From Idolizing to Thinking – Remembering Shaheed Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr

I am absolutely appalled at the non-existent debate on the legacy of Shaheed al-Sa’eed, Seyyed Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (ra), so I have to dedicate a few paragraphs, as a reminder to myself first, and then to everybody else, on the greatness of the loss to this ummah. You can literally write volumes on why this is such a tragic loss. This great mind who had so much to give, and who did indeed give so much, yet there is not ONE article dedicated to him (at least according to my quick search), not one article discussing the consequences of his theories and what they mean to us muslims, especially those living in the west.

Unfortunately, we have reduced him to an idol worshipped once a year at ‘talks’ or ‘seminars’ or nostalgic poetry evenings, or in best cases, to admire SOME of his legacy (and what use is that to US??!?!). Even to this day (more than 30 years after his martyrdom), his legacy has not been studied in earnest, in order to fulfil our duty towards this oppressed scholar (and TRUE marja’ of the religion of Islam not some part-time student of fiqh), and to benefit from the numerous methods and tools he established in order to revive a stagnant hawza.

Thankfully there are a handful (maybe even less) of aware and intelligent scholars who have either studied under him, or followed in his path, and are now trying to both revive and update al-Sadr’s school of thought, and even criticize some of his theories (constructively of course, in the name of keeping this great religion alive and as far away as possible from dormancy and decay). And all agree that the following 4 characteristics are what made al-Sadr stand out above the rest of his contemporaries, in knowledge, awareness, dedication and spirituality, even after his martyrdom (ra):

  1. He was a scholar of religion, and not only fiqh (jurisprudence). The reality of the current world requires one to deal with contemporary issues with intelligence and awareness, and some scholars (as well as some commoners like myself) feel that our Islamic intellectual output has been somewhat, lacking, to be polite, limiting itself to the fiqh sphere (I know, for example, 99% of MSc thesis in religious studies in Iraq, deal exclusively in fiqh matters, and not even all fiqh matters). This has created a false understanding of the word religious scholar, where everyone is painted with this one brush, irrespective of the scholars intellectual output, or socio-political awareness, or understanding of the Quran, or, or or…. These days, every Ali, Abbas and Hussein can wear a white or black turban, put a hundred titles before his name and call himself ‘whatever’. Now this might be an issue the hawza has to deal with in its own way and time, but we as intelligent and aware muslims living in the west (and east) have a responsibility to address this issue with our maraji’, and demand to be provided with the methods and tools with contemporary issues that we face as communities.Anyway, I digress, one of the most important characteristics of Seyyed al-Sadr (ra), was his unique ability to deal with numerous speciality subjects at once without compartmentalizing his studies to a single topic or contemporary issue. He was a philosopher, sociologist, theoretician, historian, jurist, economist, politician, exegete of Quran, etc etc. Indeed, a TRUE marja’ of religion in every sense of the word. Therefore, it is of the essence to differentiate between a marja’ of deen (religion) and maraj’ of fiqh; since according to the Quranic nomenclature, scholars (nay, all Muslims) are commanded to ‘taffaquh in deen’, and not ‘halal and haram’.
  2. He was a thinker, an Islamic intellectual. Religious scholars are of two kinds: those who study the available heritage for 5-10 years, maybe become mujtahid along the way, and go out into the big wide world, repeating what they’ve been taught, without much addition or deletion (like a walking encyclopaedia). There are others, however, who take in all available heritage (internal and external), digest it, and produce new and fresh knowledge, which is able to deal with contemporary issues and protect the Islamic nation from both internal and external threats and challenges. This is what I call ‘thought production’, which is a necessary pre-requisite for any other type of production. And we, as muslims, are really really poor in producing any intellectual material that is anywhere near the level that is Quranically expected of us (You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind.3:110). And for those who occupied themselves with reading anything they can get their hands on, al-Sadr spent 10% reading and 90% thinking (of course his level of reading and thinking which reflects even worse on us..), which just emphasizes my point.
  3. He was aware of the issues of his time. All of the above is not enough, if you are not aware of the contemporary problems and issues that face the Islamic nation. Shaheed al-Sadr wasn’t just an expert in his field, he was completely aware of what ‘the other’ was thinking, be they western philosophers, secular arab thinkers, or fellow scholars, on top of the problems that faced his followers and the Islamic nation as a whole. He knew when to speak, when to remain silent, when to apply the correct juristic rulings. This is called insight (or baseerah), which is different to knowledge or piety, yet he possessed all three virtues, where many of his contemporary scholars (and those that followed) lacked one or more.
  4. He was brave. What makes a marja’ truly unique is not his knowledge or piety or even his insight and awareness, but his ability to manage the affairs and guide his community and the Islamic nation (if the opportunity arose). Now this requires a certain type of bravery and spiritual power, balanced with wisdom and freedom from arrogance or nationalism or racism towards people of other cultures. The marja’ needs to be out there facing the world and its socio-political, economic and spiritual (doctrines and fiqh) problems head on. What will add here as well, was his bravery to critique both himself and the school of thought he represented. He was after all, one of the foremost ‘mujjadid’ (reformer) of his time, establishing new methods and tools and ideas that challenged the status-quo. A true scholar is able to balance preserving his identity and reform his reality at the same time.

So what can you deduce from the above? I’ve come to the conclusion that Shaheed al-Sadr’s role in this world was no different to that of Prophets (ulema of my ummah are like the prophets of bani Israel). And he managed to live up to this responsibility as much as he could in the circumstances surrounding him, and early martyrdom.

So it’s time to go back and revisit this great man’s legacy, analyse it, digest it well, take from it what we can, and develop it to the standard required in order to solve our contemporary issues. No more accepting the (internal/external) status-quo, it’s time for action and reform. We need more Sadrs, and Mutahharis, and Shariatis and Tabatabais.

(some comments were taken from a talk Seyyed Kamal Al Haydari gave to his students at one of his lectures.)

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