novel aspects in the work of the Iranian thinker Ali Shari'ati, namely his dialogue with modern secular thought from a religious standpoint. The relationship between religion and philosophy and the critique of tradition and modernity are significant constitutive aspects of Shari'ati's thought. Religious concepts should be always studied in relation to concrete human problems. By simultaneously criticizing ›historical religion‹, ›machinism‹ and colonialism, Shari'ati has presented ›constructive erfan‹ as an alternative emancipatory response to the problematic of the contemporary world.



1. Introduction

Mohammad Reza Sarkeshik:
Ali Shariati.
external linkPortal

Iran Chamber Society:
Iranian Personalities:
Ali Shariati
external linkBiography

Ali Rahnema:
An Islamic Utopian. A Political Biography of Ali Shariati.
external linkIntroduction

Laila Juma:
Remembering the contribution of Shaheed Ali Shari'ati.
external linkIntroduction

A Shi'ite Encyclopedia.
external linkEncyclopedia

Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project.
external linkPortal
1 During the past few decades, Ali Shari'ati's 1 thought has been approached from different angles. Ervand Abrahamian has analysed Shari'ati's ideas in relation to the emergence of the new Islamic thought. He has treated Shari'ati extensively in his book Iran Between Two Revolutions. According to Abrahamian, Shari'ati has tried to reorient the younger generation of Iranians towards the teachings of Islam by applying western methodological tools borrowed from the social sciences. In this regard, Abrahamian attempts to clarify the relationship between Shari'ati's teachings and Marxism (Abrahamian 1982).
2 Shari'ati has also been studied in the context of general Islamic thought. In his book Islam and Modernity Fazlur Rahman argues that Shari'ati is one of the major thinkers in modern Islamic history. Shari'ati, however, ads Rahman, is a member of the movement that has undertaken the second attempt to modernize Islam; the first attempt having been made in the time of Al-Ghazali (11th century CE). Rahman's theory is that these two strands of modernization in Islam have been efforts to form new ways of educating the Muslim community. The significance of the second strand, according to Rahman, is challenging the established Islamic teachings that have made Islamic thought »stand on its head« (Rahman 1982, 109). Also, in a recent work, called An Islamic Utopian, Ali Rahnama refers to Shari'ati as a thinker »who sought a union of opposites« between Islam and Modernity (Rahnama 1998, ix).
3 The purpose of my considerations on Shari'ati's thought is to introduce one of its most novel aspects, namely his dialogue with modern secular thought from a religious standpoint. By considering the content of his published works, Shari'ati can be characterised as a modern critical Islamist. Although every one of the three elements in this characterization is a fruitful interpretative approach in its own right, yet each one is valid only in its association and dynamic interaction with the other two. Therefore, it is the totality of this triad that is meaningful and not each individual element separate from such totality. As an Islamic thinker, Shari'ati understood Islam as a source of individual self-discovery and social emancipation. He, on the other hand, relates to problems such as ›machinism‹ and human alienation, which are essentially modern in origin. Also, by critical notions such as »religion against religion«, es'tehmar (acculturation) and assimilation he has presented a critical view of both ›tradition‹ and ›modernity‹. As an alternative vision, however, he has presented constructive erfan as a synthesis of equality, liberty and mysticism.

2. Critique of Tradition and Modernity

4 As a non-European thinker, Shari'ati's understanding of ›tradition‹ and ›modernity‹ could not resemble that of a European intellectual. Having a totally different historical experience with both tradition and modernity, Shari'ati made an explicit distinction between their intellectual and the institutional dimensions and heritages. His views regarding these two were expressed in his notions of »religion against religion« and »emancipatory awareness«, when treating tradition; the notions of »machinism«, »modern humanism« and »assimilation«, when treating modernity; and notion of »civility« when treating modernization.

2.1 Tradition

5 Shari'ati has a dialectical conception of religion as a tradition. Intellectually, Shari'ati conceives of tradition as a way of relating to human problems and considers it to be authentic only when it has something for us and not because of what it is, or claims to be, in-itself. Shari'ati considers religious tradition as the historical manifestation of a world-view that not only is antithetical to oppression, but provides the basis for theoretical and practical negation of oppression. As such, religion is considered to be a worldview consisting of morality, awareness, responsibility and emancipatory tendency. The history of religion, however, is a dialectical process of self-negation. Such a interpretation is explicitly expressed by Shari'ati through his notion of »religion against religion«.

2.1.1 Religion, Reason and Morality

»Human awareness or ›hekma‹ is enlightening, creative, … source of existential responsibility and a value that gives man a new ›understanding‹ and a different sense of needs and ideals.«

Ali Shari'ati
(CW XXIV, 221-223)
6 Shari'ati defines religion in terms of ›awareness‹, ›morality‹, ›responsibility‹ and ›free will‹. He refers to two types of ›awareness‹, »human« and »social«. »Human self-awareness« regards a unique existential sense of being in the world:
7 It is what the Greeks called ›sophia‹ and Hindus call ›vidia‹ (vision). ›Sepantame'no‹ (sacred-white reason) in ancient Iran and ›hekma‹ (wisdom) in Islam have had the same connotation. Human awareness or ›hekma‹ is enlightening, creative, … source of existential responsibility and a value that gives man a new ›understanding‹ and a different sense of needs and ideals. (CW XXIV, 221-223) 2
8 The second type of awareness is social, that is »a sense of historical and social responsibility.« (CW XX, 165-202)
9 Morality is also of two kinds: socio-historical ethics and human morality (cf. CW XVI, 243). 3 The first type includes traditions and codes of behaviour that are products of social, historical and cultural systems of a nation or a historical stage. As such they are transitive and relative. Compared with social ethics, however,
10 ›Human morality‹ … is composed of values emanating from human nature … and human evolution throughout history has been directed towards them. Actually human genre has started with these values. For, it is only human being who creates values. (CW II, 96) 4
11 Consisting of awareness and moral consciousness, religion would lead to responsibility:
12 For a theist, responsibility flourishes from the deep world of existence and is rooted in objective reality that is free from personal subjectivity and collective tradition. (Ibid., 94)
13 In fact, responsibility is in itself a sign of human existential freedom:
14 Responsibility is born from freedom; and since man is free s/he is responsible. (CW XIV, 303)

2.1.2 Religion Against Religion

»I speak of a religion, which is not realised yet. Thus our reliance on religion is not a return to the past, but a continuation of history.«

Ali Shari'ati
(CW XXII, 18)
15 According to Shari'ati, the roots of modern antagonism towards religion go back, first to the Greek mythology of human struggle with the mythical gods, and then to the historical experience of Medieval Christianity. Neither of these, however, Shari'ati has argued, have anything to do with religion in itself. In its original form religion has been the foundation for the greatest historical examples of human emancipation that is an undeniable virtue of monotheistic religion in the Abrahamic tradition. 5
16 However, although Abrahamic message is essentially emancipatory, it has still been subject to the dialectics of historical development. Although tawhid (unity) emerged as a dialectical negation of tazad (contradiction) it has not, as a historical force, been free from the dynamics of history. The original message of Abrahamic tawhid, including the Islamic message, has experienced the process of disintegration into a historical religion. The message of tawhid, Shari'ati says, has practically been changed into the established shirk (stratification). Therefore, historical religion can not be the basis for judgement about the nature of religion in-itself. In fact, the emancipatory character of religion has always been negated in history by its institutionalization (cf. CW XII, 16).
17 With the notion of »religion against religion«, Shari'ati has tried to reveal a tragic irony of the historical simultaneity of the liberating and oppressing roles of religion. To him, the history of religion is encompassed in the dialectic of revolt and decay. Originally a means for human emancipation, religion has recurrently been used as the instrument of oppression. Therefore, Shari'ati says:
18 If I speak of religion, it is not the ›religion‹ which has prevailed in human history, but a religion whose prophets rose for the elimination of [the religion of] social polytheism. I speak of a religion, which is not realised yet. Thus our reliance on religion is not a return to the past, but a continuation of history. (CW XXII, 18)
19 Such a conception of religion is fundamentally linked with certain conception of man, history and society. Shari'ati has elaborated his views on religion through a dialectical conception of history and a critical social ontology.

2.1.3 Dialectics of Man and History

»When Abel the pastural was killed by Cain the landowner, the period of common ownership of the sources of production … [and] the spirit of brotherhood and true faith, came to an end and was replaced by … religious trickery and transgression against the rights of others …«

Ali Shari'ati
(1982b, 99)
20 Deriving his conception of man from his interpretation of the Qur'an, Shari'ati speaks of a dialectic between man and history consisting of three moments. The first moment is man-in-himself, a dialectical being without determined and fixed nature. The second moment is the material development of the human condition, which in essence resembles the inner-dialectical characteristic of man. Finally, the moment of socio-historical developments consequent of the first two. This conception is explained by reference to the symbolic language of the Qur'an. According to the Qur'an, Shari'ati says, man is a two-dimensional being, a being which:
21 is composed of mud (hama'e massnun) and divine spirit, a two-dimensional being, a creature with a dual nature, in contrast to all other beings which are one-dimensional … Every man is endowed with these two dimensions, and it is his will that enables him either to descend toward the pole of sedimentary mud … or to ascend toward the pole of exaltation … (1982b, 74)
22 Shari'ati further develops this anthropological dialectic into a foundation for a philosophy of history. History, then, is the battlefield in which the anthropological struggle takes an objective form. This struggle is not between two potential forces within man; it is rather the actual confrontation between two historical forces, each manifesting one or the other tendency within human species. To explain this struggle, Shari'ati refers to the myth of Cain and Abel:
23 Abel represents the age of a pasture-based economy, of the primitive socialism that preceded ownership; and Cain represents the system of agriculture and individual ownership. When Abel the pastural was killed by Cain the landowner, the period of common ownership of the sources of production … [and] the spirit of brotherhood and true faith, came to an end and was replaced by … religious trickery and transgression against the rights of others … (Ibid., 99)
24 Human history, therefore, is composed of two stages, the »two curves of history«, »the stage of collectivism« and »the stage of private ownership«. Unlike the first stage that was the era of social equality and spiritual oneness, the second stage, in which we now live, has thus far been essentially one of social domination and exploitation of »the many« by »the few«. The second stage, as the result of which a new social formation came into existence, began with the emergence of private ownership. As a turning point in history, private ownership has been the starting point for social domination. Although this new formation has had private ownership as its founding element, the forms that it has taken at different points in history have varied. Slavery, serfdom, feudalism, and capitalism are only some of its forms. Hence, there is no more than one foundation; and this is not bourgeoisie, feudal, capitalist, communist, serfdom or slavery. It is merely ownership that is of two kinds: private (monopoly) and social (public) (cf. 1980, 37). Unlike the stage of social ownership, when all material and spiritual resources were accessible to everyone, the emergence of private ownership polarized the human community. Private ownership created new ills by changing men's brotherhood and love to duplicity, deceit, hatred, exploitation, colonialization, and massacre (cf. ibid., 39). No wonder, then that the first serious reflections and expressions of discontent in history actually appeared at exactly the same juncture of the triumph of private ownership. It is in this relation that distinguished historical figures such as Buddha, Laotze, Confucius, and Zoroaster in the East, and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the West, were all contemporaries, because:
25 They appeared in reaction to the deteriorating conditions of their societies which were created mainly by the change from social ownership to private ownership … (Ibid., 32)

2.1.4 From Onto-Theology to Critical Social Ontology

A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought and Culture.
external linkJournal

M.M. Sharif (ed.):
A History of Muslim Philosophy.
external linkBook
26 According to Shari'ati a similar »curve« can be observed in the history of religion. The first historical form of the religious view was a primitive form of oneness (tawhid, unity). Such a religious perspective was by its nature in harmony with the objective characteristics of a social formation, namely, communalism. However, with the emergence of private ownership and with the development of a hierarchical-social structure, a polytheistic world-view began to emerge to justify the objective tazad (contradiction) within the social formation of private ownership. In other words, the historical sources of polytheism were concrete socio historical developments that were subsequently reflected on the theological level:
27 Social objectivity created religious subjectivity in order to let the latter manifest itself as the creator of the former. This is how the hierarchy which was imposed in the existential world created a polytheistic world-view to explain the intrinsic hierarchy in the social system. (CW XVI, 30)
28 The first historical challenge to polytheism was the Abrahamic monotheism (tawhid). Abrahamic monotheism was not a response to atheism, but a challenge against polytheism, which had emerged with the appearance of private ownership and the ascendancy of the historical Cain. Polytheism, then, is the religion of social stratification. Monotheism, therefore, is not the beginning of religion, but its reorientation. The struggle between monotheism and polytheism is not a theological dispute but a challenge to polytheistic social formation (class domination, racism, etc.) Unlike monotheism (tawhid), which is rooted in ittehad (solidarity, oneness), polytheism was rooted in domination of some by others.
29 As a monotheistic world view, tawhid rejects the division of the world into dichotomous categories like ›natural‹ and ›supernatural‹, ›matter‹ and ›idea‹, ›body‹ and ›spirit‹, or ›this world‹ and ›the other‹. tawhid is the negation of all dichotomies, in both the celestial and the social plane. Celestially, it is a living totality in process toward unity; socially, it is the foundation for unity and harmony in human relations. tawhid, then, is the negation of all forms of antagonisms. Since domination is anti-unity and tawhid is anti-domination, the social expression of tawhid is a dialectic of unity.
30 Tawhid, in its social and historical expression, is the struggle for human emancipation from the historic dialectic of deception, a deception rooted in the projection of historical-social stratification on ontology. For, in its original form, the human community was a harmonious partnership, an expression of celestial harmony. At this stage, social reality reflected the ontological foundations of the existential world.
31 Therefore, there has always been a struggle in history between the oppressed family of Abel, the Mustazafin (the oppressed), and the oppressive clan of Cain, the Mustakberin (the oppressors), historically symbolized in the trinity of wealth, power, and hypocrisy. It has been out of this contradiction (tazad) that the Abrahamic tawhid (unity) has emerged as the negation of the oppressive domination of Cain.

2.2 Modernity

32 Instead of dismissing modern consciousness from the standpoint of ›truth‹, Shari'ati relates to it sympathetically. Existentialism, Scientism, Socialism, Marxism, and other Western perspectives are not ›enemies‹ to his mind and spirit and he tries to understand them and learn from them. He, in fact, deeply shared with them the need to challenge the established norms, truths, myths, and mentalities. Yet he challenged modern perspectives for not being open to the possibility of theism (cf. CW XXV, 23). In challenging modernity for its shortcomings, he analyses some of its intellectual and objective dimensions.

2.2.1 On Humanism

Ali Shari'ati:
The Free Man and Freedom of the Man.
external linkArticle

Reflections of Humanity.
external linkArticle

Where Shall we Begin?
external linkArticle
33 Shari'ati highlights the main premises of modern humanism by identifying their intellectual foundations in Greek mythology. He believes that Greek mythology emanated from a certain historical experience of man in confrontation with non-human forces. Since these forces had been given divine attributes, human bondage was perceived as the work of anti-human gods:
34 Of course, such a bond of enmity between men and gods was altogether natural and logical to the Greek myths; and from a certain point of view even proper and progressive. Since gods in these myths constitute archetypes and expressions of natural forces … The war between gods and men was in reality the latter's war against dominance of the physical forces that rule over human life, his will, and his fate … (1982a, 18)
35 This mythological treatment of the human predicament, Shari'ati says, led to an anthropocentric view of the universe, a view in which man himself has become the basis for moral and aesthetic judgements. Greek humanism,
36 through its denial of gods, disbelief in their rule, and severance of the bond between man and heaven, struggled to arrive at an anthropocentric universe, to make man the touchstone of truth and falsity, to take the human form as the criterion of beauty, and to assign importance to the components of life that enhance human power and pleasure. (Ibid., 19)
37 Another historical reason which contributed to the formulation of this world view was Catholicism in the Middle Ages which:
38 set Christianity (regarded as religion per se) at odds with humanity: it maintained the same opposition between heaven and earth that had obtained in ancient Greece and Rome; and, with its Greek-style exegeses of original sin and man's expulsion from paradise, it represented man as helplessly condemned because of divine displeasure to an inferior world, and declared him to be an abject, reprehensible, and weak sinner. (Ibid., 26)
39 Therefore, with the philosophical standpoint of the Church and the Greek mythological heritage in mind, the new intellectual movements in early modern Europe took the road of secular humanism. By doing so, modern humanists committed a grave mistake. Secular humanism has developed its view in opposition to the ›historical‹ rather than the original, ›human‹ religion. Modern humanists, Shari'ati says, have equated »the mythical world of ancient Greece« with the original world of the Abrahamic heritage. Whereas in contradistinction with Greek mythology, in which the relation between man and gods required human bondage and suffering, in the Abrahamic tawhid the relation between humanity and the sublime is that of a dynamic process of love and emancipation.

2.2.2 Machinism

»The bourgeoisie sums up all of existence in one word: Consumption, the more the better. Life's purpose lies in consumption and the satisfaction of material and economic needs.«

Ali Shari'ati
(1980, 39-40)
40 In its latest stage of development, private ownership has led to machinism. As a new social order, machinism began to emerge in the 19th century. By then handicrafts were being left behind and the emerging machine age was creating new anxieties and myriads of new problems. The machine, Shari'ati argues, is not a marketable commodity but the foundation for the modern social formation of machinism:
41 Machinism is a sociological phenomenon. It is a particular social order, not a marketable, consumable, or technical product or commodity. (1980, 35) 6
42 This new social order, Shari'ati further argues, has extended itself within various spheres of Western life and also beyond the geographical borders of the West. Machinism has come to dominate all spheres of modern life. In a sense machinism is the sophisticated version of the social formation that was created by the emergence of private ownership. Just as a new world vision was formulated with the emergence of private ownership, with the machine too a new conception of the world began to develop. Illuminating this point, Shari'ati looks into the historical development of machinism:
43 After the French Revolution the bourgeoisie pushed aside the medieval aristocracy and began to rule as it got hold of science. … The bourgeoisie sums up all of existence in one word: Consumption, the more the better. Life's purpose lies in consumption and the satisfaction of material and economic needs. … Since the bourgeoisie provides society's material needs, naturally the transformation of man from an ethical being into a consuming creature is to his class advantage. (Ibid., 39-40)

2.2.3 Modernization and Civilization

»Modernization is a apocryphal form of progress. In fact such modernization is symptomatic of a fundamentally destructive tendency within the contemporary non-Western world.«

Ali Shari'ati
(1979, 11)
44 In Shari'ati's view, during the past hundred and fifty years non-Western societies have suffered from various internal and external forces of domination and exploitation. Imperialism (is' temar), tyranny (is' tebdad), economic exploitation (is' tesmar), and cultural colonization (is' tehmar) have together inflicted deep wounds on the peoples of the Third World and justified them by the alleged necessity for ›modernization‹. Third World modernization, therefore, is simply a historical extension of the process that began with the emergence of private ownership and was then intensified by machinism. Having already gained control over a vast part of the world by colonial domination, Europe now had more reasons to sustain its economic grip over these areas. The emergence of manufactured goods in large quantities created new needs, »the need for productions and the production of needs«, with global impacts:
45 Since the machine compulsively produces excess goods, it must step over all national boundaries and push goods into the world market … When in the eighteenth century the capitalists gained control of machinery, as well as technology and science, man's destiny was determined. Every single human being on the face of the earth was to be coerced into becoming a consumer for the produced merchandise. European goods had to go to Africa and Asia. Asians and Africans had to consume the surplus European products. (1979, 11)
46 Accordingly, Shari'ati makes a distinction between ›civilization‹ and ›modernization‹. In his view, unlike civilization that involves a long process of development within a community, contemporary Third World:
47 modernization is a apocryphal form of progress. In fact such modernization is symptomatic of a fundamentally destructive tendency within the contemporary non-Western world. (Ibid.)
48 Shari'ati, therefore, neither accepts the established interpretation of tradition nor adapts to the modern mind, but rather, calls for an encounter between the two. Hence, he can not be conceptually dichotomised as ›modernist‹ or as ›traditionalist‹.

3. Beyond Reified Tradition and Dominant Modernity

49 Shari'ati has suggested that main historical strands of human thought can be categorised as one or other of the three basic currents of mysticism, equality, liberty (erfan, barabari, azadi). Each of these currents, Shari'ati has argued, has emerged in response to human problems and then has developed historically in ways that have revealed the strengths and the weaknesses of each.

3.1 Mysticism

Jalal al Haqq:
Epistemology of Prophethood in Islam.
In: Al-Tawhid 4.1/2.
external linkArticle

Muhammad Legenhausen:
The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age.
In: Al-Tawhid 14.1.
external linkArticle
50 Mysticism, Shari'ati believes, has always existed in both the East and the West. The reason for identifying mysticism with the East, he argues, is that advanced civilizations, and certainly the social order of domination, first arose in the East, »the birthplace of thought, culture, and the great religions«. Therefore, mysticism must also, as a matter of course, have had its beginning there (cf. CW II, 62). Mysticism, Shari'ati says, arises:
51 from the essential nature of man. The most general meaning of the word ›mysticism‹ is the inner sense of apprehension people have while they are here in the world of nature. (Ibid., 50)
52 Although it can provide man with spiritual sensitivity and sublime psychological and spiritual values, nevertheless, mysticism, blinds man to the disastrous conditions around him:
53 Outside the wall of [the mystic's] place of retreat, oppression, disaster, poverty, shameful acts, ignorance, corruption, and decadence are dishonoring all the spiritual values of man. [Of these, the mystic] never becomes aware. (Ibid., 62)
54 Shari'ati has further argued that aside from the essential weaknesses in mysticism itself, its historical transformation into established religions has in fact betrayed even the good that it contains. ›Eastern mysticism‹, Shari'ati argues,
55 was later to enter religion, which gradually assumed the form of an ecclesiastical establishment and gave rise to a new class. As a part of the ruling class, it formed social ties with the other elements of that class. The unfortunate consequence was that religion and mysticism were transformed into a superstitious justification for the exploitation of the people by the ruling class, and also into an enemy of human growth, the growth of man's primordial nature. Mysticism became a shackle on the foot of the spiritual and material evolution of mankind. (Ibid., 52)
56 [Such a religion] actually separates man from his own humanity. It makes him into an importunate beggar, a slave of unseen forces beyond his power; it deposes him and alienates him from his own will. It is this established religion that today we are familiar with. (Ibid., 60)

3.2 Equality

57 In the nineteenth century the advent of the machine intensified class polarization, oppression and the gap between rich and poor. And, as religion proved to be on the side of the oppressors in this schism, socialism emerged as the human quest for equality and justice. Socialists felt that:
58 if a socialist system were realized in society, humanity would be freed from the bonds of materialism, and class differences and conflicting interests would cease to exist. They felt that without these contradictions, there would be no war, and without war and exploitation, all of the powers of humanity would be united and placed at the service of human development and spiritual growth … (Ibid., 117)
59 However, by reducing man to a merely social entity, socialism was not able to respond to all human needs. There are needs which are deeply troubling man; needs to which socialism and its materialistic view of the world can not respond:
60 We see that Socialism removes from man all limbs and branches except one, but it so encourages that one to spread out that it outgrows root and trunk. Thus, it makes man one-dimensional, however lofty and sublime that one dimension may be. (Ibid.)
61 Historically speaking also, Shari'ati contends, socialism as an ideological movement has betrayed the very goals that it had originally set itself to achieve:
62 We have seen how that very socialist system that was to free people, assumed the forms, first, of worshipping personality and party, and then the worship of the state. (Ibid., 107)

3.3 Freedom

Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i:
Islam and the Modern Age.
In: Al-Tawhid 1.2.
external linkArticle

Sayyid Muhammad
Rida Hijaz:
The Concept of Love in the Shi'i Creed.
In: Al-Tawhid 11.1/2.
external linkArticle
63 Existentialism has sought human freedom by rejecting all gods, earthly and heavenly alike. The essence of existentialism is to reject all bases for human choice outside man's own self. Freedom of choice is the founding principle of existentialism. Religion, argues an atheist existentialist, looks to God for what it seeks, whereas socialism gives legitimacy to the state (and the collectivism) for determining right and wrong, hence, both negate the authenticity and freedom of man. Existentialism, on the other hand, tells man that:
64 choice and freedom are yours unconditionally. All values exist when this freedom exists. However, should this freedom be taken away from you, these values would cease to be, you would become a slave to other powers: God or the state. (Ibid., 111)
65 With its rejection of both socialism and religion, therefore, existentialism gives man absolute freedom in choosing his own destiny. But, Shari'ati adds, if both the collective sense of choice and the transcendental basis of existence are rejected, then what is to stop a hedonistic form of self-fulfilment. Such a choice produces precisely those social consequences which existentialism was intended to challenge and provide an answer for. In order to reach its goals this philosophy would need an ethical ground which would justify altruistic action. Indeed, contemporary existentialist schools of thought are by their nature unable to provide such an axiology:
66 Existentialism, however much it may turn on the primacy of man and human freedom, … leaves man suspended in midair … Existentialism lacks a basis on which to answer my questions. Now I am bent on a course of action where I may either sacrifice myself to the people or sacrifice the people to myself … (Ibid.)

3.4 A Synthesis

67 According to Shari'ati, the shortcomings of the three currents of mysticism, equality and freedom are both essential and accidental. Essentially each one has certain characteristics that frustrate its attempt to deliver to humanity what it has always sought. Accidentally, however, it has been due to certain developments that the ability of these currents to contribute to human happiness has been mollified. Whereas all these currents have been an expression of dissatisfaction with realities, and have been generated in response to the problems caused by the two great moments of historical transformation, they all have (in one form or another) been turned into a preserving force for the status quo.
68 As such then, Shari'ati concludes, none of these three currents by itself can provide a tenable solution to human problems. The only way that any one of them can play the role that they each propose, he continues, is by a totality consisting simultaneously of all three of them. Only when an existential self-awareness is coupled with a sense of social consciousness can it result in an authentic self-realization. This essential authenticity can lead to practical emancipation when there is an ethical basis for action. Whereas the first two conditions are fulfilled by the two modern schools of existentialism and socialism, the last one can only be satisfied by a mystical sense of self-recognition:
69 Therefore, the most perfect person or school for the purpose of liberating man would be the person or the school that embraces these three dimensions … When these three dimensions each separately takes the form of a school, their negative aspects are actualised, whereas if these three dimensions were united, the negative aspects could no longer exist. (Ibid., 37)

3.5 Constructive Erfan

Martyr Murtada Mutahhari:
Introduction to 'Irfan.
In: Al-Tawhid 4.1.
external linkArticle

Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi:
Islamic Gnosis ('Irfan) and Wisdom (Hikmat).
In: Al-Tawhid 14.3.
external linkArticle

Sayyid Wahid Akhtar:
The Islamic Concept of Knowledge.
In: Al-Tawhid 12.3.
external linkArticle
70 In search of existential self-realization and social harmony, Shari'ati has tried to find a way of possible unity between the liberating principles of authentic religion with the modern ideals of equality and freedom. Such effort can perhaps been categorized under the title of constructive erfan. Erfan is an existential self-awareness, a way of relating to tawhid, and of experiencing tawhid at a personal level.
71 [Erfan] in the most general sense, is that inner sense of apprehension people have while in the world of nature. Man qua man experiences needs that nature can no longer satisfy … That is what produces a lack, a sense of alienation and exile in us while we are in this world … Erfan is a manifestation of the primordial nature of man and it exists as a means of journeying to the ›unseen‹. It is the mystical sense that endows man, with excellence and nobility; the more highly developed a person is, the stronger this need, this thirst, becomes. (1982a, 26)
72 Erfan, then, is an existential force which enables man to inwardly transcend whatever forces are surrounding him. In fact, contrary to the materialists belief:
73 that man's propensity for the unseen degrades him – we might say that man's propensity for what actually exists degrades him. By pursuing values that do not exist in nature, he is lifted above nature and the spiritual and essential development of the species is secured. Erfan is thus a lantern shining within humanity. (CW II, 64)
74 Shari'ati then characterizes the erfanic sense of relation to the Divine and also to the social other as love:
75 Love is a power that has an unknowable source and can inflame and melt all of my existence; it even impels me to self-denial. Love grants me values higher and more sublime than expedience; and no physical, material, or biochemical account can comprehend it. If love were taken away from man, he would become an isolated, stagnant being, useful only to the systems of production. (1982a, 112)
76 Erfan, therefore, is that current which manifests the human pursuit of happiness through a purely spiritual and ontologically transcendental self-awareness in the world. As such erfan is an emancipatory theistic humanism. This is a philosophy of existence in which individual self-awareness and the social sense of practical responsibility for human liberation are harmoniously embodied. Emanating from the world view of tawhid, erfanic humanism puts God, man, and nature in a meaningful and dynamic harmony with each other. Constructive erfan is a transcendental insight that retains the concreteness of the individual self as an essential element. This insight involves an inherently dialectical interaction between the human self and the Divine Other. In this interaction there is a dialectical process of simultaneous reduction/elevation. The Divine Other is related to from the human standpoint (reduction); meanwhile the individual human being is enabled to transcend the confining constraints of his life-situation (elevation). The most immediate and essentially fruitful outcome of such a process is the formation of a critical attitude that can focus on the surrounding problems of life while having the transcendental ability to subject those problems to profound questioning and critique. By pursuing ethical unity with the Divine Other (tawhid), the individual comes to confront domination in all its various forms. As such, this perspective is seriously oriented towards fundamental social change; hence it is constructive.

4. Religion, Humanism and Emancipation

Mehrzad Boroujerdi:
Iranian Islam and the Faustian Bargain of Western Modernity.
In: Journal of Peace Research 34.1 (1997).
external linkArticle

Can Islam be Secularized?
In: M.R. Ghanoonparvar / Faridoun Farrokh (eds.):
In Transition: Essays on Culture and Identity in the Middle Eastern Society.
Laredo: Texas A&M International University, 1994.
external linkArticle

Lamin Sanneh:
Between East and West: Confrontation and Encounter.
In: The Christian Century (13 November l99l).
external linkArticle
77 According to the vision presented by Shari'ati, religion, as ethical awareness, allows man to move from the »instinctive heaven« to the »promised paradise«, to ascend (me'raj) from an earthly to a divine being. Such an ascent is in fact an existential responsibility, a Divine Trust (lmana) imposed on man. Such characteristic is the core of what Shari'ati calls Islamic Humanism. As such:
78 Islam bases its divine humanism on tawhid; on the scientific level it defines man as of the earth while on the level of existential analysis it raises him from dust toward God and absolute transcendental values. (Ibid., 85)
79 Based upon such a conception of human existence, and deriving his ideas from the notion of the »forbidden fruit of awareness«, Shari'ati introduces his view of Islamic humanism. According to him, human authenticity is rooted in »the pain of existence«, a pain that is the outcome of human awareness:
80 To the degree that one attains this fruit, one finds oneself more and more contained by the earthly life. It is out of this pain and the need for that which is ›absent‹ that man comes to rebel against the ›will of God‹, the will that is manifested, through the ›four prisons of man‹ in the natural, historical, social, and physiological laws. (CW XXXII, 16)
81 Human revolt against these »prisons« would ultimately lead man to unity with God. As man frees himself more and more from these »prisons«, the world declines more and more for him. Transcending these »prisons« creates higher and more sublime needs, needs which in man's loneliness would be met only in his return (tawba) to God, a ›return‹ which is the realization of man's becoming. The Quranic humanism, hence:
82 resembles a reciprocal relationship between God and man. A relationship which accounts values as the emanation of divine attributes in the human sphere and defines man's self perfection as the self aware return to God. We see that in the philosophy of Islam … self-knowledge and knowledge of God come to be synonymous, where the former functions as a preliminary to the latter; as the Iranian Aref [Bayazid Bastami] puts it in a profound remark: For years I sought God and found myself; now that I seek myself, I find God. So, quite to the contrary [of the materialist philosophy of Feuerbach], it is not humanity that has made God, reposed its proper values in Him, and worships Him; it is rather God Who has made humanity, reposed His proper values in it, and praises it. (Ibid., 88)
83 Such a perspective, Shari'ati then notes, stands in opposition to both materialist and providentialist determinism. While it avoids materialist determinism by conceiving of free will as an essential facet of human existence, it simultaneously remains free from providencialism by attributing to man the character of rebellion. In explaining these dimensions of Islamic humanism, Shari'ati argues that in Islam:
84 The society possesses ordering principles, and the continuous evolutionary movement of human history is based upon scientific laws. But because it considers the human will to be a manifestation of the universal will of being (and not an unwitting product of the exigencies of production or of society), Islam never hurls into the terrible pit of materialistic determinism. Likewise, by proclaiming the principle of ›assignation‹ or ›descent‹ [huboot], it frees mankind from the bond of divine determinism in which the Eastern religions are caught. … In this way, by presenting man as an aware being possessed of a will and freed from the captivity of heaven and earth alike, [Islam] arrives at true humanism. (Ibid., 85 and 90)
85 Therefore, in Islam, Shari'ati adds, man carries the divine responsibility of making his own self and the world as an ontological axio-praxis. (Ibid., 88-89)

5. Conclusion

86 As a religious thinker, Shari'ati has regarded abstract acceptance or rejection of the divinity as essentially alike. It is, he believed, the social and historical significance of these two that distinguish them from each other. According to Shari'ati, religious concepts should be studied in relation to concrete human problems, and instead of reducing present problematic to the conditions of the revelation, those revelations should be extended to one's own time. In his view, the historical contexts of revelations would lose their relevance unless they share their significance with us. Otherwise, to define problems in terms of the historical past would only make revelation irrelevant (cf. CW VI, 205).
87 As an intellectual living in modern situation, learning about modern notions of reason, freedom, existence, while experiencing modern forms of despotism, colonialism and assimilation, Shari'ati came to have particular understanding of ›tradition‹, ›modernity‹ and ›emancipation‹. Any form of speculation, be it theological, philosophical, or scientific, he believed, which does not challenge domination and oppression is a mere scapegoat for ignorance. Accordingly, with an intra-paradigmatic critique of tradition and a paradigmatic critique of modernity, he opened a way for exchange between the two. He, therefore, can be considered to be a forerunner for the dialogue between religious and secular thought.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/4/fma-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.



Ali Shari'ati was born in 1933 and was raised in a highly enlightened atmosphere. His parents and the political milieu in which he grew up contributed substantively to his unconventional education. His father was known for his open criticism of the government and in 1953 was along with him imprisoned for political activities against the Shah's government. In 1959, after finishing his studies on Near Eastern Languages, Shari'ati received a scholarship and went abroad. At Sorbonne he studied philology and sociology and was politically active during his five-year stay in France. During the Algerian war, he was imprisoned in Paris for his collaboration with the Algerian revolutionaries. Upon his return to Iran in 1963, he encountered problems with the government for his past political activities. He nevertheless continued his activities by teaching and co-operating with the underground revolutionary movements.
Having strong convictions as to the value of direct communication with his audience, and having a personal sense about his »time-limit«, Shari'ati presented his ideas almost entirely through lectures to university students both in classroom and in mostly student sponsored forums. These lectures, along with two books and a few hand-written pieces are now compiled in a collection of 35 volumes.
In 1976 Shari'ati was imprisoned for eighteen months and was brutally tortured. After an international campaign he was released, but in a few months died mysteriously in exile. go back
All Collected Works (=CW) are in Farsi (Persian) and the references are translation into English. go back
Shari'ati has not made any reference in this regard to Hegel's notions of Sittlichkeit and Moralität. go back
Such a conception of morality seems to be reminiscent of Kohlberg's theory of moral development. go back
It is important to note that Shari'ati, according to the Qur'anic view, conceives of the Abrahamic religion as one religion. Islam is the name for this religion and not one among several. go back
In his views regarding »machinism«, Shari'ati is profoundly affected by Herbert Marcuse. go back


Abbas Manoochehri (*1956 in Isfahan, Iran) is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Tarbiat Modarres University, Tehran, and Chairperson of the Department of the Political Science in the International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations (ICDC) in Tehran. After graduating in Management in 1978 from Shiraz University (Iran), he went to the U.S. to study at the University of Toledo, Ohio, where he obtained a Master in Political Science (1980). In 1988, he obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Missouri, Columbia. His main areas of interest are Comparative Political Thought, Philosophy of Social Science, and Historical Sociology of Iran.
Prof. Dr. Abbas Manoochehri
International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations
Political Science Department
Farmaniye Ave. Ziba Station
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