On the Death of the Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah

"Religion Serves the People"

The most senior Shiite cleric in Lebanon, Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, has died. The intellectual guiding force of the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, Fadlallah supported the armed fight against Israel but condemned Islamic terrorism. He also worked for the peaceful coexistence of the different denominations in Lebanon. This portrait by Stephan Rosiny

Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husain Fadlallah (photo: AP)
The religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husain Fadlallah extended beyond the borders of Lebanon. He had followers as far afield as Iraq, Iran, in the Gulf States, and in the West

​​ In the south of Beirut, right in the middle of Harat Hreik, or the "Hezbollah quarter", stands a ten-storey hospital equipped with the most up-to-date modern equipment. Patients who have no money are also accepted here, those who cannot afford treatment in Lebanon's private hospitals. It is part of an extensive network of social, religious, and educational institutions built by the high-ranking Shiite cleric Muhammad Husain Fadlallah, with the help of religious contributions from his followers. On 4th July 2010, after many years of illness, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah died in "his" Bahman Hospital.

Fadlallah was the highest religious authority of the Shiite community in Lebanon, a "Marja at-Taqlid" ("authority to be imitated"). His followers are found as far afield as Iraq, Iran, in the Gulf States, and in the West. Religious Shiites choose one of these authorities, like Fadlallah, to give their allegiance to; they then adopt his legal opinions and pay their religious duties to him. No one checks up on them or forces them to do so; they obey him of their own free will because they firmly believe that, as a wise religious scholar worthy of imitation, he will show them the way to live a godly life free from sin, one that will be pleasing in the sight of God.

"The Sayyid", as Fadlallah's followers respectfully called him, traced his ancestry back to al-Hasan, the second Imam and grandson of the Prophet. As a direct descendant of Muhammad he had the right to claim this honorary title, and to wear a black turban as the insignia of his lineage. As well as the charisma of his heritage, Fadlallah also had tremendous presence. He was highly regarded as a spiritual and worldly-wise cleric, a rationalistic and progressive thinker, a critical political analyst, and as an empathetic man with a good sense of humour.

Opposition to Saddam's dictatorship

For some the deceased religious leader possessed the aura of a holy man, but for others his image was that of a dangerous terrorist, which is how he was portrayed by the United States for many years. Fadlallah lived in an age full of socio-political upheavals and violent conflicts: first in Iraq, where he was born in 1935 in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, later studying and teaching at the religious university there. Then from 1966 onwards he lived in Lebanon, where a bloody civil war broke out in 1975.

Hizbullah supporters (photo: AP)
Fadlallah participated in the foundation of Hezbollah in 1982. He always remained an important intellectual guiding force of the movement, but was never its leader

​​ He was actively engaged in opposing the dictatorships in Iraq, co-founding the Hizb ad-Da'wa al-Islamiya (Party of the Call to Islam). Later, after moving to Lebanon, he continued to support the Iraqi opposition. Scarcely any other politician spoke out so clearly against Saddam Hussein: Fadlallah railed against him, calling him "the most bloodthirsty tyrant in the region".

Nonetheless, Fadlallah was among the staunch opponents of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, as he rejected any form of interference by a foreign state. In his opinion the tyrant should have been toppled by the Iraqis themselves. In addition, he regarded the reasons given in justification of the intervention – weapons of mass destruction, Saddam's alleged support for terrorism, and the desire to introduce freedom and democracy – as hypocritical.

Fadlallah pointed out that during the war with Iran the US had equipped Saddam with the very same weapons of mass destruction that it used as an excuse to invade in 2003. "The Iraqis will not forget who gave Saddam such power to oppress his people: America," Fadlallah said.

No blind anti-Americanism

The Lebanese civil war from 1975-1990, the numerous wars with Israel, including the most recent one in the summer of 2006, as well as the Israeli occupation of the "Security Zone" in southern Lebanon from 1978-2000 all helped to create a sense of threat. Shiite Islamists responded to this by founding clandestine organizations and carrying out militant actions.

US Marine in front of the destroyed American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon (photo: AP)
In 1985 the CIA tried to kill Fadlallah with a car bomb. It accused him of having been one of the instigators of the attack on a US barracks in Beirut in 1983

​​ Fadlallah was an important intellectual leader and initiator of the Hezbollah movement, which was founded in 1982. However, he was never its leader, as he was sometimes described by the Western media. It is also unlikely that he "blessed" the two suicide bombers who blew up the headquarters of the American and French contingents of the Multinational Force (MNF) in Beirut on 23rd October 1983. This rumour was probably spread by Fadlallah's opponents within Lebanon.

As a result, the CIA attempted to kill the cleric with a car bomb on a densely-populated street in Bi'r al-Abd on 8th March 1985. Nearly 100 people died and 200 were wounded. Fadlallah, however, had been delayed and, as if by a miracle, remained unhurt. Responding to the attack, he commented: "This is why we will no longer respect any admonitions by the Americans about human rights, the rejection of terrorism, freedom and such matters."

Nonetheless, he did not lapse into blind anti-Americanism. He differentiated between the government and its people. Fadlallah was of the opinion that there were certainly things that could be learned from the West, particularly in the political realm. He praised party pluralism and democracy, for example, as well as the constitutional state and the accountability of politicians to their citizens.

Violence as "a surgical operation"

Fadlallah was a firm supporter of the armed resistance of Hezbollah against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. This, he stressed, had nothing to do with anti-Semitism; it would be necessary to fight a war of liberation against Israel even if all of its citizens were Muslims, because it was not faith or race that made them the enemy, but solely the unlawful appropriation of land.

Ayatollah Fadlallah and Hasan Nasrallah on a poster photograph (photo: Stephan Rosiny)
Ayatollah Fadlallah was critical of the personality cult around the general secretary of Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah

​​ Fadlallah decreed that suicide bombings were permissible as a last resort, as a means of self-defence directed against military targets. Nevertheless, he called for the exercise of rigorous self-discipline, as "violence only suspends the problem, it does not eliminate or resolve it; in fact, it will make it more complicated".

If the opponent refused to engage in dialogue, however, Fadlallah said that violence must be used; but "only in exceptional circumstances, using the most effective means available". This, he believed, could stabilize the situation and lead to dialogue. According to him, violence was legitimate "as a kind of surgical operation that should only be resorted to after all other methods have been tried, and only when life is in danger".

Rivalry with Ayatollah Khamene'i

Hezbollah's change of strategy in the early 1990s, such as the renunciation of its plan to establish an Islamic republic, the release of the Western hostages, efforts to encourage ecumenicalism among Shiites, Sunnis and Christians, as well as the decision to take part in parliamentary elections can all in large part be traced back to his influence.

Ali Khamene'i (photo: AP)
When Hezbollah decided to recognize Ali Khamene'i as its foremost legal scholar, tension arose in its relationship with Fadlallah

​​ However, after Fadlallah put himself forward as a Marja in 1993, tension increasingly arose in his relationship with Hezbollah. The organization had recognized Ali Khamene'i as its foremost legal scholar, and now saw Fadlallah as his rival. For his part, Fadlallah was critical of the growing personality cult around Hezbollah's general secretary, Hasan Nasrallah. The war in the summer of 2006, however, brought the two opposing Shiite leaders closer together. Their private houses were not far apart, and both were destroyed during the weeks of Israeli bombardment.

"Religion serves the people"

With his soft, warm voice and occasionally ironic manner, Fadlallah also drew secular people under his spell. He had an astonishing ability to describe religion in a rational, even materialistic way. One of his maxims was that religion served the people, not the other way around; that it altered according to the conditions of society, and moved with the social and scientific progress of humanity.

"Islam is everything that is of benefit to people," said Fadlallah. He believed that inherent in everyone was a common core of values, and that this manifested itself in all religions, namely: equality, freedom, brotherhood, justice, and respect for the dignity and faith of others.

His legal opinions (fatwas) on the social equality of women, questions of medical ethics, dealings with those of other faiths and with unbelievers are more innovative than those of most Muslim reformers. They made an important contribution to reconciliation in Lebanese society in the aftermath of the civil war. Many of his students – some of them women – continue to spread his dynamic and modern understanding of Islam.

The next few years will show whether one of these students will manage to establish himself as an "authority to be imitated" and continue Fadlallah's unfinished life's work, promoting enlightened piety and a united Lebanon.

Stephan Rosiny

© Qantara.de 2010

Dr. Stephan Rosiny is a research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg. He is considered an expert on Hezbollah, and has published numerous monographs and essays, the main focus of which is Shiite Islam in Lebanon.

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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