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 suggest.
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 1979.
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 Ali Khamenei.
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.