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Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (1935 - 2010)

For over four decades, Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah led an uncompromising campaign against West. The reputed and enigmatic early mentor of Lebanon’s Hezbollah encouraged his Shiite disciples to fight till the end. Just before his death, he responded to a hospital nurse asking what he needed: ‘for the Zionist entity to cease to exist.’  His fame was born with the very phenomenon of suicide bombings. Following the 1983 bombing attacks on the American and French barracks in Beirut , he immediately became the Mecca of foreign journalists and television crews. Shrewdly, Fadlallah never issued a fatwa sanctifying suicide bombings nor denied being the one sending the suicide bombers. But nevertheless, he repeatedly insisted that suicide bombings were the right thing to do.  

Sayyed Fadlallah was born on 16 November 1935 in Najaf, Iraq to a respectable Lebanese family, direct descendents of the Prophet Muhammad. His education as a young man was rich and included much secular reading, particularly Egyptian material such as the writings of Taha Hussein. He also experimented with modern poetry in the free, innovative, non-rhythmic style. For years, Fadlallah collaborated with Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr ‎ (1935 – 1980) the founder of Iraq’s Islamic Dawa Party or Islamic Call Party. In 1966 he moved to Lebanon and settled in the poor al-Nab‛ah section of South Beirut, where Palestinians and Shias lived together.

Fadlallah’s most important book was Islam and the Logic of Power (Islam wa-Mantiq al-Quwwah), which, he wrote in 1975 mostly by candlelight in his home in South Beirut during the siege by the Maronite-dominated Phalangist militia.  The book was an important milestone in the transformation of Shi‛ism, from a passive and peaceful faith into a revolutionary fighting ideology aspiring to lead the world of Islam in a battle against the ‘evil’ West. Shias must fight because imperialism was on the attack/warpath, he said. Fadlallah saw the Lebanon civil war as a flash point in the global confrontation between Islam and imperialism. The empowerment of the believers, then, was not meant to protect his Lebanese community of persecuted coreligionists, but make Shi‛ism the avant-garde of an Islamic global war. The way to acquire power was sacrifice, and from there the road to suicide bombings, just a few years ahead, was close.

Soon after, in 1978-9, came the Islamic Revolution in Iran and rise of Khomeini. Meanwhile, Fadlallah’s charismatic rival Sayyid Musa al-Sadr (1928-disappeared 1978), the leader of the leftist Shia Amal movement, mysteriously disappeared while on a visit to Libya.  Following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Iranian agents skilfully organized some 18 local Shia movements to establish what would become Hezbollah. For a while, the outspoken Fadlallah became the movement’s mentor, although real power probably always eluded him.

While giving his sometimes enigmatic interviews in the 1980s, he made sure to have Ayatollah Khomeini’s picture on the wall. He was never, however, committed to Khomeini’s concept of wilayat al-faqih, the rule of the jurist, according to which all Muslims should obey Iran’s supreme leader as their religious and political guide. Fadlallah, considering himself a Grand Ayatollah and a Marja‛, or source of emulation, envisioned the Shiite community as led by a number of prominent clerics. He probably aspired – and failed – to become the Arab Shia spiritual leader. In recent years, he and the Iran-controlled Hezbollah parted ways. While Hezbollah’s organs such as Moqawama  and Al-Manar  are now paying their respects to the departed ideologue, research conducted three years ago found that there was only one picture of Fadlallah in a gallery featuring 1500 photographs of party leaders on the organization’s website; that too only with another ex-leader.

In that respect, Fadlallah has something in common with Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah ‛Ali Sistani who vehemently rejects Iranian papacy. Both were educated in Najaf, Iraq, and both were students of the late moderate Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abul-Qassim al-Khoei (1899–1992) who was among the most vocal opponents of Khomeini’s political philosophy. Fadlallah also served as his representative in Lebanon and was involved in much social work. Both also displayed much pragmatism when it came to the bumpy road of inter-communal relations in their respective countries Iraq and Lebanon. The differences between the two, however, are also striking. While Sistani is a great supporter of democracy and helped the Americans as much as he could to establish a decent version of democracy in Iraq, Fadlallah did whatever he could to encourage anti-US terrorism and establish an ideal – read repressive to the believers – Islamic government. His politics of hate against Israel and the ban on any agreement kept Israelis inside Lebanon for almost two more decades regardless of the traditional good relations between Israel and the Shias of south Lebanon. In the late 1990s, Fadlallah refused to issue a fatwa against fitna (civil war) when the two main Shiite groups, Hezbollah and Amal, were at each other’s throats.

Talking about the ‘plundering state,’ he argued on 21 March 2008—follwoing Ahmadinejad—that Israel ‘extorted and continues to extort Germany, using as a pretext the German Hitlerist-Nazi past, and the placing of the Jews in a holocaust. Zionism has inflated the number of victims in this holocaust beyond imagination.’  In his discourse about the Jews, however, he applied the same dexterity he displayed with suicide bombings. While insisting that his rhetoric was directed at the Zionists, not the Jews as such, he said all Israelis must leave their land, even if they adopt Islam. In this respect, his attitude toward Andalus (Spain) was similar. The injustice of the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain is still fresh in his writings. In his interpretation of the Quran, he displayed a clear anti-Jewish bent, which, interestingly, contradicted his comparatively open-minded and dialogical attitude toward Christianity.

His position on Christians was more subtle. In his interpretation of the Quran, he systematically downplayed hate against Christians while inflating criticism of the Jews. This does not amount to trust in the Christians. They conspired in the past against the Muslims and the crimes of Spain are the best example, and yet they also display much good. The Pope’s concern for non-Christians served as an example for Fadlallah. The Muslims, however, must rule. He called for an Islamic Republic in Lebanon – and Islamic rule in the rest of the world – but was careful to stress dialogue (hiwar) and the need for Christian acceptance before the establishment of such a theocracy. Fadlallah insisted on the poll tax, jizya, to be levied on non-Muslims to compensate for their non-participation in military service and other duties. But he was ready to abolish the inferior Dhimmi status and replace it with a treaty that would allow People of the Book to live comfortably under Islamic rule. His attitude toward the Sunni Muslims was also lenient. Like Ayatollah Khomeini, the focus of Fadlallah’s hate shifted from the Sunnis to Israel and the West. Islamic unity and power were his principal goals.  

What will his legacy be then? According to Shiite Islam, believers are expected to follow a source of emulation that is alive and not rely on dead wise men. While his writings include much hate and much fascination with violence and power, they also have some innovative ideas about the possibility of peace (silm) between Muslims and others. Future Muslim jurists who may choose to opt for peace and coexistence could find, even in the writings of the ferocious late Fadlallah, some interesting and helpful passages.

Dr. Eldad J. Pardo is a Research Fellow at the Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy