Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the influential and controversial Lebanese Shi‘i spiritual leader, died Sunday morning in Beirut at age 75. Though his oft-attributed spiritual leadership of the political party/militant group Hezbollah has been called into question, he remained a vastly influential marja (a Shi‘i religious authority) throughout the Shi‘i world community. He was considered a terrorist by much of the Western world, with ties to the “1983 bombings of two barracks in Beirut in which 241 United States Marines and 58 French paratroopers were killed,” and he narrowly escaped assassination attempts in 1985 and 2006. While he sympathized with terrorist inclinations and vehemently spoke out against the U.S. and Israel, he also supported many progressive Islamic notions. He advocated for women’s rights and was well respected in the female community as highlighted in the New York Times:
Among his many fatwas, or religious edicts, on family law, he argued that women had the right to defend themselves from domestic violence. On Sunday, women wept openly on the streets of Shiite south Beirut as word of his death spread.
Following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, he increasingly found himself at odds with the spiritual leadership of Iran. While he praised the Iranian revolution in 1979, he became dissatisfied with the continuing allegiance of Hezbollah, and the Lebanese Shi‘a for that matter, toward the Iranian Supreme Leader. Lee Smith in the Wall Street Journal elaborates:
During the ’90s, Fadlallah had a falling out with Hezbollah and Iran. The sticking point was the concept of Velyat-e Faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, which held that the supreme religious and political authority for Hezbollah was Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ayatollah Fadlallah became a spiritual alternative to the Iranian Shi‘i model as Abigail Fielding Smith reports in the Global Post:
He was the marja for every Shia in Lebanon or the world that doesn’t believe in Iran,” said Ali Mohtadi, an Iranian journalist who lived in Lebanon for 15 years and said he knew Fadlallah personally. “I think Hezbollah and Iran are trying to change things in Lebanon and Fadlallah was a big problem for them.”
These conflicting viewpoints are summed up in David Kenner’s op-ed in Foreign Policy, in which he critiques the American government’s approach to the spiritual leader:
There was an element of truth to the U.S. stance: Fadlallah was certainly no liberal, nor an ally to be recruited to advance U.S. security goals. However, even a quarter-century after that misguided assassination attempt, U.S. officials failed to appreciate the areas where their interests and Fadlallah’s overlapped, both in isolating Iran and reducing the appeal of fundamentalism within Lebanon. The United States always preferred blunt instruments and simple epithets — crude tools indeed for a complex man.
Ayatollah Fadlallah was seen in many different lights. He spoke out in support of terrorism and against the U.S. and Israel; he was placed on an American terrorist watch list, and subsequently narrowly escaped multiple assassination attempts; yet he was also a persistent reformer who spoke out against the Iranian system of government and provided many liberal rulings in favor of women.