Lebanon's Ayatollah Fadlallah dies

Lebanon's most respected Shiite religious authority, with millions of devoted followers around the world, died yesterday at the age of 75 after a long battle with various ailments.

Muslim Shi'ite sheiks mourn the death of Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut July 4, 2010. Fadlallah, one of Shi'ite Islam's highest religious authorities and an early mentor of the militant group Hezbollah, died in a Beirut hospital Sunday, his family said. REUTERS/Khalil Hassan       (LEBANON - Tags: RELIGION OBITUARY IMAGES OF THE DAY) *** Local Caption ***  LBN06_LEBANON-_0704_11.JPG

BEIRUT // Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's most respected Shiite religious authority, with millions of devoted followers around the world, died yesterday at the age of 75 after a long battle with various ailments. His career as an interpreter of Islamic jurisprudence and Shiite intellectual culture spanned more than half a century and touched on every aspect of public and private life for the millions of Shiite Muslims who considered him their "marja", or "object of emulation", a title bestowed upon only those clerics who have attained the highest level of scholarship and influence.

But despite these varied religious and intellectual accomplishments, he is best remembered for his fierce resistance to the 1978-2000 Israeli occupation of Lebanon, as well as his role as the first major Muslim cleric of any sect to use religious justification for suicide bombing operations. The decision to sanction such operations on behalf of the early precursors of what would eventually become Hizbollah led to a series of high-profile suicide bombings in Lebanon that killed 299 US and French servicemen in 1983 and forever earned Fadlallah the enmity of the United States, which designated him an international terrorist.

Born to a Lebanese family in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, Fadlallah remained in Iraq for his first 30 years, rising quickly within the highly competitive and intellectually demanding world of Shiite Islamic thought, earning wide accolades as a modern thinker who combined political pragmatism with earnest devotion to the tenets of Islam and its Shia offshoot. But despite this fantastic success as a scholar and religious philosopher in his early days, Fadlallah left the cloistered and cerebral world of "al Hawza", or seminary, for Lebanon in 1965 to pursue social and religious justice for the then isolated and disenfranchised Shiite community, which at the time was mired in poverty and controlled by a handful of feudal families.

This newfound social activism coincided with the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, which pitted Palestinian refugees and their Muslim and leftist allies against Israel and a group of right-wing Christian parties and militias. After surviving the siege and destruction of the Tal al Zataar Palestinian refugee camp in East Beirut in the early days of the war, both his reputation as a courageous cleric of the people as well as his hard-line stance against Israeli and US interference in Lebanon were well established.

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which the ayatollah initially supported, and the arrival of Shiite religious militancy in Lebanon in 1982, Fadlallah's stance on resistance and a politically active clergy influenced a new core of Islamist Shiite fighters who embarked on a campaign of kidnappings and suicide bombings to drive both the United States, and Israel, which had invaded Lebanon in 1982, from the country. Although he never acknowledged having any formal ties to the group that later became known as Hizbollah, he provided its founders with a religious edict, the first major one of its kind in Islam, to allow suicide bombing as a weapon against occupation and counselled the fledgling group on a host of practical and spiritual issues, while still maintaining a sense of independence. "In the early days of the resistance, he was the only religious man who would discuss such matters with us," according to Hajj Moustafa, a member of this early cadre of seminary students and devout farm boys who would later form Hizbollah. "Before the sayed, our religious leaders spent all their time on their studies and these non-practical questions about religion and philosophy," he continued, his eyes welling up with tears as he prepared to pray for the ayatollah in the Two Imam's Mosque in a southern suburb of Beirut, the heart of Hizbollah's stronghold. "But he said people under occupation needed to act and that it was a religious and social obligation to lead such resistance to protect the community," he said. "It was the first time as young men that we felt like our clerics were connected to the world we were actually living in." But despite this sense of respect and his support for their programme of armed resistance, Fadlallah and Hizbollah never enjoyed the close relationship that many experts assume when he is inaccurately described as the "spiritual guide" of the group, a claim both he and the group have always denied, a view supported by a former US intelligence expert on the subject. Robert Baer, who was a Central Intelligence Agency operative in Lebanon in the 1980s investigating the bombings and kidnappings directed against US targets, said he never considered the ayatollah to be part of the group and that his refusal to support the Iranian policy towards "wilyat al fiqh," or "rule of the clerics", often put him at quiet odds with both Hizbollah and the Iranian regime. Ayatollah Fadlallah "was never operationally involved in Hizbollah at any point", Mr Baer said in an interview yesterday. "In fact, Hizbollah looked at him as more of an obstacle than anything else. Iranian hardliners at one point considered having him assassinated" to solidify Iranian control over Hizbollah, Mr Baer claimed. He said part of the rivalry between Fadlallah and Hizbollah's increasingly influential Iranian patrons stemmed from his academic brilliance, which none of the clerics involved in the Iranian revolution could hope to compete with and thus considered a threat to their influence. "They were jealous of his learning," Mr Baer added. A Hizbollah official, who asked to be identified only as Abu Salim, agreed that the relationship between the group and the ayatollah was often misconstrued, and that he often denied having a specific relationship with the group, other than to endorse its military campaign to free Lebanese territory. "In Hizbollah, our marja and political leader is Ayatollah [Ali] Khamanei, the supreme leader of the Iranian revolution", not Fadlallah, he said. "As Hizbollah, we receive our fatwas from the Iranian marjieh for all religious and political purposes of the resistance. Sayed Fadlallah can be said to be one of several scholars and leaders whom we very much respect and have consulted on various issues in the past, but never directly worked with on any programme." Or as another Hizbollah cadre put it in another interview: "When it's time to go to war or make a political or military decision, Hizbollah's marja is Iran. But when a member of Hizbollah needs a ruling on whether it's allowed to smoke during Ramadan, they might go to Sayed Fadlallah." Fadlallah famously and popularly concluded some years ago that to smoke cigarettes did not constitute breaking a Ramadan fast, a decision that did not hurt his popularity with the Lebanese Shiite. It was this willingness to discard prior religious precedent that often endeared him to his community of followers far more than his support for military action against Israel, and turned him into one of the most liberal intellectuals in the Muslim world. In an interview four years ago, Fadlallah described much of what is considered Sharia as "nothing more than outdated Arabic tribal traditions that both pre-date and contradict the teachings of the prophets but are continued by falsely linking them to Islamic tradition". It was this mentality that led him to challenge many tenets commonly associated with Islam that involve family law, divorce, women's rights and even sex outside of marriage. He often granted divorces to women who could prove abuse or neglect by their husbands and would do so without consulting or even informing the husband or his family, as in his view their opinion was irrelevant once the tenets of marriage were broken by abuse or infidelity. "Once he granted my cousin's wife a divorce because my cousin was beating her," said Mohammed Reda, a resident of the southern suburbs. "He just granted her the divorce when she showed him the bruises and police report. He never even told my cousin or asked him for his side of the issue. My whole family went crazy and even tried to attack his office with guns, but they knew better and finally dropped it." This liberalism towards women led him to argue that not only would it be permissible for women to lead prayers in mosques for mixed audiences but that God had actually commanded that women should be allowed into the highest ranks of Shiite Islam as ayatollahs. "By refusing women the right to learn and teach Islam according to their own intellectual capability, all of Islam is sinning against God," he said in the interview in 2006. "It's clear from all of the teachings of the Prophet and from science itself that women are quite capable of the same intellectual accomplishment as men." mprothero@thenational.ae