I learned of Moussa al-Sadr from my Lebanese-American friend Eide Alawan just before my first trip to Lebanon. I visited the Sadr Foundation in Tyre and met the Imam’s sister who is now the executive director. After I published the story of the imam in Interfaith Heroes I discovered how well known he is in the Muslim world. More than once as I’ve described Interfaith Heroes I’ve had a Muslim say
Moussa al-Sadr is in the book, isn’t he? He is the no-brainer to include much like Christians would include Martin Luther King, Jr. I had no idea before Eide encouraged me to make contact with the foundation. By the way, half the stories I got about Moussa al-Sadr came from Christians, which testifies to the interfaith impact of this Muslim cleric in a setting more known for religious division and discord.
A Lebanese imam who fought peacefully for the disenfranchised
Imam Moussa al-Sadr was the leading Shiite Muslim figure in southern Lebanon during the 1960s and 1970s. He was especially concerned about eradicating poverty and stimulating education for those who were disenfranchised by the main social and political systems in Lebanon. He founded many social institutions, vocational schools, kindergartens, health clinics and literacy centers.
He also was a leading political activist. He founded the Movement of the Deprived to call for an end to Maronite Christian political domination and to protest government neglect of poor rural areas. When civil war broke out, he founded the Amal Movement as a military wing of the Movement of the Deprived.
In spite of his role in founding the Amal militia he was active in peacemaking efforts during the civil war. He personally led a fast for peace and a public demonstration to halt the siege of Ka’ Village and Dayr al-Ahmar Village, two Christian communities. He made the Safa mosque a center for civil and religious leaders to raise their voices against the civil war, and he eventually left the Amal in protest as the violence increased.
Over many years, Imam al-Sadr demonstrated a remarkable moderation and sensitivity to religious unity amid the explosive tensions within his country. He believed in a peaceful cooperation between faiths was a strong advocate for inclusion of the minority Shi’ia community in the politics of Lebanon. He participated in many Islamic-Christian dialogs and eventually joined with a Catholic archbishop to cofound an interfaith social movement to help the poor and marginalized. He also organized a committee of Christian and Muslim spiritual leaders in southern Lebanon to work together on political and social causes shared by both groups.
Imam al-Sadr did not stop at dialogue, and he wasn’t satisfied to serve only as a figurehead in new groups. He took decisive and sometimes risky action. For example, when Muslim citizens in Tyre boycotted a local ice cream shop simply because of the owner’s religious affiliation, Imam al-Sadr ended a Friday prayer service with a march to the ice cream shop. People followed, not knowing what was to happen. When the imam arrived he ordered ice cream. Then the marchers all ate ice cream, and the religious boycott ended.
In August 1978 Imam al-Sadr and two companions disappeared in Libya while on a journey to Middle East capitals in which he was seeking help to end Lebanon’s civil war. They were never heard from again.