Siavash Saffari, Beyond Shariati: Modernity, Cosmopolitanism and Islam in Iranian Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017; Paperback reissue, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?   

Siavash Saffari (SS): The book came out of a doctoral dissertation that I defended at the University of Alberta in 2013, although its publication took a few more years and several more rewritings. I was not fully conscious of this at the time of writing the manuscript, but I have since come to see how the book is markedly shaped by the post-9/11 “War on Terror” environment during which I entered college and then graduate school. I had been in college for only a week when the September 11 attacks took place and, with them, a frenzied interest in the relationship between Muslims and the West, and between Islam and modernity, came to the Western academy. In one of our classes, Bernard Lewis’s Islam and the West (1993) was immediately added to the course syllabus, and I recall also reading Lewis’s What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (2002), Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), and Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today (2003), in subsequent undergraduate classes.

On some level then, the book is a critique of the narratives about Islam and Muslims in the style of Lewis, Huntington, and Manji, which became near-hegemonic after 9/11. But I was also curious about the ways in which local agents in Islamicate contexts, particularly public intellectuals and civil society actors, understand and negotiate the relationship between themselves and the West, and between tradition and modernity. Having been exposed to some of the scholarship on multiple, alternative, and decolonial modernities in Amyn B Sajoo’s classes at Simon Fraser University, I imagined applying these theories to case studies in the Middle East.

In graduate school, I came across two books by Ali Shariati: Return (1971) and Iqbal and Us (1975), where he articulates a thesis, the logic and lexicon of which corresponded to a theoretical language that was immediately familiar to me; a call for “cultural renewal” and “civilizational rebirth” on the basis of the “extraction and refinement of local cultural resources.” What I found in these works was Shariati’s attempt to reconcile traditional Shi’i-Islamic teachings with the modern notions of revolution, socialism, and freedom. I also found in Shariati’s texts a conscious and yet seamless interconnection between cosmopolitan horizons and particular attachments; between global solidarities (with Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, the Congo, Palestine, etc.) and local commitments (to an emergent anti-monarchy revolutionary uprising at home). I then began writing the dissertation under the supervision of Mojtaba Mahdavi, a leading academic expert on Shariati, who is himself interested in the question of Islam and modernity.

A final factor that motivated me to write the book in the way that I did was the occurrence in 2009 of the Green Movement in Iran, and in 2010-2011 of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond. These events drew my attention closer to the relationship between religious reformation and sociopolitical development, the role of Islamist and post-Islamist actors in social movements, and the effectiveness in contemporary Muslim-majority societies of religiously mediated discourses of democracy and human rights, gender equality, and social justice. These curiosities, some of which I have since moved on from, inevitably seeped into the text.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SS: As the title gives away, the book covers a wide array of topics. While the starting point is certainly Ali Shariati, this is not a book about Shariati’s life or his intellectual evolution. Ali Rahmnea’s An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariati (1998) remains the most authoritative book on the subject. Instead, through this book, I hope to introduce new readings of Shariati’s thought by a group of his followers in post-revolutionary Iran; a group that includes prominent public intellectuals, civil society activists, and university professors, and which has come to be known collectively as neo-Shariatis. The book further situates Shariati and neo-Shariatis in a number of debates in contemporary Islamic thought, and more broadly in contemporary (Western and non-Western) political and philosophical thought; debates on the relationship between Islam and modernity, the role of religion in public life in industrial and post-industrial societies, the historical interconnectedness of modernity and coloniality, and decolonial and postcolonial strategies.

The book is organized in five chapters and, although thematically continuous, each chapter engages with a distinct set of issues and body of scholarship. The first chapter introduces and critically engages with some of the previous scholarship on Shariati, including by Ervand Abrahamian, Abdulaziz Sachedina, Shireen T. Hunter, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Ali Mirsepassi, Farzin Vahdat, and Kamran Matin.

Reading the texts of Shariati and neo-Shariatis in conversation with the works of other leading modern and contemporary Muslim thinkers, including Muhammad Iqbal, Sayyid Qutb, Abul Ala Maududi, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Mohammed Arkoun, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, the second chapter distinguishes between Islamic traditionalist, Islamist, and Islamic modernist/reformist responses to modernity, placing Shariati and neo-Shariati firmly within the modernist/reformist current of contemporary Islamic thought.

The third chapter reads Shariati’s and neo-Shariatis’ religiously mediated discourse of indigenous modernity in dialogue with the theories of multiple modernities (Shmuel Eisenstadt) and democratic public religion (José Casanova).

The fourth chapter probes the philosophical foundations of the Shariati/neo-Shariati discourse of progressive public religion against the backdrop of exchanges between Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, Cornell West, and Fred Dallmayr about the space and power of religion in the public sphere.

The final chapter and the conclusion of the book revisit Shariati’s legacy in light of the analyses of some of the contemporary postcolonial and decolonial critics of modernity, including Edward Said, Hamid Dabashi, Enrique Dussel, and Walter Mignolo.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SS: I hope to have captured and conveyed snapshots of the heterogeneity and dynamism of modern Iranian and Islamic political and philosophical thought, and I hope the book finds an audience both among the scholars and students of Iranian, Middle Eastern, and Islamic studies, and also among those who work in the areas of comparative theory, postcolonial and subaltern thought, critical cultural studies, comparative literature, and philosophy. Since the book’s hardcover publication in 2017, I have been fortunate to have received encouraging responses from its readers. In 2018, the Persian-language translation of the book, translated by Ali Khalandi, was published in Iran, and I also had the distinct privilege of discussing the book with a very engaged audience at a launch event in Istanbul late in 2017. That the book was the co-recipient of APSA’s First Book Award in Foundations of Political Theory suggests it is also beginning to connect to readers in the fields of political theory and political philosophy.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SS: One of my current projects looks at how the secular Left in Iran, ever since its advent in the early twentieth century, has dealt with the question of religion. In particular, I am interested in how leading Iranian socialist and Marxist thinkers have assessed the compatibility or incompatibility of Islam with a broadly Marxian conception of human emancipation. A (hopefully) forthcoming work on the subject is an article, which is presently under review, and wherein I contrast the views of two notable Iranian Marxists of the previous century, Taqi Erani and Bijan Jazani, on the nexus of Islam and socialism. I hope to develop this project further into a book manuscript in the not too distant future.

I have an ongoing interest in the works of prominent modern and contemporary Muslim thinkers, their intellectual genealogies, and their new readings by subsequent generations of intellectuals and social agents. Relatedly, one of my ongoing research projects examines what has come to be known as Islamic liberation theology, of which Shariati is a key figure, as are Hassan Hanafi, Farid Esack, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Sa’diyya Shaikh, and İhsan Eliaçık, among others. I discuss how these Muslim liberation theologians build on the intellectual legacies of earlier generations of progressive Muslim reformists, including a thriving early and mid-twentieth century Islamic Left movement spreading from Indonesia, where—as early as 1916—Sarekat Islam proclaimed that Islam was a thoroughly socialist religion, to Iran where in 1943 Mohammad Nakhshab and Hossein Razi founded the Movement of God-Worshipping Socialists, to Egypt where in the 1950s Khalid Mohammad Khalid argued for the compatibility of Islam and socialism, and Abdul Hamid Jaudatus Sahar and Muhammad Sharqawi eulogized Abu Dharr al- Ghifari (d. 652) as the archetypal Muslim socialist.

Lastly, I have two ongoing book projects related to the topic of my first book. One is a co-edited volume of translations from Persian to English of a selection of Ali Shariati’s original works. The other is a co-edited volume of translations from Persian to English of a selection of works by prominent neo-Shariati figures.


Excerpt from the book 

Since the late nineteenth century, discussions about a condition and project codenamed modernity have occupied a critical space in many Middle Eastern and Islamicate societies at the theoretical as well as the practical level. Throughout this period, a perceived tension between modernity and the Islamic tradition has been one of the defining features of many social, political, philosophical, and cultural debates. The origins of this dichotomous discursive construct can be traced to the historical encounter of Muslim societies with modern Europe during the late phase of European colonialism. Since then, the binary view of Islam and modernity has been operative not only in Islamicate contexts but also in various sites within the West. Throughout the twentieth century, Western scholarship on Muslim politics and social life was largely shaped by two vaguely different articulations of this view. The first, represented by Orientalists such as Gustave E. von Grunebaum, held that Islam and Muslim societies were essentially incapable of reforming and adopting the achievements of the modern world. The second view, represented by modernization theorists such as Daniel Lerner, held that even though Islam lacked the necessary resources for initiating modernity, Muslim societies could still become modern by following the Western path of modernization. Although the second view may be said to have offered a somewhat more optimistic vision of the prospects for progressive change in Muslim societies, it is clear that in both accounts modernity was understood as a Western achievement and something alien and antithetical to Islam and Muslim cultures.

The occurrence of a number of events during the latter half of the previous century and the beginning of the present century reinforced the Western view about the irreconcilability of Islam and modernity. The first was the rise of Islamism during the 1970s and 1980s, which was interpreted by many Western observers as a turn against modernity. It was precisely through this lens that these commentators viewed the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic. Another event was the end of the Cold War. With the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Islam and Muslim societies came to be seen as the other of the West and the enemy of its modernity. As Mamdani (2005) notes, in the construction of the hegemonic post-Cold War narratives of the modern Western self, Muslim societies came to be seen not only as “incapable” of modernizing, but also as being inherently hostile and “resistant” to modernity. In the post-Cold War context, the assumption of an imminent and inevitable clash between Western modernity and its Islamic nemesis found a clear manifestation in the civilizational clash discourse popularized by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. Finally, there were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent United States-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, in the aftermath of which the view of an insurmountable discord between Islam and modernity came to dominate both academic and mainstream debates.

The Orientalist and modernist conceptions of Islam and Muslim cultures are often premised on a particular Eurocentric narrative of modernity developed by the leading figures of European Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. Within this narrative, Europe was seen, in Walter Mignolo’s apt description, as the singular “point of reference of global history” and the ultimate “point of arrival of human existence on the planet.” Negating the colonial and imperial constitution of European modernity, and assuming an uninterrupted historical trajectory of Western civilizational development, this narrative privileged Europe’s sociocultural and socioeconomic developments during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries over other, non-Western modalities of social, cultural, political, and economic production and change. Among many other examples, the view of European modernity and its underlying Occidental rationalism as the universal expression of human progress manifested itself in Immanuel Kant’s natural-historical account of racial differentiation, GWF Hegel’s juxtaposition of Occidental and Oriental reason, and Karl Marx’s early views about the progressive impact of European colonialism in India and China.

At least since the mid-twentieth century, there has existed a sustained effort by a range of critical thinkers in the colonial periphery as well as in the metropolitan center to disrupt this hegemonic narrative and challenge its reproduction in contemporary debates. The thinkings of Mahatma Gandhi, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and a subsequent generation of postcolonial theorists including Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Homi Bhabha, have problematized the monocivilizational and universalist disposition of Europe’s Enlightenment modernity. Theories of multiple modernities, which emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, have also critiqued Eurocentric and unilinear conceptions of human progress and development. Other theories, such as those describing modernity as a “global shift” and a universal condition, have sought to delink the category from its Eurocentric accounts and from the colonial trajectory of the modern West. And others yet have rejected the possibility of delinking modernity from coloniality, identifying the latter as the darker side, the hidden agenda, and indeed constitutive of the former.

The multifaceted and ongoing critique of the hegemonic historiography of modernity has further contributed to the unsettling of the Islam/modernity binary in the particular context of Muslim societies. A rich body of literature has emerged seeking to expose the multifarious and contested natures of both Islam and modernity by deconstructing discourses that reduce complex sociopolitical and socioeconomic challenges in Muslim societies to simplistic formulations such as the absence of modernity or its irreconcilability with Islam. A number of commentators have used the framework of multiple modernities to highlight the nuanced dynamics of lived Muslim experiences in diverse historical and contemporary contexts. Emphasizing at once cultural-historical difference and interconnectedness, these commentators advance a simultaneous critique of blind universalism and cultural relativism. Others have used alternative categories such as post-Islamism to explain the discursive and political exhaustion of the dichotomous discourses of Islamism and modernism, especially in the context of the recent emergence of the Iranian Green Movement and the Arab Spring protests. And others yet have focused on a sustained effort by a range of Muslim thinkers to dispel the view of an inherent clash between Islam and modernity. It is this latter effort that has given increased attention to the works of such contemporary Muslim reformers as Mohammed Arkoun, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Fethullah Gülen, Abdolkarim Soroush, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, and Tariq Ramadan.

The present book contributes to the emerging critical literature on the Islam/modernity binary by focusing on the ideas of one of the leading twentieth century Muslim thinkers, Ali Shariati, and a group of his contemporary intellectual followers known collectively as neo-Shariatis. In its attempt to advance a contextually grounded discourse of progressive social and political change on the basis of a simultaneous critique of the Islamic tradition and Eurocentric modernization Shariati’s thought finds common ground with the projects of many of the above-mentioned Muslim thinkers. However, what sets Shariati and neo-Shariatis apart from many of these Muslim thinkers is their concern and critical engagement with the concept of coloniality in relation to modern discursive and institutional formations in global and local contexts. Thus, even though Shariati and neo-Shariatis problematize the dichotomous construction of Islam and modernity and argue that the recognition of cultural plurality and difference makes possible the negotiation of diverse experiences of change in the modern world, they are also attentive to hegemony and global power asymmetries. In their radical critique of colonial and neocolonial relations of domination, Shariati and neo-Shariatis challenge the hegemonic expansion of two particular socioeconomic and sociopolitical formations, namely, capitalism and liberal-democracy, in the course of the expansion of European modernity.

The central argument of this book is that in their simultaneous critique of the Eurocentric accounts of modernity on the one hand and the essentialist conceptions of Islam on the other, Shariati and his followers advance a sociopolitically progressive discourse of indigenous modernity that engages freely and creatively with a wide range of emancipatory projects in the modern world. The book further argues that by stressing the need for the development of a critical consciousness about the operations and effects of Western colonialism and imperialism in the particular context of Muslim societies and by calling for a ‘return to the self’ (bazgasht beh khish) Shariati and neo-Shariatis provide a contextually grounded view of cultural, social, and political change which gives attention both to global structures and local histories. A case is made that the search for a third way between hegemonic universalism and essentialist particularism by Shariati and neo-Shariatis opens up a new discursive space in Iranian and Islamic thought for engaging in cross-cultural encounters beyond Orientalism and Occidentalism. Finally, it is shown that for Shariati and neo-Shariatis cultivating genuine cosmopolitanism requires giving recognition to diverse forms of locally mediated systems of knowledge production and political agency, and moving beyond the Eurocentric and monocivilizational paradigm that has shaped the interactions between the West and the non-West for roughly five centuries.