Where Shall we Begin? By: Dr. Ali Shariati / part 1
Posted by Parsin on March 24, 2008
In the tradition of Abudhar, who is my mentor, whose thought, whose understanding of Islam and Shi’ism, and whose ideals, wants, and rage I emulate, I begin my talk with the name of the God of the oppressed (mustad’afan). My topic is very specific.
Often people who do not approach issues with scientific method and language criticize me for not including certain issues which they think have direct bearing on the topic of my speech. But you are well aware that once a speaker or an author chooses a particular topic, his sole responsibility lies in his staying within the scope of his topic, and doing his best to provide an accurate analysis or substantiation of the thesis he has put forward. For example, when the topic is Islam with special concentration on the charges brought against it by its enemies or those who are not familiar with it, a speaker or an author who wants to respond to those charges logically and scientifically must limit himself to the subject matter at hand, i.e., those specific issues to which he has raised objections. Such a discussion logically should not be concerned with providing an introduction to Islam in which every conceivable Islamic topic comes within the scope of the discussion. Our imaginary author claims only that, in some specific instances, Islam has been misunderstood, and he sets as his goal to correct those mistakes. Should he succeed in his endeavors, he has performed his responsibility.
With that in mind, the subject of my talk is a very specific subject and aims to answer an explicit and narrow question, one which is ever present in the minds of the masses in general, and the “enlightened souls” (roshan^fekran) in particular. That question is: Where Shall We Begin? This is a universal, pertinent, and fundamental question. It is not a question that I have put forward based on my own understanding or as a result of my own contemplation; rather it is the question of our time, to which I have tried to provide an answer. When one looks at the history of social development in the world, one encounters certain historical epochs during which numerous works were published entitled “Where Shall we Begin?” or “What Is To Be Done?” At least five such works immediately come to mind. Most of them have been published at the times when the societies of their origin were in a particular state of social transformation. For example, no book with similar titles appeared during the Middle Ages. Such questions are raised when a society is in the process of evolving from one state to another. The social conscience warrants that certain steps be taken to free the society from the domineering effects of the existing social order and the status quo on the actual, intellectual and religious life of its members, and to replace that order with another. The question of where to begin, than, is a matter of ‘social strategy’ and not of ‘ideology.’ Therefore, I do not need to talk about the nature of a doctrine a religion or a particular scientific theory. Rather, I want to draw attention to where one should begin in terms of strategy in our society in a given period of time in order to achieve our shared objectives and to protect our values which are at present subject to cultural, intellectual and social onslaughts.
The gravest tragedy in traditional societies in general, and in the Muslim societies in particular, is that there is a lack of communication and a difference of outlook between the masses and the educated class. Due to the broad extension of the mass media, literacy, and education in the industrial countries of the West, the masses and the intellectuals understand each other rather well and share a relatively similar outlook. In Europe, a university professor can easily communicate with the ‘uneducated’ masses. Neither does the professor see himself as of higher stature nor do the masses treat him as an untouchable person wrapped in a piece of cellophane.
Even in the early history of Islamic societies, the present large gap between the intellectuals and the masses did not exist. The great Muslim traditional intelligentsia, the ‘O^lama-including the jurist- consults (fuqaha), the dialectical theologians (mutakallimun), the interpreters of the Qur’an (mufassirun), the philosophers, and the literalists (‘O^daba)-had close bonds with the general public through religion. Despite teaching and studying in their seemingly isolated seminaries (hawzah), they successfully avoided losing touch with the people. Such rapport between the ‘O^lama and the people exists even today. The majority of our uneducated masses, who have never even heard of a night class or an adult course, can sit next to the ‘O^lama, who have achieved prominent scholarly stature, and discuss their problems. They feel comfortable enough with the ‘O^lama to discuss their needs, complaints, their personal or family problems, and to settle religious taxes or to ask for bibliomancy or legal opinion.
Unfortunately, under the modern culture and educational system, our young people are educated and trained inside invincible and fortified fortresses. Once they reenter the society, they are placed in certain occupational and social positions completely isolated from the masses. In effect the new intelligentsia lives and moves alongside the people, but in a closed “golden cage” of exclusive circles. As a result, on the one hand, the intelligentsia pursue life in an ivory tower without having any understanding of their own society, and, on the other hand, the uneducated masses are deprived of the wisdom and knowledge of the very same intellectuals whom the masses have sponsored (albeit indirectly) and for whose flourishing they have provided.
The greatest responsibility of those who wish to rebuild their society and bring together the unintegrated, and at times, antagonistic elements of the society into a harmonious whole is to bridge the gap between these two poles-the pole of theory and the pole of practice-and to fill this great abyss of alienation between the masses and the intellectuals. For any responsible enlightened soul who wants to achieve something, regardless of his ideological conviction, it is a duty to build a bridge between the beautiful, valuable, and the mysterious (in the mind of the masses) island of the intellectuals and the land of the masses; a bridge across which both the intellectuals and the masses can interact. Regardless of any answer to the question “Where shall we begin?” and regardless of your agreement with my answer, we cannot help but accept and agree with this fundamental principle: the first step is to build such a bridge.
Implicit in the question “Where shall we begin?” there is an understanding on the part of the audience and the person who poses such a question that two prior questions namely, “Who should begin?” and “For what purpose?” have already been answered. Obviously, the question of where to begin is asked by those who have a sense of responsibility with regard to their time and society and wish to do something about it. Undoubtedly, they are the enlightened souls, for only such individuals feel a social responsibility and have a sense of social mission. One who is not enlightened is not responsible either.
Note that I stress enlightened souls and not those who have obtained degrees. Enlightened does not mean “intellectual”. The latter, which has incorrectly been translated into Persian as enlightened (roshan^fekr), refers to a person who does mental (as opposed to manual) work. Such an individual may or may not be an enlightened soul. Conversely, a person may not be an intellectual if he works in a factory for example-but he may nevertheless be an enlightened soul. The relation between the two is not that of two interrelated concepts. Not every intellectual is enlightened but some are and vice versa. Very few are both. For example, Sattar Khan was an enlightened man but was not an intellectual, while Allamah Muhammad Qazvini was an intellectual but not enlightened: (Ali Akbar) Dehkhoda was both. Many are neither and among these are the “honorable and great politicians!”
Who is an enlightened soul? In a nutshell, the enlightened soul is a person who is self-conscious of his “human condition” in his time and historical and social setting, and whose awareness inevitably and necessarily gives him a sense of social responsibility. And if he happens to be educated he may be more effective and if not perhaps less so. But this is not a general rule, for sometimes an uneducated individual may play a much more important role. A study of the societies that have leaped forward from the oppressive colonial state to a very progressive, aware and dynamic state demonstrates that their leaders and those who assumed leadership in the revolution and the scientific and social movements have often been unintellectual. The social movements in Africa, Latin America and Asia easily prove this principle, which has very few exceptions. One can safely conclude that revolutionary leaders have rarely belonged to the educated classes.
In the modern time, when man has reached a dead end in his evolving society, and when the underdeveloped countries are struggling with numerous difficulties and shortcomings, an enlightened soul is one who can generate responsibility and awareness and give intellectual and social direction to the masses. Accordingly) an enlightened person is not necessarily one who has inherited and continues the works of Galileo, Copernicus, Socrates, Aristotle, and Ibn-Sina (Avicenna). Modern scientists such as Einstein and Von Braun complement and continue their achievements. In principle, the responsibility and the rule of contemporary enlightened souls of the world resembles that of the prophets and the founders of the great religions-revolutionary leaders who promoted fundamental structural changes in the past. Prophets are not in the same category as philosophers, scientists, technicians or artists. The prophets often emerged from among the masses and were able to communicate with the masses to introduce new mottoes, project new vision, start new movements, and beget new energies in the conscience of the peoples of their time and places. The great revolutionary, uprooting and yet constructive movements of the prophets caused frozen, static and stagnant societies to change their directions, life-styles, outlooks, cultures and destinies. These prophets, therefore, are neither in the category of the past scientists or philosophers, nor are they in the category of unaware common people. Rather, they belong to a category of their own. They neither belong to the commoners, who are usually the products and also captives of ancient traditions and social molds or structures, nor do they belong to the community of the scientists, philosophers, artists, mystics, monks or clergymen, who are captives of abstract concepts and are overwhelmed with their own scientific or inner explorations and discoveries. Similar to the prophets, the enlightened souls also neither belongs to the community or scientists nor to the camp of unaware and stagnant masses. They are aware and responsible individuals whose most important objective and responsibility is to bestow the great God-given gift of “self- awareness” (khod-agahi) to the general public. Only self-awareness transforms static and corrupt masses into a dynamic and creative cantor, which fosters great genius and gives rise to great leaps, which in turn become the springboard for the emergence of civilization, culture and great heroes.