Prayer by Imam Musa Sadr on a Lebanese body

A Socioeconomic History of Hezbollah: Imam Musa al Sadr and the Shiite Awakening

In the fifth piece in this series, Edwin Tran analyses the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah. In this piece, we explore the timely arrival in Lebanon of the Iranian cleric Imam Musa al Sadr, and his efforts to coalesce the Shi’a population into a more coherent political body.

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By now, we’ve covered the intersection of various groups in Lebanon, and how the interplay of Sunnis, Maronites, and Palestinians helped create a system that lacked political and economic representation for the country’s resident Shi’ites. From the decades following independence in the 1940s, to the beginning years of the Lebanese Civil War, little attention was paid to those who were widely affected by these factors of socioeconomic disenfranchisement. As mentioned before, Maronite leadership remained wilfully ignorant at the state of Shi’ite affairs, refusing to acknowledge the levels of inequality that gave rise to the Civil War in the first place. At the same time, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which gained control over heavily Shi’ite population centres following the 1969 Cairo Agreement, failed to address the needs of these particular constituents, and instead exposed them as collateral damage in Israeli raids and airstrikes. These events ultimately gave rise to a new force, one that would usher in the Shi’ite awakening of Lebanon. This sociopolitical development would emerge from the force of one man, the Imam Musa al Sadr, who would go on to become one of the biggest influences of Hezbollah, and as a result Lebanon’s destiny.

Lebanon religious groups distribution

Fig 1.0 – Religious group distribution in Lebanon

These developments can be seen during the reign of President Fuad Chehab, who attempted to lead widespread socioeconomic change from the position of the national government in the 1950s. As this was occurring, grass-root movements were at last starting to coalesce. Chief amongst these was the arrival of the Imam Musa al Sadr, a member of the prominent al Sadr family (whose relations still maintain significant clout in Iraq in the form of Muqtada al Sadr and his Sadrist faction). Al Sadr, a cleric from Iran who studied Islamic jurisprudence in the Shi’a holy city of Najaf, observed almost immediately upon entering Lebanon in 1959 that the conditions of the Shiʿa – despite President Chehab’s attempts at reform – continued to be destitute and impoverished. Reports indicated that during the 1960s, more than half of Lebanon lived in poverty, with many of those being located in the Shi’ite stronghold of Southern Lebanon. Many of these individuals lived off a meagre yearly wage of 2,500 LBP, or around $800 USD. He became one of the first major figures to shine light onto the Shi’ite plight and he delivered passionate speeches that demonstrated empathy and solidarity. Before long, the Imam’s work began to attract significant audiences and encompassed both secular and religious Shi’ites. Importantly, many were beginning to see Musa al Sadr as the political voice that the Lebanese Shi’a community was missing.

With his base developing, Musa al Sadr quickly went on a reformist campaign. One of his first acts was in establishing the Sitt Rabab instructional institution in the South Lebanese town of Burj al Shimali. From there, Musa al Sadr would expand his educational and charitable services throughout the region. In 1967, al Sadr organised prominent Lebanese Shi’ites into the Higher Islamic Shi’a Council and directed the organisation’s goals toward improving the socioeconomic situation of the Lebanese Shi’a community in the form of relief funds and aid. The formation of this council had a secondary effect in undermining the political clout of the Zu’uma while bolstering general Shi’ite autonomy. That same year, the Imam would visit many Lebanese Shi’ite expatriates in various West African countries who continued to provide remittances back to family members. In 1969, al Sadr would be elected as the head of the council and would use his position there to further promote Shi’ite issues, such as through the organisation of Shi’ite labour strikes. Among other acts, the Imam would intermediate community disputes and maintained an overseer position on many courts of the Jaʿfari jurisprudence.

Although the Imam Musa al Sadr played a key role in galvanising the Shi’ite community, his significance emerges deeper when analysing the ideological impact he had on Hezbollah. The most obvious of these influences was in the Imam’s focus on social services, charity (zakat), and deep integration with civil society. One of the most significant contributions by Musa al Sadr in this regard was the founding of the Harakat al Mahrumin (the Movement of the Deprived) in 1974. It was an organisation rooted in combatting socioeconomic destitution and in providing greater political representation. However an interesting point comes from the diction of the organisation’s name. Imam al Sadr founded the group with the Greek Catholic Bishop Gregoire Hadad, and the organisation was not restricted by sectarian ideation but instead was open to all individuals who suffered under Maronite domination of the Lebanese economy. This point is crucial to keep in mind. Many of the Imam’s teachings did not fall under sectarian lines, and although sectarian ideation often had an economic connotation, Musa al Sadr urged pragmatic nuance. In fact, many of the Imam’s network of allegiances contained prominent Sunni families. This particular ideological strand would have major ramifications for Hezbollah’s own ideological development later down the line.

The rise of the Mahrumin movement was followed by the development of a sister group known as Afwaj al Muqawama al Lubnaniyya, or Amal. It would operate as the armed military wing of al Mahrumin and Shi’ite Lebanese would flock to the organisation as Lebanon edged closer to the precipice of civil war. Amal, translated as meaning “hope,” would be significant as it was the one of the first major unifying groups of the Lebanese Shi’ites and would be the nesting grounds that gave rise to some of Hezbollah’s founding leaders. It was, for its time, a representation of the hope many had for a more egalitarian Lebanon in light of the rising tensions seen in build up towards the Lebanese Civil War. Although key disagreements between various Amal members would lead to the formation of Hezbollah, many remain respectful towards the figure of the Imam. A 2014 speech given by Nasrallah is perhaps illustrative of how significant the Imam Musa al Sadr had on Lebanon’s Shi’ite populace.

While Imam Musa al Sadr would disappear in Libya in 1978, it would become clear to many that his ideology of social service and socioeconomic reform would become integral parts for the future onward. In a political environment like the Lebanese Civil War, the breakdown of the Chehabist state apparatus meant that many would have to continue building the foundations set by the Imam in order to provide for themselves. Importantly, the arrival of the Imam to Lebanon meant that Shi’ite communities now had a legitimate political representative. With the development of Amal, and the future rise of Hezbollah, Shiites no longer had to rely on Maronite domination or PLO control for their own sociopolitical voice. The arrival of the Imam Musa al Sadr meant that the Shiite awakening could begin at last.

In the next article, we will examine the emergence of foreign actors and their influences on the Lebanese Civil War. We will analyse the role of leaders like Hafez al Assad and Menachem Begin, and the tactical successes and strategic blunders they committed. From there, we will take a deeper dive into the catalyst for the rise of Hezbollah: the 1982 Israeli Invasion.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo credit: Cover image – Imam Sadr // Demographic map of Lebanon – Sergey Kondrashov