Where shall we Begin (II) By: Dr. Ali Shariati
Posted by Parsin on March 25, 2008
Clearly then, it is the enlightened soul who should begin. Now we should turn to the question of “for what purpose?” This question deserves an independent inquiry. Here, I will look only at one interpretation of it and let the audience, which is familiar with this topic, ponders about it on its own. Although not a prophet, an enlightened soul should play the role of the prophet for his society. He should preach the call for awareness, freedom and salvation to the deaf and unhearing ears of the people, inflame the fire of a new faith in their hearts, and show them the social direction in their stagnant society. This is not a job for the scientists, because they have a clear-cut responsibility: understanding the status quo and discovering and employing the forces of nature and of man for the betterment of the material life of the people. Scientists, technicians, and artists provide scientific assistance to their nations, or to the human race, in order to help them to improve their lot and be better at what “they are.” Enlightened souls, on the other hand, teach their society how to “change” and toward what direction. They foster a mission of “becoming” and pave the way by providing an answer to the question, “What should we become?”
A scientist justifies, explains, and creates the conditions for producing as affluent, comfortable, strong, and leisurely life as possible. At most, he discovers the “facts,” whereas an enlightened person identifies the “truth.” A scientist produces light, which may be utilized either for right or wrong objectives; an enlightened person, analogous to a “tribal guide”, (ra’id) and as the vanguard of the caravan of humanity, shows us the right path, invites us to initiate a journey, and leads us to our final destination. Since science is power and enlightenment light, from time to time, the scientist serves the interests of oppression and ignorance; but the enlightened person, of necessity and by definition, opposes tyranny and darkness.
The word “hekmat” (wisdom), which is used in the Qur’an and within the Islamic cultural milieu, conveys the same meaning we have attributed to enlightenment. Even when there is discussion of knowledge (elm’), it does not refer to technical, scientific or philosophical learnings. It means neither irreligious knowledge” (those disciplines which a religious student studies, i.e., jurisprudence, tradition, life of the Prophet, the Qur’anic interpretation, ethics, theology etc.) nor “temporal knowledge” (those disciplines which are pursued by a social or natural science students i.e., physics, medicine, sociology, literature, psychology, history, etc.). These are collections of specialized information and cultural knowledge, which are taught as particular courses in a specific educational system. While religious and secular knowledge can be helpful for enlightened awareness (agahi-e- roshanfekri), and may serve as valuable tools at the disposal of the enlightened individuals, they are not “in and of themselves” the desired “light” or awareness. That kind of knowledge (‘elm’) which is emphasized in Islam is an awareness unique to man, a divine light and a source of consciousness of the social conscience. As the famous tradition puts it, “Knowledge is a light which God shines in the heart of whomever He desires.” It is this awakening, illuminating, guiding and responsibility-generating knowledge which we call the “divine light,” not the teachings of physics, chemistry, literature jurisprudence, etc. The former begets faith and responsibility of the kind the uneducated Abudhar possessed but Ibn-Sina (Avicenna) and Molla Sadra did not. That is why sometimes an uneducated person emerges and energizes life in a static society and leads it toward an objective, while numerous scientists do not even take the first step toward generating changes, self-awareness and the formation of a common ideal, a new faith and love in the conscience of their society. On the contrary, by utilizing their scientific power, the scientists may act as forces hindering the progress of their own national societies as well as that of humanity. Therefore, the goal of the enlightened souls is to bestow upon their contemporary fellow men a common and dynamic faith and to help acquire self-awareness and formulate their ideals.
Now, we turn to the question of the “how”. First, an important explanation is in order. Lack of a precise definition of “enlightened”, coupled with the ambiguity of the ensuing responsibilities, have cost the human race in general, and the Easterners, in particular, dearly. To begin with, unless there is a universal man, there cannot exist a universal enlightened prototype with common values and characteristics. Man is far from the age when the earth will be one human society or one nation with common language, culture, ideals and common problems. As a corollary, whereas one can speak of the universal scientists with common characteristics and fixed values, there is no group of enlightened individuals in some universal mold with a common trait. After studying in a university, whether he has studied engineering, medicine, or astronomy, an educated person acquires the stature of a scientist, regardless of whether he is from an African tribe, the Islamic world or a Buddhist country; whether he is from the white, whether yellow, or the red racers whether he is a member of a capitalist society or a socialist one, whether a member of the old merchant class or the new bourgeoisie; in short, regardless of whatever background he comes from. The reason is that science is based on general laws, which govern man as well as nature, and whoever learns these can be useful and effective in any setting or environment. In short, a scientist learns a set of fixed principles, which are applicable in all cases irrespective of time, place or political regime. The same cannot be said about the enlightened person.
An enlightened person is not a man, who has gone to Europe, has studied a specific school of thought, has passed a specific course, or obtained a diploma. The fact is that our assumption that the “enlightened,” “scientist and “intellectual,” are synonymous has confused us so that we are not able to understand who is enlightened. Nor do the enlightened individuals know to what category they belong. The virtues of being enlightened cannot be learned in a prestigious university. If there is an exception in which an enlightened individual is also an educated one, his enlightenment is not due to the university education; rather, the individual was an enlightened soul even before his university education.
Another misunderstanding stems from the fact that, more often than not, people think that if a person has gone abroad and studied various social, political, ideological and philosophical schools of thought, and he has become enlightened. This is not the case. Granted that he has studied Marx, Sartre, Rousseau, St. Simon, etc. (i.e., the founders of the social theories and the ideologies that have played a constructive and revolutionary roles in European societies, and the source of inspiration for European enlightened individuals of the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries), this only makes him a specialist, analogous to his counterparts in medicine and natural sciences. He is a social scientist who can teach these schools of thought and ideologies at the universities. It does not follow that merely because one has studied these ideologies, he is capable of playing the role as accepting the responsibility of being an enlightened person in his society. The university education of such an individual makes him a scientist and enables him to teach wherever he goes. But it does not necessarily enlighten him to the point of understanding the inner pains of his society or enabling him to generate self-awareness in the people or help the masses fashion their common objectives and ideals.
In short, there is no universal prototype for being enlightened.” There are different types of the enlightened. One may be an enlightened soul in Black Africa, but the same person is not one in an Islamic community. Or one may be considered enlightened in France or in post-war industrial Europe, a genuine and honest enlightened person who has made a difference in his own society, but the same person in India will not be enlightened and may be unable to perform the role of an enlightened one there. More concretely, take Jean Paul Sartre, whose philosophy and personality I have great respect for and would never condemn based on my ideological convictions. In industrial Europe with its advanced capitalist system and its peculiar social stratification, and where there has been for several hundreds of years a turning away from its religious history of the Middle Ages, Sartre can be called an enlightened soul. Would a person who emulates Sartre’s philosophy and practices his world-view of existentialism or methods of social and economic analysis-in short, who is a carbon copy of Sartre-still be considered enlightened if he went to a different country? It would depend on where such an individual went. In France, Germany, England or the United States he would be enlightened because the problems, attitudes, ideals, people, political system, and the historical conditions are similar. The Western societies in general are in need of a “Sartrean” revolution. Thus, Sartre or those who emulate his philosophy are enlightened only in the West where man has become the victim of consumerism and where all human dimensions and potentials have become restricted and limited by the production of goods, excess in consumption and the freedom of sex. It is thus in need of a savior who will free it from this hedonistic lust of consumerism: Sartre is such an enlightened savior.
Waving a Sartre-like savior in Asia, Africa or Latin America, where people are struggling to eradicate poverty, hunger, ignorance and other shortages, and where they suffer from lack of industrialization, would simply be a catastrophe. In these societies, a Sartrologist or a follower of Sartre’s philosophy would not be enlightened. In practice, his well-intentioned sacrifice would translate into disservice. Only the contemporary post-Medieval industrial societies face a philosophical impasse; hence they are in search of some kind of explanation of their being and in need of spirituality, or a religious mysticism to break their confined and restricted materialistic world view. A Western enlightened person is one who, understanding the situation, feels the urgency to provide appropriate slogans, objectives, and directions for his people in promoting a moralistic, monastic, and anti-consumeristic life-style. Such a person should adopt Indian spirituality and philosophy of illumination, and even rebel against automationism and Cartesian rationalism.
Now, imagine a follower of Sartre in India. His words and deeds would invite the poverty-stricken people of India to stop consumer- ism, do away with the material things they possess and direct their attention to their inner spiritual instincts and needs. For the people who are being eliminated by famine and hunger, and whose religion or philosophical outlook calls upon them to retreat from the material world, such prophecies are nothing but tragic comedy. One may also see the actual cases in our own society. A preacher may be an excellent communicator in the Tehran region but not so in other regions. Sometime ago, I heard of a preacher from a small town who, emulating a successful preacher in Tehran, delivered the latter’s sermon word by word. He repeated, “Ladies and gentlemen, O you who ride in your big Cadillac and drive in these streets, don’t you know that there are people who do not even have a decent pair of shoes? If you do not help them, at least be careful not to bother them. O you who attend big parties and eat ducks cooked in whiskey, be aware that there are people who have only read in story books about eating a hot meal.’ These words are striking, but they only make sense in Tehran and not in a small town. The man who delivered this sermon in the town turned his pulpit into a comic tragedy.
A preacher is an enlightened individual and should act as one. But when the same enlightened individual takes the sermons, which are effective in Tehran to a different geographical location, he becomes an alienated person who cannot communicate with anyone. In other words, there is no universal preacher. We have to ask, the preacher of what location? By the same token, there is no universal enlightened individual. In short, enlightenment is directly related to time, place, social environment and historical conditions. For example, we all know that Francis Bacon is one of the greatest figures in the history of human thought. He strongly propounded the notion that superstition must be done away with, and science be separated from subjectivity and eschatology. Moreover, he maintained that science should enhance material life by seeking to understand nature and thus improve people’s lives.