Citation for Ṣadr, Mūsā al-

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Norton, Augustus Richard . "Ṣadr, Mūsā al-." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 19, 2022. <>.


Norton, Augustus Richard . "Ṣadr, Mūsā al-." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 19, 2022).

Ṣadr, Mūsā al-

Mūsā al-Ṣadr (1928–1978?) was an Iranian-born Shīʿī cleric of Lebanese descent who made an indelible mark on the Lebanese political scene. Mūsā al-Ṣadr is one of the most fascinating political personalities to have appeared in the modern Middle East. He was an ambitious but tolerant man whose controversial career had an enormous impact on the Shīʿī Muslim community of Lebanon. His admirers describe him as a man of vision, political acumen, and profound compassion, while his detractors remember him as a deceitful, manipulative political chameleon. Mūsā al-Ṣadr was a towering presence in Lebanon 's political history (literally as well as figuratively, as he was well over six feet tall). Although he disappeared in 1978, he still inspires his followers and dogs his enemies in Lebanon.

Ṣadr was born in Qom, Iran, in 1928, the son of Ayatollah Ṣadr al-Dīn Ṣadr, an important Shīʿī Muslim mujtahid (a Shīʿī jurisprudent qualified to make independent interpretations of law and theology). In Qom he attended primary and secondary school, and a Shīʿī seminary, and then he went on to Tehran University, where he matriculated into the School of Political Economy and Law of Tehran University, the first mujtahid to do so. He did not intend to pursue a career as a cleric, but on the urging of his father he discarded his secular ambitions and agreed to continue an education in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). One year after his father 's death in 1953, he moved to Najaf, Iraq, where he studied under Ayatollahs Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm and ʿAbd al-Qāsim Khuʿī (Abol-Qāsem Khoʿi).

He first visited Lebanon, which was his ancestral home, in 1957. During this visit he made a very positive impression on the Lebanese Shīʿah, including his relative al-Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Sharaf al-Dīn, the Shīʿī religious leader of the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre. Following the death of Sharaf al-Dīn in 1957, he was invited to become the senior Shīʿī religious authority in Tyre. Initially he spurned the invitation, but the urgings of his mentor Ayatollah al-Ḥakīm proved persuasive. In 1960 he moved to Tyre. In 1963 he was granted Lebanese citizenship, an early mark of his looming influence in Lebanon. Although he was a man of Qom, he understood Lebanon and the fundamental need for compromise in a land of sects, insecurity, and long memories. He emphasized ecumenicalism. His was an assertiveness laced with empathy.

One of his first significant acts was the establishment of a vocational institute in the southern town of Burj al-Shimālī (near Tyre), where Shīʿī youths could gain the training that would allow them to escape the privation which marked their community. The institute would become an important symbol of Mūsā al-Ṣadr 's leadership; it is still in operation—now bearing his name—and provides vocational training for about five hundred orphans under the supervision of Ṣadr 's strong-willed sister Rabāb (who is married to a member of the important Sharaf al-Dīn family of Tyre).

A man of keen intelligence, widely noted personal charm, and enormous energy, Ṣadr attracted a wide array of supporters, ranging from Shīʿī merchants making their fortunes in West Africa to petit-bourgeois youth. The Shīʿī migrants to West Africa, who had fled the poverty of Lebanon to seek their fortunes, proved to be an important source of financial support for Mūsā al-Ṣadr. Many of these men had done very well, and they were attracted to a man who promised to challenge the old system that had humiliated them and denied them a political voice. If there is an Arabic equivalent of “charisma,” it is haybah—a word that describes the dignified presence and allure of this man from faraway Qom and Najaf.

Imam Mūsā—as he came to be called by his followers—set out to establish himself as the paramount leader of the Lebanese Shīʿī community, noted at the time for its poverty and general underdevelopment. He helped to fill a yawning leadership void which resulted from the growing inability of the zaʿīms (traditional political bosses) to meet the cascading needs of their clients. From the 1960s onward, the Shīʿah had experienced rapid social change and economic disruption, and the old village-based patronage system, which presumed the underdevelopment and the apathy of the clients, was proving an anachronism.

Mūsā al-Ṣadr was able to stand above a fragmented and often victimized community and see it as a whole. Through his organizational innovations, his speeches, and his personal example, he succeeded in giving many Shīʿīs an inclusive communal identity. Furthermore, he reminded his followers that their deprivation was not to be fatalistically accepted, for so long as they could speak out through their religion, they could overcome their condition. He once observed, “whenever the poor involve themselves in a social revolution it is a confirmation that injustice is not predestined” (Norton, 1987, p. 40).

He shrewdly recognized that his power lay in part in his role as a custodian of religious symbols. He used the central myths of Shiism, especially the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn at Karbala thirteen centuries earlier, to spur his followers. The day of martyrdom is called ʿĀshūrāʿ, and it was a frequent motif of Ṣadr. The following excerpt from one of his speeches was reported by the newspaper Al-ḥayāh on February 1, 1974: “This revolution did not die in the sands of Karbala, it flowed into the life stream of the Islamic world, and passed from generation to generation, even to our day. It is a deposit placed in our hands so that we may profit from it, that we extract from it a new source of reform, a new position, a new movement, a new revolution, to repel the darkness, to stop tyranny and to pulverize evil.”

Political Style.

The record of his political alliances shows that Mūsā al-Ṣadr was—above all else—a pragmatist. It is both a tribute to his political skill and a commentary on his tactics that well-informed Lebanese should have commented that nobody knew where Imam Mūsā stood. According to reliable reports, Mūsā was friendly with both King Hussein of Jordan and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, and he traveled regularly throughout the Arab world and Europe.

His followers today often characterize him as a vociferous critic of the shah of Iran, but it was only after the October War of 1973, when Iran supported Israel against the Arabs, that his relations with the shah deteriorated. In the autumn of 1973, he accused the shah of suppressing religion in Iran, denounced him for his pro-Israel stance, and described him as an “imperialist stooge.” Although his Iranian citizenship was soon revoked, for more than a decade he had maintained close, even cordial, ties with the Pahlavi regime, and it seems that the shah provided financial subsidies to Imam Mūsā and his Iraqi cousin, the learned Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr.

Mūsā al-Ṣadr was a strong supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; indeed, the last article he published was a polemic in Le Monde (August 23, 1978), castigating the shah and praising Khomeini. Yet, Ṣadr 's vision of Shiism was more moderate, more humanistic than Khomeini 's. He was a friend of ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (d. 1977), the writer who propounded a liberal, modernist Shiism and thereby inspired many opponents of the shah (including, the Mujāhidīn-i Khalq, the organization that has proved to be the staunchest opponent of the Islamic Republic regime.) Mūsā al-Ṣadr 's admiration for Sharīʿatī was rooted in the intellectual 's commitment to confront tyranny and injustice through the renovation of Shiism, rather than through the rejection of faith. In Iran, Sharīʿatī 's ideological message, with its stress on humanism, anti-imperialism, and self-reliance, appealed to the educated classes; while his emphasis on the martyrdom of Ḥusayn as a revolutionary exemplar appealed across socioeconomic lines. Absent from Sharīʿatī 's writings and lectures was the vengefulness, the anger, and the intolerance that marked Iran 's post-shah rulers. Many observers suspect that al-Ṣadr would have moderated the course of the revolution in Iran, if he were not consumed by it. [See Sharīʿatī,ʿAlī.]

Political Alliances.

Like the Maronite Christians, the Shīʿīs are a minority in a predominantly Sunnī Muslim Arab world, and for both sects Lebanon is a refuge in which sectarian identity and security can be preserved. Al-Ṣadr 's message to the Maronites in the period before the Lebanese civil war of 1975–1976 was a combination of muted threat and impassioned egalitarianism. In his ecumenical sermons to Christian congregations, he won many admirers among his listeners. He was said to be the first Shīʿī mujtahid to visit the Maronite patriarch in his bastion at Bkerke. Many Maronites, not surprisingly, saw a natural ally in Imam Mūsā. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary, and he sought the betterment of the Shīʿah in a Lebanese context. He often noted, “For us Lebanon is one definitive homeland.” The covenant or pact of the Movement of the Deprived, which al-Ṣadr wrote in 1974, emphasizes that the movement “adheres to the principles of national sovereignty, the indivisibility of the motherland, and the integrity of her soil.” (See Norton, 1987, pp. 144–166, for the text of the pact.)

Mūsā al-Ṣadr recognized the insecurity of the Maronites, and he acknowledged their need to maintain their monopoly-hold on the presidency. Yet he was critical of the Maronites for their arrogant stance toward the Muslims, and particularly the Shīʿīs. He argued that the Maronite-dominated government had neglected the south, where as many as 50 percent of the Shīʿīs lived, since independence, and had made the Shīʿīs a disinherited class in Lebanon. Quoting from the Qurʿān, he often reminded his listeners that “He who sleeps while having a needy neighbor is not considered a believer.”

He was anticommunist, one suspects not only on principled grounds but because the various communist organizations were among his prime competitors for Shīʿī recruits. He claimed to reject ideologies of the right and the left, noting that “we are neither of the right nor the left, but we follow the path of the just [al-ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm].” Yet when the two branches of the Baʿth party (pro-Iraqi and pro-Syrian) were making significant inroads among the Shīʿīs of the south and the Beirut suburbs, he appropriated their Pan-Arab slogans.

Although the movement he founded, Ḥarakat al-Maḥrūmin (Movement of the Deprived), was aligned with the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) in the early stages of the Lebanese civil war Imam Mūsā found the LNM 's Druze leader, Kamal Jumblatt, irresponsible and exploitative of the Shīʿīs. As he once noted, the LNM was willing “to combat the Christians to the last Shīʿī.” According to Karīm Bakradūnī, a thoughtful militia figure, al-Ṣadr imputed to Jumblatt the prolongation of the war.

After the 1970 defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan, the bulk of the PLO fighters relocated to south Lebanon where they proceeded to supplant the legitimate authorities. For their part, some PLO officials believed that Mūsā al-Ṣadr was a creation of the army 's Deuxième Bureau (the Second [or intelligence] Bureau), or the CIA. Imam Mūsā prophetically warned the PLO that it was not in its interests to establish a state within a state in Lebanon. After he was gone, Shīʿī militiamen invoking his memory fought pitched battles with the PLO and its Lebanese allies, applauded the defeat of the fidāʿīs at the hands of Israel in 1982, laid siege to their camps in 1985, and pledged never to permit the re-creation of the Palestinian state-within-a-state in Lebanon.

In 1967 the Chamber of Deputies (the Lebanese parliament) passed a law establishing a Supreme Islamic Shīʿī Council (SISC), which would for the first time provide a representative body for the Shīʿīs independent of the Sunnī Muslims. The council actually came into existence in 1969, with Imam Mūsā as its chairman for a six-year term—a stunning confirmation of his status as the leading Shīʿī cleric in the country, and certainly one of the most important political figures in the Shīʿī community. The council quickly made itself heard with demands in the military, social, economic, and political realms, including improved measures for the defense of the South, the provision of development funds, construction and improvement of schools and hospitals, and an increase in the number of Shīʿīs appointed to senior government positions. The SISC quickly became a locus of action for the Shīʿī intelligentsia, the emerging middle class, as well as many of the traditional elites.

One year after the formation of the SISC, and following a string of bloody Israeli incursions and bombardments, Mūsā al-Ṣadr organized a general strike “to dramatize to the government the plight of the population of southern Lebanon vis-à-vis the Israeli military threat.” Shortly thereafter, the government created the Council of the South (Majlis al-Janūb), which was capitalized at 30 million Lebanese pounds and was chartered to support the development of the region. Unfortunately, the Majlis al-Janūb reputedly became more famous as a cockpit of corruption than as a fount of worthwhile projects.

Kāmil al-Asʿad, the powerful Shīʿī political boss from the south, quite accurately viewed al-Ṣadr as a serious threat to his political power-base and opposed him at almost every move. For Mūsā al-Ṣadr and his followers, al-Asʿad was the epitome of all that was wrong with the zaʿīm system. Although the creation of the Council of the South was a victory for al-Ṣadr, it was the formidable al-Asʿad who dominated its operation.

On March 17, 1974, the arbaʿīn—the fortieth day after ʿĀshūrā’—Mūsā al-Ṣadr was in the Bekaa (Biqāʿ) Valley city of Baalbek at a now famous gathering. Standing before a crowd estimated at 75,000, Imām Mūsā declared the launching of the Ḥarakat al-Maḥrūmin. He ranged over Shīʿī grievances—poor schools, nonexistent public services, governmental neglect—and vowed to struggle relentlessly until the social grievances of the deprived were satisfactorily addressed by the government. He recalled that a Kūfan judge had accused Imam Ḥusayn of straying from the way of his grandfather, the Prophet, and noted that he too was now accused of abandoning his grandfather 's way. But he refused to relegate himself to a life of quiet scholarship and prayer:

"The rulers say that the men of religion must only pray and not meddle in other things. They exhort us to fast and to pray for them so that the foundations of their reign will not be shaken, while they move away from religion and exploit it to hold on to their seats of power. … [Those in power] are the infidel of the infidels and the most atheist of the atheists. They want us to give ourselves up to them. (Cited in Ajami, 1986, p. 147.)"

Civil War Erupts.

Just one year later, al-Ṣadr 's efforts were overtaken by the onset of civil war in Lebanon. By July 1975 it became known that a militia adjunct to Ḥarakat al-Maḥrumīn had been formed. The militia, Afwāj al-Muqāwamah al-Lubnānīyah (the Lebanese Resistance Detachments), better known by the acronym AMAL (which also means “hope”), was initially trained by al-Fataḥ (the largest organization in the PLO) and it played a minor role in the fighting of 1975 and 1976. Mūsā al-Ṣadr 's movement was affiliated with the LNM and its PLO allies during the first year of the civil war, but it broke with them when the Syrians intervened in June 1976 to prevent the defeat of the Maronite-dominated Lebanese Front.

Impressive as Imam Mūsā 's influence was, it is important not to exaggerate his impact in terms of the political mobilization of the Shīʿīs. The multiconfessional parties and militias attracted the majority of Shīʿī recruits and many more Shīʿīs carried arms under the colors of these organizations than under Amal 's. Even in war the Shīʿīs suffered disproportionately; by a large measure they incurred more casualties than any other sect in Lebanon. Perhaps the single most important success achieved by al-Ṣadr was the reduction of the authority and the influence of the traditional Shīʿī elites, but it was the civil war, and the associated growth of extralegal organizations, that conclusively rendered these personalities increasingly irrelevant in the Lebanese political system.

Despite his occasionally vehement histrionics, Mūsā al-Ṣadr was hardly a man of war. (He seems to have played only an indirect role in directing the military actions of the Amal militia.) In a poignant effort to curtail the violence, he declared a hunger strike, but the combination of visceral fury and frustration, government impotence, and the strength of the emerging warlords dwarfed the gesture. His weapons were words, and as a result his political efforts were short-circuited by the war. In the months preceding the outbreak of mayhem Mūsā al-Ṣadr 's star was still rising, but his political fortunes plummeted by 1976.

The Hidden Imam.

Ironically, it was the still mysterious disappearance of Mūsā al-Ṣadr in 1978 that helped to retrieve the promise of his earlier efforts. In August 1978 he visited Libya with two companions, Shaykh Muḥammad Shihādah Yaʿqūb and journalist ʿAbbās Badr al-Dīn. The party has not been heard from since. Although his fate is not known, it is widely suspected that he died at the hands of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī for reasons that remain obscure. The anniversary of his disappearance, August 31, is celebrated annually with a national strike in Lebanon.

Mūsā al-Ṣadr has become a hero to his followers, who revere his memory and take inspiration from his words and his suffering. The symbol of a missing imam—reminiscent as it is of the central dogma of Shiism—is hard to assail, and even his blood enemies are now heard to utter words of praise. The movement he founded, now simply called Amal, has—since his disappearance—become the largest Shīʿī organization in Lebanon and one of the most powerful. Simultaneously, the more militant Ḥizbullāh (Party of God) claims the Imām al-Ghāʿib (or the Hidden Imam) as its forebear.

The competition for supremacy in Lebanon among the Shīʿīs is in large measure a matter of who is the rightful heir to the legacy of Mūsā al-Ṣadr. On the one side is Ḥizbullāh, under the strong influence of Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlallāh, which emerged after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and has been authoritatively associated with the kidnappings of foreigners. On the other side is Amal, still a reform movement, but an angrier, more vengeful one than it was under al-Ṣadr 's leadership. Mūsā al-Ṣadr would probably recognize neither organization, but his message that deprivation or second-class citizenship need not be passively accepted retains its power.

See also AMAL and LEBANON.


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