Where Shall We Begin? Dr Ali Shariati - An Overview

Where shall we begin? An ethical question that Dr Ali Shariati tries to provide an answer in seven parts. A close friend of mine introduced me to Dr Ali Shariati's philosophy after I had noticed the amount of shares and likes his Facebook page receives. Although he died in 1977, his sociology on religion and discussions are today examined by scholars and are unfortunately valued more than 20 years after his death. Upon listening of Sayed Ammar Nakshawani's lecture on Shariati famous work Fatima is Fatima, I decided that it is important that I enter the knowledge of Ali Shariati.

Where shall we begin? A title that captivated me and by the end of the first part I realized why Dr Ali Shariati is considered one of the most influential Iranian intellectuals of the 20th century. I invite you to read this book on the following links either read it online or download it from Google Play Books.

My review of Where Shall We Begin: Dr Ali Shariati?

In part one Dr Ali Shariati tackles the question of where shall we begin? by first stating that the first step that needs to be taken by any person who possess a "social awareness" is to build a bridge between the "intellectual" and the "masses" in order to fill the existing gap between both poles. Furthermore, Part One answers the important question of Who Should Begin? Dr Ali Shariati calls them the"enlightened souls", the people that have the God-given gift of 'self-awareness' of their responsibility towards the general public.

In part two, Dr Shariati answers the question: for what purpose? He believes that an "enlightened soul" should play the role of a prophet, unlike scientists who seek to "improve" the society at what they are rather than "teaching" and guiding them towards the truth and to help them generate their self-awareness (much like the role of a prophet). Dr Shariati stresses once more that the lack of a precise definition of enlightened souls is much due to the our assumptions (Eastern societies) and confusions between "intellectual" and "enlightened". As to the characteristics not an enlightened soul, there is no universal enlightened individual, but rather depends on time, place, social environment and historical background. A wonderful example is given about the Western societies, where he sees that they have "become 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." Hence, he Dr Shariati suggests that the West is in need of a Sartrean revolution (Jean Paul Sartre).

In part three Dr Shariati discusses the misconceptions and theories concerning the roots of social problems offered by supposed "enlightened" individuals. The author debates the following:
Enlightenment cannot be imported and those who assumed themselves enlightened because they imported knowledge to their homes deprived the Easter and Islamic societies from brilliant minds, in contrast the masses were deviated from the path of salvation.
Sexual freedom: The demand for sexual freedom (bottom) is a substitute for more important kinds of freedom (top) that diverts the intention of the young generation from pursuing economic or political freedom (Africa and Asia have achieved sexual freedom but social problems remain).
Alphabet: The Persian alphabet is not the problem but rather those who blame the complexity of an alphabet for their misery are trying to divert the attention of the people from the real cause; those who benefit from illiteracy. If the complexity of the alphabet was the cause then how can we explain the development of Japan or China.
Book burning: The best opportunities and the best talents were wasted on defending or condemning book burning, while the real criminal lived in peace and security.
From the above, Dr Shariati deduces that scientific, philosophical, technical and even artistic issues affords the luxury of logical evaluation and revision whereas in social issues the context of the argument or the thesis should be taken into account.

In part four Dr Shariati wonderfully argues that before evaluating a social theory, one must look at its contributions, context and consequences.

He states "the greatest responsibility of the enlightened soul is to identify the real causes of the backwardness of his society and discover the real cause of the stagnation and degeneration of the people of his environment. Moreover, he should educate his slumbering and ignorant society as to the basic reasons for its ominous historical and social destiny. Then, based on the resources, responsibilities, needs and suffering of his society, he should identify the rational solutions, which would enable his people to emancipate themselves from the status quo. Based on appropriate utilization of the resources of his society and an accurate diagnoses of its suffering, an enlightened person should try to find out the true causal relation- ships between misery, social illness and abnormalities, and the various internal and external factors. Finally, an enlightened person would transfer this understanding beyond the limited group of his colleagues to the society as a whole".

In brief, a contemporary enlightened soul should continue the path of his prophet by answering the call of 'where shall we begin in our society', rather than 'where shall we begin'.

In part five, Dr Shariati discusses once more that is is impossible to be an enlightened person without having a profound knowledge of and a presence in the conscience of the masses. He has to be able to understand the people, and at the same time, appreciate the historical condition they are in.

Dr Shariati bewares of reactive elements in Islamic societies where the enlightened soul "may divert people's attention from the present as well as the actual and material problems while, in the name of religion keeping the people preoccupied with the afterlife as well as abstract and subjective issues, so that Muslims are prevented from striving for a comfortable, affluent, and free life". On the other hand contemporary enlightened individuals assume that religion plays a negative role in the society by causing the masses to neglect their actual and material lives. Hence, in the tragedy of Iran, the people who controlled religion had transformed religion into a stagnant form, and the enlightened people don't understand religions. Thus the need of being an Islamologist.

In part six, Dr Ali Shariati discusses how an enlightened person should consider religion. Unlike a historian or philosopher where religion is studied in a scientific or subjective matter only, the enlightened person must find the 'social role' of his religion.

In Christianity, following the malice and misery caused by the established church and priest, the enlightened knew that in order to reform his religion he had to revive the motivating elements of his religion. In Shi'ism Islamm, one cannot debate that the two slogans of 'blood and sword' and 'leadership and justice' which had endured throughout history due to the uprising of Hussein are not authentic and genuine, but Dr Ali Shariati argues that they have been negatively interpreted. He states that 'Karbala is not forgotten, but the sword of Islam is', meaning that the rage of Hussein's blood is transformed to tears only.

It is vital that an enlightened person not be easily deceived and must seek to establish a proper culture balance in his society between spirituality, philosophy and materialism. Instead of being a translator of foreign works, he should engage himself in writing to refine life and spirit in his static society. Furthermore, Dr Shariati compares the life of Imam Ali and Pope St Paul. Imam Ali terminated pay scales and ordered equal salaries to everyone whereas Pope St Paul claimed 'that hunger is accompanied by inspiration'.

Once more, the role of an enlightened person is not that of an ordinary person, it is the mistake of a social leader , one whom is perceived as a prophet in Islam.

In this final part Dr Ali Shariati reviews the points that will enable an enlightened person to answer to the main question of where shall we begin by stating that (... hope that the enlightened person will reach a progressive self-awareness. For whereas our masses need self-awareness, our enlightened intellectuals are in need of "faith").

I invite you to like Dr Ali Shariati's Facebook page, listen to his lectures and speeches, read his books online or on his Facebook App and watch his videos & documentaries. I sincerely suggest that you listen to Sayed Ammar Nakshawani's lecture titles: 'Dr Ali Shariati's Fatima is Fatima'. Likewise, I added the book on Goodreads and I encourage you to add it to your shelf to spread this rare and valuable piece of work. In conclusion I put together this review in the hopes that we benefit from a true enlightened soul and to honour Dr Ali Shariati. 


  1. Thank you dear Adam for this interesting review. Dr Ali Shariati is an enlightened person who we can learn from how to become a real revolutionary. Hope you enjoy his valuable legacy.

    1. Thanks Ibrahim, well as mentioned this is this book introduced me to his teachings and what a treasure he was for the Islamic world, very unfortunate the past generation did not benefit from him. But yet we cannot grieve about the past, we have to draw our own tomorrow and using intellects like Shariati as teachers, masters and source of inspiration.


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