When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours Lebanon’s border with Israel today, he may pause a moment to consider that Iran owes its existence as a Shiite nation to the ancestors of those living in these rural hilltop villages.
Iran wasn't always the center of Shiite scholarship
In the early 16th century, the center for Shiite scholarship was in an area known as Jabal Amil, a rugged hill country that conforms closely to the geographical perimeters of modern-day south Lebanon. When Shah Ismael I, the Safavid ruler of Iran, introduced Shiism as the state religion in the 16th century, he turned to the scholars of Jabal Amil to help promulgate the new faith.
Dozens of scholars traveled to Iran, settling there, marrying, learning Persian, and involving themselves in the rivalries and intrigues of the Safavid court. It was the beginning of a linkage of families and learning between two Shiite communities lying at opposite ends of the Middle East that remains today.
Ironically, however, the success of the Jabal Amil scholars in preaching Shiism in Safavid Iran shifted the center of the faith from the Arab world to the powerful Persian empire. From then on, in the eyes of Arab Sunnis, Shiism – already considered heretical – would be further tainted with a Persian hue. Even today, Hezbollah is often derided by its enemies for its links to Iran, forcing party officials to repeatedly insist on their Lebanese and Arab identity.
Shiite relatives in Lebanon, Iran
More than a century and a half later, his great-great-grandson, Musa Sadr, traveled from Iran to settle in his ancestral homeland in Lebanon and spearheaded a powerful campaign to politically and socially mobilize the disenfranchised Shiite community.
Hussein Sharafeddine, a descendant of Sheikh Saleh Sharafeddine and brother-in-law of Musa Sadr, says that the scattered family was able to stay in touch over the decades despite the distance separating them.
“The children of Sheikh Saleh stayed in Iraq or went to Iran and some are even in India,” he says. “We know only the ones in Iraq and Iran. Relatives have stayed in touch and we know everything about them, even if we rarely see each other.”
How Hezbollah began
The origins of Hezbollah lie in the interaction between Lebanese and Iranian clerics studying in the Shiite seminaries of Najaf in southern Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s.
Young Lebanese clerical students, the future founders of Hezbollah, were inspired by the radical ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who later led the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
Three years later, Israel invaded Lebanon, an event which helped crystallize the ambitions of Iranian leaders and Lebanese radical Shiite clerics to export the Islamic revolution to Lebanon, an impetus that gave birth to Hezbollah.