The Stolen Legacy of Musa Sadr

The Stolen Legacy of Musa Sadr

The best way to honor Sadr’s timeless influence is to build the Lebanon that he struggled to see in his lifetime.

All truths, however long they may take, will find themselves revealed with the passage of time. Unfortunately, in the case of Imam Musa Sadr, that moment has not yet come. August 31 marked the forty-fifth anniversary of Sadr’s disappearance while traveling to Libya to meet the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Many observers, including people from his family, hold the former Libyan leader responsible for his disappearance and hope to discover one day what happened to him. 

But what did Sadr do during his life in Lebanon that he merits remembrance today? Born in Iran to Lebanese parents of Shia heritage, Sadr adhered to the teachings of Islam and is universally beloved by Lebanon’s Shia community. If any traveler were to visit the religiously and ethnically diverse Mediterranean country, they will find pictures of the Imam across the Shia-populated areas of Lebanon. However, his impact on Lebanon goes far beyond a single sect. He is remembered and cherished by Lebanese people across different religions, including Lebanon’s Maronite community.

To understand his legacy, one must explore the effect Sadr had on Lebanon and his efforts to support social cohesion during times of political violence and fear.

One resident of the Shia-majority town of Baalbek, Ali Kusai, shared his views on Sadr and how the imam’s teachings brought Lebanese people together at a moment when peace seemed like an illusion for most.

“He was a man of unity, a defender of human rights. Whoever is a person who cherishes unity, he is threatened in Lebanon.”

During the late 1970s, Lebanon was shattered by a fifteen-year civil war. Where before, peoples of all different faiths could visit and enjoy the beauty of all of Lebanon, many were now living in fear of their fellow Lebanese.

Twenty-two kilometers north of Baalbek lies the small town of Deir El Ahmar, whose inhabitants are mostly Maronites Christians. Like everyone else during the war, they too saw their neighbors take up arms and join militias, and felt they were next in line to be targeted.

In a single statement, Sadr called for the safety of Lebanese Christians and declared what they meant to him.

“Whoever shoots a bullet at the people of Deir al-Ahmar is as if he were shooting it in my chest. For me, everyone is to pray in the church as I pray in the mosque. There is no difference between a Muslim and a Christian, between my south and my north.”  

Truly, he was a man who garnered the respect of all Lebanese and worked effortlessly to stop senseless bloodshed. And this was no easy task, for Lebanon’s civil war also possessed a regional element, which succeeded in dragging Lebanon into a conflict that served no sect or community. This was something that Sadr was trying to stop.

In the south of Lebanon, Palestinian commandoes and militia-fighters, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat, were running what was effectively their own autonomous region.

With this freehand in the south, the Palestinian guerrillas were waging a war against Israel with dire consequences for Lebanon. Although was a supporter of the Palestinian cause, Sadr did not endorse Arafat’s strategy of fighting Israel or any other Palestinian group. He believed it would only cause unnecessary harm to the people living in the south due to Israeli retaliation.

Sadr was prepared to go to great lengths to solve this issue, which included having a dialogue with Libya’s Gaddafi. According to Hassan Chami, a judge and coordinator of Lebanon’s official committee that is investigating the disappearance of Sadr and his two companions, Gaddafi wanted to fight Israel through Lebanon’s territory by supporting Palestinian organizations and militias. Since the other Arab countries had ceasefires with Israel (Egypt, Jordan, and Syria), Lebanon was the only pathway to waging war against the Jewish state. Gaddafi was committed to proving himself to be the Arab World’s next Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died of a heart attack in 1970.

In a discussion with the National Interest, Chami spoke about Gaddafi’s theories on how to solve the Lebanese civil war and the Palestine-Israel conflict.

“From Gaddafi’s point of view, if you want to resolve the Lebanese war, you must clear the Christians from the country to places like Australia or Canada. Imam Musa Sadr did not accept this. This absurd idea from the Gaddafi was the first area of contention between the two men. Sadr rejected all forms of sectarianism, making it clear Lebanon was home to all. Yet, the most crucial and deeper motivation for Gaddafi was his Nasser obsession and desire to fight Israel.”

Chami continued, “Gaddafi dreamed of being the successor and second version of Gamal Abdel Nasser. If anyone wants to be a great Arab leader, he must fight Israel. Gaddafi saw Sadr as an obstacle and needed him out of the picture.”

According to Chami, Sadr was not killed immediately after he arrived at the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Rather, he was put in prison because Gaddafi believed in old “black magic” that says you cannot kill someone on your lands. This was allegedly revealed to Sadr’s family by Libya’s new officials after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. This old superstitious belief may have prevented Sadr from being killed, but it did not save his life. Further, this terrible ordeal may have indirectly caused the Lebanese civil war to carry on for many years. What would have happened if he lived?

In the end, no one knows for sure. But everyone knows what happened when he was gone. The best way to honor Sadr’s timeless influence is to build the Lebanon that he struggled to see in his lifetime. One of peace, coexistence of all, and support for your fellow citizens who fall on hard times.

Adnan Nasser is an independent foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle East affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Adnansoutlook29.

Image: Hiba Al Kallas /