Cultural Antecedents of the Leftist-Sadrist Alliance: A case study of Sadrist institution building

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, University of Edinburgh

In 2015, the Shi‘i Islamist Sadrist movement, led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, formed an unexpected alliance with Iraq’s secular-leftist forces. This alliance began as a social movement coalition jointly staging protests against the muhasasa ta’ifia (the quota system that has entrenched sectarianism and corruption in Iraq’s political system), and developed into an electoral alliance that emerged as the largest list in Iraq’s May 2018 elections. This was a radical reorientation for an Islamist movement previously characterized by a deeply hostile posture towards Iraq’s secular cultural and political elites.[1] Thus, the leftist-Sadrist alliance, and its integration with Iraq’s secular-leftist cultural domains,[2] challenged dominant frameworks for explaining Iraqi politics. These have tended to focus on the strategic ‘power politics’ of a narrow political elite. By contrast, the leftist-Sadrist alliance revealed unforeseen potential for complex forms of political struggle with deeper social roots and cultural antecedents.

Analyses of the Sadrist movement have similarly focused on elite dimensions of Sadrist politics, or on the movement’s paramilitary wing, to the exclusion of other Sadrist actors and forms of practice.[3] Less attention has been paid to the cultural dimension of the Sadrist movement, to its intellectuals, journalists, and other cultural activists, and the sorts of institutions, practices, and discourses in which they are engaged. Moreover, the potential role of these cultural strata in shaping Sadrist politics has not been explored. Consequently, the leftist-Sadrist alliance has typically been portrayed as a merely ‘instrumental coalition,’[4] or a tactical intra-elite strategic barging,[5] lacking deeper social and cultural dimensions.

By contrast, this essay uses a case study of Sadrist institution building to explore the cultural dimension of the movement.[6] It will also suggest ways in which this overlooked stratum of cultural activists contributed to shaping Sadrist politics by linking these social processes to the later development of the leftist-Sadrist alliance. This case study focuses on the Sadrist Foundation (mu’assast al-shahidayn al-sadrayn, Foundation hereafter) in Baghdad.  In 2009, Muqtada approached a well-known Iraqi public intellectual, Sa’ib ‘Abd al-Hamid, and persuaded him to take over leadership of the Foundation with a view to transforming it into a bridge between the Sadrists and Iraq’s secular-liberal cultural elites. One prominent Sadrist intellectual who worked with ‘Abd al-Hamid during this period told the author that the latter’s tenure between 2009-2013 had been a ‘golden age’ for the Foundation.[7]

Despite resistance to his appointment from some elements within the Sadrist movement, one important effect of this experiment at the Foundation was greater social embeddedness between elements of the Sadrist movement and Iraq’s secular intelligentsia. This, in turn, was a factor in the later development of the leftist-Sadrist alliance. New social relationships and ideological frameworks were developed as a result of secular-Sadrist interactions that occurred via the Foundation and its projects. However, this case also points to great internal contestation of Sadrist politics between competing views over its orientation towards other sections of Iraqi society and political groups. Consequently, when conceptualizing Sadrist ideological transformation, it should be recognized these processes, and their effects, are unstable and unevenly distributed throughout the movement.        

Based on this case study, it is also argued here that a longer historical perspective[8] on the leftist-Sadrist alliance suggests it was more than a merely ‘instrumental coalition’ between political elites shorn of deeper social and cultural roots. Rather, while strategic political interests and tactical calculations were important in the alliance’s formation, it also contained a crucial cultural dimension that unfolded within social sites outside elite political domains. This more complex form of political struggle on cultural terrain indicates that a broader range of actors and forms of practice were implicated in the formation of this instance of strategic coalition politics in Iraq than has hitherto been recognized.

Sa’ib ‘Abd al-Hamid and The Sadrist Foundation[9] 

The leftist-Sadrist alliance was a cross-ideological coalition that involved the Islamist Sadrist movement in the public performance of new forms of symbolic and ideological politics. These new practices were shaped largely by Iraq’s secular intelligentsia, who defined the coalition’s secular and universalistic politics. This cross-ideological alignment was predicated on deeper processes of social integration between parts of the Sadrist movement and Iraq’s secular intelligentsia that can be traced back to 2009, and to Sadrist institution building on cultural terrain. Here, the story of Sa’ib ‘Abd al-Hamid and the Sadrist Foundation is used to unpack this integrative process.   

In the early post-2003 period, the Sadrist Foundation was under the direct supervision of Sheikh Akram al-Ka’bi, one of Muqtada’s most trusted allies, head of the Office of the Martyr al-Sadr (OMS) and second in command of the Sadrist paramilitary organization Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM). The Foundation’s activities were primarily concerned with producing propaganda and religious indoctrination materials in support of JAM, such as the Sadrists’ paper al-Hawza (famously shut down by Paul Bremmer in 2004)[10] and the Sadrists’ radio station. In 2007, the Foundation was caught up in a power struggle within the Sadrist movement, as al-Ka’bi and Qais al-Khaza’li split from JAM to form Harakat al-Nujaba’ and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq respectively. The Ka’bi-Khaza’li splinter group seized control of the Foundation and the Sadrist radio station, until Muqtada eventually sent JAM fighters to take them back. Muqtada then appointed Sheikh Salman al-Fureiji, head of OMS in Sadr City at the time, as the Foundation’s interim manager. However, the chaos engendered by the struggle over the Foundation resulted in ‘an administrative vacuum and a hibernation of the Foundation’s activities,’ according to one senior Sadrist official at the Foundation.[11]

Sa’ib ‘Abd al-Hamid would eventually takeover as director of the Foundation in 2010, but he was not a normal appointment for the Sadrist movement. Sa‘ib Mohammad ‘Abd al-Hamid[12] is an unusual figure in his own right, being a public intellectual who converted from Sunni Islam to Shi‘ism. He was born in Anbar province in 1956 and was raised in a Sunni religious family. In his youth he was influenced by Arabist currents and later by Sunni Islamist trends (particularly Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb). However, following his conversion to Twelver Shi‘ism in his thirties, ‘Abd al-Hamid increasingly distanced himself from the Shi‘i Islamist movements that predominated around the time of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Today, he situates himself within a liberal-Islamic current outside established political and religious-doctrinal frameworks. Like many lay intellectuals within Islamist currents, ‘Abd al-Hamid experienced his socialization within an Iraqi intellectual field characterized by a strong secular inheritance.[13] He studied physics at the University of Baghdad in the 1970s, before moving into the field of Islamic Sciences in the 1980s.

The context preceding ‘Abd al-Hamid’s appointment to the Foundation was a turbulent period for the Sadrist movement. Between 2006 and 2009, the numerous splits within JAM were compounded by a series of major political and military setbacks that left the Sadrist movement politically isolated and militarily weakened.[14] Muqtada himself retreated into exile in the Iranian city of Qom. It was from this precarious position that Muqtada would announce a reorientation of the movement towards what he called ‘cultural resistance’.[15] One effect of this cultural turn was greater efforts to engage with Iraq’s secular-liberal cultural elites with whom the movement had a deeply antagonistic relationship post-2003. Thus, in March 2009, Muqtada approached ‘Abd al-Hamid, who was residing in Qom as a political refugee, and sought to persuade him to become the Foundation’s new permanent director.

Muqtada’s initial approach was made through Sheikh Mahmud al-Jiyashi (then head of Muqtada’s Private Office in Qom) and an old friend of ‘Abd al-Hamid’s. However, initially, ‘Abd al-Hamid refused Muqtada’s offer because of his ideological differences with the Sadrist movement and its role in some of the worst sectarian violence of the civil war. Nevertheless, he agreed to meet Shaykh Jiyashi for dinner at Muqtada’s offices, and, upon arrival, was told that Muqtada was present and insisted on meeting with him and pressing his case. After listening to the Sadrist leader, ‘Abd al-Hamid again refused the offer and, in doing so, delineated his ideological differences with the Islamist movement, telling Muqtada:

I am different from you in my ideological orientations. First, you hold Sadr I and Sadr II[16] as sacred religious marja‘ to be imitated [taqlid] and followed. Whereas I regard them as respected and wise men, symbols of modern Iraq, deserving of serious study. Second, your doctrine is an internationalist Islamist creed, looking to the concept of the unified Muslim community [ummah]. Whereas I have a nationalist and humanist vision, my ideology is that of the nation Iraq with all its peoples and land. I believe that what is called al-umma al-islamiyya is a great deceit, just like the lie of the ‘united Arab nation’ led by the Arab nationalists. Third, because of your Islamist vision you do not appreciate the threat of Iran’s projects inside Iraq. Whereas I think that these projects are a threat to the nation and could be more dangerous in this regard than the current US occupation.

Muqtada’s response to these objections took ‘Abd al-Hamid by surprise:

He [Muqtada] spoke words that surprised me, and perhaps they also shocked those of his followers who were present. He said: ‘Do you realize that since I assumed this task, I have been hoping to meet a man who would speak just as you have now spoken to me?’

Muqtada offered to give ‘Abd al-Hamid complete control of the Foundation and promised that neither he nor any of his advisors or other Sadrist leaders would interfere in his work.

By recruiting ‘Abd al-Hamid, Muqtada proposed to transform the Foundation into a bridge between the Sadrists and Iraq’s secular cultural domains. Thus, he told ‘Abd al-Hamid:

It is no secret to you that the name of Sadrist trend is an unacceptable name from the cultural perspective, people call them barbarians and backwards, so at least if we had an institute of cultural activity, it would reflect another contrasting image, it would contribute to changing this image which aggravates me a lot. At least they will say they have people who can read and write.

The project Muqtada had in mind also reveals his interest in building up the movement’s cultural capacities, to encourage the development of Sadrist intellectuals, journalists and academics who could participate in Iraq’s cultural and intellectual fields (also see Haddad in this collection).

‘Abd al-Hamid requested a couple of weeks to think about his decision. During this time, he visited the Foundation and met with its staff. He found the institute was a spacious building with multiple wings housing about 150 employees. As ‘Abd al-Hamid recalled:

Dozens of young members were distributed throughout the departments of the institute, but without really knowing what their tasks were. The cultural energies of university professors, writers, and journalists were scattered and lost. All, without exception, were from modest working-class backgrounds and poor, sha‘biyya neighborhoods of Baghdad.

‘Abd al-Hamid decided to take up al-Sadr’s offer and assumed leadership of the Foundation. He immediately set about a fundamental reorganization, replacing the various departments with research centers with greater administrative autonomy. The new institutional structure was made up of: the Center for Qur’anic Sciences and Studies; the al-‘Ahd Center for Literature and the Arts; the Center for Women’s Opportunities; the Friends House for Children (Dar Sadiqi lil-Atfal) which published a monthly magazine under the title: ‘My Friend’ (Sadiqi); and al-‘Ahd Newspaper, a weekly political and cultural paper. Finally, the Iraqi Scientific Center was created with a view to inviting prominent Iraqi scholars to publish research, particularly in the social sciences.

‘Abd al-Hamid’s task was to try and create a cultural dialogue between the Sadrist movement and wider elements of Iraqi society, particularly the intelligentsia and artistic domains. Muhammad Abu Tamhid al-Sa’di, who headed the Culture Department of the Foundation before ‘Abd al-Hamid’s arrival, became a close ally for ‘Abd al-Hamid during his tenure in charge. Al-Sa’di told the author:

We tried to resist extremism and fundamentalism, and to attract artists and writers and intellectuals from outside the Sadrist trend, to open up to others and to change the negative image of the Sadrist trend in cultural and intellectual circles.

In this task, the project achieved some success. For instance, the Iraqi Scientific Center would publish some 25 scholarly works, including titles by the leftist political psychologist Faris Kamal Nadhmi (who later emerged as one of the key ideologues of the leftist-Sadrist alliance) and the renowned Iraqi philosopher and Marxist intellectual the late Hussam al-Alusi.

However, many of the cultural activities ‘Abd al-Hamid introduced were radical and challenging from the Sadrist perspective. He told the author: ‘Some of what I brought in was a shock to many of the Sadrists.’ One particularly controversial example was the forming of a theater group and an annual theater festival which was attended by many of the prominent troupes in Baghdad. As ‘Abd al-Hamid explained:

It wasn’t only music that was strictly prohibited for them [the Sadrists], but also the entrance of women without hijab into the Foundation as actresses or in the audience of the plays which was a major prohibition.

As a consequence of such endeavors, ‘Abd al-Hamid faced increasing levels of resistance from those within the Sadrist movement opposed to his leadership of the Foundation. Al-Sa’di stated that:

‘Abd al-Hamid did not find active and open support from all the departmental heads at the Foundation since he did not belong to the Sadrist trend, he was independent, whereas the existing leadership of the Foundation were hard-line Sadrists and somewhat fundamentalist.

Thus, ‘Abd al-Hamid’s leadership of the Foundation turned the institution into a contested cultural space in which the contours of an intra-Sadrist social struggle, between advocates of two competing visions for the movement and its relationship to wider elements of Iraqi society, became visible.     

In the face of this opposition, ‘Abd al-Hamid held a crisis meeting with Shaykh Jiyashi in late 2013, in which he expressed his frustrations:

I told the Shaykh, ‘I have come to understand that Muqtada is boxed in between his followers, and not only the elders and those close to him, but also the wider body of followers. The man [Muqtada] has a vision that he cannot implement against all this opposition.’

Muqtada reluctantly agreed to let ‘Abd al-Hamid step down from the Foundation. However, the two reached a new compromise whereby the Iraqi Scientific Center would be made entirely independent from the Foundation and continue to operate under ‘Abd al-Hamid’s control (albeit still funded by Muqtada).

Thus, although ‘Abd al-Hamid’s designs for the Foundation were constrained by internal Sadrist resistance, his project nevertheless entailed the development of stronger social linkages between cultural activists in the Sadrist movement and Iraq’s secular intelligentsia. One example which illustrates this process, and its importance for the leftist-Sadrist alliance, is that of leftist intellectual Faris Kamal Nadhmi. Nadhmi regularly attended the Foundation, and later the Iraqi Scientific Center, from 2010. His experience interacting with the Sadrists in these locales encouraged him to theorize and advocate for a leftist-Sadrist alliance which he framed in Gramscian terms.[17] One of the alliance’s key political architects told the author that Nadhmi’s writings had ‘created the intellectual atmosphere for this relationship [between the Iraqi left and the Sadr movement.’[18]


This case study of Sa’ib ‘Abd al-Hamid and the Sadrist Foundation reveals how the leftist-Sadrist alliance incorporated complex forms of social struggle on cultural terrain, and was not limited to a merely ‘instrumental’ and tactical negotiation between political elites. ‘Abd al-Hamid’s tenure at the Foundation began a process of building stronger social linkages between cultural activists in the Sadrist movement and Iraq’s secular intelligentsia. These relationships, and new ideological frameworks that emerged from these interactions, came to play an important role in the formation of the leftist-Sadrist alliance.

Equally significant, ‘Abd al-Hamid’s story shines a light on the emergence of an intra-Sadrist conflict implicating competing visions for the movement’s role in Iraqi society and politics.  This points to a seldom-recognized diversity within the Sadrist trend in terms of cultural orientations and political perspectives. Nevertheless, this diversity, and the greater intra-movement contestation of Sadrist politics it entails, also point a potential instability in Sadrist politics. In other words, transformations in the movement’s ideological orientation do not reflect homogenous shifts, but internally contested process of change that are localized in particular strata (i.e., the movement’s cultural and intellectual activists).


[1] The Sadrists and the Iraqi left lined up on opposing sides of the struggle for power in Iraq. The left, ensconced in a secular-liberal cultural elite, anathematized the Sadrists’ conservative cultural puritanism and messianic religiosity. The Sadrists meanwhile, saw the left as collaborators with the occupation because of their involvement with the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Nor did the Sadrists exhibit much interest in the cultural capital of the left at a time when Shi‘i religious and Islamist ideology and symbolic discourses were ascendant. Rather, the early post-2003 Sadrist movement pursued a strategy of differentiation from secular and mainstream Iraqi society and violently targeted aspects of Iraq’s secular-liberal cultural life. See Juan Cole, ‘The United States and Shi‘ite Religious Factions in Post-Ba’thist Iraq,’ Middle East Journal 57, no. 4 (Autumn, 2003): 559-560, 565. 

[2] A more detailed analysis of the leftist-Sadrist alliance itself can be found in Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, ‘Social Brokers and Leftist–Sadrist Cooperation in Iraq’s Reform Protest Movement: Beyond Instrumental Action,’  The International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 51, no. 2 (May 2019): 257-280.

[3] For examples, see Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (London: Scribner, 2008); 11 July, 2006, “Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr: Spoiler or stabiliser,” International Crisis Group; Amatzia Baram, ‘Sadr the Father, Sadr the Son, the “Revolution in Shi‘ism,” and the Struggle for Power in the Hawzah of Najaf” in Ronen Zeidel, Amatzia Baram, and Achim Rohde eds, Iraq Between Occupations : Perspectives from 1920 to the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[4] Damian Doyle, ‘Pulling and Gouging: The Sadrist Line’s Adaptable and Evolving Repertoire of Contention,’ in New Opposition in the Middle East, eds. Dara Conduit and Shahram Akbarzadeh (Palgrave Macmillan), 48.

[5] For example, see Kirk H. Sowell, ‘Iraq’s Fake Populism and Anti-sectarianism,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 9, 2016. ; and Michael Weiss, ‘Moqtada al-Sadr, the Donald Trump of Iraq,’ Daily Beast, April 13, 2017.

[6] This paper draws on interviews conducted by the author during fieldwork in Iraq during the summer of 2017 and subsequent interviews and conversations with key actors involved in the leftist-Sadrist alliance.

[7] Based on interviews conducted by the author with Mohammed Abu Tamhid al-Sa’idi.

[8] This picks up Michaelle Browers’ call to investigate the longer intellectual backstories to cases of leftist-Islamist political cooperation, noting that party politics is at the ‘mass production’ end of the ideological process, and not the site of creative and innovative ideological developments. Michaelle L. Browers, Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 9-10.

[9] Interviews with Sa’ib ‘Abd a-Hamid conducted by the author.

[10] “Closure of al-Sadr daily stirs protests” 28 May 2004, al-Jazeera.

[11] Based on interviews conducted by the author with Mohammed Abu Tamhid al-Sa’idi.

[12] All information presented here is drawn from interviews and conversations conducted by the author with Sa’ib ‘Abd al-Hamid.

[13] Stéphane Lacroix, Awakening Islam: The politics of religious dissent in contemporary Saudi Arabia (London: Harvard University Press, 2011) 31 & 136.

[14] Muqtada’s reputation, and that of the Sadrist movement more broadly, was severely damaged by the participation of JAM in some of the worst sectarian violence and criminality of the Sunni-Shi‘i civil war which peaked between 2006-2008. However, the Sadrist were also locked in a struggle for power within the Shi‘i Islamist political and paramilitary spheres. JAM became enmeshed in a bitter struggle in Baghdad and the south with government officials and security forces, many of whom were loyal to SCIRI and Badr. In one such confrontation, in August 2007, JAM fighters engaged in a gun battle with Iraqi security forces guarding the Imam Hussain shrine in Karbala, killing numerous Shi‘i pilgrims who were caught in the crossfire. In response to the public outrage, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki led a force of policeman from Baghdad to Karbala where they arrested hundreds of Sadrist officials and militiamen.  Muqtada, meanwhile, announced a temporary freeze on JAM’s activities and a reorganisation of the militia. Maliki, increasingly siding with SCIRI and Badr, came to regard displacing JAM from Basra as a strategic priority. In March 2009, he launched a successful operation, Charge of the Knights (Saulat al-Fursan), against JAM positions in the city. This was followed by a string of Sadrist defeats across the south and even in their Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.

[15] ‘Iraqi cleric Al-Sadr interviewed on “armed resistance, political process, Iran’s role,” Al-Jazeera TV, BBC Monitoring Middle East-Political, March 31, 2008.

[16] Sadr I refers to Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Sadr II refers to Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr.

[17] Based on extensive interviews and discussions between the author and Faris Kamal Nadhmi since 2015.

[18] Interview conducted by the author with Jassim al-Helfi in Iraq in August 2017.