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Return of the Vanished Imam?


Fouad Ajami’s The Vanished Imam: Musa al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon was among the first books I read about matters Islamic, and the close parallel between the vanishing of Musa al-Sadr and the vanishing — or, more properly speaking, Ghayba or occultation — of the Twelfth Imam or Mahdi struck me forcibly at the time.

I don’t have my copy to hand, so I can’t tell how strongly Ajami himself made the comparison — but I was certainly not alone. Daniel Pipes, in his review of Ajami’s book writes:

What made the Imam’s vanishing so significant is that it exactly fit the millennial expectations of Shiism, a faith premised on the disappearance of righteous leaders and their reappearance at the end of time.

And now it may be — the report has yet to be confirmed — that Imam Musa is back among us.

@rallaf is an Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House.


The mind sees one thing, which reminds it of something else. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it depends on the recognition of pattern, or you might say, parallelism.

The return of Imam Musa would be significant not merely for his admirers, not only for what he might have to say or what role — now aged 82, after 30 years in prison — he might yet play, but also, I suspect, for the vivid premonition of the Mahdi his return might stir…

3 Responses to “Return of the Vanished Imam?”

  1. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Time has an article up about this: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2045328_2045333_2053630,00.html

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Curtis.
    I ordered a used copy of Ajami’s book and it arrived in the mail today — my old one is in storage someplace inaccessible.
    I’m glad people are taking notice of the impact of individuals — Musa al-Sadr, Dr Fadl, and no doubt there are plenty of others — in these times when there are enough nations competing for press attention that some of them tend to get lost in the crowd…

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’d wanted the book to see how Ajami treated the parallelism between al-Sadr’s disappearance and the ghayba of the Twelfth Imam. Here’s a paragraph or two from his Prologue, which is not easy to excerpt from:

    Reality imitated and served a Shia myth in Libya in that summer of 1978. In the Shia doctrine, the twelfth of the Imams (the successors to the Prophet through his daughter Fatima) vanished to the eyes of ordinary men in 873-874, to return at some future date and fill the earth with justice. This is the doctrine of the Ghaiba, the concealment of the Hidden Imam…
    Musa al-Sadr’s tale merged with the millenarian sensibility of his people. The millenarian expectation of an extraordinary man who brings history to its appointed consummation, who appears when it is God’s will for him to do so, was there for Musa al-Sadr in a natural way. No one had to lean on the history or squeeze it too hard, or say that this modern tale was a playing out of an old belief. The pious would have been scandalized; there was no need to do this. The millenarian expectation worked in the aftermath of the cleric’s disappearance just as it had when Sayyid Musa al-Sadr was proclaimed Imam Sayyid al-Sadr…

    There’s a paragraph in his concluding pages, too, that bears consideration. In some ways, the Ayatollah Khomeini picked up more violently in Iran on an activism that Musa al-Sadr had pioneered in the Lebanon. Ajami writes:

    Late in the twentieth century, that seventh-century battle of Kerbala is being refought: Shia quietism and submissiveness were their own hell. Traded in a hurry, they were traded [in the Iranian Revolution] for a politics of exaltation and martyrology. The Shia tradition had too much grief and pent-up resentment for it to be unleashed without a long season of anger and carnage. Sayyid Musa had wanted his clerical colleagues to oppose the rulers, the oppressors, to be on the side of the "wretched of the earth." He had been a precursor of activism during a time of submissiveness. But the fury that carried with it much of Shia tradition to which he was an heir went well beyond the limits he knew and lived by.

    Ajami’s book has a 1986 copyright.

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