Fadlallah, Muhammad Husayn (1935–)

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Fadlallah, Muhammad Husayn

The Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim cleric Muhammad Husayn Abd al-Ra'uf Fadlallah has been a leading religious and political leader in Lebanon since the 1980s.


Fadlallah was born in al-Najaf, Iraq, on 16 November 1935. However, his roots are in Lebanon; he is the son of the late Abd al-Ra'uf Fadlallah, a major Shi'ite Muslim cleric who left Aynata in southern Lebanon in 1928 to travel to Iraq to study at its famous Shi'ite religious seminaries. As a young man Fadlallah followed in his father's footsteps and trained in the seminaries of al-Najaf, where he mastered the arcane intricacies of religious law by studying under some of the most famous Shi'ite grand ayatollahs of the twentieth century. These included Muhsin al-Hakim, Abu'l-Qasim al-Khu'i, Husayn al-Hilli, and Mahmud al-Sharawadi. He eventually was certified as a mujtahid (a Shi'ite cleric competent to independently interpret religious law). Fadlallah started teaching in al-Najaf, entering into the polemical debates between Marxists and their rivals that were common in Iraqi politics at the time.

Bearing the title "Sayyid," he returned to Lebanon in 1966, settling in the Nab'a suburb eastern Beirut. During his first decade in Beirut he devoted much of his time to scholarship and authored several books in Arabic. He established the Usrat al-Ta'akhi Society, an Islamic cultural association. He also founded the Islamic Shari'a Institute that he continues to head. Fadlallah argued that Islamic jurisprudence should be freed from its abstract formulations and expressed in a language that could be understood by laypeople. His literary taste is also evident in his poetic language. In Beirut, he witnessed the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and the progressive disintegration of the Lebanese state. He himself became a victim of the war when he was kidnapped by Christian militiamen and forced to leave Nab'a. He went to Harat Hurayk and eventually to Bir al-Abd in Beirut's southern suburbs.

The Rise of the Shi'ites

The 1950s and 1960s were times of growth and concern among the learned men of Shi'ism. In Iraq as in Lebanon, young Shi'ites were becoming increasingly active in politics, but they were more attracted by the revolutionary rhetoric of the Left than the seemingly anachronistic language of Islam. In both countries the Shi'ites found themselves at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and communist ideology that emphasized class exploitation rang true. In reaction to the successes of the Left, some of the leading religious scholars of al-Najaf created the Hizb al-Da'wa (the Party of the Call), and it is entirely possible that Fadlallah was an influential voice within the party. Notwithstanding the creation of Da'wa, it was not until the Iranian Revolution that toppled the imperial government in 1979 that the potential for Shi'ism as a force for revolution was understood.

For many years Fadlallah lived in the shadow of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian cleric of Lebanese descent who began to organize the Lebanese Shi'ites in the early 1960s. But al-Sadr disappeared in 1978 during a visit to Libya, and his still-unexplained disappearance left a gaping hole that aspiring Shi'ite leaders have competed to fill ever since. Fadlallah saw himself as the successor to al-Sadr, but he faced an impressive range of competitors—including Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din, the vice-chair of the Supreme Shi'ite Islamic Council; Abd al-Amr Qabalan, the senior jurisprudent for Shi'ite religious law; Nabih Berri, the lawyer who led the important Amal movement; and Husayn al-Husaynii, who as speaker of the Parliament held the highest position available to a Shi'ite under the Lebanese constitution. Although the competitors often used the highly evocative religious symbolism of Shi'ism to rally supporters and undermine adversaries, the dynamics of Shi'ite politics largely reflected an intense struggle for political position in Lebanon.

In the 1980s Fadlallah emerged as one of the leading political figures in Lebanon. He attracted a wide following in the large Shi'ite community, particularly within the ranks of Hizbullah (Arabic: Party of God). From the pulpit of the Imam Rida mosque in Bir al-Abd, Fadlallah's sermons gave shape to the political currents among the Shi'ites, especially in the latter half of the 1980s.


Name: Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah

Birth: 1935, al-Najaf, Iraq

Family: Married; children

Nationality: Lebanese

Education: Shi'ite religious seminaries, al-Najaf, Iraq


  • 1966: Returns from Iraq to his ancestral country, Lebanon; settles in Nab'a, an eastern suburb of Beirut
  • 1975: Lebanese Civil War breaks out; kidnapped by Christian militiamen and forced to leave Nab'a
  • 1982: Israel invades Lebanon, bombarding Beirut heavily
  • 1985: Survives assassination attempt
  • 1989: Refuses to support the Ta'if Accord that ends the civil war in Lebanon
  • 2003: Invited to return to Iraq after downfall of Saddam Hussein, but refuses a governmental position


The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 was a watershed event for the Lebanese Shi'ites and the public career of Fadlallah. Many Shi'ites, particularly in South Lebanon, initially greeted the invasion with enthusiasm—hoping that the Israelis would remove Palestinian guerrillas who had been harassing them over the years. By 1983 the mood had shifted from joy to anger among Lebanese Shi'ites. The invading army became an army of occupation bearing down heavily upon the Shi'ites, and a war of resistance began against the Israelis. In January 1985, reeling from heavy losses, the Israeli government eventually decided to cut its losses and reduce its occupation to a "security zone" in the south that covered less than 10 percent of Lebanese territory. Although a wide assortment of Lebanese factions participated in the antioccupation campaign, it was the self-styled Islamic Resistance that captured the imagination of observers all over the world. Fadlallah was an influential proponent of conducting a defensive jihad al-difa (defensive holy war) against the Israelis, but he was by no means the only Shi'ite cleric to do so. Moreover, Fadlallah seemed to have no direct operational role in the Islamic Resistance's attacks.

After the destruction of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 237 marines in October 1983, some speculated that Fadlallah played a direct role in encouraging the attack. Subsequent evidence cast doubt on that claim. It now seems that the Iranian ambassador to Syria at the time, Ali Akbar Mohteshemi, played a major role in organizing the attack, probably with assistance from Syria. Fadlallah applauded the attack. The marines were members of the Multinational Force (MNF) dispatched to Lebanon in 1982 following the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The killings were the work of Christian Maronite militiamen allied with Israel. Initially the MNF was warmly received, but its support for President Amin Gemayyel's unpopular government progressively eroded support for the MNF. The ideology promulgated by Tehran held that the West—particularly the United States—was an evil and insidious influence in Lebanon. Only by expelling the MNF would the Lebanese win freedom from Western colonialist designs and intrigues.

Dealing with Iran and Amal

The Iranian role in the attack on the marines points up the expanding role of Tehran in Lebanese Shi'ite politics. By 1982 Iran had dispatched a contingent of the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) to Lebanon. The Pasdaran served as a cadre, training Lebanese Shi'ites to serve under the banner of an Islamic revolution. Iran also dispensed relatively large sums of money, much of it flowing to Hizbullah to pay military expenses, as well as funding a relatively broad range of social welfare programs designed to benefit Lebanese Shi'ites. Fadlallah was a vocal supporter of Iranian leader and worldwide Shi'ite spiritual figure Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution, but he believed that Iran was misjudging Lebanon. He argued that Iran was insensitive to the social complexity of Lebanon, with its seventeen recognized sects—including Jews, several Muslim sects, and a rich variety of Christians. In contrast, almost 95 percent of the Iranian population follows Shi'ite Islam. During a 1985 visit to Iran Fadlallah found himself in some heated exchanges with Iranian counterparts who exaggerated the ease with which an Islamic state might be created in Lebanon.


In Lebanon, we have to realize the seriousness of the American interference and to be aware of it because the American Administration is the source of chaos that afflicted the Lebanese body, especially, in the latest stages in which it is trying to present it self as a balsam for the internal Lebanese wounds. But actually, we all know that the snake does not hold in itself the antidote, but the deadly poison. Thus, we should be aware not to be "stung" twice in the American hole in the present as well as the coming landmarks.

The Bush Administration continues to play the role of the cop that protects its interests in the Middle East, and points its political, economic and security weapons against the region's interests, claiming deceitfully that it is seeking to promote democracy and human rights, at a time it is planning to establish a political and security alliance of several Arab dictatorships which it claims to be moderate, to participate in its wars, and make them join the Jewish state that it believes to be the most civilized and moderate in the region. Some of the Arab officials have gone as far as saying that Israel is their friend, their ally, and the protector of the Arabs against Iran. In this respect, it is interesting that one of Bush's advisors said: "I believe that they decided (Bush's men) to play the role of good cop instead of the bad one they have been playing for six years." He added, "This good cop bad cop scenario works only if the bad cop can be believed."


For his part, Fadlallah stressed a more gradual strategy that took fuller account of the realities of Lebanon. Fadlallah also held an independent stance on the matter of hostage-taking—a number of foreigners had been seized by various Shi'ite groups in Lebanon in the mid-1980s. He generally criticized the abductions on moral grounds, but he had little direct influence in such matters. While Fadlallah had advocated Khomeini's doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (in Persian velayat-e faqih) in the 1980s, he seems to have moved away from it in the 1990s.

The latter half of the 1980s was marked by fierce infighting among the two major Shi'ite groupings, Amal and Hizbullah. The outcome of the fighting left Amal more or less in control of the Shi'ite heartland in southern Lebanon, but the more radical and religiously oriented Hizbullah emerged victorious in the crowded Shi'ite suburbs of southern Beirut. Fadlallah denied any organizational role in Hizbullah, but he was popularly associated with the ideals of Hizbullah, if not with its organizational infrastructure. He clearly was a beneficiary of Hizbullah advances in power. Many members of the growing Shi'ite professional class shifted their political loyalties from Amal to Hizbullah.

Fadlallah and Hizbullah

Fadlallah maintained his own political identity distinct from Hizbullah. His personal ambitions were hardly modest, and by eschewing political labels Fadlallah stood a better chance of broadly appealing to the Shi'ites, many of whom also avoid formal political affiliations. Nonetheless, Fadlallah rejected the reformism of the Amal movement and generally opposed efforts to renovate the Lebanese government. Not surprisingly, he refused to support the 1989 Ta'if Accord mediated by the Arab League that ended the civil war in Lebanon. The accord took little account of the fact that the Shi'ites were at that point Lebanon's largest community, representing as much as 40 percent of the total population. However, Hizbullah was the only major militia that was allowed to retain its weaponry by the Ta'if Accord. During the early twenty-first century, Hizbullah's political and military continued to grow.

At the same time, however, Fadlallah's own views had moderated. He now advocates for multiculturalism and does not call for an Islamic republic in Lebanon. He continues to preach today, and maintains his own Web site, http://www.bayynat.org.lb.


Fadlallah is widely respected in Lebanon, and now carries the title of Ayatollah in recognition of his senior status among the Shi'ite clergy. He also retains considerable support among Shi'ites in post-saddam hussein Iraq as well. This has not stopped some powers, notably the United States, from accusing him of serving as Hizbullah's "spiritual guide," and for religiously sanctioning the group's suicide attacks against Israeli occupation forces in the south. On 8 March 1985 Fadlallah miraculously survived a car bomb that killed eighty people which reportedly was planted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Bir al-Abd neighborhood. In fact, his relations with Iran and Hizbullah had become strained in the early years of the twenty-first century.


Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah will be remembered as the most important Shi'ite cleric to emerge in Lebanon in the second half of the twentieth century. His theological and political influence among the country's Shi'ites has been profound, and one whose overall influence in the country has been considerable as well.


Abbas, Thair. "Interview with Grand Ayatollah Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah." al-Sharq al-Awsat English Edition, 9 September 2006. Available from http://www.asharqalawsat.com/english.

Fadlallah, Muhammad Husayn. Bayynat Web site. Available from http://english.bayynat.org.lb.

"Interview with Shaykh Muhammad Hussayn Fadlallah." Journal of Palestine Studies 25, no. 1 (Autumn 1995): 61-75.

Norton, Richard Augustus. Hezbollah: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Sankari, Jamal. Fadlallah: The Making of a Radical Shi'ite Leader. London: Saqi Books, 2005.

                                     Michael R. Fischbach