A tall man with a striking build and commanding presence, he spoke in a calm but assertive tone, tinged with a Persian accent. Admired by many for his charisma and words of justice, Musa al-Sadr, known as Imam Musa or Imam al-Sadr, would become one of Lebanon’s most revered clerics throughout his most tumultuous, the civil war of 1975-1990.
Born in 1928 in the holy city of Qom, Iran, to a renowned Shia Muslim family, his father, a clergyman, Ayatollah Sadr al-Din al-Sadr, urged the young man to continue his studies in Islamic jurisprudence .
As a Shia cleric, al-Sadr earned a degree in law and economics from the University of Tehran.
Al-Sadr’s family is believed to be from the southern Lebanese village of Shhour, near Tire – the imam’s first destination when he visited Lebanon in 1957.
During his visit, al-Sadr met with Sayyid Abd al-Hussein Sharaf al-Dine, an esteemed Shiite religious leader in Lebanon. Impressed by his personality and characteristics, Sayyid Sharaf al-Din asked his peers to nominate Imam Musa as his successor.
Sharaf al-Din died in 1957 and his wish came true in 1959. Settling in Lebanon in 1960, Imam Musa faced an arduous task and a demanding reality. The Shiites of Lebanon at the time were scattered between the Biqaa Valley, Jabal ‘Amil (southern Lebanon) and the southern suburbs of Beirut. Without access to adequate education, job opportunities, and little or no political representation, the imam embarked on a journey of political, social, and economic reform.
His activity was interrupted in August 1978 when he disappeared during a visit to Libya alongside his two companions. His legacy, however, has stood the test of time and is commemorated on August 31 each year.
A man of unity and dialogue
The imam championed interfaith and intra-faith dialogue and worked to bring the Shia community out of the narrative of victimization. In 1969, he was elected to head the Shia Supreme Islamic Council, which he established to support the role of the Shia community in the country’s complex political and religious web.
He was also known for accomplishing a lot of small deeds. One incident that has been handed down by oral tradition is that of Uncle Antiba’s – a Christian ice cream vendor from the city of Tire whose business nearly collapsed due to boycott calls – because of his faith – by Shiite competitors. After confiding in the imam about his predicament, al-Sadr headed to the store, bought some ice cream, and his Shia followers followed suit.
“When he’s not here with us, we’re like orphans,” Uncle Antiba said in a short video documenting the incident.
Unlike Iran’s first religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini, al-Sadr did not subscribe to the call for a Velayat el Faqih or tutelage of the Islamic jurist which was strengthened by the Islamic revolution. He would continue to attend masses, give seminars in churches, call for Shia-Sunni unity, and dine with Maronite politicians.
As Shiites were ostracized and the conflict with Israel on the southern borders boiled over, the imam sought to find reconciliation even among the most polarized camps.
“Israel was an imminent threat to the south and the imam knew that something had to be done,” Faten Mhanna, a Lebanese journalist and producer of a documentary about the imam, told Fanack.
“There were those who supported a national resistance movement against Israel and those who opposed it – notably the Phalangist Christians led by the Gemayel family. Nevertheless, the imam sat down with Christian leaders to discuss solutions.
When civil war broke out in 1975, al-Sadr was devastated. He went on a three-day hunger strike at a mosque in Beirut in protest.
For him, civil peace and national unity were essential tools to protect the country against foreign threats.
Actions not words
One of Imam Musa’s most notable achievements was the establishment of the Imam Musa al-Sadr Foundation, consisting of elementary, secondary and technical schools, orphanages, shelters, a nursing school and the Institute of Islamic Studies.
The Jabal ‘Amil Technical Institute – a trade school that offered poor children in southern Lebanon a chance for an education – became a haven for many children who lost their parents during the Israeli invasion and incursions. in southern Lebanon which began in the late 1970s.
In a television interview, Imam al-Sadr said his goal is “to serve the exhausted, the tortured and the dispossessed…Although we have been able to remove the beggars from the streets of Tyre, many remain to to tackle the causes of poverty… We hope that this institution will be a giant step in our mission to serve the poorest in the region.
Funding, he added, came from local donors, the Lebanese diaspora and the French government.
At the start of the civil war in 1974, al-Sadr established the Movement of the Dispossessed, a social reform movement to defend the Shias during the conflict, along with its military wing, the Amal Movement – a prominent player in politics Lebanese today.
However, his position on civil peace was unwavering. When the northern non-Shia towns of Al-Kaa and Deir al-Ahmar were besieged and heavily bombarded during the civil war, the imam addressed the Shia public in nearby towns and villages, urging them not to participate to no violence by saying: “Any bullet fired at Deir Al-Ahmar or Al-Kaa… is fired at my house, my heart and my children.
Division within the community
Despite al-Sadr’s widespread popularity, two distinct political movements were emerging within the Shia community. The first conformed to the nationalist position of the imam who gave priority to strengthening the integration of Shiites into Lebanese society and politics. The second group followed the ideology of the late cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah and the Iranian-backed Shia Hezbollah party which supported revolutionary and transnational Shia ideas on a large scale.
The main disagreement rested on views linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The latter had transformed the villages of southern Lebanon into guerrilla bases that Israel constantly targeted.
While Al-Sadr was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he refused to sacrifice the Shia community in a fight that would exacerbate their suffering.
He particularly warned against forming foreign allegiances. In a 1977 speech, he said, “Do we, as Lebanese, suffer from a lack of internal allegiances that we need to add a new foreign axis? I hope all Lebanese, Arabs and Iranians understand this message. To the politicians who try to exploit these foreign relations at the expense of the nation and the sect, they should rather enjoy the life that God has granted them.
A lost dream
According to Mhanna, what distinguishes the imam from today’s politicians is his humility and his openness to differences.
“He didn’t like to be glorified or put on a pedestal. He always reiterated that he was there to serve the people and always maintained a pragmatic approach in his speeches, unlike the aggressive populist approach of today’s politicians,” the journalist said.
“He welcomed opposing views and was open to negotiation. Today, you are called a spy, a traitor or even a non-Lebanese for expressing your disagreement,” she added.
Close family friend of al-Sadr, Mohammad Sharaf el-Din told Fanack that the imam was an approachable figure who kept his door open for people to air their grievances, no appointments were necessary.
“He charmed everyone with his compassion. Regardless of their religion, no one felt out of place,” Sharaf al-Din said. “If he were alive today, the various Shiite political factions in present-day Lebanon would be united under his hand. It would be a different country.
The imam disappeared on August 31, 1978 during a trip to Libya where he was traveling with two companions, Sheikh Mohammad Yaakoub and journalist Abbas Badreddine, in the hope of convincing Muammar Gaddafi to reduce his military support for Palestinian fighters in the Lebanon.
He was last spotted shortly before meeting Gaddafi. What happened next remains a mystery. Some accuse Libya of having assassinated or imprisoned the imam, others believe that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wanted to eliminate a potential rival.
Alive today, the imam would be 94 years old.
“We have not lost a person, we have lost a nation. Look at the Lebanon of today, riddled with bigotry, hatred and calls for federalism. Everything the Imam asked for is being “be erased. We must keep his memory alive to instill hope in reviving the dream of Lebanon he worked for,” Mhanna said.