Al-Shaheed Ayatollah al-Udhmah al-Sayyid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr was born on the 25 al-Qi’da 1353/ 28 February 1935, in Kadhimiya, Iraq.
Commentators highlight Shaheed al-Sadr’s ‘international scholarly background’ and his family’s relative poverty as important determinants of his upbringing, as well as the death of his father, Haydir al-Sadr, when he was only three years of age.
In 1945, and having completed primary school in Kadhimiya, Shaheed al-Sadr and his family moved to Najaf, the historical centre of the Hawza (Islamic Seminary), where he spent the rest of his life.
He joined the Hawza at the early age of 13, quickly emerging as an exceptionally gifted student, who rose to the level of a ‘mujtahid’ or profound scholar at the extraordinary age of 20. From thereon, Shaheed al-Sadr’s writings quickly made him the pre-eminent scholar in the reformist movement that sought to revolutionise Islamic thought and law after decades of inertia.
Central to Shaheed al-Sadr’s worldview was the belief, consistently made from his first writings to his last, that:
Islam is a holistic and complete Concept, because it is composed of a complete system of beliefs in creation, stemming from which is a comprehensive social system that encompasses all the aspects of life, and satisfies the most two important needs of humanity: an ideological basis and a social system. (1)
It was up to scholars in Islamic law, politics, economics, sociology and so forth to ‘discover’ elements of this holistic system, as if they were all involved in putting together a jigsaw puzzle. In pursuing this grand goal, Shaheed al-Sadr went on to make his contributions in all these diverse fields, all of which were rooted in his unique approach to understanding Islam through ‘topical exegeses’ (thematic tafsir) of the Qur’an (al-tafsir al-mawdhu’i) which he himself had pioneered.
Shaheed al-Sadr’s theories involved a critique of Capitalism for what he held was its elevation of the individual over everything else. At the same time, he rejected Marxism for its denial of human individuality altogether, both as agent in history, and as the driving force of social and economic life. For Shaheed al-Sadr, both theories were flawed, not least because they neglected the spiritual aspect of man, which if nurtured properly, elevates him beyond his base desires and mere material existence, ever closer to the absolute, Allah (swt).
A similar error was made by western scholars and revolutionaries of liberty. Shaheed al-Sadr praises the revolutionary moment when Europeans in the pre-Renaissance era broke away from the shackles imposed by the Church and by Feudalism which had left Europeans “downtrodden”. However, Shaheed al-Sadr argued, Europeans then made the mistake of converting liberty, one important value amongst many and a means to the end of creating a prosperous and happy society, into the value upon which to construct the new world, that is, the end in itself:
It is not enough to break the chains. Freedom from them only provides a framework for the progress and development of humanity, whereas proper development of individuals requires an inner basis in the light of which progress may be made. Mere freedom to do whatever one wants and to go wherever one wishes is not enough. Man must know how and why he should take a particular step… (2)
For Shaheed al-Sadr, true freedom contained not only this ‘negative’ component of the absence of physical restraints, but rather self-mastery and direction, possible only when man attaches himself to God Almighty.
Whilst studying and teaching in Najaf, Shaheed al-Sadr championed wholesale reforms of the Hawza. He aimed to transform what he saw as the ‘individualistic Marji’ya’ of the day into an ‘objective’ one. This was essentially an effort at institutionalisation and modernisation.
Shaheed al-Sadr wanted to replace the traditional approach of the Marji’ya in fulfilling its duties, which centred on the individual Marj’i, to one that was based on a set of institutions and on a ‘Marji’ya Council’ in which all relevant issues are discussed, and decisions arrived at through the principle of Consultation (Shuraa). In short, the ‘objective Marji’ya’ is one that is institutionalised, and whose processes are transparent, and whose leadership is collective and inclusive.
Moreover, for those aspiring to become the next Grand Jurist, Shaheed al-Sadr argued for the need for more than the traditional criteria of Islamic knowledge, Islamic personality and ‘justice’, emphasising the importance of administrative and leadership skills.
In the hearts of many of his followers in Iraq and elsewhere, Shaheed al-Sadr is remembered as much for his brave and active resistance toward Saddam’s tyranny as his immense contributions to Islamic thought.
The key vehicle for political action, Shaheed al-Sadr believed, was group action; the key strategy, al-marhaliya (gradualism). These ideas were put into practice through the establishment of the Islamic Dawa Party (IDP), which he and a number of other scholars and community leaders set up in Najaf in 1957. The IDP’s popularity, particularly on university campuses and amongst the middle classes, quickly made it the greatest challenge to Saddam’s Ba’ath regime which had seized power in a military coup on the 17th of July1968.
Saddam’s regime was ferocious in its response: issuing a directive which made membership of or sympathy to the IDP and its ideals a capital offense, and arresting countless Iraqis under the charge, and imprisoning, torturing or executing thousands.
Shaheed al-Sadr was made to endure particular hardships, all in the vain hopes he could be driven away from his activism. He was arrested in 1971, 1974, 1977 and in 1979. Many of his students and colleagues were executed and on the 5th April 1979, following several months of house arrest, he and his sister, Amina al-Sadr, who had emerged in her own right as one of the leading female activist against Saddam’s tyranny, were arrested for the final time.
After several days of torture, on the 9th of April 1980, Mohammed Baqir and Amina al-Sadr were executed, becoming in the process celebrated icons of peaceful resistance to Saddam’s brutal reign.
In the last months before his execution, Baqir al-Sadr famously delivered three ‘calls’ to Iraqis. In them, he spoke out against oppression and dictatorship, called for democracy, freedom and human rights, and for unity amongst all Iraqis. He concluded his historical third speech with these poignant words which were to become his last to the Iraqi people:
…Oh my brothers from the sons of Mosul and Basra, from the sons of Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf, from the sons of Samarra and Kadhimiya… from the sons of Amara, Kout and Sulaimainia…from the sons of Iraq from every region, my promise to you is that I am yours, that I am for you all, and that you all are my goal in the present and in the future. So let your words unite, and your lines join as one under the banner of Islam: for the sake of saving Iraq from the nightmare of this group of tyrants, and for the cause of building a free and dignified Iraq, ruled by the justice of Islam and where human dignity and rights are supreme, and where all citizens, from different ethnicities and sects, feel that they are brothers working together – all of them – in leading their country, rebuilding their nation, and realising their higher Islamic values based on our true message and great history. And let the peace and blessings of God be upon you all. (3)
‘Because you are a power;
Because you are a revolution;
Because you are the secret to a nation’s awakening;
You will remain for us,
You are alive for us.’ (4)
Great Ayatollah Muhammad H. Fadhlallah
Shaheed al-Sadr was a passionate believer in man’s capacity to change his destiny. On an individual level, seeking knowledge and deepening one’s connection to God are the keys to success. On a societal level, collective action, organisation, moderation and incremental change are the means by which our visions can be transformed to reality.
Through devoting his life to advancing knowledge and fighting for human dignity and liberation, Shaheed al-Sadr set an example for all. We celebrate his life and sacrifice, but also must follow his lead. Should we do so, we will indeed have ensured that Shaheed al-Sadr will and for eternity, ‘remain for us, alive for us’.
(1) Sadr, Al-Usus No.1. This concept is repeated in Falsafatuna, Iqtisaduna et al.
(2) Sadr, Lecture 10 of his socio-political series, re-published in Arabic as Al-Madrasa al-Quraniya. An approximate translation is available online, as ‘Trends of History’ from www.al-islam.org See Lecture 10, pg 126-127
(3) For more information on the struggle between Shaheed al-Sadr, the IDP and Saddam Hussein’s regime, please visit www.islamicdawaparty.com
(4) Quotation translated from poem by Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadlulah, first published in Al-Jihad No.181 Special Edition 8th April 1980.