Revolutionary Shiism is a relatively new interpretation of Shia Islam that emerged in the 1960s and was heavily influenced by global anti-colonial movements. This interpretation sought to transform Shia Islam from a religion into a revolutionary ideology centred on resistance against oppression. This Shia historiography focused on Shia warriors and martyrdom rather than scholarly debates and mysticism. Revolutionary Shiism is a key component in the ideology of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
The writings of Ali Shariati, who is often referred to as the Islamic revolution’s ultimate ideologue, are very important in this context. Shariati was a non-cleric, Western-educated intellectual with strong Marxist leanings. Inspired by the works of anti-colonialist scholars, he became convinced that only a revolutionary ideology could oust Iran’s Pahlavi monarchy and liberate Iranians from the evils of Western imperialism.
Shariati maintained that three factors contributed to what he saw as the shah’s triangle of oppression: wealth, coercion and religion. The latter, he argued, had manifested itself through what he referred to as “Black Shiism”, which he regarded as a deviation from the essence of true Shiism practised by Imam Ali. The clergy, according to Shariati, had tacitly lent their support to the shah’s oppression as a means to preserve their “own class interest” and uphold their “eternal coalescence with dominant powers and ruling classes”.
Shariati attacked the ulema’s failure to speak up for the oppression of Muslims around the world. Labelling them apologists, Shariati claimed the institutionalised clergy’s quietism had legitimised the shah’s unjust rule. Moreover, he argued Black Shiism was exclusively preoccupied with spirituality, individual piety and scholarly squabbles, rather than social justice against oppression—what he regarded as the true essence of Shiism.
Shariati set out to restore the true Shiism of Imam Ali, which he termed “Red Shiism”, and in doing so effectively rewrote the entire history of Shia Islam. He spoke of Islam as the driver for a classless utopia and redefined Islamic terms such as tawhid (monotheism) and jihad as social solidarity and liberation struggle, respectively. Shariati argued that social action and martyrdom were requisites of Islam. In this light he depicted Imams Ali and Hussein as revolutionaries who had stood up for the oppressed classes, describing the latter as a seventh-century Che Guevara. Red Shiism was about revolution and resistance against oppression rather than seminary squabbles and mysticism.
Shariati faced a major backlash from the Shia clergy, who ridiculed his rewriting of Shiism. While many criticised his theological shortcomings, others painted him as a closet Sunni in part as a result of his attacks on the Shia clergy. Nonetheless, Shariati’s message resonated with thousands of university students, many of whom were middle-income left-wing Muslims who viewed the Pahlavi monarchy through a colonial lens.