Sadr, Muqtada al- (1973–)

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Sadr, Muqtada al-

Muqtada (Moqtada) al-Sadr, a mid-level Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, has gained political influence in post-saddam hussein Iraq, making him a household name throughout the Muslim world.


Sadr is the heir to a series of leading religious scholars. His uncle and father-in-law, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, is considered one of the most respected Shi'ite intellectuals of the past century. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was the spiritual leader of the Islamic resistance to the authoritarian rule in Iraq from the 1950s until his execution by Hussein's government in 1980. Muqtada al-Sadr's own father, Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was an exemplary figure as well. He gained visibility at the height of Hussein's oppressive rule in the late 1990s. He revived the tradition of the Friday prayer and used the sermons as a mobilizing device to create a network that consistenly challenged, and raised the ire of, Hussein's government. After several unheeded warnings, he was assassinated with two of his sons in February 1999. He was survived by one son, Muqtada.

The Sadr network displayed no visible activity between the 1999 assassinations and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, Sadr inherited a network of charities, soup kitchens, and schools as well as the loyalty of his father's disciples. Most importantly, he gained the privilege of representing the Sadr family. To their detriment, policy makers intent on rebuilding Iraq ignored the Sadr movement in the early days of the occupation and instead focused on exile groups, such as the Iraqi National Congress, returning to Iraq from the West or countries in the region. As events unfolded, the Sadr movement proved to be the most formidable political and social group in the new Iraq. As all attempts failed to combat their influence, Sadr and his disenchanted loyalists became the kingmakers of Iraq. With thirty seats in the legislature—the largest faction within the dominant bloc in the parliament—they had the final word on the nomination of the prime minister after the first constitutional elections in December 2005 and gained six ministries in the cabinet.


The first glimpse of Sadr's power involved his decision in 2003 to continue his father's rivalry with the religious establishment in Najaf, the Hawza. Ayatullah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr had criticized the Hawza for its decades-long political quietism, branding his style as the 'Vocal Hawza,' in a clear contempt of the existing body. In April of that year, Sadr's loyalists surrounded the home of Iraq's leading cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatullah ALI AL-SISTANI. For the first time, the issue of clerics' nationality was brought to the fore—the Sadr family is Arab—noting, perhaps accurately, that those Iranian clerics did not feel the pain of the Iraqis or even care enough to take interest in their affairs. What Sadr and his followers failed to estimate was the level of support Sistani had in Iraq, especially among the tribes who sent their fighters to Najaf to protect Sistani and the other grand ayatullahs.


Name: Muqtada al-Sadr

Birth: c. 1973, Najaf, Iraq

Family: Married to the daughter of legendary Shi'ite scholar Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: Iraqi public schools; some traditional religious learning


  • 2003: Founded the Mahdi Army; leader of the Sadr Movement

Another problem also faced Sadr that he could never overcome—he is only a junior cleric needing several decades of additional study to advance any claim for replacing Sistani. Ethnic and other prejudices notwithstanding, the sole criterion for acquiring religious authority in the Shi'ite community is knowledge, traditionally acquired by many decades of studying and teaching in the religious seminary, the Hawza. In addition to his youth and lack of important credentials, Sadr also failed to receive the backing of his father's disciples who possess the necessary background for such a position, an individual such as Ayatullah Kazim al-Ha'iri.

These setbacks in the religious arena did not end Sadr's ambitions. Thanks to the imprudence of the occupation officials and the key figures in post-Hussein era—both Iraqi and Americans—Sadr became a political leader with a strong power base. He has the loyalty of wide segments of disenchanted Iraqis for whom the regime change did not bring any benefits. In some areas, their lives became worse.

The base of support for Sadr is comprised of a multitude of Iraqi communities both impoverished and politically excluded during Hussein's rule and in the new era. The main stronghold of support is the large section of Baghdad, originally known as al-Thawra City, now renamed as Sadr City—after Sadr's family. Sadr City has a population of more than 1.5 million people, the largest community in Baghdad. Loyalty for Sadr can also be found in Basra and Kufa, the former being the second largest city in today's Iraq and the latter was the capital of Islam (656-661), and he continues to attract the spotlight. Kufa's main mosque was particularly associated with the Sadr Movement because it witnessed the rise of Sadr's father. He gave his famous forty-five Friday sermons in as many weeks before his assassination.

Sadr tested his support by calling for the establishment of a doctrinal army, which he called Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The army of Imam al-Mahdi). The first unit was declared ready on 6 October 2003. There is no precise estimate of this army's troop count, its actual structure, or discipline. Estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000 active participants, as well as large numbers of followers and sympathizers. While they may not pose a real threat for U.S. forces, they are more than a match for any Iraqi force or the militias of the competing factions.


Sadr's image around the world differs depending one's views and attitudes toward the U.S. involvement in Iraq. For opponents of the occupation and the ensuing process, Sadr and his Mahdi Army represent the natural reaction to a heavy-handed occupying force that caused the destruction of Iraq and the death of an untold number of Iraqis. Within the U.S. camp, he is seen as a young, firebrand cleric whose anti-U.S. activities subvert the prospects of democracy in Iraq. In this sense, U.S. officials view Sadr and the Mahdi Army in a manner similar to the Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

In Iraq this binary view becomes a threefold complex. Shi'ites supporting the U.S. position agree about the threat Sadr poses, and they see him as a formidable rival in the fight for the leadership of the Shi'ite community. They do, however, work and negotiate with him. Some Shi'ite leaders find the existence of Sadr as a blessing in disguise, as he makes them appear as moderates to Americans.


Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (1950–) is the son of the late Grand Ayatullah Muhsin al-Hakim (d. 1970) and the current leader of the family. Following in the footsteps of his father and older brothers, he was educated in the traditional institution of religious education in his Iraqi native city, Najaf. He was imprisoned and persecuted under the regime of Hussein, and he managed to escape to Iran in 1980. He was a founding member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), founded in Iran in 1982 by his older brother, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. Hakim became the leader of the Badr Brigade, the military wing of SCIRI.

SCIRI returned to Iraq when Hussein's regime ended in 2003, and it became one of the competing parties for the Shi'ite political leadership. It worked with U.S. officials as a representative of the Shi'ite community in the political process. Unlike the Sadr Movement, SCIRI did establish contacts with U.S. officials before the invasion, which it considered as a necessary evil after all other options to change the regime through national struggle failed. Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim declined to take a political position in 2003 and allowed Hakim to become one of the twenty-five members of the Governing Council appointed by the U.S. Administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer.

Like Sadr, Hakim came to the leadership of the SCIRI after the violent death of his older brother, who had created the power base. On 29 August 2003, a massive bomb exploded near the side of Imam Ali's shrine in Najaf, taking the life of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and many other worshipers as they left the shrine following the Friday prayer. Hakim succeeded his brother as the leader of SCIRI. After the Iraqi elections of January 2005, he became the leader of the largest bloc in the Iraqi Parliament.

The Sunnis of Iraq like Sadr's positions against the U.S. presence in Iraq and appreciate the Arab nationalist flavor of his movement, as opposed to the perceived pro-Iranian positions of the other Shi'ite leaders in Iraq. However, such favorable view of his positions will not lead to full reconciliation of Sunnis and Sadr's efforts. To them, he is a Shi'ite first and foremost, a barrier impossible to overcome. Even if some form of reconciliation had seemed a possibility in the past, the utterance by Shiqite onlookers of his name three times prior to the execution of Hussein has destroyed any possibility that existed.

For the Shi'ite masses in Iraq, Sadr and the Mahdi Army are either a menace whose abuse and encroachments on their liberties cause repulsion and misery or a better alternative to everything offered thus far. The latter view is particularly true in areas where Sadr's fighters are the thin line between the Shi'ites and Sunni death squads. The Sadr Movement also operates a very successful charitable network in many areas of Iraq, delivering what the government fails to provide. In this sense, he has made a good name for himself because of the incompetence of his opponents.


In the rapid course of events following the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, Sadr was placed in a position well beyond his previous level of responsibilty. After a few blunders and miscalculations, he learned how to operate more effectively within Iraq's political and military environment. He, however, is far from being secure. His ambition is perhaps more than what the Iraqi circumstances may allow. Sadr aspires to play the role similar to that of Hizbullah's leader, hasan nasrallah, in Lebanon. While possible, the current Iraq is not Lebanon and Sadr is not Nasrallah, making this desire problematic.

To build his legacy, Sadr first must accomplish achievements deemed worthy of his family's heritage. He is seen as merely riding on the coattails of accomplishments of his father and uncle, the legendary scholars and martyrs. He also must survive the murky political conditions of Iraq that always have proved deadly for his type of overconfident leaders.


Interview with CBC News on 6 April 2004.

Jabar, Faleh. The Shi'ite Movement in Iraq. Beruit: Saqi Books, 2003.

Kadhim, Abbas. "Into the Breach." Al-Ahram Weekly (August 12, 2004).

Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Rosen, Nir. "America's Unlikely Savior." Salon. 3 February 2006.

Sadr, al-Muqtada. A collection of audiotape speeches and interviews given by Muqtada al-Sadr. Available from

                                         Abbas Kadhim