(photo credit: Associated Press)
Beirut this week witnessed the passing of one of the seminal figures of the Lebanese Shi’ites – Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. Tens of thousands of mourners followed the coffin in its southern suburbs, with chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
Delegations came from across the region – from the holy cities of Najaf in Iraq (where Fadlallah was born) and Qom in Iran, as well as from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the regional center of Sunni Islamic study.
Hizbullah, with which Fadlallah had maintained a complex relationship
over the years, declared three days of mourning. Movement leader Sheikh
Hassan Nasrallah is reported to have paid a nocturnal visit to the
mourning family. Fadlallah, designated a terrorist by the US, was
referred to as Hizbullah’s “spiritual leader” in its early years.
Israelis who have heard of Fadlallah are likely to have a vague sense of
him as a Shi’ite cleric based in Lebanon and linked to Hizbullah. But
he was a far more substantial and complex figure than this might
He was regarded by many across the region as a leading spiritual
authority, a marja altaklid (source of emulation) of Shi’ism. He was
revered among the Shi’ites of Lebanon and beyond them. Fadlallah
established a sizable network of charitable and educational institutions
with which his name will continue to be associated.
He was also one of the central figures in the development of the Shi’ite
variant of political Islam over the last half century. He offered words
of justification for suicide bombings, accused Israel and Jews of
exaggerating the numbers of those killed by the Nazis, suggested that
the Jews and elements in the US might have been responsible for 9/11 and
hoped uncompromisingly and apparently to his last breath for the
collapse of the “Zionist entity.”
FADLALLAH BEGAN his political activity in Iraq, where he was among the
founders of the Dawa party, in the late 1950s. This is the party of
former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al- Maliki, and is one of the leading
political forces of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. After arrival in Lebanon,
Fadlallah was active among the impoverished and largely politically
silent Shi’ites in the early 1960s. He was instrumental in forging the
attempt to fuse traditional Shi’ite concepts with the notions of
“anti-imperialism” and political opposition to the West and Israel. He
pioneered the linking of the cause of the Shi’ites of Lebanon with that
of the Palestinians. Fadlallah also welcomed the Iranian revolution of
In the early 1980s, Fadlallah was prominent in the Shi’ite political and
spiritual ferment from which Hizbullah emerged. He has been referred to
as the movement’s spiritual guide. The US authorities held him
responsible for giving his blessing to the 1983 suicide bombings in
Beirut which killed 241 US marines and 58 French paratroopers.
While the precise organizational links between Fadlallah and the nascent
Hizbullah organization are not clear, it is beyond doubt that the ideas
which he had pioneered helped create the political and ideological
space from which the movement emerged.
His outspoken calls for the destruction of Israel, for militant
opposition to US regional policy and in defense of the methods of
terrorism represent the ideological soil from which Hizbullah grew.
Fadlallah also, of course, operated in the same physical environment as
Hizbullah. It is said that Imad Mughniyeh, later Hizbullah’s most
prominent military figure, for a time served as one of his bodyguards.
Yet these close early links notwithstanding, Fadlallah later distanced
himself from the Iranian regime, and this led to a similar cooling of
relations with Hizbullah. Though an early supporter of the Islamic
Revolution, Fadlallah disassociated himself from the system of Vilayet
e-Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent) which the revolution spawned. This is
the system whereby Iran’s Shi’ite clerics ruled directly, under the
leadership first of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then his successor
This system was not the banner under which the revolution was made,
though it may be assumed that it was the intention throughout of
Khomeini to implement it.
Nor does it derive inevitably from Shi’ite thinking regarding proper
relations between religious and political authority. According to
Fadlallah, clerics should wield influence, but should not rule directly
in the administrative sense. Fadlallah also considered that the speedy
implementation of an “Islamic state” was not relevant to the complex
Lebanese reality. What was needed, rather, was to slowly “prepare the
scene” for the creation of such a state.
Some have also suggested that the relatively modest achievements of
Khamenei in terms of religious study and erudition further inclined
Fadlallah toward maintaining a distance from the regime.
Hizbullah, of course, is the creation of the Iranian Revolutionary
Guards, and is committed both to the principle of Vilayet e- Faqih, and
to its current personification in Khamenei. As such, Fadlallah’s
critical stance led to a distancing between him and the movement.
Lebanese analysts have pointed out that this was reflected in the
response of the movement to his death. Hizbullah called for a mass
turnout for Fadlallah’s funeral, and was seemingly effusive in its
eulogies. In mourning his passing, Hizbullah spokesmen stressed his
support for the destruction of the “Zionist entity.” But Hizbullah
statements also stressed the status of Khamenei as a marja, while
failing to use this term to describe Fadlallah.
Ultimately, the career of Fadlallah is testimony to the incendiary power
of ideas. He never wielded a gun, nor involved himself in the precise
planning of operations against the US and Israel. Few Hizbullah men
looked to him as their marja, and a loyalty to him was said to even be a
motive for suspicion in the movement’s circles in later years.
Nevertheless, his role was crucial in creating the religious,
ideological and moral climate from which Hizbullah emerged.
Working far from the spotlight in his early years, he helped prepare the
soil from which later, less ambiguous figures and organizations would
grow and flourish.The writer is a senior researcher at
the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.