"Performing Socialist Islam: Embodiment and Political-Theology of Revolutionary Action in Ali Shariati"

By Babak Rahimi
Submitted to Session P4841 (Social, Political, and Ideological Activism in the Shi'i World, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper reexamines Ali Shariati’s “socialist Islam” in his attempt to synthesize socialism and Shia Islam, and adaption of revolutionary Marxist sociology from a performative theoretical perspective. I argue that Shariati’s Socialist Islam was primarily a construct of public speaking as a set of political-theological rhetorical performances at the Hosseinyeh Ershad, Tehran, where he innovatively framed Islam according to set of performative paradigms for a growing audience of urban middle-class in pre-revolutionary Iran. Based on interviews and close reading of his speeches, such “performative paradigms” are defined in terms of affective, embodied and social imaginary practices that heightened a sense of revolutionary action in meta-historic time and space. Reference to figures such as Abu Dhar al-Ghifari, Muhammad Iqbal, Ali ibn Abu Talib, Ibrahim, along with evocation of metaphoric landscapes such as “desert” and use of poetic language in rethinking history and Islam, serve as performative actions that not only discursively re-narrate reality, but also seek to change the reality which is described. Such “change” is ultimately, I argue, about conjuring revolutionary experience marked by, following Hannah Arendt, an “exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning.” The paper is divided into two sections. The first part, mostly historical, looks at Shariati’s political intellectual activities at the Hosseinyeh Ershad, established by Mohammad Homayoon Nasser Minachi and Morteza Motahari, in 1967 in northern Tehran. It considers academic, religious and baazar networks set in Hosseinyeh Ershad as a modernist religious center for the new middle class urbanite Iranians. The second part of the paper is theoretical and examines Shariati’s performative activism as a public speaker. This section is primarily concerned with the question of idealogization of Shia Islam in the Socialist critique of late capitalism, consumerism and liberal democracy, and complex ways ideology become a public act of contentious performance. Finally, the paper demonstrates that a cross-fertilization of Socialist and Islamist ideologies provided innovative frameworks for the construction of alternative worldviews. Such worldviews vied for legitimacy in the form of public performances for mass audiences, and also appealed to wide range of modes of activism.