Across Lebanon today, many will partake in commemorating the remembrance of the great leader, Imam Musa Al-Sadr (“Imam”). He was born to a highly regarded and prestigious family in the year 1928 in Qom, Iran. His father was the great Sayed Sadr al-Din Sadr (صدر الدين الصدر). Imam Musa Al-Sadr became the leader of the Shi’i Muslim community in Lebanon in 1959 after the death of Sayid Abdul-Husayn Charaf Al-Din, another notable Lebanese Muslim leader. Imam Al-Sadr lived in Lebanon for 19 years before sudden disappearance during an official visit to Libya in the year 1978. Unfortunately, it remains unclear as to who exactly was responsible for the kidnapping of the Imam. Some say the CIA. Others blame the Mossad. Others even blame Lebanese intelligence and the SAVAK, the intelligence agency of the Shah. The safest and most probable theory is that he was abducted and killed by the Libyan dictator Muammar Al-Qaddafi. But the truth remains murky.
The developments leading Imam Musa to come to Lebanon started with his visit of relatives in 1958. It was during this visit that the Imam impressed the Lebanese Shi’i leadership with his charisma, leadership skills and religious knowledge. In addition, the Imam was highly regarded for what many saw as his impressive looks. He was 6’6 tall, and had piercing eyes, and was apt to smile often.
When Imam Al-Sadr accepted the invitation to come to Lebanon and lead the Shi’i community, little did he know of the enormous challenge that was presented to him. Lebanon at the time had a population of about 4.5 million people, with a multitude of different sects and religions and ethnic backgrounds, living side by side, and, as the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 would demonstrate, often in violent tension with each other. The challenges also did not come from the outside–the Shi’i community also faced extensive problems. They constituted the least educated, economically poorest, and politically weakest of all the communities in Lebanon. The political leadership of the Shi’i during the time of Imam Musa Al-Sadr’s arrival was in the hands of a few families and prominent individuals. The rest of the Shi’i families in the South often were condemned to a life of poverty and endless farming, with little hope of successful transition to a more promising lifestyle.
The Imam was most notable for being a social reformer. He was responsible for founding the group, Amal. He actively used his leadership skills to empower the community by not relying exclusively on government assistance. He did not stand idle for the government to build hospitals, schools and other important social institutions. He went to his community and asked them to give of their time and money, and proceeded to assist in the building of schools, hospitals and other social service institutions to advance the betterment of his people. To be sure, Imam Musa advocated not only for the disenfranchised among the Shi’i, but also among all of the disadvantaged Lebanese, whether they were Armenian, Maronite Christian, Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and so on.
Imam Musa was also a religious reformer. He advocated and stressed the importance of Muslim unity and unification of Muslim thought. Aware of the historical disagreements and emotional discourse that often dominated the discussion over Sunni-Shi’i polemics, Imam Musa would often stress areas of common values and advocated dialogue and understanding over confrontation and intolerance.
Unfortunately, I cannot go into detail here given the limited space about the Imam’s life. His contributions to Lebanon and Islam are immense and boundless. There are, fortunately, many books written about Imam Musa Al-Sadr’s great life. I recommend the reader to get their hands on one of them, and read about this great man.
One is by Fou’d Ajami, entitled The Vanished Imam: Musa Al-Sadr and the Shi’a of Lebanon. This is a very detailed book about the Imam’s life, and includes extensive interviews with relatives of the Imam, as well as utilizing diplomatic correspondences that dealt with his life.
Another book is written by Peter Theroux, entitled “The Strange Disappearance of the Imam Musa Al-Sadr“. This book contains a detailed examination of the events leading up to the disappearance of Imam Musa Al-Sadr.
A third book is written by Professor Augustus Richard Norton, entitled AMAL and the Shi’i: Struggle for South Lebanon.
A fourth book is written by Majid Halawi, entitled “A Lebanon Defined: Musa Al-Sadr and the Shi’i Community”
A fifth book I’d like to mention is one in Arabic, written by Imam Musa’s brother in law, Hussein Sharaf Al-Din (husband of Rabab), entitled “Imam Musa Al-Sadr: Mahattat Tarikhiyya-Iran, Najaf, Lubnan”
Imam Musa al-Sadr: An analysis of his life, accomplishments and literary output by Naim, Ibrahim Ali (Ph.D Dissertation, 1998) (available on file with author. If interested, please request it from me).