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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Politics

The Man Who Would be King: Muqtada al-Sadr’s Legitimation in the Iraqi Shi’a Field


On July 27, 2022, Iraq’s sclerotic government formation process finally broke. After ten months of failed negotiations to form a cabinet—the longest stalemate since 2003—protestors infiltrated Baghdad’s Green Zone, making themselves at home in the offices of parliament. Their objective was to disrupt the nomination of a rival parliamentarian, Mohammad Shia’ al-Sudani, to the Premiership, and while ultimately unsuccessful, this was done with optical gusto. Having made their point, the intruders were told by their leadership to “go home and pray,” only to return for a longer stint three days later.[1] On both occasions, the occupants came with signs bearing the image of Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.  

Often described as “Iraq’s Kingmaker,” Muqtada al-Sadr exercises an authority over a large swath of Iraq’s Shi’a population that seemingly transcends Iraqi political institutions and even the transnational Shi’a religious establishment. As a cleric and political leader, Sadr controls formal institutions including religious endowments, tithing networks, schools, political offices, and a militia. However, as events of the summer made clear, Sadr’s most potent means of exercising power is the mobilization of his followers, a force that can be leveraged with or without formal integration into the political order.

Given this influence, Western media and analysts have scrambled to ask, “Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?” Current profiles of Sadr are often as two-dimensional as they were during his first emergence in the 2003 invasion. Sadr is presented in binaries; he is anti-Iranian or anti-American, an insurgent leader or a revolutionary, a holy man or a demagogue. This paper aims to furnish a more robust answer to the question by drawing upon Max Weber’s typology of authority. It will give an account of Sadr’s legitimacy in the Iraqi Shi’a religious field with respect to his traditional, legal, and charismatic authority.

Typology of Authority

To understand Sadr’s position in today’s Iraq, we need a historical, structural account of his influence over time. Weber’s typology of authority is a useful framework for this enterprise. Weber defines authority as “the probability that certain specific commands will be obeyed by a given group of persons [implying]…a minimum of voluntary compliance that is, an interest in obedience.”[2] The belief in such authority among its adherents must therefore find its basis in some superordinate source of legitimacy. In the Weberian model, there are three primary means for the legitimation of a dominant authority: 

1.) Traditional authority – drawn from the long-standing beliefs, practices, and hierarchies of a given society and owed to the person or persons exercising authority within them.

2.) Legal authority – rooted in the legitimacy of a society’s legal apparatus and the right of its representatives to enforce it.

3.) Charismatic authority – rests upon “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative pattern or order revealed or ordained by him.”[3]

A dominant figure of authority may draw legitimacy from a confluence of these factors, and in a case such as Sadr’s, the movement between them can become essential in establishing a dynamic and durable model of legitimacy.  

The Third Sadr: Hereditary and Religious Authority

Muqtada al-Sadr’s access to traditional authority began at birth and is essential in understanding his role today. The legacy and martyrdom of his father, Sadiq al-Sadr, and his father-in-law and cousin once removed, Baqir al-Sadr, endowed Muqtada with a loyal following, an experienced group of advisors, and a robust patronage network from an early age. It was from this position that Muqtada was able to capture such popular and political purchase in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

What is now referred to as the Sadrist Movement began its infancy in the early 1960s under Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. A child of the clerical aristocracy of Baghdad, Baqir al-Sadr studied in the elite hawza (“seminary”) system of Qom, Iran, rising to the level of Grand Ayatollah in the 1950s. At the time, Iraq’s Shi’a were entirely without political identity—religious views of “quietism” or political disavowal are traditionally a norm among Shi’a clerics, and the Sunni Ba’athist state was all too happy to institutionalize this silence.[4] However, given the growing appeal of communism in Baghdad, members of the marjaiyya (“clerical class”) of Iraq began to organize an underground countermovement known as the Islamic Dawa Party. Baqir al-Sadr quietly became its leader.[5]

While the “First Sadr” was initially a political quietist, his ideas on government and economics earned him a reputation as a radical among the marjaiyya.[6] In the 1970s, Baqir was passed up as Grand Ayatollah of Iraq owing to his involvement in Dawa—an event that would set the tone for a distinctly anti-elite theme across the Sadr family.[7] Subsequently, Baqir began to model a “proto-activism,” becoming more vocal in his opposition to the Ba’ath regime and a supporter of Ayatollah Ali Khomeini during the latter’s exile in Iraq.[8] In 1980, Baqir’s open defiance of the regime resulted in his execution at the hands of the Ba’ath—an event still recalled in Sadrist passion plays today.    

Baqir’s martyrdom and legacy paved the way for the “Second Sadr,” Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr. Like his cousin, Sadiq al-Sadr was of a significant religious pedigree but largely shut out from the highest posts of the hawza.[9] In the fallout from Baqir’s assassination, Sadiq competed for religious succession to Baqir’s muqalladin (“community of emulators”) with Grand Ayatollahs Kazem Hussain al-Haeri and Ali al-Sistani, both rival quietists well-connected in Qom.[10] Through the 1980s, worsening conditions under the Saddam regime and the orthodox clergy’s reluctance to take political action drove many disaffected Shi’a toward the Sadrists.[11] In a dramatic miscalculation, Saddam appointed Sadr Grand Maraja of Iraq, an opportunity which Sadiq seized to legitimize himself and weaken his religious rivals.[12] Emboldened by the growth of his following, he became increasingly critical of the Ba’ath regime and more radical in his calls for social Islamicization. Sadiq’s defiance continued as economic and political conditions worsened, and in 1999, Sadiq al-Sadr and his two sons were assassinated by Baathist agents, leaving the young Muqtada sole representative of the family.

At the time the Sadr legacy had fallen to Muqtada, he was a seminarystudent in Najaf, who was kept on strict house arrest until the fall of the regime.[13] Even today, Muqtada’s academic credentials are highly debated—having completed the “dissertation phase” of his clerical training but never advancing. Muqtada claims the title “Hujjatu al-Islam wal-Muslamin,” a rank just below that of Ayatollah.[14] To opponents in the hawza, this lack of qualification signifies immaturity and academic ineptitude. To the loyal body of Sadrist followers, the lack of formal credentialing reinforces his family’s anti-elitist appeal.[15]

Muqtada quickly adopted strategies to visually recall his martyred predecessors—emulating his father’s manner of speaking, using his walking stick, and even appearing in the same model of car in which his father was assassinated.[16] Muqtada and his followers are often seen wearing white shrouds, traditional attire for a funeral in Shi’ism, but worn by Sadiq in the months before his death, signifying his acceptance of martyrdom.[17] Solidifying this mix of inherited and religious legitimacy, Ayatollah al-Haeri—who had been appointed Sadiq’s successor though exiled in Iran—instructed his followers in Iraq to join Muqtada, despite his lack of qualification and ideological divergences.[18] Muqtada was thereby positioned to become the representative for Iraqi Shi’a loyal to his family and dissatisfied by the political inactivity of the quietist hawza, now represented by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.[19]

Muqtada’s traditional authority is, therefore, a religious and hereditary entanglement. While his family’s theological brand was defined by their rebuffs from the Shi’a establishment, they have also benefited from pragmatic alliances both with traditional religious authority and, at times, even the political establishment. The practice and ideology of the Sadrist movement are defined in contrast to the orthodoxy of the hawza, yet its appeals remain deeply rooted in the messianic and millenarian aspects of Shi’a theology. The legacy of martyrdom, sacrifice, and class struggle, which the Sadr name now represents, is frequently framed within narratives found across the Shi’a mainstream.[20] Muqtada al-Sadr’s deliberate activation of these themes was and remains essential in solidifying his authority in the Shi’a religious field.

“Controlled Instability” as Political Legitimation

Shi’a views of law and legal authority do not easily map onto Weberian ideas of the modern nation-state. Traditionally, Shi’a jurisprudence lends itself toward local-level, charismatic administration in which a region’s marja and his staff dispense a more personalist, context-dependent system of justice.[21] This is why competition for muqalladin is often perceived as having such high stakes. When Muqtada inherited his family’s following in southern Iraq, this had both spiritual and practical administrative implications. Especially as federal services all but disappeared in the post-invasion period, the ability to dispense law, provide social services, and defend the community fell on religious institutions such as Sadr’s. As the broader Iraqi political landscape became increasingly violent, the assembly of a militia under the control of such a leader became indispensable.  

Initially, Iraq’s Shi’a were pleased with the Coalition’s intervention to remove their oppressor and enthused by a future in the country’s politics. Muqtada and his allies led peaceful protests and celebrations during this period. When it became clear that the Sadrists would not be included in the reconstruction government, Sadr’s rhetoric shifted toward support for revolutionary jihad against the infidel invaders.[22] In May of 2003, Muqtada became the first and only Shi’a leader to openly declare the occupation illegitimate and announced the creation of his own parallel government run from the holy city of Kufa. To support this effort, he began to form his own paramilitary, Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM or “The Mahdi Army”).[23] 

While Sadr’s own offices remained situated in Kufa, his administratively autonomous base of Sadr City became essential in establishing this legal authority. Throughout the 1990s, Iraq’s impoverished Shi’a packed into the slums of south Baghdad in what was then named “Saddam City.” Given his social and religious profile, Sadiq al-Sadr built an especially strong grassroots network there. When the regime was toppled, all references to Saddam were replaced by the Sadrs.[24] Demonstrating their administrative capacity, the Sadrists managed sub-state ministries ranging from courts to sanitation to defense within Sadr City. Simultaneously, however, the Mahdi Army had become involved in attacks against both coalition forces and rival Shi’a elements, culminating in open conflict in the spring of 2004.[25]      

By this point, Sadr’s movement had become entirely estranged from the Shi’a mainstream. On the religious level, Sadr challenged the authority of Ayatollah Sistani as Grand Marja of Iraq; on the political level, the Sadrists rejected participation in the constitutional process and rebuffed attempts to bring Dawa into the political fold. Throughout 2004, these motives took on a violent military dimension, as Sadr’s forces unsuccessfully attempted to wrest control of Najaf from Sistani and the Coalition. The resultant stand-off between JAM and Coalition Forces in the walls of the Imam Ali Mausoleum resulted in hundreds of deaths and the near destruction of one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites.[26] The events of the summer turned many Shi’a against the Sadrists, as JAM appeared to be spiraling out of Sadr’s control. 

However, what seemed to be the end of Muqtada’s short campaign for legal authority actually demonstrated the remarkable flexibility of his movement. After defeat in Najaf, the Mahdi Army broke into entities controlled by Sadr, disillusioned advisors of his father, and criminal enterprises.[27] In order to preserve his political future, Sadr publicly denounced those operating beyond his oversight. He then re-formed his own more controlled fighting force and styled his movement into a political participant. From this point, “controlled instability” became the paradigm for Sadrist legal legitimacy. In this framework, his once informal, violently legitimated authority in Sadr City would now be fortified with actual electoral gains. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, Sadrist candidates won 25 seats in the body and key cabinet positions, which could crucially boost employment among constituents.[28] Moral legitimacy lost among the base during the Battle of Najaf had been, by and large, regained by the transition and its spoils; Sadr even attempted to mend his rift with the hawza and bolster his clerical credibility by publicly aligning his positions with Sistani.[29]

Yet, while the Sadrists intended to remain participants in the formal political process, incentives for destabilization within that process never entirely subsided. In the continuously unstable environment of Iraq, “controlled instability” proved the most advantageous strategy. The Sadrists have routinely gained formal political purchase while maintaining their credibility as a destabilizing force. In the period of sectarian civil war following Sunni attacks on the Shi’a al-Askari Shrine, for example, what remained of the JAM was once again drawn into the fray. As the axis of conflict had shifted from inter-Shi’a rivalry to cross-confessional warfare, violence on behalf of the JAM—whether sanctioned by Sadr or not—could only strengthen his support among the base and demonstrate the credibility of its threat to political rivals.

Further, the conflict provided a new opportunity to widen the base of support by opening offices and offering protection to isolated Shi’a communities in dispute. In this way, the Sadrists gained legitimacy by destabilizing the institutions they had previously contested. When these same incentives no longer existed, Muqtada once again divested from the JAM, eventually moving to rebrand the group Sarayha al-Salam or “Peace Brigades,” which remains its name at present.  In the modern period, the Sadrist political identity rests between these two poles: maintaining both the appearance of a legitimate political participant and the credibility of a destabilizing counterforce. Added to this continued coercive capacity, Muqtada Sadr retains the ability to draw massive protests from the Shi’a street nearly at will—perhaps the most significant characteristic of his figure today.

Following a brief withdrawal in 2007, Sadrist candidates have won seats in every Iraqi government since reconstruction—between 2014 and 2018, support for the Sadrist parliamentary coalition doubled from 7-14%.[30] Sadr’s attempts to style himself into a protest figure have yielded a number of coalitions with leftist and revolutionary parties. Despite maintaining significant levers of power within the state, Sadr’s political presence is augmented by his use of mass mobilization and a more controlled militia presence. By destabilizing the institutions in which he operates at strategic moments, Sadr exercises a wider range of coercive authority than his opponents. This is sustained by his ability to call upon mass demonstrations and unrest. 

Sadr’s influence over the southern districts of Baghdad remains nearly intractable, and due to his pragmatism in cooperating with wider protest movements against the muhasasa (quota system in government) and federal ineffectiveness, this authority has expanded. In the October 2021 parliamentary elections, the Sadrist bloc won a plurality of seats and the right to form a government.[31] However, in order to preserve this image, Sadr is careful not to associate himself too closely with the political establishment. To the extent that this has been successful, the Sadrist political movement remains a revolutionary one where too entrenched a Sadrist elite would create diminishing returns.[32] Therefore, Sadr’s legal authority remains tied to his identity as a revolutionary and his ability to retain a “controlled instability” in which his movement can successfully operate.

Man of the Base, Sadr’s Charismatic Legitimacy

Muqtada al-Sadr has solidified many of his structural advantages by cultivating a deep charismatic authority among his followers. While his initial successes may have depended upon his inherited sources of legitimacy, today, Muqtada has staked out an identity and cult of personality which intangibly reinforces these gains through what Weber terms the “Routinization of Charisma,” or the interoperability between one source of legitimation and another. It is beyond doubt that Muqtada’s personal ability to mobilize mass support acts as his greatest asset in the modern context; this charisma and control over the base emanates from sources both sacred and profane.

In politics, Sadr is seen as having the personal fortitude to stand up to Western imposition. Rhetorically, this has tended to veer into a more generic anti-Westernism, but the fact that Sadr was the first and only Iraqi religious leader to publicly denounce the occupation remains significant. To the rank-and-file Shi’a of Iraq, Muqtada was able to present himself as an independent Iraqi leader fighting against the country’s foreign occupation. The fact that Muqtada remained in Iraq through even the darkest days of the civil war—unlike nearly every other Shi’a politician including Hakim, Khoei, Sistani, and Maliki—significantly bolstered these bona fides.[33] Of course, this legitimating discourse also overlaps neatly with the religious case of the Sadrs as an Arabic-speaking clergy for Iraq, contrasted with the hawza of Iran.   

Materially, Sadr’s influence is felt throughout the streets of his constituency. While conditions remain bleak in Iraq’s Shi’a south, the Sadrists have elevated many of the Shi’a lower class into government positions, maintained and improved public works through the worst of the war, and brought new attention to the urban poor.[34] Further, Sadr has never held political office himself. Instead, he has chosen to appoint and horse-trade countless politicians into positions across local and national government. Accordingly, there is a substantial network of Sadr beneficiaries who owe their position and influence to him alone. Sadr has had some hand in selecting almost every Primer in the history of constitutional Iraq. In addition to keeping his image clean of the dirty work of politics, Sadr’s means of exercising power ensures his network remains aware of their loyalty to him. 

On the theological level, Muqtada’s elevation to religious leadership—giving Friday sermons and administering a qoms network—is owed in part to a theological novelty introduced by his father.[35] In orthodox Shi’ism, the most learned cleric takes the role of the marja, whom believers are expected to emulate. When a marja dies, the next most qualified scholar replaces him. Sadr’s innovation was to suggest that non-emulative leadership was possible in the absence of a most qualified candidate. Given that Sadiq’s appointed successor was exiled in Iran at the time of succession, the Sadrists came to argue that Muqtada’s political and social leadership made him best suited to take the position instead.[36] These personal qualities, when attached to the theology of the movement’s intellectual leader, make a strong case for Muqtada’s leadership.      

Finally, on the esoteric religious level, Muqtada and the Sadr family claim a unique personal relationship with the Hidden Imam, or the occulted eschatological figure of Twelver Shi’ism. In Shi’a discourse, this would imply a mystical access to unmediated religious enlightenment, unheard of even among the elite of the hawza. Sadr speaks only vaguely on this topic, but in the Shi’a religious field, such a relationship would confer a singular religious status. To the Sadrist base in Iraq, this is especially noteworthy as the Sadrs would be among only a handful of Arab clerics to claim such an honor; the highest esoterics of Shi’ism are almost always Persian.[37] While this is not offered so much to trump the hawza per se, it does provide a personal legitimation which, for many Shi’a, would have the potential to supersede other defects.


Sadrist leadership has been conclusively hallowed out at least twice in its history, yet the complex ecosystem of religious, familial, social, and political bonds endures under the same name. If it was not already clear, the events of this summer demonstrated that the Iraqi republic will not go forward without the consent of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Superordinate structures of authority are key in explaining the rise and renewal of the mercurial cleric. However, Muqtada’s own legitimacy seems durable beyond the purview of formal institutions both religious and political. His strength comes from his base, and in its current configuration, rejection by the hawza or dismissal from parliament can only reinforce his appeal. While Sadr’s personal history, and perhaps the initial sources of his legitimacy, were dependent upon his standing relative to established institutions, his current position has developed a matrix of authority dynamic to the point of transcending any one source of legitimation. His movement between traditional, political, and charismatic authority will be formidable for years to come.

There can be little question that the most fundamental source of Muqtada’s influence is the mass of those who follow him. Yet the Sadrist dependency on the base also belies an essential vulnerability. The biggest threat to Muqtada al-Sadr is a loss of moral legitimacy—a strictly religious matter—which has conferred this power upon him in the first place. Sadr himself knows this best of all. Fierce protection over this most coveted and intangible authority will have the greatest potential to drive his behavior in ever more unpredictable directions. In sum, his greatest strength is also the source of his greatest weakness—policymakers must keep this in mind as we continue to ask, “Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?”

[1] Alissa J. Rubin, “Followers of Iraqi Cleric Occupy Parliament Again, Demanding Reforms” New York Times, July 30, 2022,

[2] Weber, Economy and Society: an Outline on Interpretive Sociology, trans. Ephraim Fischoff, Hans Gerth, AM Henderson & Ferdinand Kolegar (Berkley: University of California Press, 1978) p. 212.

[3] Weber, Economy and Society, p. 215.

[4] Leslie Bayless, “Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?” Studies in Conflict Terrorism Vol 35, No 135 (2012) pp. 138-9.

[5] Bayless, “Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?” p. 137.

[6] Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (New York: Scribner, 2008) p. 35.

[7] Harith Hasan, “The Roots of the Sadrist Movement: Muhammad al-Sadr, Religious Authority and Sociopolitical Practice,” The Middle East Journal Vol 75, No 3 (Fall 2021) p. 368. 

[8] Cockburn, Muqtada, p. 39.

[9] Hasan, “The Roots of the Sadrist Movement,” pp. 369-70. 

[10] Bayless, “Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?” p. 139.

[11] Cockburn, Muqtada, p. 83.

[12] Hasan, “The Roots of the Sadrist Movement,” p. 380. 

[13] Ibid., p. 113.

[14] Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Struggle for Religious Legitimacy,” Carnegie Middle East Center, Sept 12, 2022, p. 2. 

[15] Ibid,. p. 4.

[16] Ibid., p. 3. 

[17] Kjetil Selvik & Iman Amirteimour, “The Big Man Muqtada al-Sadr: Leading the Street in Iraq Under Limited Statehood,” Third World Thematics: a TWQ Journal, (2021) p. 7.

[18] Pierre-Jean Luizard, “The Sadrists in Iraq: Challenging the United States, the Marjaiyya, and Iran,” in The Shia Worlds and Iran, Ed. Sabrina Mervin(London: Saqi Books, 2011) p. 258. 

[19] Robin-D’Cruz, “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Struggle for Religious Legitimacy,” p. 3.

[20] Ibid., pp. 3-4. 

[21] Kalantari, “Protecting the Citadel of Islam in the Modern Era” pp. 220-2.

[22] Bayless, Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?” p. 143.

[23] Luizard, “The Sadrists in Iraq” p. 260. 

[24] Cockburn, Muqtada, pp. 128-9.

[25] Nimrod Rapheli, “Understanding Muqtada al-Sadr,” Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2004) p. 36.

[26] Luizard, “The Sadrists in Iraq” p. 263-5.

[27] Bayless, “Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?” p. 147.

[28] Matthew J. Godwin, “Political Inclusion in Unstable Contexts: Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq’s Sadrist Movement,” Contemporary Arab Affairs Vol 5, No 3 (Fall 2012) p. 451.

[29] Luizard, “The Sadrists in Iraq” p. 266.

[30] Renad Mansour & Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, “The Sadrist Movement in Iraq: Between Protest and Power Politics,” Chatham House Research Papers (Fall 2022) p. 8.

[31] Lahib Higel, “Iraq’s Surprise Elections Results,” International Crisis Group, Nov 16, 2021,

[32] Mansour & Robin-D’Cruz, “The Sadrist Movement in Iraq,” p. 9. 

[33] Selvik & Amirteimour, “The Big Man Muqtada al-Sadr,” p. 6. 

[34] Bayless, “Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?” p. 150; Robin-D’Cruz, “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Struggle for Religious Legitimacy,” p. 5.

[35] Selvik & Amirteimour, “The Big Man Muqtada al-Sadr,” p. 6.

[36] Ibid., p. 7. 

[37] Robin-D’Cruz, “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Struggle for Religious Legitimacy,” p. 4.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Oornky, “Muqtada al-Sadr and Ali Khamenei”