Ali Shariati is a major anti-colonial and anti-imperial thinker, activist, and social theorist of the twentieth century. A sociologist, he worked across geographies and engaged with struggles ranging from the Algerian War to the partition of India. Identifying as a revolutionary Shia Muslim, Shariati played a pivotal role in building the 1979 revolution in Iran and the overthrow of the US-backed monarchy in the wealthy West Asian nation.
Through fieldwork conducted with the Shia communities of Lebanon over the past five years, across class, education, age, and geographic divides, I was surprised to find that though Ali Shariati is a well-known figure, he is not known as an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist, nor as a sociologist or social theorist. Rather, I encountered Shariati in the field as a polarizing figure, a controversial and nonconformist “Islamic thinker” (moufakkir Islami) with many enthusiasts and many sceptics of his work across the community. His scholarship was seen primarily as a critique of, and challenge to, multiple narratives in Islamic and Shia mainstream thought. According to this polarized lens, Shariati’s labor revolved around speaking to Islam and its knowledge institutions, and against them.
Shariati’s labor against the Islamic establishment, however, cannot be dissociated from either his anti-imperialist resistance or his ideas as a social theorist. For Shariati, the Islamic sphere needed to be liberated to realize its potential in a struggle against global empire and Eurocentric modernity, the oppressive structures defining his contemporary moment. Shariati addressed Eurocentric modernity’s aggressive hegemony, namely the erasure and reformulation of non-Eurocentric traditions, including Islamic thinking and jurisprudence through codified legal systems, bureaucratized and hierarchized institutions, as well as exclusionary and closed-ended structures under the global modern world-system. Increasingly aware of the absence of Shariati as an anti-colonial thinker and social theorist, in early 2020, I surveyed the available Arabic language publications by Shariati across multiple libraries and bookstores in Lebanon’s Shia majority regions. These were primarily published by one press, dar al-Amir (for a directory of their Shariati collection, see here).
Shariati famously organized his works in three categories: Islamiyyat (writings on Islam), Ijtimaiyyat (writings on topics of socio-political concern), and Kaviriyyat (his introspective desert writings, which explore mysticism). These categories, it is important to note, are both largely fluid and deeply entangled. The overwhelming majority of the books published by dar al-Amir are from Shariati’s Islamiyyat, where he lectures on Islamic history and Islamic or Shia beliefs and rituals. His other works appear to be missing in Lebanon. These include Recognition of Iranian-Islamic Identity (Volume 27), Methods in Study and Understanding of Islam and Islamology (Volumes 16-18 and 30), Characteristics of Modern Centuries (Volume 31), Art (Volume 32), Social Class Analysis in Islam (Volume 10), Iqbal and Us (Volume 5), The Education of a Revolutionary (Volume 2), and a number of personal writings and reflexive pieces covering a wide range of concerns and experiences lived by Shariati. Indeed, much of the scholarship explicitly addressing empire, Eurocentrism, modernity, and revolution appeared missing in Lebanon and in Arabic. Much work engaging with social theory and a contribution to the cannons of academic social sciences also seemed to be missing.
These erasures suggest a wider parting between academic knowledge and Islamic knowledge and the commonly held rift between the two forms of knowledge on the one hand, and activism on the other. The reception of Shariati’s ideas has followed an either-or pattern. Constructed as a thinker of Islam, he was excised from academic curricula in a dangerous feat reproducing Eurocentric exclusions and erasures. Shariati is, in line with this, completely absent from the curricular programs of sociology degrees at all major universities in Lebanon, including the Lebanese University, the American University of Beirut, and the University Saint Joseph.
Given the ongoing political, economic, and socio-cultural challenges of our contemporary moment, from the rise of populism to growing socio-economic inequalities to raging wars and conflicts (including colonial conflicts) across the globe, Shariati’s work holds great promise. Surely, this is not to idolize Shariati or ignore the many limitations plaguing his work. From an apparent commitment to linear time to an insufficiently critical relationship to Enlightenment thought, much remains wanting in Shariati’s scholarship. Similarly, it is important to note that the arguments made here do not presume an authentic Shariati absent in Lebanon. Surely, Shariati’s oeuvre is open to multiple interpretations and readings. The argument here is, rather, that specific issues and topics that Shariati discussed—themselves open to multiple readings—are absent in his Arabic translations available in Lebanon. In other words, Shariati’s oeuvre appears in Lebanon and in Arabic selectively, where questions of Eurocentric Empire and revolution are suspended and questions of internal Islamic reform are accentuated. Shariati, however, labored across forms of knowledge and traditions beyond divides and exclusionary categories. Such work is eagerly needed to mend the rift between the Social Sciences and Islamic knowledges, between activism and academia, and in the wider effort to decolonize education and knowledge in the face of today’s multiple and entangled challenges and crises.
Shariati is not unique. Indeed, many across the world including the Arab-majority and Islamic-majority spaces have similarly challenged these divides—from Malik bin Nabi to Mohammad Naqib Alattas. Engaging with such thinkers, as both anti-colonial activists and social theorists working simultaneously across non-western traditions and alongside these traditions within the communities of the Global South, is certain to enhance conversations, resistances, and liberation. This, ultimately, has much to offer at a time when social theory in the West Asia region is fetishized as having started and ended with Ibn-Khaldun—if acknowledged to exist at all.
 This is based on my own research conversations with students and professors at all three institutions during 2020.