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Re-working the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger: Iran’s Revolution of 1979 and its Quest for Cultural Authenticity

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time (1927), constitutes one of the most important contributions to philosophy of the last century. Beyond having a defining influence on numerous fields of study within philosophy that include but are not limited to existentialism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction, Heidegger has often been viewed as “the most creative religious writer of the twentieth century” (Ireton, 243). It should thus not be surprising that his ideas were widely received and regarded by Iranian intellectuals and students before (and after) the Iranian Revolution of 1979. One of the main seeds of Heideggerian thought that blossomed particularly well in the Iranian context was his notion of authenticity (Eigentlichkeit). Used by Heidegger to draw ontological distinctions, authenticity inspired a politicized discourse—among its Iranian readers—on a return to an “authentic” self. The authenticity of the Iranian return to the self firmly grounded on a separation from imposed Western ideals. A tendency among Iranians toward the study of existentialism[1] in addition to Heidegger’s poignant critique of a decadent West cloaked in religious terminology made him an excellent partner to a group of Iranian intellectuals unsatisfied with a despotic monarch perceived to be antagonistic to Islam.

Heidegger’s ideas were mainly conveyed through the divisive character of Ahmad Fardid (1909–94). Educated in both Iran and Europe, Fardid soon established himself as an influential authority on Heidegger in Iran while teaching philosophy at the University of Teheran. Fardid rarely published anything and instead had organized a group of “Iranian Heideggerians” in the 1970s who according to one of its prominent participants, Dariush Shayegan, would use these meetings to explore “conflicts between modernity and tradition, absolutism and democracy, liberalism and communism.” More importantly, Shayegan maintains that Fardid would use Heidegger’s ideas “to serve his own interest and draw far-fetched conclusions” (1)[2]. Despite Fardid’s own interpretation of Heidegger, his philosophical framework stayed faithful to Heidegger’s account of a decline of the West. While Heidegger looked toward the Greeks for a re-evaluation of one’s being, “Fardid relocates the original and authentic spiritual experience of humanity in a nebulous Orient/Islam.” Ali Mirsepassi points out that “Fardid’s modifications transfer the role of the ‘spiritual nation in the middle’ from Germany to Iran” (119). Further, “In Fardid’s re-rendering of the Orient-West binary and Heideggerian historicism, the Orient represents the essence of the holy book and revelation, which has been concealed under a succession of Western mantles” (119).

To contextualize this Heideggerian turn in Iranian discourses, the early twentieth century brought about the onset of modernization and westernization in Iran. Simultaneously, opponents of modernization, such as middle-class writers or activists, argued against a blind adaptation of the West. Homa Katouzian points to the social and religious reformer Ahmad Kasravi (1890–1946), “one of the first modern critics of the rise of Europeanism and modernism in Iran.” Kasravi’s assessment, formed in the 1920s, was indicative of what is to come. He argues, “modern technology and secularism had led to irreligion and immorality everywhere” (294). In the 1940s, after the first Pahlavi King of Iran, Reza Shah, was forced to abdicate because of his pro-Nazi sentiments, religious reformists throughout Iran maintained “that Islam was fully compatible with modernity, science and technology, so that there was no need for Muslim people to imitate European modes of ethics and social behavior for the sake of modernization and development” (Katouzian, 294).

The second Pahlavi Shah also dictated a program of rapid modernization for Iran in the 1960s and 70s modeled after the “West.” Farhang Rajaee describes the second Shah’s reforms as having “changed the political landscape of Iran because they destroyed its social structure, . . . polarized Iranian society, and encouraged a zero-sum battle of worldviews” (93). Consequently, a reconciliation of Iranian identity with an ongoing modernization process became a primary concern for groups of intellectuals in the 60s and 70s in pre-revolutionary Iran. A critique of a decadent West, its technology, and a call to authenticity were also topics dealt with by Martin Heidegger. Yet, Heidegger’s ideas were regularly reworked by translators and intellectuals who were “intermediaries of knowledge” in Iran since translations of Heidegger and other western philosophers were commonly misinterpreted.[3]

Heidegger’s ideas were not disseminated in a systematic manner with methodological concerns; propagators of Heidegger in Iran were claiming that there “is a degree of similarity between his philosophy and the true traditional Islamic philosophy” (Paya, 192). Essentially, Fardid claimed that the “westerners replaced thinking about the cosmos with the idea of a metaphysical God and eventually ended up with a type of individualism, which is devoid of all religious and spiritual meaning” (Paya, 193). Because a godless West also implies a lack of morality, Ahmad Fardid “reaches the conclusion that Gharb (the West) has to be abandoned both as an ontology and as a way of life” (Boroujerdi, 65). This idiosyncratic interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy via Fardid not only concretized the binary between the West and Iran but also led to the extremely fashionable discourse of Weststruckness, which was coined by Fardid yet popularized by Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923–69)[4]. Thus concurrent with the representation of the concealed revelatory powers of the authentic East, was an image of a subject alienated from this potential, forever grasping at the West for meaning. This ailment called gharbzadegi—most often translated as Weststruckness—refers to a loss of cultural identity, which occurs in efforts to imitate the West. It served the public as a pejorative term used to express dislike of members of a rapidly expanding Iranian bourgeoisie, while also pointing to an absence of authenticity of the West. Continuously, the idea of an alien West was being regarded as fundamentally incompatible with Iran’s authentic identity, which was moving towards an Islamic revivalism. As diligently observed by Mirsepassi, “Fardid’s gharbzadegi (‘Westoxification’) is the interlude between the self and being on the path to renewed Islamic self-realization” (119). This process of authentication of a truly Iranian subject was inspired by the framework of Heidegger’s notion of authenticity and served as a platform for the formulation of an Islamic revivalism. Many scholars have pointed to Ali Shariati as one of the key revivalist of Shi’ite Islam.

Ali Shariati (1933–77), who is frequently referred to as the ideologue of the Iranian revolution, was a leading intellectual and prolific writer throughout his lifetime with an extensive influence on the unfolding of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The eclecticism of Shariati’s writings, which borrows from various strands of mainly Marxist and Third Worldist populism, make it extremely difficult to reduce him to one school of thought representative of his ideology. His profile and popularity started to increase from 1969 to 1972, when Shariati began lecturing at the “Hoseiniyeh-ye Ershad, a modern Islamic center in northern Tehran. His lectures were either taped or published in several dozens of volumes . . . they were circulated widely among Muslim youth” (Bayat, 21).

Now, how did Shariati transform the Heideggerian inspired discourse of Weststruckness to construct his version of a revolutionary Shi’ite Islam that necessarily ties religion to politics? There is no easy answer to this. Echoes of Ahmad Fardid’s critique of the West as being amoral due to a distancing from a “God” and absorption in individualism can be heard in Shariati’s writings. Yet, he goes further by appealing to the responsibility of the Muslim people “to elevate themselves from captivity to become the ‘regents of God on earth.'” This appeal to the individuals’ responsibility becomes significant throughout the plethora of Shariati’s essays and lectures because “he [Shariati] tends to extend its implication from the realm of philosophy and theology to that of politics” (Bayat, 25). Shariati’s criticism did not limit itself to secularism and a corrupt West but also scrutinized the role of clerics in Islam. According to Shariati, Shi’ism “was not an opiate like many other religions, but was a revolutionary ideology that permeated all spheres of life” (26, Abrahamian).

Shariati’s ideology proposes an “Islamic class struggle” that demands a return to Shi’ism. His appeal to the responsibility of Iranians meant liberation from the West for political and cultural self-reliance (Bayat, 25). “Shariati’s assessment of Iranian society was that the exploited ‘class in itself’ had to be steeped in political and ideological education before it could become revolutionary” (Rahnema, 287). Since Shariati had already argued that Shi’ism “permeated all spheres of life” and could not be regarded as separate from politics, a “return to the self” for Shariati meant “the social and historical ‘self’ not the individual me” (quoted in Ridgeon, 185).

In a 1976 article in the influential Iranian newspaper Keyhan entitled “Return to Oneself”(Bazgasht be khish) Ali Shariati formulates his conception of a return to the self, in order to re-establish Iran’s greatness. As elucidated by Ali Rahnema, who has written the authoritative biography on Shariati, “In this article, exalting the ‘Iranian spirit,’ he tried to prove that Iran, a nation that had lost its true identity, could regain its past grandeur only if it returned to its authentic identity composed of the Iranian ‘personality’ and the Islamic ideology” (345). While this article is mostly concerned with a breakdown of Marxism and criticizing modernism and liberalism, it also argued for ‘class cooperation’ in regards to contemporary struggles, by arguing that “Islam denies class analysis ‘based on economic contradictions in society'” (Rahnema, 346). In an appeal to the youth Shariati’s attention centers on cultural resistance, addressing an “abstract cultural struggle, he overemphasizes the danger and magnifies the destructive powers of cultural imperialism” (346).

If we follow what we inferred about the developments in pre-revolutionary Iran leading up to Shariati’s Islamic revivalism, it becomes evident that Shi’ite Islam was presented as the answer to an array of societal and political problems. Shi’ism and its interpretation still form the center of Iranian politics. Considering that the Iranian revolution was effectively run on an anti-Western platform—arguably inspired by a Heideggerian discourse that was re-worked by Fardid—points to the importance of an examination of Iran’s insistence upon an authentic identity.


1. For more on this, see Ali Paya’s article on The Philosopher and the Revolutionary State: How Karl popper’s Ideas shaped the Views of Iranian Intellectuals.

2. Daryush Shayegan , “Heidegger en Iran,” Le Portique, June 15, 2009. Translated from French into English by Sonia Suvelor Sabardin.

3. For a full treatment on the problem of translation in Iran, see Darysuh Shayegan’s Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West , trans. John Howe (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997).

4. “The term gharbzadegi . . . became everyday words used by members of virtually all classes to denounce state projects and decisions as well as anyone or anything they did not like” (Katouzian, 292).

Works Cited

Abrahamian, Ervand. “Ali Shariati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution,” MERIP Reports, No. 102 (1982), p. 26.

Bayat, Assef. “Shari’ati and Marx: A Critique of an ‘Islamic’ Critique of Marxism.”

Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 10 (1990): 19-41.

Boroujerdi, Mehrzad. Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962.

Ireton, Sean Moore. An Ontological Study of Death: From Hegel to Heidegger. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 2007.

Katouzian, Homa. The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009.

Mirsepassi, Ali. Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment: Philosophies of Hope and Despair. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Rahnama, Ali. An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati. London: I. B. Taurus, 2000.

Rajaee, Farhang. Islamism and Modernism: The Changing Discourse in Iran. Austin, TX: Univ. of Texas Press, 2007.

Ridgeon, Lloyd V. J. Religion and Politics in Modern Iran: A Reader. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Shayegan, Darius. Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997.

1 comment to Re-working the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger: Iran’s Revolution of 1979 and its Quest for Cultural Authenticity

  • Evan Siegel

    “Weststruckness, which was coined by Fardid yet popularized by Jalal Al-e Ahmad.”

    No. Iranians had been making fun of their qarbzade compatriots for decades. Iranians who wore faux cols and ostentatiously carried around French books and sprinkled their discourse with French words. The mullahs in particularly bashed the constitutionalists with the accusation of being mostafrang, people who affected Western manners. Qarbzadegi was a real phenomenon since the late nineteenth century and the Iranian reaction to this affectation was perfectly natural and did not need to wait for some Heidegger to come along and discover it. I can show you cartoons mocking qarbzadegi in the papers published around the turn of the last century.

    Al-e Ahmad, the author of that abortion of a book Qarbzadegi quoted all sorts of Western thinkers–mostly Gramsci, as I recall, but never Heidegger. (In fact, the book was one huge work of Qarbzadegi, a point not lost on its critics.)

    In short, I think the emphasis of Heidegger and his apostle, Farid, is something of an act of qarbzadegi. It’s as if to say, “See! We were also influenced by a recondite German philosopher!” But it’s not true. It’s affectation. And it’s silly.