The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon
Beirut, 1963: a Muslim secondary-school classroom, full of eager young Arab nationalists in their final year. The visitor, a Shi’ite Muslim cleric, recent immigrant to Lebanon from Iran, doesn’t arouse much interest—even if (with hindsight at least) “there was something special about him. He cut a striking figure. His looks—he was a very tall man—his aura, and the neatness of his clerical attire marked him as someone different.”
Why not? Not because most of the pupils are—by family origin if not by intellectual conviction—Sunni Muslims. That distinction may be crucially important to their future careers but it is not one they would choose to emphasize now. On the contrary, what alienates them from this visitor is precisely that his clerical status and garb implicitly stress the importance of such distinctions, and that this is a feature of their country which these youngsters regard as an obstacle to its progress and development.
At least one of the pupils is in fact himself from a Shi’ite background in Lebanon’s rural south, but he if anything shows even less interest in the visitor than his fellows. Why draw attention to one’s membership in a despised minority, when the attraction of the prevailing Arab nationalist ideology is precisely that it enables one to be accepted on equal terms? Above all, why do so by identifying with a figure whose Persian accent hints at something non-Arab in one’s own origins, and a member of that clerical caste which has done so much to keep the Lebanese Shi’ite community separate, ignorant, and subservient?
So two travelers pass on intersecting paths, without noticing each other. A year later, his secondary schooling complete, the young Shi’ite assimilé (as he describes himself) will leave Lebanon for America. He will live through the trauma of being an Arab in the United States during the Six Day War of 1967; will see his one-time idol Gamal Abdel Nasser dethroned; will see, sooner than most of his Arab contemporaries, the hollowness of Arab nationalism; and will find a different, more personal escape from his Lebanese sectarian destiny in American citizenship and a brilliant American academic career, built largely on incisive exposure of the follies of his fellow Arabs.
Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, the tall, handsome mullah will assume the political leadership of the underdog Shi’ite community, will endow it with a new selfrespect, teach it how to claim its due share within Lebanon’s sectarian spoils system: he will teach it how to fight, figuratively at first, later (as the spoils system breaks down into outright war) literally. Then, in 1978, just when the Camp David Accords are about to plunge the Arab world (and therefore Lebanon) into a new conflict of unprecedented bitterness, just when revolution in his native Iran is about to make Shi’ism a force throughout the Middle East and far beyond, he will disappear mysteriously, providing his followers with a brand-new version of the Messianic myth which has always been one of Shi’ism’s great strengths: the Hidden Imam,…
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