Black banners hung in the streets of Lebanon last week as hundreds of thousands mourned over the death of Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah on the 4 of July. He was 75 years old.
Grand Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah had been a top Shi’ite cleric in Lebanon, whose teachings have influenced more than the religious education of Shiite Muslims. His popularity is largely attributed to the activist slant he placed on his life as a cleric. From the Dawa Party in Iraq to the founders of Hezbollah, political and militant organizations in the Middle East have depended on his preaching for guidance and often for justifying their use of violence.
Hezbollah—an organization Fadlallah was ideologically linked to although was never formally affiliated with—issued a statement on the day of the Ayatollah’s death. “Today we lost a merciful father and a wise guide,” said Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. After it called for three days of mourning, the organization’s television station, Al-Manar, interrupted regular programming to broadcast the Ayatollah’s picture alongside recitations from the Koran.
Meanwhile, religious scholars and politicians form neighboring countries have issued their condolences, speaking to the reach of Fadlallah’s influence in Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states.
Despite his influence and the obvious loss that is felt by many Lebanese, Fadlallah’s death has brought to light the type of divisions he incited in life. Although he was pegged a terrorist by the US for his support of suicide attacks, in Islamist circles he was faulted as a liberal for his stance on women's rights, and yet in other circles he was criticized for his meddling in politics.
These contradictions have come to light in a less-effusive mourning period for the city of Najaf, his place of birth. Unlike Lebanon, this Iraqi city has displayed no signs of mourning. Instead, the clergy of Najaf have contemplated his potentially negative legacy on the country, namely, his support for clerical participation in politics.
Iraq’s less ardent response to his death hints at a political rivalry between different clerical schools. Fadlallah’s more “hands on” approach greatly differs from Iraq’s Shi’ite elite who officially support a clear separation between religion and politics—despite the political influence of the country’s senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Fadlallah’s influence over Iraq’s Dawa party—including Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who attended the Ayatollah’s obsequies in Beirut—created a competition with Najaf’s religious school. Fadlallah has had considerable influence over Iraq’s politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and his teachings may continue to do so after his passing.
And even though in Iraq Fadlallah was seen as a supporter of the clergy in politics, the brand of shi’ism he preached was more moderate than that proposed by Khomeinists in Iran. While Fadlallah supported the Islamic Revolution in the country, he rejected the concept of Wilayet Al-Faqih, which grants the Supreme Leader absolute authority. Indeed, his presence in Shi’ism pointed to a fact that many often ignore, that “Shi’ism across the Middle East is not monolithic,” explained Nicholas Noe, the Chief Editor of Mideast Wire in Lebanon, to The Majalla.
“Philosophically he maintained and encouraged a degree of self-criticism less present in the more radical circles affiliated with Khomeini ... He was mores skeptical of the absolute power of the clergy in politics.”
What does the death of this leader mean for Shi’ism in the Middle East? As the vocal representative of a moderate faction, his death has been described as the beginning of a leadership vacuum for the brand of Shi’ism he advanced. Nevertheless, argues Noe, his death does not imply that this form of Shi’ism is lost, but that it has been momentarily attenuated.
Moderate as Fadlallah's teachings may have been in comparison to the Shi’ism of the Islamic Republic, in the West, he was hardly considered a liberal activist. The US's perception of Fadlallah as an extremist figure has remained, as evinced by the recent sacking of Octavia Nasr, the former CNN Middle East Correspondent. Her indiscretion—a 140-word tweet that stated, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot,” resulted in the mort subite of her 20 year career with CNN.
Indeed Fadlallah’s ideologies have been in contradiction with much of the US's foreign policy in the region, although Fadlallah's politics have been difficult to pigeon-hold. For one, his relationship with Hezbollah was always complex. Although the organization shared many of his ideals, he was never formally a part of their hierarchy. Nonetheless, intelligence agencies held that the ayatollah was responsible for many western targets, most notably the 1983 Beirut bombings that resulted in the death of 241 Americans and 58 Frenchmen.
Beyond Hezbollah, Fadlallah’s position on Israel did less to subdue the US’s antagonist feelings towards him. In fact, most of his career was spent arguing that Shi’ite Muslims should reject centuries of passivity, become involved in politics and organize militias to defend their interests. In the case of Israel, he argued, because the country used advanced weaponry, tactics of asymmetrical warfare were a justifiable means of retaliating. Never losing an opportunity to criticize Israel, the New York Times reported that on his deathbed, after having been asked if he needed anything, the ayatollah said, “For the Zionist entity to cease to exist.”
Such rhetoric led to numerous attempts on Fadlallah’s life—the first in 1985 when a car bomb, allegedly planted by the CIA, exploded near his home and killed 80 people. In 1995, the Clinton administration froze his assets for links to terrorist organizations, and almost 11 years later, during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, warplanes dropped bombs on his house.
And yet, Fadlallah welcomed the election of Barack Obama as US president in 2008. However, like many in the Middle East, he expressed disappointment with Obama’s lack of progress in the peace process.
Although internationally Ayatollah Fadlallah’s legacy is suspect, in Lebanon it is all but revered. This is partly due to the network of charities he founded through Al-Mabarrat, which is still responsible for running a number of orphanages, schools, libraries and hospitals. In addition to the impact Al-Mabarrat has had on Lebanese society, his numerous publications are likely to be another source of commemoration. Lebanon’s opinion of Fadlallah may perhaps have been best put by the Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, who described him as "a voice of moderation and an advocate of unity."