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Like father, like son

Sayyed Jaafar Fadlallah may only be 33 years old, but his aging father, Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, trusts him unequivocally.  Called the “spiritual guide” or “oracle” of Hezbollah by many in Europe and America, the elder Fadlallah, fast approaching 80, has been slowly withdrawing from public life in recent years.  Only his regular Friday sermons at the Mosque of Hassan and Hussein, just blocks from his home in the southern suburbs of Beirut, remind worshipers of the fury with which the Grand Ayatollah once spoke out against America, Israel and the West.  By many accounts, it is now Jaafar Fadlallah who coordinates the activities of the numerous mosques, schools and orphanages affiliated with his father. 

Despite Hezbollah’s political hegemony over the Shia and the fact that many Lebanese Shia consider either Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran their chief religious authority, or marja, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah is still, technically, the ranking Shia cleric of the country.  Few, indeed, would argue with the assertion that he is the most learned of the Shia scholars in Lebanon.  As a marja, Fadlallah also has a sizable following in Iraq, where was born, grew up and schooled. 

Some confusion as to whether or not Fadlallah “blessed” the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, and afterward, whether or not he condoned the attacks, launched the cleric to prominence in the eyes of the West.  A botched assassination attempt, largely believed to have been coordinated by the CIA, which killed some 80 civilians near the cleric’s house in 1985, also brought Fadlallah’s face to the six o’clock news in American living rooms.

Today, however, both the elder and younger Fadlallah carefully keep their distance from Hezbollah.  “The term ‘spiritual leader of Hezbollah’ was mistakenly applied by the West,” argued Jaafar Fadlallah in an interview with NOW Lebanon, maintaining that his father had only learned about the bombing, for which he was blamed, through the media.  “My father refused to be part of any party or political institution that would limit him and make him bound to its lines,” continued Fadlallah.  “He preferred to be independent, because this would give him a space where he can be more influential.”

It has, however, been near impossible for ranking Shia clerics in Lebanon to maintain their political independence.  The dire economic plight of the Lebanese Shia in the 1950s and 1960s, arguably something to be blamed on the negligence of the Lebanese state, necessitated the civil and political involvement of their spiritual leaders.  Clerics like Imam Moussa al-Sadr and Sheikh Mohammad Mahdi Shamseddin, along with Fadlallah, complemented their religious teachings with social, charitable and educational work.  Improving the lot of the Shia – socially, politically and economically – was at least as central to their mission in Lebanon as their scholarship.

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Shia clerics in Lebanon began to fall, more or less, into two distinct camps: those like Sadr and Fadlallah, who were religious authorities or marja in their own right, with followings in Lebanon; and those like Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who derived their religious authority from being a representative, or wakil, of an ayatollah in Iran, like Khomeini or Khamenei.

It was the latter, those who employed the theological principle of wilayat al-faqih, or “the guardianship of the jurist,” from which Jaafar Fadlallah is trying to differentiate himself.  “Hezbollah has its own religious reference, and my father has his own line of reference,” said Fadlallah, alluding to these different sources of religious authority.  “This creates a kind of distinction between the two.”

Fadlallah, though modest about it, hopes to one day become a marja like his father.  When asked about his future, he said, “A person should aspire to the best ideal stage, but this state is evaluated by the people, not the person himself.”  In order to become a marja, Fadlallah will have to continue with his schooling, perhaps travelling to Najaf in Iraq for advanced studies.  At present, Fadlallah works with his father and also teaches at his Islamic Sharia Institute.  Ultimately, however, it will be the people who decide whether or not he is as learned as his father and worthy to replace him.

To subtly counter fears that the Lebanese Shia have put too much faith in Iran and its clerical establishment, Jaafar Fadlallah does his best to play up his Lebanese identity.  Unlike the occasional Shia cleric in Lebanon who speaks Arabic with a heavy Persian accent, Fadlallah speaks the language with the same ease and artistry as his father.  By speaking of dogma and doctrine in flawless classical Arabic, but occasionally slipping into the Lebanese colloquial to illustrate a point here or there, he can already put on both the face of a well-schooled cleric and also of a Lebanese villager. 

Fadlallah’s maternal grandmother came from the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil, and, as a child, he grew up in Nabaa, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Beirut heavily populated by cobblers and craftsmen, the majority also hailing from Bint Jbeil.  His father, a scholar in Najaf, was born in the neighboring village of Aynata.

He is Lebanese, but he also believes that it is important to consider his and his father’s theological positions in their pan-Islamist and regional contexts.  “As a Lebanese, I would like to start with my Islamism, knowing that Islamism transcends the limits of geography to become a sort of existential and cultural tie between different people.”  But, as both a Muslim and as a Lebanese citizen, he also has a political stance.  “I am concerned with all issues related to our region, mainly the issue of occupation that is present in different countries today and the resistance to fight that occupation,” he said.  He was, of course, referring to the occupation of Iraq, of Palestine, and of the Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills in Lebanon.

By standing on the fringes of Hezbollah, sometimes with it and sometimes against it, both in terms of politics and jurisprudence, the senior Fadlallah has carved out a unique place for himself in the intricate world of Lebanese jurists.  By vocally supporting the resistance, but also regularly issuing relatively progressive legal decisions, or fatwas, especially with regards to the position of women in society, he has come to represent a significant minority of the Shia.  Though Hezbollah, without a doubt, still commands the loyalty of the Shia, far more so than any one Lebanese marja, Fadlallah’s sometimes-remarkable, sometimes-unusual stances offer an important expansion of the breadth of choice for the confessional group that makes up roughly one-third of the country. 

Just two weeks ago, Fadlallah issued a fatwa which not only condemned violence against women, but, paraphrased by his son, said that “a man does not have the right to hit his wife and that, when he does, she has the right to retaliate in the same way.”

It is this “alternative” vision of Lebanese Shi’ism that Jaafar Fadlallah plans to perpetuate if, or when, he becomes a marja.  As he told NOW Lebanon, “I am trying, through my cultural, scientific and religious position, to provide a different point of view and participate in any action which can enhance the process of change.”  He said that he, like his father, does not want the practice of Islam to become “limited by any partisan boundaries.”

In Lebanon, however, aspiring to the apolitical is often tantamount to the negation of one’s importance on other levels. Politics and religion, at the moment, are simply too tightly bound to one another.  Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah’s influence skyrocketed in the 1980s as Hezbollah’s “oracle,” and then, despite his prominence and seniority, plummeted a decade later as he made his disagreements with Hezbollah public.  Jaafar Fadlallah will have to walk a fine line between politics and religion, carefully examining his father’s success and failures, in order to make an impact of his own.  If, in years to come, he keeps the same distance from politics as his father has in recent years, then he may very well find himself with few followers – no matter how groundbreaking or dynamic his positions may be within the community.   

Reporting contributed by Hanin Ghaddar, NOW Staff.

  • Cedars

    sami, oh so now you like Najah Wakeem ? since when? is this the same guy who told our prime minister back than Mr. harriri to shut up while in session? in your opinion, as long as someone move a little bit towards syria, he is a saint in your book. You lose, tribunal on it's way.

    January 21, 2008

  • Sami

    When the Lebanese parliament was at 99, there was a Nasserite MP called,Najah Wakeem he could not even get a turn to talk in the Parliament let alone do something for his people.The state is responssible for the welfare of ALL its people no matter where they live in the sate.I look at Lebanon and notice that the areas of the south, Akkar. Baalbak/Hermil and Bekaa are all Muslim and all deprived.Is that by chance or by design?

    January 1, 2008

  • Sami

    Furthermore, Jad, this is an old wives tales, it is what the State made us believe that Asaad said that.It is an insult to accept it as it suggest that the Shiaa are stupid in accepting Asaad suposed statement.Another old wives tale is that the Beiruti Sunni went to the Othoman ruler and lodged a complaint against the sun, being in thier face in the morning when going to the field and again in the afternoon.The wise ruler told them to ride the Jackasses backwards.This is an insult to the Sunnis and tales like those do not make sense.

    January 1, 2008

  • Sami

    It is a well known fact that in all democratic countries, education is decided by the state not by one man like Ahmad Al Asaad.If the state of Lebanon wanted to build schools in the South to educate the Shiaa LEBANESE, it could have built them with or without Asaad consent.If the state wanted to provide water or medical services to the south, no one man can stop it.Well, now we got ridd of his like and Berri was able to discover water in Waddi Jeeloo and bring running water to more than 289 villages in the South. Add to that the schools and hospitals that Amal and Hizeb built there, not to mention the modern roads.Why do you think the Shiaa fought along side the Palastinians.ANSWER:SOCIAL INEQUALITY.

    January 1, 2008

  • John F.

    Sami - Ulcer my friend, Merry Christmas too all people like you, you need Jesus help. God Bless...This is the truth, peace be with you - Amin

    December 22, 2007

  • John F.

    Sami - Merry Christmas to you & to Hussein Fadlallah, who hopes to be an ayatollah.

    December 22, 2007

  • Jad

    I agree with Sami, however the Shia's dire plight would be more accurately blamed on Shia feudal lords and later politicians who didn't take care of their community like for example Kamel Asaad's father who used to tell his followers "You don't need an education, Kamel is being educated on your behalf". So it's not really the state's fault, Lebanon's communities are as strong as their confessional leaders are at one point in time, and how much they care about them. People like Moussa Sadr and Mohammad Fadlallah luckily changed that fact. Lebanon being a confessional state is a sad truth, but that's the way it is.

    December 22, 2007

  • Sami

    Furthermore, the writer wants us tho think that since some scholars have Persian accents it means that they are Persians or at least have Persian loyalties as Mubarak once suggested.To this we say that those scholars went to Iran for religious studies when they were teens, its just normal that they be influenced by this language, case in point is Carlos Eddeh who spent most of his life outside of Lebanon and can hardly speak "Lebanese".One last point on the subject, Arafat lived a long time in Egypt and spoke with an Egyptian dialect, no one ever called him Egyptian or with Egyptian loyalties.

    December 18, 2007

  • Sami

    While i do not dispute some historical facts as presented by the writer, i like to point out to him that the CIA later admitted to targeting the Sayyed.Other historical points, the writer states that the Shia's dire plight was in the 50's and 60's.Never in the history of Lebanon did the Shia have equal rights whether economical social or political, even before 1922.The blame Has to fall on the state, who else would you blame for a dire plight of any people in any country.

    December 18, 2007