Sunday, 4 July 2010

The death of an Ayatollah

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah died in Lebanon today at the age of 75. He was a giant of the Middle East and former spiritual advisor to Hezbollah. I have enclosed below a background note I had written (based on multiple sources) in advance of meetings (by others) with him. 


“If the US was to persist in the cycle in its cycle of violence, occupation, and antagonism towards Muslims and Arab issues, and continue supporting Israel, then the conditions might engender more than one September 11. The various downtrodden peoples may submit for a long time to pressure, but beware of a powerful backlash upon their reawakening.”
September 1, 2004 (Asharq al-Awsat)

“If Lebanon were overthrown the Arab region would be deprived of one of its very few democracies. Lebanon’s cultural wealth and variety gives it an ability to influence its environment which exceeds that of any other country in this region, and its openness to the outside world is greater than that of any other Arab country. All this would be lost if Lebanon disappeared.”
May 13, 1991 (Monday Morning)

“We do not believe in violence unless it becomes absolutely necessary. What we’d like to see is dialogue bringing us together. We should have peace through dialogue.”
May 12, 2004 (Newsweek)

Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah is a ubiquitous Shiite religious leader who has particular influence and resonance within Lebanon specifically. His continuity as a spiritual leader since before the civil war through today places him in a unique position. 

Brief Biography

            Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah was born in Najaf in 1935 to Lebanese parents from South Lebanon, with both a theological background and a respected lineage. His father Sayid Abdu Ra’uf became a mujtahid, and did his primary studies at the seminary in Najaf, where Fadlallah spent his formative years. The eldest child, Fadlallah was able to master Arabic prose and colloquial expression, and at the age of ten was writing poetry; in fact even at this early age he demonstrated a tendency towards countering traditional leanings as he focused on free verse poetry. In the 1950s when Fadlallah was being shaped into the jurist he is today, a significant battle was being waged between communism and traditional Islam. Countering this influence, Fadlallah drew upon and incorporated into his approach the concept of liberation theology in Shiite Islam, not unlike a similar trend that has occurred in Latin America amongst Catholics.
            He had many prominent classmates including the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was killed in 1980 by Baathist elements in Iraq. Al-Sadr was instrumental in the founding of the Hizb al-Dawa a transnational Shiite Islamist group, that today forms part of the Iraqi government. This was a reformist Islamist group guided by two central publications (by al-Sadr), “Our Philosophy” and “Our Economy.” Due to his support for this group, Fadlallah did draw criticism from some communist circles on one hand and from conservative clerical elements on the other hand.
            Fadlallah returned to Lebanon in the 1960s and began preaching. He quickly established a number of institutions including the Islamic Law Institute. However, due to the fissures of Lebanon he became nomadic periodically. In the 1970s he was displaced from the Naba area in Beirut as it was overrun by Christian militias (led by Amin Gemayal); however, he initially remained to defend the area. This event continued somewhat of a split with another and more eminent Shi’a leader in the country Musa al-Sadr. Al-Sadr had reached a secret deal of evacuation of the area (voluntary for the Shiites, and forced for the Palestinians), much to the consternation of Fadlallah. Other disagreements with al-Sadr included opposition to the founding of the Shiite Muslim Council, and what he saw as a more sectarian approach in his leadership. Also, Fadlallah was much more serious in his estimation of the Israeli threat to the South itself. When al-Sadr disappeared in 1978, it removed Fadlallah from his shadow and he began to consolidate his influence. He had already been appointed earlier as the Representative of the Grand Ayatollah al-Khoie (in Najaf), entitling him to financial and institutional support.
             In the early 1980s Fadlallah became intertwined with the emergence of Hizbullah and helped in its creation (along with Iran) as an alternative to Amal. He supported Khomenei’s revolution, and encouraged al-Dawa in Lebanon to merge with Hizbullah. As the most prolific Shiite cleric in the country, Fadlallah soon became indistinguishable from Hizbullah, while emphasizing creatively a distance. Although many of its leaders were known to attend his sermons or organize at his Mosques, he would not be involved in the operational nature of its activities directly, but would sanction various tactics. For example he sanctioned both prior and afterwards the attacks on the Americans and French in principle, but opposed the incidents as they would lead to “greater destruction” for Lebanon. Similarly, even while he supported Hezbollah, he said, “It is not necessary that party organization be the only technique for advancing revolution.”
            His involvement with Hezbollah led to his targeting, and an attack on March 5 1985 of his apartment failed to kill him, but did result in around 100 deaths of civilians. As the war came to an end, he expanded upon the notion of political accommodation within a democracy and non-Islamic state, and advised Hezbollah to eventually participate in elections. He had an inherent suspicion of Syrian interest in the country, but normalized his relations with the regime, and today one of his main pulpits is the Sayda Zainab Mosque in Damascus. While Fadlallah throughout the 1980s and early 1990s would be considered the primary spiritual guide for the group (not in all senses, as there was always an allegiance to Ayatollah Khomenei), in 1995 a significant rift emerged between Hizbullah and Fadlallah, due to the latter’s assent to marja’iyya, akin to central referential status within the clerical universe of Ithna’ashiri Shiism, and his entry into the politics of clerical hierarchy. The rift was between Fadlallah and Iran centrally, pertaining to the authority now claimed by Ayatollah Khamenei as the leading Marja al-Taqlid (the leading reference for Shiites); Hezbollah also gave their allegiance to him.
            There has been a détente in recent years between the various parties, but Fadlallah has taken a subtle if not decidedly anti-Iranian stance, in terms of the clerical authority of the regime (see below). However, especially after the advent of the Iraq War and the deteriorating situation in Lebanon, Shiite unity has been emphasized above the “fitna” that emerged. At its height, however, a number of campaigns emerged accusing Fadlallah of sedition and working against Shiites. Today, and in recent years, it is more than common to have the leading Hezbollah members present at Fadlallah’s sermons.

Theological Background and Underpinnings

It is not the purpose of this document to outline the technical aspects of Fadlallah’s exegesis. For his specific religious training please refer to However, it should be noted that he studied in Najaf, and is much more disposed to that school and its theologians than those from Qum. For example, he was a student of Sayid Muhsin al-Hakim, one of the most prominent and leading Marjas of the 20th century, who influenced his anti-communism. Fadlallah has interacted with or studied with a plethora of prolific Ayatollahs in the Shiite community, and is not directed by one school or another.
            Unlike Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and Grand Ayatollah al-Khoie (d. 1992), Fadlallah adopted a theology of liberation, both in terms of economics and politics. However, his distance from those two figures should not be overstated. He has supported Ayatollah al-Sistani and the Najaf school versus Ayatollah Khamenei’s claims of overall Shiite leadership. And moreover, al-Khoie was a mentor to him during his studies in Najaf. In many senses he is a ‘traditionalist’ believing in the separation of clerical authority from political authority, but is a ‘radical’ in his promotion of religious revolutionary ideology. The example of Wilayet al-Faqih (or a state of the jurist) is central to this. While Fadlallah has been in agreement with many of the political ideas of the Iranian revolution, he has opposed the absolute conflation of clerical authority with politics. Khomenei was widely respected, but with his death in 1989, Fadlallah was not very supportive of his successor (Khamenei).
            In mainstream Shiite Islam, a learned scholar becomes a Mujtahid, meaning one who can make interpretations on religious matters. After further study he can rise to various levels, notably Hujatallah (proof of God), Ayatollah (sign of God), and Grand Ayatollah (Kubra) or Marja. At any given point, there emerges a Marja who has the widest allegiance amongst Shiites. It is up to individual followers to decide which Marja to follow, and this even devolves to a local level. Often in a country, such as in Iran, there will be different opinions released that contradict one another. One Ayatollah may recommend a practice, while another may say it is required. It is then often up to the believer to decide a course of action. Notwithstanding this, there is still an acknowledgement of certain clerics who are of preeminent knowledge, and recognized as such.
            In the mid-1990s with the passing of the then recognized preeminent Marja, al-Khoie, and several short-lived successors, Hezbollah and the Iranians supported the claim of Ayatollah Khamenei as the preeminent jurist. Fadlallah disagreed in terms of the person, nominating instead Ayatollah al-Sistani. Moreover, he differed in principle on this formalization of one recognized Marja as dictated in Iran: “The Iranian theologians believe that Iran is the only Shi’i Islamic authority”. Firstly, Shiite history often has concurrent leading jurists. Secondly, he rejected that decisions made on clerical authority should be done in the climate of Iran, which he viewed as marginalizing other Shiite arenas (i.e. Najaf). In fact, Fadlallah has felt that Qom (the center of Shiite learning in Iran) has often received too much preference at the expense of Najaf for example, which he feels is the rightful center of clerical authority. Foremost, however, Fadlallah while believing in an Islamic state, does not seem to espouse the Wilyat al-Faqih as an absolute principle. At the very least he rejects Khamenei’s leadership outside of Iran (unlike that for Khomenei). At most, he rejects direct clerical guardianship of the state. In any case, he preaches often against the Iranian model.

Theological and Political Positions

            Fadlallah is a learned scholar who has issued positions on a myriad of topics, none of which can be summarized or covered adequately in this space. However, there are comments to be made on several broad categories that can prove helpful.

An Islamic State

            Fadlallah is an unequivocal and consistent supporter of an Islamic state in principle: “As for the Islamic state, which represents a goal for all Muslims, it is subject to the objective circumstances that may or may not allow [its creation].” (Newsweek 2003) This for him is the natural order for an Islamic society, and he has criticized the application of non-Islamic sources of law. How can a society which is majority Muslim be ruled by a Christian President? Yet, Fadlallah’s theoretical approach is contradicted by what he sees as the reality in practice: “Sometimes there are obstacles that a revolution cannot eliminate.” This is in reference to the Islamic order in Iran. Although Fadlallah has opposed the Wilayat al-Faqih, or clerical rule, this does not contradict support for an Islamic state. For Fadlallah Islamism “allows the Muslim to free himself from the state of dualism: having a religious affiliation with Islam but a political affiliation with another ideology.” (1986)
            He has emphasized several obstacles. The first is the intra-Islamic dynamic in which you have a community split amongst Shiite and Sunni lines. The second is the existence of a pluralistic society which includes Christians. Fadlallah has promoted in the past a Dawlat al-Insan or “state of man” which is based on generic humanistic grounds and equality; yet, this is seen as an interim stage. For example, if any of these dynamics can be overcome, than presumably Fadlallah would endorse an Islamic state (see below Religious Diversity). In the mid-1980s Fadlallah was much more vocal in his theoretical exploration of an Islamic state, and emphasized that Christians would be protected. He proposed that instead of them being accorded the status of dhimmi, a long-term truce could be signed with the community as an equal.
Religious Diversity and Sectarianism

            Fadlallah on principle has opposed sectarianism and fitna (division), and laments that “Islamic countries are beset by internal squabbles.” (1995) He promotes the Christians and Jews as People of the Book, and thus protected in Islam. He has also emphasized as noted above the reality in Lebanon that requires balance. He has criticized from early on “the proliferation of Islamic movements, some reactionary, wanting to live as if it were five hundred or six hundred years ago…” (1986).
His call for unity is not just about Islam and he promotes a dialogue of mutual respect and exchange with other faiths.  However, his most severe criticisms are for intra-Muslim sectarianism which he feels is a form of tribalism that is antiquated, as elucidated in his positions (Al Bayynat). It devolves the conversation from “ideas and holy issues” to the discussion of privileges for this community or that. The relations become like between states, with each sect protecting its fiefdom. Today the sect has turned into a “distinct religion.” The title of Sunni and Shiite in his mind is inconsequential for one’s soul. Those who oppose Islamic unity are those who gain privilege from the sectarian system.
However, transcending sectarianism in Lebanon paves the way in some senses for further Islamicization and an Islamic state. The ability of Sunnis and Shiites to find common ground would mean that nearly 70% of the country would be in concert. Fadlallah does not say this explicitly, but in his calls for an Islamic state it has never been in the contexts of Shiites, and thus unity is a prerequisite for the next stage of evolution. Over ten years ago (1995), Fadlallah provided a unique insight in this regard: “An Islamic awakening growing out of the sense of Islamic unity could provide the impetus for future change.” This would fundamentally alter the conditions that block the creation of an Islamic state today.

Resistance and Injustice

In 1985 when asked about resistance to Israel, Fadlallah expounded, “If we make good use of it [resistance] there would be no problem regarding the objective of finishing Israel off.” He also viewed the “destruction of many Arab cities and towns” as inevitable in this fight (1986). There is no question that particularly in the early 80s and at the zenith of the Israeli presence in Lebanon in that decade, Fadlallah supported and helped facilitate the emergence of a violent resistance movement. However, unlike Amal, Hizbullah and Fadlallah’s support was not centered around sectarian interests, but aspired much more to an armed movement around jihad.
For Fadlallah, “Jihad is no different than any human and civilized concept of self-defense.” In fact, in his public advocacy, he emphasizes that “force is only turned to as a last resort.” He buttresses this thought with a common citation of Chapter 2 (verse 190) of the Qur’an: Lo! Allah loves not transgressors. However, in the 1980s when asked about certain actions which resulted in Israeli civilian deaths, he did emphasize that while this was regrettable that the circumstances of resistance needed to be taken into account. There is a unique position of the al-mustadfun (downtrodden) in Shiism, and there appears to be more leniency given by Fadlallah to these people to resolve their condition. The tactics of suicide bombing is sanctioned: “There is no difference between dying with a gun in your hand or exploding yourself.”
In fact, Fadlallah promoted self-sacrifice and suffering in the context of resistance. Shiism places strong emphasis on the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and that resonates through today during the ten days of Ashura, commemorating the event – this is when ceremonies of self-flagellation take place. Fadlallah has emphasized that instead of hurting oneself symbolically, one should seek to implement the qualities of justice that Imam Hussein embodied, and resist the type of injustice that characterized his killing (and channel sacrifice in this regard). In this reality, the downtrodden are both the Shiites, and the Palestinians, and in fact all the Arabs and Muslims, fighting in some sense the American order; it is a relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. However, Fadlallah does not only emphasize violent resistance, and says that resistance can also embody a peaceful form.

Women in Islam and Secularization

            Fadlallah represents a very liberal tradition amongst religious scholars in his approach to female participation in society. Even while he has supported calls for an Islamic state, it is not one of imposition. He is an ardent supporter of democracy. His position on woman is best summed up from his website:

The woman in Islam is a full human being in her mental and rational capabilities, and her mind is no less than that of a man. She has the right to learn reaching the highest levels of education in all academic and scientific fields. She also has all social , political and economic rights. She is an independent person economically speaking. She has the right to possess and make all business transactions without the supervision or authority of any man over her….She is also a political person that has the right to elect and be elected and represent the people who elect her.

            A woman can ascend to the Presidency. He does believe, however, that the veil is a religious obligation. It is not a burden but rather an expression of Islamic values. Unlike the secular West in his mind that promotes sexual freedom, Islam does not consider this a private matter of choice. Although Fadlallah does have progressive tendencies, he does believe that a woman is best suited to motherhood and care of the child. In the West he says the adoption by women of male roles leads to “psychological crisis, the marriage problems, and the complicated emotional situations.”

    1 comment:

    1. (As the above uses multiple sources, let me list the some of the public ones for you:

      • “The Oracle of Hizbullah,” by Martin Kramer, in Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East, ed. Appleby (1997)
      • The Shiite Revival by Vali Nasr (2006)
      • Interviews with Sayyid Husayn Fadlallah in the Journal of Palestine Studies (1985, 1987, 1995)
      • Fadlallah: The Making of a Radical Shiite Leader, Jamal Sankari (2005)
      • Al Bayynat ( – The Official Website of Sayyid Husayn Fadlallah
      • Assorted media interviews (Newsweek, Washington Post, etc)