We are nearing the second anniversary for the passing away of Al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him). On July 6, 2010, tens of thousands of Lebanese mourners came to Haret Hreik, Beirut’s southern district, to pay their last respects,“to a man that at times of bleak fitna (civil strife) emerged as a guiding light to millions of Muslims, regardless of their sectarian affiliation.” (Al-Ahram, 2010). At a time when very few Islamic figures were able to nurture a cross sectarian following, Fadlallah was one of the rare products of the Hawzah seminary educational system who promoted innovative thinking– that is, a way out of the strangles of traditionalism that suffocates open minded thought. Sayyid Fadlallah desired to be buried at the Al-Hassanein Mosque Haret Hreik, and not in his place of birth, because he “want[ed] people to be able to reach [him] even after I am gone.” (Al-Ahram, 2010). With a controversial reputation as a “great reformer”, Fadlullah once explained that reform “does not mean to innovate Islam itself… rather innovation is in how to understand this revelation, the Holy Quran.” (Al-Ahram, 2010).
In my opinion, Fadallah made three important intellectual contributions to contemporary Islamic thought. First, he tried to challenge in a “scientific” way the purportedly unassailable “truths” of the history of Islam (within the Shia tradition), particularly its early years. Second, Fadlallah tried to bring greater cooperation and unity among the Sunni and the Shia. Third, Fadlallah challenged the traditional conception of Islamic thought that largely rejected taking into consideration the changes of modernity. Specifically, he critiqued the male-dominated nature of Arab culture (which often had an Islamic imprimatur placed on it), and tried to instill into his followers (and others) the importance of keeping away from tay’assub (shallow narrow-mindedness and tribalism), among many other contributions.
Born in 1936 into a south Lebanese family with a strong theological background in Najaf, Iraq, Fadallah studied under the prominent Grand Ayatollah ‘Abul al-Qasim Khu’i. When Fadlallah returned to Lebanon in 1966, he organized and oversaw the jam‘iyyat usrat al-ta‘akhi in Nab‘a, a Shi‘ite neighborhood in East Beirut. (Shaery-Eisenlohr, 22). He would later gain increased attention during the Lebanese civil war due to his anti-intervention stance, and his attempt to bring into light the plight the suffering of the Lebanese Shia. In 1985, the CIA, with funding from the Al-Saud Royal Family in Saudi Arabia (particularly Prince Bandar ibn Salman), engineered an albeit unsuccessful assassination attempt against the Sayyed. The Sayyed survived, but unfortunately, scores of innocent people were killed. (Chasdi).
After the Lebanese Civil War came to an end in 1989, Sayed Fadlallah began to receive renewed attention among the Shia ulema. Unfortunately, some of this attention was negatively directed against him, including increasingly hostile criticism. With the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the ascension of Ayatollah Khamenei, Fadlallah protested the narrow conception of wilayat al-faqih, and believed that the Iranian marja‘iyya dominated the upper echelon of Shia thought to its detriment, critiquing the notion that “The Iranian theologians believe that Iran is the only Shi‘ite Islamic authority, because they consider Iran as the headquarters of Shi‘ite influence. The Iranians believe that all decisions regarding Shi‘ite Islam must come from Iran.” (Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, 22). Fadlallah thus positioned himself as an Arab Muslim marjaa’, but still tried to portray his appeal as a “modern” religious leader, “as opposed to ‘traditionalists,’ among whom he locates most of the Iranian ruling religious elite.” (Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, 23). Fadlallah delivered a speech in 1992/1993 in which he challenged the historical accuracy relating to an incident in early Islamic history between Fatima bint Muhammad (peace upon her) and ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab. (Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, 24). Unfortunately today, even among the youth, I consistently see disturbing statements being leashed against Sayyed Fadlallah for his declaration “that the firmly held Shi’i belief that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar violently pushed Fatima behind a door, thus causing the death of the fetus she carried, is a myth.” (Aziz, 2001). It would be one thing if the criticism was intelligently researched and spelled out in a clear, lucid way. Instead, many of the criticisms stem from shameful ignorance. Fadlallah has also been heavily criticized for some of his jurisprudential rulings, the details of which I do not wish to go into.
Fadlallah also would use his weekly Friday sermons to emphasize unity in the Muslim ummah. A common theme of his was, “O Muslims: The Shias are not the Sunnis’ problem and the Sunnis are not the Shias’ problem. It is international
arrogance, which tries to incite internal strife among them, that is the problem to both, as well as to Islam and Muslims.” (Al-Mosawi, 132). One of his students, Ayatollah Abdullah Al-Ghuraifai pointed out that Sayyid Fadlallah’s “most essential advice for the Muslims before his demise was to preserve Islam and the unity of the Muslim Ummah.” (Al-Mosawi, 133). Fadlallah belived that, “if the basis of the Shia-Sunni differences is the Imamate, then let us look at how Imam Ali, the champion of Muslim unity, dealt with this issue.” The lesson gleaned from Imam Ali’s history, the Sayyid believed, for the Shia and Sunni alike: “When there are outside threats, the leadership and the whole Ummah should freeze their differences and unite in preserving Islam and the Muslims. Therefore, all those who incite sectarian strife are in reality acting against Ali, because his principles, teachings and practice have always called for preventing the arrogant and disbelievers from exploiting our sectarian, religious and national differences in order to destroy Islam.” (Al-Mosawi, 133). Speaking to the Shia ulema,Fadlallah criticized what he saw as attempts by members of his own sect to undermine unity: “all Muslims who try to undermine this unity in the name of Ali, we say that you are taking a position against Ali who was the champion of the cause of Islamic unity. If you support Ali, you ought to uphold this unity.” (Al-Mosawi). Sayyid Fadlallah also frequently criticicized the prevalence of takfir in the Muslim ummah, in which accusations of disbelief would be leveled against other Muslims, “without even determining what the concept of disbelief in Islam is.” (Al-Mosawi, 139). Depressingly lamented the Sayyid once, “It is really shameful” that at a time where the Muslim ummah faces severe challenges from the outside and the inside, ” a fanatic takfiri group from within the Ummah continues its war on Muslims inside their mosques, armed with an alienating sectarian mindset and a murderous mentality that violates the sacredness of mosques, and eventually ending up in killing groups of believers and worshippers in a brutal and criminal manner that has nothing to do with Islam and its principles.” (Al-Mosawi, 139-140).
One instructive example that Sayyid Fadlallah recounted on numerous occasions came in the lead up to the Battle of Siffin (the year 657), which pitted the forces of Ali ibn Abi Talib and Mu’wiyah ibn Abi Sufyan. On the way to the battle, there were certain members of Ali’s army that began cursing the people of Damascus (ahl al-sham) to which the Imam responded, “I dislike you starting to abuse them, but if you were to describe their deeds and recount their situation that would be a better mode of speaking and a more convincing way of arguing. Instead of abusing them you should say, ‘O Allah! Save our blood and their blood, bring forth reconciliation between us and them, and lead them out of their misguidance so that he who is ignorant of the truth may know it, and he who inclines towards rebellion and revolt may turn away from it.” (Al-Mosawi, 141).
As the turmoil increasingly turns sectarian in the ongoing Syrian crisis, Sayyid Fadlallah’s words still ring presciently as ever:
When sectarian conflicts emerge, “every party [around the world] starts to call for the protection of (its own particular) Muslim group and starts to talk about the atrocities that the other group commits.” This becomes followed by, “a conference that is attended by well-known Muslim scholars (who issue) fatawa that pour oil on the fire.” Consequently, actions and statements that increase the fire come “not only from the oppressor, but also from the Ummah’s children and those who are supposed to be the conscious vanguard in preserving and protecting the Ummah’s unity.” These scholars need to be told: “Fear Allah. You are about to lose the Ummah and plunge it into instinctive sectarian mazes that wipe out everything everywhere.” (Al-Mosawi, 147).
Fadlallah also emphasized the importance of respect of women in Islam, a traditionally overlooked topic among conservative Islamic scholars. He believed that men unduly interpreted Islamic doctrine to the disadvantage of women. As one author notes, “[Fadlallah actively [sought] to redefine the traditional conception of women in order to eradicate the justifications that orthodox Islamists have used for the maltreatment of women.” (Chamas). And like the late reformer Hassan Al-Banna,Fadlallah strongly promoted the notion of women’s education, and spoke in favor of a role for women outside the household. (Chamas, 252).
Fadlallah left behind a great legacy. Hundreds of books published, “nine orphanages, 18 schools, and a large number of religious and cultural centres in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.” (Al-Ahram, 2010). As July 4, 2012 approaches, we should reflect on the lessons this great Sayyid left behind. Instead of being beholden to the shackles of traditionalism, we should critically reflect on the merits of what Sayyid Fadlallah advocated, and not engage in ignorant and unfounded hostility toward this great man. May Allah be pleased with his effort on Earth, and grant him an elevated status in the hereafter.
قال الامام علي: اذا مات العالم ثلم في الاسلام ثلمة لا یسدها شيء
الی یوم القیامة
Ali ibn Abi Talib has said: “When a scholar dies, a crack appears in the body of Islam that can never be mended until the day of Judgement.”
Tariq Aziz, Fadlallah and The Making of the Re-Marjiyya (2001).
Zaid Al-Mosawi and Muhammad Habash: Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, A Lifetime in the Call for Unity
Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, Imagining Shi’ite Iran: Transnationalism and Religious Authenticity in the Muslim World, Volume 40, Issue 1, 2007.
Sophie Chamas, Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah: Muslim Cleric and Islamic Feminist, Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, (2009) Vol 1, No 2, 246-257
Richard Chasdi, An Analysis of Counterterror Practice Failure: The Case of the Fadlallah Assassination Attempt
Richard J. Chasdi, available at: http://www.pnsr.org/data/images/chasdi%20-%20case%20of%20the%20fadlallah%20assassination%20attempt.pdf
Omaya Abdel-Latif, Death of a Legend, available at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/1006/re06.htm