It is nearly 20 years since the revolution that in February 1979 toppled the shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran. Like its French and Russian predecessors, the Iranian revolution had a global impact, shattering the stability of the Middle East and establishing a period of local wars and internecine conflicts that continues to this day.
The general perception in the West is that the Iranian revolution was a spontaneous uprising under the banner of Islam against the shah's "tyrannical" regime and its secret police, the deadly Savak. Except for Ayatollah Khomeini, hardly any of the revolution's protagonists are well known. Who in the West has heard of Ali Shari'ati, perhaps the most influential intellectual and one of the architects of the revolution?
In Iran, Shari'ati is a household name, considered "the ideological father of the revolution". Much has been written about him, ranging from eulogy to debunking. Ali Rahnema's An Islamic Utopian is the first full-length biography in English and it fills an important gap in the study of the Iranian revolution. Rahnema's access to Shari'ati's Savak files and to his family, friends and colleagues has enabled him to chart his rise to power.
Shari'ati was born in 1933 in Meshed. His father was a school teacher, a quixotic figure who started a debating society and became known as "Khorasan's Socrates". In the 1950s this organisation grew into "The Centre for Propagation of Islamic Truths", whose aim was the regeneration of Islam as a genuine "socialism based on justice and equality". It expanded into a political group allied to the nationalists and attracted the educated young, preventing them from joining the powerful Tudeh (Communist) Party. It was at the centre that the ambitious young Shari'ati discovered his talent for politics and oratory.
After graduating in Persian literature from the University of Meshed, he married a fellow student and they went to Paris on a government grant. He returned home four years later with a "doctorate" whose thesis consisted of the translation into French of a fragment from a 13th-century Persian manuscript. It seems that he had spent most of his time in political activities with Iranian dissident organisations.
Apparently every time he read a book he became converted to its author's point of view: Sartre's Existentialism with its idea of individual freedom and above all the Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth , which advocated "a return to oneself" for the peoples of the third world. Out of this hotchpotch of ill-digested ideas he forged his own doctrine - a blend of Marxism, Leninism and Islam.
Shari'ati became a history lecturer at the University of Meshed, where his eloquence had students flocking to his lectures. He published more than 30 books of these ad-lib lectures: the most famous, Islamology , became the Bible of radical students. He picked out heroic figures of early Islam and advocated martyrdom in armed struggle against injustice. The idealistic students, frustrated by the lack of political freedom, lapped it up with disastrous results and some were killed as a result of skirmishes with police.
The shah, mistakenly fearing the pro-Soviet Communists as the only real threat, encouraged the Islamic movement. Shari'ati was watched by Savak, and tolerated as "a useful element" against communism. But when he began to attack the clerical hierarchy, accusing them of perverting Shi'ism into empty rituals, some ayatollahs turned against him and issued a fatwa on his books. They tried to get their condemnation endorsed by Khomeini, but he refused, sensing Shari'ati's popularity. Only after he had consolidated his power did Khomeini denounce Shari'ati's anti-clerical rhetoric.
In the mid-1970s, when opposition to the shah's regime gathered momentum, Shari'ati began openly to encourage armed struggle and was jailed for 18 months. On his release he left the country to settle in London and became the focus of various Marxist/Leninist and Islamic groups. A few months later, years of chain-smoking and the stress of politics finally caught up with him - he died of a heart attack in 1977, aged 44.
He was lucky to be spared the testing of his beliefs by the reality of the revolution. Had he lived, doubtless he would have been purged or gone into exile. As it is, all political factions claim his inheritance.
Ali Rahnema balances sympathy for his subject with scholarly objectivity. He writes with a fluency and charm rare in academic books, sweeping the reader along with his enthusiasm and energy, bumping over repetitions, long lists of peripheral characters and insignificant extras. Still, this is a necessary book that sheds light on one of the most significant dramas of recent history through one of its central players.
Shusha Guppy is London editor of The Paris Review .
An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari'ati
Author - Ali Rahnema
ISBN - 1 86064118
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £39.50
Pages - 518