Where Shall We Begin
Dr. Ali Shariati
We also need to know our "cultural taxonomy." For example Greece has a
philosophical culture, Rome a militaristic and artistic one, India a
spiritualistic one; and our societies have a religious and Islamic
culture by "cultural taxonomy". I mean the prevalent spirit that governs
the body of knowledge, characteristics, feelings, traditions, outlooks
and ideals of the people of any given society. The common spirit, which
connects the said characteristics of the society and gives meaning to
them is culture by which people breathe, get nourishment and grow. As
such, to know the culture of a society is to know its inner truth, its
inner sensitivities and its inner feelings. For instance, it is hardly
possible to claim that one knows the Greek culture without having a
philosophical understanding and knowledge. Similarly, one cannot claim
to be an expert in Indian sociology without knowing Buddhism and
Vedanta. It is also unacceptable for one to claim to be an enlightened
person without having a profound knowledge of and a presence in the
conscience of the masses of his society. For instance, if one is an
enlightened Indian, he must have complete knowledge of Vedanta and
Buddhism. Indian culture being Vedic, a modern Western educated
sociologist has very little relevance in India. A Gandhi, because he
knew his society and the mind of his fellow Indians, could move the
society far greater than others could. The same is true of an
enlightened Muslim. He must know that the Islamic spirit dominates his
culture and that the historical processes of his society, as well as its
moral codes, have all been shaped by Islam. To fail to understand this,
as the majority of our "intellectuals" have, limits and restricts a
person to his own irrelevant atmosphere. Also, since generally such an
individual has no religious belief and behaves within the bounds of his
European educational background and experience, he fails to establish
any relationship with his own people. Conversely, he is never accepted
in the community.
Franz Fanon, whom I knew personally and whose books I translated into Persian, was pessimistic about the positive contribution of religion to social movement. He had, in fact an anti-religious attitude until I convinced him that in some societies where religion plays an important role in the culture, religion can, through its resources and psychological effects, help the enlightened person to lead his society toward the same destination toward which Fanon was taking his own through non-religious means. I added further that Fanon's anti- religious feeling stemmed from the unique religious experience of Europe in the Middle Ages and the ensuing freedom of European society in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One cannot extend this experience to the Islamic world, because the culture of an Islamic society and the tradition which has shaped that society is utterly different from the spirit which under the name of religion ruled Europe in the Middle Ages. Logically, therefore, one cannot judge and condemn both religions on the same ground. A comparison between the role of Islam in Africa and that of Christianity in Latin America illustrates my point.
Thus, to fight Islam the same way that the enlightened individuals of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe fought Christianity would be the gravest error, because religious feelings and the religious culture of Iran are completely different from what existed in the Middle Ages under the name of religion. To draw the same conclusion after comparing Christianity with Islam is a mistake. For a historian or a philosopher to see all religions in the same light is tolerable, but not for an enlightened person. He has to identify the kind of society in which he lives, understand its people, and at the same time, appreciate the historical condition they are in. An enlightened person in the Islamic world can commit a great error by mistaking the religious feeling that exists among the Muslim masses today as their true historical and cultural religion, thus fighting it as a source of calamities. He may then invite his society to accept an ideology compatible with nineteenth century German industrial society, thereby playing a deviant role in his society. Such an "intellectual" will frighten the masses by alienating them from the educated class, which in turn will force them to take refuge with the reactionary, deviant and colonial clement in order to escape the anti-religious educated group. This may, in fact, be the central cause of the estrangement of the intellectuals from the masses in Islamic societies. A strictly formal and proper intellectual has no place among the masses and cannot communicate with them. It is as though they share no common language or culture.
An enlightened person should be aware that the deviant and reactionary elements which have always been against the masses and have always played with their destiny and exploited them- misuse religion as an effective weapon to divert the feelings and the attention of the masses from their present affairs and make them think about past problems only. They divert people's attention from the present as well as the actual and material problems while, in the name of religion keeping the people preoccupied with the afterlife as well as abstract and subjective issues, so that Muslims are prevented from striving for a comfortable, affluent, and free life, Even their ideals and thinking regarding these matters are focused on the hereafter. As a result religion, which had been the greatest source of energy and aspiration and the guide to a meaningful life on earth, becomes distorted to such an extent that the eyes, ears and hearts of its followers are focused on the hereafter. Paying attention to life on this earth is considered a source of corruption while mysticism and eschatology are greatly encouraged.
Most contemporary enlightened individuals are aware and feel these issues, but their appreciation is not deep enough to draw the right conclusion. They think that religion [i.e., Islam] plays a negative role in the society by causing the masses to neglect their actual and material lives. Secretive and reactionary elements along with invisible foreign hands take advantage of this erroneous conclusion and use this crucial force against both the masses and the enlightened alike. An enlightened Muslim should avoid imitation and superficial understanding of social problems, and appreciate the fact that the corrupt role which, at present religion plays among the masses has no relationship to the true Islamic culture and religion which constitute the philosophical foundation of his society. More- over, the anti-religious experience of Christianity in the Middle Ages cannot be extended to the Islamic world, whether its past or its present. An enlightened person in an Islamic society, regardless of his own ideological convictions, must, of necessity, be an Islamologist. Having understood Islam, he will in astonishment realize the grave and disastrous waste of the intellects and the efforts of the people due to "wrong start," misunderstanding, irrelevant appreciation and irrational connections.
The tragedy [in Iran] is that, on the one hand, those who have controlled our religion over the past two centuries have transformed it into its present static form and, on the other hand, our enlightened people who understand the present age and the needs of our generation and time, do not understand religion. As a result, our Islamic society, despite Islam with its rich culture and history which would have otherwise enabled it to emancipate itself, could not acquire the religious awareness necessary for its salvation. The intellectuals erroneously fought Islam and the reactionaries used it to narcotize the masses and to maximize their own gains. Meanwhile, true Islam remains unknown and incarcerated in the depths of history. The masses buried in their own static and restricted traditions. and the intellectuals isolated from the masses and disliked by them.
Western and Eastern "intellectuals" know that, in principle Catholicism, Buddhism, Vedaism and Taoism are individualistic schools of thought, which divert people's feelings from this life. With its actual and objective issues, to the hereafter and other abstract and subjective concerns. Furthermore they realize that their task is to bestow upon their societies power, responsibility and objectivity. What they do not recognize, however is that our religious culture- particularly Shi'ism, which is a unique interpretation of Islam-is completely the antithesis of those schools of thought and religions. The enlightened person who sees that the present condition of Muslims resembles that of Christians in the Middle Ages commits the error of fighting Islam, just as the nineteenth century intellectuals fought Christianity. The reactionaries referred to earlier have caused this confusion.