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Sharīʿatī, ʿAlī

ʿAlī Sharīʿatī was one of the most important social thinkers of twentieth-century Iran. His ideas are distinguished more by their practical impact than their analytical clarity. He died in the prime of his life and did not have enough time to work through many of his concepts.

Family Background.

Sharīʿatī was born in in 1933 in the village of Mazinan, near the town of Sabzevār, on the edge of the Dasht-i Kavīr Desert in Khurasan province, northeastern Iran. His world view was influenced by his rural upbringing, as the title of his most revealing work, Kavīr, indicates. He came from a well-known family whose paternal line included clergymen active in the religious circles of Mashhad, the city that houses the shrine of the eighth imam, ʿA lī al-Ridā (d. 818).

Unfortunately, much of Sharīʿatī's life remains obscure. Since his death, commemoration volumes have been published in Iran providing data about him, but these are incomplete, contradictory, and hagiographical, making it difficult to sort truth from legend. Outside Iran, scholars have contributed significantly to our understanding of his words and deeds, but these, too, have not settled all the questions that have been raised about this figure.

Sharīʿatī's grandfather, ākhūnd Hakīm, was a respected ʿalim (pl. ʿulamāʿ, religious cleric) whose fame apparently had extended beyond Iran to Bukhara and Najaf. He had spent some time at Tehran's Sipah Sālār mosque but soon returned to his native district, declining the shah's posts and honors. Akhūnd Hakīm's brother, ʿādil Nīshabūrī, had also earned a reputation as a religious scholar.

Sharīʿatī's father, Muhammad Taqī Sharīʿatī, was of the same ilk, but he was also a modernist who had lost patience with the traditional perspectives of the ʿulamāʿ, which he saw to be suffused with abstract scholasticism. The father was a reformer who desired to apply new methods to the study of religion. He possessed a large and comprehensive library that ʿAlī fondly remembered, regarding it metaphorically as the spring from which he nourished his mind and soul. Muhammad Taqī taught not only students of the religious sciences in Mashhad (the country's most important center for religious studies after Qom [Qumm]), but he was the founder of the city's Kānūn-i Nashr-i Haqāʿiq-i Islāmī (Society for the Promulgation of Islamic Verities). This was a lay organization dedicated to the revival of Islam as a religion of social obligation and commitment.

Education and Early Career.

Little is known of ʿAlī Sharīʿatī's early years. He attended government (as opposed to seminary) schools in Mashhad but also took lessons from his father. On graduating from secondary school, apparently in 1949, Sharīʿatī enrolled in a two-year program at Mashhad's Teachers Training College (Dānishsarāy-i Tarbiyat-i Muʿallim).

He seems to have begun teaching at the age of eighteen or nineteen (1951–1952), probably in one of the government village schools near Mashhad. Both he and his father were involved in pro–National Front rallies in support of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (Muhammad Musaddiq) held by the Mashhad branch of the National Resistance Movement (Nahz..at-i Muqāvamat-i Millī) after the royalist coup d’état in August 1953 that overthrew Mossadegh. The Movement was founded by Mehdi Bazargan and the social activist clergyman Sayyid Mahmūd Tāliqānī. Apparently, Sharīʿatī had entered Mashhad University for the B.A. degree in 1956 and married that same year. He was arrested in September 1957 for his role in a National Front demonstration, and he was jailed at Tehran's Qizil Qalʿah prison until May 1958. He is also said to have affiliated himself with a political movement known as the Movement of Socialist Believers in God (Junbihsh-i Khudāparastān-i Sūsiyālist).

Sharīʿatī was therefore about twenty-seven at the time he received his degree, with honors, in French and Persian literature in 1960. He left immediately for Paris, stipend in hand, to study at the Sorbonne. Since he later frequently alluded to his training under the Orientalist Louis Massignon, the sociologist George Gurevich, the historian Jacques Berque, and the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, many of his supporters believed that he had been formally trained in philosophy and social sciences. However, his doctoral dissertation was a translation of and introduction to a medieval book, Faz.āʿil-i Balkh (The Notables of Balkh), under the supervision of the philologist Gilbert Lazard. If, therefore, he had received such training, it was not reflected in his dissertation.

Political Activity.

During his years abroad, Sharīʿatī actively participated in the anti-shah student movement and came to know Ibrāhīm Yazdī, Sādiq Qutbzādah, Abol-Hasan Bani Sadr (Abū al-Hasan Banī Sadr) and Mustafā Chamrān, all of whom became principals in Iran's early post-revolutionary government. During the 1962 Wiesbaden (Germany) Congress of the National Front in Europe, Sharīʿatī was elected editor of the organization's newly established newspaper, Īrān-i Āzād (Free Iran). He also contributed articles to the Algerian revolutionary resistance newspaper, al-Mujāhid (The Struggler). Accordingly, he became familiar with the ideas of Third World liberation thinkers, such as Frantz Fanon (d. 1961), Aimé Césaire, and Amilcar Cabral (d. 1973).

Sharīʿatī returned to Iran in 1964 and was immediately arrested at the Turkish frontier and jailed for six months for his political activities in France. After his release, he went back to Mashhad and briefly taught in a regional secondary school before securing an obscure post as an instructor in humanities at Mashhad University's Faculty of Agriculture. Shortly thereafter, he transferred to the Faculty of Arts. Sharīʿatī's lectures attracted students from outside the university as well and soon became so popular that the government engineered his dismissal. However, he continued to receive invitations to lecture from university student organizations on campuses in various cities.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, a group of religious reformers had established the Husaynīyah-yi Irshād in 1965. This religious institution, like the Kānūn-i Nashr-i Haqāʿiq-i Islāmī of Mashhad, granted no degrees but instead sponsored lectures, discussions, seminars, and publications on religious subjects. Sharīʿatī joined the Husaynīyah-yi Irshād in 1967 and not long after became its most popular instructor. For six years his lectures were packed with students eager to hear a new interpretation of Islam and its role in society. His activities angered the orthodox clergy, who saw in him an untutored agitator who was undermining respect for the seminary and its teachers. However, the younger generation was enthralled by his innovative approach, so much in contrast to what they believed was the traditional clergy's antediluvian methods, scholastic pedantry, and purely pietistic concerns. He sought to apply Islam to the requirements of the age, to make it relevant, in keeping with the hadīth (saying attributed to the Prophet): “If it is a matter of religion, then have recourse to me, but if it is a matter of your world, you know better than I do.” This hadīth has frequently been interpreted to mean that scripture requires adaptation to changing historical circumstances in matters pertaining to worldly (secular) affairs.

Because of pervasive censorship, Sharīʿatī had to couch his discussions in elliptical language. One of the leading intellectuals of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Murta..zā Mutahharī (d. 1979), remarked that he and Sharīʿatī's other colleagues at the Husaynīyah-yi Irshād believed that his talks were too overtly political in content and feared a government crackdown. By mid-1973, the regime had indeed come to regard Sharīʿatī as a dangerous radical, and he was again arrested and jailed, his father joining him for part of the time. Sharīʿatī was released on March 20, 1975, only because of pressure from the Algerian government. The Iranian press then published his essay, Marxism and Other Fallacies: A Critique of Marxism from the Perspective of Islam, without his permission, in a transparent attempt to suggest that Sharīʿatī had sold out his leftist supporters.

Under virtual house arrest for about two years, Sharīʿatī was finally allowed to go abroad in the spring of 1977. His plans were to meet his wife and family in Europe and then to proceed to the United States, where his son, Ihsān, was a student. However, the government prevented his family's departure, and Sharīʿatī, who had already flown to Brussels, went to England to stay with his brother pending developments. On June 19, 1977 his body was discovered at his brother's house in southern England. The official ruling was death from a heart attack, but many believe he had been assassinated by the shah's secret police.

Sharīʿatī's body was transferred to Iranian authorities in London, and the Iranian government sought to persuade his wife to go claim the body and return it for burial at state expense. However, she refused to participate in this blatant attempt to exploit her husband's death for the shah's own propaganda purposes, and Sharīʿatī instead was buried in Damascus, near the tomb of Zaynab, the Prophet's granddaughter and sister of the third imam, Husayn ibn ʿAlī (d. 680)—Shiism's foremost martyr, whose cause against impiety and tyranny had been the subject of many lectures by Sharīʿatī. Officiating at the funeral was Mūsā al-Sadr (vanished 1978), leader of the Lebanese Shīʿah.


Sharīʿatī was less a disciplined scholar than a social and political activist. By the time of his final arrest, he had given over two hundred lectures at the Husaynīyah-yi Irshād, many of which had been prepared for publication and sold thousands of copies in several printings. His early works include Maktab-i Vāsitah (The Middle School of Thought), which he wrote while at the Teachers Training College and which upheld Islam as the virtuous path between capitalism and communism, and Tārīkh-i Takāmul-i Falsafah (History of Philosophy's Perfection), written in 1955. He was deeply impressed by the biography entitled Abū Dharr al-Ghifārī by Jawdah al-Sahhār, whose protagonist, Abū Dharr (d. 657), symbolized Muslim resistance to injustice. In fact, Sharīʿatī's admirers affixed to his name upon his death the sobriquet “Abū Dharr-i Zaman” (the Abū Dharr of the Age).

Social Theory.

As a thinker, Sharīʿatī exhibited a paradoxical sensibility. He was an intensely private thinker engaged in a lifetime search for truth through a mystical, intuitive understanding of the world and God's role in the scheme of things. Yet he took very public stands to promote a collectivist revolutionary course of action to bring about social justice and freedom for the downtrodden. The hallmark of his thought was his conviction that religion must be transformed from a purely private set of ethical injunctions into a revolutionary program to change the world. In this respect, he greatly resembled Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902–1989), who repeatedly rejected the idea that Islam was merely a matter of arcane rules and rituals pertaining to such technical problems as ablution, menstruation, childbirth, diet, and the like.

Sharīʿatī was always looking for what was fresh and original in Islam and had little patience with traditional formulas and modes of thinking. The system of thought that he constructed was not parsimonious or logically rigorous. He was in too much of a hurry to be able to work out an elaborate, internally consistent social theory. His primary purpose was to exhort people to action in the mold of Imam Husayn, who, Sharīʿatī believed, had consciously sacrificed himself on behalf of the political and social liberation of the Shīʿah. In this view of Imam Husayn as basically a revolutionary, Sharīʿatī scandalized the traditional religious establishment, which felt that he had converted their revered imam into a vulgar ideologist.

In calling for liberation through a reinterpretation of the faith, Sharīʿatī clearly rejected the fashionable Western tradition about the role of religion in social change, a perspective that stressed the increasing displacement of religion to the purely private realm. In his perspective, religion lends itself to ideological commitment for the emancipation of believers from oppression. The idea was to undertake a fresh reading of Islamic scripture in order to reconstruct Islam's concepts into a modern, organic, and progressive ideology of mobilization to enfranchise and empower the masses. He also expected, in a more mystical strain, that the soul's journey to the truth would be facilitated by this dynamic and fresh interpretation of the religious verities.

Sharīʿatī's Critics.

Sharīʿatī's detractors, mainly scripturalists with an ahistorical view of the sacred texts, felt that he had diffused and distilled the Qurʿān, the sunnah (practices and sayings) of the Prophet, and the traditions of the Imams into a mere vulgate, with debasing appeals to “enlightened thinkers” to overturn the existing social arrangements for the sake of an anthropocentric “new order.” This view, however, ascribing to Sharīʿatī no more than a merely instrumental approach to the faith, falls to the ground in light of the role he ascribed to religious belief in the spiritual life of the individual. For Sharīʿatī, it was religion that enabled freedom for the people, not freedom that made possible the verification of religious truths.

There might be a residual basis for the scripturalists’ concerns, however, because Sharīʿatī did invoke a central theme of the humanistic, Enlightenment tradition: the individual's enormous potential for living a life of emancipation, harmony, and well-being through the exercise of right reason. For all of Sharīʿatī's ecstatic paeans to Allāh's majesty and love, his system did seem to imply the vision of those who believed in history's progressive march toward the liberation of mankind from the evils of superstition, obscurantism, and mystification. His scheme did at least imply the possibility that human reason was uniquely capable of achieving the human being's emancipation and enfranchisement.

Sharīʿatī's critics blamed him for opening the door to the emergence of a human community that would vanquish the forces of evil through dedication to its own confraternity. Even if this community submitted itself to Allāh, Sharīʿatī's critics implied, such submission would be suspect because it appeared to be contingent rather than categorically compelling in the first instance. Whether his critics are right in suspecting that, in his worldview, Allāh's role appears to be reduced to merely providing comfort from personal doubts, one thing is clear: Sharīʿatī was, perhaps more than anything else, concerned about human injustice, which he viewed both as a symptom and as an integral consequence of a failed human emancipation. He therefore dedicated his life to fighting it. How can Shīʿah, who are devoted to Imams ʿAlī (d. 661) and Husayn, acquiesce in injustice? he demanded. Rulers have oppressed the faithful, often in the name of Shiism itself. But the traditional clergy must share the blame, because they have for centuries encouraged stoic acceptance of despotism, some for opportunistic reasons, others in the expectation that the Hidden Imam would one day return to purge all the accumulated wrongs visited on the righteous. In this refusal to wait passively for the redeemer, Sharīʿatī once again had much in common with Ayatollah Khomeini. Nonetheless, Khomeini was not an admirer of Sharīʿatī and doubtless shared his fellow mujtahids’ views that he was an ignorant hothead who made gratuitous attacks on the Shīʿī clergy.

Principal Concepts.

Although he was a controversial figure, almost all agree that Sharīʿatī's was an urgent voice. Despite the prevalence of Shīʿī symbols, his cause was humanity in general, especially the masses of the Third World. He believed that Western imperialism wished to transform the masses into slaves. Islam was, in his view, the answer to both Marxism and capitalism. Some of the key concepts in Sharīʿatī's writings and speeches were shahādat (martyrdom); intizār (anticipation of the return of the Hidden Imam); zulm (oppression of the Imam's justice); jihād and iʿtirāz.. (struggle for God's sake, and protest); ijtihād (independent judgment to determine a legal rule); rawshanfikran (enlightened thinkers); tārīkh ([the movement of] history); masʿūlīyat (responsibility); and ʿadālat ([social] justice).

From Marxism, Sharīʿatī borrowed the notion of dialectical conflict and appropriated the term jabr-i tārīkh (historical determinism). But he preferred Hegel's primacy of contradictions among ideas along the path to an Absolute Truth to Marx's insistence on the precedence of social contradictions and class conflict. From Western liberal thought, Sharīʿatī adopted the Enlightenment's stress on reason as the corrective for the maladies of society. From both Marxism and “bourgeois” Enlightenment philosophy, he seems to have gained an appreciation of the dangers that institutionalized religion can pose. And from romantic philosophy, which he may or may not have formally studied, he gained an appreciation of the shortcomings of positivism and ratiocination.

In the matter of institutionalized religion, Sharīʿatī believed that ijtihād is the purview not merely of the experts in religious law but of every individual. All persons have the responsibility to exercise ijtihād on substantive, nontechnical matters. He likened the emulation of putative experts—the mujtahids—in regard to such basic problems as authority, justice, mobilization, and participation to abdication of individual responsibility, choice, and will. We can see, then, the manifest influence of existentialist and Marxist philosophy on Sharīʿatī. From the former, he adopted the notion that the individual must take responsibility for his or her actions. (Intriguingly, Sartre is said to have asserted: “I have no religion, but if I were to choose one, it would be that of Shariʿati”). And from Marx's understanding of the Prometheus legend, Sharīʿatī absorbed the humanistic admonition that religion can be made to serve despots, that the eternal truths represented by religion must be determined by individuals appropriating true knowledge from those seeking to monopolize it for non- or even anti-humanistic ends.


It is difficult to summarize Sharīʿatī's overall contributions. At the time of the Iranian revolution, his portraits were held high by many of the younger revolutionary groups. Although the ideologues who dominated Iranian political culture thereafter marginalized his ideas in the media and educational institutions, they have not been able to succeed in suppressing his voice. His example may well have inspired lay religious activists outside Iran, as for example the Syrian engineer, Muhammad Shuhrūr, whose ideas on ijtihād are strikingly similar to those of Sharīʿatī.



  • Abrahamian, Ervand. “Ali Shariʿati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution.”Middle East Research and Information Project Report, no. 102 (January 1982): 24–28. Depicts Sharīʿatī as a cosmopolitan thinker seeking to synthesize socialism and Shiism and applying revolutionary theories of Third World revolution.
  • Ahmadī, Hamīd, ed.Sharīʿatī dar jahān (Sharīʿatī in the World). Tehran: 1986. Series of essays on Sharīʿatī's life and thought, providing helpful biographical information.
  • Akhavi, Shahrough. “Sharīʿatī's Social Thought.” In Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi ʿism from Quietism to Revolution., edited by Nikki Keddie, pp. 125–144. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. Examination of the ontology, epistemology, philosophy of history, and political theory in Sharīʿatī's thought.
  • Algar, Hamid. “Islām bi ʿunvān-i yak īdiyūlūzhī.” In Sharīʿatī dar jahān, edited by Hamīd Ahmadī. Tehran: 1986. Originally a lecture given at the Muslim Institute in London, focusing on the importance of ideology in Sharīʿatī's outlook.
  • Bayat, Mangol. “Shiʿism in Contemporary Iranian Politics: The Case of ʿAli Shariʿati.” In Towards a Modern Iran: Studies in Thought, Politics and Society, edited by Elie Kedourie and Sylvia Haim. London and Totowa, N.J.: F. Cass, 1980. Views Sharīʿatī as an “embourgeoisé modernist” reflecting the identity crisis of modern intellectuals.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. “ʿAli Shariʿati: The Islamic Ideologue Par Excellence.” In Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, pp. 102–146. New York: New York University Press, 1993. Extended study of Sharīʿatī's ideas, stressing his moral vision as a politically engaged “prophet.”
  • Hanson, Brad. “The ‘Westoxication’ of Iran: Depictions and Reactions of Behrangi, Al-e Ahmad, and Shariʿati.”International Journal of Middle East Studies15 (1983): 1–23. Examines Sharīʿatī's anti-Western polemics.
  • Hermansen, Marcia K.“Fatimeh as a Role Model in the Works of ʿAli Shariʿati.” In Women and Revolution in Iran, edited by Guity Nashat, pp. 87–96. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. Examines Sharīʿatī's ideal type of Shiʿi woman as faithful, aware, and engaged, and critiques as utopian his lack of concern for women's institutions and organizations to implement their goals.
  • Malushkov, V. G. and K. A. Khromova. Poiski Putei Reformatsii v Islame: Opyt Irana (The Search for the Path of Reform in Iran's Experience). Moscow: Nauka, 1991. Contains several chapters analyzing Sharīʿatī's life and thought.
  • Rahnema, ʿAli. An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of ʿAli Shariʿati. 2nd ed.London, 2000. Examination of Sharīʿatī's life and thought in the context of his opposition both to the monarchy and to the traditional religious scholars of Iran.
  • Sachedina, Abdulaziz. “Shariʿati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 191–214. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. Argues that Sharīʿatī was above all the founder of a discipline of “Islamology”—the study of how Islam may be applied to contemporary social problems in the search for solutions.
  • Shariʿati, ʿAli. On the Sociology of Islam: Lectures, translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1979. Contains useful information on Sharīʿatī's life and excerpts from his important work, Islamshinasi.

  • For a comprehensive listing of Sharīʿatī's works, see Yann Richard, Abstracta Iranica (supplement to Studia Iranica), vols. 1–2 (Leuven, Belgium, 1978–1979). For critical evaluations, see the following:
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