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SADR, MOSA AL- (4 June 1928 – disappeared in Libya on 31 August 1978), Iranian-born Shi’i cleric of Lebanese descent who made an indelible mark on the Lebanese political scene. Musa al-Sadr is one of the most intriguing and fascinating political personalities to have appeared in the modern Middle East.

He was an ambitious but tolerant man whose controversial career had an enormous impact on the Shi’i Muslim community of Lebanon. His admirers describe him as a man of vision, political acumen, and profound compassion, while his detractors remember him as a deceitful, manipulative political chameleon. Musa al-Sadr was a towering presence in Lebanon’s political history (literally as well as figuratively, as he was well over six feet tall). Though he disappeared in 1978, he still inspires his followers and dogs his enemies in Lebanon.

Sadr was born in Qom, Iran, in 1928, the son of Ayatollah Sadr al-Din Sadr, an important Shi’i Muslim mujtahid (a ShN jurisprudent qualified to make independent interpretations of law and theology). In Qom he attended primary and secondary school, and a Shi’i seminary, and then he went on to Tehran University, where he matriculated into the School of Political Economy and Law of Tehran University, the first mujtahid to do so. He did not intend to pursue a career as a cleric, but on the urging of his father he discarded his secular ambitions and agreed to continue an education in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). One year after his father’s death in 1953, he moved to Najaf, Iraq, where he studied under Ayatollahs Muhsin al-Hakim and `Abd al-Qasim Khu’i (Abol-Qasem Kho’i).

He first visited Lebanon, which was his ancestral home, in 1957. During this visit he made a very positive impression on the Lebanese Shi’ah, including his relative al-Sayyid `Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din, the Shi’i religious leader of the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre. Following the death of Sharaf al-Din in 1957, he was invited to become the senior Shi’i religious authority in Tyre. Initially he spurned the invitation, but the urgings of his mentor Ayatollah al-Haklm proved persuasive. In 196o he moved to Tyre. In 1963 he was granted Lebanese citizenship, an early mark of his looming influence in Lebanon. Although he was a man of Qom, he understood Lebanon and the fundamental need for compromise in a land of sects, insecurity, and long memories. He emphasized ecumenicalism. His was an assertiveness laced with empathy.

One of his first significant acts was the establishment of a vocational institute in the southern town of Burj alShimali (near Tyre), where Shi`i youths could gain the training that would allow them to escape the privation which marked their community. The institute would become an important symbol of Musa al-Sadr’s leadership; it is still in operation-now bearing his nameand provides vocational training for about five hundred orphans under the supervision of Sadr’s strong-willed sister Rabab (who is married to a member of the important Sharaf al-Din family of Tyre).

A man of keen intelligence, widely noted personal charm, and enormous energy, Sadr attracted a wide array of supporters, ranging from ShM merchants making their fortunes in West Africa to petit-bourgeois youth. The Shi’i migrants to West Africa, who had fled the poverty of Lebanon to seek their fortunes, proved to be an important source of financial support for Musa al-Sadr. Many of these men had done very well, and they were attracted to a man who promised to challenge the old system that had humiliated them and denied them a political voice. If there is an Arabic equivalent of “charisma,” it is haybah-a word that describes the dignified presence and allure of this man from faraway Qom and Najaf.

Imam Mfisa-as he came to be called by his followers-set out to establish himself as the paramount leader of the Lebanese Shi’i community, noted at the time for its poverty and general underdevelopment. He helped to fill a yawning leadership void which resulted from the growing inability of the za’ims (traditional political bosses) to meet the cascading needs of their clients. From the 1960s onward, the Shi’ah had experienced rapid social change and economic disruption, and the old village-based patronage system, which presumed the underdevelopment and the apathy of the clients, was proving an anachronism.

Musa al-Sadr was able to stand above a fragmented and often victimized community and see it as a whole. Through his organizational innovations, his speeches, and his personal example, he succeeded in giving many Shi’is an inclusive communal identity. Furthermore, he reminded his followers that their deprivation was not to be fatalistically accepted, for so long as they could speak out through their religion, they could overcome their condition. He once observed, “whenever the poor involve themselves in a social revolution it is a confirmation that injustice is not predestined” (Norton, 1987, p. 40).

He shrewdly recognized that his power lay in part in his role as a custodian of religious symbols. He used the central myths of Shiism, especially the martyrdom of Imam Husayn at Karbala thirteen centuries earlier, to spur his followers. The day of martyrdom is called `Ashura’, and it was a frequent motif of Sadr. The following excerpt from one of his speeches was reported by the newspaper Al-hayah on i February 1974: “This revolution did not die in the sands of Karbala, it flowed into the life stream of the Islamic world, and passed from generation to generation, even to our day. It is a deposit placed in our hands so that we may profit from

it, that we extract from it a new source of reform, a new position, a new movement, a new revolution, to repel the darkness, to stop tyranny and to pulverize evil.”

Political Style. The record of his political alliances shows that Musa al-Sadr was-above all else-a pragmatist. It is both a tribute to his political skill and a commentary on his tactics that well-informed Lebanese should have commented that nobody knew where Imam Musa stood. According to reliable reports, Musa was friendly with both King Hussein of Jordan and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, and he traveled regularly throughout the Arab world and Europe.

His followers today often characterize him as a vociferous critic of the shah of Iran, but it was only after the October War of 1973, when Iran supported Israel against the Arabs, that his relations with the shah deteriorated. In the autumn of 1973, he accused the shah of suppressing religion in Iran, denounced him for his proIsrael stance, and described him as an “imperialist stooge.” Although his Iranian citizenship was soon revoked, for more than a decade he had maintained close, even cordial, ties with the Pahlavi regime, and it seems that the shah provided financial subsidies to Imam Musa and his Iraqi cousin, the learned Muhammad Bagir alSadr.

Musa al-Sadr was a strong supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; indeed, the last article he published was a polemic in Le Monde (23 August 1978), castigating the shah and praising Khomeini. Yet, Sadr’s vision of Shiism was more moderate, more humanistic than Khomeini’s. He was a friend of `Ali Shari`ati (d. 1977), the writer who propounded a liberal, modernist Shiism and thereby inspired many opponents of the shah (including, the Mujahidi-n-i Khalq, the organization that has proved to be the staunchest opponent of the Islamic Republic regime.) Musa al-Sadr’s admiration for Shari’ati was rooted in the intellectual’s commitment to confront tyranny and injustice through the renovation of Shiism, rather than through the rejection of faith. In Iran, Shari’ati’s ideological message, with its stress on humanism, anti-imperialism, and self-reliance, appealed to the educated classes; while his emphasis on the martyrdom of Husayn as a revolutionary exemplar appealed across socioeconomic lines. Absent from Shari`ari’s writings and lectures was the vengefulness, the anger, and the intolerance that marked Iran’s post-shah rulers. Many observers suspect that al-Sadr would have moderated the course of the revolution in Iran, if he were not consumed by it. [See the biography of Shah-ad.]

Political Alliances. Like the Maronite Christians, the Shi’is are a minority in a predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab world, and for both sects Lebanon is a refuge in which sectarian identity and security can be preserved. Al-Sadr’s message to the Maronites in the period before the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1976 was a combination of muted threat and impassioned egalitarianism. In his ecumenical sermons to Christian congregations, he won many admirers among his listeners. He was said to be the first ShN mujtahid to visit the Maronite patriarch in his bastion at Bkerke. Many Maronites, not surprisingly, saw a natural ally in Imam Musa. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary, and he sought the betterment of the Shi’ah in a Lebanese context. He often noted, “For us Lebanon is one definitive homeland.” The covenant or pact of the Movement of the Deprived, which al-Sadr wrote in 1974, emphasizes that the movement “adheres to the principles of national sovereignty, the indivisibility of the motherland, and the integrity of her soil.” (See Norton, 1987, pp. 144-166, for the text of the pact.)

Musa al-Sadr recognized the insecurity of the Maronites, and he acknowledged their need to maintain their monopoly-hold on the presidency. Yet he was critical of the Maronites for their arrogant stance toward the Muslims, and particularly the Shi’is He argued that the Maronite-dominated government had neglected the south, where as many as 50 percent of the Shi’is lived, since independence, and had made the Shi’is a disinherited class in Lebanon. Quoting from the Qur’an, he often reminded his listeners that “He who sleeps while having a needy neighbor is not considered a believer.”

He was anticommunist, one suspects not only on principled grounds but because the various communist organizations were among his prime competitors for Shi’i recruits. He claimed to reject ideologies of the right and the left, noting that “we are neither of the right nor the left, but we follow the path of the just [al-sirdt almustaqim].” Yet when the two branches of the Bath party (pro-Iraqi and pro-Syrian) were making significant inroads among the Shi’is of the south and the Beirut suburbs, he appropriated their Pan-Arab slogans.

Although the movement he founded, Harakat alMahrumin (Movement of the Deprived), was aligned with the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) in the early stages of the Lebanese civil war Imam Musa found the LNM’s Druze leader, Kamal Jumblatt, irresponsible and exploitative of the Shi’is. As he once noted, the LNM was willing “to combat the Christians to the last Shi’i.” According to Karen Bakraduni, a thoughtful militia figure, al-Sadr imputed to Jumblatt the prolongation of the war.

After the 1970 defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan, the bulk of the PLO fighters relocated to south Lebanon where they proceeded to supplant the legitimate authorities. For their part, some PLO officials believed that Mu sa al-Sadr was a creation of the army’s Deuxieme Bureau (the Second [or intelligence] Bureau), or the CIA. Imam Musa prophetically warned the PLO that it was not in its interests to establish a state within a state in Lebanon. After he was gone, Shi’i militiamen invoking his memory fought pitched battles with the PLO and its Lebanese allies, applauded the defeat of the fida’i at the hands of Israel in 1982, laid siege to their camps in 1985, and pledged never to permit the re-creation of the Palestinian statewithin-a-state in Lebanon.

In 1967 the Chamber of Deputies (the Lebanese parliament) passed a law establishing a Supreme Islamic Shi`i Council (SISC), which would for the first time provide a representative body for the Shi’is independent of the Sunni Muslims. The council actually came into existence in 1969, with Imam Musa as its chairman for a six-year term-a stunning confirmation of his status as the leading Shi’i cleric in the country, and certainly one of the most important political figures in the Shi’i community. The council quickly made itself heard with demands in the military, social, economic, and political realms, including: improved measures for the defense of the South, the provision of development funds, construction and improvement of schools and hospitals, and an increase in the number of Shi’is appointed to senior government positions. The SISC quickly became a locus of action for the Shi`i intelligentsia, the emerging middle class, as well as many of the traditional elites.

One year after the formation of the SISC, and following a string of bloody Israeli incursions and bombardments, Musa al-Sadr organized a general strike “to dramatize to the government the plight of the population of southern Lebanon vis-a-vis the Israeli military threat.” Shortly thereafter, the government created the Council of the South (Majlis al-Janub) which was capitalized at 30 million Lebanese pounds and was chartered to support the development of the region. Unfortunately, the Majlis al-Janub reputedly became more famous as a cockpit of corruption than as a fount of worthwhile projects.

Kamil al-As’ad, the powerful Shi’i political boss from the south, quite accurately viewed al-Sadr as a serious threat to his political power base and opposed him at almost every move. For Musa al-Sadr and his followers, al-As’ad was the epitome of all that was wrong with the za’im system. Although the creation of the Council of the South was a victory for al-Sadr, it was the formidable al-As’ad who dominated its operation.

On 17 March 1974, the arba’in-the fortieth day after `Ashura’-Musa al-Sadr was in the Bekaa (Biga’) Valley city of Baalbek at a now famous gathering. Standing before an estimated crowd of 75,000, Imam Musa declared the launching of the Harakat al-Mahrumin. He ranged over Shi`i grievances-poor schools, nonexistent public services, governmental neglect-and vowed to struggle relentlessly until the social grievances of the deprived were satisfactorily addressed by the government. He recalled that a Kufan judge had accused Imam Husayn of straying from the way of his grandfather, the Prophet, and noted that he too was now accused of abandoning his grandfather’s way. But he refused to relegate himself to a life of quiet scholarship and prayer:

The rulers say that the men of religion must only pray and not meddle in other things. They exhort us to fast and to pray for them so that the foundations of their reign will not be shaken, while they move away from religion and exploit it to hold on to their seats of power. . . . [Those in power] are the infidel of the infidels and the most atheist of the atheists. They want us to give ourselves up to them. (Cited in Ajami, 1986, p. 147.)

Civil War Erupts. Just one year later, al-Sadr’s efforts were overtaken by the onset of civil war in Lebanon. By July 1975 it became known that a militia adjunct to Harakat al-Mahrumin had been formed. The militia, Afwaj al-Muqawamah al-Lubnaniyah (the Lebanese Resistance Detachments), better known by the acronym AMAL (which also means “hope”), was initially trained by alFatah (the largest organization in the PLO) and it played a minor role in the fighting of 1975 and 1976. Musa al-Sadr’s movement was affiliated with the LNM and its PLO allies during the first year of the civil war, but it broke with them when the Syrians intervened in June 1976 to prevent the defeat of the Maronitedominated Lebanese Front.

Impressive as Imam Musa’s influence was, it is important not to exaggerate his impact in terms of the political mobilization of the Shl’is. The multiconfessional parties and militias attracted the majority of Sh!’! recruits and many more ShNs carried arms under the colors of these organizations than under Amal’s. Even in war the Sh-Ns suffered disproportionately; by a large measure they incurred more casualties than any other sect in Lebanon. Perhaps the single most important success achieved by al-Sadr was the reduction of the authority and the influence of the traditional ShN elites, but it was the civil war, and the associated growth of extralegal organizations, that conclusively rendered these personalities increasingly irrelevant in the Lebanese political system.

Despite his occasionally vehement histrionics, Musa al-Sadr was hardly a man of war. (He seems to have played only an indirect role in directing the military actions of the Amal militia.) In a poignant effort to curtail the violence, he declared a hunger strike, but the combination of visceral fury and frustration, government impotence, and the strength of the emerging warlords dwarfed the gesture. His weapons were words, and as a result his political efforts were short-circuited by the war. In the months preceding the outbreak of mayhem Musa al-Sadr’s star was still rising, but his political fortunes plummeted by 1976.

The Hidden Imam. Ironically, it was the still mysterious disappearance of Musa al-Sadr in 1978 that helped to retrieve the promise of his earlier efforts. In August 1978 he visited Libya with two companions, Shaykh Muhammad Shihadah Ya’qub and journalist `Abbas Badr al-Din. The party has not been heard from since. Although his fate is not known, it is widely suspected that he died at the hands of the Libyan leader, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi for reasons that remain obscure. The anniversary of his disappearance, 31 August, is celebrated annually with a national strike in Lebanon.

Musa al-Sadr has become a hero to his followers, who revere his memory and take inspiration from his words and his suffering. The symbol of a missing imam-reminiscent as it is of the central dogma of Shiism-is hard to assail, and even his blood enemies are now heard to utter words of praise. The movement he founded, now simply called Amal, has-since his disappearance-become the largest Shi`i organization in Lebanon and one of the most powerful. Simultaneously, the more militant Hizbullah (Party of God) claims the Imam al-Gha’ib (or the Hidden Imam) as its forebear.

The competition for supremacy in Lebanon among the Shi`is is in large measure a matter of who is the rightful heir to the legacy of Musa al-Sadr. On the one side is Hizbullah, under the strong influence of Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, which emerged after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and has been authoritatively associated with the kidnappings of foreigners. On the other side is Amal, still a reform movement, but an angrier, more vengeful one than it was under al-Sadr’s leadership. Musa al-Sadr would probably recognize neither organization, but his message that deprivation or second-class citizenship need not be passively accepted retains its power.

[See also Amal; Lebanon.]


Ajami, Fouad. The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.

Bulloch, John. Death of a Country: The Civil War in Lebanon. London, 1977

Cole, Juan R. I., and Nikki R. Keddie, eds. Shi’ism and Social Protest. New Haven, 1986.

Khalidi, Walid. Conflict and Violence in Lebanon: Confrontation in the Middle East. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

Mallat, Chibli. Shi’i Thought from the South of Lebanon. Oxford, 1988. Norton, Augustus Richard. Amal and the Shi`a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon. Austin, 1987. (Arabic edition, Beirut, 1988.) Pakradouni, Karim. La paix manquee. 2d ed. Beirut, 1984.

Salibi, Kamal S. Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon, 1958-1976. Delmar, N.Y., 1976.

Sicking, Thom, and Shereen Khairallah. “The Shi’a Awakening in Lebanon: A Search for Radical Change in a Traditional Way.” In Vision and Revision in Arab Society, 1974, pp. 97-130. Beirut, 1975

Theroux, Peter. The Strange Disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr. London, 1987.

Wright, Robin. Sacred Rage: The Crusade of Modern Islam. New York, 1985.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/sadr-mosa-al/

  • writerPosted On: June 26, 2017
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