Subverting the Sacred


After briefly situating sociologist and theologian Ali Shariʿati historically and geopolitically within the context of pre-revolutionary Iran in the 1960s and 70s, this paper will proceed to evaluate the work of Ali Shariʿati in two movements. First, Shariʿati’s use of the Qur’an and traditional Islamic symbols in his writings and public performances will be analyzed in light of the anthropological work of James C. Scott, with particular reference to Scott’s categories of the public and hidden transcripts. Here, Shariʿati’s basic methodology will be outlined, along with several of the themes central to his thought.

This section will show that Shariʿati utilized a symbolic interpretation of the Qur’an for the purposes of narrating his contemporary political landscape and calling for revolutionary action. Shariʿati distinguished between two kinds of religion, tauhid and shirk, one which represented equality and the unity of all human beings with one another and with God, and the other which represented the stratification of human society and the domination of certain groups over others. Shariʿati used typological figures from the Qur’an (Cain, Qarun, Balaam, Pharaoh) to refer covertly to his political enemies, and he used other typological figures (Adam, Abel, Moses) to instill a sense of dignity and empowerment in the oppressed masses. In short, he used the traditional symbols of Islamic scripts to forge a functional vocabulary for Iranian liberation.

Second, Shariʿati’s interpretation of the hajj, a central Islamic ritual, will be evaluated in light of the anthropological work of Victor Turner, with particular reference to Turner’s categories of anti-structure, liminality, and communitas. According to Turner, the ordinary function of the liminal phase of the ritual process is to reinforce ordinary societal structures by means of inversion, that is, through a period of anti-structure that functions to highlight societal differences by temporarily eliminating them. It will be shown, however, that just as Shariʿati used the official transcript of the Qur’an and other traditional symbols to allude to an offstage transcript of revolution, in the case of his interpretation of the hajj, Shariʿati subverts the ritual process by identifying the temporary liminal phase, together with its induced experience of classless communitas, as ontologically normative.

Briefly in conclusion, basic features of the subsequent Iranian revolution will be detailed. The revolution’s ultimate failure to conform to Shariʿati’s vision will be described in terms of Turner’s three stages of communitas and the inevitable cycle of structure of anti-structure.


Ali Shariʿati (1933–1977) was an Iranian educator, sociologist, and activist during a period of intense political turmoil in pre-revolutionary Iran. Sharply at odds with the repressive Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a dictator supported by Western colonialists and U.S. military,1 as well as by the Islamic clergy in Iran, Shariʿati’s lectures and public speeches made him a champion to an emerging revolutionary generation, as well as a direct threat to the regime. In 1972 he was arrested and imprisoned by the Shah and kept in solitary confinement for eighteen months. In 1975, bowing to popular and international pressure, the government released Shariʿati. He would die two years later at the age of forty-four, an exile in England, where many of his supporters believe he was assassinated by the Shah’s secret police (a fact which tells us more about his significance to the people of Iran than it does about the actual circumstances of his death.)2 Though his death came two years prior to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini, Shariʿati has nevertheless been called the “ideologue of the Iranian Revolution,”3 perhaps justifiably so.

James C. Scott and Hidden Transcripts

Social scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott ignited a revolution in the study of religious texts subsequent to the publication of his Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts in 1990.4 Scott’s study of peasant and agrarian societies led him to discover certain recurring dynamics of discourse in contexts where asymmetrical power relations obtain, that is to say, in political economies in which a dispossessed class is dominated by an elite, ruling class. The main lines of Scott’s observations are as follows.

In political economies marked by inequitable power relations, such as in systems of chattel slavery or under colonization, the norm is for the political discourse of the dominated to “dissemble,” that is, “to feign obedience and loyalty to the colonial overlords while pursuing its own hidden agenda.”5 On the surface of such an economy there is what Scott has called the “public transcript,” which represents the “official” interpretation of political events and power relations, engineered and controlled by the ruling elites. Invariably, eddying beneath the surface of such an economy, there is also the “hidden transcript,” a clandestine discourse produced by the subjects of domination. The official, public transcript is “a shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate,”6 whereas the unofficial, hidden transcript is the “discourse that takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders.”7 Put differently, the public, “onstage,” transcript represents “the self-portrait of dominant elites as they would have themselves seen,”8 while the hidden, “offstage,” transcript, is the discourse of the oppressed, and represents what they truly think about their rulers.

Not surprisingly, the hidden transcript is often “derivative in the sense that it consists of those offstage speeches, gestures, and practices that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript.”9 This is significant, because the derivative character of the hidden transcript allows the oppressed, in the midst of onstage performances of the public transcript, to insert allusions—generally (or hopefully) imperceptible to the ruling elites—to the hidden transcript, thus counterfeiting conformity to the architecture of the powerholders while simultaneously engendering solidarity among the dispossessed collaborators. Despite designs for resistance that parade just behind the facade of servile genuflection, the public discourse of the subordinated nevertheless continues to conform to the public transcript and defer to the “flattering self-image of elites”10because it is “simply a matter of survival for the powerless to appear compliant and obedient.”11 Scott calls this third form of discourse—which is a commixture of the public and the private transcripts in a single onstage performance—a “politics of disguise and anonymity.” Though it takes place onstage, where the actors are the most vulnerable, it is “designed to have a double meaning,” one that serves “to shield the identity of the actors,” as a means of protection. Yet “a partly sanitized, ambiguous and coded version of the hidden transcript is always present in the public discourse of the subordinate groups.”12 As Scott has observed, “subordinate groups have typically learned . . . to clothe their resistance and defiance in ritualisms of subordination that serve both to disguise their purposes and to provide them with a ready route of retreat that may soften the consequences of a possible failure.”13

Scott writes that “subordinate groups must find ways of getting their message across, while staying somehow within the law. This requires an experimental spirit and a capacity to test and exploit all the loopholes, ambiguities, silences, and lapses available to them. It means somehow setting a course at the very perimeter of what the authorities are obliged to permit or unable to prevent.”14 One way that subordinate groups do this is through cultural forms of expression such as dance, song, tales, texts, and rituals. This expression may take place in public, but “the condition of its public expression is that it be sufficiently indirect and garbled that it is capable of two readings, one of which is innocuous.” It is the innocuous meaning “that provides an avenue of retreat when challenged. These ambiguous, polysemic elements of folk culture mark off a relatively autonomous realm of discursive freedom on the condition that they declare no direct opposition to the public transcript.”15 Another reason for the expression of the hidden transcript through the cultural life of subordinate groups is that it constitutes a significant “riposte to an official culture that is almost invariably demeaning.”16

Finally, Scott notes that the chief benefit of cultural forms of expression of the hidden transcript is their amenability to polyvalence. “Symbolism and metaphor lends itself to disguise. By the subtle use of codes one can insinuate into a ritual, a pattern of dress, a song, a story, meanings that are accessible to one intended audience and opaque to another audience the actors wish to exclude.”17 If the excluded, dominant audience happens to grasp the seditious message, it is nevertheless difficult for them to react because the actors can retreat to the innocuous meaning of the rituals. Scott notes that “astute slaveholders undoubtedly realized that the attention to Joshua and Moses in slave Christianity had something to do with their prophetic roles as liberators. . . . But, since they were, after all, Old Testament prophets, slaves could hardly be punished for revering them as part of their—authorized—Christian faith.”18

Shariʿati’s Methodology

Shariʿati worked as a “sociologist of religion,” yet his interests were far from purely academic. Shariʿati strongly objected to the pretense of academic neutrality, recognizing that in tumultuous political times such as his, “neutrality” is anything but neutral—resulting, as it does, only in the tacit legitimation of the status quo. In Shariʿati’s world, the “neutral observer” could only be a coward or a collaborator.19 Yet his status as a social scientist served to shield him to a degree from charges of subversion. Shariʿati, as a sociologist and as an interpreter of Islam, was able to use the cover of historical and sociological description to speak (relatively) covertly in favor of direct revolution against the Shah and the religious elites of the period. By “reappropriating the language of liberation in Islamic terminology,”20 Shariʿati made it more difficult for his enemies to bring an accusation against him. In the language of anthropologist James C. Scott, Shariʿati was able to allude to an offstage “hidden transcript” of revolution while speaking in the mode of the official “public transcript” of the ruling and religious elites. The decision to use cultural and religious forms of expression to articulate a message of revolution is one that provides critical cover for revolutionaries who would otherwise be exposed and vulnerable if employing more direct revolutionary language.21 This also functioned as a riposte to the Shah’s embrace of Westernization.

However, it would not be fair to characterize Shariʿati’s appropriation of Islamic terminology as thoroughly utilitarian. It is not as though Shariʿati sought to import a completely foreign ideology of liberation into a framework that was Islamic in vocabulary only. To the contrary, Shariʿati shared with Frantz Fanon a strong disinclination to regurgitate the categories of European Marxism as if they had universal import. Rather than trying to apply First World solutions to Third World problems, “Shariʿati urged Third World people to deal with their own social realities and to discover the strength inherent within their own culture.”22 Thus Shariʿati had a second motivation for expressing an ideology of liberation in the language of Islam: Shariʿati “strongly believed in the Muslims’ ability to create their own renaissance by drawing inspiration from their own culture.”23 More significantly, without the creative reimagining of their common cultural and religious heritage, there could be no self-realization for his people.24

In a lecture delivered in Iran in 1968, Shariʿati outlined his fivefold methodology for achieving a proper understanding of Islam.25 The first method is “typology.” By this Shariʿati means to ask what “type” of God the God of Islam is. The characteristics of God must be sought in the Qur’an and in the pronouncements of the immediate disciples of Muhammad ibn Abdullah. The God of Islam is further illuminated when he is compared with the gods of other religions.26 The second method is the study of the Qur’an, specifically in order to discover what issues it emphasizes most frequently. “Does it speak more of the life of this world or more of the hereafter? Does it discuss questions of individual morality more, or social questions?”27 The third method is the study of the personality of Muhammad. Muhammad should be analyzed as a human figure, and as a prophet of God, and Muhammad should finally be compared with the prophets of other religions to discover the distinguishing features.28 The fourth method is to study the Sitz im Leben of Muhammad. In other words, what was the socio-political situation out of which Muhammad emerged, and in what ways did he engage that socio-political situation?29 The fifth method is to study what in Catholic terminology would be called the “saints” of Islam, to see what sort of products the “factory” of Islam has produced. These “saints” should be compared with those of other religions, so that their distinguishing features may be identified.30

At first glance, this fivefold methodology may seem straightforward and fairly innocuous. Yet it is how Shariʿati goes about answering these questions that is significant. For Shariʿati, religious language is primarily a symbolic language that has continuing power and relevance only to the extent that it is able to be infused with “new meanings” again and again according to the needs of each successive generation.31 The value of religious language “is more profound and eternal than that of expository language, i.e., the clear and explicit language that expresses meaning directly. A simple and straightforward language, one deprived of all symbol and image, may be easier for purposes of instruction, but it has no permanence.”32 If the language of a set of scriptures is not versatile enough to be appropriated by different generations and societies, then those scriptures do not have staying power and can be shown to be false. Yet “all literary works written in symbolic language are immortal.”33

Good religious literature is able to conceal “profound ideas in images that apparently mean something else but have an inner significance that man can discover in accordance with his own degree of profundity.”34 An implication of Shariʿati’s language, understood by his audience, is that those who do not find impetus for revolution in the text of the Qur’an must be reading it with a lesser “degree of profundity.” In this way, from seemingly innocuous sacred folktales and historical narratives, Shariʿati was able to parse a substantially developed revolutionary ideology “for the purpose of establishing equality and justice in society.”35

A corollary method of Shariʿati’s is to home in on a specific word and by means of some quick etymological work to attach revolutionary significance to it. For example, Shariʿati focuses on the word “rib” in the account of the formation of Eve from Adam. Shariʿati argues that the translation “rib” is incorrect. According to him, the Arabic word translated into Persian as “rib” actually means “nature, disposition or constitution.”36 Thus, in response to those scholars and philosophers who have “always tried to belittle the nature of woman and present the nature of man as superior,” Shariʿati can point to the Qur’an which, according to him, says, “We have created Eve from the same nature or disposition as Adam; man and woman proceed from the same substance.”37

In another place, Shariʿati discusses the significance of the various words for “religion.” Words such as madhhab, din, silk, shariʿat, which are translated regularly as “religion” or “law,” originally meant highway, road, narrow mountain path, and path leading to a river. From this observation Shariʿati launches into an indictment of organized religion. Madhhab means “path, not aim.”38 People have made the path an end in itself. They have camped out on the road instead of walking along it, turning the highway into “some sort of sacred park or clubhouse.”39 Shariʿati goes so far as to suggest that “non-Muslims are in fact better situated than Muslims in today’s world,” because even though the non-Muslims are not on the straightest path, they will eventually reach the destination. But “as for the people who are supposedly on the right path, either they are not walking correctly, or they are shuffling along. Maybe they are even sitting down and discussing the merits of the road! Or maybe they are simply walking around in circles, gazing admiringly on themselves.”40 As if this language were not strong enough, Shariʿati goes on to identify such Muslims as idolaters: “the worshippers of cows have outpaced the worshippers of God, and our pious believers are not even aware of it.”41 Thus with cursory attention to the very patent etymologies of the Qur’anic words for “religion,” Shariʿati has found another way to indict the religious elite, without once identifying them explicitly.

By now it should be clear how what appears prima facie to be a common sense fivefold hermeneutical method can function as the framework for a thoroughly revolutionary interpretation of Islam. Any aspect of God, the Qur’an, Muhammad’s personality, Muhammad’s Sitz im Leben, or the lives of the Islamic “saints,” can be exploited by Shariʿati for his liberative agenda. For instance, Shariʿati can capitalize on the contingent fact in early Islam, prior to the Umayyad caliphate, that the companions and disciples of Muhammad were not members of an elite social class. “Who is the intellectual, who the activist, who the cleric? Absolutely no such classifications exist. Everyone promulgates Islam, fights, and also farms, cultivates dates, or herds camels. That is, each person is simultaneously worker, warrior, and intellectual.”42 Shariʿati goes on to argue that the class of “clerics” does not appear until later in Islam’s history, and that with the development of an elitist clerical class comes the addition of many elements to the official religion—elements reflecting exclusively the interests of the ruling classes. In this way Shariʿati is able to appeal to a particular period in the history of Islam and classify it as “normative” in service of his revolutionary interests. The contingent economic status of certain figures from that period is made into a symbol of class struggle. The modern-day clerics and their religion in service of the Shah are thereby undermined by reference to sacred history.

Tauhid and Shirk: A Macrodialectic

Undoubtedly the central and most fundamental component of Shariʿati’s thought is the dialectic between monotheism (tauhid) and multitheism (shirk). I have called this a “macrodialectic” in order to convey the totalizing character of this polarity from Shariʿati’s point of view. All of human history reflects the dialectic between tauhid and shirk.43 Everything that is wrong with human society can be reduced to shirk, while everything that is good and true derives from tauhid. The expression of this perpetual struggle in human society is, according to Shariʿati, an extension of the dialectic within the human being between good and evil, God and Satan. That is to say, the conflict between the unity of all things in the unified God (tauhid) and the stratification of human societies and nations according to the number of “the gods” (shirk) is an institutionalization of the original conflict between the will to submission and the will to power within the singular human individual.

Shariʿati neatly summarizes the significance of tauhid for his purposes: “Islam, very simply, is a philosophy of human liberation. Its first summons, ‘Say “There is no god but God” and prosper,’ propounds tauhid as the necessary means to that end.”44 The connection between the confession of God’s oneness and prosperity is precisely that to which Shariʿati wishes to call attention, for at root the conflict between tauhid and shirk is a conflict between a public and a privatized economy.45 Thus, for Shariʿati, the confession of the unity of God is much more than a metaphysical claim about God’s nature. It is simultaneously an economic and a political claim. In Shariʿati’s idiosyncratic sense, tauhid signifies nothing less than “regarding the whole universe as a unity, instead of dividing it into this world and the hereafter, the natural and the supernatural, substance and meaning, body and spirit. It means regarding the whole of existence as a single form.”46 The political significance of tauhid lies in the conviction that “the existential unity of God logically and intellectually requires the unity of humanity upon the earth.”47 This unity necessitates the negation of class distinctions and renders incomprehensible the privatization of natural resources and means of production.48

Shirk, on the other hand, manifests itself whenever and wherever human beings set out to dominate one another, in whatever form. Shirk is multitheism, the confession that there are many gods, but as with tauhid, this is much more than a merely metaphysical or celestial claim. It is a cosmological or terrestrial assertion. Shirk is used to legitimate nationalism,49 whereas the Umma (or “ideal society”) contradicts the logic of nationalism.50 Shirk is essentially an economic position. “Its roots are in the ownership of a minority over the abased majority. It is this very factor of economics and the seeking of superiority which requires a religion in order to preserve and legitimate itself and eternalize its way of life.”51 For Shariʿati, therefore, shirk is whatever metaphysics or ontology is used to convince the people that social stratification and inequality is “the way things really are.” Often it manifests itself in literal polytheistic mythologies, as with Buddhism, Greco-Roman religion, and Hinduism.52 Yet according to Shariʿati’s use of the term, it is not uncommon to find shirk hiding behind the mask of tauhid.53 For instance, Zoroastrianism purports to be a monotheistic religion because it advocates the worship of one God, yet for Shariʿati it is shirk because Zoroastrianism’s division of the sacred fire into three flames is used as a legitimation of a three-tiered caste system. Thus, although it presents itself as tauhid in its metaphysical claims, its physical manifestations betray its true nature as multitheism.54

In Shariʿati’s view, moreover, not even Islam is beyond the reach of shirk. Idolatry has infiltrated and hijacked the Prophet’s religion almost from the very beginning. The idols of multitheism take many forms, “whether it be Lat or Uzza55 or a machine or virtues or capital, whether blood or ancestor, whatever it is in any period, these are idols before Allah, before God.”56 Thus, shirk is the norm throughout history, and Islam is no exception to the rule. During the time of Ali, the “guardians of multitheism” found it useful to put on the veil, the hijab, of monotheism. This made Ali’s struggle against them very difficult and ultimately a failure, because they “no longer spoke of preserving customs but rather placed the Holy Qur’an on their spearpoints.”57 This multitheism behind the hijab is marked by violent jihad, by the drive to conquer non-Islamic territories and rule them.58 Yet true monotheism denounces such a jihad, knowing that true religion will only be realized at the end of time. True tauhid “does not accept any of those who have ruled people in history under the mask of monotheism.”59

Nevertheless, according to Shariʿati, “all of the ulama and Islamic scholars are followers of this, defenders and glorifiers of religious slogans, and it is the slogan of the religion of the Holy Prophet but inwardly it is that very multitheism.”60 In the terminology of some revolutionary Christian traditions, this is called “Constantinianism.” It is the religion of the wealthy aristocracy, “who have ruled in their own society without having any responsibilities,” the religion of “the insatiable people who live in ease and luxury.”61 It is “the religion which is indifferent to the life situation of people.”62 Just as this religion “rules in the Middle Ages in the name of Jesus and in the name of Moses,” so too “the caliph who goes upon the jihad and goes to the hajj” is in reality an agent of multitheism.63

This religion of legitimation takes two forms, usually at different stages. Initially it is expressly a religion of coercion, as it is with those who have put the Qur’an on their spearheads. Yet once violence has been used to achieve political domination in the name of tauhid, the religion of coercion gives way to the religion of ignorance and docility.64 Ignorance, for Shariʿati, is itself a form of idolism that is propagated by the ruling elites out of fear of the ramifications of widespread social consciousness.65 One strategy to prevent this is to divide and conquer. Western societies especially promulgate an ontology of individualism. This is a “religion which opens separate metaphysical accounts for each of its members so that through this means, the assembling of people would be transformed into dispersion and isolation.”66

This religion of docility expresses itself in the language of predetermination and in Islam capitalizes on the custom of Muslims to defer to the will of God. This religion says to the people, “The situation which you have or which your society has is a situation which you and your society must have because this is the manifestation of God’s will. It is destiny and fate.”67 Furthermore, “any efforts to try and change the situation, to try to improve the life of the people is to oppose God’s will.”68 Shariʿati attributes the appearance of the notion of predetermination within Islam to Mu’awiyah and the Umayyid caliphate. Because of this belief, “Muslims were held back from taking any kind of responsibility or action or making criticism.”69 This religion of legitimation has also manifested itself in the ivory tower elitism of an Ibn Sina, far removed from the concerns of the people on the ground, as well as in the mysticism of a Hallaj, which is dedicated solely to the dissolution of the self in order to achieve unity with God.70 Shariʿati frequently concurs with Marx and the “European intellectuals” that this religion is the opium of the masses,71 producing in them “an inner, ideological surrender,” which is “surrender to their abjectness, difficulties, wretchedness and ignorance, surrender to the static situation which they are obliged to have.”72 The religion of shirk legitimates such an existence by holding out the promise of bliss in the hereafter. It says, “If you do not have food here, you do not have bread, have patience. There you will be given a table of paradise.”73

Shariʿati’s agreement with Marx’s critique of religion is so strong on this point that he is even able to affirm that the European intellectuals were working with the grain of tauhid as they tore down the idols of shirk, though they did not understand their own actions in this way.74 Their only flaw was their inability to identify two religions at odds with each other—the religion of legitimation which is human in origin, and the religion of revolution which is divine. “The error is that in the view of history, a religion does not exist but rather, religions.”75

The religion of tauhid is a religion of opposition that of necessity takes an ad hoc form. It is “a movement of criticism against history and it has never been realized in a perfect form.”76 Shariʿati recognizes that in sharp contrast to the jihad of political domination and oppression, the jihad (“struggle”) of tauhid is a losing jihad. The prophets and pursuers of tauhid “struggled, resisted and undertook jihad whereby they were destroyed and their followers were poisoned in prison or killed and massacred by means of those who ruled in God’s Name.”77 Yet it is a jihad that does not lose sight of the goal, a struggle that does not lose faith that “the inevitable outcome of history will be the triumph of justice, equity and truth.”78 Despite the threat of martyrdom, “our responsibility is to put forth efforts for the realization of that religion in the future.”79 This will be achieved only at the “end of time,”80 but in the meantime, the essential task of the religion of monotheism “is rebellion, denial and saying ‘no’ before any other power.”81 This fundamental negation of other gods is, according to Yadegari, “a negation of aristocracy, expediency, and political intrigue.”82 Yadegari summarizes Shariʿati cogently: “Any system that exerts dominance on the lives of the people is god-like and therefore is incompatible with the monotheistic tenets of Islam.”83


A pervasive strategy of Shariʿati’s is to narrate the contemporary political scene in terms of choice typological characters selected from the Qur’an. For instance, Shariʿati uses the figure of Adam to represent the people. Shariʿati reads Adam as a symbol of humanity.84 In response to secular humanism and as a weapon against the dehumanization of the Iranian people under the Shah, Shariʿati derives what he calls “true humanism”85 from the Adamic narratives in the Qur’an. Adam is identified as God’s “viceregent” on earth and is charged with propagating balance and justice throughout the earth.86 “In Islam man is not humbled before God, for he is the partner of God, His friend, the bearer of His trust upon the earth. He enjoys affinity with God,” and is even called a relative of God.87 It is therefore the task of humanity “to create a human paradise in nature.”88 In the Qur’an, the angels are commanded to fall prostrate before Adam (7:11). For Shariʿati, this is because Adam was given knowledge of “the Names” whereas the angels were not.89 “The Names,” according to Shariʿati’s view, are a symbol of scientific truths, and humanity’s possession of the knowledge of these truths is humanity’s unique dignity in all of creation.90

Aware of all the secrets of nature, man becomes a power enjoying kingship over the world; in front of him there bow down in submission all material and spiritual forces, earth and heaven, the sun and the moon, and even God’s angels, including the highest among them. Man is thus a creature and a creator, a servant and a master; he is a conscious, seeing, creative, decisive, knowing, wise, purposeful, pure and exalted will, the bearer of God’s trust and His viceregent on earth, an eternal creature of paradise.91

Humanity’s awareness of nature’s secrets comes with a considerable responsibility: “Man must fashion his destiny with his own hands. Human society is responsible for its own fate.”92

From his interpretation of Adam, Shariʿati draws four concluding principles: (1) the kinship of all humans; (2) the equality of men and women; (3) humanity’s knowledge is its superiority over all creation; (4) humanity is responsible for its own destiny.93 In this way, Shariʿati is able to reconfigure the themes of secular humanism within the categories of the Qur’an. He is even able to argue that Marxist humanism is inferior to Islamic humanism because Marxism’s commitment to materialism undermines the basis of human dignity.94 In Adam’s viceregency and in Eve’s equality with Adam, Shariʿati has given the Iranian people the dignity and the sense of responsibility necessary to “create a human paradise” in Iran.

Another typology utilized extensively by Shariʿati is that of Cain and Abel. Based on the narratives in the Qur’an and in the traditional commentaries, Shariʿati finds in Cain and Abel a type of economic shirk and a type of economic tauhid respectively. From the sacrifices of Abel and Cain, Shariʿati derives their respective occupations and the corresponding economic structures. Abel represents the hunter/gatherer and thus primitive socialism. Cain represents the rise of agriculture and with it the privatization of land and means of production.95 Shariʿati argues that initially property was taken by force; it did not originate as a legal fiction.96 Thus the character of “Cain” was corrupted by the structure of his production—that of private ownership. Similarly, the character of “Abel” was preserved by his structure—that of common dominion and mutual participation.97 Cain’s murder of Abel is therefore not, for Shariʿati, about the immorality of murder. Rather, it is a symbol of the end of primitive communism and the emergence of exploitative economics. Cain and Abel are not historical figures, but they are symbols of historical facts, according to Shariʿati.98 With these typologies of Cain and Abel, Shariʿati is able to divide human history between these two poles of unified and stratified economic systems. Abel’s nonviolence is a type of martyrdom, while “every representative of the ‘system of Cain’ behaves in the same way.”99 In other words, economic exploitation is a kind of murder.

Shariʿati critiques Marx for conceiving of various modes of production each as a unique economic structure. The modes of production in primitive socialism, slavery, serfdom, feudalism, bourgeois mercantilism, bourgeois capitalism and industrial proletarianism are all for Marx distinct economic structures, whereas for Shariʿati they are merely superstructures. In Shariʿati’s view, only two structures have ever existed and there can never be a third. One is the structure of Cain which is the private ownership of the resources and means of production. The other is the structure of Abel which is no ownership, or public or common ownership, of the resources and means of production.100

For Shariʿati, the conflict between these two economic structures is the basic conflict of human society—the original conflict. Shariʿati critiques a Freudian reading of the Cain and Abel story. In the traditional commentaries on the Qur’an, the reason for the sacrifice was that Cain envied Abel’s wife, who was more beautiful than his own. Adam suggested that whoever gave the sacrifice most pleasing to God would win the wife allotted to Abel. Abel sacrificed a valuable camel. Cain sacrificed a withered ear of corn. A Freudian reading would wish to attribute the murder of Abel to Cain’s sexuality. His lust for Abel’s wife drove him to murder his brother. But Shariʿati argues that if sexuality were Cain’s primary motivating factor, why did he offer only a withered ear of corn? The reality is that Cain’s desire to possess Abel’s wife as his own object of lust is the result of a prior deficiency in Cain rooted in the economic structure of privatization. The economics of privatization was always Cain’s motivating factor, as exemplified in his offer of a useless ear of corn in exchange for a woman. Cain was a miser.101

Thus Shariʿati was able to appropriate the religious symbols of Islam in order to rival European Enlightenment notions of human liberation and underwrite an Islamic ideology of revolution relevant to his own context. “Shariʿati used this interpretation to emphasize that it is evil for an individual or group of individuals to control the lives of others, and he exhorted oppressed peoples to defy their oppressors.”102

Shariʿati frequently uses other typological figures from the Qur’an and from history as symbols of the Shah and his sycophantic regime of clerics. Shariʿati later talks about the “three manifestations” of Cain: political, economic and religious. In Shariʿati’s symbolic reading of the Qur’an, “the Pharaoh is the symbol of the ruling political power; Qarun is the symbol of the ruling economic power; and Balaam is the symbol of the official, ruling clergy. They are the threefold manifestation of the single Cain.”103 In another place, Shariʿati uses the same three types in a cryptic call to revolution. “Look at Moses. Did Moses not rebel before three symbols? [Qarun], the greatest capitalist of his time. Balaam, the greatest priest of that deviated religion of multitheism. And the Pharaoh, the greatest symbol of political power of his time. Did he not arise against the status quo?”104 Although it is not explicit, the contemporary counterparts to Shariʿati’s three manifestations of Cain would have been clear to every member of his audience. Qarun stood for the Western colonialists (specifically the United States). Balaam stood for the clerics. Pharaoh stood for the Shah. Shariʿati subsequently describes the Pharaoh as “an arrogant leader who rebels against God’s Command, who is the legitimizer of discrimination, is destroyed and replaced by monotheism which signifies the unity of society and humanity.”105 A clearer call to arms would be difficult to come by. Within two years after delivering this speech, Shariʿati was arrested and imprisoned by the Shah.

Centrality of Al-Nas

A distinctive feature of Shariʿati’s thought is his emphasis on al-nas (“the people,” or “the masses”). The constant references to al-nas in the Qur’an represent, in Shariʿati’s view, a socialistic message.106 Shariʿati’s Islam is fundamentally and essentially anti-clerical. Thus, “When it is said, ‘Religion belongs to God,’ the meaning is that the entire structure and content of religion belongs to the people; it is not a monopoly held by a certain institution or certain people known as ‘clergy’ or ‘church.’”107 On his reading, when the Qur’an says that “Allah is the Lord of the People, King of the People, and the God of the People,” what is implied is that Allah is not the God of the aristocracy.108 God is on the side of the people, over against the ruling classes. “Within every class society, two hostile and opposing classes have existed: on the one hand, king, owner and aristocracy, and on the other, God and the people.”109 God’s solidarity with the people is so strong that the distinction between them is not always clear in the Qur’an, according to Shariʿati: “Allah stands in the same rank as al-nas, in such a fashion that wherever in the Qur’an social matters are mentioned, Allah and al-nas are virtually synonymous. The two words are often interchangeable, and yield the same meaning.”110

As an example, Shariʿati cites Sur. 64:17: “If you make a generous loan to God He will multiply it for you and forgive you.” To Shariʿati, “it is obvious that what is meant by God is in reality ‘people,’ for God has no need of any loans from you.”111 This interpretation is not original to Shariʿati, however. With reference to Sur. 24:33, Shariʿati traces it back to Abu Dharr, companion of Muhammad ibn Abdullah. In a discussion between Abu Dharr and Mu’awiyah, the latter said, “Property belongs to God.” Retorted Abu Dharr, “You say this in order to draw the conclusion that since I am the representative of God, property belongs to me. Say instead, ‘Property belongs to the people.’”112 Shariʿati sees this identification of God with the people as one of the central messages of the Qur’an. This conviction is exemplified cogently when he says, “The Qur’an begins in the name of God and ends in the name of the people.”113

The centrality of al-nas to Shariʿati’s thought leads him to add a fourth cause of social change to the traditional three causes posited by sociologists. The typical causes of social change found in the orthodox canons of sociology are accident (historical contingency), determinism (universal laws of society and nature), and personality (influential and charismatic figures that inspire social transformation).114 But Shariʿati pioneers a fourth cause from his reading of the Qur’an, that of al-nas, which to Shariʿati is the primary and most mature cause of social change. In Christianity for instance, the primary cause of social change is said to be a singular personality, that of Jesus Christ. Christians are “pure hero-worshippers.”115 But Islam is not a cult of personality. “In the Qur’an, the Prophet is not recognized as the active cause of fundamental change and development in human history.”116 Rather, “the Prophet is sent to al-nas” and “the whole responsibility for society and history is borne by al-nas.”117 Thus, although the eschatology of tauhid, as we have seen, dictates that tauhid will not be realized until the end of time, and although Islam looks forward to the return of the Messiah Jesus who will judge the nations, the distinction here is that the realization of the utopian society is not something that will be accomplished by a salvific personality. It can only be accomplished by al-nas. Shariʿati concludes that

Islam is the first school of social thought that recognizes the masses as the basis, the fundamental and conscious factor in determining history and society—not the elect as Nietzsche thought, not the aristocracy and nobility as Plato claimed, not great personalities as Carlyle and Emerson believed, not those of pure blood as Alexis Carrel imagined, not the priests or the intellectuals, but the masses.118

In this way, by highlighting the Qur’an’s emphasis on al-nas, Shariʿati is again able to appropriate the ideology of liberation in the language of Islam, giving it a distinctive character. The Qur’an is used to instill a sense of dignity and a strong sense of responsibility into Shariʿati’s audience. The message is encoded in the language of sociological description, enough to give Shariʿati plausible deniability. Yet the message is clear. The people of Iran are responsible for their own destinies. No Shah or Messiah is going to deliver them from bondage. They are obligated to come together in the name of God and deliver themselves.

Victor Turner and Liminality

According to Victor Turner, the ritual process names the transition of an individual from one state to another. Between the two states, or structures, the subjects of ritual are often removed from their ordinary routine in order to undergo an interstructural, or liminal, period.119 In this period, the subjects of ritual are sometimes given new names denoting their liminal status. The symbols of the ritual process communicate the ambiguity of the interstructural period. This ambiguity is further expressed in the removal of all identifying features and normal status symbols; the distinction between male and female is abrogated; they are stripped of rank, status and property. All are considered equals. “The liminal group is a community or comity of comrades and not a structure of hierarchically arrayed positions. This comradeship transcends distinctions of rank, age, kinship position, and, in some kinds of cultic group, even of sex.”120 In Turner’s words, the liminal subjects are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.”121

Turner distinguished between three elements of liminality:122 The first is the communication of sacra through exhibitions (“what is shown”), actions (“what is done”), and instructions “what is said”).123 Here “the symbols represent the unity and continuity of the community; they are simple in form, but, because of their multivocality, they are often given complex cultural interpretations.”124 A second is the deconstruction and reconfiguration of well-known cultural patterns, in which familiar aspects of the sacra are exaggerated or distorted. “The outstandingly exaggerated feature is made into an object of reflection.”125 “These representations force the ritual adepts to think about their society; they provoke the ritual subjects to reflect on the basic values of their social and cosmological order.”126 The third element is the oversimplification of the normal social architecture. “Between the ritual subjects the sociostructural distinctions disappear in favor of an absolute equality.”127 This third element of liminality, the equality of the liminal subjects, relates to Turner’s notion of communitas.

Communitas names the neophytes’ experience of comradeship during the liminal period. It refers to the status of being liminal, marginal, inferior, and equal.128 Turner distinguishes between two modes of society, communitas and structure. “Communitas can generally be defined in opposition to structure: Communitas appears where structure does not.”129 The structured society is arranged hierarchically according to status, caste, gender, etc. Communitas emerges as anti-structure, though its function is not always to challenge structure, but rather to reinforce it. “Liminality implies that the high could not be high unless the low existed, and he who is high must experience what it is like to be low.”130 When rulers are subjected to liminality it is not to undermine their status within structured society, but rather to qualify it. The effect this has is to legitimize the hierarchy by a narrative in which the elites learn to rule justly and compassionately through their experience as a “commoner.” Yet Turner is careful to note that the subjection of the elites to the liminal process is not merely a ploy to bring legitimacy to prevailing social institutions, but also “a matter of giving recognition to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society.”131 Nevertheless, ultimately the subjects are “released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas.”132

Turner argues that there is a dialectic between communitas and structure, one that is cyclical but which ultimately reinforces structure. “Maximization of communitas provokes maximization of structure, which in turn produces revolutionary strivings for renewed communitas.”133 Turner contends that “no society can function adequately without this dialectic.”134 Yet the harder the push for communitas within this dialectic, the harder the pendulum swings in the direction of structure. “Exaggeration of structure may well lead to pathological manifestation of communitas outside or against ‘the law.’ Exaggeration of communitas, in certain religious or political movements of the leveling type, may be speedily followed by despotism, overbureaucratization, or other modes of structural rigidification.”135

Turner distinguished between three modalities of communitas in society:136 (1) existential communitas, which is spontaneous, a singular event; (2) normative communitas, in which the “necessity for social control” drives members to organize communitas “into a perduring social system”;137 and (3) ideological communitas, which refers to “a variety of utopian models of societies based on existential communitas.”138 Ideological communitas is, according to Turner, both “an attempt to describe the external and visible effects . . . of an inward experience of existential communitas, and to spell out the optimal social conditions under which such experiences might be expected to flourish and multiply.”139 Ideological communitas is generally pathological. Ultimately, therefore, the outcome of communitas is invariably a “decline and fall into structure and law,”140 subsequent to which a new appeal for communitas may emerge, perpetuating the cycle.141

The Hajj, Liminality, and Ideological Communitas

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, may be understood in the terms outlined above as a ritual process in which a Muslim transitions through a liminal period from one state to another. Within Islam, undertaking the hajj is considered a sacred duty, one that every able-bodied Muslim with means must perform at least once in his or her lifetime. Upon completion of the hajj, a Muslim becomes a hajji, an honorific title indicating that the Muslim has become a pilgrim, joining the ranks of Muhammad and Abraham.

The hajj is comprised of a number symbolic rituals that are designed to incite the Muslim to reflect upon the meaning of life, faith, and Islam. During the hajj, male pilgrims don the ihram, a simple white garment. Women are required to maintain their hijab. This practice functions to abrogate the distinctions between social statuses—all are equal in the sight of God. After arriving at Mecca for the week of the hajj, the gathered pilgrims begin the ceremony by walking seven times counter-clockwise around the Ka’bah, after which the pilgrims offer two prayers at the Place of Abraham inside the masjid. Next the pilgrims run or walk seven times between the hills of al-Safa and al-Marwah, a ritual reenactment of Hajra’s frantic search for water for her son Ishmael. They then drink water from the Zamzam Well, followed by a period of rest. The next day the pilgrims depart to Mina where they devote a night to prayer. The following morning, the pilgrims proceed to Mount Arafat and enter into a period of vigil, contemplation, prayer, and recitation of the Qur’an. After sunset, the pilgrims then make their way back to Mina, gathering stones along the way for the ritual Stoning of the Devil. This involves the stoning of three jamarat (pillars) which represent the Devil’s three temptations of Abraham as he was proceeding to sacrifice his son according to the command of Allah. After this, the pilgrims perform animal sacrifices, symbolizing God’s substitution of a ram for Ishmael. The pilgrims then return to the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca for another tawaf—circumbabulation around the Ka’bah—before a final Stoning of the Devil in Mina.

The hajj represents the ritual process through a transitional liminal state in which normal societal structures are removed in a period of anti-structure. As we have seen, this anti-structure often functions not to challenge but to reinforce structure; the temporary elimination of structure calls attention to it. The liminal subjects are called to reflect upon the shape and meaning of ordinary society through an experience of its dissolution.

Yet in some cases, this experience of liminality engenders a response to structure that calls for its permanent dissolution—the normativization of anti-structure. This is what Turner identifies as normative communitas. Ali Shariʿati fits squarely within this category.142 His interpretation of the hajj and its rituals seeks to extend the liminal state permanently, beyond the bounds of the ritual hajj, rendering anti-structure ontologically normative. For Shariʿati, the hajj does not reinforce normal societal structures, but undermines them. The hajj is a revelation not of what is, but of what ought to be. He writes, “It seems as if everything which God wished to say to humanity was spilled, all at once, into the hajj.”143 The hajj is Islam in action. It is not merely “an ideology, a command or a value. The hajj is all of Islam. Islam in words is the Quran. In human beings, it is the Imam. And in movement or action, the hajj.”144 Shariʿati enjoins Iranians to “make a hajj of concepts, not just the hajj of rituals.”145 In other words, the hajj is meant to change the way we think about, and therefore the way we act upon, society. The hajj is not a temporary lapse of the norm; it is the norm. It is reality itself. “Realism! Yea. Not as a goal but as a principle. A base for the flight towards the ideal and beyond.”146 The hajj is the “materialistic foundation” for an “idealism” that corresponds to ultimate reality.147

The ritual form of the hajj is not itself the hajj; it is merely a sign or a symbol of the hajj. The pilgrimage is life, life beyond Mecca. “The goal of the hajj is not the Ka’bah. You had thought so at the beginning. This is erroneous. Now learn that the hajj is not going to the Ka’bah. It is to depart from the Ka’bah.”148 Neither does the hajj end in Mina. Mina is where the hajj begins. “Mina is not the final stop nor the destination. Then when will the journey end? Where is the final destination of this caravan? Never. Nowhere.”149 The communitas that the hajj introduces to the collective people of God is not a liminal state but a normative state. The ritual hajj is a call, a summons. “Go towards Zamzam from the rock mountain of Marwah. Drink from it. Wash yourself in it. Take from it. And take some to your land and offer it to your people.”150 The communitas engendered by the ritual hajj is to be propagated beyond. Those who have undergone the ritual hajj become leaven in their societies—to transform society is to embark upon the true hajj.

Though in places Shariʿati denies that the hajj is ideological, in other places he admits that it is. Identifying the hajj as a jihad against shirk, Shariʿati writes that this “jihad is an ideological war.”151 The hajj is ideological in that it challenges the ideologies of gender, class, and racial differentiation and that of nationalism. For Shariʿati, the hajj rituals reveal an ideology of communitas, of anti-structure.

The donning of the ihram speaks to the equality of all human beings. By removing one’s ordinary clothes and all individual identifying markers, “Everyone sheds a skin and becomes human. . . . Everyone becomes the other. One becomes all and all become one. The multitheistic society attains monotheism. It becomes an ummah and an ummah is a society upon the way.”152 By removing the distinction between persons, the ihram reveals the person’s true humanity. “Clothes cover a person and what a great lie that a person wears clothes! The being human of a human is hidden. . . . Clothes are a fraud, a kufr, that is, the covering over of the truth.”153 When all wear white, the truth is revealed, the very truth that stratified society attempts to conceal.

Encrypted here is a critique of the Shah and of westernization. The ihram exposes the injustice of present arrangements. Shariʿati uses Cain to refer covertly to the Shah, the imamate, and the United States, who together have cut humankind’s unity into “ruler/condemned, . . . full/hungry, rich/poor, . . . oppressor/oppressed, colonialist/colonialized, exploiter/exploited, . . . employer/laborer, prosperous/wretched, white/black, eastern/western, civilized/uncivilized, Arab/non-Arab.”154 The masters of shirk have created racism, nationalism, classism, and have undermined Umma by prescribing allegiance to the nuclear family.155 The combination of all these various differentiations constitute for Shariʿati “an individual, a ‘me,’ and all of these in different clothes.”156 The ihram therefore symbolizes the reversal of the alienation of self from society as a whole. “O actor! Throw [your clothes] away at the appointed time. Put on the shroud. Wash out all colors. Wear white. Whiten and harmonize with all colors. Become all. Emerge from your me-ness like a snake which sheds its skin. Become the people.”157

The hajj is, moreover, a ludic representation of the story of Abraham, of Hagar. Participation in the hajj is to take on their role in the drama. “Whosoever you are, whether man or woman, whether old or young, whether black or white, because you have participated in this scene, you have the main role. . . . For here no distinction is made and even one’s sex is not relevant. There is only one hero and that is the human being! . . . There is no dispersion here, no distinction here, no classification. All are one and that one, All. Islam looks at human beings in this way!”158

The rituals of the hajj expose and destabilize the foundations of the stratified society. The search for water between Safa and Marwah reveals the common plight of all. “Everything is one here, all forms, moulds, appearances, titles, characteristics, personalities, limits, boundaries, distances, symbols, colors and patterns have been erased, have vanished—humanity uncovered and uncovered humanity.”159 Encoded here also is a critique of capitalism and Western economic exploitation. Shariʿati shares with Marx the conviction that capitalism alienates the self from society. He writes that “history, life and the anti-human social system has metamorphosized you. It has alienated you from your ‘self,’ from your primordial nature. It has made you a stranger.”160

The stratified society is deterministic; it assigns stations to human beings—“landowner/laborer.” But the hajj is nothing less than a rebellion “against this foolish determinism, this damned destiny.” It is a “turning away from vacillation, doubt, the rotation of life, production for consumption, consumption for production.”161 The circumbabulation around the Ka’bah is a march of freedom; it is the renunciation of privatization. “This is the bayt al-‘atiq. Atiq,” Shariʿati writes, “comes from the root ‘itq, meaning to free a slave. Atiq, freed! A house which is free from private ownership, the reign of tyrants and rulers. No one has power over it. The owner of the House is God and the household, the people.”162 The hajj liberates “all of those who have for years forgotten their being human, all of those who have become alienated by coercion, wealth, position, land or blood.”163 Likewise, the symbolic sacrifice at the Station of Abraham is a symbol of such liberation:

You are Abraham! Sacrifice your Ishmael with your own two hands. Place your knife at his throat in order to remove the knife from the throat of the masses, the masses who have continuously been slaughtered at the feet of palaces of power built from plundered treasures and at the threshold of deceiving, humiliating temples. Place the blade against the throat of your own Ishmael so that you gain the power to take the blade away from the executioner.164

The faith of Abraham is revealed as the faith necessary to resist economic exploitation. In Turner’s terminology, the sacrifice of Ishmael symbolizes the renunciation of the structural norms of the stratified society. The faith to renounce one’s ties to ordinary status symbols will be met, Shariʿati implies, by God’s intervention. Ishmael—the masses—will be replaced on the altar, the executioners disarmed, and the formerly executed will become the executors of justice.

For Shariʿati, the sacrifice of Ishmael is a symbol of martyrdom, but martyrdom is not so much a physical death as a rebirth of the self. The denial of the self is the denial of structure. Martyrdom, achieved through self-denial, is a state of consciousness. “Then, when in self, suddenly, in a revolutionary way, in giving over to death, you will be annihilated in a red death so that when you achieve martyrdom, you become a witness. Martyrdom (shahadat) means presence, means life, means whatever or whoever is perpetually present, is perceptible. A martyr is one who perpetually exists, is present, an observer, a visible and objective example, an eternal, living being!”165 Martyrdom thus represents the death of an old unconscious, fragmented self, and the birth of the socially and politically conscious collective. To be a martyr, to be an Ishmael, is to bear the responsibility for the unmaking and remaking of society.


In this essay I have introduced Ali Shariʿati’s basic methodology and several themes central to his thought. In light of the anthropological work of James C. Scott, with particular reference to Scott’s categories of the public and hidden transcripts, I have analyzed Shariʿati’s use of the Qur’an and traditional Islamic symbols in his writings and public performances. Shariʿati exploited his status as a sociologist as a disguise for his true identity as a revolutionary. He further utilized a symbolic interpretation of the Qur’an for the purposes of narrating his contemporary political landscape and calling for revolutionary action. Shariʿati distinguished between two kinds of religion, tauhid and shirk, one which represented equality and the unity of all human beings with one another and with God, and the other which represented the stratification of human society and the domination of certain groups over others. Shariʿati used typological figures from the Qur’an (Cain, Qarun, Balaam, Pharaoh) to refer covertly to his political enemies, and he used other typological figures (Adam, Abel, Moses) to instill a sense of dignity and empowerment in the oppressed masses. In short, he manipulated the traditional symbols of Islamic scripts to forge a functional vocabulary for Iranian liberation.

I have also analyzed Shariʿati’s interpretation of the hajj in light of Victor Turner’s categories of anti-structure, liminality, and communitas. Just as Shariʿati used the official transcript of the Qur’an and other traditional symbols to allude to an offstage transcript of revolution, in the case of his interpretation of the hajj, Shariʿati subverts the ritual process by identifying the temporary liminal phase, together with its induced experience of classless communitas, as ontologically normative. Shariʿati’s interpretation of the hajj may also be understood, in Scott’s categories, as a coded call for subversive engagement with Islamic rituals of subordination. The traditional rite of passage which ordinarily functions to reinforce social structure is translated into a ritual of conscientization which functions to underwrite an ideology of revolutionary (in)subordination.

Victor Turner distinguished between three modalities of communitas: (1) existential communitas, which is spontaneous, a singular event; (2) normative communitas, in which the “necessity for social control” drives members to organize communitas “into a perduring social system”;166 and (3) ideological communitas, which refers to “a variety of utopian models of societies based on existential communitas.”167 We have seen that Shariʿati fits squarely within the second category—normative communitas. Normative communitas calls for ideological communitas but falls short of expounding any models for its implementation. It is nevertheless pathological in that it refuses to accept the normativity of structure.

As Turner observes, however, pathological communitas is frequently “followed by despotism, overbureaucratization, or other modes of structural rigidification,”168 a “decline and fall into structure and law.”169 This was certainly the case with the Iranian Revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Prior to the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini had made strategic alliances with leftists, moderates, and democratic factions within Iran. The anti-Shah coalition was given the impression that Khomeini intended to be more of a religious leader than a political ruler.170 When questioned, Khomeini had claimed that “the religious dignitaries do not want to rule.”171 Khomeini promised an Islamic democracy that would outshine other democracies, but after his rise to power, all hopes for a democratic government were swiftly dashed. Khomeini later explicitly rejected democracy, saying, “Do not use this term, ‘democratic.’ That is the Western style.”172

Thus, “what began as an authentic and anti-dictatorial popular revolution based on a broad coalition of all anti-Shah forces was soon transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist power-grab.”173 In place of the promised democracy, Khomeini established a system of government he termed the “guardianship of the jurist,” a theocratic Islamic Republic led by himself as “Supreme Leader.”174 The constitution adopted granted Khomeini control over the military and security forces, and power to appoint key government and judicial officials. The Council of the Guardians was granted control over elections and veto power on legislation.

Khomeini had come to power by exploiting temporary allies,175 but by 1982 all allied and rival factions to the Khomeini government had been crushed and all power consolidated.176 Khomeini established the Revolutionary Guard, which became a “full-scale” military force177 and “the strongest institution of the revolution.”178 The Revolutionary Guard in cooperation with thousands of “Revolutionary Committees” and the Hezbollahi systematically wiped out opposition forces as well as newspapers and magazines critical of Khomeini.179 These forces served as “the eyes and ears” of the regime, making “arbitrary arrests, executions and confiscations of property.”180 In essence, one dictatorship was replaced with another. The revolutionary vision of Shariʿati, embraced by the people of Iran, had been betrayed.

Yet Shariʿati himself would hardly have been surprised by this turn of events. Like Turner, Shariʿati understood the perpetual cycle of the dialectic between structure and anti-structure. In fact, he predicted it. In his reflection on the ritual hajj, Shariʿati raised the question, Why is it necessary to engage in a second Stoning of the Devil after the sacrifice? If the victory had already been won, if the last base of Iblis had already been destroyed, why must the pilgrims stone it once more? His answer: “This is the lesson. It means that never neglect the dead Iblis who might regain life, for a revolution is threatened with destruction, even after victory. It is in constant danger of anti-revolution.”181 Anticipating the betrayal to come, Shariʿati issued this charge to the people of Iran:

O you soldier of tawhid! Do not lay down your arms after the victory of the Abrahamic revolution. Do not become intoxicated like victors. The danger of the revival of the defeated enemy still exists. Three bases of Iblis have fallen but they are still erect and have roots in the land of faith. . . . Therefore, continuously stone the idols. Pound these three idols as long as you are in the land of Mina, because Mina is the land of your faith and your love, the place of all of your desires and wishes, the front of your victories and glories, the final destination of your migration. It is your hajj and the highest peak of your perfection. . . . Faith is always endangered. And the rebel against God—taghut—is always rebellious. After the eid of Sacrifice, stone, as well. Stone the three every day as long as you are in Mina. That is to say, be in jihad all your life. . . . That is to say, take off your ihram but do not put down the pebbles.182

  1. Edward Shirley, Know Thine Enemy: A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran (Boulder: Westview, 1997), 207. [BACK]
  2. The best available biography of Shariʿati is Ali Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariʿati (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1998). See also, Naghi Yousefi, Religion and Revolution in the Modern World: Ali Shariʿati’s Islam and Persian Revolution (Lanham: University Press of America, 1995). [BACK]
  3. Ervand Abrahamian, “Ali Shariʿati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution,” in Islam, Politics and Social Movements (ed. Edmund Burke III and Ira M. Lapidus; Berkeley: University of California, 1988), 289–97. [BACK]
  4. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). This book represented the culmination of a series of studies: James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976; idem, “Protest and Profanation: Agrarian Revolt and the Little Tradition, Part I.” Theory and Society 4/1 (1977): 1–38; idem, “Protest and Profanation: Agrarian Revolt and the Little Tradition, Part II.” Theory and Society 4/2 (1977): 211–246; idem, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press (1985); idem, “Prestige as the Public Discourse of Domination.”Cultural Critique 12 (1989): 145–66. For an example of the appropriation of Scott’s work in biblical studies, see Richard A. Horsley, ed., Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004). [BACK]
  5. William R. Herzog, “Dissembling, A Weapon of the Weak: The Case of Christ and Caesar in Mark 12:13–17 and Romans 13:1–7.” Journal of the NABPR 21 (1994): 341. [BACK]
  6. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 2. [BACK]
  7. Ibid., 4. [BACK]
  8. Ibid., 18. [BACK]
  9. Ibid., 4–5. [BACK]
  10. Ibid., 18. [BACK]
  11. Herzog, “Dissembling,” 341. [BACK]
  12. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 18–19. [BACK]
  13. Ibid., 96. [BACK]
  14. Ibid., 138–39. [BACK]
  15. Ibid., 157. [BACK]
  16. Ibid., 158. [BACK]
  17. Ibid. [BACK]
  18. Ibid. Neil Elliott notes an example of this in Philo’s use of allegory to interpret the biblical texts in such a way as to ridicule Roman officials, without making explicit reference to them. Philo’s chosen genre, biblical allegory, “allows him a certain ‘deniability,’ a ‘disguise’ for his political views.” Elliott, “Strategies of Resistance and Hidden Transcripts in the Pauline Communities” in Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance, 114. [BACK]
  19. Hamid Algar, introduction to On the Sociology of Islam, by Ali Shariʿati (trans. Hamid Algar; Oneonta, New York: Mizan Press, 1979), 32. [BACK]
  20. Irfan A. Omar, “Islam,” in The Hope of Liberation in World Religions (ed. Miguel A. De La Torre; Waco: Baylor University, 2008), 107. [BACK]
  21. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 158. [BACK]
  22. Mohammad Yadegari, “Liberation Theology and Islamic Revivalism,” The Journal of Religious Thought (2001): 46. [BACK]
  23. Ibid., 48. [BACK]
  24. See Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 78. [BACK]
  25. This lecture has been published in Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 57–69. [BACK]
  26. Ibid., 64–65. [BACK]
  27. Ibid., 65. [BACK]
  28. Ibid., 65–66. [BACK]
  29. Ibid., 66. [BACK]
  30. Ibid., 67–68. [BACK]
  31. Yadegari, “Islamic Revivalism,” 41. [BACK]
  32. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 71. [BACK]
  33. Ibid., 72. [BACK]
  34. Ibid. An example of this for Shariʿati is the story of Adam which, if it were to be taken literally, would no longer be comprehensible after “fourteen centuries of progress in the human and natural sciences.” [BACK]
  35. Omar, “Islam,” 108. [BACK]
  36. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 75. He claims, wrongly, that this is the meaning of the Hebrew word also. [BACK]
  37. Ibid., 76. [BACK]
  38. Ibid., 93. [BACK]
  39. Ibid., 94. [BACK]
  40. Ibid. [BACK]
  41. Ibid. [BACK]
  42. Ali Shariʿati, Marxism and Other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique (trans. R. Campbell; North Haledon, New Jersey: Mizan Press, 1980), 105. [BACK]
  43. Algar, introduction to Sociology of Islam, 32, cogently summarizes the significance oftauhid for Shariʿati, who “examined history, the philosophy of history, religion and shariʿa, and sociology, all within the framework of the general world-view of tauhid, so that tauhidbecame the intellectual and ideological foundation of both a philosophy of history, uncovering the past fate of man and human society, and a prediction of their future destinies.” [BACK]
  44. Shariʿati, Marxism, 73. [BACK]
  45. See Ali Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion (trans. Laleh Bakhtiar; Chicago: ABC International, 2003), 32; also Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 98. [BACK]
  46. Ibid., 82. [BACK]
  47. Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 26. [BACK]
  48. Ibid., 48; Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 109. [BACK]
  49. Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 34–35. [BACK]
  50. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 119. [BACK]
  51. Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 34, emphasis mine. [BACK]
  52. Ibid., 52. [BACK]
  53. Ibid., 36. [BACK]
  54. Ibid., 51–52. [BACK]
  55. Lat and Uzza were pre-Islamic idols in the Arabian Peninsula. [BACK]
  56. Ibid., 30. [BACK]
  57. Ibid., 55. [BACK]
  58. Ibid. [BACK]
  59. Ibid., 57. [BACK]
  60. Ibid., 55. [BACK]
  61. Ibid., 40. [BACK]
  62. Ibid., 37. [BACK]
  63. Ibid. [BACK]
  64. Ibid., 33. [BACK]
  65. Ibid., 25, 38. [BACK]
  66. Ibid., 59. [BACK]
  67. Ibid., 32. [BACK]
  68. Ibid., 37. [BACK]
  69. Ibid. [BACK]
  70. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 68. [BACK]
  71. E.g. Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 35–37, 49. [BACK]
  72. Ibid., 35. [BACK]
  73. Ibid., 58. [BACK]
  74. Ibid., 60. [BACK]
  75. Ibid., 61. [BACK]
  76. Ibid., 40. [BACK]
  77. Ibid., 61. [BACK]
  78. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 109. [BACK]
  79. Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 41. [BACK]
  80. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 109. [BACK]
  81. Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 39. [BACK]
  82. Yadegari, “Islamic Revivalism,” 48. [BACK]
  83. Ibid., 46. [BACK]
  84. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 71, 88. [BACK]
  85. Ibid., 75. [BACK]
  86. Ibid., 73. [BACK]
  87. Ibid., 81, 77. [BACK]
  88. Ibid., 95. [BACK]
  89. Ibid., 75. [BACK]
  90. Ibid., 78, 75. [BACK]
  91. Ibid., 90. [BACK]
  92. Ibid., 78. [BACK]
  93. Ibid., 77. [BACK]
  94. Shariʿati, Marxism, 87. This is of course from Shariʿati’s perspective. [BACK]
  95. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 98. [BACK]
  96. Ibid., 100. [BACK]
  97. Ibid., 106–07. [BACK]
  98. Ibid., 103–04. [BACK]
  99. Ibid., 105. [BACK]
  100. Ibid., 111–15. [BACK]
  101. Ibid., 105–07. [BACK]
  102. Yadegari, “Islamic Revivalism,” 44. [BACK]
  103. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 115. [BACK]
  104. Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 31. [BACK]
  105. Ibid. [BACK]
  106. Cf. Omar, “Islam,” 104. [BACK]
  107. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 117. [BACK]
  108. Ibid., 118. [BACK]
  109. Ibid., 117–18. [BACK]
  110. Ibid., 116. [BACK]
  111. Ibid. [BACK]
  112. Ibid., 117; also Shariʿati, Religion vs. Religion, 47. [BACK]
  113. Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 117. The first words of the Qur’an are “In the name of God,” and the final surah is entitled, Al-Nas. He continues, “The Ka’ba is called the House of God, but the Qur’an also calls it the ‘house of the people’ and the ‘free house’ (al-bayt al-’atiq) (22:29, 33), as opposed to other houses that are in the bond of private ownership.” [BACK]
  114. Yadegari, “Islamic Revivalism,” 44; Shariʿati, Sociology of Islam, 45–46. [BACK]
  115. Ibid., 47. [BACK]
  116. Ibid., 48. [BACK]
  117. Ibid., 49. [BACK]
  118. Ibid. [BACK]
  119. Victor W. Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 93–103; idem, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure(Chicago: Aldine Transaction, 1969), 94–96. [BACK]
  120. Turner, The Forest of Symbols, 100. [BACK]
  121. Turner, The Ritual Process, 95. [BACK]
  122. Turner, The Forest of Symbols, 99–108; idem, On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985), 291–301; Victor W. Turner and Edith L. B. Turner, “Religious Celebrations,” in Celebration Studies in Festivity and Ritual (ed. Victor W. Turner; Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1982), 201–19. [BACK]
  123. Turner, The Forest of Symbols, 102. [BACK]
  124. Mathieu Deflem, “Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30/1 (1991): 14. [BACK]
  125. Turner, The Forest of Symbols, 103. [BACK]
  126. Deflem, “Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion,” 14. [BACK]
  127. Ibid. [BACK]
  128. Turner, The Ritual Process, 94–97, 125–130; idem, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 45–55. [BACK]
  129. Deflem, “Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion,” 14. See Turner, The Ritual Process, 96–97, 125–130. [BACK]
  130. Turner, The Ritual Process, 97. [BACK]
  131. Ibid. [BACK]
  132. Ibid., 129. [BACK]
  133. Ibid. [BACK]
  134. Ibid. [BACK]
  135. Ibid. [BACK]
  136. Ibid., 131–40. [BACK]
  137. Ibid., 132. [BACK]
  138. Ibid. [BACK]
  139. Ibid. [BACK]
  140. Ibid. [BACK]
  141. Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, 282. [BACK]
  142. Shariʿati’s work falls short of ideological communitas, in that he did not expound models for the implementation of normative communitas in society, thought we may surmise that Shariʿati would have advocated for some such model had he survived to see the Iranian revolution. [BACK]
  143. Ali Shariʿati, Hajj: Reflections on Its Rituals (trans. Laleh Bakhtiar; Albuquerque: ABJAD, 1992), 44. [BACK]
  144. Ibid. [BACK]
  145. Ibid., 158. [BACK]
  146. Ibid., 122. [BACK]
  147. Ibid., 123. [BACK]
  148. Ibid., 114. [BACK]
  149. Ibid., 117. [BACK]
  150. Ibid., 109. [BACK]
  151. Ibid., 42. [BACK]
  152. Ibid., 62. [BACK]
  153. Ibid., 58. [BACK]
  154. Ibid., 59. [BACK]
  155. Ibid. In identifying the emergence within a society of the concept of the nuclear family as a threat to equity, Shariʿati’s thought parallels that of Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International, 1972). [BACK]
  156. Shariʿati, Hajj, 59. [BACK]
  157. Ibid. [BACK]
  158. Ibid., 46. [BACK]
  159. Ibid., 99. [BACK]
  160. Ibid., 52. [BACK]
  161. Ibid. [BACK]
  162. Ibid., 76. [BACK]
  163. Ibid., 63. [BACK]
  164. Ibid., 96. [BACK]
  165. Ibid., 85. [BACK]
  166. Turner, The Ritual Process, 132. [BACK]
  167. Ibid. [BACK]
  168. Ibid., 129. [BACK]
  169. Ibid., 132. [BACK]
  170. Asghar Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic (trans. John O’Kane; New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997), 93–4. [BACK]
  171. Quoted in Fereydoun Hoveyda, The Shah and the Ayatollah: Iranian Mythology and Islamic Revolution (Westport: Praeger, 2003), 88. [BACK]
  172. Quoted in Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic, 1990), 73. [BACK]
  173. Sepehr Zabih, Iran Since the Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 2. [BACK]
  174. Schirazi, Constitution of Iran, 24–32. [BACK]
  175. Baqer Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (New York: Thomas Dunne, 1999), 224. [BACK]
  176. Ibid., 203. [BACK]
  177. Sandra Mackey, The Iranians: Portrait of a Nation in Chaos (New York: New American Library, 1996), 371. [BACK]
  178. Schirazi, Constitution of Iran, 151. [BACK]
  179. Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 275; Schirazi, Constitution of Iran, 51, 153; Moin, Khomeini, 219–20. [BACK]
  180. Moin, Khomeini, 210–11. [BACK]
  181. Shariʿati, Hajj, 209. [BACK]
  182. Ibid., 212. [BACK]

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