Fatima is Fatima by Ali Shariati

I’ve been doing some research on the Freedom Movement of Iran and I came across the book Fatima is Fatima by Ali Shariati. I read the first six chapters of it, and it is really very interesting, especially if you are interested in understanding how muslims like Iqbal and Shariati made the move from Marxism to Islam, what they brought with them and what their version Islamic struggle has in common with Marxist revolution (quite a lot, it turns out).
Chapter 4 entitled “What should be done?” is where he explains why he rejects both the traditional conservatism of the ulema and the revolutionism of the Marxists in favour of what he calls reform which is essentially just bringing about radical change while maintaining the outward appearance of existing social customs. Why? Well he justifies his choice by the example of the Prophet’s life in a fascinating passage:

The Prophet preserved the form, the container of a custom which had deep roots in society, one which people had gotten used to from generation to generation and one which was practiced in a natural manner, but he changed the contents, the spirit, the direction and the practical application of customs in a revolutionary, decisive and immediate manner.
He was inspired by a particular method which he uses in social combat. Without producing negative results, without containing any of the weak points of the other methods, his method contained the positive characteristics of the others. Through the customs of society which apply the brakes, he quickly attained his social goals. His revolutionary method was this: he maintained the container of a social tradition but inwardly changed the contents.

Of course the events of the Iranian Revolution either a) seriously cast into doubt the effectiveness of Shariati’s attempts to use the social customs of traditional Iranian Islam in order to carry out his reformist agenda or b) what is more likely, they suggest that Shariati was no reformist, but a radical fundamentalist. I mean, taking this book as an example, even though it is nominally about the example of Fatima for muslim women, there is really very little in it against the traditional role of women in Islamic society. Shariati spends about four times as much time complaining about the evils of Westernization:

We see that the money has moved from village storage areas, from the shops of the old merchants under the old roofs of the bazaar, from the hands of local handicrafts workers, from the hands of money changers and indigenous professional guilds, from traditional industries and classical professions to the banks, to stock exchange, to foreign companies, to agencies, to distributors, to contractors and to factories. A new class is created. It is characterized by foreignness and modernization. It adores the West. It is not religious. If it had a memory of or inclination towards religion, it has long since been stamped out. Luxury, transience, pretentiousness and foreignness prevail among this class. And their Islam, in the words of Sayyid Qutb, is an American Islam.

In fact there is very little in the book that is not political and not about the power of Islam as a vehicle for political activism. I think Khomeini was a political genius to have allied himself with Shariati. You see, Khomeini once said “Islam is politics”. And ignoring the superficial differences in their respective careers, it is very clear from reading Shariati’s writings that he shared this belief with Khomeini entirely. You have only to read Shariati’s essay A Message to the Enlightened Thinkers which is one of the most dramatic revolutionary pieces of writing I have ever read (despite purportedly just being an exegesis of Surah al-Rum). What he does is to compare the contemporary stand-off between the USSR and the US with the Islamic world in between to the situation during the time of the prophet with the Arabs of Hijaz sandwiched between the Byzantine and the Persian empires. Just like the Arabs occupied the vacuum caused by the mutual destruction of the Byzantines and the Persians, Shariati thought that his contemporary muslims could do the same:

The present generation of Muslims can rule the world if they know Allah, understand the world and discover the great values that Allah has bestowed upon them. With a strong spirit, they can overcome the powers and become the world’s leaders during this generation. But how is that possible in light of the existing hardship, poverty, deprivation, desperation, inability, pessimism, misunderstanding and improper education? The Qur’an tells mankind: ‘So have patience O Muhammad)! Allah’s promise is the very truth, and let not those who have no certainty make thee impatient.” (XXX : 60). The believers must be patient and show resistance. The promise of Allah is true. The believers should not allow non-believers to change their minds or alter their positions.

That really does not sound like the writing of a reformer.

Advertisements

4 responses to “Fatima is Fatima by Ali Shariati

  1. there is an intrinsic problem with trying to reconcile revolutionary ideas within the structure of islam, because eventually you have to resort to something intangible like the “infinite glory and wisdom of Allah” and that the “promise of Allah is true” which as you noted does not sound very reformist at all.

    but despite all my reservations, that approach seems to me to be the only possible one. because even though islam seems to be currently reduced to a few stupid things, its the only stream of ideology that i have an organic connection with.

    with females for example, the modern paradigm of a strong, Sex in the City woman seems to have certain roadblocks in its path – doesn’t seem to offer a conclusive end. perhaps a post-gender world would be more appropriate, but i’m male so what do i know?

    any more details on how exactly Mohammed transformed Arab society while retaining the outward appearance of it?

  2. ok also just went through that entire Shariati essay – and it seems heavy on extolling the greatness of Allah and light on details. but one things that you do think about is that the “poor, illiterate, oppressed” people who defeated the two superpowers of the time – are the taliban and their ilk their modern contemporaries? cuz if the conquering arabs were as brutal and violent, what is the point?

    perhaps that is the malaise we need to rise from, for we are all caught in the despondency of not having anything to latch ourselves onto. nothing bigger than our own lives which still retains the purity of thought and action that can convince us to give everything up for it.

    this is a super confusing comment. my apologies.

  3. Rabia

    “there is an intrinsic problem with trying to reconcile revolutionary ideas within the structure of islam, because eventually you have to resort to something intangible like the “infinite glory and wisdom of Allah” and that the “promise of Allah is true” which as you noted does not sound very reformist at all. ”

    Well, Islam is a little like a marxist revolution, isn’t it? I mean, how many times have you heard a marxist say something like “oh well, there has never been a REAL marxist society”. There is an ideal of an Islamic society that, apart from Medina, has never really existed in the world and is a cause for constant revolution. But yeah, if you’re saying that Islam can never be progressive, then I agree. But there is a difference between progressive and revolutionary, isn’t there?

    “any more details on how exactly Mohammed transformed Arab society while retaining the outward appearance of it?”
    Here’s the complete passage about that:
    http://www.iranchamber.com/personalities/ashariati/works/fatima_is_fatima2.php

    Three clear methods of problem solving
    There are three well-known methods of problem solving. Conservatism is the method used by the guardians of Traditions-as interpreted by culture. It is used by leaders who guard and preserve society so that the guardians have something to guard.

    The logic of the conservative is this: If we change the customs of the past, it is as if we had separated the roots from the trunk of a tree. The cultural relationships which are preserved in custom are connected to the body of society like a hierarchy of nerves. If the roots are destroyed, so is the rest of the tree.

    It is exactly because of this that after a great revolution, anguish, confusion and/or dictators come into being. Hastily digging out the roots of social and cultural phenomena in a quick, revolutionary manner will cause society to face a sudden void. The unfortunate results of this void will be made apparent after the revolution subsides.

    Revolutionism is a method used by leaders who tear out things by the roots, believing that all custom is based only on old superstitions and, is, therefore, reactionary and rotten. The reasoning of the revolutionary runs like this: by retaining outdated cultural customs, we keep society outdated and living in the past. We stagnate. Thus a revolutionary leader says that all forms inherited from the past should be eliminated because these forms are like chains around our wrists, feet, spirit, thoughts, will and vision. All of our relationships to the past should be done away with. New rules should replace old. Otherwise society remains behind, fanatic, stagnant, and bound to the past.

    Reformism is a method used by people who believe in gradual change. These people lay the groundwork for gradual change in social conditions. Reformism is the middle way between the other two. The reasoning of the returner is just as weak as that of the other two methods. He takes a third way, believing change should be quiet and gradual so that the different factions do not oppose each other. If change is gradual, reformers reason, the foundation of society will not take on a revolutionary form but rather change over a long period of time. Thus, programs should be graduated to reach this end.

    But the method of reformism or gradual evolution usually faces negative, strong reactions from internal and external enemies during the long time period this method requires. These forces either stop it or destroy it.

    If, for instance, we wished to change the ethics of our youth, or if we wanted to enlighten the thoughts of all people, we would be destroyed before we could reach our goal. Or, perhaps, corrupt, circumstances would dominate and deceive society and paralyze us. A leader who tries to gradually bring about change in society over a relatively long period of time believes that he used logic in calculating his programs. But such a leader does not take into account the powers seeking to neutralize change. One does not always have the time necessary to neutralize powers which are against change. Reactionary elements do not always give the time necessary to leisurely implement gradual changes. Factors considered minor make themselves manifest.

    The particular method of the Prophet steming from his traditions
    The Traditions of the Prophet (ahadith), so important in Islam, consist of the words which he spoke, the laws he brought, the deeds he performed, things he remained silent about or did not disagree with and deeds he actually performed in his lifetime without telling others that they should themselves perform them. The Traditions of the Prophet, then, are his words and his conduct. These become the rules of Islam which are divided into two groups: first, those which existed before Islam but were confirmed by the Prophet (signed rules); second, those which had not existed previously but were established by Islam (created rules). Besides these signed and created rules and the words and deeds of the Prophet, a third principle can also be perceived. It is my belief that it is the most sensitive. It is the method that the Prophet used.

    The Prophet preserved the form, the container of a custom which had deep roots in society, one which people had gotten used to from generation to generation and one which was practiced in a natural manner, but he changed the contents, the spirit, the direction and the practical application of customs in a revolutionary, decisive and immediate manner.

    He was inspired by a particular method which he uses in social combat. Without producing negative results, without containing any of the weak points of the other methods, his method contained the positive characteristics of the others. Through the customs of society which apply the brakes, he quickly attained his social goals. His revolutionary method was this: he maintained the container of a social tradition but inwardly changed the contents.

    He used this method in reconciling social phenomena. He adopted a process and method which is a model for all problem solving. This method can be applied to two problems or two phenomena which in no way resemble each other. Recognizing how important this method is, we cannot fully explore it here. We can only clarify it by a few examples.

    Before Islam, there was a custom of total ablution which was both a belief and a superstition. The pre-Islamic Arabs believed that when a person had sexual intercourse, he or she incarnated jinn (spirits which inhabit the earth), thereby rendering both body and soul unclean. Until he or she found water and performed a total ablution, the jinn could not be exorcised.

    Another example is the pilgrimage to Makkah. Before Islam, it was an Arab custom, full of superstitious ancestor worship. It was a glorified type of idol worship, holding economic advantage for the Quraysh tribe. It had gradually come to assume this form from the time of Abraham. Islam kept the pre-Islamic custom of pilgrimage, believing that Abraham, the Friend of God, had built the Kabah which (after a period of decline) had been purified of its idols and renewed.

    The basis of the pilgrimage had been twofold: to protect the economic interests of the Quraysh merchants in Makkah and to create an artificial need among the Arab tribes for the Quraysh nobility. It was revealed to the Prophet of Islam to take this form and change it into a most beautiful and deep rite founded upon the unity of God and the oneness of humanity.

    The Prophet, with his revolutionary stand, took the pilgrimage of the idol-worshipping tribes and changed it into a completely opposite rite. It was a revolutionary leap. As a result, the Arab people underwent no anguish, no loss of values or beliefs, but rather, revived the truth and cleansed an ancient custom. They moved easily from idol worship to unity. Suddenly, they had left the past. Their society was not aware that the foundations of idol worship had been torn down. This leap, this revolutionary social method found within the Traditions of the Prophet preserved the outer form but changed its content. It maintained the container as a permanent element but changed and transformed the content.

    The conservative, at whatever cost, tries, to the last bit of his strength, to keep his customs-even if it means sacrificing himself and others. (The revolutionary, on the other hand, wants to change everything into another form all at once. He wants to annihilate everything, to suddenly jump-whether or not society is prepared to leap in that direction.) When the conservative senses the possibility of revolution, he turns to anger, dictatorship, and extensive public murders not only against his enemies but also against the people themselves. A reformer, on the other hand, always gives a corrupter the opportunity to destroy. The Prophet, through the inspired method of his work, showed us that if we understand and can put his method into action, we could behave in a most enlightened and correct way.

  4. thanks for the LENGTHIEST comment reply in history 🙂

    but just to be clear, i am pretty sure that islam can be progressive, but that would involve realising that human societies will always have flaws and disappointments, and that going back to medina-makka societies at the time of the prophet is NOT the answer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: