Before the emergence of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement in 1982, the country’s most charismatic and prominent Shia Muslim leader during the preceding two decades was arguably Sayyid Musa Al-Sadr. He disappeared mysteriously during a visit to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 1978.
The son of an Ayatollah, Musa Al-Sadr was born in the Iranian city of Qom on 4 June 1928. An important clerical family, the Sadrs originated in Lebanon’s southern Jabal Amel region but would later form transnational links in both Iraq and Iran.
After completing his primary and secondary education and distinguishing himself in traditional religious studies, Sadr moved to Tehran where he obtained a degree in Law and Economics. Despite not intending to pursue higher religious studies, with encouragement from his father he entered the seminary in his home city of Qom before moving to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq in 1953, a year after his father’s death. He qualified as a mujtahid (an independent jurist in Islamic law) and established contacts with a budding generation of clerical activists.
Musa Sadr returned to Iran following the 1958 coup in Iraq, and a year later he took up an invitation to settle in his ancestral homeland of Lebanon having visited on two separate occasions. Such was the impression that he left on the local Shia community that he was requested by Sayyid Abd Al-Husayn Sharaf Al-Din to succeed him in leading the community in the coastal city of Tyre.
Aware of the social and political marginalisation of Lebanon’s Shia, Musa Al-Sadr focused on the important need to uplift and empower the community as a confessional group. This led him to establish the Islamic Shi’i Supreme Council in Lebanon (ISSC) in 1969, an official religious institution regulated by the state. Prior to this, the Shia were not recognised as a confessional group and their religious affairs fell under the jurisdiction of the Sunni Mufti in Beirut.
Sadr’s outspoken stance on social reforms and protecting the rights of his community led to him starting the so-called Movement of the Dispossessed in 1974, which was a forerunner of the Amal Movement. The Lebanese Civil War erupted a year later. Amal is a political party with an armed wing, and is a rival to Hezbollah, although they retain an at times uneasy alliance and are part of Lebanon’s coalition government.
Although Sadr gained widespread popularity, there were clearly two divergent political trends within the community: those who agreed with him in prioritising and improving the social and political standing of Lebanon’s Shia; and those who favoured the ideology of the late Grand Ayatollah Fadllalah and the Iranian-supported Hezbollah, which espoused more revolutionary and transnational ideas. They disagreed on the extent of support for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), whose presence in South Lebanon had caused friction among the local, mostly Shia, population bearing the brunt of Israel’s cross-border attacks. While Sadr was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he was not willing to expose the already marginalised Shia community to further suffering in this way.
That being said, Sadr was a proponent of inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue and was committed to maintaining the religious pluralism of Lebanese society. On Shia-Sunni co-existence, he once said: “There is no inconsistency or difference between the Shia and the Sunni. They are both the followers of one united religion.” In one notable incident in 1962, an established Christian ice-cream seller in Tyre complained to Sadr after his business had been impacted negatively after an upstart Shia business rival tried to make it a sectarian issue. It is said that Sadr began to frequent the Christian man’s ice-cream parlour openly and deliberately, which encouraged others to do the same.
His memory is tinged with the mystery of his untimely disappearance in 1978 when on a visit to Libya with two companions as part of a delegation hosted by Gaddafi. They were last seen on 31 August, and their fate remains unknown to this day. Libya has denied responsibility for decades, and successive governments in Rome have also denied repeatedly that Sadr travelled to Libya via Italy.
Although several theories have circulated regarding his fate, it is commonly believed that he was abducted and executed and is presumed widely to be dead. In popular culture and the media, however, Sadr is often referred to as the “vanished” or “disappearing” imam, drawing on the mainstream Shia belief in the occultation of the messianic figure of the Twelfth Imam.
With his physically imposing presence and charismatic leadership, Musa Al-Sadr helped to transform Lebanon’s Shia from a once-ostracised community to a politically powerful confessional group. In doing so, he also transformed modern Lebanese history. His egalitarian outlook left an exemplary legacy of coexistence, dialogue and religious moderation, which is crucial for Lebanon’s continued unity as a state at a time when it is threatened with collapse.