Tolerance may be defined in a myriad of ways, but it is by no means a great stretch to agree on Imam Sadr’s vision of tolerance. It is, according to Imam Sadr, an inherently humanist principle: not merely a way of conduct but a philosophy of life, one that permeated all areas of his life like a ripple that widened with his widening intellectual vision and human experience. When I speak of tolerance in Imam Sadr’s thought, I recall images that reflect his tolerance and which I would like to share with you.
The first image is that ever since first arriving in Lebanon, Imam Sadr made it his mission to be open unto others, to accept them and sympathize with their suffering. He found in Lebanon, with its multiple denominations and diverse communities, fertile ground that is perfectly positioned for the civilizing experiment. But the success of this experiment hinges on the co-existence and tolerance of the Lebanese people – Christians and Muslims. Imam Sadr underlines this fact, stating that “Lebanon has long known tolerance and the co-existence of Muslims and Christians,” founded on his deep-seated belief that “tolerance is a religious duty that all monotheistic religions have enshrined.”
Based on this absolute faith in the ability of Lebanon and its people to rise above the hatreds and grudges of the past, he opened channels of communication by participating in a requiem mass for the late Pope John XXIII during which he addressed the Peace on Earth (Pacem in terris) encyclical issued by His Holiness. He explained the importance of religion in strengthening global peace and stability, commenting that “we, in Lebanon, should invest in love and tolerance, and offer them as a prayer and tribute to the soul of His Holiness, the Pope.” As a result, we can deduce a more vital interpretation of tolerance for Imam Sadr; that is the promotion of the power of brotherhood in a united country through love and tolerance. Our world today is in dire need of a language that raises the human person up, a language that restores to the human person their humanity, because violence and bigotry and racism have become predominant in societies, and divided their members. For this reason, tolerance in the discourse of Imam Sadr consisted of a different vocabulary that spoke of building national assets that rallied and united and promoted a strong society.
The second image is that after the wave of vendettas spread far and wide in Lebanon, and swept the innocent, Imam Sadr led a campaign against this custom and its devotees. On June 15, 1975, he reconciled two families to stanch the bloodshed, observing that “the purpose of divine missions is first to disseminate peace on earth, and then to help humanity emerge out of the darkness and into the light.” Imam Sadr explains this as “emergence from the darkness of ignorance, poverty, sickness, obscurantism, filth, sloth, oppression, abuse and all kinds of darkness.” Since peace is founded on purity of heart and mind, on rejecting enmity which begets corruption, this implies that peace is inextricably linked to tolerance. This leads to “the light of knowledge, wellbeing, health, progress, cleanliness, diligence, justice, equality and all kinds of light… Once we realize this we can understand that what is essential to all pursuits and advances in the fields of religion, sociology and sciences is to prepare the ground for them, that is to create peace.” He emphasized that “no good can come for societies from division and disputes.” As such, tolerance and reconciliation are highlighted in the vocabulary of Imam Sadr in paving the way for a climate of safety, peace and unity.
The third image is of June 28, 1975 when Imam Moussa Sadr bid farewell to his family to seek refuge in the house of God because the belligerents in Lebanon had desecrated the country’s soil. He staged a sit-in, he fasted, he prayed and he pleaded... using the culture of non-violence as a means to awaken people’s conscience and remind them that the country was God’s trust on this earth. “This action, should God grant it success, will herald a new chapter in Lebanon’s history, now that the public has grown weary of the sound of gunfire, and realized the hideousness of violence used against their countrymen. It heralds the chapter of overcoming dominance, of authority through moderation rather than force, and a return to human integrity and human mercy,” he said during his sit-in. He did not resort to reciprocal violence, but rather knew that the wave of anger and fanaticism was not the answer. He staged the sit-in inspired by his absolute conviction that the tools of nonviolence were better than the weapons of war, and that the energy of faith had an influence and consequences on him and his environment.
This is the culture of nonviolence, the position of peaceful resistance, part of the constructive initiative that paves the way for discourse that rejects disputes and replaces them with mercy and compassion. Imam Sadr goes even further when he places himself and the Lebanese people before “our great historical responsibility to the country, to history and to future generations, that we may resign ourselves, muster our energy and safeguard our country, each according to their ability.”
Therefore, tolerance cannot be said to have been mere idle talk to Imam Sadr. This noble value rather possessed far-ranging dimensions and horizons for him. He understood early on its effectiveness and power to shape a lively will that brings the Lebanese closer: “Lebanon is intrinsically the land of tolerance and diversity… that draws from the crises that it faces new strength to secure its survival.”
This triptych is indisputable proof that Imam Sadr was propelled in his life and career by a charge of tolerance, mercy and compassion. And his humanist experience in openness, dialogue and co-existence is a perfect example of it. After all, these values cannot be achieved in the absence of tolerance, acceptance and virtue.
There is no better conclusion than Imam Sadr’s own words on tolerance and his long-term view of a bright future. “We want to live together as Muslim and Christian citizens, regardless of what happened in the recent and distant past, and regardless of the bloodshed and destruction. What happened was not our own doing or the outcome of our will. We wash our hands of it and insist on coexisting side by side in a united country, living out our aspirations, values and civilizing mission.”
Message during the “Religions at the Service of Humanity” Conference, Paris 15/10/2016