Musa Al-Sadr or Khomeini: Who masterminded the Shi’a awakening in the Middle East?

Prof. Ronen A. Cohen

There is a certain sparkle in Ronen A. Cohen’s eye when he speaks about Musa al-Sadr. In his opinion, it was the revered and charismatic Musa al-Sadr, and not the Ayatollah Khomeini, who should be credited with the Islamic Revolution.

“Khomeini conducted the music, but the music was composed by al-Sadr.”

Prof. Ronen A. Cohen

Department of Middle Eastern Studies

In his soon-to-be published paper, “Musa al-Sadr – redeemer, revolutionary, and father of the Shi’a awakening in the Middle East”, Prof. Ronen A. Cohen, Chairman of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ariel University, offers his ideas about why Musa al-Sadr should be credited as the true instigator of the Shia awakening in the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, unlike the accepted notion that the Shi’a awakening was ignited by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Prof. Cohen delineates why al-Sadr, more than Khomeini, is the historic figure who inspired the chain of events that led to the Shi’ite revolution in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and indeed throughout the Middle East and the entire world. The Iranian Mujtahid al-Sadr used the Shi’ites in Lebanon, although unintentionally, to ignite the Shi’a awakening in the Middle East. Moreover, he argues that the Ayatollah Khomeini, who became an acknowledged Shi’a reformer and revolutionary, acquired most of his methods and vision from Musa al-Sadr. His research shows that the seeds for political activism were sown in Iran, but grew in the Arab Shi’a spheres of Iraq and Lebanon.

Musa al-Sadr was born in 1929 in the holy city of Qom in Iran into a highly revered family whose ancestors trace their lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed. He was highly educated in both the secular and strictly religious world in Najaf, the most prestigious center of learning in Shi’ite Islam. Although Iranian by birth, his family had Lebanese roots.  Al-Sadr moved to Lebanon in 1959 to serve as the Mufti of Tyre. There, he found a divided, suppressed and deprived Shi’ite community, which was divided geographically into three main communities in northern, central and southern Lebanon, isolated from one another. They were subject to the oppressive rule of the elite Shi’ite families, who neglected to invest in the welfare and development of their communities. Similarly, the needs of the Shi’ite communities were ignored by the Lebanese state.  

Musa al-Sadr was a student of Khomeini. Yet, at the same time that al-Sadr was leading the Lebanese Shi’ites toward becoming a major political factor in the state, Khomeini had just started his own political and religious journey in Iran. Despite unspoken dilemmas as to how to practice Shi’a in modern times, both saw contemporary Shi’a as the main factor that could lead the Shi’ite communities to political power. Al-Sadr’s approach was more grassroots. He attended mainly of the Shi’ites in Lebanon, and was bound up with Lebanese nationality. Khomeini’s outlook came from a different direction, favoring religious coercion and a pan-Islam focus over local nationalities. Prof. Cohen argues that it was al-Sadr who first initiated the Shi’i political process in Lebanon. It then took hold in Iran with Khomeini, and from there spread throughout the Middle East, affecting all Shi’ites and Sunnis. Musa was the first to turn theory into reality, and it was the Lebanese case study that likely led Khomeini to understand that his revolution was possible. Thus, Lebanon served as a control group for Khomeini. 

Al-Sadr traveled to the Shi’ite centers in Lebanon and took action to improve the social needs and the spiritual level of the communities. He worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the people, who understood and heeded to the straight talk of this “soft revolutionary”. With his innate and magnetic charisma, he earned their trust and imbued them with a sense of pride. As a respected religious and secular educator, he personified a leader who proved to the people that they could improve their lives by embracing both worlds. He encouraged them to unite and for the first time to become politically proactive by protesting against the pro-Western Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims Lebanese government. The Shi’ites began to realize that political power was essential for controlling wealth and resources. This paved the way to the establishment of the Supreme Islamic Shia Council in 1967 in which all three Shi’i regions were represented. It received official recognition by Lebanon in 1969. It was a first, and its significance was revolutionary. Its followers finally began to feel a sense of pride and belief that they had achieved legitimate recognition. Despite Al-Sadr’s political success, he was seen as a moderate, demanding that the Maronite Christians relinquish some of their power, but pursuing ecumenism and peaceful relations among the groups.

View of Lebanon from the boarder of Israel

With the “Black September” uprising in Jordan in September 1970, thousands of Palestinians fled to Lebanon and established “Fatahland” in areas inhabited by the Shi’a in Southern Lebanon. Despite his sympathy for the Palestinians and their struggle against Israel, Musa did not want to forfeit what he had accomplished with his Shi’ite followers, and began to clash with the Palestinians. This in turn angered the anti-Israel factions, including the Syrians and Libyans, who despite their respect for all -Musa had done for his people did not support his actions.

In August 1978, as-Sadr was invited to meet Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Musa and two companions who accompanied him to Libya vanished, and have never heard from since. It is believed that they were murdered by Gaddafi for daring to challenge Gaddafi in his home on matters of theology. Some Shi’ites believe that Al-Sadr’s disappearance is a sign that he was a “Mahdi” – a descendent of Muhammed and a sort of messianic redeemer.

According to Prof. Cohen, “No one knows for sure who is responsible for al-Sadr’s disappearance. Most likely it was Gaddafi or Palestinians, but not the Iranians or Khomeini. It is interesting to ponder what the Middle East would be like today if Musa al-Sadr remained in the arena. I think it is fair to assume that the revolution would have been more nationalistically-based and less religiously fanatic in nature.”