On numerous occasions since 2003 the figurehead of the Sadrist Line, Muqtada al-Sadr, has removed himself from the public eye for periods of itikaaf, or “seclusion”. The practice provides insights into the role of his leadership in the wider movement. When he enters seclusion, al-Sadr undertakes a private spiritual retreat to an undisclosed location for weeks or months. Seclusion features prominently in activist discourse and its meaning is constructed in several ways.
Frequently, the publicly stated purpose of seclusion is to distance the cleric from worldly politics as a means of expressing his profound disappointment or frustration – perhaps even disgust – with the state of affairs in Iraq. Several activists have informed me that they interpret seclusion in this way, or as a contemplative practice that allows al-Sadr to plan his approach to difficult issues. By contrast, some commentary has characterised seclusion as evidence of poor temperament and unpredictability, cowardice, subservience to external actors (usually Tehran), a need to invest time in a sub-par religious education, and even immaturity, all of which are consistent with the generally negative international framing of al-Sadr.
An alternative perspective is provided by an activist who told me that Sadrists consider the seclusion practice to be a necessary part of self-reflective, considered leadership that balances religious and political life. On each occasion that al-Sadr enters seclusion, activists look forward to a significant message or action upon his return to public life, presumably the product of quiet contemplation and careful consideration of weighty matters. In this view, it’s leadership with mystery and drama. Seclusion may also serve more practical purposes. As the critical observers suggest, it may be a means of hiding from enemies (including foreign occupation forces).
My activist contact also suggested to me that seclusion is instrumental in the sense that it provides space for activists, participants, and leaders within the wider social movement to make decisions for themselves. During seclusion there are no public statements, no responses to questions from the faithful – and no directions to the organisers of protest actions.
Muqtada al-Sadr announced a period of seclusion in the days following the 30 April 2016 infiltration of the Green Zone, an event in which he had played a significant symbolic role. The activist explained to me that this was a deliberate move designed to create space, both for the government (to act on the demands of the pro-reform protesters) and for the activists (to make their own decisions and organise their next actions). The purpose of seclusion, I was informed, is “preparing the people to lead themselves”. Furthermore, al-Sadr frequently urges participants in the wider social movement to self-organise by asking, “What will you do when I will be killed by the enemies?” Not if, but when.
In this interpretation of the practice of seclusion, al-Sadr provides moral guidance to protest actions – including, in the case of the Green Zone infiltration, through symbolic personal participation – and then steps back to create space for others to discuss, organise, decide, and act. To engage, that is, in praxis. For at least some Sadrist activists, the practice of seclusion represents self-reflective, considered, and even empowering leadership.