Musa al-Sadr (1928-circa 1978), known as Imam Musa, was a Shi'ite Moslem religious and political leader who was instrumental in improving the lot of the ordinary Shi'ites in South Lebanon while reducing the power of the Shi'ite elites. Al-Sadr disappeared in 1978 under mysterious circumstances and is presumed dead.
Musa al-Sadr was born in Qum, Iran, in 1928, the son of an important Shi'ite Muslim religious leader, Ayatullah Sadr al-Din Sadr. He attended secondary and primary school in Qum and college in Tehran. He did not intend to study religion, but upon the urging of his father he discarded his secular ambitions and pursued an education in Islamic jurisprudence (figh). Initially, he studied in a Qum madrasah (religious school), and while still in Qum he edited a magazine, Makatib-i Islami (Islamic Schools), which is still published in Iran. One year after his father's death in 1953, he moved to Najaf, Iraq, where he studied under Ayatullah Muhsin al-Hakim.
Imam of Tyre
Al-Sadr first visited Lebanon, which was his ancestral home, was in 1957. During this visit he made a strong impression on his fellow Lebanese Shi'ites. Following the death of the Shi'ite religious leader of the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre, he was invited to become the Imam, or senior religious authority, in Tyre. In 1960 he moved to Tyre, with the active support of his teacher and mentor, Muhsin al-Hakim.
One of his first significant acts was the establishment of a vocational institute in the southern town of Burj al-Shimali. The institute, constructed at a cost of half a million Lebanese pounds (about $165,000), would become an important symbol of Musa al-Sadr's leadership. Today it still provides vocational training for about 500 orphans.
A physically imposing man of intelligence, courage, personal charm, and enormous energy—one of his former assistants claims that he frequently worked 20 hours a day—al-Sadr attracted a wide array of supporters. Imam Musa, as his followers referred to him, set out to establish himself as the paramount leader of the Shi'ite community, which was most noteworthy at the time for its poverty and general underdevelopment.
Imam Musa helped to fill a yawning leadership vacuum that resulted from the increasing inability of the traditional political bosses to meet the cascading needs of their clients. From the 1960s on, the Shi'ites had experienced rapid social change and economic disruption, and the old village-based patronage system was proving to be ever more an anachronism. Musa al-Sadr was able to stand above a fragmented and victimized community and see it as a whole. He reminded his followers that their deprivation was not to be fatalistically accepted. He felt that as long as they could speak out through their religion they could overcome their condition. As he once observed, "Whenever the poor involve themselves in a social revolution it is a confirmation that injustice is not predestined."
As a Political Leader
He shrewdly recognized that his power lay in part in his role as a custodian of religious symbols. But above all else he was a pragmatist. It is both a tribute to his political skill and a commentary on his tactics that one well-informed Lebanese should have commented that nobody knew the position of Imam Musa.
He was often a critic of the Shah of Iran, but it was only after the Yom Kippur (October) War of 1973 that his relations with the Shah deteriorated seriously. He accused the Shah of suppressing religion in Iran, denounced him for his pro-Israel stance, and described him as an "imperialist stooge." As Imam Musa's relations with Iran deteriorated after 1973, he improved his relations with Iraq, from which he may have received significant funding in early 1974.
Like the Maronite Christians, the Shi'ites are a minority in a predominately Sunni Muslim Arab world, and for both sects Lebanon was a refuge in which sectarian identity and security could be preserved. It is not surprising that many Maronites saw a natural ally in Imam Musa. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary. He sought the betterment of the Shi'ites in a Lebanese context. He often noted, "For us Lebanon is one definitive homeland."
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'ites. He argued that the Maronite-dominated government had neglected the south, where as many as 50 percent of the Shi'ites lived.
Musa al-Sadr was anti-Communist, one suspects not only on principled grounds but because the various Communist organizations were among his prime competitors for Shi'ite recruits. While the two branches of the Ba'th Party (pro-Iraqi and pro-Syrian) were making significant inroads among the Shi'ites of the south and of the Beirut suburbs, he appropriated their pan-Arab slogans. Although the movement he founded, Harakat al-Mahrumin (the Movement of the Deprived), was aligned with the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) in the early stages of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1976), he found its Druze leader, Kamal al-Jumblatt, irresponsible and exploitative of the Shi'ites. As he once noted, the LNM was willing "to combat the Christians to the last Shi'ite." He imputed to Jumblatt the prolongation of the war.
Thus, he deserted the LNM in May 1976, when Syria intervened in Lebanon on the side of the Maronite militias and against the LNM and its Palestinian allies. He was a friend and confidant of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, yet he mistrusted Syrian motives in Lebanon. It was, in Imam Musa's view, only the indigestibility of Lebanon that protected it from being engulfed by Syria. Nonetheless, the Syrians were an essential card in his serious game with the Palestinian resistance.
He claimed to support the Palestine resistance movement, but his relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were tense and uneasy at best. During the 1973 clashes between the PLO and the Lebanese army, Imam Musa reproached the Sunni Muslims for their chorus of support for the guerrillas. On the one hand he chastised the government for failing to defend the south from Israeli aggression, but on the other he criticized the PLO for shelling Israel from the south and hence provoking Israeli retaliation. He consistently expressed sympathy for Palestinian aspirations, but he was unwilling to countenance actions that exposed Lebanese citizens, and especially Shi'ite citizens of the south, to additional suffering.
After the 1970 PLO defeat in Jordan, the bulk of the PLO fighters relocated to south Lebanon, where they proceeded to supplant the legitimate authorities. Imam Musa prophetically warned the PLO that it was not in its interests to establish a state within a state in Lebanon. It was the organization's failure to heed this warning that helped to spawn the alienation of their "natural allies" the Shi'ites" who actively resisted the Palestinian fighters in their midst only a few years later. But his unremitting opponent was Kamil al-As'ad, the powerful Shi'ite political boss from the south, who quite accurately viewed al-Sadr as a serious threat to his political power base.
Chairman of the Supreme Shi'ite Council
In 1967 the Chamber of Deputies (or parliament) had passed a law establishing a Supreme Shi'ite Council, which would for the first time provide a representative body for the Shi'ites 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'ite cleric in the country, and certainly one of the most important political figures in the Shi'ite 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'ites appointed to senior government positions.
One year after the formation of the Supreme Shi'ite Council, 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 quickly became more famous for being a locus of corruption than for being the origin of beneficial projects.
By the early 1970s the existing social and economic problems of the Shi'ites were compounded by a rapidly deteriorating security environment in the south. While the Supreme Shi'ite Council seemed a useful vehicle for the promotion of the community's interests (as mediated by Musa al-Sadr, of course), the council was ineffectual in a milieu that was quickly becoming dominated by militias and extralegal parties. Hence in March 1974, Imam Musa launched a popular mass movement, the Harakat al-Mahrumin (the Movement of the Deprived). With this movement he vowed to struggle relentlessly until the social grievances of the deprived in practice, the Shi'ites were satisfactorily addressed by the government.
Lebanese Civil War
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-Muqawama al-Lubnaniya (the Lebanese Resistance Detachments), better known by the acronym AMAL (which also means "hope"), was initially trained by al-Fatah (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 its erstwhile allies when the Syrians intervened in June 1976 to prevent the defeat of the Maronite-dominated Lebanese Front.
Four months before the Syrian intervention President Sulaiman Franjiya (Suleiman Franjieh) accepted a "Constitutional Document" that Imam Musa indicated was a satisfactory basis for implementing political reform. The document "which called for an increase in the proportion of parliamentary seats allocated to the Muslims, as well as some restrictions on the prerogatives of the Maronite president[APM1]" seemed to offer a basis for restoring civility to Lebanon. When it was combined with the prospect of bringing the PLO under control through Syrian intervention, there appeared to be a prospect for a new beginning. Unfortunately, the opportunity to stop the carnage was more apparent than real. While the pace of fighting had decreased by the end of 1976, the violence continued.
The growing influence of Musa al-Sadr prior to the civil war was certainly proof of the increased political importance of the Shi'ites; however, it bears emphasizing that Imam Musa led only a fraction of his politically affiliated coreligionists. It was the multi-confessional parties and militias that attracted the majority of Shi'ite recruits and many more Shi'ites carried arms under the colors of these organizations than under AMAL's. Even in war the Shi'ites 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 Shi'ite 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.
Whatever he may have been, despite his occasionally vehement histrionics, the Imam was hardly a man of war. (He seems to have played only a most indirect role in directing the military actions of the AMAL militia.) His weapons were words, and as a result his political efforts were short-circuited by the war. He seemed to be eclipsed by the violence that engulfed Lebanon.
Disappearance and Presumed Death
In August 1978 he flew from Beirut to Tripoli with two aides to attend ceremonies commemorating Libya's Muammar Gaddafi's ascent to power in 1969. When he was not seen in Tripoli, it was said he had left for Italy. Airline crews could not confirm he had ever flown from Libya to Italy, and he was never seen after that on either side of the Mediterranean. While his fate is not known, it was widely suspected that he was killed at the behest of Gaddafi, who may have viewed him as a religious rival. The Libyan government quickly claimed it had evidence that al-Sadr had left the country. The PLO, however, countered it had found al-Sadr's baggage in a Tripoli hotel and had uncovered no evidence of his arrival in Rome.
Other rumors surfaced, one saying al-Sadr had secretly returned to Qum to fight for the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. Another rumor had him kidnapped by the Shah. As months passed with no resolution to the mystery, tensions rose between Lebanon, Libya, and Iran, but no word surfaced to reveal al-Sadr's fate and he was presumed dead.
Ironically, it was al-Sadr's disappearance in 1978 that helped to retrieve the promise of his earlier efforts. Musa al-Sadr became a hero to his followers, who revered his memory and took inspiration from his words. The movement he founded, later simply called AMAL, became, after his disappearance, the most important Shi'ite organization in Lebanon and one of the most powerful.
Further Reading on Musa al-Sadr
There is an excellent political biography of Musa al-Sadr entitled The Vanished Imam by Fouad Ajami (1986). Other important references are: Edward Azar, et al., The Emergence of a New Lebanon (1984); Karim Pakradouni, Stillborn Peace (1985); Juan Cole and Nikki Keddie, editors, Shi'ism and Social Protest (1986); and Augustus R. Norton, Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (1987). A news account of al-Sadr's disappearance appeared in Time on October 9, 1978.