In a sudden move, Hojatoleslam Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement, announced the suspension of the movement’s activities for one year. On April 14, 2023, he announced the closure of his Twitter account until further notice. These surprising and swift decisions came in response to the “Owners of the Cause” (a group from within the Sadrists) that gathered at the mosque in which Sadr was practicing itikaf (self-imposed seclusion). The members of this group wanted to pledge allegiance to Sadr as the Mahdi (the twelfth imam in Twelver Shiism). In response, Sadr ordered the suspension of his movement’s activities and called off his seclusion at al-Kufa Mosque. Security forces arrested over 60 people affiliated with the Owners of the Cause. A court in Karkh ordered the detention of a further 65 people affiliated with the Owners of the Cause on charges of promoting ideas that fuel sedition and jeopardize risk security within society.
Who Are the Owners of the Cause?
They are a group of radicals affiliated with the Sadrist Movement. They believe that Sadr is the Mahdi and some of them believe that the Mahdi is one of Sadr’s soldiers. Others regard Sadr as “better than the infallible imams.” However, the predominant belief is that Sadr is the Mahdi. This group is not new. It emerged after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Sadr’s leadership of an extensive resistance movement against US forces at the time.
The Owners of the Cause is considered to be one of the variants of the Mahdi-awaiting groups that were created or ostensibly emerged on the scene after the US invasion of Iraq. The Owners of the Cause is an extension of groups like Jund al-Sama (Soldiers of Heaven), Al-Yamani Group and al-Sulukyin, some of whom believe that Sadr is Imam Mahdi, the long-awaited imam. The Mahdi army, led by Sadr at the time, was forced to engage in an armed confrontation with al-Sulukyin. The Sadrists cited the rhetoric of Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, Sadr’s father, against al-Sulukyin when he said about them, “I am addressing the community of the believers who have pure minds and innocent souls. They should boycott those people, disavow them, and abandon them like a healthy man abandoning a plague-infected person.” The same warnings were issued by Sadr as well when the movement expanded in the 2000s. Another group, said to be the Owners of the Cause, believe that Sadr, son of Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, is the Mahdi. Sadr leveled an early criticism against them for believing he is the Mahdi, “Whoever spreads such a rumor (that he is the Mahdi) is a liar, wicked, and worthy of God’s curse. I have the right to refer those people to the hawza judiciary.” After several years, he resumed the attacks on them, saying, “Those people are my enemies. I am not the Mahdi. But I, God willing, deserve to be a one who paves the way for the reappearance of the Mahdi.” When asked about whether they are disbelievers, he said, “Yes, they are disbelievers.”
Sadr’s Reaction: Dimensions and Significations
Though this group — and the like — have been on the scene for a while, Sadr’s reaction was surprising this time. He announced the suspension of the Sadrists activities for one year and ended his self-imposed seclusion. But he asserted that the suspension does not include the establishment of Friday prayers and the movement’s heritage foundation. He said, “That I want to reform Iraq but I can’t reform the Sadrist Movement is a tremendous mistake. Continuing to lead the Sadrist Movement while it’s infested with the Owners of the Cause and some corrupt members is calamitous.”
Sadr’s swift and sudden reaction was driven by both political and religious factors:
The Religious Factor:
It appears that Sadr has sensed that there are hidden hands that are taking advantage of these extremist groups cutting across the ranks of the Sadrist Movement or those affiliated with it. These groups want to put Sadr in an awkward position in front of his followers, the hawza and the Iraqis, thereby diminishing his political and religious clout and dealing a blow to his legitimacy within the Shiite community. Sadr is aware that the rise of such fringe groups within the ranks of the Sadrist Movement could create a deep crisis within it, which could spiral out of control. The expansion of such groups could cause the Sadrist Movement to deviate from its normal course, giving rise to internal denominational differences. The Sadrist Movement could even face the risk of disintegration, collapse, and fragmentation as is the case with other movements when such differences break out within its ranks. This comes especially as the Sadrist Movement depends on the legacy of Sadr and his father to derive legitimacy. Thus, any deviation from their line would impact the Sadrist Movement’s legitimacy and reputation. In addition, the Sadrist Movement’s forbearance with such groups could lead to external rifts with Shiite sources of emulation who deem such groups as “hardliner and extremist” and do not enjoy any acceptance in Najaf or Qom. Thus, Sadr’s implacable stance against such groups is based on his need for legitimacy within the Shiite community including the hawza. His response is also informed by his desire to play a key role in the near future, especially as he clearly seeks to lead the marjaya as the successor to his father. This is not the first time that Sadr has attempted to curb the Owners of the Cause within the Sadrist Movement. Since 2007, Sadr has been grappling with and cautioning but recently amplified his rhetoric against them. On October 17, 2021, Sadr released a statement in which he said, “I am Sayyed Muqtada b. Mohammad b. Mohammad b. al-Sadiq b. al-Sadr. I am an Iraqi Twelver Muslim. I am not infallible but merely a knowledge seeker in the honorable hawza. Whoever claims the opposite is a liar. And I disavow him before God and His messenger.” Sadr has also repeatedly punished members within the Sadrist Movement for following the Owners of the Cause, which indicates that Sadr’s fight against these groups is strategic, rather than pragmatic or tactical. He believes that they pose a threat to his family’s legacy and prestige within Najaf and Shiite centers. At the same time, he believes that some of his rivals are taking advantage of such groups by making him appear as if he is deviating from the Shiite line and Twelver heritage.
The Political Factor
There is a political factor that is no less important than the religious one. Any rise in such fringe groups diminishes the Sadrist Movement’s political legacy before the Iraqi public in general and the Shiite community in particular. Though commanding the largest following, Sadr’s followers do not believe that he is the Mahdi. Instead, they believe in his political leadership and Sadr is keenly aware of this. Therefore, he rushed to disavow the deviant groups, questioning their intentions and even their creed. In addition, Sadr presents himself on the Shiite landscape as a figure who contains contesting factions and harmonizes them. He believes in pluralism and engages in dialogue with all parties, transcending sectarianism and confessionalism. Thus, any silence toward the practices of these deviant groups would undoubtedly impact the nature of this rhetoric and prestige. Sadr also believes in the Twelver Shiite heritage and considers himself an extension of his father Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr’s project. Accordingly, his rejection of such fringe groups is principled and strategic. Moreover, Sadr’s suspension of the movement’s activities for one year will prevent the movement from partaking in the political process, including the municipal elections, provided the suspension remains in place.
Overall, both of these factors have prompted Sadr to step up efforts to weed out these fringe groups and disavow them. He even pitted them against the state’s judiciary, not the hawza judiciary as he had previously threatened.
The Future of the Owners of the Cause
It cannot be assumed that Sadr’s quick and surprising decision will wipe out this hardline group. But the move will at least significantly curb its activities within the Sadrist Movement. Still, f Fringe groups with various nomenclatures will remain on the margin of the Shiite religious landscape in Iraq and Iran, given that there are hawzas and marjayas that regulate the work of the Shiite community and prevent the expansion of such groups, which is why they will likely remain on the margins of the religious landscape and the Shiite sect. This comes particularly as these groups are engaged in confrontation with all parties, questioning the marjaya and distorting the sect’s key tenets and essential pillars.
Therefore, these groups will likely remain on the fringes since they are not only at odds with the Sadrist Movement but also with all the heavyweight marjayas in Iraq and Iran. They were criticized by both the reformists and traditionalists. The Shiite Supreme Marjaya had also previously issued a statement criticizing al-Sulukyin. Hence, the problem with these groups is that they are breaking ranks with the Shiite mainstream groups (orthodox understanding), pitting themselves against key actors within the hawza. At the political level, the state takes steps when necessary, through security and judicial institutions to curtail these groups so as not to antagonize the Iraqi public. The fact that these groups pose a danger to the hawza and the traditional Shiite discourse means that they also pose a danger to the state’s national security and threaten its stability and social fabric.
Sadr has disavowed the Owners of the Cause and suspended his Movement’s activities for one year. He has taken swift and surprising measures against them, in conjunction with legal measures issued by the Iraqi judiciary against dozens of the group’s affiliates. The Owners of the Cause believe that they can infiltrate the Sadrist Movement through alleging Sadr is the Mahdi, thereby influencing the rank-and-file members within the movement, given that it is the largest Shiite bloc in the country. However, Sadr who is the standard-bearer of his father’s religious and political project, has disavowed them as had his father. He shut the door on any attempts to tarnish his Movement’s reputation or promote the claim that it is part of them. Sadr’s swift and surprising measures come to indicate his resentment with the continuation of these groups to cling to his household and the Sadrist Movement. He also feared they would affect the movement’s popularity, align with his foes, and spoil his relationship with the supreme marjaya or his political allies. At the same time, Sadr has displayed keenness on committing to the Shiite taqlid legacy and the hawza’s line. By contrast, the harsh position adopted by the Sadrists’ chief and his concern about the potential rift within the movement or the impact of the extremist convictions held by some of the movement’s affiliates could weaken the Sadrists’ ability to remain effective on the political and religious landscape in Iraq.