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Reflections of Humanity, By: Ali Shariati / part I

Posted by Parsin on April 15, 2008

Debates on the definitions of culture versus barbarism, or on the question of who is civilized and who is modern are best discussed in the light of Islamic doctrine. Quite significantly, this point must be kept in mind, particularly as a matter of concern to individuals of the educated classes of Islamic societies upon whom lies the burden of responsibility and leadership of the Umma.

Modernity is one of the most delicate and vital issues confronting us, the people of non-European countries and Islamic societies. A more important issue is the relationship between an imposed modernization and genuine civilization. We must discover if modernity as is claimed is a synonym for being civilised, or if it is an altogether different issue and social phenomenon having no relation to civilisation at all. Unfortunately modernity has been imposed on us, the non-European nations, in the guise of civilization.

For the past 150 years, the West has undertaken the task of modernizing men with missionary zeal. All non-European nations were put in close contact with the West and western civilization and were to be changed to ‘modern’ nations. Under the guise of civilizing nations, acquainting them with culture, they presented us with this modernity, (when I say “us”, I mean the non-European and third world nations), which they persisted in calling “ideal civilization”. Our intellectuals should have understood years ago and made people realize the difference between civilization and modernity. But they failed to do so. Why did the educated not notice this issue during the 150 years of western modernization of their nations? I will discuss their failure in this paper later.

Before any further discussion I should like to define certain terms on which I intend to concentrate, which, if left ambiguous, should render the discussion vague. After explaining the terms, I shall address myself to the subject.

1. Intellectual: An everyday term frequently heard in Iranian society and in all societies, European or otherwise. What does it really mean? Whom do we name intellectual? Who are the intellectuals, and what is their role and responsibility in their own societies?

An intellectual is one who is conscious of his own “humanistic status” in a specific social and historical time and place. His self-awareness lays upon him the burden of responsibility. He responsibly, self-consciously leads his people in scientific, social and revolutionary action. (See also “From Where Shall We Begin” and “The Intellectual and his Social Responsibilities” by Dr. Shariati for further discussion on this).

2. Assimilation: This is at the root of all the troubles and constraints facing the non-Western and Muslim countries. Applies to the conduct of an individual who, intentionally or unintentionally, starts imitating the mannerisms of someone else. A person exhibiting this weakness forgets his own background, national character and culture or, if he remembers them at all, recalls them with contempt. Obsessively, and with no reservation, he denies himself in order to transform his identity. Hoping to attain the distinctions, and the grandeur, which he sees in another, the assimilator attempts to rid himself of perceived shameful associations with his original society and culture.

3. Alienation: The process of forgetting or becoming unfamiliar with or indifferent to one’s self. That is, one loses the self and directs perceptions from within another person or thing. This grave social and spiritual illness manifests itself in many different shapes and forms and depends on many factors. One factor alienating a human being is the tools with which he works. Sociology and psychology report that a man, during his lifetime gradually tends to forget his real, independent identity as he increases his contact with a certain tool or profession more and more every day. He begins perceiving his tools in place of his selfhood.

For instance, in a person who deals with nuts and bolts every day from 8a.m. to 6 p.m. all feelings, thoughts, affections and personality will gradually become suspended. He must perform a certain mechanical task continually. Possibly an assembly belt runs in front of him and he is ordered to skip two nuts and twist the third nut once. This man, who has diverse emotions, aptitudes, thoughts, tastes, tensions, hatred, feeling and talent, becomes a body which skips two nuts and twists the third one once most of his time, during his working hours, which is also the time when he is most active and energetic. He becomes an instrument, simply a piece of equipment for production and his effort is confined to a monotonous job which he must do day after day, and in so doing, suspend all the characteristics which make up his personality.

The best among many examples of such situations was given by Charlie Chaplin in a famous film, “Modern Times”, in which he plays a man originally free from any attachment or obligations, with all his desires, emotions, feelings, excitements and needs. He feels love for his sweetheart, respect for his parents and sympathy for his friends. He enjoys sitting and chatting with others, partaking of their normal customs, and exhibits a normal variety of fears, hopes, talents and responses. For instance, when he sees his mother, he displays feelings towards her as if he had not seen her for a long time. When he meets a friend from the past, he wants to spend some moments with him talking about what happened, about life and the good old days. He feels love and affection when he sees his sweetheart; he feels hatred and rancour boil when he sees his enemy. He wants to fight, attack him and gain revenge. He is a human being, with complex needs and expectations. He enjoys a good view and hates seeing a depressing one, just as a normal, free man might be expected to.

Then he goes to work in a huge and complicated factory whose functioning he cannot even conceive. He neither knows what the factory produces nor what synchronizes its many diverse elements. He applies in an office, fills out some forms and then is told to report to Mr so and so. Then, he is taken through a hall and into a room. A man comes along and tells him what to do. And just what is his job? Here is what his job is all about: there is a big hall used as a place for an assembly line where a huge metal belt constantly moves. The belt comes in from one side of the hall and goes out the other to other sections of the assembly line. He does not know where the belt comes from and where it goes and why it does so. Seven or eight workers are standing there beside each other. His job is to skip two nuts on the moving tape and twist a third nut once. And again he is to skip two and twist the third, and this he has to repeat over and over during his 10 hours of work. Then the bell rings and his day of work is over. He goes home without knowing what the nuts were and why he did what he was told to do, where they came from and where they went to and what they were used for. He cannot understand this job at all. Beside him stand the 7 or 8 other workers; they cannot even speak to each other because the belt is moving at such a speed that if he tries to find out about the worker next to him, and neglects the moving belt, he will miss the third nut, the whole factory will stop, and he will be punished or fired.

This man must be all eyes to watch the nuts. The work that he performs, this human being, is to twist the nuts once or twice and that is all. But a human being is a creature with certain characteristics. First of all, he must know the purpose of his work, and secondly, he must do a job in order to achieve a particular goal. He chooses the goal, and then, once chosen, he creates a job as a means toward that goal. He then begins during the job, to touch and feel the essence of his purpose. A certain goal and a chosen outcome limits one’s work, and eventually one achieves the goal. Apart from seeking a goal while he works, being aware of the job, the man is a human with diverse feelings and urges.

Charlie Chaplin, in the role of this particular worker, sees his mother, fiancee and friend, who have come to see him in the factory. He is not yet accustomed to the rough and monotonous system of machinery; he is not broken in yet. While he is working, suddenly he sees his mother, fiancee or friend, and putting down his tools, leaves his job behind to go to say “Hello . . .. how are you?” “Where have you been?””It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you. I missed you . . . sit down, let’s have a cup of tea and. . . .”

Suddenly he sees policemen rushing in, red lights on, alarm bells ringing, inspectors coming in. What has happened? The factory control system has reported that one single nut has been skipped without being twisted, and everything has come to a standstill. “What have you done?!””How could you?!” He is arrested, blamed and punished for his negligence.

A momentary manifestation of a simple and natural human sentiment in him causes the system of machinery to break down. This clearly illustrates that in the present system there is not the slightest room for expression of a human sentiment. However, they train and control this very man who once had feelings and emotions until he becomes like a machine, too, and after 20 years of work the phrases “a human is a rational being,” and “a human is a worshipping animal” and “a human is self-conscious and creative animal” and similar phrases normally used to apply to a human, no longer apply to him.

What has this man, after all, become? He is now a “nut twister animal” who skips two and twists the third nut once. On the street when this man sees a policeman with buttons like nuts on his uniform, he immediately takes out his wrenches to tighten them. He sees a woman with decoration on her hat or coat: immediately it comes to his mind to go and twist it once or twice or whatever! For him the whole world is summarized in the phrase, “Skip two and twist the third.” That is his philosophy, identity, reality and title to being a human. Why does he twist? In order to eat. Why does he eat? In order to twist! A circular man!

This man no longer perceives himself as the being who once had varied sentiments, desires, needs, weaknesses, sensibilities, memories and virtues. Those have tumbled down and he has become, in the words of Marcuse, a “one-dimensional man.” But Shondel calls him a “circular man” who produces for the sake of production.

This man who once was a little world, a microcosm, like God and with the attributes of God, has now been reduced to an extension of a wrench; which is to say that the character of the machine, of the bolts and of the mechanical motion, has penetrated him. He no longer considers himself as such and such, the son of so and so, from such and such a family, such and such a race and background, with such and such peculiarities. Rather he perceives himself and his reality as nothing more than part of a machine.

Alienation may sometimes become a serious mental ailment requiring the attention of a psychoanalyst. At its highest degree of intensity, it may necessitate confinement in an asylum. Alienation, which affects men through mechanical and dehumanized discipline, may be caused by bureaucracy and technology as well. As one of the sociologists put it, either Max Weber or Marcel Moose, in a complicated bureaucracy where there are many booths, all numbered, the man who has been working in, say booth 345, for 20 or 30 years and has been doing the same job for that long, generally considers himself as booth 345, rather than one having any other name or title. People address him as “booth 345” and think of him as “booth 345.” And the general feeling that he is not attached to anything except “booth 345” generates in him a feeling that he is “booth 345” not Mr so and so, the son of so and so, with such and such characteristics. Such is the alienation caused by bureaucracy.

Alienated, as a word, means being possessed by a ‘spirit’, or in Persian, a “Jinn.” People believed in such ‘spirits’ in the past, and when a person became insane, they believed that the ‘spirit’ had possessed him and affected his brain. They thought that the ‘spirit’ had ejected his intellect and taken its place, so that the possessed no longer felt himself human but was rather an evil being. The word today means a type of sickness described by psychologists and sociologists.

As men were possessed by ‘spirits’ in the old days, today a man is reduced to the position of a cog in a strict, monotonous and ruthless bureaucracy due to perpetual contact with a certain mechanical tool. He no longer feels and comprehends his individuality; he has “lost” himself. As they used to believe that a “jinn” possessed man’s spirit and made him insane, so today, means of production, tools and his type of work, possess him and control his spirit. They gradually obliterate his true personality and fill it instead with the characteristics of machine tools, job routine, bureaucratic hierarchy, and eventually he begins to identify himself with these.

There is another kind of “control by jinns” which possesses humanity and alienates a person or an entire class from itself. This type of alienation is more real, more frightening, and more damaging, and it is this . . . omnipresent form of alienation which affects us, the Iranians, Muslims, the Asians, and Africans. It is not an alienation caused by technology – we have not been alienated by machines. No machine is involved, nor any bureaucracy. A few administrative departments with a limited personnel are in no position to alienate any one. Nor has the Bourgeoisie reached the stage from which it could alienate us. Rather, what we are at grips withins something extremely unpleasant and dangerous – “cultural alienation.”

What does “cultural alienation” mean? As we have already mentioned, alienation, in any shape or form, indicates a condition in which one does not perceive himself as he is, but rather perceives something else in his place. A man in this condition is alienated. What he conceives himself as is not his real self at all, and whether it be as money or as machine or as booth 345, his conception makes no difference at all and depends only on luck or taste.

What is culture? I am not going to quote the differing definitions of culture here. However defined, culture includes a collection of intellectual, non-material artistic, historical, literary, religious and emotional expressions (in the form of signs, traditions, customs, relics, mores) of a nation which have accumulated in the course of its history and acquired unique form. They signify the pains, desires, temperaments, social characteristics, life patterns, social relations and economics structure of a nation.

When I feel my own religion, literature, emotion, needs and pains through my own culture, I feel my own self, the very social and historical self (not the individual self), the source from which this culture has originated. Therefore, culture is the expression and super-structure of the real being of my society, actually the whole history of my society. But certain artificial factors, probably of a dubious nature, creep into a society which has well defined social conditions or social relations, developed through a specific historical framework, and acquaint it with pains, sufferings, emotions and sentiments which have an alien spirit and are a product of a different past, a different society (different both socially and economically). These artificial factors wipe out any real culture and substitute a false culture suitable for different conditions and an altogether different historical stage, a different economy, and a different political and social setup. Then, when I wish to feel my own real self, I find myself conceiving another society’s culture instead of my own and bemoaning troubles not mine at all. I groan about cynicism not pertinent to cultural, philosophical and social realities of my society. I then find myself harboring aspirations, ideals and anguishes legitimately belonging to social, economic and political conditions of societies other than mine. None the less, I treat these desires, ideals, and anguish as if they were my own.

Another culture has alienated me. The dark skinned man of Africa, the Berber of North Africa, the Persian and Indian in Asia, each has a particular past and unique present. However, they feel inside particular pain and concern which they regard as their own, but which are actually offshoots of problems of periods following the Middle Ages, the 16th Century renaissance, 17th Century liberalism, the scientific progress of the 18th century, and the ideologies of the 19th century and the capitalist societies that came into being after World Wars 1 and 2.

So, African, Asian people, how does it concern you? Which problem do you have that causes you so much concern regarding its existence, solution, feeling, and reaction? It is as if I had a foot pain and put it down to nerves! Why? Because I associated with people I think more intelligent, polished, respectable and wealthy than myself, and they have “nervous disorders.” Rather than admitting that my foot aches, and seeking medication for, let’s say, corns; I seek a psychiatrist for the “nervous disorder” to which I attribute my pain.

My conceptions of myself are not as I actually am in reality, but as “they” are; that is, I am alienated. Is it not ridiculous to have, in a society with so much starvation and general feelings, desires and behavior resembling those of present day Americans, English or French? The latter is surfeited with an excess of delicacies and pleasures and lacks purpose and goals. He wants rest and seeks peace. He is sick of the strict discipline imposed on him by the machine. He groans and complains of the discipline and order which have caused him so much distress. But I, suffering from the lack of technology, am yet groaning and complaining of distresses caused by technology! It’s as if we were run over by a car, had broken our arms and a leg, had blood all over our face and head; and yet, we empathize and feel for the person behind the wheel, who is fed up with having to drive and run over people!

In this way non-European societies become alienated by European societies: their intellectuals no longer feel Eastern, groan like an Eastern person or aspire to be Eastern people. The intellectual does not suffer because of his own social problems, rather he conceives of the pain, sufferings, feelings and needs of an European in the final stage of capitalistic and materialistic success and enjoyment. Thus, today the most painful disorder possible sweeps non-European countries, the psychological disorder of non-Europeans who possess a unique character and yet deny it. They hold in mind something alien. They conceive of someone else and imitate him blindly.

These non-European countries in the past were real and genuine. If you had visited these countries, say 200 years ago, they would have lacked today’s Western Civilization, but each and every one of them had its own authentic and solid civilization. They were unique: their desires, their delicacies, their forms of worship and all their good and bad behavior; their action, their beauties, their philosophy, their religion – everything belongs to them. For instance, if I had gone to a country like India or any African country, I would know that they had their own unique tastes and buildings.They composed their own unique poetry, pertinent to their culture, and relevant to their lives.They had their own unique social manner. They had their own unique colors, maladies, desires and religions. All they had was their own. In spite of the fact that they were far below the level of present day civilization and material enjoyment, still, what they had, however trifling, was their own. They were not sick, poor they were, but poverty is something different from sickness.

But today, western societies have been able to impose their philosophy, their way of thinking, their desires, their ideas, their tastes and their manners upon non-Europeans countries to the same extent that they have been able to force their symbols of civilization (technological innovations) into these countries which consume new products and gadgets; countries which can never adjust themselves to European manners, longing, tastes and ways of thinking.

As Alined Yope, one of the greatest black intellectuals, puts it: “societies have come into being outside the European civilization – like our societies – which are “mosaic societies.” What does he mean by “mosaic societies”? A mosaic contains hundreds of colored tiles with different shapes and colors, all pressed in a mold. What shape do these tiles make? None! A mosaic has different colors and is composed of different pieces of gravel with different shapes, but in sum has no shape. Some civilizations, too, are mosaic civilizations. That is, civilizations which carry some leftover parts from the past, some deformed parts from Europe, and the combination of the two produces a half-civilized, half-modernized society. It is a mosaic also in that we did not choose the same materials as the Europeans to make a civilization for ourselves, because we did not know what a civilization was and how to form it. It is they who gave us the form, as well.

So without knowing what to make and without having any prior intention of how to form our society according to our own tastes and thoughts, and without knowing how to integrate different parts, or properly taking from here and there according to pre-planning, we started putting together different parts and elements to build a modern but formless society with no aim or goal. In the distorted result we find parts from everywhere, some native, some European, some old-fashioned and some modern – all piled up in shapeless, aimless confusion, and in result, creating a shapeless , aimless society as well. Such societies are non European societies which, during the last century, have been able to get their construction materials from the West, in the name of civilization.

What is the origin of the emergence of this mosaic civilisation (or what I would call cameleopard societies) in non-European countries which have no special shape and no fixed goal? It is not clear what kind of societies they are; their people and intellectuals cannot understand what they live for, what their goal is, what their future holds and what their ideology contains.


Revision by: Dr. Bartlett M.D.

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