print Print
send Send to friends
The Messenger of Unity

Sayyid Musa al-Sadr was born on the 15thof May, 1928 in the holy city of Qom, Iran. After having completed his primary education, he moved to the capital city of Tehran where in 1956, he earned his degree in Islamic jurisprudence. Returning to Qom, he busied himself over the next few years with lecturing at the various religious centers in the city. He also launched the publication of the periodical entitled Maktab-e Islam (The School of Islam).

In 1960, following the death of Sayyid Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din, al-Sadr moved to Lebanon to hold the principal position of the Islamic Shia religious leader in the southern city of Tyre. After witnessing the social and living conditions of the community, he became an advocate for the plight of the Shia population in Lebanon. In 1969, the Grand Assembly of Shias in Lebanon was founded and al-Sadr was elected as its president for a duration of six years. It was during this time that he became known as "Imam Musa”. When his term ended in 1975, he was re-elected for a further eighteen-year period (of which he was only able to serve three).

Imam Musa founded many social institutions, vocational schools, medical clinics, and literacy centers. His activities gained national interest when he warned of the dangers of Israeli aggression into Lebanon—particularly into its Shia-dominated southern region. The Imam was careful, however, not to limit his struggle to a sectarian movement. In 1971, he established a committee that incorporated all the religious leaders in Southern Lebanon (including the Maronite Christians) in an attempt to coordinate their social and political activities in the region.

In 1974, al-Sadr organized a series of demonstrations to protest the government's negligence of the deteriorating conditions of the rural areas. This led to the founding of the Harakat al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Deprived), which adopted as their slogan: "Continuous struggle until there are no deprived people left in Lebanon.” During the civil war, al-Sadr founded the Afwaj al-Muqawimat al-Lubnaniyyah(Brigades of the Lebanese Resistance) or more popularly known by its acronym ‘Amal', as the military wing of the Harakat al-Mahrumin. Initially it fought alongside the Lebanese National Movement and the Palestinian Resistance against the projects of partition and Palestinian settlements in Lebanon.

Among his contemporary religious and political leaders, al-Sadr stood out for his willingness to work with other groups, and in particular the Christians of Lebanon. He co-founded the Social Movement with the Catholic archbishop Grégoire Haddad in 1960, participated in the Islamic-Christian dialogue in 1962, and lectured in a Capuchin Christian church during the Easter fast of 1964. He was a prominent intellectual who had mastered many languages and played an all-important role in Lebanese political life. Towards the end of August 1978, he mysteriously disappeared during a visit to Libya.

The Essence of Unity

One of the deep hopes and inner yearnings of Imam Musa Sadr was for the Islamic ummah to become united in all corners of the world. From the onset of his youth while still occupied with his studies in the seminary in Qom, he used to reflect over this quite seriously. In various gatherings of the seminary he would bring up the topic, often in the presence of senior teachers. In 1947, while not having reached his twentieth birthday, when he was informed of Allamah Amini's arrival to Tehran from Najaf and the fact that he would be residing there for a few days, he took the opportunity to hurry to Tehran with a close friend in order to visit the Allamah. In the midst of discussing various scholarly matters with him, Imam Musa Sadr began to speak of unity between the Shias and the Sunnis, particularly in the face of a common enemy. In expounding on this topic, he defended his own positions for his teacher.It is as if God had placed this yearning within his core being as a gift for the Islamic ummah.

Accordingly, years later, when Imam Musa Sadr entered Lebanon in 1959, as soon as the opportune moment presented itself in the very same year, he laid the foundations for friendship with the Ahl al-Sunnah scholars. As an example, one can mention the lasting relationship that he established with Muhyi al-Din Hasan (the Mufti of the Ahl al-Sunnah in Lebanon). This relationship became so dear and cordial that people became used to seeing the two of them together on most auspicious occasions such as the Eid of Ghadir, the nights of the month of Ramadan and the days leading up to Ashura. The two of them would ascend the pulpit in a shared location such as the Qadim Mosque or the Nadi of Imam Sadiq, and the people would listen to the talks of both a Shia and a Sunni. It was such that if someone from a different city entered the gathering and was not aware of the denominational backgrounds of these two speakers, they would not be able to distinguish which of the two was Shia and which Sunni.

Imam Musa Sadr used to say, "There is no inconsistency or difference between the Shia and the Sunni. They are both the followers of one united religion.”[1]With this philosophy, he intensified his conciliatory activities in Lebanon. During his two-month visit to the countries of North Africa in the summer of 1963, in a historical and original initiative, he was able to establish long-lasting and beneficial relationships between the different Islamic centres in Egypt, Western Africa, and the Gulf states and the Shia denominational centres in Lebanon.

After the establishment of the ‘Grand Assembly of the Shias of Lebanon,' the official inauguration day of this Assembly took place on Friday, May 23, 1969. After having welcomed and thanked the participants, Imam Musa Sadr sketched out, in a fervent speech, his program and overall plans for the Assembly. The ceremony was attended by many great academic, political, cultural, denominational, and religious personalities of Lebanon, including the then president, Mr. Charles Helou. Imam Musa Sadr laid particular emphasis on two areas of his program.

1. Fundamental measures in order to eliminate the divisions within the Muslims and an increase in the efforts to achieve at a thorough unification, and

2. Collaboration with all of the denominational groups of Lebanon and the attempt to preserve national unity.

In the first proclamation that was issued by the Grand Assembly after one week [of its inauguration], this program and course of action was once again stressed and publicized. It was published in most of the newspapers and distributed to all parts of Lebanon. Not sufficing himself to his speech and the issuance of this proclamation, however, Imam Musa Sadr immediately took practical steps towards this aim. In October of 1969, he wrote a historical and unparalleled letter to the then Mufti of Lebanon, Shaykh Hasan Khalid. In it, while outlining the precise and subtle points regarding unity between the schools of thought, he proposed practical and serious measures towards the advancement of this important and fateful issue. Here, we review the entire text of this letter:[2]

Unifying the Fiqh

There are two perspectives—affirmative and negative—that exist at the base level amongsttheprominent Islamic personalities (both Shia and Sunni) related to the idea of unifying the followers of the different schools of thought. The belief of those who subscribe to the negative perspective is based on the idea that there is absolutely no point of commonality between the Shia and the Sunni. All that is found in these two schools of thought is completely at odds with one another in every respect. Hence, there is no plausible reason for unity. The proponents of this idea are in the extreme minority even though they may have chosen this perspective with good intentions and sincerity. However, the reality is that this perspective has always been misused throughout history by the enemies of Islam and the colonialists of both the East and West. It has left many problems for the Islamic world; we shall not elaborate on these since they are quite obvious.

However, those who subscribe to the positive perspective regarding this topic have differed in terms of its means and methods; they can be divided into a few groups. The first group is of the following opinion: This topic has absolutely no relation to the unity of the "schools of thought”; each of these schools of thought must preserve their own fundamental and subsidiary doctrines. It is only the followers of the schools of thought that, while preserving the fundamental and subsidiary doctrines of their own school, must unite with the followers of the other schools. This perspective was considered necessary by Imam Musa al-Sadr, but never sufficient. Moreover, at the level of action, it would bring about a series of obstacles and challenges that would inhibit the materialization of unity.

Another group is of the belief that all of the Islamic schools of thought are obliged to do the following: while safeguarding their own denominational essence, they should endeavour in the points of commonality between the different schools. Of course, many great and blessed strides have been taken in this direction: the late Shaykh Tusi (r) composed the valuable book, Khilaf, ‘Allamah Hilli authored the book, Tadhkirah, and today important books on the topic of ‘comparative fiqh' are being written by capable Shia and Sunni thinkers. This perspective, however, with all the importance that it carries, primarily involves the scholars and thinkers and is contained within scholarly gatherings; it does not have a reality within the masses of people whose numbers range in the millions.

The third group, whose vanguard is most probably Imam Musa al-Sadr, while respecting the proponents of the previous perspectives and their followers, consider them as necessary but insufficient. It is for this reason that Musa al-Sadr raises the idea of unifying the fiqh. He says, "The Islamic for- tress—in its foundations—is a single entity, and the Islamic ummah—in its beliefs, divine book, and origin and end—is also one; hence, this calls for unity even in its particulars.”[3]

In every opportunity and gathering that he had with jurists and scholars of the Islamic schools of thought, Imam Musa al-Sadr would bring up the topic of the unity between the schools of thought, and in particular the explanation and elucidation of unifying the fiqh. The following year, on April 19, 1971, after having participated in the sixth congress of the ‘Collective Discussions on Islam' in Egypt, he met with military personnel in the Suez Canal and the battle fronts of the Egyptian war. While outlining the importance of fighting against the Israeli occupiers, he emphasized the topic of unity of the Islamic ummah, and in particular of religious rituals.[4] Likewise, in 1973, on the occasion of the seventh annual conference of ‘Knowledge of Islamic Thought' in Algeria, he once again brought up this topic in an interview with the Algerian magazine al-Mujahid.[5]

Of course, what Imam Musa al-Sadr meant with unifying the fiqh was not that the difference of opinions amongst the jurisprudents of the schools of thought should end and that all of them should issue one common verdict for each law and issue; on the contrary, he believed that these differences of opinion were actually what allowed fiqh to progress, jurisprudence to become dynamic, and the jurist to excel [in his field]. He used to say that so long as this difference of opinion was on the theoretical level—i.e., in the form of an academic theory—it would always be a source of goodness, blessing, progress, flowering, and growth. However, the moment it changed into a verdict for action or a religious slogan within society, the multitude of the verdicts and slogans would inevitably lead to the dispersal of the followers of each verdict and slogan. Hence, All of these perspectives should end with one verdict and with one slogan so that they do not result in division, multiple factions, and the dispersal of the Islamic ummah.


By: Abd al-Rahim Abadhari

[1]al-Imam al-Sadr wa al-Hawar, Markaz al-Imam al-Sadr li al-Bahath wa al-Darasat, Beirut, 1418 H., p. 29.

[2]The Arabic text of this letter has been published through the efforts of Husayn Sharaf al- Din in Abjadiyyat al-Hawar, p. 159.

[3]From the letter to Shaykh Hasan Khalid.

[4]al-Mahrur Newspaper, Beirut, April 20, 1971.

[5]al-Mujahid Magazine, no. 687, Rajab 13, 1393/1973.