Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah died on July 4th in Beirut at the age of 74. His name included the title “Sayyid” to indicate that he is believed to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He was a vocal critic of the US and Israel and was at one time connected to Hezbollah. He supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran and has long been considered the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, which was formed in 1983. However, both he and Hezbollah denied the connection.
He was born in Najaf, Iraq but his family roots were in Lebanon. His father, Abd al-Ra’uf Fadlallah, was a major Shi’i cleric from Ainata in south Lebanon. He trained in Najaf Shi’i seminaries and became a mujtahid, trained in the intricacies of Islamic law. In 1966, he moved to Beirut where he witnessed the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 and the hardships that followed in Lebanon. The author of several books, including Islam and the Logic of Force, he lived in the shadow of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian imam of Lebanese descent. But in 1978, al-Sadr disappeared on a trip to Libya and was allegedly assassinated on Gaddafi’s orders. Fadlallah became his natural successor, although he faced many competitors. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. Some Shi’i were enthusiastic, but the mood quickly changed to anger as Israel occupied south Lebanon. The Shia organized resistance against Israel. In 1985, Israel reduced its occupation to a security zone in south Lebanon, 10 percent of Lebanon’s territory.
Fadlallah emerged as one of the leading religious and political figures in Lebanon in the 1980s when he attracted many Shia followers, particularly within Hezbollah. His sermons from the Imam Rida mosque in a suburb of Beirut reflected current political events for Shi’is. His sermons aroused future members of Hezbollah. After a suicide bomber blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983, it was believed that Fadlallah had encouraged the attack. Subsequent evidence disputes this belief and some evidence points to Ali Akbar Mohteshemi, the Iranian ambassador to Syria, playing the major role in organizing that attack, with Syria’s assistance.
However, Fadlallah applauded the attack. (The Marines were part of the international force sent to Lebanon after massacres in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps of Beirut which were committed by Maronite Catholic militias in an alliance with Israel.) The international force became unpopular after supporting the unpopular government of President Amin Gemayel. The US and French forces were then also considered to be occupiers and there was support for their expulsion.
Fadlallah survived an assassination attempt in 1985 when a car bomb exploded near his home in Beirut. The blast killed 80 people, injured hundreds and destroyed a 7 story building. Then again, during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Israeli planed bombed his home, but he was away.
Although his role with Hezbollah was not clear, he supported suicide attacks and armed resistance against Israel. In 2009, he issued a fatwa forbidding any normalization of ties with Israel. Although he initially supported President Obama, he became disappointed that Obama had been unable to create lasting peace in the Middle East. On other issues, he was considered a moderate. He issued a fatwa forbidding female circumcision and was opposed to “honor killings” of women by their families. He opposed Osama Bin Laden’s call for holy war, “jihad,” and considered the Taliban to be a sect outside of Islam. At his death, he was a widely respected Shia leader. Thousands attended his funeral in Beirut and Lebanon declared a national day of mourning.
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