Unity of the Islamic Schools of Thought According to Imam Musa al-Sadr [1 of 2]

By ‘Abd al-Rahim Abadhari[1] – Part 1 of 2

Sayyid Musa al-Sadr was born on the 15th of May, 1928 in the holy city of Qom, Iran. After having completed his primary education, he moved to the capital city of Tehran where in 1956, he earned his degree in Islamic jurisprudence. Returning to Qom, he busied himself over the next few years with lecturing at the various religious centers in the city. He also launched the publication of the periodical entitled Maktab-e Islam (The School of Islam).

In 1960, following the death of Sayyid Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din, al-Sadr moved to Lebanon to hold the principal position of the Islamic Shia religious leader in the southern city of Tyre. After witnessing the social and living conditions of the community, he became an advocate for the plight of the Shia population in Lebanon. In 1969, the Grand Assembly of Shias in Lebanon was founded and al-Sadr was elected as its president for a duration of six years. It was during this time that he became known as “Imam Musa”. When his term ended in 1975, he was re-elected for a further eighteen-year period (of which he was only able to serve three).

Imam Musa founded many social institutions, vocational schools, medical clinics, and literacy centers. His activities gained national interest when he warned of the dangers of Israeli aggression into Lebanon—particularly into its Shia-dominated southern region. The Imam was careful, however, not to limit his struggle to a sectarian movement. In 1971, he established a committee that incorporated all the religious leaders in Southern Lebanon (including the Maronite Christians) in an attempt to coordinate their social and political activities in the region.

In 1974, al-Sadr organized a series of demonstrations to protest the government’s negligence of the deteriorating conditions of the rural areas. This led to the founding of the Harakat al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Deprived), which adopted as their slogan: “Continuous struggle until there are no deprived people left in Lebanon.” During the civil war, al-Sadr founded the Afwaj al-Muqawimat al-Lubnaniyyah (Brigades of the Lebanese Resistance) or more popularly known by its acronym ‘Amal’, as the military wing of the Harakat al-Mahrumin. Initially it fought alongside the Lebanese National Movement and the Palestinian Resistance against the projects of partition and Palestinian settlements in Lebanon.

Among his contemporary religious and political leaders, al-Sadr stood out for his willingness to work with other groups, and in particular the Christians of Lebanon. He co-founded the Social Movement with the Catholic archbishop Grégoire Haddad in 1960, participated in the Islamic-Christian dialogue in 1962, and lectured in a Capuchin Christian church during the Easter fast of 1964. He was a prominent intellectual who had mastered many languages and played an all-important role in Lebanese political life. Towards the end of August 1978, he mysteriously disappeared during a visit to Libya.

The Essence of Unity

One of the deep hopes and inner yearnings of Imam Musa Sadr was for the Islamic ummah to become united in all corners of the world. From the onset of his youth while still occupied with his studies in the seminary in Qom, he used to reflect over this quite seriously. In various gatherings of the seminary he would bring up the topic, often in the presence of senior teachers. In 1947, while not having reached his twentieth birthday, when he was informed of Allamah Amini’s arrival to Tehran from Najaf and the fact that he would be residing there for a few days, he took the opportunity to hurry to Tehran with a close friend in order to visit the Allamah. In the midst of discussing various scholarly matters with him, Imam Musa Sadr began to speak of unity between the Shias and the Sunnis, particularly in the face of a common enemy. In expounding on this topic, he defended his own positions for his teacher.[2] It is as if God had placed this yearning within his core being as a gift for the Islamic ummah.

Accordingly, years later, when Imam Musa Sadr entered Lebanon in 1959, as soon as the opportune moment presented itself in the very same year, he laid the foundations for friendship with the Ahl al-Sunnah scholars. As an example, one can mention the lasting relationship that he established with Muhyi al-Din Hasan (the Mufti of the Ahl al-Sunnah in Lebanon). This relationship became so dear and cordial that people became used to seeing the two of them together on most auspicious occasions such as the Eid of Ghadir, the nights of the month of Ramadan and the days leading up to Ashura. The two of them would ascend the pulpit[3] in a shared location such as the Qadim Mosque or the Nadi of Imam Sadiq, and the people would listen to the talks of both a Shia and a Sunni. It was such that if someone from a different city entered the gathering and was not aware of the denominational backgrounds of these two speakers, they would not be able to distinguish which of the two was Shia and which Sunni.

Imam Musa Sadr used to say, “There is no inconsistency or difference between the Shia and the Sunni. They are both the followers of one united religion.”[4] With this philosophy, he intensified his conciliatory activities in Lebanon. During his two-month visit to the countries of North Africa in the summer of 1963, in a historical and original initiative, he was able to establish long-lasting and beneficial relationships between the different Islamic centres in Egypt, Western Africa, and the Gulf states and the Shia denominational centres in Lebanon.

A Historical Letter

After the establishment of the ‘Grand Assembly of the Shias of Lebanon,’ the official inauguration day of this Assembly took place on Friday, May 23, 1969. After having welcomed and thanked the participants, Imam Musa Sadr sketched out, in a fervent speech, his program and overall plans for the Assembly. The ceremony was attended by many great academic, political, cultural, denominational, and religious personalities of Lebanon, including the then president, Mr. Charles Helou. Imam Musa Sadr laid particular emphasis on two areas of his program.

  1. Fundamental measures in order to eliminate the divisions within the Muslims and an increase in the efforts to achieve at a thorough unification, and
  2. Collaboration with all of the denominational groups of Lebanon and the attempt to preserve national unity.

In the first proclamation that was issued by the Grand Assembly after one week [of its inauguration], this program and course of action was once again stressed and publicized. It was published in most of the newspapers and distributed to all parts of Lebanon. Not sufficing himself to his speech and the issuance of this proclamation, however, Imam Musa Sadr immediately took practical steps towards this aim. In October of 1969, he wrote a historical and unparalleled letter to the then Mufti of Lebanon, Shaykh Hasan Khalid. In it, while outlining the precise and subtle points regarding unity between the schools of thought, he proposed practical and serious measures towards the advancement of this important and fateful issue. Here, we review the entire text of this letter:[5]

In the Name of Allah, the all-Merciful, the all-Compassionate

Dear Esteemed Brother, Shaykh Hasan Khalid, Respected Mufti of the Republic of Lebanon,

Peace be upon you, and the mercy of God and his grace,

With  pure  benedictions  … In  these difficult  days in  which  our ummah  has been consumed  with deep anxiety, is confronted  with dangers that have surrounded  its every part, and whose present and future finds itself before a storm, we sense—in a clear and increasing manner  with the passing of each day—the pressing need of an all- embracing, penetrative unity—a unity  that  brings together the bro- ken ranks of the Muslims as well as their scattered efforts in such a way that  they can clearly see what is before them. Through it, they can regain trust in themselves in shaping their own future and history and in carrying out their own responsibilities. Speaking with one voice, bringing together resources, and developing [mutual] talents is not only the most noble of religious objectives and the order of our great Prophet (s), but it is truly that which our very existence and honour depends on, as well as the existence of our future generations. Yes, it is certainly a question of life and death. However, this unity of voice must not become just an inflated slogan or a written catchword; rather, it must be a radiation  of thought,  a pulsation  of the heart, a course of action to follow, and a step in shaping our future. This will not be possible except through extraordinary intellectual struggle, exceptional efforts from within, and sleepless nights in toil and trouble.  It is only then that we will achieve unity, a true model that others can learn from.

My brother, let me share with you my humble experience. Before my visit to Dar al-Ifta’ four months prior, I had stated that establishing a united voice between Muslims within their minds and hearts— or to be more precise, to deepen the unity of Muslims and to establish it on an enduring intellectual and cordial basis—can be achieved in two ways:

1. Amalgamating the fiqh (canonical law)

The Islamic fortress—in its foundations—is a single entity, and the Islamic ummah—in  its beliefs, divine book, and origin and end—is also one; hence, this calls for unity even in its particulars. Establishing unity in these particulars—or rather bringing them together—is an idea which our upright predecessors and righteous scholars had also taken upon themselves. We see that Shaykh Abu Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Hasan Tusi writes the book Khilaf a thousand years ago on  the subject of comparative fiqh. ‘Allamah HillI (Hasan ibn YUsuf ibn Mutahhar) followed in the footsteps of Tusi by writing his book al-Tadhkirah.

Comparative fiqh is the very blessed seed that jurisprudential unity is tied to and which is completed with the unity of canonical law. In our  times, the  indefatigable  and  leading learned  figures from  the great Islamic scholars set up a centre in Egypt thirty years ago under the name ‘Dar al-Taqribbayn al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah’ (The House of Bringing Together the Islamic Schools of Thought). Among them were the great teacher, the late Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut and the head of the Religious Studies at Al-Azhar University, the late Muhammad MadanI. As for the great Islamic scholars from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, one can name Sayyid ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din, the late Ayatullah Sayyid Husayn BurujardI who was the grand marja’ of the Shias, the great ‘Allamah Shaykh Muhammad TaqI Qummi who was the permanent   secretary of Dar al-TaqrIb,  and  finally  ‘Allamah Tabataba’i in Qom. The Institute of Dar al-TaqrIb, in addition  to its many activities, wanted to implement  a plan which my late father, Imam  Sayyid Sadr al-Din,  initiated  by writing Liwa’  al-Hamd fI   al- akhbr al-khassah  wa al-’Ammah (The Standard of Praise in the Narrations of the Shia and the Sunni), which was an effort towards the compilation   of  all  the  ahadIth  that  the  different  Islamic  schools  of thought had narrated from the noble Prophet (s) pertaining to all the doctrinal and jurisprudential  fields. His aim was that it would act as the second source—after the  noble  Qur’an—for  the  Muslims.  In more precise terms, it is an endeavour to materialize the amalgamation of the pure Prophetic sunnah (way). On this level, some of these scholars as well as others have presented researched studies and works pertaining to fiqh and the Islamic schools of thought. Later, the time came to write an encyclopaedia of fiqh. The University of Damascus has begun the writing of al-Mawsu’ah al-fiqhiyyah  (Encyclopaedia of Jurisprudence)  while Al-Azhar University that  of al-Mawsu’ah ‘Abd  al- Nasir al-Islami (Islamic Encyclopaedia of ‘Abd al-Nasir).  Also, the great teacher, Sayyid Muhammad Taqi Hakim is in the process of compiling a valuable book on the complete principles of comparative fiqh. We are clearly witnessing the first fruits of these creative endeavours in the jurisprudential verdicts of the Islamic schools of thought—a sign which shows that we have been blessed with the help of God in taking steps towards bringing together the fiqh.

2.   Mutual Efforts

This way is more appropriate  in  exceptional conditions,  such as those which apply in Lebanon, and which gives expedited results. It involves the very mobilization  of our common resources in order to accomplish  various goals. It is a way that  will bring  about,  on  its own, the achievement of a flowing unity. The mutual efforts to join the two groups and  comrades in  one field will result in  increased trust and confidence, the tranquillity of the hearts, and the display of one of the examples of the unity of thoughts  and feelings. As examples, let us name a few of these goals:

A.  Religious  Goals: This includes  making  the  holidays  and  religious rituals one and the same such as the acts of worship like the  call for  prayers, congregational  prayers, etc. For example, with regard to the sighting of the new crescent moon,  we can study a proposal  to see if we can determine, through  scientific precision, the day of Eid by relying on new scientific ways and fixing the angle for sighting the crescent on the horizon, so that all Muslims can have their Eid on one day. This will economize many difficulties in terms of holidays and family visitations so that we do not have the issues that  arise from  having separate days for Eid. Also, we can look into whether or not there is a form for the call to prayers that is acceptable to everyone.

B.   Social Goals: Of the mutual efforts, there are those that can take shape in the form of combating illiteracy, eliminating homelessness, supporting orphans,  and raising the standard  of living of the working class. It is very easy for us to establish institutes with these goals in mind or to further  develop the institutes  that al- ready exist.

C.   National  Goals:  Is there  any doubt  regarding our  united  national sentiments: the necessity of actively participating  in liberating Palestine; the duty of supporting  Lebanon against the voraciousness of deceptive enemies; the duty of backing the freedom  fighters of Palestine; the need of a state of alertness and complete cooperation with our fellow Arab countries in the face of an offensive that can be expected at any time; the issue of se- curing southern Lebanon and all parts of Lebanon, so that like a permanent  fortress, it  can  repel Israeli infiltrations   in  its  en- counter  with it, and  through  it, can make them  consign their own insatiable colonialism to oblivion.

These are all goals for which there are no differences of opinion [amongst the  schools  of  thought],  even regarding the  smallest of them. In this condition, it is necessary to attach ourselves to these goals, to study them more closely, to determine our duties, to establish cooperation  of the efforts of all the children  of this country— first,  amongst  themselves and  amongst  the  country  officials, and then between them and the Arab countries in order to mobilize the resources of all the Muslims of the world and all those who have a conscience that is awake and well-intentioned wherever they may be. By wholeheartedly participating  in  these responsibilities—in  other words, freely giving to them to the extent we can—it behoves us that in order to actualize these matters, we must jointly study its procedures and manners of execution so that  the cooperation  in its implementation  becomes apparent and its challenges easy to deal with. These were examples that  I have proposed  to your Excellency with the hope that the issue gets studied from all its aspects and that you instruct  the formation  of a joint  committee  of experts which can immediately set to work.

My elder, before signing off on this letter, I direct your intention to the arrival of the blessed month of Ramadan. As you know, the blessed month is an incomparable opportunity to create a spiritual and energetic atmosphere so that the Muslims are able to revive once again their eternal historical  memories  and  to  renew the  scene of their own great history in these days. For this reason, I hope that you commission the custodians of Dar al-Ifta’ as soon as possible to establish contacts with the members of the Committee of Publication and Propagation of the Grand Assembly of Shias in Lebanon. Also, it should be such that a few of the active and expert mu’minin participate in the official offices of propagation  so that in the end, a complete program can be created that can generate an atmosphere in line with this great month—one  that can set alight in the hearts, flames of goodness, truthfulness,  and heroism. I pray for your wellbeing in the service of Islam and all that is good, as well as for your brothers in the Grand Assembly of Shias, and for your devoted brother,

Musa al-Sadr.
27 Rajab, 1389
19 October, 1969[6]

Unifying the Fiqh

There are two perspectives—affirmative and negative—that exist at the base level amongst  the  prominent   Islamic  personalities  (both  Shia and Sunni) related to the idea of unifying the followers of the different schools of thought.  The belief of those who subscribe to the negative perspective is based on the idea that there is absolutely no point of commonality between the Shia and the Sunni. All that is found in these two schools of thought  is completely at odds with one another  in every respect. Hence, there is no plausible reason for unity. The proponents  of this idea are in the extreme minority even though they may have chosen this perspective with good intentions  and sincerity. However, the reality is that this perspective has always been misused throughout history by the enemies of Islam and the colonialists of both the East and West. It has left many problems for the Islamic world; we shall not elaborate on these since they are quite obvious.

However, those who subscribe to the positive perspective regarding this topic have differed in terms of its means and methods; they can be divided into  a few groups. The first group is of the following opinion:  This topic has absolutely no relation to the unity of the “schools of thought”; each of these schools of thought  must preserve their own fundamental and subsidiary doctrines. It is only the followers of the schools of thought  that, while preserving the fundamental  and subsidiary doctrines of their own school, must  unite  with the followers of the other  schools. This perspective was considered necessary by Imam Musa al-Sadr, but never sufficient. Moreover, at the level of action, it would bring about a series of obstacles and challenges that would inhibit the materialization of unity.

Another group is of the belief that all of the Islamic schools of thought are obliged to do the following: while safeguarding their own denominational  essence, they should  endeavour in  the points  of commonality  between the different schools. Of course, many great and blessed strides have been taken in this direction: the late Shaykh Tusi (r) composed the valuable book, Khilaf, ‘Allamah Hilli authored  the book, Tadhkirah, and today important  books on the topic of ‘comparative fiqh’ are being written by capable Shia and Sunni thinkers. This perspective, however, with all the importance that it  carries, primarily  involves the scholars and  thinkers  and  is contained within scholarly gatherings; it does not have a reality within the masses of people whose numbers range in the millions.

The third  group, whose vanguard is most probably Imam Musa al-Sadr, while respecting the proponents  of the previous perspectives and their followers, consider them as necessary but insufficient. It is for this reason that Musa al-Sadr raises the idea of unifying the fiqh. He says, “The Islamic for- tress—in its foundations—is  a single entity, and the Islamic ummah—in its beliefs, divine book, and origin and end—is also one; hence, this calls for unity even in its particulars.”[7]


[1] The biographical part of this article was taken from al-Manar Television. The remainder was adapted from the author’s book, Imam Musa Sadr:  Surush-e wahdat, Majma’ Jahani-ye TaqrIb-e Madhahib-e Islami, 2004.

[2] Nameh MufId, no. 16, p. 13 as narrated by Ayatullah MusawI ArdabIlI who was present in this gathering.

[3] al-Imam al-Sadr wa al-Hawar, Markaz al-Imam al-Sadr li al-Bahath wa al-Darasat, Beirut, 1418 H., p. 29.

[4] Ibid

[5] The Arabic text of this letter has been published through the efforts of Husayn Sharaf al- Din in Abjadiyyat al-Hawar, p. 159.

[6] Journal  of Surush, No. 161, Year 4, p. 34.

[7] From the letter to Shaykh Hasan Khalid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

19 − 18 =