The Sadrist trend: class struggle, millenarianism and fitna

LITTLE WAS KNOWN about the phenomenon which we now call “sadrism”, and which originated in the movement created by Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr[1] during the 1990s, until the emergence on the Iraqi political stage of the Ayatollah’s son Muqtadâ al-Sadr, shortly after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The extreme polysemy of the phenomenon, described by Pierre-Jean Luizard, complicates our understanding of it.

It is not based on the principle of marja’iyya – Muqtadâ neither possessing the legitimacy nor controlling the institutional apparatus on which the marja’iyya is founded – and it is does not conform to the notion of a party, as it lacks both a programmatic ideology and formalized structures of decision-making and hierarchic integration. Rather, it is characterised by a charismatic figure employing a combination of heterogeneous forms of legitimization, among which: lineage, mobilisation of popular millenarian sentiments, traditional forms of populism, clientelist techniques, and a set of oppositions (to Persia, to the politicians returned from exile, to the quietist marja’, to the occupying forces and their collaborators, to the saddâmiyîn, takfîriyîn and nawâsib[2]). Around this figurehead orbits a constellation of “sadrists”, whose actions often seem to contradict the words of their declared leader (qâ’id).

From a certain point of view, the sadrist phenomenon does follow an apparently continuous and rational trajectory, moving from verbally denouncing the occupation to armed confrontation to it, followed by the subtle juxtaposition of different registers (virulent preaches, unclaimed attacks, and measured participation in the political process and in the government). Yet this transformation did not give rise to the formulation of a political vision. It rather appeared to be the ongoing refinement of a strategy solidly anchored in the present. The latter’s illegibility leads the movement to invent itself first and foremost through its own dynamics. Incidentally, the gradual transition from violence directed against the coalition to massive sectarian violence contradicts two pillars of the sadrist discourse, Arab identity and Iraqi unity. On the whole, no evolution is observed in terms of overcoming these contradictions, which make sense to the degree in which they ensure, in the present situation, the cohesion and durability of the movement.

We will therefore talk here of the “sadrist trend”[3], defined as a group of actors whose coordination is determined not so much by formal ideological or organizational structures than by a rather loose frame of reference that will have to be defined. The challenge thus consists of “solidifying” the sadrist phenomenon by uncovering the foundations of its cohesion.[4] This approach confronts us at once with the limits of an analysis in purely organisational or structural terms, although that is the approach observers have often intuitively chosen: for some, the rapid rise of the phenomenon is explained by the “apparatus” built by his father and which Muqtadâ supposedly inherited, an apparatus presumed to have continued working clandestinely up to the fall of regime, although its destruction is in fact established.[5] Muqtadâ’s financial resources have equally been the object of exaggerated attention, representing at best only a marginal factor of cohesion. Finally, a quest for the ” advisers in the shadows” – invoking the device of an unfathomable strategy – has sometimes been substituted for the necessary examination of the fluidity and the fundamentally unresolved contradictions which characterise the sadrist trend.

In order to historicise the phenomenon, it has proven useful to approach it from several, quite different angles. First, we have to re-situate the phenomenon in the context of a theological debate which has progressively evolved from appraising the role of the marja‘ to challenging the social order incarnated and perpetuated by the hawza.

Secondly, it is necessary to underline the coherence of the sadrist social base, which constitutes a real class, as a key factor of cohesion. Thirdly, the emergence of sadrism is to be connected to a specific opportunity structure, which entails seeing the fluctuating and dynamic field of sadrist contestation as engaged in a dialectical relationship with other fields – including a wider, more complex and itself largely undetermined Middle Eastern Shia space. Finally, from a fourth angle, the question of the resources of the sadrist tendency will be shown to present a strange parallel with the phenomenon of the “Fidâ’iyû Saddam”,[6] which thus revealing the importance of social disintegration dynamics which started under the former regime.

A word of caution is nevertheless warranted. Combining these various frames of analysis has the advantage of making sense of the sadrist trend by clarifying its origins and the processes of its formation; but the fact remains that such a phenomenon invents itself in the uncertainty of an un-divinable future, and in constant interaction with an environment itself ever-shifting. To rationalise sadrism should not obscure, as a principle, the indecisiveness of political actors. Making sense of the sadrist phenomenon at a specific moment in time in no way authorises to foretell its meaning in the longer term. Historicising the implications of the fleeting mobilisation triggered by Muqtadâ’s father can really only attempted today. The pitfalls of instant analysis of ongoing phenomena need therefore be borne in mind.

The theological background

The opposition which has arisen between, on the one hand, the so-called “quietist” or “traditional” school (al-madrasa al-taqlîdiyya), represented by the marja‘ of Najaf (‘Ali al-Sîstânî, Muhammad Ishâq al-Fayyâd, Muhammad Sâ’id al-Hakîm, Bashîr al-Najafî) and, on the other, the sadrist trend, derives from a theological debate on the legitimate powers held by the mujtahid while the Imâm al-Mahdî remains occulted, and specifically on precise issues related to collecting religious taxes, leading the Friday prayer, declaring jihad, etc. This highly complex debate, drawn out over a long period of time, cannot in any meaningful way be elaborated; moreover it affects the opposition between sadrists and “quietists” only in an extremely simplified form. In practice, it is mostly a product of the controversy engendered in the late 1960s by the work done by Ayatollah Muhammad Bâqir al-Sadr, great-uncle of Muqtadâ, and Ayatollah Khomeini on the concept of wilâyat al-faqîh, which deeply structures and divides the Shia theological field today. While their work was intimately connected with the rich historical debate mentioned above, at the level of popular representations it has mostly resulted in a binary opposition between the “quietist”, essentially invisible, marja‘ and the islamist activism embodied by Muhammad Bâqir al-Sadr.[7]

For the needs of our analysis of the sadrist phenomenon, the latter’s line of thought can be brought down to its twofold revolutionary character. On the one hand, it advocates the rejection of oppression, which constitutes a remarkable break with the long Shia tradition of acceptance and adaptation, notably through the principle of dissimulation (taqiyya). The development of elites and their organisation into a party apparatus along the lines of the communist and baathist paradigms makes it possible to overthrow of the political system by mobilising the masses, as expressed in the famous slogan “the masses are stronger than the oppressors”.[8] On the other hand, his thinking is revolutionary in the sense that it radically transforms the status and functions of the marja‘.[9]

Asserting the principle of wilâyat al-faqîh first led to a schism within the hawza of Najaf,[10] and later to a stark divergence in the trajectories followed by the Iraqi and Iranian Shia worlds. While the islamist republic model bloomed in Iran, the systematic suppression by Saddam Hussein’s regime, from 1979 until the mid-1980s, of Shia islamism in any form or shape reduced the Iraqi theological field to its “quietist” dimension, even as it exacerbated its traditional characteristics, particularly the marja‘’s detachment from the wider population.

A shift in the Iraqi regime’s policy at the beginning of the 1990s is what enabled the revival in Iraq of an activist current of thought, largely inspired by the works of Muhammad Bâqir and carried by Muqtadâ’s father.[11] But Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr introduced three important innovations, however, the examination of which is necessary to understand the sadrist phenomenon.

A nationalist anchoring – While Muhammad al-Sadr certainly appropriated the principle of wilâyat al-faqîh, as well as the khomeinist claim to a state of gnosis (‘irfân), which founds a hermeneutical communication with the eclipsed imam, he turned to his advantage the distinction between wilâya ‘âmma (applying to all the believers) and wilâya khâssa (applying only to a given territory); he could thus inscribe his own action in a nationalist perspective by defying both the temporal authority of Saddam Hussein and the spiritual authority of the successor to Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamenei. This break with Iran translated into the immediate expulsion of his representatives, following al-Sadr’s proclamation of wilâyat al-faqîh over Iraq, from the holy places in Iran. His falling out of favour with the Iraqi regime, which had initially supported him, was rather more progressive, but finally resulted in his assassination in 1999.[12] The point of no return in his relations with the Iraqi authorities was reached with the reintroduction of what Sâdiq al-Sadr called al-fatwâ al-mu’attala (“the suspended fatwa”), that is to say the politico-religious Friday sermon (al-khutba).[13]

A subversion of the hawza – The confrontation between Muhammad al-Sadr and the other Ayatollahs of the hawza of Najaf was based on the opposition he construed between a hawza sâmita or sâkita (dumb, silent) and a hawza nâtiqa (active, eloquent).[14] He accused the Ayatollahs of the hawza sâmita of having retreated into an ivory tower, limiting their activities to devising obscure rulings on trivial religious rituals,[15] and consequently not only leaving the Shia population ignorant of the foundations of its own religion, but contributing to its oppression through tacit complicity with the regime. He therefore undercut the very bases of these Ayatollahs’ legitimacy, notably the principles of invisibility, erudition and co-option. Muhammad al-Sadr construed the invisibility of the Ayatollahs – whose silence and inaccessibility inspired respect in the believers while maintaining the myth of their infallibility – as a form of cowardice, weakness, and even corruption.[16] For al-Sadr, erudition, the conditio sine qua non to become a marja‘ according to tradition, needed to be combined with, or even relegated behind other criteria, namely the candidate’s Arab identity and activism.[17] Finally, while the legitimacy of a marja‘ had until then been a product of co-option among peers, al-Sadr did not hesitate to proclaim himself supreme marja‘ and walî faqîh, and then institute a testamentary system conceived to prevent his supporters, upon his death, from turning to a marja‘ belonging to the hawza sâmita.[18]

A form of populism – Muhammad al-Sadr strove to establish a direct connection with the Shia population, based on the marja‘’s accessibility,[19] the re-institution of al-fatwâ al-mu’attala and a discourse which addressed the concerns of the masses and resonated with popular feelings. As a result he allowed for tribal traditions (notably in his famous work Fiqh al-‘ashâ’ir) and popular religious practices,[20] which he combined with an all-out denunciation of the forms and forces of oppression (virulent anti-zionism and anti-imperialism, audacious criticism of the Saddam Hussein’s regime, rejection of Iranian domination, etc.) and a millenarist promise of eschatological fulfilment, which underlies many of his writings.[21] At stake is no longer the foundation of an alternative, islamist regime, but laying the groundwork for the return of the Mahdî, through the immediate – i.e. without any elite’s intercession – edification of the “popular bases”. This vision is a novelty in Middle Eastern, twentieth century revolutionary traditions: the overthrow of the existing order does not aim at opening a new era, but at closing history by preparing for the last judgment. His claim to a gnostic state of consciousness implied moreover that he himself was worthy of identification with the Imâm al-Mahdî, which generated widespread rumours which he was careful not to deny. This mahdist discourse of Muhammad al-Sadr specifically addressed the element of Iraq’s Shia population likely to be most sensitive to it. He thus opened the doors of the hawza to categories of youngsters which were previously excluded from it: his representative in Basra, for example, ‘Abd al-Sattâr al-Bahâdili, had exercised the particularly despicable trade of popular singer before entering the circle of his students.[22]

These innovations in part explain the theological liberties which the sadrist trend later indulged in, notably the emphasis on militancy and millenarianism as principles of legitimisation, to the detriment of the marja‘iyya as an institution. Also flows from them the partial respect for the designated successor to Muqtadâ’s father, Ayatollah Kâzim al-Hâ’ irî, who is based in Qom. While he allows the movement to cultivate a measure of continuity with Muhammad al-Sadr, he is not seen as a leader by the sadrists, who only apply those of his fatwas which suit them, such as his 2003 fatwa legalising the assassination of baathists.[23]

The sociology of a social movement

In his efforts to build up his “popular bases”, Muhammad al-Sadr focused overtly on specific regions. His discourse notably attached particular importance to the inhabitants of the huge Shia district of al-Thawra or “Saddam City” in Baghdad, as well as those of the governorate of Maysân (also called al-‘Amâra, after the name of its biggest city). He appropriated the famous slogan of Muhammad Bâqir, “The revolution starts in al-Thawra” (al-thawra tantaliq min al-thawra). In his Encyclopaedia of the Imâm al-Mahdî, he points out that most of the supporters of the awaited Mahdî would be descendants of the tribes of al-‘Amâra, which in fact provided the largest contingents of the population of Saddam City – renamed Sadr City after the fall of the regime. Today these are the two sadrist power bases, Maysân being the only governorate where the sadrists have won a majority in the local elections of early 2005.

From a sociological point of view, the geography of the sadrist phenomenon partly coincides with a fundamental divide within the Iraqi Shia population, which in a quasi-Marxist analysis can be described in terms of a “class struggle”. The opposition is between, on the one hand, conservative Shia constituencies – an alliance formed by the religious elite of Najaf, the commercial middle classes thriving on pilgrimage to the holy places, the tribes historically linked to the hawza by a high level of interrelation (geographical nearness, participation in the pilgrimage trade, etc.) and finally a privileged category made out of descendants of the prophet or sâda[24]  – and, on the other hand, an oppressed and revolutionary class. It is useful at this point to qualify the collective experience of the latter class and describe its composition. In order to do so, one must adopt a historical perspective and, again, look at the phenomenon from different angles.

The tribes of al-‘Amâra, and more generally all the tribes living in the south-eastern marshes of Iraq, have developed over time a very specific identity,[25] as a result of their lifestyle , their “remoteness”, and the way they are perceived by other segments of Iraqi society. Insulated from the institutions based in the holy sanctuaries from which radiated an orthodox and highly theorised Shiism, they cultivated popular forms of religiosity which gave precedence to rituals such as Ashura or Arba‘în over some “pillars of Islam”, notably the five daily prayers and Ramadan.[26] These divergences naturally provoked the ire and contempt of the religious authorities of Najaf.  Adding to these prejudices negative perceptions were attached to their “archaic” way of life[27], and more importantly the subordinate position to which they were confined in the traditional tribal hierarchy. In early twentieth century Iraq, a hierarchic classification on the basis of “nobility” still predominated, which ranked the Bedouin tribes (al-badû) at the top, followed in descending order by the semi-nomadic sheep breeders, the settled farmers, and finally the buffalo breeders dwelling in the marshes. The low status of the marsh tribes translated in the nationalist era into a recurrent questioning of their Arab identity (they were often accused of being of Persian or even Indian origin) which explains the of Muhammad al-Sadr and his son’s insistence on that Arab identity.

The end of the Ottoman era, and even more so the ensuing monarchy, witnessed a spectacular transformation of the tribal world, marked by the emergence of a tribal elite and landed capitalism which plunged subsistence farmers and breeders into a state of impoverishment and servitude.[28] This in turn brought about a rural exodus which affected the tribes of al-‘Amâra especially, whose clansmen moved in throngs into large shanty towns at the periphery of big cities, mostly Baghdad. These sarâyif[29], by keeping their inhabitants in a position both economically deprived and socially inferior, merely generated an urban version of the subordinate condition these tribes endured in the countryside. Moreover, they locked their population into cultivating their cultural specificities –  each tribe incidentally concentrating in a particular quarter. Finally, the short distance that separated these shanty towns from the centres of power and habitat of the ruling elite, combined with their chaotic fabric, caused to be seen as hotbeds of volatile dissension. In that sense, they formed spaces of political and social exclusion, as well as incubators for a specific urban identity which came to be known under the derogatory term of shrûgi[30].

From 1958 onwards, the sarâyif’s urbanisation under the republican regime of general Qâsim – designed mostly to facilitate control over these shanty towns restructured into inhabitable quarters separated by broad arteries – produced the belt of popular neighbourhoods that now surround the centre of Baghdad. This reorganisation, however, did little to alter their “insular” character, isolated as they were from the rest of Baghdadi society. The official street names in al-Thawra, for example, never replaced the local practice of naming quarters after the tribes that moved into them. In the 1970s and 1980s, the process of national construction initiated by the Saddam Hussein’s regime of certainly contributed to a relative opening up of the marshes and the former sarâyif – again for purposes of control, of course, this time complemented by a considerable effort at development and social integration. This drive, however, came up against a tradition of defiance toward the central power going back to the Ottoman era, which made the marshes and al-Thawra a haven for deserters and all who refused conscription, notably during the war against Iran. It miscarried as the national construction project itself was aborted, to be replaced by a process of anomisation of Iraqi society[31] and the disposal, in the late 1980s, of the welfare state model of social organisation.[32]

Another factor to keep in mind is the destruction, owing to regime policies, of all non-state organisational structures within Iraq’s Shia population. The systematic suppression of Shia islamism inspired by Muhammad Bâqir and the hawza’s retreat from public life left the Shia population to its own devices. This phenomenon was particularly acute among remote tribes and in underprivileged urban circles. Supporters of the sadrist trend, whether they were tribe leaders in al-‘Amâra or inhabitants of al-Thawra, readily admitted being unfamiliar with the concepts of hawza and marja’iyya until the advent of Muhammad al-Sadr, who in the 1990s managed to restore the link between Najaf and those who would be turned into his “popular bases”. Besides, the silence of the so-called “quietist” Ayatollahs in the face of the Shia islamist movement’s eradication in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and again during the bloody repression of the 1991 uprisings, contributed to forge a decisive collective experience, grounded in the rejection of representatives of a school of thought perceived to have turned their backs on Shia sufferings. Quite symptomatically, the riots following operation Desert Storm  mobilised mostly a young generation of underprivileged Shia urbanites, whose incoherent behaviour can be explained to a great extent precisely by this absence of organisational structures.

Finally, the regime’s mutation around the 1991 war, from a model verging on totalitarianism to a system whose far narrower ambition was to manage social dynamics with the single objective of the maintaining power,[33] opened large swathes of autonomy for the expression of the specific collective identity attached to the category of population examined here. The regime’s hold on territory was reduced strictly to its most coercive forms, aimed at countering any decisive threat to the security of the power structure. At the same time the regime accommodated the resurgence of tribal traditions and tolerated acts of insubordination as long as they did not undermine its vital interests. Saddam City also witnessed the development of a particularly vigorous “underground culture”.[34]

Thus come together the outlines of the specific collective experience which underpins the cohesion of what Muqtadâ’s father called his “popular bases”. The mobilisation he inspired in the1990s can therefore be understood in terms of ” political opportunity structure”: potential for mobilisation existed within a context which enabled Muhammad al-Sadr to adroitly exploit it. Mahdism served as a means to rehabilitate a widely denigrated popular identity and tie it to the promise of eschatological revenge. The discourse of the Ayatollah also resonated with the tribal origins and bonds of these “popular bases”. His efforts to establish a social link between the hawza and the Shia population could not but have an immediate appeal in this context of deep anomie. Finally, in the absence of mobilizing structures of an islamist type, forthright confrontation with oppressors of all shapes and forms – be it imperialist America, Israel, Iran, right up to de facto complicity between “quietists” and tyrant – asserted itself as a new modality of political expression. This point is extremely important, given that the specific modalities – of mahdist inspiration – of Muhammad al-Sadr’s defiance of the regime were an essential element of his popularity.[35]

The nature of the repression suffered by Muhammad al-Sadr’s entourage in 1998 and 1999 is yet another  factor to be taken into account in the subsequent emergence of the sadrist tendency. As, unlike the islamist movements of the 1970s and early 1980s, there was no militant base for the regime to eradicate, it contented itself with the decapitation of the movement and the dispersion of its supporters. The potential of mobilisation therefore remained intact. One last factor remains to be analysed hereafter, namely the generational dimension of the sadrist trend, which essentially mobilises within a generation of young, underprivileged, urbanized Shia.

The analysis in terms of fields

The pre-existence of this mobilization potential hardly suffices to explain either the emergence of Muqtadâ or the particular form the sadrist phenomenon has taken on. The continuity between Muhammad al-Sadr and Muqtadâ wasn’t self-obvious, given the son’s weak qualifications with regard to the traditional requirements for a leading religious role in the Shia world. Lineage did not in itself constitute a sufficient source of legitimacy, although, in Muqtadâ’s case, it was its conditio sine qua non. Muqtadâ’s resources are at variance with those of his father, who followed the marja’iyya template. Contrary to what is commonly assumed, he did not inherit a turn-key network of charitable institutions either, as these had been dismantled under the former regime. Finally, the khums paid to Muhammad al-Sadr could not be directly transferred to Muqtadâ, who had to negotiate an arrangement with Ayatollah al-Hâ’irî, having failed to reach an agreement with Ayatollah Muhammad Ishâq al-Fayyâd, a marja‘ in Najaf.[36] The context in which this new mobilisation could take hold was in any case profoundly different from the context in which Muhammad al-Sadr rose. The latter had filled a void when it comes to the Iraqi Shia population’s social recognition, political representation and religious leadership. In contrast, the period following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime was marked by multiple and vigorous forms of representation of a Shia population finally made visible to itself and to the rest of the world: the hawza emerged from the shelter of invisibility, while islamist parties, returning from exile, ostensibly squatted the scene. Iran was free to overtly expand its influence. Lastly, Muqtadâ had to face, on his own ground, the competition of other self-styled “heirs” of his father, such as Mahmûd al-Hasanî and Muhammad al-Ya’qûbî,[37] as well as a proliferation of rival mahdist movements — the Sulûkîn being but one example.[38]

In assessing the conditions that made possible a new mobilisation of the “popular bases” after the regime’s demisel, it is fruitful to resort to an analysis in terms of fields, the sadrist “field” being defined as a fluctuating and dynamic space of dissension, interacting with other fields and structured around the tradition established by Muqtadâ’s father,the strategies of other Shia actors, as well as Sunni forms of dissension. The issue is thus to describe how the sadrist field gelled around the figure of Muqtadâ, in dialectical correlation with these other fields.

More precisely, the pivotal role of Muqtadâ can be understood in reference to his “positional charisma”[39], which characterises of a man devoid of any particular qualities, but whose centrality derives both from the symbols which he epitomizes de facto and, more importantly, from the configuration of the movement he heads at a given point in time.

On the one hand, Muqtadâ has found strong assets in his very weaknesses. The removal of Muhammad al-Sadr’s entourage having left the latter without an obvious successor, Muqtadâ was in a position to stress the issue of descent without foreclosing thereby the ambitions of other possible contenters. While embodying a tangible connection to Muhammad Bâqir and Muhammad al-Sadr through the notion of sadrist lineage, his illegitimacy in other respects paradoxically allowed him to rally many of his father’s intimates and supporters around him. He thus formed expedient alliances with al-Hâ’irî and al-Hasanî, who could accommodate his presence in the pursuit of their own objectives.[40]

He surrounded himself, moreover, with an entire generation of hawza students who opted for politics over erudition – a choice validated by the trajectory and discourse of Muqtadâ himself. The principle of hawza nâtiqa formulated by his father, and on which he based his own leading role, now changed meaning: it no longer designated a reformed hawza, but an alternative, conceptual hawza, detached from Najaf and from any didactic project. Only the element of activism remained, offering of remarkably flexibility framework to all those dissatisfied with the traditional system. The trend’s very fluidity proved an essential precondition for its overall cohesion and for the central position of Muqtadâ, who remains a reference and an instrument of legitimisation for many sadrists otherwise reluctant to bow to his authority.[41] Further room for sadrist dissension was made by the condescension with which Muqtadâ was initially disregarded by the marja‘ of Najaf, formerly exiled Shia politicians and coalition forces, as well as Iran. At the same time, the sadrist trend immediately received full attention from the media; the magnifying lens of Western journalists strongly contributed to the field’s formation by making it visible to itself, by lending it a degree of structure, coherence and popularity which it had not yet achieved, and by overly personifying the movement, a phenomenon which benefited Muqtadâ. A last important point here is Muqtadâ’s identification with the “popular bases” of his father, for whom he serves both as a mirror and as a model. Young, in a subordinate position within his own family, relatively uneducated and a substandard orator, he has nevertheless been able to turn his stigmata into the emblems of a revolutionary class which he truly represents. His rejection by the coalition and by Shia conservative circles resonates with the rejection which his social base experiences in general. At the same time, the fear – or the respect, or at least the recognition – which he now arouses, makes him the champion of his power base’s aspirations. This fact – precisely because it contrasts with his apparent mediocrity – lends a certain depth to his character, a mahdist dimension in which many of his supporters readily believe.

On the other hand, the sadrist trend is the product of surrounding dynamics set in motion by the overthrow of the former regime. The nature of the political process sponsored by the United States certainly deserves attention: it indeed translated into a sudden opening of the field of Shia representation – both politically and in terms of religious leadership -, but in doing so revealed, extended and exacerbated the fundamental rift between conservatives and revolutionaries. The coalition, by instituting an arbitrary dichotomy between “moderate” Shia representatives (Sîstânî, Husayn al-Sadr, Muhammad Bâqir al-Hakîm, Ibrahîm al-Ja’farî, etc.) and “extremists”, barred any political participation by the sadrist trend. The collusion of occupiers and conservatives, which on a symbolic level echoed the alliance of all “oppressors” denounced by Muhammad al-Sadr, spurred the radicalisation of the sadrists by giving reason for ever more violent repertoires of discourse and action. More generally, the opening of the field of Shia representation led to a struggle over the foundations of such representation, in terms of legitimacy, symbols, means and resources. The selective mobilisation of two icons, Imâm al-Mahdî and Imâm Husayn, came to draw the line between the imagined communities of revolutionaries on one side and conservatives on the other. Competition over symbols delved into key events and figures in the contemporary history of Iraqi Shia, notably the 1991 insurrection[42] and the legacy of Muhammad Bâqir al-Sadr. Out of political calculation, and in contradiction with well-established religious principles, the sadrists appropriated for themselves the right to issue fatwas, while the marja‘ reintroduced under Paul Bremer the khutba which they had declared illegitimate under Saddam Hussein. The conditions and limits structuring participation in the political arena, along with recourse to violence, were also the object of pragmatic redefinitions catering to the prevailing context. “Islamist” parties reneged upon any aspiration to establish an Islamic republic and adjusted to  elections that disavowed the concept of wilâyat al-faqîh.[43] Sîstânî gave his consent, de facto, to the increasing politicisation and instrumentalisation of his authority so as not to undermine it. Via the ceasefire reached with coalition forces in 2004, Muqtadâ opted for revisiting his resistance repertoire, moving away from armed confrontation toward a disapproving and measured participation in the political system. This competition between different Shia actors,[44] initially explosive, progressively structured the field of Shia representation, leading to a fairly clear distribution of roles and resources which, however, by no means eliminated the remaining disputes, notably the question of the seat (or barâni in dialectal Iraqi) of the Sadr family in Najaf.[45] But the fault line dividing conservatives and revolutionaries did “stabilise” in a way.

Sadrist violence now follows the lines rather localized power struggles.[46] Most importantly, and drawing on polarisation dynamics within Iraqi society as a whole, this violence shifted from a “nationalist” repertoire (national liberation struggle, rejection of Iranian influence, support – or at least lip service- to the armed opposition) to that of fitna, which Muqtadâ simultaneously denounces and tolerates.

An analysis of the sadrist trend leaning too heavily toward the inherited elements of mobilisation going back to Muhammad al-Sadr therefore proves insufficient to understand a phenomenon which is deeply anchored in the specific post-Saddam context. Specifically, the issue of sadrist resources is commonly formulated in terms of symbolic capital bestowed to Muqtadâ by his father, and then converted into numerous  resources of different kinds. This logic of mere transmission deserves to be revisited.

The sadrists’ resources

The specific resources of Muqtadâ, like his father’s, are broadly derived from the recognition of aspirations particular to the “popular bases”, from their desire for social recognition to satisfaction of their material needs, to the appeal of mahdism as a promise of restored justice in this world. As the most obvious resources of the sadrist trend have been amply dwelled upon elsewhere[47], the focus here will be on the uncharted category of “trivial resources”, treated as a taboo on the political stage, ignored by observers and yet essential to the survival of an organisation such as the Mahdî Army. Its members, recruited among the most economically deprived, for the most part receive no wages. To understand their motivation, therefore, it is necessary to consider an array of benefits which they derive from their activities. The narcissist gains linked to the use of violence, notably the petty power of intimidation attached to carrying a weapon and belonging to a militia, figure prominently among them. The same is true for the prestige by proxy conferred by the mere evocation of the trends’ symbolic figures, namely Muqtadâ, his martyred ancestors and the Imâm al-Mahdî. These references are the actual foundation of the coercion – or at any rate the symbolic violence – exercised by the sadrist trend over the Shia population itself. The “cause” pursued, construed as noble by virtue of double discourse and pretences covering up its more ambiguous reality, is another important factor. Serving in the Mahdî Army also grants immediate social recognition through attribution of a recognised status, social competence (rendering services, performing taks reminiscent of the –police’s role, mobilizing connections to “get things done”, etc.), as well as perspectives of social ascent in the form of progress within the organisation’s hierarchy.

For a marginalised urban younth, at stake is a way out of anomie – and anonymity – augmented by the thrilling experience of virile social interaction between comrades-in-arms. Finally, militiamen secure access to state resources (for example through paid protection of ministries controlled by the sadrist trend) and, more importantly still, to an expansive black economy (misappropriation of state resources, oil smuggling, racketeering, expropriation of victims labelled as takfîriyîn and saddâmiyîn).

These items closely match the foundations of the organisation called the Fidâ’iyû Saddam, which recruited in circles very similar to the underprivileged urban youth which fills out the sadrist ranks[48]. The parallel could even be extended to the eschatological expectation shared by sadrists and Fidâ’iyûn, which amounts simultaneously to the promise of an afterlife and that of the advent of justice in this world, forever delayed by an oppressor who must be fought here and now. These two forms of mobilisation are built around a longing for fulfilment formulated by an urban generation denied any future in the present state of the Iraqi society. The Fidâ’iyûn fought the 2003 American invasion with a resolve unequalled by conventional units of the Iraqi armed forces, not out of a “fanatic” love for Saddam (many of them have since joined the Mahdî Army) but out of nihilism – in short, they sought fulfilment via and within a state of violence. A similar orgy of pointless sacrifice defined the 2004 confrontation opposing the sadrists and coalition forces. The generational gap revealed by the sadrist phenomenon – which generally repels the very parents of Mahdî Army members – cannot be understood only in reference to “age groups” more or less predisposed to militant mobilisation. The armed Sunni opposition, by contrast, is trans-generational. Thus it is necessary to keep in mind the specific collective identity of this young revolutionary class, devoid of a past as much as a future outside of the sadrist trend.


In view of these different frames of analysis, it would be a delusion to treat the sadrist tendency as an ephemeral and superficial phenomenon. As an object of research, it is as deserving of in-depth study – and perhaps as important in the contemporary history of Iraq – as the political awakening of the officers and small town shopkeepers who filled out the ranks of the Baath party in the 1950s and 1960s, or the islamist mobilisation of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is nevertheless surprisingly neglected in the academic world. Without a doubt the sadrist trend remains mired in contradictions, but this should not encourage any lack of interest on the side of researchers. The possibility of a more structured movement arising remains, notably within a scenario of intensifying civil war. But at this point it is neither attempting to institutionalise itself any more than it is, nor to overcome its contradictions; these make sense in-as-much as they belong to processes which define the sadrist phenomenon as a whole.

Iran, in dealing wih this sadrist trend made difficult to control both by its ideological foundations and its weak institutional integration, opted for a policy of containment while making sure not to excessively alienate the sadrists. Ayatollah al-Hâ’irî’s return to Najaf, as well as his efforts to correspond with his representatives and other Shia actors in Iraq, have been hampered. Iran never responded to the sadrists’ material needs in any considerable way. At least until recently, the sadrists were not even invited to talks organised by Teheran to discuss the future of Iraq, as though they were not political actors worthy of consultation.[49] On the other hand, Iran has clearly tried to avoid a confrontation, or more exactly attempted to construct a relationship which was flexible enough to evolve as the context demanded. Muqtadâ and his representatives have, on occasion, been received deferentially in Teheran. Minimal financial and logistical support has been extended to the Mahdî Army within the framework the resistance to occupation[50], arguably a means for the Iranian intelligence services to lay the foundations for closer collaboration were the threat of an American military intervention against Iran’s nuclear programme to materialize. Such a stance fits into strategy designed to facilitate the extension of Iran’s sphere of influence through numerous channels, taking into account both the diverse nature of Iraq’s Shia society and the need for anticipating multiple scenarios on the strategic level.[51] The relation between Iran and the sadrists therefore remains likely to evolve as the deepening conflict in Iraq will further incite a game of alliances between internal actors and foreign sponsors – based on concerns seemingly more down-to-earth than ideological.

Originally published in French, with Hamid Yassin Nasser, in Sabrina Mervin (ed.), Les mondes chiites et l’Iran, Karthala/IFPO, 2007.

Illustration credit: John Martin The Great Day of His Wrath by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

[1] In fact, his full name is Muhammad Muhammad Sâdiq al-Sadr (Muhammad Sâdiq being the composite first name of his father). It will here be reduced out of expediency to Muhammad al-Sadr.

[2] The fall of the regime saw the emergence in Iraq of a new semantic field born out of the current situation. The terms saddâmiyîn and takfîriyîn etymologically indicate Saddam loyalists and salafists practicing “excommunication” of the Shia (takfîr), but both are widely used by sadrists to qualify Sunnis generally. The term nawâsib, which refers to the notion of hostility, is used by sadrists to indicate “those who detest the Twelver imams” and “those who are hostile to ahl al-Bayt“, that is to say the descendants of Husayn. It is a response to the term rawâfid which the Sunnis use against those (i.e. the Shia) who challenge the legitimacy of first three caliphs (Abû Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthmân).

[3]  Translator’s note: the French term used is “mouvance” (as opposed to a more organised”mouvement”).  For stylistic purposes, the English text will often use the shorter description “the sadrists”.

[4] This chapter builds upon the results of preliminary efforts made in this direction. Cf. YASIN, 2005, and International Crisis Group, 2006.

[5] Cf. Muqtadâ’s official biography, published on the site <>. The document is credible on this point in as much as sadrists rather tend to exaggerate their underground activities in the period between the assassination of Muhammad al-Sadr and the fall of the regime.

[6] The Fidâ’iyû Saddam were paramilitary force formed in the first half of the 1990s, through various initiatives aiming to mobilise Iraq’s urban youth, hardly hit as it was by the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait.

[7]  While Khomeini remains an icon for the sadrist trend, it is above all Muhammad Bâqir’s heritage that it claims as its own. Sadrists maintain that Muhammad Bâqir al-Sadr is the true originator of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the foundations of which he supposedly laid out in his work Islam guides life before conceding leadership to Khomeini.

[8] Extract from Muhammad Bâqir al-Sadr’s sermons, published in the newspaper al-Istiqâma on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his death (number 68, April 11th, 2005).

[9]  See notably AL-HÂ’ IRÎ, 1979; AL-KHARSÂN, 2004; RA’ÛF, 2000; RA’ÛF, 2001; ALMIYÂHÎ, 2001; A. JABAR, 2003.

[10] A. JABAR, 2003. An anecdote perfectly illustrates the antagonism opposing “quietists” and the proponents of Shia islamism: directly following the Iranian revolution, the supreme‘ marja from Najaf, Abû al-Qâsim al-Khû’ î, sent a “congratulatory” message to Khomeini in which he addressed him as hujjat al-islâm, denying him even the status of Ayatollah and treating him as a mere hawza student – and thus an usurper, as the principle of wilâyat al-faqîh can only be exercised, theoretically, by the supreme marja‘. The assassination of Muhammad Bâqir al-Sadr by Saddam Hussein’s regime elicited no reaction from the quietist marja‘ of Najaf, a silence which the sadrists bitterly reproach them.

[11] On the regime’s policy change and its possible interpretations, cf. International Crisis Group, 2006.

[12] International Crisis Group, 2006.

[13] The issue of the Friday preach is one of the bones of contention opposing the sadrists and the marja‘ of Najaf. The latter used to reject its re-institution on the pretext that it demands that the state be lead by a “just prince” (hakîm ‘âdil). Muhammad al-Sadr resolved this problem by proclaiming himself hakîm ‘âdil, at the risk of paying for this with his life. When the regime fell, the marja‘ from Najaf resumed the practice of the khutba, although power was then in the hands of Paul Bremer, which led the sadrists to accuse them of cowardice, hypocrisy and opportunism.

[14] In this way, Muhammad al-Sadr tacitly reminded the marja‘ of their duty to express themselves and to explain a Koran which remains sâmit without them.

[15]  International Crisis Group, 2006.

[16] “People have an idealised image of the hawza, thinking that all ulemas are infallible and sacred and that a spirit of brotherhood reigns within the hawza. They do not know that the quietist ulemas erect grand palaces with the money of the underprivileged, to perpetuate their empire that is Najaf.”  AL-MIYÂHÎ, 2001, p.44.

[17] Muhammad al-Sadr was reputed to recruit his adherents and representatives (wukalâ’) less in view of their academic qualities than for their courage, boldness and “qualities of the heart”.

[18] International Crisis Group, 2006.

[19] An anecdote often told by sadrists describes the exhaustive and considered answer Muhammad al-Sadr gave to a visitor enquiring about the price of tomatoes. This parable serves to show that he intimately knew and shared the fate of his fellow citizens. Cf. International Crisis Group, 2006.

[20] Among these, pilgrimages on foot at the occasion of the Arba’ în are a notable example.

[21] AL-SADR (Muhammad Sâdiq), 1992; 2006.

[22] Interviews by one of the authors in Iraq, August 2006.

[23] Fatwa of 10 al-Râbi‘ al-Thâni, 1424 h.

[24] The sâda occupy an important place in society, their status authorising them to receive part of the khums.

[25] AL-SUDÂNÎ, 1990; AL-JAWIBRÂWÎ, 1990.

[26]  A. JABAR, 2003; LUIZARD, 1991.

[27] This way of life inspired an expansive folkloristic , extolling its “purity”. “Fulanayn”, 1928. MAXWELL, 1957; THESIGER, 1964; FERNEA, 1965; YOUNG, 1977.

[28] Cf. notably BATATU, 1960; FERNEA R. A., 1991.

[29] LUIZARD, 1994. The habitat in these quarters initially took the form of light buildings typical of the marshes. The name of one of two main sections of Sadr City, al-Tshwâdir, is derived from the word used Maysân dialect of for the homes of woven reed traditionally used by tribes dwelling in the marshes.

[30] The shrûg (alternative plurals sharâgawa and shrûgiyya) are the descendants of rural immigrants, refugees from the South and more particularly from Maysân, living in the sarâyif and dismissed as thieves, liars and thugs Iraqis of longstanding urban origin.

[31] DARLE, 2003.

[32] On this last point, cf. HARLING, to be published. See also BARAN, 2004.

[33] HARLING, to be published

[34] RIGAUD, 2003.

[35] Aware that he was fated to be assassined by the regime, Muhammad al-Sadr appeared at Friday prayers draped in a shroud, a powerful symbol later appropriated by Muqtadâ.

[36] Interviews in Iraq by one of the authors, January 2006.

[37] Unlike Muqtadâ and Mahmûd Sarkhî, Muhammad al-Ya’qûbî obtained certificates of ijtihâd from several Iranian Ayatollahs, which placed him in a relatively stronger position with regard to religious qualifications.

[38] The Sulûkîn are mostly former supporters or students of Muhammad al-Sadr whose erratic and sacrilegious behaviour aims to precipitate the Mahdî’s advent, by contributing to generating the chaos said to precede and announce the return of the hidden Imam. Thus they are said to pray nude and break various sexual taboos.

[39] DOBRY, 1992

[40] At the same time, one should guard against placing Ayatollah al-Hâ’irî, a marja‘ respected for his theological competences, on the same footing as Mahmûd al-Hasanî, a minor figure whose influence is limited to rather small circles in Karbala and Diwâniyya.

[41] On the many contradictions which characterise the trend and its embrace of personalities rhetorically “repudiated” by Muqtadâ, cf. International Crisis Group, 2006.

[42] Thus, the uprisings of 1991 are presented by members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq as feats of arms illustrating their heroism, while the sadrists use the latters’ subsequent flight to Iran in the face of regime repression as evidence of their cowardice and treason.

[43] During a meeting with ‘Abd al-‘Azîz al-Hakîm, Muqtadâ underlined this contradiction, to the embarrassment of his interlocutor, by asking him what “lawful evidence” (dalîl shar î) authorised him to take part in elections in the absence of the hakîm ‘âdil, since Iran had abandoned demanding the wilâya over Iraq. DVD of the visit of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakîm to Muqtadâ al-Sadr, Najaf, October 2005.

[44] Cf. the chapter by Pierre-Jean Luizard in this volume.

[45] International Crisis Group, 2006.

[46] The battles between the the Mahdî Army and the Faylaq Badr militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in October 2006, for example, were confined to the city of al-‘Amâra, while sadrists and members of SCIRI in Basra continued to join ranks against their common enemy, Hizb al-Fadîla (a party formed by Muhammad al-Ya’ qûbî, a former student of Muhammad al-Sadr).

[47] International Crisis Group, 2006

[48] BARAN, 2004.

[49] For more details, cf. International Crisis Group, 2006.

[50] This support does not appear to go beyond moderate sums (on the order of a few thousand dollars) and equipment granted occasionally to groups of sadrist fighters, mostly in Basra. Interviews in Iraq by one of the authors, August 2006. It remains impossible to determine whether this is effectively state policy or the result of private initiatives.

[51] HARLING and YASIN, 2006.