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.