Jalal Ali Ahmad (b. 1923) belonged to a family of strong religious traditions. The famous revolutionary Ayatullah Mahm'd Taliqani (d. 1979) was his paternal uncle and Jalal Ali Ahmad had been always impressed by him, but particularly during his later religious phase came closer to him. Jalal's family was reasonably well-off. When the clerical class was deprived of its notarial function and the income they derived from it, his family was put to hardship and Jalal had to give up his education after primary school.
Instead he was sent to work to supplement the family's income. Jalal secretly enrolled in night classes and obtained his high school diploma in 1943. One year later he joined the T'deh party, and made a complete break with religion. There he founded a literary association of Marxist writers, and within three years was appointed director of the party's publishing house with the responsibility of launching a new monthly Mahanah-yi mardum.
He wrote prolifically for the party journals. In this period he was under the influence of the nationalist, anti-Shi'i writer Ahmad Kisrawi. In 1946, he graduated from the Teachers' Training College in Tehran, and started his career as a teacher and as a writer of fiction almost sirnultaneously.
His first collection of stories Did wa Bazdid (Visits exchanged) was published in 1945, and his anti-religion stance in those stories marked his complete break with Islam and his father.
His second collection of short stories Az ranji ki mibarim, an exercise in socialist realism, was published in 1947 The very same year he came out of the T'deh party along with a group of activists led by Khalil Maliki as an aftermath of the party's support to the Soviet Union's refusal to save the communist-dominated autonomous government of Azarbayjan. Now he devoted most of his time, except brief occasional sojourns in politics, to literary work. Seh Tar, his third collection of stories is product of this period.
He returned to political activity with Dr. Musaddiq's campaign joined an alliance for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry and' with Hizb-e Zahmat Kashan. In 1952, as a result of Maliki's rift with the Hizb-e Zahmat Kashan, a new party Nir'-ye Sewwum was formed and Jalal served it for a short time. In 1953, when the fugitive Shah was brought back by the U.S.A., Jalal left this party also.
Moreover, political activity was made virtually impossible due to severe repressive measures. Jalal turning again to literary pursuits translated Gide's Re tour de l'URSS and brought out Zan-e ziyadi (The superfluous woman). He dabbled in modernist poetry and painting also for some time. But more, significant for his intellectual development was his interest in anthropology. Within a period of four years he published three research monographs dealing with Iranian villages and their age-old customs, viz. Aurazan, Tatneshinha-ye Bul'k-i Zahra, and Jazirah-ye Khark.
During this research the contradictory nature of the Western and the Islamic Eastern traditions dawned upon him, a realization that paved the way for his return to Islam. The worth of his anthropological work was immediately recognized by both the Iranian academic circles and Western universities.
He undertook extensive foreign travels: to Europe in early 1963, to the Soviet Union in 1964, and to the United States in 1965. Of all these, the journey exercising the farthest reaching impact on his psyche was his hajj pilgrimage in 1964, which proved to be a great leap towards Islam. During this period of great creativity he realized the basic conflict between the traditional Iranian social structure and the new changes being imposed on the Iranian society in the name of modernization.
The interiorization of this awareness resulted in a unique kind of self-realization-broadening of the field of self-activity to the levels of national as well as religious collective-self-realization. The Iranian-Islamic archetypal patterns of conscious and unconscious psychical processes were revealed to him to be in opposition to those patterns of thought and practice which were being imported with technology from the West and transplanted on the Eastern soil.
Jalal's realization of the contradictory characters of the Western and Eastern cultures caused him to write Gharbzadegi, an analysis of the corrupting influence of the West on the East in the historical perspective with particular reference to the Iranian society and body politic. In the last years of his life he produced two major works: the novel, Nafrin-e zamin (The curse of the land), published in 1967, a damaging criticism of the so-called Land Reform; and a work of ideological importance, Dar khidmat wa khiyanat-e rawshanfikran (Concerning the service and disservice of the intellectuals), which was posthumously published during the peak hours of the Revolution.
Jalal died on September 9, 1969 in a village in Gilan, and was buried near the Fir'zabadi mosque at Shahri Ray. Thus came to end an intellectual career, apparently chequered with swift shifts in political and philosophical position, but in reality depicting the journey of a restless soul in search of its true identity, a quest for the roots. Jalal's psychological and intellectual biography is not different from those of many others who underwent similar radical upheavals and transformations in the post-Second-World-War period of disillusionment with almost all the modern ideologies causing a deep sense of rootlessness.
Jalal traced back the roots of his own existence along with the roots of Iranian culture and soul to Islam-a diagnosis of great relevance to the Muslim world in general. Hamid Algar's introduction to the translation of Gharbzadegi furnishes all necessary information about Jalal's literary and political life.
Algar's following observation provides the key to understanding the real nature of Occidentosis:
It is important to remember that its author was neither a historian nor an ideologue. He was a man who after two decades of thought and experimentation had discovered an important and fundamental truth concerning his society-disastrous subordination to the West in all areas-and was in a hurry to communicate this discovery to others. He had neither the time nor the patience to engage in careful historical research, and at some points in the book he even enjoins his readers to dig up the historical evidence for a given assertion. (p. 14). A more important observation made by Algar concerns the nature of Jalal's rediscovery of the soul of Islam. In his view, Jalal's return to Islam is not straightforward, because, firstly, he could not completely free himself from the Orientalist influence, and secondly, there was an unmistakably nationalist colour to Ali Ahmad's proud claim that Islam became Islam when it reached the settled lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, until then being the Arabs' primitiveness and Jahiliyyah" Jalal in Occiden tosis blames Orientalists for inflating the Iranian ego by causing them to believe that they are the people with a great past and consequently making them think that they did not need learn anything new from the West except the use of machine.
Then taking advantage of this false pride and complacence, in his view, Western scholars changed the moulds of Iranian thought substituting them by their own measures. It is strange that an intellectual of Jalal's calibre, who was aware of the Western scholars' conspiracy, fell so cheaply into their trap and explained the origin of Islam in terms of "a kind of delayed response to the call of Mani and Mazdak" or, using Marxist jargon, "a new call based on the needs of the urban populations of the Euphrates region and Syria".
These and many other false notions and criteria are fabrications of the Western mode of thinking imported to the East in the name of "scientific tools of socio-historical analysis".
And our intelligentsia is so allured by the temptation of being considered modern that a conscious writer like Jalal, fully aware of Western intellectual conspiracy, applies them to the realities of Islam and the Eastern culture unhesitatingly. Unfortunately all intellectuals who have been and are in the vanguard of political and intellectual movements in the third world have been using Western concepts and criteria to interpret and solve the complexities of their own traditions.
Modernism, liberalism, scientism, secularism, sociologism and many other 'isms' were evolved and developed in the West according to the changing conditions of the Western society and polity, which were confronted with a fundamental contradiction between new scientific modes of thinking and Christian-dominated medieval ways of life and thought that caused an unbridgeable breach between sacred and profane, spiritual and physical, worldly and otherworldly, religion and social existence, or the church and the state.
So-called Eastern intelligentsia in general, and Muslim intellectuals in particular, without applying their intellect to the fundamental opposition between Oriental and Occidental milieu, accepted Western notions as if they were universally true and applicable to various realities.
Nationalism is also such a category having little relevance to the realities and ideals of Islam. Iranian Islam, Indian Islam, Malaysian Islam, Pakistani Islam, Turkish Islam and Arab Islam as terms have become so current in contemporary writings that even the most cautious and meticulous of Muslim scholars brought up under the Western educational system use them as valid. Undoubtedly Islamic teachings due to their immense potential of adaptability could fit in different environs without being altered basically, but it did not mean that Islam could be variously interpreted.
Since such a wrong conception of Islam became current, Muslim Ummah as a whole began to lose political and economic power and became stagnant intellectually and scientifically. Jalal's pride in an Islam which became Islam after settling in what is presently known as Iraq, Syria and Iran stems from a similar nationalist oriented misconception.
Surprisingly enough Jalal is critical of the Safawid Iran for playing into the hands of anti-Muslim Eastern and Western powers by stabbing the Ottoman Muslim empire in the back which proved to be the last stronghold of Muslim resistance against the world supremacy of the West. Granted that his criticism is not justified concerning all the points, nonetheless his analysis, though defective, reveals his keen desire for Muslim unity. He is also aw are that the breaking up of the Ottoman empire into small states and principalities was engineered by Western imperialist designs. This awareness should have led him to understand the true nature of the movements of nationalism in the Muslim world.
The seeds of nationalism were sowed in the hearts of the Muslims by a well-planned conspiracy of Western imperialism, intellectually supported by Orientalists and Western educators with a view to break Muslim unity.