Musa al Sadr, Fadlallah, and the Shiite Awakening

Middle East Study Group
Grand Lake Neighborhood Center
September 30, 2006

The emergence of Shiite power throughout the Middle East is likely to be the most important consequence of Bush’s fateful decision to invade Iraq. The Israeli invasion and bombardment of Lebanon this summer contributed to this trend, since it wound up strengthening the political authority of Hizbollah, the Shiite “state within a state” that Israel intended to eliminate. There is now the distinct possibility of a “Shiite Crescent,” linking Lebanon with Iraq and Iran, and whether we look at it in terms of potential Iranian influence or the spread of Shiite fundamentalism, it is an unsettling, volatile moment. Hizbollah plays a special role in this. Tracing its existence as a movement returns us to the Lebanese origins of the Shiite awakening, which occurred several years before Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Accounts of Hizbollah’s emergence focus on two famous Shiite clerics in sequence— Musa al Sadr, a charismatic Iranian who came to Lebanon in 1959 after training in both Qom and Najaf, then disappeared in Libya in 1978, and Muhammad Fadlallah, who had taken part in the young activist clerics’ movement in Najaf before coming to Lebanon in 1966. Our handouts (itemized below) assess (and contrast) their achievements in significantly different ways, in the context of an extended period of violence and dislocation in Lebanon. Essentially, the two leaders represent two distinct stages of struggle in the formation of Hizbollah in Lebanon. The differences between their careers are significant, since they illustrate the terms of the historical shift from modernist to Islamist ideological agendas in the Middle East.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Musa al Sadr turned an impoverished, marginalized Shiite population into a national political force, largely by transforming the rhetorical import of traditional Shiite symbolism from resignation to self-affirmation, in his public appearances. This was the beginning of the Shiite awakening. When the civil war (1975-76) interfered with Sadr’s modernist program, Muhammad Fadlallah emerged with more appropriate strategies for grass-roots organization and military struggle, since the Lebanese Shiites were being brutally victimized by both sides of the rekindled Arab-Israeli conflict. He thus became Hizbollah’s founder and spiritual guide while (as the leading Shiite mujtahid in Lebanon) he remained officially detached from any specific operational decisions.

In retrospect, each figure appears to be exactly the kind of leader that was required by the political circumstances. Historians agree that Musa al Sadr lost his political effectiveness when the civil war began in 1975, whereas Fadlallah was radicalized into Islamist militancy by the Maronites’ shelling of his Beirut ghetto in 1976. Fadlallah assumed so many roles during this violent period—as Islamist theorist (writing Islam and the Logic of Power), as on-the-ground organizer of basic services for the Shiite population, as spiritual and political leader of an increasingly militant movement, as an ambitious Shiite cleric in a period of doctrinal renewal—it may be best to follow Jamal Sankari in classifying him as a “radical pragmatist.”

The now legendary careers of Musa al Sadr and Fadlallah, with their dovetailing and contrasting roles in launching the Shiite awakening, figure for us as useful lenses through which key aspects of Middle East history can become dramatically visible. Four themes are particularly worth emphasizing in this set of handouts: the political renewal of Shiite thinking at Najaf in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which both clerics brought to Lebanon; the emergence of Islamist activism out of the failure of secularizing regimes and movements; the still ongoing struggle of the impoverished Lebanese Shiites to translate their demographic strength into political power; and the violent destabilization of Lebanon by the Arab-Israeli conflict from the late 1960s to the present.


1. Judith Harik, Hizbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism (2004), pp. 20-23; 40-41.

Useful for its brief summaries of the two stages of the Shiite awakening in Lebanon, prefaced by a sketch of Islamist movements emerging in reaction to corrupt regimes in the Middle East. Harik’s brief account of the split in the Shiites’ Amal militia (p. 22) is worth remarking for the light it sheds on the presence of Najaf Dawa movement clerics in Lebanon at the time of Hizbollah’s founding. Harik notes that when the cleric Hussein Musawi broke with Amal’s secular leadership and started a rival Islamic counterpart of Amal in the northern Bekaa Valley, his actions attracted a group of young Najaf clerics who had studied under Baqir al Sadr and been colleagues of Fadlallah at Najaf.

2. Sandra Mackey, Lebanon: Death of a Nation (1989), pp. 194-207.

This is a reliable continuous narrative of the wars in Lebanon between the 1950s and 1980s, focusing on the fateful denial of the Shiites’ opportunity to pursue their own destiny, which was Musa al Sadr’s mission.

3. Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam (1986), pp. 88-95; 134-137; 162-165; 214-217. Concluding page (220-222) later added separately.

Ajami’s Vanished Imam is a biographical tribute to Musa al Sadr as a Shiite modernist overwhelmed by Lebanon’s “merciless world” of warring powers. In the tradition of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (cited twice, pp. 90 and 164), Musa al Sadr tries to strengthen Islam by fusing religious and scientific understandings, and by encouraging practical and intellectual innovations to meet the challenges of the modern world. Ajami stresses Sadr’s political effectiveness in elbowing his way into Lebanon’s elite circles, hoping to win a better deal for the impoverished Shiites, while also rallying the masses to fight for their rights and think of Lebanon as their “permanent home.” The Palestine-Israeli conflict shattered his hopes for national unity and brought immense destruction to the Shiites of southern Lebanon. Not only did this interfere with Musa al Sadr’s program for progress, it brought a new ideology of sectarian violence. The explosion of the Shiites’ long suppressed anger into violence is seen as dangerously validated by Fadlallah’s Islamist ideology of power. In his conclusion, Ajami sees the “deep chasm” between Sunni Arab power and Shiite culture as an ominous aspect of the larger ruinous situation. al Sadr’s humane quest for justice has been swept aside by people committed to violence who will not and cannot change.

4. Joyce Wiley, “Alima Bint al-Huda, Women’s Advocate,” from Linda S. Walbridge, ed., The Most Learned of the Shia: The Institution of the Marja Taqlid (2001), pp. 149-160.

Responding to the challenge of Iraqi leftist movements after the 1958 revolution, a group of young Shiite clerics in Najaf launched an Islamic movement for ethical and political renewal, led by Muhammad Baqir al Sadr and backed by the leading marja (religious authority), Ayatollah Muhsim al-Hakim (d. 1970). Baqir al Sadr’s sister, known as Bint al-Huda (renamed for a theological treatise she wrote at 20) had herself become a learned cleric (mujtahida) through self-education within her brother’s milieu. She became the Najaf Dawa movement’s advocate for women’s rights, through her regular column in the movement’s journal, al Adwa al Islamiyya (The Light of Islam). Promoting a “new women’s consciousness in Islam,” she wrote chiefly for her “sisters,” “to arm women with knowledge of their rights and the courage to assert them” (p. 153). Wiley summarizes the severe patriarchal constraints imposed on Iraqi women in the 1950s, noting that although some affluent Sunni women might receive a modern education, there was no mechanism by which women could act independently of men (151). Bint al-Huda argues that the Quran is radically egalitarian and has been distorted by later custom-bound interpretation. Its prescription of humility for women, she suggests, “refers to obedience and devotion to God, not automatic obedience to husbands” (154). Besides organizing women’s schools and discussion groups, Bint al-Huda used her own fiction to promote women’s issues. She treated veiling as a strategic issue,in the context of the anti-imperialist struggle. Since “veiled women became the Islamic marker for communities,” Wiley comments, it would have been politically discrediting to oppose the hijab. Although Bint al-Huda was executed along with her world-famous brother in 1980, Wiley stresses her continuing influence upon contemporary movements for women’s rights.

5. Talib Aziz, “Fadlallah and the Remaking of the Marja ‘iya,” from Walbridge, ed., The Most Learned of the Shia, pp. 205-215.

Aziz argues for the complexity of Fadlallah’s radically independent thinking. “He generally takes two sides on issues,” serving as both an apologist and critic, for example, of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran (206). Aziz foregrounds the liberalizing tendencies in Fadlallah’s writings, focusing on his arguments for women’s rights. Holding that Islamic jurisprudence must be purged of its impractical traditional custom-bound accretions, which were often made to conform to political pressure, Fadlallah encourages jurists in the Hawzas to come up with new understandings of Islamic laws and new methodologies (212). He challenges the authenticity of the famous saying of Imam Ali concerning the deficiencies of women, arguing that the “unchecked dominance of men over women” must stop (209). Observing that “the traditional Muslim marriage is like a prison for women,” he wonders why women should marry at all if they are faced with such inhuman treatment (209). (As we know from the previous article, Fadlallah worked on the Najaf movement’s journal with Bint al-Huda, who never married and whose life was committed to women’s rights advocacy. The parallels between their positions in this area suggest that Bint al-Huda’s thinking, much of it expressed in her regular editorials, had a significant influence on Fadlalah.) The discussion of Fadlallah’s views of the political leadership of Shiite religious authorities within the domain of the state suggests his development of Baqir al Sadr’s ideas about the Marja’iya (clerical leadership) at Najaf. Fadlallah envisions a Vatican-like system of many Shiite authorities serving the entire umma, as well as clerical political leadership in separate states.

6. Jamal Sankari, Fadlallah: The Making of a Radical Shiite Leader (2005), pp. 100-107; 176-177; 302-303.

A historical account of Fadlallah’s rationalist and pragmatist thought, stressing the influence of Baqir al Sadr’s work at Najaf in the 1960s. These pages include an informative account of Fadlallah’s Islamist argument against Westernized and “hybridized” legal systems. They falsely imply that Islam is incapable of providing a complete and coherent system of its own, and they tend to limit Islamic authority to ethical and devotional spheres, denying its political relevance. There is also a useful account of the importance of the al-Adwa editorials in the early 1960s, as a vehicle for the reformist ideas of the young, politicized clerics at Najaf.