Imam Musa al-Sadr is hardly known in the West today, but the 39-year anniversary of this clergyman’s mysterious disappearance remains a source of deep grief and resentment among his followers. Sadr’s message of peaceful coexistence among peoples of different faiths still resonates. One cannot help but wonder what the Middle East, and Iran in particular, would look like today if Sadr had lived?
Sadr was a religious and political moderate who opposed direct clerical involvement in government and was the favorite of the senior clerics in Qom and Najaf who feared their ruthlessly ambitious peer Ruhollah Khomeini, the eventual Supreme Leader. His disappearance remains one of the great “what ifs?” of the late twentieth century. Researchers now lean toward the conclusion that responsibility for the imam’s kidnapping lies with the Islamic revolutionaries, and not with the Shah’s secret police as once was believed. At the time of his disappearance, plans were underway to bring Sadr back to Iran from Lebanon to lead a moderate block against Khomeini and the fundamentalists. Sadr had even established a secret backchannel to the Imperial Court in Tehran, and he was on his way to a furtive meeting with the Shah’s intermediary when he vanished in Tripoli.
Iran and the region could be very different today had Sadr lived to challenge Khomeini. Khomeini’s followers adopted a policy of religious revolution, of Islam without borders, and a totalitarian empire ruled by a Supreme Leader. While Qom and Najaf’s old-line clerics who followed the “quietist” tradition of Shiite Islam rejected governmental involvement, acquiescing to injustice while patiently awaiting the Mahdi’s deliverance, Sadr preached a different path. He aimed to reconcile the Shia with secular government through an activism that empowered Shiites as loyal citizens.
Born in Iran to a high Shia family, young Sadr was dispatched by the Shah to southern Lebanon in 1959 to minister to the region's poor Shia community. Bold, energetic, and charismatic, the 31-year-old Sadr mobilized the Shia to have a voice in national affairs and established himself as a tireless proponent of social justice. By 1978, Sadr was well known and respected in Lebanon and counted moderate regional leaders such as King Hussein of Jordan and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt among his friends. When unrest erupted in Iran in early 1978, Sadr’s mentors in Qom and Najaf naturally looked to him as a figure capable of drawing support away from their antagonist Khomeini. While he did not openly confront Khomeini, Sadr was appalled by Khomeini’s Wilayat al-Faqih, which called for the overthrow of the monarchy and its replacement with a theocratic dictatorship.
In August of 1978, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi invited Sadr to Tripoli, ostensibly to bridge differences between Sadr and Khomeini. However, Gadhafi was funding the Islamic revolutionary movement and worried that Sadr was trying to cut a side deal with the Shah. This seems to be the motivation behind Sadr’s disappearance in Gadhafi's residence in late August of that year.
Sadr’s disappearance removed a major obstacle in Khomeini's path to power. It severely weakened the moderates in Qom who had been counting on Sadr’s return to bolster their efforts against the extremists. Khomeini was quick to usurp Sadr’s influence. He announced a sham investigation into Sadr’s disappearance, delaying it for five months and then permanently canceling it. In Lebanon, the new Islamic Republic of Iran cast Sadr as a revolutionary martyr and icon of resistance for its local ally, Hezbollah. Hezbollah claimed Sadr as one of its spiritual forebears and exploited the grief of his followers by radicalizing and co-opting them, which also served to undermine Sadr’s Amal party and militia.
Today, Shiite support is divided up between the ascetic Quietists such as Iraq’s anti-Wilayat al-Faqih Ayatollah Ali Sistani; Hezbollah; Musa al-Sadr’s distant Iraqi relative Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposes Iran’s influence in Iraq; and Iran’s authoritarian theocrats.
The latter enjoy the majority of Shiite support because they emphasize actively solving modern social ills and Shiite disenfranchisement. By contrast, the Quietists are awaiting the divine deliverance of the Mahdi to ease their community’s suffering. To many younger Shiites who are impatient for change, they appear detached from contemporary concerns.
This is why Sadr’s legacy is more important today than ever. Tehran has taken aim at the reclusive al-Sistani as part of their plan to eliminate clerical opposition within Shiism. Meanwhile, the Gulf States are welcoming the militant Muqtada al-Sadr as a counter to Iran’s continued expansionism.
Like the Quietists, Musa al-Sadr rejected clerical control over the state or politics. Yet he wholeheartedly embraced modernity, which was the secret of his popularity with Shiite laymen -- he challenged unjust conditions of society. Unlike Hezbollah and the Khomeinists, the institutions he built were not a tool to recruit Lebanese Shiites into Iran’s revolutionary vanguard or to dismantle Lebanon’s republic. Musa al-Sadr aimed to empower his community to peacefully reform the Lebanese state, not tear it down or rebuild it on Iran’s Islamic model.
Musa al-Sadr also eschewed the terrorism and sectarianism of the anti-Khomeinist Muqtada al-Sadr. Muqtada is now positioning himself as the Iraqi nationalist alternative to the Iranian-controlled Shiite militias, but he presided over death squads which targeted U.S. forces and innocent Iraqi Sunnis alike. By contrast, Musa al-Sadr tried to build genuine cross-sectarian alliances to temper Lebanese and regional religious tensions.
Sadr’s Amal militia also differed markedly from both Hezbollah and Muqtada’s militants. Amal had a (Lebanese) nationalist orientation, but eschewed doctrinaire anti-Americanism and terrorism. Sadr even opposed attacking Israel from Lebanon, and used Amal to restrain the Palestinians from doing so.
Under the leadership of Iran’s Khomeinism or Muqtada’s anti-Iranian militancy, Shiite activism will remain a destabilizing regional force. An alternative course of action is to finally embrace the model of moderation and cooperation championed by Imam Musa Sadr. Sadr’s pragmatic activist model empowered Shiites as law-abiding patriots to their native countries. This vision can end the Shiites’ age-old sense of dispossession while ameliorating the Sunni-Shiite sectarianism tearing apart the region.