Humanity and the People Power:
A Tribute to Dr. Ali Shariati

Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq
Initial draft: September 2000
Translation into Turkish

The bringing down of one of the most oppressive regimes, that of the Shah monarchy, was a remarkable event of twentieth century. Whether one finds the outcome of the Revolution in terms of the establishment of an Islamic Republic under the dominance of Ulama (Islamic clerics, in narrow, contemporary sense) agreeable or disappointing, a most remarkable aspect of this revolution that has become an object of interest of observers of contemporary events is the mass movement underlying the revolution. Indeed, the kind of mass participation - in terms of both absolute and relative magnitude - in the movement leading to the revolution is still unprecedented.

While the role of the Ulama, especially that of Imam Khomeini, received overwhelming attention worldwide, there were other powerful influences that shaped the ethos of the revolution. One such source of influence was Dr. Ali Shariati. A sociologist, trained at Sorbonne University (France), he was gunned down in United Kingdom by Savak for his anti-monarchy stance and popular influence among the modern educated and youth of pre-revolutionary Iran.

There are three particular aspects of his influence that I would like to reflect on, which have especial relevance for many societies seeking fundamental socio-political change, including, for example, in Bangladesh. When reading the works of Dr. Shariati, one should be aware of his Shia background, although his perspective is not necessarily sectarian. One can find a beautiful example of Dr. Shariati’s bridge-building approach in his booklet Selection or Election, where he attempted a remarkable reconciliation between the Sunni emphasis on election and the Shia emphasis on selection.

He was a bridge-builder not merely among two primary segments of Muslims, but he has also been a bridge-builder, developing mutual respect and understanding, among the adherents of various faith and ideologies, especially at the human level.

Insaniyat: Islam and the race called "Humanity"

Who doesn’t know about the many wonders of the world? I am among those pitiful ones who haven’t had the opportunity to visit most of these wonders, including Taj Mahal, Pyramids, or the Great Wall. Even many of my close relatives and friends have visited some of these. Apart from many literary and reference sources, I have heard from my own contacts glowing narratives of their experience. The prime theme of all these narratives is the awe and wonder these edifices inspire in us. The feeling and experience are almost universal. Well, almost!

Dr. Shariati would be among these exceptions, whose experience and narrative in this regard have touched many a modern, educated Muslims of the pre-revolutionary period of Iran. Unfortunately, he is very little known (or not widely known)* outside Iran. These wonderful wonders of the world have taunted him like most others. His experience is a telling testimony of a heart in tune with humanity.

He was "deeply interested in human heritage and civilization," which has taken him to various parts of the world – from Greece to Egypt to China and Vietnam. He was also awe-struck by these wonders of the world. But he had some unique shades+ of experience that most observers probably won’t bother about.

He narrates about his visit to one of the Pyramids in his work "Reflections of a Concerned Muslim on the Plight of Oppressed People". It is a must reading. 

"Wholeheartedly, I began to listen to the guide's explanations about the structure. We learned that slaves had to bring eight-hundred million blocks of stones from Aswan to Cairo in order to construct six large and three small Pyramids. Eight-hundred million blocks of stones were brought to Cairo from a place which was nine hundred and eighty miles away to construct a building wherein the mummified bodies of the Pharaohs were to be preserved. Inside, the graves are made of five blocks of marble. Four of the blocks are used for the walls and one is used for the ceiling. To imagine the diameter of the weight of the marble blocks used for the ceiling of the grave, it is sufficient to visualize that on this block, millions of blocks of stones were piled on top of each other until the top of the Pyramid was completed. Since five-thousand years ago, the ceiling has been supporting this load.

I was amazed by this wonderful work. At a distance of three to four-hundred years, I saw some scattered blocks of stones. "What are they?" I asked the guide. He said, "Nothing. Only a few blocks of stones." Of the thirty-thousand slaves who brought the heavy blocks of stones from hundreds of miles away, on a daily basis, hundreds of them were crushed under the heavy loads. The place I inquired about is where they were buried. So unimportant were they in the system of slavery, that hundreds of them were buried collectively in one ditch. Those who survived had to carry the heavy loads. I told the guide that I would like to see the slaves who were crushed into dust. The guide exclaimed, "There is nothing to see!" He pointed to the graves of the slaves who were buried near the Pyramids by order of the Pharaohs; this was done so their souls could be employed as slaves just as their bodies were.

I requested that the guide leave me alone. I then went to those graves and sat down, feeling very close to the people buried in those ditches. It was as if we were of the same race. It is true that each of us came from different geographical areas but these differences are inconsequential when viewed as a basis for dividing mankind. For out of this phenomenon arose the concepts of strangers and relatives. I was not involved in this system of classification and racial division; therefore, I had nothing but warm feelings and sympathy toward these oppressed souls. I looked back to the Pyramids and realized that despite their magnificence, they were so strange to and distant from me! In other words, I felt so much hatred towards the great monuments of civilization which throughout history were raised upon the bones of my predecessors! My predecessors also built the great walls of China. Those who could not carry the loads were crushed under the heavy stones and put into the walls with the stones. This was how all the great monuments of civilization were constructed - at the expense of the flesh and blood of my predecessors!"

Read the full text of Reflections of a Concerned Muslim on the Plight of Oppressed People. Please note: It's not the plight of the Muslim people, but of the "Oppressed People".  I can’t describe my own feeling for the first time I read this work of Dr. Shariati. I couldn’t help but take a few moments off to be alone and try to be in tune with the Shariati spirit, the human spirit. I felt a new feeling, a feeling of unison. I felt I heard it before. It’s not logic or rationality, it’s not science or technology, it’s not mathematics or philosophy--they all have their deserved and indisputable place in human existence -  but, this is pure, raw, pristine humanity. Regardless of what we are, what we profess to be our ideology or faith, until we have brought ourselves down – or elevated ourselves – to this basic level of humanity, then our human experience and identity are disjointed and out of tune. Rationalize about it, and it’s hardly of any consequence. Quibble about it, and you have alienated yourself. Be calculating, and you are out of tune. It should be noted that such humanistic focus by no means is exclusive to Islam or Muslims, except may be in a special comprehensive and balanced way.

Actually, those few moments that Dr. Shariati took to be alone and what he felt and wanted to feel is empathy. Human empathy. This is also a quintessential aspect of what Kazi Nazrul Islam, popularly known as the Rebel Poet of Bengal and the national poet of Bangladesh, has articulated in his works. For example, he wrote: 

. . . To be able to feel the pain of others is the real feeling of noble pain. One can't find any selfish motive or goal behind the feeling of pain of those who suffer so. This is so, because, it's that agony the experience of which lets one identify himself with it, rendering him in tune with the true nature of soul. There is a deep sense of joy at feeling the sadness of others; it's like a beautiful, long stretch of fountain on the bed of our living heart.

It is the same agony the divine messengers have experienced in the deepest of their heart in tune with the humanity. Words can't express this sorrow. It's the same pursuit that renders divinity upon humans. It is in the utmost sincerity of this sorrow lies the tranquil peace of sacrifice. One finds the touchstone of joy and happiness in this orchard of perennial agony. . . .

When, through our own agony and suffering, we can embrace the pain and agony of the world as ours, only then our soul soars to nobility - its frontiers are extended. We, then, come to know the truth, to experience the beauty: and that's why then we truly feel the joy in sacrifice, we can then cry for others and offer even our life for the sake of all those who are in sadness, pain, agony, and suffering.

[These are excerpts from a prose of Nazrul "Jibon Biggan" (The Science of Life: the nobility of pain and suffering) in Nazrul Rochonaboli, 1996 ed., Bangla Academy, Vol. 4, pp. 7-8]

The Qur’an, Shariati and "People Power"

If one wants to understand the truly popular mass movement preceding the revolution of Iran, one must understand some of the fundamental catalysts that galvanized the mass. Well, let’s pose this question. What is the most fundamental factor in social change and development?

As a sociologist, trained in the finest of sociological traditions, Dr. Shariati found the Qur’an to be more than just guidance for legal and ritualistic codes. Dr. Shariati’s thought in this regard makes the book On The Sociology of Islam a must reading. 

Since my field of study is the sociology of religion and the project is connected with my work, I have tried to codify a kind of sociology of religion based on Islam and drawing on the terminology of the Qur’an and Islamic literature. …One of the facts I encountered in my study of Islam and the Qur’an was the existence of scientific theories of history and sociology peculiar to the custom and method of work of the Prophet. What is implied here is something different from and taking the Qur’an, certain verses of the Qur’an, the philosophy and certain methods used by the Prophet, or the political, social, psychological and ethical system of life of the Prophet, and then analyzing them by means of contemporary science. …What I mean is something quite different: namely, that I extracted from the Qur’an a whole series of new topics and themes relating to history, sociology and the human sciences. The Qur’an itself, or Islam itself, was the source of the ideas. …

The subject I now wish to discuss, with respect to the sociology of Islam, is the greatest dilemma of both sociology and history: the search for the basic factor in the change and development of societies. What is the basic factor that causes a society suddenly to change and develop, or suddenly to decay and decline? The factor that sometimes causes a society to make a positive leap forward; to change totally its character, its spirit, its aim and its form, in the course of one or two centuries; and to change completely the individual and social relationships obtaining in it? [pp. 42-45]

Dr. Shariati then explores various theories that have attempted to answer this question. Some do not believe at all in history or sociology, "but regard it as nothing more than a worthless collection of narrations from the past." They resort primarily to scientific anarchism or "accident." The second group, the materialists and those who believe in historical determinism, "believe(s) that history and society, from the very beginning down to the present, are like a tree, devoid of any volition. In its origin it was a seed. … This group believes that human societies traverse a long life throughout history in accordance with determining factors and laws that play in human society exactly the same role as the laws of nature in the natural realm." [pp. 45-46]

The third group emphasizes the worshippers of heroes and personalities. "It includes the fascists and Nazis, as well as great scholars like Carlyle, who also wrote a biography of the Prophet of Islam, and Emerson, and the like. This group believes that laws are no more than a tool in the hands of powerful individuals and have of themselves no effect on society. Average and sub-average persons, equally, have no share in the changing of society; they too are like tools for others to use." [p. 46]

"The opinion also exists that the people, the generality of society, do play a role in determining their destiny; but no school of thought, not even democracy in its ancient or modern forms, claims that the masses are the fundamental factor in social development and change. … The worshippers of personality can be divided into two groups. The first group consists of those who believe that a great personality like the Buddha, Moses or Jesus appears and changes human society. They are pure hero-worshippers. The other group consists of those who are … ‘elite-worshippers.'" [p. 47]

According to Dr. Shariati, "In Islam and the Qur’an, none of the foregoing theories is to be found. … In the Qur’an, the Prophet is not recognized as the active cause of fundamental change and development in human history. He is depicted rather as the bearer of a message whose duty it is to show men the school and path of the truth. …The conclusion we deduce from the text of the Qur’an is, then, that Islam does not consider the fundamental factor in social change and development to be personality, or accident, or overwhelming and immutable laws." [p. 47]

He continued:

In general, those addressed by every school of thought, every religion, every prophet, also constitute the fundamental and effective factor of social change within that school. It is for this reason that we see throughout the Qur’an address being made to al-Nas, i.e., the people. The Prophet is sent to al-Nas; he addresses himself to al-Nas; it is al-Nas who are accountable for their deeds; al-Nas are the basic factor in decline – in short, the whole responsibility for society and history is borne by al-Nas.

The word al-Nas is an extremely valuable one, for which there exist a number of equivalents and synonyms. But the only word that resembles it, structurally and phonetically, is the word "mass".

In sociology, the masses comprise the whole people taken together as an entity without concern for class distinctions that exist among them or distinguishing properties that set one group apart from another. "Mass" means, therefore, the people as such, without any particular class or social form.

Al-Nas has exactly the same meaning, i.e., the masses of the people; it has no additional meaning. The words insan and bashar also refer to man, but they refer to ethical and animal properties respectively.

From this we deduce the following conclusion: 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, nor 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." [p. 47]

Does Dr. Shariati's focus on al-Nas has any Qur'anic corroboration? Let's take a look.

This is what the Qur’an, an universalistic divine revelation, has referred to the bond of humanity.

O mankind (al-Nas)! reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence Allah, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you): for Allah ever watches over you. [4/al-Nisa/1]

The Qur'an presents Abraham (p) as the Imam of the mankind.

And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: "I will make thee an Imam to the mankind (al-Nas)." He pleaded: "And also (Imams) from my offspring!" He answered: "But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers." [2/al-Baqara/124]

Makkah is presented in the Qur'an as a resort and sanctuary for the mankind (al-Nas), not just for a particular group of people.

Remember We made the House a place of resort for mankind (al-Nas) and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma'il, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). [2/al-Baqara/125]

Muslims themselves are not merely for themselves but for mankind and Allah is merciful to mankind.

Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the mankind (al-Nas), and the Messenger a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qibla to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (From the Faith). Indeed it was (A change) momentous, except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah Make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people (al-Nas) Most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful. [2/al-Baqara/143]

Humankind was one and a single entity.

"Mankind (an-Nas) was one single people (Ummah), and Allah sent Messengers with glad tidings and warnings; and with them He sent the Book in truth, to judge between people in matters wherein they differed;..." [2/al-Baqara/213]

The Qur'an places the fundamental confidence in human beings themselves and invite them to have a take-charge attitude.

"... Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people [al-Nas] until they change their own condition ..." [13/al-Rad/11]

The idea of "mass" as enunciated by Dr. Shariati in light of Islam and the Qur’an is indeed most powerful as it was manifested in the mass movement behind the revolution. Unfortunately, "mass" is so easily manipulated that often they are unable to reap the harvest of their work, as in most societies, whether in capitalism or socialism, labor ultimately always find itself on the backseat of history or social changes. The mass movement that brought about the revolution in Iran through toppling the Shah regime now has been subverted by the elitists, the overly-conservatives, and those who do not truly believe in the power of the mass. It is no wonder that in the very name of shariat (the Islamic way of life), the Ali Shariati spirit has been pushed behind the curtain. There is no remembrance of the works of Dr. Shariati. Hardly there is any discussion about Dr. Shariati, who must be regarded as probably the second-most important catalyst after Imam Khomeini.

The Mass: Taking the Shariati cue

I find the formulation of Dr. Shariati’s thought in regard to the mass (al-Nas) quite intriguing and illuminating. Unfortunately, little work has been done to take the cue from Dr. Shariati. People are a power house. True leaders are those who come to awaken the people, make them conscious of their power, and help them harness that power toward the desired social change and development. The more people are conscious of the "people power" and the more they are empowered through enlightenment and education, the more hope we have to find the proper place of humanity in the canvas of history.

Dr. Shariati makes a profound statement about the Qur'an that, since I read, has reshaped my Islamic understanding and perspective. The Qur'an begins with in the name of God and ends with not any particular rule or code, any particular creed or ritual, any particular personality or individual, or any particular group of faithfuls or adherents. Rather it ends with the people, the mass - al-Nas

The very last Surah is surah al-Nas, and the very last word of the Qur'an is al-Nas:

"Say: I seek refuge with the Rabb (the Cherisher and Sustainer) of mankind (al-Nas).
The Kind (or Ruler) of mankind (al-Nas).
The Ilah of Mankind (al-Nas)
From the mischief of the Whisperer (of Evil), who withdraws (after his whisper),
(The same) who whispers into the hearts of Mankind (al-Nas),
Among Jinns and among people (al-Nas). [114/al-Nas/1-6]

An important corollary of the above articulated thought is that our approach and perspective, particularly among Muslims, requires a major modification in orientation. Yes, it is common to refer to the people (in Bangla, Janata, Janogon). But virtually all these references are merely manipulative. Empowerment of people requires a level of empathy and respect of the mass (an-Nas) that is rare among most others. Even Muslims and, most unfortunately, Islamic movements are not immune from this malaise that they have little respect for the people in general. To understand one of the most distinctive factors behind mass movement that lead to the overthrowing of Shah regime, one must appreciate the primary leaders' respect and empathy for people.

Guess which leader or personality, one of the most misunderstood ones of the last century, said: "We are now in an age when the masses act as the guides to the intellectuals and are rescuing  them from abasement and humiliation by the East and the West. Today is the day that the masses of the people are on the move; they are the guides to those who previously sought to be the guides themselves."?

Masses are themselves not sufficient. There must be a bond between the masses and the leadership: leadership that empathizes with people and have respect for and confidence and trust in people. Kazi Nazrul also emphasized this aspect of genuine leadership:

"He who turns a weak person
into a power house,
he is the Imam to me,
love on him this soul bestows."

[In "Be Ever Stronger"; Nitto Probol Hou. Nazrul Rochonaboli, Vol. 3, pp. 302-304, 1996. You can read my crude translation of this wonderful poem into English at . ]

Muslims are not going to make their contribution or change the world by chanting Allahu Akbar (God is the greatest). They are not going to be the movers of history by mere dogmas and rituals. They need to recognize their power within as human beings and harness the power as people. Elitist or exclusivist attitude and perspective are simply anathema to Islam. They have forgotten that they are a community not for themselves, rather they are  "created for mankind (al-Nas)". [3/ale Imran/110]. It is so unfortunate that the very community that is created for the mankind (al-Nas) is so hardened to isolate themselves from the mankind. It is so sad that the very first and universal sanctuary, Makkah, for mankind (al-Nas) is now sheltered and guarded by and for a privileged few. Muslims seem to be so divorced from the Shariati spirit, the human spirit. We seem to desire to be so many different things, how about the pursuit of being human? I guess this is what prompted Nazrul to call on all to "Be Human Again" (Abar tora manush ha). 

Let us take a few moments, in Shariati spirit, to pause to be in tune with the humanity.
Let our prayers be inclusive in reference to the humanity.
Let us realize the power endowed in us as human beings. 
Let us seek the kind of leadership that awakens the "people power."
Let us work together so that the "people power" can take charge of writing the tomorrow's history.

Dr. Shariati had a vision for the future that was partially delineated in his work A Glance at Tomorrow's History. Another compelling reading. 

[I expect to work further on this initial draft. Your feedback is most welcome.]

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