A Presbyterian Pastor’s appreciation of three notable Shii Scholars: Part I – by Sel Harris



I am a retired Presbyterian Pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and have always had an appreciation for Shii Islam – its truth, history, and influence on the Western World. I believe that what we in the West know as Liberal Arts,  Education and the writings of Greek Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle would have been lost to the Western World — but were not. Why not? I give thanks to Shii efucation as it has been preserved by the Hawzas in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq;  and Qum and Mashad in Iran.

For nearly a millenia in those sacred cities, Ayatollah aspirant students  studied Aristotle, Plato qnd other Greek Philosophers. Shii students learned rhetoric , grammar and logic — the trivium of liberal arts education at a time when my Scottish ancestors could neither read nor write.

Shii scholars knew that the Holy Qur’an and rhe Hadith if the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stressed the importance of seeking knowledge — even if the search took a scholar to China!

In fact, Imam Ali (AS) taught that “…..the acquisition of knowledge is MORE important than the acquisition of wealth……!

I wish that more Americans knew about the traditions of Shii Islam. It is important to remember that God revealed the Qur’an to ALL HUMANKIND!

Over the course of the next week, I want to share with you three (3) of these modern Shii scholars who have influenced me. I frequently get asked to speak in American Churches about what I appreciate about Islam. I read the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Holy Qur’an everyday!I tell these Christians about these three scholars. About 30 years ago, i was a graduate student at the University of St Andrews in St Andrews Scotland. As luck would have it, God directed me to an Interfaith Group in which many Iranian and Iraqi students were participants. In the tower of St Mary’s College (the Fivinity College of the University of St Andrews) I was fortunate to be introduced to the works of Dr Ali Shariati, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and Dr Seyyed Hossain Nasr.

In this post, I will give a brief overview of Dr Ali Shariati. Many of my Muslim friends will already know this. My American friends will learn this for the very first time. Over the course of the next week, I will provide an overview of Ayatollah Muhamad Baqir al-Sadr and Dr Seyyed Hossain Nasr. Al three if these Shii Scholars have profoundly influenced me.


I arrived in St Andrews in the fall of 1986. The Revolution in Iran had already taken place. I had often wondered who the spiritual leader was for this Revolution. i knew that the Iranian people had already decided that there would be no more Shah. That was their decision to make. No one should have gotten in the way. We need to remember that Iran already possessed a tradition of constitutionalism. In fact, they had already elected a President. I asked my Iranian Friends, who was the leader?

They replied, “….have you not heard of Dr Ali Shariati.”

Dr Shariati was born in 1933 and was tragically killed in 1977 while in London visiting family. By training, he was a Sociologist and he was also a Shii Muslim. The young Ali Shariati traveled to the University of Paris where he received his PhD. His advisor was none other than the great French Existentialist Philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. An avowed atheist, Sartre was taken with Shariati.

Sartre is quoted as saying “…..were I to believe in God, I would choose the Religion of Shariati…!”

What is even more significant is the students with whom Dr Shariati, and Jean Paul Sartre had daily coffee. These students were Che Guevara (the Bolivian Doctor and Revolutionary leader in both the Cuban and Algerian Revolutions). I visited the Che Guevara Museum in Havana, Cuba when i travelled there in 1997 with a group of Austin, Texas Presbyterians as guests of the Presbyterian Church in Cuba. The other students were Dr Franz Fanon and, at times Gustavo Guttierez. Franz Fanon was a French speaking scholar who was born in Martinique. Dr Fanon gave up his citizenship and moved to Algeria where he reconnected with former student Guevara to seek Algerian Independence from France. Dr Gustavo Guttierez was a Latin American Christian Liberation Theologian who has inspired Reform and Revolution throughout Latin America. Both Guevara and the Latin American theologians greatly influenced Shariati.  Dr Shariati lectured and wrote many books. Very early on, he attracted the attention and the wrath of the Pahlavi regime. Imagine those daily coffees in various Parisian cafes.

Imagine the discussion. Imagne how those men affcted the world!

Dr Shariati wrote MANY pieces that influenced me. My favorite, however, was “RELIGION VS RELIGION.”

In this work, Dr Shariati’s thesis is very simple — and true. He argues that every conflict and war that the world has seen involves a dispute between one religion vs another religion. In fact, he argues, that the battle between a religion and atheism is in fact RELIGION VS RELIGION! Following the German Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, Dr Shariati argues that “….atheism is a religion both theologically AND sociologically…..” He is correct. He reviews “religious battles” from the beginning of time to his present. He states that this is true of Europe, the USA, the Middle East, and the Cold War.

As I apply his thesis to wars in American history, he is correct. The American Revolution fits. It was a war between Great Britain (Church of England) and the American Colonies (Freedom of Religion). His thesis applies to all of the Indian Wars and our Civil War. Western Colonialism was a “Religion vs Religion” as is the 21st century era of, what I call, “Economic Colonialism”.

In closing, let me suggest that Dr Shariati is telling us today that his thesis still stands. Many nations practice “Secular Humanism.” According to Shariati, this too would be a religion!

The year is 2016. If the world can understand Shariati’s thesis, maybe we can stop wars — before they begin!

NEXT POST: Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Sadr

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