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The Muqtada al-Sadr phenomenon: the key force in Iraqi politics

Khalil Fadl

As Iraq has lurched from one crisis to another since the US invasion in 2003, one figure has become increasingly influential and even dominant in the country’s politics: young Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr. KHALIL FADL profiles the man some regard as a future leader of the country.

In the shadow of the recent joint US-Iraqi offensive against the Mahdi Army, the image of the militia’s leader, Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, loomed large on the Iraqi political scene. The youngShi‘a alim was catapulted from obscurity into prominence by the political whirlwind and cross-currents of change that gripped Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. At first only a few outside his large following took the plainspoken alim, with puffed cheeks, angry looks and stern demeanour, seriously. In fact, he was largely viewed with suspicion, written off as a rabble-rouser full of bluster but little substance, and castigated as an unbalanced, out-of-control young zealot who descended from a long line of highly respected ulama. But in the past five years Sadr has demonstrated more political acumen and resilience than most people originally expected.

Sadr’s debut on the post-Saddam political scene was shrouded in controversy, rivalries within the Iraqi Shi‘a establishment, and unanswered questions about his possible role in an episode that rocked the Shi‘a city of Najaf. His name first came to public and media attention in connection with the killing of ‘Abd al-Majid al-Kho’i outside the Imam Ali mausoleum in Najaf in April 2003. Kho’i, the pro-US son of the late Ayatullah al-Udhma Abu al-Qassim al-Kho’i, was stabbed to death by a mob in Najaf shortly after he, with an entourage of other Iraqi exiles, was transported to Iraq by US forces during the Iraq war. Speculations are rife that Kho’i wanted to present himself to the US-led coalition as an alternative to groups such as the IslamicDa‘awah Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), later renamed the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq (SICI). Though Sadr denies any role in the murder, warrants were issued against him and about a dozen of his close aides and supporters for charges of inciting or ordering Kho’i’s murder. The killing was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Other tensions hidden behind a veneer of reserve had been percolating within the Shi‘a ulama of Najaf and later came to the surface. Following the murder of Kho’i, Sadr’sfollowers besieged the houses of Ayatullahs Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and Sa‘id al-Hakim, giving them a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Iraq, on the grounds of being of non-Iraqi origin. The siege sparked a stand-off that was resolved a few days later through mediation by a group of tribal and religious leaders.

It was not only passions and rivalries that were inflamed in Najaf as Iraq moved from the terror of the Ba‘ath party dictatorship to the anarchy and slaughter of the US occupation. Najaf’sShi‘a religious seminary, the hawzah, was also abuzz with debate about the role of the ulama in politics. A “traditionalist,” largely apolitical, camp, which counted among its ranks the highest echelons of the seminary’s hierarchy, including the pre-eminent Sistani, maintained that the involvement of the ulama in politics should be confined to providing guidance and should not amount to direct rule. In other words, the ulama should not assume positions in the executive branch of government, a stance that was embodied in a fatwa (edict, opinion) issued by Sistani at the time. Sadr and his supporters, however, made a case for active and direct involvement in the political scene.

The arguments advanced by both sides, as well as the rift itself, echoed an earlier heated controversy that was sparked in the 1990s by the activism of Muqtada’s father, Ayatullah al-Udhma Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was gunned down with two of his sons, Mustafa and Mu’ammal, by assassins in 1999. Saddam denied being behind the assassination and sent a delegation, headed by Muhammad Hamzah al-Zubaydi, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council and Commander of the Ba‘ath Party’s Central Euphrates Region, himself a Shi‘a, to attend mourning ceremonies and express condolences. Saddam’s propaganda machine tried to make use of Muhammad Sadiq’s tense relations with other ulama to pin the blame for his killing on internal rivalries within the ulama in Najaf. The late Ayatullah had criticised his detractors among the ulama, who largely subscribed to an apolitical non-activist viewpoint, as belonging to what he described as al-hawzah al-samitah (“the silent seminary”), arguing that his brand of vociferous and strident activism comes under al-hawzah al-natiqah (“the vocal seminary”) category. He also advocated an articulation of the Shi‘a concept of wilayat al-faqih (“governance by the jurisprudent”) similar to that of the late Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, whereby in the absence of an infallible imam supreme governance of the Muslim community, both political and religious, is vested in a jurisprudent. Mutual recriminations characterised exchanges between the elder Sadr and his adversaries. For him, the silence of the ulama who shun politics was neither quietism nor a measure of caution and prudence in the face of state terror but rather an abdication of their social responsibility. His opponents among the ulama, both inside and outside Iraq, accused him of being at best a handpicked government-appointed jurist, at worst an agent of Saddam. These tensions left a lasting mark on intra-Shi‘a politics in Iraq, spawning a mutual animus between the Sadrists and their Shi‘a rivals that shaped Shi‘a leaders’ attempts to consolidate the power-shift in favour of the long-oppressed Shi‘a majority. From then onwards, the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri) developed a collective identity that defined the group in opposition to other Shi‘a tendencies and movements, and in turn imbued it with a cult-like quality.

The Sadrists’ commitment to engagement in politics was wedded to a militant pursuit of public righteousness that induced them to fill the void left by the fall of Saddam. Hence, shortly after the US-led invasion, Sadr mobilised his father’s extensive network of regional offices and representatives, concentrated mainly in predominantly Shi‘a areas, to take control of public institutions such as hospitals, schools, public libraries and mosques, as well as Shi‘a shrines, which are an important source of funds for the Shi‘a establishment. Posters of Muqtada and his father sprouted throughout Shi‘a areas like mushrooms in moist soil after a rainy day, while young Sadrist ulama set up organisations dispensing social welfare and medical services to the local population, and oversaw the establishment of patrols to prevent looting. A network of shari‘ah courts was established to adjudicate disputes outside the state court system, whileSadrist vigilantes enforced public morality, Islamic codes of conduct and Shari‘ah restrictions in the absence of central government. Public rallies and Friday prayers organised by theSadrists drew large crowds of followers, chanting their signature slogans of “Yes, Yes, to Islam,” “Yes, Yes, to the Hawzah,” “No, No to the Devil,” and “No, No to America.” (“Na’am, na’amlil-islam,” “Na’am, na’am lil-hawzah,” “Kalla, kalla ya shaytan,” and “Kalla, kalla Amrika”). As early as April 2003, the Sadrists held Friday prayers, something which had been banned inShi‘a areas under Saddam.

The Sadrists’ distrust of other Shi‘a leaders who either went into exile or opposed Muhammad Sadiq were conspicuous during these prayers. In the speeches delivered by Muqtada Sadrand Sadrist ulama, they were taunted and vilified, mostly by insinuation and innuendo, but sometimes explicitly and unambiguously, for having fled Iraq during the griefs that had afflicted the country under Ba‘athist rule. There was an conspicuous nationalist streak in the Sadrists’ critique of their opponents. Unmistakeable swipes were made at Sistani and other seniorulama of non-Iraqi origin, who were derided for being non-Iraqis, and as such presumed to be incapable of developing understanding of or empathy with the plight of Iraqis. The attacks on non-Iraqi ulama were loaded with echoes of mutual distrust, jealousy and rivalries that have crept into relations between Arab and non-Arab ulama in Najaf over the centuries, and which permeated the tensions between Muhammad Sadiq and his adversaries. The Sadrist brand of populist Iraqi nationalism also exhibited a peculiar distaste for returning Shi‘a exiles, most of whom had returned to an Iraq about which they knew very little. The Sadrists blamed the exiles for deserting the battleground against the Ba‘ath Party’s indiscriminate repression and seeking refuge in the comfort of exile, while leaders who remained in the country, foremost among them Muhammad Sadiq, were left to bear the brunt of Saddam’s brutality.

Parallel to the silent/vocal hawzah tension, another rift developed within the Iraqi Shi‘a community: one that pitted the proponents of participation in the US-sponsored post-Saddam order versus those in favour of defying the US occupation. Whereas Sistani expressed political opposition to the US-led occupation but offered blessings, advice and guidance to some of those who worked within the emerging system, Sadr challenged the occupation and stood against its plans to install an interim government composed of exiled Iraqis. In a Friday khutba at theKufa mosque a few days after the inauguration of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) on July 13, 2003, Sadr derided the members of the new body as “puppets.” The Americans had floated the idea of trying to include the Sadrist Trend in the IGC, but they dropped it on the insistence of SCIRI. In October, Sadr announced his intention to set up his own shadow-government, but never managed to form such a body. The failure embarrassed Sadr’s aides, who struggled to explain why the plan did not materialise. Shaykh Hassan al-Zirkani, then theSadrist Trend’s public relations official in Baghdad, assured me at the time that extenuating circumstances and pressures had only delayed the formation of the government, but he was adamant that it will be formed in the near future. It was not, but the mere announcement challenged not only the American occupation but also the authority of Sistani, who, in written answers to questions by the New York Times, implicitly criticised Sadr, saying that “only a democratically elected government could rightly rule Iraq” and that “clerics should not have final authority over government” (October 22, 2003).

Sadr’s defiance of the US occupation took a dramatic turn when he announced the formation of the Mahdi Army in July 2003. An influx of young, disgruntled, unemployed and impoverished Shi‘as from the slums of Sadr City (northeast Baghdad), Hayaniyyah (Basra) and elsewhere in southern Iraq, soon swelled the ranks of the Mahdi Army. The influx highlighted a class basis for the Sadr movement. Sadr City and Hayaniyyah are both fetid shanty towns inhabited mainly by urbanised rural Shi‘a migrants. When I first visited Sadr City in September 2003, I was utterly shocked by the squalor, deplorable destitution, unhygienic conditions and abject poverty that the residents of this area of 2.5 million people live in. When combined with the severe repression of the Ba‘athist police state, such appalling living conditions could only breed wrath of unimaginable proportions. Sadr succeeded in channelling the wrath, devotion to the cause of alleviating suffering and zeal for action among the disgruntled young Shi‘as into his militia. The use of the word “Mahdi” was partly inspired by the writings of Muqtada’s father, who emphasised the appearance of the awaited saviour, the Mahdi; it had a special appeal for the downtrodden and disenfranchised Shi‘as longing for their own salvation. In Ithna-Ash‘ari Shi‘a eschatological belief the Mahdi is Imam Muhammad bin al-Hassan, who is believed to have gone into “occultation” (ghaybah) in 878 CE and is to reappear, after humanity has undergone a long period of suffering and tribulation, “in order to fill planet earth with justice and equity after it had been filled with injustice and oppression” (li yamla’aal-ard qistan wa ‘adlan ba‘adama muli’at dhulman wa jawran).

Amid the escalation of incendiary rhetoric and tensions, a military showdown was inevitable. The spark came in late March 2004, when the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) closed down al-Hawzah, the Sadrists’ newspaper, for 60 days on charges of inciting violence, and arrested Mustafa al-Yaqoubi, a close associate of Sadr’s, on charges related to the killing ofKho’i. A warrant was also issued against Sadr himself. As clashes raged in Sadr City, Najaf, Karbala and throughout southern Iraq, Paul L. Bremer, America’s proconsul in Iraq, repeatedly threatened to “capture or kill” Sadr, but failed to do so. For a brief period, the first Sadrist uprising faded with the approach of the transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to the caretaker government of Iyad Allawi, which took place on June 28, 2004, two days ahead of schedule, to foil any insurgent plans to disrupt the occasion. According to the terms of a ceasefire agreement reached between Sadr and the coalition forces, Mahdi Army fighters were to withdraw from Najaf. Sadr called on his militiamen to return to their homes “to engage in activities that will please Allah and His Messenger (saws).” But simmering tensions soon boiled over into renewed armed clashes. On August 5, 2004, Sadr called on his followers to rise up and engage US troops in gun-battles. The second Sadrist uprising ended in a stand-off between the Mahdi Army and the Americans in Najaf. The stand-off was diffused after three weeks of intense fighting by the intervention of Sistani, who, out of his concern over the destruction of the Imam Ali shrine area, sponsored a ceasefire that offered Sadr a face-saving way out.

The Mahdi Army emerged bruised and battered from its confrontations with the US and Iraqi troops. Its battlefield performance was abysmal; this came as no surprise to observers. Only a few of the Mahdi Army fighters had any serious military training or combat experience to begin with. Unable to make use of any tactical advantages to blunt the US’s superior firepower, the Mahdi Army was largely routed in most confrontations, with an enormous death toll estimated in the thousands. But although the Americans managed to push back the Mahdi Army, they were not able to wipe it out completely. In the end, the clashes provided yet another confirmation of the famous dictum that “guerrillas win if they do not lose, whereas regular armies lose if they do not win”. This episode was a turning-point in Sadr’s rise to political prominence, consolidating his reputation and transforming him into a key player and power-broker in the Iraqi Shi‘a community.

As he pulled back from the brink of confrontation with the Americans, Sadr moved deftly to translate his popular weight into political influence. During the elections of December 2005, his supporters secured the largest share of seats in the new Iraqi legislature: 30 out of the 275 seats. It was the Sadrists’ support in parliament which secured for Maliki the position of prime minister in his race for the post against SICI’s candidate ‘Adel ‘Abd al-Mahdi, and in return Maliki blocked American efforts to take on the Sadrists, who also gained six cabinet portfolios. However, Sadr’s efforts to re-style himself as a kingmaker went hand in hand with energetic efforts to rebuild the Mahdi Army into a proper fighting force. To this end, he used his involvement in the government to shore up his political and military support. Posts in the ministries were filled by party loyalists. Taking advantage of the US drive to train and equip Iraq’s army and police forces, Sadr managed to infiltrate Iraqi security forces, especially the police forces and the Facilities Protection Force, which had been set up shortly after the removal of Saddam in 2003 to guard government offices. This strategy enabled Sadr’s militiamen to obtain military training, salaries, free meals, equipment, supplies and other services.

But as al-Qa’ida’s attacks against Shi‘a civilian targets mounted, the Mahdi Army began to show signs of fracturing, with Sadr losing control of various strands in it. This process culminated in the aftermath of the bombing of the Askariyyah shrine in Samarra in February 2006, when the militia gave rise to a constellation of sectarian death squads, criminal enterprises and freelance armed groups, bringing Iraq closer to the precipice of all-out civil war. The collapse of “Shi‘a restraint,” demonstrated by the engagement of elements of the Mahdi Army in reprisal attacks against Sunnis, had ill-omened implications for inter-communal coexistence in Iraq. For instance, immediately after the removal of Saddam, the Sadrists had been at the forefront of efforts to organise joint Sunni-Shi‘a Friday jama‘ats in Baghdad. They had also sent aid-convoys and volunteer fighters to Fallujah during the US-led attack against Fallujah in April 2004. All this progress was endangered.

Sadr’s decision to take part in the political process was fraught with contradictions that often confounded observers. The Sadrist Trend became one thing and its opposite at one and the same time: both in government and outside government; part of the establishment and against it; a populist oppositional political force and a component of the ruling coalition; an anti-occupation national liberation resistance movement and an incubator of sectarian death-squads. It was a marriage of convenience that was doomed to implode under the weight of its contradictions. Sadrist ministers withdrew from the cabinet in November 2007 to protest Maliki’s insistence on going ahead with a meeting with US president George W. Bush in Amman. They conditioned their return to the government on setting a timetable for the pullout of coalition troops from Iraq, a demand that Maliki totally rejected. The widening rift absolved the prime minister of the need to protect the Sadrists, so Maliki gave the green light to American and Iraqi forces to move against the Mahdi Army.

The spiralling tensions and armed clashes between the Mahdi Army and the US and Iraqi forces also underscored Sadr’s increasingly tenuous control over his militia. Concerns over this state of affairs were certainly on Sadr’s mind when he called a unilateral ceasefire on August 29, 2007, after members of his militia were accused of involvement in clashes with Iraqi security forces and gunmen of the rival Badr Organisation, the militia arm of the SICI of Sayyid Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, in Karbala, during the ziyarah of Sha’aban 15. After the clashes, Malikigave local security forces full authority to go after the Mahdi Army root and branch. Hundreds of Sadr loyalists, including several provincial council members, were arrested. Many of them were tortured by police interrogators; there were allegations of sexual abuse as well. Sadr’s success at enforcing the ceasefire amid the crackdown is remarkable in the light of the SadristTrend’s previous reputation as a highly decentralised mass movement, to the extent of being virtually uncontrollable.

Standing down the Mahdi Army gave Sadr time to purge unruly and dissident elements from its ranks. In fact, he used the truce for the dual purpose of building up his welfare network (providing aid to the poor and destitute) and restructuring the Mahdi Army into a proper standing force, free of rogue elements, some of whom had been involved in criminal activities such as kidnap-for-ransom schemes. In the process of reconstituting the Mahdi Army, Sadr tried to put in place a new militia structure and conditions to vet new members, which include endorsement by fellow fighters in good standing, and physical fitness and character tests. A special “Golden” force was also set up to cleanse the ranks of the Mahdi Army of elements accused of atrocities and crimes. But the ceasefire caused dissension in the ranks of the Mahdi Army, especially those who refused to give up attacking American troops. Indications of such dissent and splintering go back as far as 2004, when some members, inspired either by desire for revenge or by a commitment to armed resistance and a revulsion to unarmed struggle, did not abide by Sadr’s orders. Groups that broke away from the Mahdi Army began to form guerrilla units, which came to be known as majami‘i khassah (special groups). These groups generally gravitated towards Iran, which supplied them with funds, arms and other support to keep up the fight against the US-led forces.

Sadr has succeeded in turning the most neglected, marginalised, disenfranchised and scorned segments of the Iraqi Shi‘a community, those contemptuously referred to by such derogatory terms as shuruqis and mi’idan (which are usually reserved for rural Shi‘as of southern Iraq) into a formidable political and military force. Despite his youth and relatively low rank in the hierarchy of Shi’a scholarship, Sadr has demonstrated extraordinary skill at tapping into symbols and frames of reference central to Shi‘ism: martyrdom in defenses of one’s beliefs, the redemptive power of suffering, defiance against all odds in the face of oppressive rulers and governments, and unswerving commitment to social justice. His populist appeal to the Shi‘as ofIraq was bound to grow in the political vacuum left by the reluctance of the senior ulama in Najaf to take on active leadership.

In the eyes of his followers, Muqtada deserved to take up the mantle of political leadership by virtue of his bloodline. He was born into leadership, so to speak. In a meeting in February 2005 at his house in Basra, I asked Sadrist poet Majid al-’Iqabi about the origins of the Sadrist Trend. ‘Iqabi smiled, stared at me with a twinkle in his eyes, and offered a most unexpected answer. He traced the genesis of the Sadrist Trend to Sayyid ‘Abd al-Hussein Sharaf al-Din (d. 1957 CE), a southern Lebanese Shi‘a scholar who defied the French authorities in Lebanon. The answer spoke of a view of political leadership based on a hereditary right vested in a certain clan. It is true that the Sadr families in Iraq and Iran are branches of the Sharaf al-Din family in southern Lebanon, but the social and political activism of Muhammad Sadiq is by no means an extension of the anti-colonial efforts of Sharaf al-Din. However, while ‘Iqabi’sanswer stood on flimsy historical grounds, it still revealed the odd link between family lineage and anti-Ba‘athist activism spearheaded by Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Muqtada’sfather-in-law, who was executed by the Ba‘athist regime in April 1980, and by Muhammad Sadiq, upon which Muqtada’s leadership rests.

Nothing undermined Sadr’s political ambitions as much as did his junior scholarly status in a community where most authority rests with the senior-most religious leaders. Sadr’s advanced studies, which he started in 2000, were interrupted by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As someone who has not completed the religious studies required to qualify as a faqih, Sadr cannot issue legal rulings. That is why, whenever he found himself in tight straits, he has had to defer, at least publicly, to more senior religious authorities. Within such a scheme of things, questioning and defying the religious authority of senior ulama such as Ayatullah Sistani presented Sadr with serious difficulties that he tried to overcome by casting doubt on their moral rather than their religious legitimacy. Sadr’s message, therefore, made swipes at the traditional ulama, accusing them of remaining quiet in the face of the depredations unleashed on the country by the US-led occupation and even of being complicit in the occupation. At first, Sadr managed to sidestep his lack of religious credentials by telling his followers that, in addition to the legal edicts of his late father, they should abide by the rulings of the Qum-based Ayatullah Kadhim al-Ha’iri, who has lived in Iran since the 1980s. In fact, Ha’iri, a former top leader ofMaliki’s Islamic Da‘awah Party who split from it in the mid-1980s in protest against the group’s tepid commitment to the principle of wilayat al-faqih, issued a decree in April 2003 designating Muqtada as his representative in Iraq. “We hereby inform you that Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr is our deputy and representative in all fatwa matters,” the edict read. But Sadr’sfervent activism soon collided with the constraints inherent in submitting to a higher religious authority. In September 2003 he fell out with Ha’iri, who issued a public statement declaring the mandate given to Sadr as “void” and renouncing his relationship with him. “Sayyid al-Sadr used to be our representative … but that was on condition of obedience to and coordination with our office in Najaf,” the statement read, adding that since Sadr “does not seek our advice in his stances, we cannot endorse what he does.”

Recently, Sadr’s aides have told reporters that he has resumed his long-neglected studies, intending to obtain the rank of ayatullah, possibly by the year 2010. That would be extraordinary swiftness: normally, it can take two or three decades of serious study, research and teaching to achieve the rank of ayatullah. The notion of elevating Sadr to the rank of Ayatullah has been a subject of discussion in Sadrist circles for at least a few years. In the course of a conversation I had with him at the height of the second Sadrist uprising in August 2004, a Sadristjournalist from Basra mentioned to me the importance of Sadr’s attainment of the rank of ayatullah to reinforce and strengthen his credentials.

Sadr’s decision to resume his studies will certainly have momentous implications for Iraq’s politics. Once he is an Ayatullah, he will be able to issue his own edicts, which his followers must obey. Sadr’s pursuit of the rank of Ayatullah is obviously inspired by a drive to better position himself for future confrontations with his Shi‘a rivals. He is likely to get his way and attain the rank regardless of whether he really develops the capacity to do the requisite rigorous scholarship. If he returns to the political stage as “Ayatullah Muqtada,” he is sure to use his newly acquired rank to shore up his political influence and to try to fill the vacuum in the Shi‘a religious and moral leadership that will arise in Najaf when the elderly and ailing Sistani dies. But unfortunately, in the process, he may also have subordinated a long-established tradition of excellence in religious learning to political imperatives and the vicissitudes of political rivalries.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 4

Jumada' al-Ula' 27, 14292008-06-01

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