Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was a difficult man to pigeonhole, although many tried. From the early 1980s, he became, in the minds of many, synonymous with Hezbollah and was forever described as the group’s “spiritual leader” who had personally blessed the suicide bomber who blew up the United States Marines’ barracks at the Beirut airport in 1983. It was a tag that endured, even though Fadlallah eschewed a formal role within Hezbollah.
The claim that he blessed the Marines’ barracks bomber has also been put down as a rumor deliberately circulated by Lebanese military intelligence during the presidency of Amin Gemayel to discredit the cleric.
Fadlallah, despite being a leading advocate of an activist and modernist Islamism, tended toward dispensing guidance and advice and disdained the parochial obligations of running a political institution. Yet his teachings and writings served as an inspiration for Hezbollah’s founders and he continued to wield influence from afar during the party’s formative years. Among his early followers was a skinny bespectacled youth named Hassan Nasrallah, who even before reaching the age of 10 was a regular attendee at Fadlallah’s sermons in Nabaa.
Even though the official marja (religious reference for followers) for Hezbollah is Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameini, it is no secret that many members of the party actually followed Fadlallah. I know of one Hezbollah fighter who was utterly inconsolable on hearing of Fadlallah’s death and in his grief made unflattering comments about Khameini.
Fadlallah was a magnificent public speaker with a showman’s knack for whipping up an audience. But in the 1970s, he faced stiff competition from Imam Musa Sadr for the hearts and minds of the Shia community. Sadr was an Iranian of Lebanese ancestry who had arrived in south Lebanon in the late 1950s and soon made a name for himself as a progressive and dynamic cleric determined to better the lot of the marginalized Shia. He established the Amal Movement in 1975.
Both Sadr and Fadlallah were brilliant orators, but there the similarities ended. Sadr was slim, tall, charismatic, enlivened with boundless energy that saw him holding meetings, lectures and sermons up and down the country. Fadlallah was short and portly, a scholastic figure who centered his activities on his Nabaa neighborhood, glossing over doctrinal differences between Shia and Sunnis and emphasizing the unity of all Muslims.
Sadr’s purview essentially was limited to the communal betterment of Shias in Lebanon within the Lebanese system, while Fadlallah advocated the creation of a modern Islamic state and espoused a universal Islam that ignored man-made frontiers.
Sadr regarded Palestinian militant activities in south Lebanon with misgivings because of the suffering it brought upon his Shia constituents, but Fadlallah embraced the Palestinian cause, considering the eradication of the Zionist state as a moral and Islamic imperative.
Sadr vanished, mysteriously and famously, on a 1978 trip to Libya. For many Shia, dismayed at the more secular direction of the Amal Movement under the subsequent leadership of Nabih Berri, it was natural to gravitate toward the bolder views of Fadlallah.
Fadlallah originally objected to suicide bombings, but changed his stance in the mid 1980s when Lebanon was in the grip of Israeli occupation. In justifying suicide bombings, he said “there is no difference between dying with a pistol in your hand or exploding yourself.” But he pointedly added that suicide operations could not be condoned lightly and that if alternative means of attacking the enemy were available then they should be used instead.
Fadlallah supported Hezbollah’s goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, but recognized that given Lebanon’s pluralistic society, the attainment of an Islamic state was an impossibility in the short term. His perspective helped shape Hezbollah’s decision in the late 1980s to reverse its outright rejection of Lebanon’s power-sharing system of governance and to submit candidates for Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in 1992.
NICHOLAS BLANDFORD is a Beirut-based
correspondent for The Christian Science
Monitor and The Times of London