This collection of eight lectures and articles is offered as a representative glimpse of the work of Iranian intellectual Ali Shari’ati. A Western-educated Islamist, Shari’ati was enthusiastic about the prospects of revolutionary Iran, but never endeared himself to the resulting theocratic establishment. Throughout this volume the reader can observe Shari’ati’s efforts to regenerate Western academic disciplines on the basis of a profoundly Muslim perspective. These pieces are essentially philosophical discourse attempting to lay a groundwork for sociology, anthropology, and historiography framed by distinctively Islamic premises.
Shari’ati construes his anthropology on the basis of a “bi-dimensionality” that struck me as having an unwonted affinity to the ancient mysteries. He emphasizes the coordination of opposed principles in the human constitution: “God and Satan, or spirit and clay” (89, c.f. 74, 93), like the Dionysian and Titanic components of the Orphic man. He also uses Eve as a symbol of love–rather than life in accordance with her name–and Satan as a figure of the intellect (95, 124). This latter choice seemed odd and muddled to me, considering that Shari’ati makes Satan the inherently anti-divine impulse in humanity, and yet the project represented in these writings is one of putting the intellect in service of a divine mandate.
His historical theory, which comprehends a political philosophy, is a sort of dialectical materialism distilled through the narrative of Cain and Abel, in which Cain represents the spirit of exploitation and alienation that arose at the beginning of agriculture and has mutated and developed ever since, while Abel is both the perspective of the Edenic communism of primitive hunters and herders, and the striving for a future condition in which the Umma reaches its destination as a classless society.
The sociology that he outlines transposes the Muslim distinction of tawhid and shirk from a religious criterion to a social one, valorizing the unity of society. Likewise, he elevates the hejirah from a historical episode to an interpretive principle, viewing migration and displacement as the critical factor in all social evolution. In his effort to identify the distinctive characteristics of Islam, he engages in some comparative theology, advancing a claim that the Quran alone among prophetic writings addresses itself to the entirety of the people rather than an elite. Shari’ati stresses the allegiance of Iran to the school of Ali, but laments the national ignorance of positive history regarding Shiite origins and early Iranian Islam, and he derides the Shia theory of the imamate (94). He is opposed to Sufism (68, 85), and his glosses of non-Muslim religions (mostly on page 79) are unimpressive.
With a few exceptions, these selections show Shari’ati engaged in a highly coherent and impressive project of intellectual reframing. It is a short book, but a non-Muslim reader attempting to do justice to its contents will probably find it slow going.