The Vanished Imam

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In some particulars, the life of Musa al-Sadr resembled one of the hortatory biographies of Islamic theologians that are well-known in learned religious circles of the Middle East; in other respects, his political activism marked him as one of the factional leaders who rose to prominence during the tangled and turbulent events of the civil war in Lebanon. As a Shiite cleric, he was, for a time, the most respected and politically influential representative of his sect in a country that otherwise was becoming increasingly polarized between Palestinians and Maronite Christian groups. Moreover, seemingly in keeping with the esoteric and mysterious tradition of the Shiites, during a visit to Libya he disappeared entirely and abruptly on August 31, 1978. To his adherents, his sudden and utter passing from earthly view recalled the fate of Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam, who vanished in the year 874; faithful Shiites of a millenarian bent still anticipate his return to administer divine justice. Fouad Ajami, the author, in examining the life and teachings of Musa al-Sadr, traces his career on the intersecting planes where religious and social work also involved commitments on Lebanon’s political battleground. Thus this biography of Lebanon’s Imam depicts both the cultural and theological issues, and the practical concerns, with which he had to deal.

The doctrine of the Shia (partisans) originated in conflicting claims to spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim world. After the passing of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali, the first Shiite Imam, was murdered in 661; his followers adopted ceremonial practices and legal doctrines that were at variance from those of the more numerous Sunni Muslims. The divergences widened during the next two centuries. The sect received its own martyrology when several Imams were put to death by their adversaries; separate and distinct traditions attributed to Muhammad were accepted by the Shiites. Although their religion became the state religion in Iran and acquired a major following in Iraq, the sect typically had remained a quiescent minority in Lebanon; there Shiites had settled predominantly in some eastern provinces and in southern areas around Tyre. Shiite leaders did not take a prominent part in political skirmishes that, in modern times, had resulted in a precarious balance between the particularism of local Christians and the Pan-Arabism that increasingly was espoused by Sunni spokesmen. Indeed in the author’s view, derived in part from his own experience, for many years the Shiites were consideered a separate and largely impoverished group that was slow to respond when major political and economic developments affected the rest of the country.

In an autobiographical sketch, Musa al-Sadr claimed to have descended from Musa Ibn Jafar (who died in 799), the seventh Shiite Imam; many other ancestors were religious scholars. His father, Sadr al-Din al-Sadr, had moved from Iraq to the holy city of Qum, in Iran, several years before he was born in 1928. Musa al-Sadr received a thorough education in theology and spent four years at the important center of Shiite learning in Najaf, Iraq. He had prepared for a clerical calling among his Iranian coreligionists when he was offered the position of a religious leader in southern Lebanon who had died. In 1959, he came to Tyre and attended to Shiite services; he also traveled about in that small country and established himself as a rising spokesman for his sect. In a region typically suspicious of outsiders, he won respect for his learning and his command of Arabic. At various points, the author notes as well that he was a compelling orator, and, while other public figures were notoriously corrupt, he gained a favorable reputation as one untainted by venality or temptations of the flesh.

Musa al-Sadr was not backward-looking; he was erudite but did not succumb to the stultified devotion to theology that had held other religious functionaries in thrall. He regarded reformism and modernity as central problems of modern Islam. Social concerns figured prominently in his public statements: He called for new schools, vocational education, improved irrigation, and industrial development; he was also a supporter of women’s rights. Other sects had formed representative groups of their leaders and notables; seizing upon a proposal that hitherto had gained little support, in 1969 Musa al-Sadr organized the Higher Shia Council, which brought together members of Parliament, religious dignitaries, and laymen in a single body to answer for the sect’s interests at large. As the Shiites’ most active spokesman, Musa al-Sadr repeatedly affirmed the particular articles of faith that distinguished his flock from the Sunni, but he also went to some lengths in promoting tolerance and understanding among diverse religious groups. In a dramatic gesture of reconciliation, early in 1975 he delivered a Lenten sermon at a Catholic church. On that occasion he pointed to the common purposes of major religions and called for a mutual commitment to serve the outcast and disadvantaged classes.

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Palestinian groups increased their activities; in 1970, after major fighting with the Jordanian army, the Palestine Liberation Organization transferred its...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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