On 10 May 2023, Mehdi Ali, a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at the University of Southern California, presented a research paper titled “Before ‘After Virtue’: The Philosophy of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr”. In this research seminar, Ali highlighted the important but relatively unknown philosophical contributions of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, an influential 20th century Shia Islamic thinker from Iraq. He drew insightful parallels between al-Sadr’s ideas on morality and ethics and those of the modern philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Ali noted how both thinkers are deeply critical of modernity and see potential in reviving and adapting Aristotelian virtue ethics to address contemporary moral problems. According to Ali, al-Sadr believed the Islamic ethical and moral tradition could provide solutions to problems created by the two dominant political philosophies of his time – capitalism and communism. Like MacIntyre, al-Sadr advocated forming small communities that consciously reject the values and institutions of modernity.
However, al-Sadr differed in arguing that religion, specifically Islam, should be the guiding force to govern society. To underscore al-Sadr’s interest in implementing his philosophical ideas, Ali explained that al-Sadr co-founded the underground al-Da‘wa Party in 1958 as a response to rising Communist sentiment in Iraq. The party aimed to establish an Islamic state in the country as a real-world embodiment of al-Sadr’s vision. In summary, Ali’s paper analysed al-Sadr’s thoughtful engagement with Western philosophy and compared his religiously-grounded virtue ethics framework to MacIntyre’s more secular perspective. It provided rare insight into an important but overlooked Islamic thinker whose work creatively integrated Aristotelian and Augustinian ideas to critique modernity.
Watch the seminar
Mehdi Ali is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at USC. Mehdi graduated from Stanford University with a J.D. in Law, M.A. in Sociology, and BA in International Relations. His research focuses on Islamic legal and exegetical discourses using primary source materials in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. Mehdi is a former Fulbright Scholar, FLAS Fellow, Chappell Lougee Scholar, and has received research funding from Stanford’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and Stanford’s Center for South Asia Studies. Mehdi has published articles on Islamic law and theology in several leading academic journals, including the Journal of Shi’a Islamic Studies. Mehdi is also a co-author of the first major human rights investigation of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan.