In 1977, Ali Shariati fled Iran fearing the regime he had spent years criticizing. After only three months, Shariati died in mysterious circumstances, nearly two years before the Iranian Revolution and the ascension of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even still, Shari’ati is often referred to as the ideologue or the intellectual forefather of the Revolution – his legacy as a post-colonial scholar, revolutionary, and activist. Shari’ati is now one of several Islamic intellectuals being referred to as an “Islamic Liberation Theologian,” a comparison to the Catholic priests in Central and South America, the Liberation Theologians, whose grassroots movement defied both their superiors in Rome and the governments that oppressed their communities. Although Shari’ati was a Shi‘a Muslim living in Iran oceans away from these Catholic priests, this comparison strikes me as both productive and worth investigation.
The resonance between Shari’ati and Liberation Theologians has been noted by several other scholars. Vali Nasr has likened Shari’ati’s conception of “Red Shiism” to the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, while Dustin Byrd writes that Shari’ati “developed an Islamic form of liberation theology” that “follows closely the theological orientation of the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez.” Historian Ervand Abrahamian believes that this connection may have a substantial cause: “[Shari’ati] was also exposed to Christian Liberation Theology through the Catholic journal L’Esprit, which in [the 1960s] ran many articles on the Christian-Marxist dialogue as well as on national liberation movements in the Third World,” although he provided no proof of this connection.
While many elements of Catholic Liberation Theology could be used to make this comparison, I want to focus on a methodological similarity between Shari’ati and Gutiérrez – both use experience as a source of moral authority as well as means to liberate the poor and oppressed from the post-colonial and neo-imperial oppression plaguing their communities. My major focus is Shari’ati’s unique use of culture as experientially imbued providing a sense of communal heritage that can be used as a resource from which Iranians should draw when fighting for liberation from the multi-form oppression around them.
To help this comparison make sense, we must first ground the importance of experience within the Catholic Liberation Theology to which Shari’ati is being compared, namely that of Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest whose texts have provided systematic foundations for the movement. In his major book, A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez aims to provide an organized, theological voice to the movement that arose.
In the first words of the book, he points to the importance of experience as a source of authority in theological construction for the Christian: “This book is an attempt at reflection, based on the gospel and the experiences of men and women committed to the process of liberation in the oppressed and exploited land of Latin America” (emphasis mine).
In another of Gutiérrez’s texts, We Drink from Our Own Wells, he aims towards the cultivation of a religious spirituality for the poor and those committed to liberation. The spirituality he describes is embodied in human experience, especially the experience of the poor in Latin America. This historically-embedded human reality – a journey of suffering and the struggle to end this suffering – is key to understanding liberation theology. He writes: “Latin American Christians will thus cease to be consumers of spiritualities that are doubtless valid but that nonetheless reflect other experiences and other goals, for they are carving out their own way of being faithful both to the Lord and to the experiences of the poorest.”
Gutiérrez here is arguing that the particular experiences of colonial oppression and the suffering that the Latin American church has endured creates the possibility and necessity for unique spiritual reflection. His community must reflect upon their religious narrative as well as the ongoing relationship they have with their tradition and their God in a way that cannot be regulated by those outside of these experiences.
Moving on to Ali Shari’ati, his use of experience comes in two major forms: 1) the way he interpreted Shi‘ism as a religion of the oppressed; and, 2) his use of cultural experience to build moral heritage, national identity, and the means to liberation from imperial, clerical, tyrannical oppression. Shari’ati connects the experiences of oppression, suffering, and liberation to paradigmatic themes and portions of the historical narrative, especially those important within Shi‘i piety.
In his famous essay, “Red Shi‘ism vs. Black Shi‘ism,” Shari’ati describes the Shi‘a as “those who represent the oppressed, justice-seeking class in the caliphate system” – a stalwart resistance that rebels against the “strange course of history” and stand in opposition to the Caliphate system of power. He then makes a distinction between Alid Shi‘ism (Red Shi‘ism – red like the “cloak of martyrdom”) and Safavid Shi‘ism (Black Shi‘ism – the color of mourning).
Alid Shi‘ism (a reference to Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet and first Imam) is the “real Islam” that remains hidden (or in the minority) yet is characterized by its purity, pursuit of justice for the oppressed, and its promotion of equality. Safavid Shi‘ism, on the other hand, taking its name from the Safavid Shi‘i regime, is concerned with worldly power and prestige, even to the point of creating and maintaining systems of oppression, exploitation, and ignorance. According to Shari’ati, Alid Shi‘ism acts as a “flame of the spirit of revolution, freedom-seeking justice, leaning towards the people and fighting relentlessly against oppression, ignorance, and poverty.” As one would expect, the example of Ali and the family of the Prophet play an immense role in his understanding and teaching of Islam.
Shari’ati is famously credited with saying, “Every place should be turned into Karbala, every month Moharram, and every day into ‘Ashura” – a phrase later used by Khomeini as well. The use of this imagery is what scholar Kamran Scot Aghaie refers to as the “Karbala Paradigm,” a “root metaphor” of Shi‘i piety that offers a symbolic interpretation of the Battle of Karbala as a way to give meaning to current events or experiences. Additionally, Aghaie presents the Karbala Paradigm as a way of understanding the community’s central identity, their place in political and social relationships, and the importance of their eventual redemption. For him, the suffering and oppression of the Shia resounds with holy importance as, just like Ali and the family of the Prophet, they find themselves on the wrong end of worldly injustice. But it also comes with hope as it resounds with redemption that awaits them on the Day of Judgment. Additionally, the example of Husayn, son of Ali, bears witness to the unfortunate reality of suffering and even martyring oneself to be on the side of justice and God. According to Shari’ati, Shi‘ism is the religion for all who have experienced oppression and look towards justice and liberation.
For his second use of experience, Shari’ati understood the collective experience of a people to be both the source of a unique, cultural resource but also the reason and requirement for a people to extract and refine these resources to develop an independent consciousness. In his lecture, “Extraction and Refinement of Cultural Resources,” he uses the metaphor of natural resources, such as oil or coal, as belonging to a people but in need of extraction and refinement to turn it into someone valuable and productive. Like these natural resources, a people also have at their command “vast and deep cultural, mental, and social experiences” that can sit idle, in need of extraction and refinement to become “consciousness-raising and protesting forces.” Shari’ati believes that both kinds of resources, natural and cultural, are what colonial and neo-imperial forces assert their control over.
In fact, as Shari’ati explains, Western colonizers adopt an “exploitative sociology,” realizing that, “to be able to rob the East, to ride on her back, and to easily deceive her, it is imperative to strip her from her personality. Once this is accomplished, she will proudly follow the West and with unspeakable lunacy and thirst she will consume Western goods,” including cultural, intellectual, and social goods. In his struggle against European and American imperialism, and even the post-colonial Pahlavi regime, he believed that the way to liberate oneself and one’s society is to turn inward towards the collective experiences that build a moral heritage of a culture. The way out of the spiritual, intellectual, and material imperialism – some of which is facilitated by the Iranian Shah and Shi‘a clergy – that he feels characterizes his Iran is to “find the strength to choose and turn into a creative force the past historical, religious, theosophical, and literary factors” that have been put aside in exchange for Western religious, theosophical, and literary goods.
And thus the title of this paper: Shari’ati asserts that only a remedy born of the same experiences and cultural heritage can cure the ills of his society. He says,
“If I were a German I would worship Brecht, but since I am an Iranian, I cannot understand him and I do not know what he can do for me. The fact is that Brecht’s prescription is not good for my pain. … In searching for a writer and thinker, we must look at those individuals whose pains, history, condition, and fate are identical to ours.”
Experience isn’t just an individual phenomenon, for Shari’ati; it’s also a cultural and social phenomenon through which a people can find their own liberation. He isn’t denying the possibility of intercultural understanding and empathy but, instead, is rekindling Iranian cultural resources as indigenous solutions to oppression. He believes Iranian people can liberate themselves, using their own experiential wealth, and they don’t need saving from elsewhere.
I have aimed to show that Shari’ati makes use of experience as a source of moral authority, broadly speaking, in a comparable way as Catholic Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has done. However, as good comparisons often go, there are unique differences between the two thinkers. While both find that their traditions are specially oriented towards the liberation of the oppressed, Shari’ati believed that the experience of imperialism and its subsequent oppression creates both the need for and the resources for overcoming these problems. The particular Iranian context necessitates and allows for indigenous remedies to Western neo-imperialism, clerical subjugation, and tyrannical political rule.
 Shari’ati writes this very interesting essay, “Reflections of a Concerned Muslim: On the Plight of Oppressed Peoples,” in which he includes a mock letter to the executed slaves who built the pyramids in Egypt and were buried in a mass grave. In the letter, he consoles them despite their oppression using the story of Muhammad, Ali, and his family. Throughout the letter, he uses the plural first person (we, our) when discussing their oppression, their plight, their identity, and their hope, implying a real connection to their oppression. Although these slaves lived, were oppressed, and were buried long before the birth of Islam and Shi‘ism, it is precisely that which exemplifies the justice God promises and the hope which can redeem their experience. See Mansour Farhang, “Resisting the Pharaohs: Ali Shari’ati on Oppression,” in Race & Class Volume 21 Issue 1 (July 1979): 31-40.