Ali Shariati (Ali Masharati) was born in 1933 in Kahak (a village in Mazinan), a suburb of Sabzevar, in northeastern Iran. His father's family were clerics. His father, Mohammad-Taqi, was a teacher and Islamic scholar. In 1947, he opened the Centre for the Propagation of Islamic Truths in Mashhad, in Khorasan Province. It was a social Islamic forum which became embroiled in the oil nationalisation movement of the 1950s. Shariati's mother was from a small land-owning family. His mother was from Sabzevar, a little town near Mashhad.
In his years at the Teacher's Training College in Mashhad, Shariati came into contact with young people who were from less privileged economic classes of society, and for the first time saw the poverty and hardship that existed in Iran during that period. At the same time, he was exposed to many aspects of Western philosophical and political thought. He attempted to explain and offer solutions for the problems faced by Muslim societies through traditional Islamic principles interwoven with, and understood from, the point of view of modern sociology and philosophy. His articles from this period for the Mashhad daily newspaper, Khorasan, display his developing eclecticism and acquaintance with the ideas of modernist thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal of Pakistan, among Muslims, and Sigmund Freud and Alexis Carrel.
In 1952, he became a high-school teacher and founded the Islamic Students' Association, which led to his arrest following a demonstration. In 1953, the year of Mossadeq's overthrow, he became a member of the National Front. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Mashhad in 1955. In 1957, he was arrested again by the Iranian police, along with sixteen other members of the National Resistance Movement.
Shariati then managed to get a scholarship for France, where he continued his graduate studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. He left Paris after earning a PhD in sociology in 1964 from the Sorbonne. During this period in Paris, Shariati started collaborating with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1959. The following year, he began to read Frantz Fanon and translated an anthology of his work into Persian. Shariati introduced Fanon's thought into Iranian revolutionary émigrée circles. He was arrested in Paris on 17 January 1961 during a demonstration in honour of Patrice Lumumba.
The same year he joined Ebrahim Yazdi, Mostafa Chamran and Sadegh Qotbzadeh in founding the Freedom Movement of Iran abroad. In 1962, he continued studying sociology and history of religions, and followed the courses of Islamic scholar Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque and the sociologist Georges Gurvitch. He also came to know the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that same year, and published Jalal Al-e Ahmad's book Gharbzadegi (or Occidentosis) in Iran.
Shariati then returned to Iran in 1964 where he was arrested and imprisoned for engaging in subversive political activities while in France. He was released after a few weeks, at which point he began teaching at the University of Mashhad.
Shariati then went to Tehran where he began lecturing at the Hosseiniye Ershad Institute. These lectures were hugely popular among his students and were spread by word of mouth throughout all economic sectors of society, including the middle and upper classes, where interest in his teachings began to grow immensely.
His continued success again aroused the interest of the government, which arrested him as well as many of his students. Widespread pressure from the people, and an international outcry, eventually led to his release on 20 March 1975, after eighteen months in solitary confinement.
Shariati was allowed to leave for England. He died three weeks later in a Southampton hospital under "mysterious circumstances" although in Ali Rahnema's biography of Shariati, he is said to have died of a fatal heart attack. He is buried next to Sayyidah Zaynab, the granddaughter of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and the daughter of Ali, in Damascus, Syria, where Iranian pilgrims often visit.
Shariati sought to revive the revolutionary currents of Shiism. His interpretation of Shiism encouraged revolution in the world, and promised salvation after death. Shariati referred to his brand of Shiism as "red Shiism" which he contrasted with non-revolutionary "black Shiism" or Safavid Shiism. His ideas have been compared to the Catholic Liberation Theology movement founded in South America by Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez and Brazilian Leonardo Boff.
Shariati was a prominent Islamist philosopher who argued that a good society would conform to Islamic values. He suggested that the role of government was to guide society in the best possible manner rather than manage it in the best possible way. He believed that the most learned members of the Ulema (clergy) should play a leadership role in guiding society because they best understand how to administer an Islamic value system based on the teachings of the Prophets of God and the 12 Shia Twelver Imams. He argued that the role of the clergy was to guide society in accordance with Islamic values to advance human beings towards reaching their highest potential—not to provide/serve the hedonistic desires of individuals as in the West.
Shariati's works were highly influenced by the Third Worldism that he encountered as a student in Paris—ideas that class war and revolution would bring about a just and classless society—from one side, and the epistemic decolonisation thinking of his time from the other side. He is said to have adopted the idea of Gharbzadegi from Jalal Al-e Ahmad and given it "its most vibrant and influential second life".
He sought to translate these ideas into cultural symbols of Shiism that Iranians could relate to. Shariati believed Shia should not merely await the return of the 12th Imam, but should actively work to hasten his return by fighting for social justice, "even to the point of embracing martyrdom," saying "everyday is Ashoura, every place is Karbala".
When he was writing the three letters to Fanon, unlike him, Shariati believed that it is not true that we have to put away religion to fight imperialism. He felt that people could fight imperialism solely by recovering their culture identity. In some countries such an identity was intertwined with fundamental religious beliefs. Shariati refers to the maxim of returning to ourselves.
Shariati and socialism
It seems that his eagerness to socialism begun with the translation of the book Abu Zarr: The God-Worshipping Socialist by an Egyptian thinker namely Abdul Hamid Jowdat-al-Sahar. According to this book, Abu Zarr was the very first socialist. Then, Shiarti's father declared that his son believed that the principles of Abu Zarr are fundamental. Even some thinkers described Shariati as the Abu Zarr of Modern Time in Iran. Of all his thoughts, there is his insistence on the necessity of revolutionary action. Shariati believed that Marxism could not provide the Third World with the ideological means for its own liberation. One of his premises was that Islam by nature is a revolutionary ideology. Therefore, Islam could relate to the modern world as an ideology. According to Shariati, the historical and original origin of human problems was the emergence of private ownership. He believed that in the modern era, the appearance of the machine was the second most fundamental change in the human condition. In fact, private ownership and the emergence of the machine, if considered one of two curves of history, belong to the second period of history. The first period is collective ownership. However, Shariati gave a critique about the historical development of religion and the modern philosophical and ideological movements and their relationship to both private ownership and the emergence of the machine.
Shariati developed the idea of the social, cultural and historical contingencies of religious knowledge in sociology. He believed in the earthly religion and in the social context in which the meaning of society is construed. He also emphasized that he understood religion historically because he was a sociologist. He said he was concerned with the historical and social Tawhid not with the truth of the exalted book of Quran or Muhammad or Ali.
Completely contrary to Hegel and his philosophy of history, Shariati believed that it is not true that the civilized human is less consciousness than now peoples but rather there is a difference between them. The civilized man could talk on himself more that universe and the new people are so concerned with reality and universe that there is no place for himself and mysticism and religion. Of course he knows the movement of soul in Hegel’s philosophy and history in one sense as right.
In the first place Shariati criticised western liberal democracy. He pointed out that there is a direct relationship between democracy, liberalism and the plundering of nations. He believed that liberal democracy is the enemy of humankind. He also referred to the fact that the ruling economic system of liberal democracy is unjust and contrary to the rights of people. He maintained that in such a society, someone who is weak is already subjected to defeat and annihilation. There are basic foundations in Shariati’s thoughts and his criticism of liberal democracy. The first foundation is related to the contrast between the religious worldview and the non-religious one. He explained history, society and humanity according to a monistic worldview. He explained liberalism as something with inequality and discrimination. Freedom and equality based on spirituality were the very basis of pre-modern societies which were devastated in one period of history.
Shariati believed that the government of Imam Ali could be considered the best form of democracy. On this occasion, he tried to interpret the behavior of Imam Ali in contrast with his enemy. He called this democracy Commitment democracy. It appears that Shariati did not accept the western definition of democracy although he had no problem with democracy. According to him, a religious government is the democratic right of Muslim citizens. He believed that one of the basic problems of western democracy is demagogy. Nowadays the votes of voters direct to special channels with the help of advertising instruments. In such a condition only one who is critically conscious can dispose of distractions and surface-level arguments, and vote effectively for themselves and their communities. He maintains that the western democracy based on gold, cruelty and tricking (Zar, Zour va Tazvir) is an anti-revolutionary regime which is different with ideological Guidance.
For explaining better the commitment democracy, he at first divides between two concepts. One of them is Syasat and the other is politic. Syasat is a philosophy by government that want to have the responsibility of changing and becoming the society not its being and existence. In fact Syasat is a progressive and dynamic thing. The aim of government in the philosophy of Syasat is to change social foundations, institutions and even all the norms of society namely culture, morality and desires etc. in simple word, Syasat want to make exist the people. In contrary, there is no making in politic. In other word politic is follow of having people not making them. Of course Shariati prefers Syasat on politic because the former is more progressive. He considers with making human(Ensan Sazi). In fact his utopia is constructed with three concepts of Gnosis, equality and freedom. Commitment democracy appeared out of his lecture in Hoseyniyeh Ershad; a famous lecture with the name of Ummah and Imamate. According to him, Imam is one who want to guide humans not only in political, social and economic dimensions but also in all existential dimensions. He believes that Imam is alive everywhere and every time. In one hand Imamate is not a metaphysical belief but a revolutionary guide philosophy. He added that Imam has to guide people not according to his desire like dictator but to Islamic ideology and authentic values.
Some scholars known him among the current of religious neo thinkers. According to this stand point, Shariati accepted the rationality of west. Shariati known the theoretical foundation of west as civilization and called its appearances as Tajadod. He emphasized on accepting of civilization and criticized tajadod. He also believed that the civilization has to be considered as something deep. He also known very well of the importance of empirical science and knowledge. The empirical methodology appreciated by him. He also criticized traditionalism for regardless of scientific methodology. In other hand, he criticized Modernists because of confusing the western ideological theories with valid scientific epistemology. According to him, the knowledge of reason is self-evident. Therefore, he suggested to thought of reason as the axiom for understanding the other sources namely holy book or Quran, tradition, syrah and consensus. Also he denied consensus as a source for understang religion. He insisted on the concepts of knowledge and Time along with holy book and tradition. Consequently, he had emphasized on the important role of methodology and changing of viewpoint. Also Shariati, who was the fan of Georges Gurvitch in analysis of sociology, believes that there is no special pattern for analysis of social affairs and historical events. He thought that there is no unity of religion and society, but rather there are many religions and societies. Also shariati referred to active role of scholar of human science during investigation and scientific research. He believes that There is a relation between values of scholar and affecting of those values on the conclusions of investigation. He believes that we haven’t to extend the other conclusions of other western scholars to our society. However he given to criticize the western ideological schools such as nationalism, liberalism and Marxism and etc. He maintains that there is no conformity and correspondence between western ideology and Iranian society. According to him, the democracy is inconsistent with revolutionary evolution and progress. One of his criticism to western ideology is to regardless imitation of those ideology. One of the other his criticism is to denying spirituality in the western ideology. In fact, those ideologies try to stop humans from arriving at transcendental goals and any evolutionary movements. In this occasion, he firmly criticized capitalism and at the same time, In contrary, he admired socialism because of guiding human to evolution and freeing from utilitarianism. He firmly criticized Karl Marx. According to Shariati, Because Karl Marx knows the economy as the beneath and foundation of human and society he has gone strayed. Just in contrary, sharia knows human as the foundation and origin of society not economy.
According to Shariati, human history is composed of two stages, the stage of collectivity and the stage of private ownership. He explained that the first stage, collectivity, was concerned with social equality and spiritual oneness. But the second stage, which is the current era, could be considered as the domination of the many by one. The second stage began with the emergence of private ownership. The various types of private ownership in history have included slavery, serfdom, feudalism, and capitalism among others. According to the concept of social ownership, all material and spiritual resources are accessible to everyone. But monopoly polarised the human community. In fact, according to Shariati, private ownership is the main cause of all modern problems. These problems change men’s brotherhood and love to duplicity, deceit, hatred, exploitation, colonisation and massacre. The polarisation by monopoly manifested itself in different forms throughout history. For example, in ancient times there were slave economies which transferred to capitalist society in modern times. In other words, machinism, or the dependence on machines, can be considered the latest stage of private ownership. Machinism began in the nineteenth century and human beings have had to confront the many anxieties and problems arousing from it.
There are many adherents and opponents of Shariati’s views. But we have to pay attention to the point that the image of Shariati is not such that some revolutionary groups, in early days of Islamic republic of Iran, attributed to him. In fact, Sharati has an unknown figure and personality. Ali Khamenei knew Shariati as a pioneer of Islamic teaching according to the requirements of his generation. According to Sayyed Ali Khamenei, Shariat had also both positive and negative characteristics. Khamenei believes that it is unfair that we consider Shariati as someone who firmly disagreed with the Mullahs. One of the positive sides of Shariati was his ability to explain his thought progression with suitable and simple language for his generation. Shariati not only was not the opposition of Mullahs but rather he believes in the currents of Mullahs in Iran. Some Scholars like Elizabeth F. Thompson try to envisage some similarities between Shariati and his role in the Islamic revolution in Iran with Sayyed Qutb’s role in Egypt. One similarit is that both of them paved the way for the imminent revolution in Iran and Egypt. Both desired of Islamic cultural dominance. Both were fans of being revolutionary about ruling values and norms. They considered Islamism a third way between those of America and the Soviet Union. At the same time they were not wholly utopian and they were partly Islamic. Of course there are differences between them - Shariati was a leftist while Qutb was a conservative. According to Mahmoud Taleghani, Ali Shariati was a thinker who created a school for revolution. The school guided young people to revolutionary action. Beheshti believes that Shariati’s work was fundamental to Islamic revolution.
According to Hamid Enayat, Shariati was not only a theorist but also an adherent of Islamic radicalism. Enayat believes that Shariati can be considered the founder of Islamic socialism. Enayat considers him to be one of the most beloved and popular individuals in Islamic radicalism and socialism. The affection of Shariati on the youth was so that anybody else had not such an effection among Islamic intellectual.
According to Hamid Elgar, Shariati was the number one ideologue of the Islamic revolution.
In contrast, some scholars not only didn’t consider shariati as theorizing man but they removed such a character of him. Berque said that we are not able to talk about on the thought of shariati as a system.Shariati's most important books and speeches
Hajj (The Pilgrimage)
Hubut in Kavir
Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique
Where Shall We Begin?
Mission of a Free Thinker
The Free Man and Freedom of the Man
Extraction and Refinement of Cultural Resources
An approach to Understanding Islam
A Visage of Prophet Muhammad
A Glance of Tomorrow's History
Reflections of Humanity
A Manifestation of Self-Reconstruction and Reformation
Selection and/or Election
Norouz, Declaration of Iranian's Livelihood, Eternity
Expectations from the Muslim Woman
Horr (Battle of Karbala)
Red Shi'ism vs. Black Shi'ism
Jihad and Shahadat
Reflections of a Concerned Muslim on the Plight of Oppressed People
A Message to the Enlightened Thinkers
Art Awaiting the Saviour
Fatemeh is Fatemeh
The Philosophy of Supplication
Religion versus Religion
Man and Islam – see chapter "Modern Man and His Prisons"
Arise and Bear Witness
Lessons on Islamology
Ali is Alone
Community and Leadership
Religion against Religion
We and Iqbal
What is to be Done?'
"The Intelligentsia's Task for Reconstruction of Society"
Shariati translated many books into Persian. Besides the work of Abu Zarr mentioned above, he translated Jean Paul Sartre's What is Literature, and Che Guevara Guerilla Warfare. He also began to work on the translation of Franz Fanon's A Dying Colonialism. He admired Amar Ouzegan as a major Marxist Muslim and began to translate his book Le meilleur combat (The Best Struggle).