Dialectic of the Religious and the Political in Sadr's Political Philosophy

  January 20, 2024   Read time 7 min
Dialectic of the Religious and the Political in Sadr's Political Philosophy
Musa al Sadr entered the political arena, elbowed his way into it. But we must recall that he did so as a man of religion. And it is with this aspect of his career and self-representation that we must begin. We have no way of assessing his, or anyone else's, piety.

In general, Islamic society has wisely dodged this question. The imputation of disbelief, Takfir, to someone is such a thorny and dangerous endeavor that men are taken at their profession of faith, that they are Muslims. Some conservative clerics in Lebanon thought him an agnostic, doubted his religiosity. When he appeared at a church to deliver a sermon, his rivals in the clerical establishment circulated a photograph of him under a cross. No mujtahid, they said, could do such a thing and stay within the faith. When he traveled to Europe in 1963, they were sure that the trip itself defiled him. He must have slept in the infidels' world and eaten the infidels' food, they protested. There were those who believed that the turban of this thoroughly political man was a cover, that religion was purely an instrument, that a man of so much charm and drive and worldly ambition could have done what he did without the sanction and cover of the religious institution.

But the worldliness aside, this was a cleric, a sayyid, and the son of a cleric. His trademark and themes were religious ones; his language was suffused with religious symbols and metaphors. It was as a sayyid, and a descendant of the seventh Imam at that, that he represented himself. The men who were to follow him—the patricians and upwardly mobile professionals in his first decade, the Shia masses in the second—read into his life themes of Shia history, and projected onto him long dormant attitudes about legitimate authority and who was entitled to it.

The career of an "Imam"—a religious and a political leader—had to be anchored in a religious base. The history working for him, aiding him against landed families with long-standing claims to power, against secular political parties with a sense of entitlement to power given them by the modern world of politics, was a thoroughly religious one. In Islam itself, the political community grew out of the religious. The exemplary leader had been the Prophet Muhammad himself; the Imams who in the Shia doctrine inherited his religious and worldly power worked out of the same progression— from the religious toward the political. And in Musa al Sadr's case, it was an inheritor of tradition who was insinuating—really bringing back—into the world of politics an old notion of the primacy of the religious over what was worldly and political.

He was not a great systematic thinker, or a writer of major treatises on religion. Lebanon did not need this kind of talent; there was no space for it. Besides, that kind of work would have required solitude, and Musa al Sadr was a man of hectic motion. He was a quick study, and he was obviously well read. His was the advantage of an intellectual and a political activist—one suited to, in his words, removing from religion and the man of religion the "dust of the ages." Musa al Sadr was interested in power and change. He had a "soft" and modernist reading of the Shia faith. His early discourses in the country, the ideas that attracted attention, that brought him fame and influential followers, were reiterations of the old themes of "Muslim modernism."

We are familiar with the themes as they evolved over the course of the nineteenth century: they were elaborated by political activists and philosophers who sought an Islamic answer to the power of the West, and to the demands of a secular, scientific culture. The modernist defense of Islam—prodding it along, reading into scripture new needs and changes, "smuggling" change into an old tradition that had fallen behind the Occident—had had its exemplary publicist in Jamal al din al Afghani (1838-1897), an Iranian-born sayyid with an obscure and controversial background of political conspiracy and activism. In the course of a life which included concealing his own Iranian (Shia) birth and claiming an Afghan (Sunni) descent and which spanned India, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, Afghani had set out the modernist themes for others to pick up: the compatibility of faith and reason, the openness of Islam to innovations, the need to reform Islam for purposes of "self-strengthening."

These modernist ideas were the themes of Musa al Sadr's early years. Islam, he said in a discourse that echoed the concerns of the modernists, has been turned into "ritual." The "deviant" men of religion have gone along with this tendency. "Islam was once movement, vitality, and work; it now stands for lethargy and abdication. Why have the Muslims fallen behind the caravan of civilization? The woman is half of society. During the early days of Islam, women worked even though the opportunity for work was limited. Today half of society is paralyzed."

Genuine faith, he said in a lecture before a gathering of secular intellectuals, "sustains scientific inquiry and supports it. . . . The believer who fights science, and reason, who fears reason, should realize that he is not fully committed to his religion; fear of truth means that one suspects that one's religion is at odds with truth." There are some believers, he added, who view man's incursions into outer space as violations of God's realm and his teachings; there are others who are quick to say that the Quran foretold all scientific advance. Both positions, he said, were wrong: the first because it is too timid; the second because it takes the Quran and submits it to a test of details which it is destined to fail.

These themes were put forward in a talk before Lebanon's "best and brightest," before al Nadwa al Lubnaniya (the Lebanese Forum). No Shia cleric had ventured there before. This was an organization for the learned, for the chic, for those who took pride in their capacity to handle ideas and lively discussions. The force behind the Lebanese Forum was Michel al Asmar, a Maronite intellectual of open horizons and generous temperament. Michel al Asmar, who was to become one of Sayyid Musa's close friends, had a deep interest in the Shia heritage; a Maronite, he believed that the Shia and the Maronites were the two principal communities of Lebanon, that bridges ought to be built between them as a way of offering an ideological alternative to the Sunni-Pan-Arab conception of Lebanon.
Sayyid Musa's lecture before this audience was delivered in classical and formal Arabic. The text shows something of the anxiety of a man displaying the range of his learning, the number of books he has read, his ability to harmonize the heritage, al turath, with the needs of modern men. In Islamic strictures, he said, were to be found so many of the modern dimensions of men's lives, "the social, the philosophic, even the psychological." Anxiety, sexual yearnings, envy were all dealt with in the Quran, in the siro, in the conduct and example, of the Prophet. "Our (Islamic) education connects heaven and earth, connects man, as an individual, as a social being, to his creator." He quoted and rebutted the Orientalist Sir Hamilton Gibb on the compatibility between Islam and modern ideas; he ranged over Islamic history to note contributions to science and philosophy.
It was a tour de force that came straight out of the literature of Islamic modernism. He pointed to the work of the Muslim philosopher Sadr al din al Shirazi, known as Mulla Sadra (d. 1640). MuŬa Sadra, he said, was a "son of the seventeenth century," yet his philosophical ideas and outlook were superior to what has been arrived at in twentieth-century European philosophy. In Mulla Sadra's work and in that of his disciples were the questions raised by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, by the existentialism of Sartre: "From this forum I want to claim that in the realm of philosophy and mysticism, the East still illuminates the world of this century. My proof is a testimony of the French scholar, Henri Corbin, who says that Eastern philosophy can still rescue Europe from decline, from confusion, and that Europe is in desperate need of that timeless wisdom that issued from the East.'"

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