The Vanished Imam

The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon

Fouad Ajami
Copyright Date: 1986
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 228
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  • Book Info
    The Vanished Imam
    Book Description:

    In the summer of 1978, Musa al Sadr, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Shia sect in Lebanon, disappeared mysteriously while on a visit to Libya. As in the Shia myth of the "Hidden Imam," this modern-day Imam left his followers upholding his legacy and awaiting his return. Considered an outsider when he had arrived in Lebanon in 1959 from his native Iran, he gradually assumed the role of charismatic mullah, and was instrumental in transforming the Shia, a quiescent and downtrodden Islamic minority, into committed political activists.

    What sort of person was Musa al Sadr? What beliefs in the Shia doctrine did his life embody? Where did he fit into the tangle of Lebanon's warring factions? What was behind his disappearance? In this fascinating and compelling narrative, Fouad Ajami resurrects the Shia's neglected history, both distant and recent, and interweaves the life and work of Musa al Sadr with the larger strands of the Shia past.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6515-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-8)
  3. A Note on Sources and Purpose
    (pp. 9-14)
    Fouad Ajami
  4. For the Nonspecialist Reader
    (pp. 15-19)
  5. Map
    (pp. 20-20)
  6. Prologue: The Disappearance Imam Musa al Sadr
    (pp. 21-28)

    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...

  7. 1 The Intimate Stranger: Sayyid Musa of Qom
    (pp. 29-51)

    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 Jabal 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.¹ A latecomer to Shiism, Iran had become one of the two great centers in the Shia world (Iraq being...

  8. 2 The World the Cleric Adopted
    (pp. 52-84)

    There was a Shia way of telling history in Jabal Amil, a way mixing pride and lament. The pride was in the valor of men, in their learning, in the vast literary and religious tradition of which they were the presumed inheritors. The lament was for the results all around—the ruined landscape, the harsh villages, the poverty that drove men from this hinterland to the far ends of the earth.

    And there was a figure in that history symbolic and evocative of the harshness and the ruin: that of the late eighteenth-century Ottoman governor Ahmad Pasha al Jazzar (al...

  9. 3 The Path the Cleric Took: Sayyid Musa and His Companions
    (pp. 85-122)

    “There are those who cannot deal with dedication and commitment. They have linked my initiatives to political movements—local, Arab, and foreign—without shame, without any evidence. There is no reason for suspicion. The only reason is that I took the man of religion, rajul al din, into the social realm, that I removed from him the dust of the ages.”¹

    The words were Musa al Sadr’s. They were words of self-definition and self-defense. The turf in Tyre which was enough for his predecessor was for him only a beginning. As he set out to make his presence felt in...

  10. 4 Reinterpreting Shiism: Imam al Sadr and the Themes of Shia History
    (pp. 123-158)

    Musa al Sadr defined his task and agenda in an extremely ambitious way. A clue to what he expected of—and claimed for—himself is supplied by something he wrote about what an Imam had to be ready for. “The responsibility of an Imam of the Community (Imam al Jama’a), knew no limits,” he wrote. “An Imam had to protect the interests of his flock; he had to be generous; he had to serve his community with advice and persistance; he had to be willing to undergo martyrdom on their behalf. No leader can claim Islam who ignores the daily...

  11. 5 The Tightrope Act
    (pp. 159-190)

    There was in Sayyid Musa al Sadr an outsider’s eagerness to please. This was an attribute of his personality that a sharp-eyed Christian admirer of his had referred to when he described the cleric’s encounters with others as “rituals of seduction.”¹ It was a quality that some in Lebanon who knew him associated with the land of his birth. (The image of a more subtle, more graceful, more ambiguous Iran had always been juxtaposed to a starker and harder Arab culture. Iranians, said a Lebanese referring to this dimension of the cleric’s personality, could slit a man’s throat with a...

  12. 6 The Legacy and Its Inheritors
    (pp. 191-222)

    Several months after Musa al Sadr’s disappearance, the Iranian revolution pushed the Shah’s regime over the brink. The once embarrassing symbols of Shia Islam were exalted. Men no longer awaited the millennium; they proclaimed that in Iran they had an answer for the ailments of the Muslim world. The Shia of Lebanon had become part of a larger story. And Musa al Sadr himself came to serve an entirely new function. He was a man of double identity, claimed by the Iranians and by the Shia in Lebanon; he embodied the bonds, both real and imagined, between the two.


  13. Index
    (pp. 223-228)