The Disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr

  December 20, 2023   Read time 8 min
The Disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr
In the summer or 1978, the tale of Sayyid Musa al Sadr, or Imam Musa al Sadr as he was known to his followers in Lebanon, came to a fitting Shia end: The cleric born in Qom, Iran, who had turned up in Lebanon in 1959 disappeared in Libya while on a visit to Libya's ruler, Colonel Muamar al Qaddafi.

Musa al Sadr, a politically active and controversial cleric, had arrived in Libya on August 25; he was last seen on August 31, in a Tripoli hotel. He was on his way to a meeting with Colonel Qaddafi, he told a group of Lebanese who ran into him. He and two companions—a cleric and a journalist—were never heard from again. Musa al Sadr had come to Lebanon as a young man, thirty-one years of age. He was in his fiftieth year when he made his fateful trip to Libya. The Libyans claimed that he had left for Italy August 31 on an Alitalia flight. The Italian evidence belied the Libyan claim. Only his baggage arrived in Rome, checked into the Holiday Inn by two Libyans—one of them dressed in clerical attire —posing as Musa al Sadr and his lay companion.

Hard-headed men were sure that Musa al Sadr had been murdered by Qaddafi. But the cleric's faithful followers were left sitting under his posters, repeating his words, awaiting his "return." In the aftermath of his disappearance, Shia politics in Lebanon was in many ways a fight over the realm and the inheritance of a vanished Imam. Reality imitated and served a Shia myth in Libya in that summer of 1978. In the Shia doctrine, the twelfth of the Imams (the successors to the Prophet through his daughter Fatima) vanished to the eyes of ordinary men in 873-874, to return at some future date and fill the earth with justice. This is the doctrine of the Ghaiba, the concealment of the Hidden Imam. It came out of the early ordeals of Shiism, an embattled minority faith in the realm of Islam.

All eleven preceding Imams, so the Shia traditions maintained, had fallen in battle or had been poisoned or had died in prison at the hands of unjust usurpers of power. At its core Shia history was a tale of dispossession. The story of the martyrdom, al maψtil, of the Imams, related how the virtuous successors of the Prophet were denied the rule and the inheritance that should have been theirs. The Prophet had founded a state: it was both a religious and a political kingdom. He died in A.D. 632, some two decades after he received the revelation. In the scramble for his inheritance, the partisans, the shia, of the Prophet's family, maintained that legitimate succession belonged to the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali and after him to the Prophet's descendants.

But the political kingdom was not to be Ali's or his descendants'; he was passed over for succession three times in a row. Under the rule of the first three caliphs (successors to the Prophet), Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman, Islam outgrew its Arabian birthplace, spilling into Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt. It had become an affair of wealth and power. For the shia of Ali, however, history had become usurpation; the worldly had triumphed over the theocratic ideal. The caliphate finally came Ali's way a quarter century after the death of the Prophet. But it came during a time of discord in the Muslim polity. After a brief and contested reign Ali was murdered, and his son and designated successor, Hassan, abdicated in favor of Muawiyah, the governor of the Muslim province in Syria, a man of Banu Umayya—the Umayyad —whose leader had been an enemy of the Prophet. The Umayyads imposed on the Muslim community a system of hereditary rule. A century later, they were overthrown by another dynasty, the Abbasids, which manipulated the popular veneration of the Prophet's family to its own advantage. The Abbasids rose in rebellion in the name of ahl al bayt (the Prophet's family), but once triumphant they, too, ruled by the sword.

Against this worldly tale of dynastic triumph, the Shia of Ali and of his descendants and the dispossessed in the realm of Islam put forth an idea of an Imam (a religious and political leader) as the true inheritor of the Prophet's authority. The Imamate was transmitted through nass, special designation, from one legitimate Imam to his successor. In the eyes of these fervent partisans, the Imams, descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima, were the bearers of Islam's message and truth. One Imam after another was eliminated, so the tradition maintained. And then, some two centuries after the assassination of the first Imam, the twelfth Imam, an infant, vanished lest he be harmed by the ruler. After his disappearance, the twelfth Imam made his will known through four of his deputies, during a period identified as al Ghaiba al Sughra, the lesser occultation, the lesser darkness. Then came the major occultation after the passing of the last of the four deputies in 939; al Ghaiba al Kubra, a period of greater darkness. History became usurpation. The deeds of men faltered, men awaited the return rujuh, of the Hidden Imam. In this messianic view, which shares its essential salvationism with Jewish and Christian eschatology, the Hidden Imam returns as a great avenger, a mahdi, a savior.1 For this belief born of adversity and political dispossession, the Shia borrowed the authority of the Prophet Muhammad. A hadiłh (a tradition, a saying) attributed to the Prophet held out the promise of the Mahdi's return; "If there were to remain in the life of the world but one day, God would prolong that day until He sends in it a man from my community and my household. His name will be the same as my name. He will fill the earth with equity and justice as it was filled with oppression and tyranny."

Musa al Sadr's tale merged with the millenarian sensibility of his people. The millenarian expectation of an extraordinary man who brings history to its appointed consummation, who appears when it is God's will for him to do so, was there for Musa al Sadr in a natural way. No one had to lean on the history or squeeze it too hard, or say that this modern tale was a playing out of an old belief. The pious would have been scandalized; there was no need to do this. The millenarian expectation worked in the aftermath of the cleric's disappearance just as it had when Sayyid Musa al Sadr was proclaimed Imam Musa al Sadr. Sayyids are a class that claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Sayyids inhabited the breadth of the Muslim world, the title had some prerogatives, a claim of a special place in the Prophet's eyes. But the title of Imam was a very special one.

Strictly speaking, there were in the Shia doctrine only twelve Imams—Ali, and the eleven designated Imams who followed him, over a period of some two centuries, with the last one going into occultation. When Musa al Sadr "emerged" as Imam a mere decade after he had come to Lebanon, he had not claimed the title for himself. Nor had he been raised to the status of one of these twelve special, divinely ordained individuals; that would have been heresy. As with Khomeini in the late 1970s, the title of Imam was insinuated by followers and "accepted" by the designated cleric. In both cases, the designation, loaded with messianic expectation, emerged in the political arena. In Lebanon in the late 1960s, as in Iran ten years later, a cleric was set apart from other clerics and accorded a title with great evocative power and prestige. Both cases represented a break with Shia orthodoxy. Both cases represented the triumph of political activism over religious restraint. If the beginning of Musa al Sadr's ascendancy fitted in with the ambiguity of the Shia symbolism—its mixture of things said and unsaid, its belief in an extraordinary individual to lead and redeem men—so did the disappearance in Libya. Musa al Sadr, his followers continued to say, will occupy the office he held (he was chairman of the Higher Shia Council which he himself had helped create in 1969, a mere decade after his arrival in Lebanon from his birthplace in Qom) until he reaches his sixty-fifth birthday in 1993.

The ambiguity of the tale was a source of much of its power. The disorder in Lebanon—a civil war that broke out in 1975 with no end in sight, a Syrian drive into the country in 1976, an Israeli invasion in March 1978, and more disorder and ruin to come, a terrible war fought in the summer of 1982 between Israel and the Palestinians—made the time appropriate for a great millenarian myth. The people of the historically quiescent Shia community of Lebanon that Musa al Sadr had led and had tried to transform needed courage to stake out a claim to that fractured country. And the tale of Musa al Sadr served a multitude of needs. Like a chameleon, he was different things to different people. The patricians among his followers saw him as a man of moderate politics, a reformer. For others, Musa al Sadr was to become a great avenger, his tale and memory a warrant for daring deeds and uncompromising politics. His legacy was there to be claimed by men of means and caution and by young suicide drivers.

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