Musa Sadr, the Intimate Stranger in Iran

  December 20, 2023   Read time 13 min
Musa Sadr, the Intimate Stranger in Iran
There is a tale of nostalgia, timeless in so many ways, that Baha al Din al Amįli (1546-1622), a Shia cleric who rose to great fame and distinction in the Persian city of Isfahan, told about the impoverished world he had left behind in Jabal Amil: Our fathers and grandfathers in Jabal Amil were devoted to knowledge, worship, and austerity.

The traffic between Iran and Shia Lebanon that brought Sayyid Musa to Lebanon is more than four centuries old. Ever since the Safavid dynasty imposed Shiism as a state religion in Iran in the sixteenth century, the traffic took ambitious Shia divines, mullahs, from the impoverished world of ]abal Amil (the mountain of Amil, a largely barren piece of land north of Galilee, today's southern Lebanon) to the large realm of Iran where clerics were needed to spread the Shia faith. A latecomer to Shiism, Iran had become one of the two great centers in the Shia world (Iraq being the other). Imposed by the sword by a new dynasty, Shiism had to be transmitted and taught, men had to be instructed in the faith. The books and traditions of Shiism had been elaborated in the Arab heartland of Islam. The sixth of the twelve Shia Imams, Imam Jafar al Sadiq (d. 757), had laid the foundations of a Shia jurisprudence. These books and traditions were unknown in the Safavid realm; a zealous dynasty wanting to impose the Shia faith needed Shia divines to combat the strictures of the Sunni faith and to keep in check extreme sectarian Shia tendencies which venerated the Imams to a degree that placed the sectarians, al Ghulat, beyond the limits of Islam itself. The Shia divines invited into the Safavid realm were to steer a middle course between the dominant Sunni synthesis on the one hand and the excesses of popular religion on the other. The religious professionals who came to the Safavid realm made ideal allies for the rulers: they were strangers; they needed and courted royal patronage.

There is a tale of nostalgia, timeless in so many ways, that Baha al Din al Amįli (1546-1622), a Shia cleric who rose to great fame and distinction in the Persian city of Isfahan, told about the impoverished world he had left behind in Jabal Amil: Our fathers and grandfathers in Jabal Amil were devoted to knowledge, worship, and austerity and were men of standing and dignity. It was told about my grandfather Shams al Din that once upon a time heavy snow fell in our land and my grandfather had nothing to feed his family and children. My grandfather turned to my grandmother and asked her to quiet the children down so that he could pray to God to provide them with food. My grandmother took some snow to the tanoor (oven) and said this is the bread that we will bake. . . . Then out of the snow she made round loaves. This went on while my grandfather was busy praying. An hour later they had several loaves of our bread. When my grandfather saw this, he thanked God, Praise be to Him. . . . This is the way we were in Jabal Amil. All this was taken away from us when we came to the country of the Ajam (Persia).

Baha al Din had been taken to Persia as a child. His father, Abdel Hussein Amili (d. 1576-1577) had fled to Persia when the (Sunni) Ottomans who governed the greater entity of Syria, of which Jabal Amil was then a remote corner, had executed his master on charges of heresy. In Persia, Baha al Din was to become one of the luminaries of his time. He studied theology, mathematics, and medicine and excelled as a writer and as a scholar. He caught the eye of the ruler, Shah Abbas, and became one of his confidants. In Isfahan, then the preeminent city of the Safavid realm, Baha al Din rose to the position of Shaykh al Islam, the highest religious dignitary in the city.

Persia had given Baha al Din the best that a scholar and a mullah with ambitions could have hoped for. But there remained in al Amili the theme passed onto him by his father—the marginality of the place his father fled. There was something of the wanderer in Baha al Din, a restlessness that led him to leave Persia and spend years of his life in Egypt, Syria, and other parts of the Muslim world. In a remarkable two-volume work, Al Kashkul (Beggar's Bowl), which offered a melange of his travels and views, he complained that it had been his fate to know kings and their courts.3 He lamented that had it not been for the passage of his father to the country of Ajam, he would have been spared the patronage and the company of kings. Baha al Din's father had served the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp and had been appointed Shaykh al Islam in Khurasan, in northeastern Iran. There was more to Baha al Din's lament than the ingratitude of a man unable to appreciate what a new world had extended to him: there was also the romance with political and social marginality. In Jabal Amil one's hands were clean, poverty gave a sense of nobility and detachment. In Isfahan, power took away the outsider's badge of distinction and questioned the right of someone to lament cruelty and violations. Yet Baha al Din was too steeped in his father's tradition, the tradition of Jabal Amil, to come to terms with his new station. The dominant Shia tradition counseled distance from political power. At best one extended the state grudging acquiescence. Shia Iran challenged that response. A Shia state, or a state that claimed Shiism as a state religion, raised some fundamental problems for the Shia divines. Some of the religious scholars who came to the new realm were given considerable wealth and power. The dissonance between a tradition of political marginality and the new power was not easy to resolve; hence the lament of Baha al Din al Amili.

Coming as he did to Lebanon from Qom in 1959, Sayyid Musa al Sadr reversed the "normal" direction of the traffic. He came from a great center of the Shia world to a backwater. Musa al Sadr arrived in Lebanon with a Farsi accent and a Farsi way of speaking Arabic. Strictly speaking, he was an outsider; he had no Lebanese nationality; he came with an Iranian wife and an Iranian passport. He stood astride the great Arab-Persian divide—a chasm as old as Islam's triumph over Persia in the seventh century. But, by criteria much older than the nation-state, Musa al Sadr belonged. Far beyond Lebanon was a larger Shia world in Iraq and Iran. Young Musa came from its apex; the Sadrs were one of the most celebrated clerical and scholarly families in that world. He brought with him into Lebanon the prestige of his lineage and his birthplace. Moreover, he claimed descent from Jabal Amil. This is the way Musa al Sadr represented himself: I am from a family whose origins are to be found in Lebanon: I am a descendant of the Imam Musa Ibn Jafar [the seventh of the twelve Shia Imams, d. 799]. My ancestors left Lebanon when Turkish oppression had reached an all-time high, when our books were burned and our ulama were killed. My ancestors then left for Iraq and Iran. In the two countries they established a large family. I was born in Iran where my father, Sadr al Din al Sadr, lived and established a religious university, in the city of Qom. I first studied in that university, then I obtained a law degree at the University of Teheran. I completed religious education in Najaf, in Iraq. I assumed my religious duties in the south of Lebanon after the death of my relative, Sayyid Abdul Hussein Sharaf al Din.

He was a newcomer. But he was no upstart. The fastidious country to which he had come had its deeply held notions of men born to lead and men fated to follow. Men of the clerical establishment and the literati of Shia Lebanon who journeyed to Iran and Iraq knew of his bayt, his family. Sayyid Muhsin al Amin (1867-1952), one of the most prolific of the literati and ulama of southern Lebanon, recorded a journey he had made with a cousin of his to Iraq and Iran in 1934, when Sayyid Musa himself was six years old. In Iraq, he was hosted by the al Sadrs, and in Meshed, where the eighth Imam, Imam Ali al Rida, was buried, his host was Sayyid Musa's father, Sadr al Din al Sadr: "Our host there was al alim, the scholar Sayyid Sadr al Din al Sadr. He used to live in Qom and oversee the seminary, al madrasa of Shaykh Abdul Karim al Yazdi. He was its noted presence, its leader. Then he moved to Meshed, to the Shrine of Imam Rida, where he was in the forefront of its ulama. After we left his home for a house we rented for the length of our stay there, he came to visit every morning and evening; he accompanied us on our return visits to the homes of people who called on us."5 Fame traveled. Men were their reputations; and they inherited the reputations of their elders and ancestors. A man carried his nasab (genealogy) and hasab (inherited merit, to which he could add) with him in Muslim society. Knowing a man's hasab and nasab was essential to "estimating his worth." A man's relation to others didn't start from scratch. His hasab and nasab enabled others to judge what a man was made of. There was a presumption that an heir to a distinguished heritage had to live up to the tradition of his ancestors. As one historian put it, "A man whose ancestors had great talent and high estate would fear the loss of the collective 'force' that his ancestors had bequeathed to him."

In both his paternal and maternal lineage, Sayyid Musa al Sadr carried the burden and the gift of a distinguished ancestry. He was the son of Ayatollah Sadr al Din al Sadr (1882-1953); his maternal grandfather, Ayatollah Hussein al Qummi (d. 1945), was an activist cleric the forefront of the opposition to the Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, and to the latter's effort, launched in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to centralize the state and undermine the role of the Shia clergy. An awed biographer of Sayyid Musa al Sadr, writing in the mid1960s, a bare seven years after his subject had arrived in Lebanon, started with a hadith of the Prophet. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: "I and my family are a tree in Paradise, with branches in this world. Whoever holds on to those branches finds a way to his God." Sayyid Musa, said this biographer, "is a branch of this tree, with the prophecy as its base and the Imamate as its branch."

The biography traced Sayyid Musa's roots to Jabal Amil, to Marakah in the district of Tyre, one of Jabal Amiľs three hundred villages. Sayyid Musa's ancestor, Sayyid Saleh Sharaf al Din was an "accomplished alim," a "God-fearing and pious man." Late in the eighteenth century, Saleh Sharaf al Din was subjected to the persecution of an Ottoman governor, Ahmad Pasha al Jazzar (ruled 1775-1804), a harsh man depicted in the annals of Shia historiography as the quintessential tormentor of the faithful. Two of Sayyid Saleh's sons were killed; he himself was sentenced to death and "his home and books and treasures were burned." He was imprisoned, the biographer says, but legend had it that his prison guards were moved by his piety and prayers and that they let him escape. After his escape, Saleh Sharaf al Din made his way to the Shia holy city of Najaf in Iraq, home to a large clerical and scholarly community. His two surviving children, Sadr al Din (Sayyid Musa's great-grandfather) and Muhammad Ali, were brought to him in Najaf. In Najaf Sadr al Din became one of the distinguished ulama (religious scholars). He later—at a time left unspecified—left Najaf and settled in Isfahan, in Persia. He fathered five sons, all of whom became ulama.

Sadr al Din's most outstanding son was Ismael al Sadr (Sayyid Musa's grandfather). Ismael, born in Isfahan, completed his religious studies in Najaf, Iraq, and returned to Isfahan. Ismael, we are told by the biographer, studied with the great mujtahid (religious scholar) Mirza Hassan Shirazi (d. 1894), who led a major revolt in Iran in 1891-1892 against the Shah's granting of a tobacco monopoly to a British concern. Sayyid Ismael fathered four sons: Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi who participated in an Iraqi revolt against the British in 1920; Sayyid Sadr al Din (Sayyid Musa's father), Sayyid Muhammad Jawad, and Sayyid Haidar, all men of piety and learning. Sayyid Ismael rose to the rank of marja (source of imitation); he spent his last years in Najaf, where he died in 1919. The sira (the life and conduct) of Ismael al Sadr depicts him as a man with a "clean hand" in matters of money.

Great wealth came to the marja, Sayyid Ismael al Sadr; but he refused to handle it himself and he trusted financial matters to two men known for their honesty and piety. Once, the two treasurers noticed the shabby attire of the marja's four sons and tried to get his permission to spend four pounds on the attire of the young boys. They did not tell him the purpose for which they sought to spend the money for they knew in advance that he would refuse to authorize it. The marja insisted on knowing what the money had to be spent on. One of the two treasurers stormed out, saying the money is for four descendants of the Prophet whose fate it has been to know an oppressor such as yourself.

Clerics made their choice: they could embrace this world, al dunya, or they could rise above it. They could hoard wealth, pass it on to sons and heirs, or they could use the wealth made available to them by rich contributors to aid orphans and widows and the students of religious science who came to study with them. The temptations of al dunya were there for Sayyid Ismael, says the biographer, but he rose above them. Ayatollah Sadr al Din al Sadr, Sayyid Musa's father, the biographer continues, was a modest man "more given to solitude than to crowds." He studied with two of the most distinguished luminaries of Shia scholarship in Najaf. Then in the mid-1920s, he crossed the border to Iran, where he settled in Khurasan and finally made his home in Qom. Sayyid Sadr al Din al Sadr was one of the pillars of the madrasas, the religious seminaries of Qom. "It is known," writes the biographer, that the position of Marja al Taqlid (the highest source of imitation), occupied by Ayatollah Hussein Borujerdi (d. 1961), "would have been Ayatollah Sadr al Din al Sadr's had he sought it." Sadr al Din al Sadr died in Qom in 1953, a man of great distinction and modest financial means. The biographer was told by Sayyid Musa, "I was twenty five years of age then. I don't remember ever seeing a Persian carpet in my father's home."

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