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Passing of Shiite cleric Fadlallah spells trouble for Lebanon

The death of Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah paves the way for a more militant, Iranian-influenced strain of Islamic ideology to gain ground in Lebanon.

By David Schenker / July 9, 2010


For Washington, the death this week of Lebanon’s most prominent and respected Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, was a bittersweet moment.

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In 1983, Fadlallah, a vocal proponent of suicide bombings, reportedly blessed the bombers of the US Embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut that killed over 240 Americans. More recently, Fadlallah’s purported dying wish was the destruction of Israel.

Yet his death now paves the way for a more militant, Iranian-influenced strain of Islamic ideology to gain ground in Lebanon.

Fadlallah represented the most credible moral, political, and theological alternative to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia.

Notwithstanding his fiery Friday sermons targeting Israel and the United States, the Iraqi-trained Fadlallah opposed the concept of velayat-e-faqih, which puts an Iranian mullah at the pinnacle of Shiite theology and politics. He also condemned Al Qaeda and so-called honor killings of Muslim women, stances that led many Westerners to see Fadlallah, a man Washington labelled a terrorist, as a kind of moderate.

To Hezbollah, the departure of Fadlallah is an opportunity to co-opt local Shiites – traditionally aligned with quietist Iraqi religious leaders – to the more militant ideology espoused by Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The effort to shift the orientation of the community will take time, but should Hezbollah succeed, it will strengthen Tehran and further erode Washington’s influence in the region.

Fadlallah was a marja, the most senior rank in the Shiite clerical hierarchy. When he declared himself a marja in 1995 – some thirty years into his career – virtually no one else in Lebanon held that status or questioned his credentials. Indeed, Fadlallah’s predecessor, the marja Seyyid Moshen al-Ameen, passed away in 1952, leaving a gap of 43 years. In the absence of a formal succession procedure, it’s unclear what will happen next.

By tradition, Shiites adopt a marja, or religious guide, whose interpretations and rulings inform the individual’s practice. Among Shiites in Lebanon, Fadlallah and the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani – both trained in the Iraqi city of Najaf and opposed to velayat-e-faqih – have long been the most influential religious figures. With Fadlallah gone, and Sistani nearly 81, Iran and Hezbollah hope to nudge Lebanon’s Shiites toward Tehran and Khamenei.