BEIRUT // Hundreds of thousands of mourners braved extreme heat and humidity yesterday to pay their last respects to Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a spiritual leader and guide to millions of Shiite Muslims around the world. The funeral at the Two Imams Mosque, where Fadlallah gave his famously logical and nuanced Friday sermons, filled the streets of Beirut's southern suburbs with mourners. Those attending came from across the Middle East and Central Asia representing different sects and religions to honour the figure whose calls for justice for the oppressed and huge charitable efforts won him respect far beyond south Lebanon's Shiite community.
Black flags of mourning were draped alongside photographs of the diminutive cleric throughout the neighbourhood he lived in for more than 30 years, while banners proclaimed love and adoration from his "children" to their "marja", or source of emulation. As the streets filled with black-clad mourners, their cries that God should accept their deceased leader echoed off the canyon-like walls of the narrow roads framed by new high rise apartment buildings erected since Israel destroyed much of the area in the 2006 summer war with Hizbollah. "He was our leader, our father, the man we all hoped to become," said Ali Moussawi, 36, from Beirut. "He taught the Shiite of Lebanon dignity: dignity as people, as a country and as individuals."
As a cleric at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, Fadlallah pushed the large but previously ignored Shiite community to organise and protect itself as a sect as the rest of the country divided up into sectarian militias. This focus on the deeply impoverished and disenfranchised situation facing Lebanon's Shiites at the time led not only to the formation of the militant group Hizbollah, but also ushered in a new era of Shiite political assertiveness that changed Lebanon forever. But to most of the people who turned out yesterday, he was not nearly as important a political figure - there was virtually no mention of his hardline political stances towards Israel and the United States - as he was a charitable organiser who funnelled millions of dollars from his association into benevolent works to help Lebanon's least supported community. His sense of duty towards Lebanon's poor and powerless was on full display as mourners marched from his heavily guarded home, through the streets of southern Beirut, where every block appeared to have a school, community centre, clinic or donation box from his vast network of charities.
Iran, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain and even the main Sunni theological school Al Azhar University all sent high ranking figures to the funeral out of respect for his opposition to sectarian and political rivalries in a country that can often feel defined by them. The Iraqi government, currently ruled by the Dawa Party, which considered the ayatollah to be its spiritual founder and leader, sent official ministers for the occasion. A spokesman for Hizbollah, to which Fadlallah was often linked despite having no official role with the group, told Al Jazeera and other journalists at the funeral that his loss extended far beyond just the Shiite community in Lebanon. Ibrahim Mousawi said: "We're talking about a great loss, actually, not just to Hizbollah but ... to the Islamic community, and to the Arab world. He has always spread the message of tolerance, of opennness, of transparency, [and] of dialogue." He said Fadlallah was important as a "spiritual guide" for the Shiite militants in their fight to liberate southern Lebanon from a 20-year Israeli occupation. "[He had] always been there to support the resistance and the fighters of the resistance," he said. "They all studied in his school and under his guidance and under his directions." It was this relationship that had the US government designate him a terrorist in the 1980s and the ayatollah survived several assassination attempts by various parties throughout the Lebanese civil war. The most recent attempt on his life came in 2006 as Israeli warplanes bombed his home and office complex. Lebanon's president, Michel Slieman, a Christian, and the prime minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, both paid their respects to Fadlallah's family, including his sons Ali and Jafaar, both of whom are also Shiite clerics and will continue to manage his charities. Although born in the Iraqi city of Najaf to Lebanese parents, where he distinguished himself as a brilliant scholar, his family decided to bury him in his mosque rather than returning his remains to Iraq, so that pilgrims could continue to come and visit his grave in Lebanon. "Generations of Lebanese children should come here to see his shrine, study his teaching and read his books," said Hajj Ali, whose eyes filled with tears as he described his feelings about the ayatollah. Despite his infamy in the West for being the first major Muslim cleric to call suicide bombings permissible under certain, very narrow conditions, Fadlallah was better known among his followers for his exhaustive study of religious law and the efforts to combine it into a modern society. He wrote more than 40 books, argued that "honour killings" of female relatives were prohibited, ruled that abused women had the right to hit their husbands in self defence and even concluded that Sharia required that women be allowed to lead men in prayer. These comparatively liberal stances did little to endear him to the mainstream Shiite clergy in Iran, which runs that country as an Islamic republic, an idea that Fadlallah found rather unsettling. And although they remained in complete agreement on resistance to Israel, Fadlallah's scholarship, liberal reasoning and devoted followers often found him at odds with an Iranian leadership that lacks much of his resumé. firstname.lastname@example.org