[Book Review] : Siavash Saffari , Beyond Shariati: Modernity, Cosmopolitanism, and Islam in Iranian Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017). 256pp., $96.41
Ali Shariati is probably the most celebrated Islamist thinker in contemporary Iran. His thought and, most importantly, his impact on the generation that was the moving force behind the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which occurred about a year after his death, have been discussed and analyzed widely, not only in Persian, but also in English, Arabic and Turkish, amongst other languages. His impact on the generation of Iranians who came of age in revolutionary Iran and lived through the aftermath of the Revolution, experiencing its ups and downs, however, has rarely been discussed. This is the task that Siavash Saffari embarks upon in this book. Shariati’s thought has been a double-edged sword. He inspired the youth and educated revolutionaries, while being critical of the traditional account of Islam and the traditional clergy. Hence, he was both loved and loathed by different social and political forces in Iran and the present political system. A distinct feature of Saffari’s book is that it deals with intellectual figures who were inspired by Shariati, but survived him to see the development of the Islamic Revolution, for which he was considered a prominent theorist. “
Shariati’s thought has been a double-edged sword. He inspired the youth and educated revolutionaries, while being critical of the traditional account of Islam and the traditional clergy.”
This book consists of an introduction, five chapters and a conclusion. In the introduction, the author sets the agenda for the book, indicating that he looks for a third way between cultural essentialism and hegemonic universalism, two dominant categories that are used to explain Iran’s contemporary cultural and intellectual trends. The Introduction includes a short biography of Ali Shariati and his impact on Iranian thought in the run up to the Revolution. This is the time when he provided young and educated enthusiasts with a platform for revolutionary actions. The Introduction also deals with the question of how Shariati’s views were received by Iranian thinkers as well as non-Iranians interested in Iranian thought and developments, particularly after the Revolution. In other parts of the book, too, the connections between Shariati’s thought and revolutionary actions before and after 1979 are dealt with. The author is at pains to refute Shariati’s critics, who blame his critique of Westernization and his call to return to the authentic self for postrevolutionary policies of Islamization of Iranian society, which even spread to various academic disciplines (178). He argues that “the existence of radical philosophical and political differences between Islamic discourse of Shariati and Khomeini led ultimately to”, in Shahrough Akhavi’s words, “‘Shariati’s virtual “excommunication” by the [postrevolutionary] regime’” (103).
“The author is at pains to refute Shariati’s critics, who blame his critique of Westernization and his call to return to the authentic self for postrevolutionary policies of Islamization of Iranian society,…”The fact of the matter is that the author has not paid sufficient attention to the complex and double-sided role that Shariati’s legacy had played in the formation and development of the Revolution. Shariati’s thought has informed the revolutionary forces’ approach towards Islam and modernity and their postrevolutionary actions as much as it has been used to criticize such approaches and actions. That is why there has been a return to Shariati by some segments of the hardline revolutionary forces in recent years, despite their earlier dislike of him.
The book’s first chapter, entitled “Postrevolutionary Readings of a Revolutionary Islamic Discourse,” deals with the issue of how Shariati “as the ideologue of the 1979 Revolution” was seen in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution and global changes that have followed since then. In this chapter, Shariati’s works are mainly seen as “an unfinished project of ‘indigenous modernity’” (38-40). The second chapter is entitled “Islamic Thought in Encounter with Colonial Modernity,” in which various responses by Muslim thinkers and communities to the encounter with the West are discussed. Saffari divides these reactions into “Islamic modernism”, “Islamism” and “Reformism” (52-65), and yet, because the third type of reaction seems to be a continuation of the first, as the author himself points out, this categorization is not fully plausible. Moreover, the term “Islamism” could have been substituted with “fundamentalism,” while another strand of reaction, traditionalism, could have been added to these categories.
The third chapter, “A Postcolonial Discourse of Public Religion”, begins by refuting the religious/secular binary. In this chapter, views of neo-Shariati thinkers are discussed. These intellectuals focus on those aspects of Shariati’s religious thought that “can contribute to the negotiation of a more humane modernity” (97). For instance, the author quotes Taghi Rahmani, one of the neo-Shariatis, who states that “in postrevolutionary Iran, Shariati’s thought must be expanded in a ‘civil’ direction through grassroots engagement and activism” (89). Saffari argues that “[i]n its descriptive function and its focus on the capacities of religious and cultural traditions in facilitating progressive social and political change Shariati’s thought overlaps with the analytical frameworks of public religion and multiple modernities” (81). The most important feature of neo-Shariatis is that for them, religion (that is, Islam) is the source of action in the public life. This is because, according to them, Shariati’s thought has three dimensions that are to be considered concurrently: monotheism (spirituality), justice, and freedom (96). For instance, Sara Shariati believes that given the “monopolizing presence [of Islam] in every aspect of public life”, it is necessary “to attend to the public presence and social functions of religion” (99). Reza Alijani, too, argues that “in contemporary Iran private and minimal modes of religiosity have already been proven to be unsustainable” (99).
“Saffari argues that ‘the emphasis on politicized public spirituality by neo-Shariatis is seen by many as a direct challenge to the call for minimal religion by Abdolkarim Soroush and other leading figures of Islamic liberalism'”
Saffari argues that “the emphasis on politicized public spirituality by neo-Shariatis is seen by many as a direct challenge to the call for minimal religion by Abdolkarim Soroush and other leading figures of Islamic liberalism” (98). The author goes on to say that “whereas Muslim liberals focus primarily on advancing an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with individual rights and freedoms, neo-Shariatis emphasize both sociopolitical rights and socioeconomic justice” (100). A difficulty with such an account is that, being influenced by Marxism and anti-colonialist movements of the mid-twentieth century, Shariati in some of his works has shown contempt for Western capitalist liberal democracies, and talks of committed or guided democracy, a term that the recent history of the third world countries has shown to be prone to abuse. The author notes that neo-Shariatis hold that “disillusioned with the experiences of really existing models of guided democracy in postcolonial contexts in Asia and Africa, in the late phase of his life Shariati came to revise his earlier views about intellectual leadership” (87-88). However, Saffari does not provide any evidence for such a claim with reference to Shariati’s own works nor does he examine properly examine this claim.
In the fourth chapter, “The Enlightenment Subject and a Religiously Mediated Subjectivity”, the author draws upon contemporary Western thinkers such as Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, to go beyond the Enlightenment’s narrow account of the secularized self. Then, he argues for what he calls “a theistic narrative of subjectivity” (120-125), with reference to some neo-Shariati authors of whom only Mohammad-Amin Ghaneirad is known in Iran.
In chapter five, “Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Civilizational Framework”, Saffari criticizes Westernization tendency among Iranian intellectuals on the basis of what he calls a civilizational framework, which he attributes to neo-Shariati thinkers. According to him, neo-Shariatis, inspired by Shariati himself, challenged binaries such as Islam/modernity, tradition/modernity and East/West, and more importantly, the Eurocentric narrative of modernity. Shariati was a pioneer in shifting the historiography of modernity from a Eurocentric account to multiple accounts attentive to its cross-cultural make-up. In this chapter, too, some laxities can be found. For instance, the author argues that Shariati, criticizing Westernized Iranian intellectuals, describes their discourses as “a new form of ‘traditionalism and fundamentalism’” (142). However, we know that the Persian equivalent of the word “fundamentalism” was forged much later. So, Shariati must have used another term, with probably different implications.
In the concluding chapter, the author sums up the main points of the book, and largely relying on ideas put forward by neo-Shariati figures, comes up with the implications of Shariati’s thought in Iran and the larger Islamic world, thirty-eight years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and six years after the Arab Spring. He talks about post-Islamism as a new intellectual movement in the Muslim world, whose advocates wish to keep Islam “important both as faith and as a player in the public sphere” (171). For the author, new readings of Shariati’s thought may provide some answers for this new era, as “[t]he neo-Shariati discourse has sought to advance contextually grounded and religiously mediated conceptions of popular sovereignty, secularism, democracy, and equal citizenship” (172). Compared to more liberal interpretations of Islam by intellectuals such as AbdolKarim Soroush and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, “following Shariati’s example, ….neo-Shariatis maintain a critical position vis-à-vis Western-style liberal democracy” ( 173). Saffari argues that these neo-Shariatis do not overlook the political component of Islam, and pay attention to “the public manifestations and social functions of religious faith and its rejection of the call for the privatization of religion” (ibid.).
“Saffari argues that these neo-Shariatis do not overlook the political component of Islam, and pay attention to ‘the public manifestations and social functions of religious faith and its rejection of the call for the privatization of religion’…”They insist on “disseminating a thin progressive conception of the Islamic faith in both [public and private] realms.” This is because they think “privatization undermines the attempt to reform and reinterpret traditional religious doctrines and dogmas that are manifested publicly in everyday life, they argue that private religiosity ultimately feeds religious conservatism and fundamentalism” (ibid.). Neo-Shariatis do not shy away from politics and political activism, because “in its neo-Shariati articulation the project of indigenous modernity is advanced not only through developing modern and democratic interpretations of religious thought, but also through sustained civil engagement and popular mobilization and action” (ibid.). More importantly, this version of Islamic modernity is attentive to social and economic justice, and can be responsive to the needs of “the economically vulnerable and disenfranchised” (175), who were overlooked by neo-liberal policies of many Muslim countries. The author goes as far as saying that issues of women’s rights and gender equality, too, has been addressed to some extent by neo-Shariatis such as Reza Alijani, Susan Shariati and Hassan Yousefi Eskevari, drawing upon Shariati’s thought (176-177). This is in line with the worldwide acknowledgement Shariati has received for his contribution “to give recognition to indigenous knowledges and epistemologies” (179).
Saffari’s book rightly points to the need for the expansion of Shariati’s thought in the current circumstance of Iran and the Muslim world at large. However, it should be regarded as the beginning of a project rather than the project itself. There is not much substance to what Saffari calls neo-Shariati “Islamic discourse of modernity.” Thinkers identified by Saffari as neo-Shariati have barely worked out the implications of Shariati’s thought for the pressing issues with which Muslims are faced in the first decades of the twenty-first century. Hence, it is not surprising that Saffari in this book mainly quotes Shariati himself rather than neo-Shariatis. Currently, there is no recognizable strand of thought as neo-Shariati, but there can, and should be. The project of re-engagement with Shariati’s thought has a long way to go. Given his death at the age of 44, Shariati’s thought itself was actually “an unfinished project.” It is necessary to articulate an interpretation of Islamic teachings that addresses the predicaments of Muslims trapped between extremism, underdevelopment, authoritarianism and foreign intervention.
“It is necessary to articulate an interpretation of Islamic teachings that addresses the predicaments of Muslims trapped between extremism, underdevelopment, authoritarianism and foreign intervention.”A re-engagement with and expansion of Shariati’s thought may do just that, as such an account does not avoid politics, and is faithful to the fact that Islam is not an apolitical religion. It is responsive to the political aspect of social life. More importantly, Shariati’s leftist inclination can help to highlight the egalitarian spirit of Islam and its care for social justice as a much needed issue. After its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s with Ali Shariati and the Syrian Mustafa al-Siba’i, the Islamic left has been on the wane, giving way to extremism, to which it was proven to be susceptible. Ever since, it has been missing in the continuum of Islamic thinking. Its revival in a moderate mode, however, may be useful as a theoretical device in the tool kit of Islamic thought, in order to take back the territory lost to extremism.