The death of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husain Fadlallah at age 75 in Beirut marks the passing of a cleric revered by many Shiite Muslims and by many Lebanese and Iraqis. His life exemplified the awakening and increasing global influence of Shiite Islam.
Although Fadlallah became less radical with time, changing his view of deploying violence for political purposes, he did not become less anti-imperialist. He recently decried US military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and even denounced the concluding of a status of forces agreement between Iraq and the White House, on the grounds that it legitimized the US presence in Iraq. He denounced Arab countries for failing to respond vocally to the Israeli assault on a humanitarian aid flotilla on May 31, and called for an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. He preached Sunni-Shiite unity and warned that the disunity of Muslims made imperialism in Muslim lands possible. He is said to have gone to his death hoping for the collapse of Israel.
Fadlallah was born in 1935 in Najaf, Iraq, to Lebanese parents, and he lived and was educated and lived there until 1966, when he came to the homeland of his ancestors, Lebanon. When Fadlallah was born, the Shiites of southern Lebanon were mired in grinding poverty as hardscrabble farmers in scattered villages or as tobacco sharecroppers, virtually ignored by the authorities in the League of Nations-authorized French Mandate of Lebanon. Even when the rise of secular, Sunni-dominated Arab nationalism in Iraq impelled him to leave for Beirut in the mid-1960s, the Shiites of south Lebanon lagged in access to roads, rural electrification, and other state services, though that was beginning to change. Many Lebanese Shiites were emigrating, to West Africa, Sao Paulo, Detroit, and the Perso-Arabian Gulf, and they began sending back home remittances that allowed some families to move into the Lebanese middle class.
In Iraq around 1957, Fadlallah, a seminary student, was among the founders of the Islamic Mission Party (al-Da`wa al-Islamiyah) in Najaf, an Iraqi Shiite answer to the burgeoning mass movements of the era–the Communist and the Baath (secular Arab nationalist) parties. The Da`wa dreamed not of a workers paradise but of a Shiite paradise. Islamic law would be the law of the land. Social injustice would be abolished through the judicious implementation of Islamic legal principles such as tithing. The Islamic state of the Islamic Mission Party would not be clerically run, but rather lay leaders such as physicians and attorneys could play a leading role. Among Fadlallah’s associates at the time was Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, another founder of the Da`wa.
Fadlallah did community development work for the poverty-stricken Shiites of Beirut’s slums. In the 1970s and early 1980s he became radicalized by Israel’s increasingly heavy-handed interventions in South Lebanon. In 1978, Israel briefly invaded Lebanon’s south, temporarily displacing thousands of Shiite families. In 1982, Israel invaded again, determined to wipe out the Palestine Liberation Organization then headquartered in Beirut. This time Tel Aviv occupied South Lebanon, remaining there for 18 years and brutally repressing local Shiites.
In 1980 Saddam Hussein in Iraq had made belonging to the Da`wa Party a capital crime, and many Iraqi members of the party fled to Tehran and Beirut. There was also a Lebanese branch of the party. As Shiites suffered under direct Israeli occupation, they began throwing up a radicalized resistance. The relatively staid Amal Party was not sufficient for some, who formed the Islamic Amal. In 1984, the various Da`wa branches and Islamic Amal, among other small factions, formed Hizbullah, the Party of God. Already in 1983 Islamic Amal had hit the US Marine barracks, killing over 260 Americans. Although it is sometimes alleged that Fadlallah authorized this attack, he denied it. It has also been alleged that Fadlallah was the spiritual guide of Hizbullah, but he and they both deny it and it is certainly the case that Fadlallah did not always see eye to eye with Hizbullah.
From 1983-1986, a vigorous Shiite guerrilla resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanese soil grew up, and Fadlallah cheered it on. Fadlallah was seen as an enemy by the US, especially the CIA, and by Israel. In 1985 someone attempted to assassinate him with an enormous bomb, but he had been delayed and it killed 80 other persons and wounded over 250, instead. The dead included women, children, and a bride. One of Fadlallah’s bodyguards who escaped death but saw the carnage was Imad Mughniya, who went on to become one of the more notorious terrorists of the past few decades. It is alleged that Reagan administration CIA director William Casey authorized the bombing.
Unlike Mughniya, Fadlallah mellowed with age. When the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran emerged, underpinned by Imam Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine that the clerics must rule Muslim societies, Fadlallah rejected that principle, known as the ‘guardianship of the jurisprudent’ (wilayat al-Faqih). He also tried to modernize Shiite law affecting women, and in 2007 gave a fatwa condemning honor killings in absolute terms that made his stance more progressive than Lebanese statute on the matter.
When the Iraqi Da`wa Party was pressed by the Khomeinists about who their spiritual guide (marja`) was, if it was not Khomeini, they tended to reply that they followed Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah of Beirut. Fadlallah lived to see his Da`wa Party come to power in Iraq. The first post-Saddam Hussein prime minister in Baghdad was Ibrahim Jaafari, an old-time Da`wa activist. The second was Nuri al-Maliki, who reinvigorated the Da`wa and made it a leading party in its own right. When we say that Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad trying to broker the formation of a new Iraqi government, we are in part saying that Biden is dickering with the Da`wa Party over whether it will continue to provide the prime minister. And one of the implications of this debate is that the Shiite fundamentalist parties that will likely play a significant role in the new government want to see the fall of Israel as much as Fadlallah had. That is, post-American Iraq will likely be a big headache for Israel.
Most Lebanese Shiites either follow Sayyid Ali Sistani of Najaf in Iraq, or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran (Hizbullah favors Khamenei). But some followed Fadlallah. His partisans will likely now turn to Sistani, strengthening the new, Shiite-dominated Iraq’s influence in Lebanon.
Fadlallah’s life was shaped by British imperialism in Iraq, by the rise of secular Arab nationalism and of Communism, by the Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 (many of whom were pushed into South Lebanon), by the Israeli invasions of Lebanon, by the rise of theocratic Iran, and by the advent of an imperial United States in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fadlallah in the second half of his life sought an accommodation of Shiite tradition to modernity. By his own lights, he did not take extreme positions, rejecting Iranian theocracy but also decrying American dominance, preaching against Israel but also blaming internal Muslim disunity for the ease with which enemies dominated Muslims. His activism in many ways foreshadowed the great Shiite awakening of the 1960s and after, and helped change the ideological landscape of the Middle East.