Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr was amongst the greatest thinkers, philosophers and religious scholars in the last century. His writings and his leadership inspired generations of Iraqis to resist oppression and fight for freedom. He challenged not only those who suppress religion, but also the so-called religious who suppress critical thought and development. It was he who was the driving force behind the creation of the Islamic Dawa Party.
Mohammad Baqir Al-Sadr was born in Kadhimiya, Baghdad, on 1st March 1935. At the age of two, his father, the scholar Haider Al-Sadr, died. After completing primary school in Kadhimiya, Al-Sadr and his family moved to Najaf in 1945, where he spent the rest of his life. He joined the Hawza (seminary of Islamic studies) 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. During these years Al-Sadr published some of his most celebrated works, including ‘Our philosophy’ and ‘Our Economy’, which remain influential in many circles, including foreign governments.
In 1957, Al-Sadr and a number of other scholars established the Islamic Dawa Party (IDP). To this day, his writings remain among the main sources for the Party’s inspiration, in particular the Party’s political ideology based on Wilayat Al-Umma (Governance of the people). Al-Sadr and other IDP members continued their educational work at a time of increasing communist activity, organizing lectures and social events for the public.
In the early seventies, Al-Sadr realized the dangers posed by the Baath regime for Iraq. He remained fearless and steadfast, continuing his educational programmes and activities. On the other hand, the Baath regime also realized the importance of Al-Sadr and his effect on the Iraqi people, therefore using all possible means to halt his activities. His arrests were inevitable. He was arrested in 1971, 1974, 1977 and in 1979. They also arrested and executed many of his students and colleagues as Saddam Hussain himself ordered the immediate arrest and execution of all IDP members. The 1979 arrest brought about many demonstrations and anger from the Iraqi people, forcing the regime to release Al-Sadr from prison and placing him under house arrest. After spending a few months under house arrest, he was finally arrested on the 5th April 1980, when he and his sister, Amina Al-Sadr, were taken and never seen alive thereafter. After days of torture, they were both executed on 9th April 1980. Al-Sadr’s graveyard now stands in holy city of Najaf.
In the last months before his execution, Al-Sadr famously delivered three important ‘Calls’ or sermons to the Iraqi people. Whilst being short in length, they covered many aspects, from the need for all Iraqi religious sects and ethnicities to unite in the battle for freedom, to his attempts to cause splits within the Baath party ranks and to win the support of moderate members from the lower echelons.
Five key themes can be extracted:
1. His outspokenness against the oppressive and dictatorial rule of Saddam
2. His calls for establishing democracy, and granting freedom and human rights to the Iraqi people
3. His calls for a united opposition from all segments of the Iraqi population
4. His appeal to low-ranking Baath party members
5. His pledge to continue his emphatic opposition despite the death threats he received from Saddam
Speaking against Oppression and Dictatorship
Imam Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr’s and Dawa’s struggle against the Baathist regime centred on the oppressive and totalitarian nature of Saddam’s rule. Al-Sadr continuously called for an end to the ruthless tools of oppression utilised by Al-Mukhabart (The Iraqi intelligence unit), and to the dictatorial rule imposed on the Iraqi people.
In his ‘First Call’, he warned:
“And I would like to reiterate that this regime that was forced upon with the force of fire and steel on the Iraqi people and which denied them some of their most basic rights and freedoms…will not continue”
This was manifested in a challenge which he offered directly and which was of course refused:
“And if the ruling elite wanted to know the real face of the Iraqi people, let them freeze all their tools of oppression and let them allow the people to express themselves freely for one week only!”
Calling for Democracy, Freedom and Human Rights
Instead of a Baathist regime which denied Iraqis their most fundamental freedoms and rights, Al-Sadr envisioned a free and democratic Iraq. His opposition to the regime culminated in his advocacy of such a vision and his direct calls to that effect.
Thus, in his ‘First Call’, he called for the holding of free and fair elections:
“And I call you (members of the ruling Baath regime) to stop the forcing of people to join the Baath party on all levels. In the name of human dignity and rights, I call on you to release all those imprisoned arbitrarily… in your name and all those you represent, I call on you to give the Iraqi nation the freedom to fulfil its right to run its affairs through holding free and fair elections and which results in the formation of a parliament that is truly representative of all of Iraq.”
A unified people, a unified opposition
From his early days of activism on the social and political level, Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr sought to appeal to all Iraqi groupings, regardless of which sect, ethnicity, or tribe they belonged to, or whether they were religious or secular. This was manifested in much of his writings and speeches, where he addressed Iraqis without prejudice or distinction. This was to become the mission of the Islamic Dawa Party when it was formed, and through the party and through keynote speeches, Al-Sadr sought to inspire a united opposition from all Iraqis.
In his ‘Third Call’, he tried to expose Saddam’s strategy of trying to paint himself as the leader of Iraqi Sunnis:
“The tyrant Saddam and his followers are trying to persuade our sons from the Sunna that the question is one about Shia’s and Sunnis, and are trying to separate the Sunna away from their real fight against our common enemy (dictatorship).”
He thus called on all Iraqi people to unite as one in opposing Saddam arguing that this was the only way Iraqis can win back their freedoms and rights and reclaim the dignity of their country that had been ravaged by Saddam’s Baath party.
“Oh my dear people of Iraq, Oh great nation, as I call on you in these times of great adversity, I am calling on all, from Arabs to Kurds, Shias and Sunnis. For our struggle is not restricted to any one sect over another, or any one ethnicity over another- it is a struggle for all the Iraqi people and so it is for all of Iraq that we must stand together, brave and defiant”
Outreach to Baath party members
Imam Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr worked to separate lower-ranking members of the Baath party from senior members responsible for much of the machinery of government including Al-Mukhabarat in an attempt to create dissent amongst party ranks and cause Saddam to loosen his grip on his party. Thus, even in his third and what ultimately was his last call to the Iraqi people, he appealed to these members saying:
“These tyrants have insulted even the dignity of the Arab Socialist Baath movement, having worked to transform it from an ideological movement and party to a gang which recruits members and inspires allegiance through force and hatred…They have felt afraid of even their own party, which they claim to represent. They have felt afraid from it if it were to remain a true party with its bases among the population. This is why they are destroying its base of support and supplanting it with torture and hatred so that it loses any ideological content.”
Continuing the struggle
Imam Mohammed Bair Al-Sadr recognised very clearly that his continued opposition to Saddam, and his open criticism of the regime’s denial of rights and freedoms to the Iraqi people would ultimately cost him his life. But rather than be silenced, he chose to continue and to make from the continued threats he received personally from Saddam and Uday a point of inspiration, rather than trepidation. It is Saddam who is afraid, he said time and time again: for why else did he want us silenced?
This theme was common in all of his three calls:
“I am aware that these requests will cost me dearly, and may cost me my life, but these requests are the feelings of a nation, the demands of a nation and the will of a nation that cannot die.”
(Extract from his ‘First Call’)
He also believed that it was the responsibility of all Iraqis like himself to continue the struggle for freedom and a rule based on the Islamic principles of liberty, equality and justice:
“It is the duty of every Iraqi in or outside Iraq to give everything he has, and even if it may cost him his life, for the sake of continuing the struggle against the nightmare which has befallen on the heart of beloved Iraq, and liberating it from this inhumane gang and providing virtuous and honourable governance based on the values and principles of Islam.”
(Extract from his ‘Second Call’)
Sadr’s last words to the Iraqi people
Imam Al-Sadr 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.”
(Final Words, Third Call)