Musa al-Sadr, widely known as Imam Musa, was instrumental in improving the lot of the ordinary Shia in southern Lebanon while reducing the power of traditional Shia elites. His unremitting opponent was Kamil al-Asad, the powerful Shia political boss from the southern town of al-Tayyiba who had long grown accustomed to power. Kamil-bey (“bey” is a Turkish honorific) accurately viewed al-Sadr as a serious threat to his political power base, which was built on a foundation of subordination and patronage. Physically imposing and a man of intelligence, courage, personal charm, enormous energy, and great complexity, al-Sadr attracted a wide array of supporters. He set out to establish himself as the paramount leader of the Shia community. When he arrived in Lebanon in the late 1950s, the community was most known for its poverty and general underdevelopment. Al-Sadr exhorted his followers not to accept their deprivation fatalistically; he believed that as long as his fellow Shi"i could speak out through their religion they could overcome their condition. As he once observed, “Whenever the poor involve themselves in a social revolution it is a confirmation that injustice is not predestined”. One of his first significant acts was to establish a vocational institute in the southern town of Burj al-Shimali. The institute, constructed at a cost of about $165,000, became an important symbol of Musa al-Sadr’s leadership, and it survives to this day under the competent supervision of his sister, known commonly as Sitt (or Lady) Rabab, one of the most admired women in the Lebanese Shia community.
Musa al-Sadr recognized the insecurity of the Maronites and acknowledged their need to maintain their monopoly hold on the presidency. Yet he was critical of this Christian community for its arrogant stance toward the Muslims, and particularly the Shia. He argued that the Maronite-dominated government had neglected the South, where half the Shia lived. He was anticommunist, probably not only on principled grounds but because the various Communist organizations were among his prime competitors for Shia recruits. While the two branches of the Ba"th Party (pro-Iraqi and pro-Syrian) were making significant inroads among the Shia of the South and of the Beirut suburbs, he appropriated their pan-Arab slogans. Although the movement he founded, Harakat al-Mahrumin and its Amal militia, was aligned with the ideologically eclectic and radical Lebanese National Movement in the early stages of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1976), he found its Druze leader, Kamal Jumblatt, irresponsible and exploitative of the Shi"a and willing “to combat the Christians to the last Shia.