One of modern Iran’s most prominent intellectuals, Ali Shariati has been touted as “the ideologue of the Revolution,” even though the Islamic Republic viewed his ideas as a threat. A prolific writer and orator, he redefined Shiism as a revolutionary ideology for modern times.
In his early days as a high school teacher in Iran, Shariati founded the Islamic Students’ Association and was arrested several times for his activism. Receiving a scholarship to study in Paris, he worked with the French Iranologist, philosopher, and theologian Henri Corbin. As his advisor, Corbin oversaw Shariati’s thesis, a hagiography of a Sufi mystic. In 1960, Shariati began to read Frantz Fanon and translated an anthology of his work into Persian. Later he began a correspondence with Fanon about his ideas and criticized him for missing the role religion could play in anti-colonialist movements.
Shariati returned to Iran profoundly influenced by his experiences in Paris and quickly grew in popularity among Iran’s youth. His fiery speeches on social justice and the need to return to an “authentic,” purist version of Shia Islam quickly turned into small illegal booklets that circulated among the religious intellectuals of the period. To many young Iranians of the 1970s, his version of Islam looked “modern“ and a viable alternative to Marxism, then popular among secular intellectuals.
Shortly after his return to Iran in 1964, Shariati was jailed. A few months into his jail sentence, he managed to convince the Iranian secret police, SAVAK, to release him on the grounds that he was a danger only to Marxism, not the Shah’s regime. While he did indeed argue against Marxism, his own writings were heavily influenced by Marxist ideas.
In the years leading up to the Revolution, Shariati was probably the most influential public intellectual in Iran. He died in the UK in 1977 at the age of 43.