Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah

The Shi'i Muslim cleric Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah (born 1935) was a leading political leader in Lebanon beginning in the 1980s.

Sayyid Muhammad Husayn (Hussein) Fadlallah was born in Najaf, Iraq, in November, 1935, but his roots were in Lebanon. He was the son of the late 'Abd al-Ra'uf Fadlallah, a major Shi'i Muslim cleric from the town of Ainata in southern Lebanon. In the 1980s Fadlallah emerged as one of the leading political figures in Lebanon, where he attracted a wide following in the large Shi'i community, particularly within the ranks of Hizballah (or Hezbollah), the "Party of God." From the pulpit of the Imam Rida mosque in Bir al-'Abd, a suburb of Beirut, Fadlallah's sermons gave shape to the political currents among the Shi'is, especially during the latter half of the 1980s.

As a young man Fadlallah trained in the Shi'i seminaries of Najaf, where he mastered the arcane intricacies of religious law and was certified as a mujtahid (a Shi'i cleric competent to independently interpret religious law). In 1966 he moved to Beirut, where he witnessed the eruption of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 and the progressive disintegration of the Lebanese state. During his first decade in Beirut he devoted much of his time to scholarship and authored several books in Arabic, including the influential Islam and the Logic of Force.

The Rise of the Shi'is

The 1950s and 1960s were times of ferment and concern among the learned men of Shi'ism. In Iraq, as in Lebanon, young Shi'is were becoming increasingly active in politics, but they were more attracted by the revolutionary rhetoric of the left than they were by the seemingly anachronistic language of Islam. In both countries the Shi'is found themselves at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and Communist ideology, with its emphasis on class exploitation, rang true. In reaction to the successes of the left, some of the leading religious scholars of Najaf created the Hizb al-Da'wa (or the party of the call), and it is entirely possible that Fadlallah was an influential voice within the party. Notwithstanding the creation of al-Da'wa, it was not until the so-called "Islamic revolution" in Iran toppled the Shah in 1979 that the potential for Shi'ism as a language of revolution was understood.

For many years Fadlallah lived in the shadow of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian cleric of Lebanese descent who began to organize the Lebanese Shi'is in the early 1960s. But al-Sadr disappeared in 1978 during a visit to Libya, and his still-unexplained disappearance left a gaping hole which aspiring Shi'i leaders have been competing to fill ever since. Clearly, Fadlallah saw himself as the successor to Musa al-Sadr, but he faced an impressive range of competitors, including Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din, the vice-chair of the Supreme Shi'i Islamic Council (al-Sadr was still considered the chair in 1991); 'Abd al-Amr Qabalan, the senior jurisprudent for Shi'i religious law; Nabih Berri, the lawyer who led the important Amal movement; and Husayn al-Husayn, who as speaker of the Parliament held the highest position available to a Shi'i under the Lebanese constitution. Although the competitors often used the highly evocative religious symbolism of Shi'ism to rally supporters and undermine adversaries, it should be borne in mind that the dynamics of Shi'i politics in Lebanon largely reflect an intense struggle for political position.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was a watershed event for the Lebanese Shi'is and for the public career of Fadlallah. Although many Shi'is, particularly in South Lebanon, greeted the invasion with enthusiasm, by 1983 the mood had shifted from joy to anger. The invading army became an army of occupation, which bore down heavily upon the Shi'is, and a war of resistance began against the Israelis. Eventually, in January 1985, reeling from heavy losses, the Israeli government decided to cut its losses and reduce its occupation to a "security zone" in the south that covered a little less than 10 percent of Lebanese territory.

Although a wide assortment of Lebanese factions participated in the anti-occupation campaign, it was the self-styled Islamic Resistance that captured the imagination of observers all over the world. Fadlallah was an influential proponent of conducting a defensive jihad al-difa' (or defensive holy war) against the Israelis, but he was by no means the only Shi'i cleric to do so. Moreover, Fadlallah seemed to have no direct operational role in the attacks.

After the destruction of the U.S. Marine barracks (237 killed) in October of 1983, Fadlallah was said to have played a direct role in encouraging the attack, but subsequent evidence casts doubt on the claim. Indeed, it now seems that the Iranian ambassador to Syria at the time, 'Ali Akbar Mohteshemi, played the major role in organizing the attack, probably with assistance from Syria. This is not to say that Fadlallah opposed the attack. In fact, he applauded it. The Marines were members of the Multinational Force (MNF) that had been dispatched to Lebanon in 1982 following the awful massacres in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps (the killings were the work of Christian Maronite militiamen allied to Israel). Initially, the international force was warmly received, but its fulsome support for the unpopular government under President Amin Gemayel progressively eroded support for the MNF. In addition, in the ideology promulgated by Tehran, the West—and particularly the United States—was an evil and insidious influence in Lebanon and only through its expulsion would the Lebanese win their freedom from colonialist designs and intrigues. (Incidentally, it was precisely this ideology of hatred that helped to inspire the plague of hostage-taking in the 1980s.)

Dealing with Iran and the Amal

The Iranian role in the attack on the Marines points up the expanding role of Tehran in Lebanese Shi'i politics. By 1982 Iran had dispatched a contingent of Pasdaran (revolutionary guards) to Lebanon. The Pasdaran served as a cadre, training Lebanese Shi'is to serve under the banner of the Islamic Revolution. Iran also dispensed relatively large sums of money, much of it flowing into the coffers of Hizballah, to pay military expenses, as well as to fund a relatively broad range of social welfare programs designed to benefit Lebanese Shi'is. Fadlallah, of course, was a vocal supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, but he believed that Iran was misjudging Lebanon. In particular, he argued that Iran was insensitive to the social complexity of Lebanon, where there are 17 recognized sects, including three Muslim sects and a rich variety of Christians. In contrast, almost 95 percent of the Iranian population follows Shi'i Islam. During a 1985 visit to Iran, Fadlallah found himself in some heated exchanges with Iranian counterparts who exaggerated the ease with which an Islamic state might be created in Lebanon. For his part, Fadlallah stressed a more gradual strategy, one which took fuller account of the realities of Lebanon. Fadlallah also held an independent stance on the matter of hostage-taking, which he generally criticized on moral grounds, but he had little direct influence in such matters.

The latter half of the 1980s was marked by fierce internecine fighting among the two major Shi'i groupings, Amal and Hizballah. The outcome of the fighting left Amal more or less in control of the Shi'i heartland in southern Lebanon, but the more radical Hizballah emerged victorious in the crowded Shi'i suburbs of Beirut. Fadlallah denied any organizational role in Hizballah, but he was popularly associated with the ideals of Hizballah, if not with its organizational infrastructure, so he clearly was a beneficiary of the victory. In fact, many members of the growing Shi'i professional class shifted their political loyalties from Amal to Hizballah.

But Fadlallah maintained his own political identity distinct from Hizballah. His personal ambitions were hardly modest, and by eschewing political labels Fadlallah stood a better chance of broadly appealing to the Shi'is, many of whom avoid any formal political affiliations. Nonetheless, Fadlallah rejected the reformism of the Amal movement and generally opposed efforts to renovate the Lebanese government. Not surprisingly, he refused to support the 1989 Ta'if Accord mediated by the Arab League, which took little account of the fact that the Shi'is are now Lebanon's largest community, representing as much as 40 percent of the total population. But by late 1990 the accord was being implemented under Syrian tutelage as provided in the agreement. Fadlallah certainly had the capacity to eclipse militia leaders made obsolete by a return to civility in Lebanon. But even in an environment of continuing chaos he can be expected to continue to be a formidable presence on the Lebanese scene.

Further Reading on Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah

Although none of his major writings are available in English translation, by the late 1980s Fadlallah was regularly interviewed by leading Western newspapers and magazines. Additional information on religious and political developments in Lebanon and the Middle East can be found in Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam (1986); John Esposito and James Piscatori, editors, The Iranian Revolution (1990); Fuad I. Khuri, Imams and Emirs (1990); Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam; Augustus Richard Norton, Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (1987); and Robin Wright, Sacred Rage (1985).

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