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History

Musa Al Sadr: A Brief Exploration into the Cleric’s Political Legacy

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The controversy surrounding Sadr’s disappearance after attending a conference in Libya in 1978 has bound him to the concept of martyrdom, adding another symbolic layer to his legacy.

The cleric’s contribution to Shi’i Lebanese political thought and resistance is hard to miss. Through his charismatic leadership, an entire community was led out of political quietism into active resistance against a negligent government, planting the seeds to what would be Lebanon’s Shi’i political awakening for decades to come. 

Sadr, born in the Iranian holy city of Qom to a Lebanese Ayatollah, arrived in Lebanon in 1959. With familial roots in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, his background automatically tied him to a transnational tradition that ideologically bound the Shia of these areas together, contributing to his respected status across the international Shi’i community, as well as those of Lebanon. 

At the time of his political ascendancy in the early 60s, Southern Lebanon was home to the impoverished and destitute Shia minority, which had been a product of years of government neglect that had pushed them to the very bottom of all socioeconomic indicators.

Shi’i politics was monopolised by elites and their extensive patronage networks, which excluded average members of society. Though frustration over their neglect began to boil over, the Shias lacked the political organisation and motivation required to challenge these issues. 

It was within this context that Sadr found his political calling. The next sections will unpack some of his main contributions to the Shi’i political awakening of the South, and what political legacy this has inspired. 

Shi’i political activism

Perhaps one of his most important contributions to political thought was his firm belief in social revolution; to him, change could only be possible if it was a bottom-up, people-led movement – one that required political and social organisation, as well as broad-based communal support.

Political activism was the means through which the impoverished could finally be pulled out of their destitution, giving them the platform to demand change. 

Thus, appalled by the socioeconomic conditions of the Southern Shias and their severe underdevelopment, he began his campaign of reform through his role as Chairman of the Lebanese Islamic Shi’i Council, marking the first representative body that gave Shias exclusive representation, independent of Sunni Muslims.

Through it, he called for the construction of schools and hospitals as well as wider political reform, which would finally end the period of isolation that cut them off from Lebanese society, and integrate them within its institutions.

One of his biggest long-term accomplishments was in education, through the establishment of the vocational institute in the Southern town of Burj al-Shimali [1], which has now become an important symbolic landmark of his legacy. He also demanded better military and defense measures that would protect the South from becoming the target of Israeli attacks. 

These measures politically mobilised the Shia and improved their aspirations by giving them a new hope that their fortunes could change. He founded new groups concerned with protecting them, such as Harakat al Mahrumin (The Movement of the Dispossessed) in 1974 as well as its military wing Amal (Hope), while ideologically inspired other groups such as Hezbollah.

In this way, his teachings have informed the ideological orientation of a generation of political leaders, many of which continue to shape Lebanese politics today. Hassan Nasrallah, the current leader of Hezbollah was one of these men, who at the young age of 16 [2] gained early political experience as a fighter for the Amal movement.

Unity

Sadr proved himself to be a pragmatic leader; though he was primarily concerned with uniting and organising the Shia, he extended his calls for unity beyond sectarian lines to the many different factions of Lebanese society. Harakat al Mahrumin itself, along with Sadr, was founded by Gregiore  Hadad, the Greek Catholic Bishop of Beirut.

It aimed to be a voice for the oppressed, but was significant in that it did not limit itself to any particular ideology; it aimed to represent all impoverished communities who had experienced government neglect regardless of their ideological orientation. He also gave regular speeches which attracted thousands, in which he invited people to look beyond social divisions and unite to end injustice.

It was this pragmatism that allowed Sadr to expand his support base beyond sectarian lines despite his own firm belief in Shia Islam. His approach proved useful in overcoming Lebanon’s societal divisions, ensuring the necessary intercommunal support needed to ignite any significant level of change. This approach later informed Hezbollah’s ideology, which has made a point of advertising its support for and protection of Lebanese Christian communities. 

A symbolic legacy; ‘The man of double identity’

The controversy surrounding Sadr’s disappearance after attending a conference in Libya in 1978 has bound him to the concept of martyrdom, adding another symbolic layer to his legacy. It was another loss that had struck the hearts of Shias, as his story was now tied to the all-too-familiar experience of prominent Shia figures and adherents throughout history; one that typically ended in oppression, sacrifice, and an untimely death.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian Revolution, did not hesitate to make him a representation of sacrifice for a greater cause, to inspire the next generation of Shia militiamen and political thinkers to keep on the path of revolution. Sadr was no longer just a Lebanese reformer, but part of a broader Shi’i tradition that went beyond state boundaries. 

“Musa Al Sadr himself came to serve an entirely new function. He was a man of double identity,  claimed by the Iranians and by the Shia in Lebanon; he embodied the bonds, both real and imagined, between the two” – Fouad Ajami in The Vanished Imam: Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon. [3] 

*** 

Musa al Sadr’s contribution to the Shi’i political awakening of the late 60s and early 70s is incomparable. One man’s plight changed the fate of millions of Lebanese Shias who had become nothing but an afterthought before his ascendancy.

As a man of great intellect and pragmatism, he was able to toe the line between Islamic-inspired reform and inter-communal unity; between political activism and Islamic spiritual guidance. Through this, he brought a new framework with which to approach issues of the disadvantaged, which is one that has inspired a generation of political reformers and religious thinkers today.


Sources

[1] Augustus R. Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (3rd Edition). 

[2] Le Monde Patrice Claude, Mystery man behind the party of God. 

[3] Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam: Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon. 

[4] Anoushiravan Ehteshami & Raymond A. Hinnebusch, Syria and Iran: Middle Powers in a  Penetrated Regional System.

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