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.