Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, Shiite Cleric, Dies at 75

News article, posted 07.05.2010, from Lebanon, in:
Source:
New York Times

From NY Times
By Thanassis Cambanis


Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the top Shiite cleric in Lebanon, whose writings and preachings inspired the Dawa Party of Iraq and a generation of militants, including the founders ofHezbollah, died Sunday morning in Beirut. He was 75.

Ayatollah Fadlallah suffered a liver hemorrhage at Bahman Hospital, run by Al Mabarrat Charity Association, which he founded, his adviser Hani Adbdallah said. Hezbollah called for three days of mourning, while clerics and political figures from Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf states, Lebanon and around the Middle East issued condolences.

“Today we lost a merciful father and a wise guide,” the Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement.

Ayatollah Fadlallah was one of the most learned and influential Shiite “spiritual references,” or marjas. All Shiites must choose a marja, whose teachings they follow and to whom they give alms. Ayatollah Fadlallah was a marja to Shiites across the Islamic world, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, as well as in Arab nations.

He spent his entire career arguing that after centuries of passivity, Shiite Muslims should become involved in politics and organize militias. He famously justified suicide bombings and other tactics of asymmetrical warfare by arguing that if Israel and its allies used advanced weaponry, Islam permitted the use of any weapons in retaliation.

In a 2002 interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph, he was quoted as saying of the Palestinians: “They have had their land stolen, their families killed, their homes destroyed, and the Israelis are using weapons, such as the F16 aircraft, which are meant only for major wars. There is no other way for the Palestinians to push back those mountains, apart from martyrdom operations."

Paradoxically, Ayatollah Fadlallah was also distinguished by his comparatively progressive positions on women’s rights and family law. 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.

Ayatollah Fadlallah was often mistakenly identified by Western governments as the spiritual guide of Hezbollah, the militant Islamist organization that was founded in 1982 with Iranian help and that spearheaded a violent campaign against Western and Israeli targets in Lebanon.

But his relationship with Hezbollah was much more complicated and far-reaching. He never considered himself to have any authority over the group and denied any operational links to it.

Western intelligence services, however, held the ayatollah responsible for attacks against Western targets, including the 1983 bombings of two barracks in Beirut in which 241 United States Marines and 58 French paratroopers were killed.

The C.I.A. is thought to have carried out an assassination attempt against the ayatollah in 1985, in which a 440-pound car bomb was placed along the short route between his apartment and mosque. Ayatollah Fadlallah narrowly escaped the explosion, but 80 other people were killed.

The administration of President Bill Clinton froze the ayatollah’s assets in 1995 because of his suspected involvement with terrorists. And in 2006, Israel bombed his house in south Beirut, but he was not there at the time.

Born in 1935 in Najaf, Iraq, a major center of Shiite learning, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He relocated to his ancestral village in southern Lebanon in the 1960s and quickly amassed thousands of followers.

An early supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Fadlallah grew to be a quiet critic of the revolution’s ideology, which placed all political power in the hands of clerics. He said he thought that Islamic clerics drew their authority from their followers as well as from God, and that while they should possess wide influence, they should not govern directly.

In 1989, Ayatollah Fadlallah distanced himself from Hezbollah, when it named as its new marja the Iranian successor to Ayatollah Khomeini.

He is survived by his wife, Najat Noureddin, and 11 children.

Until his recent illness, Ayatollah Fadlallah regularly preached to tens of thousands of followers at his Friday Prayer services in south Beirut, and published his sermons and clerical writings on the Internet, in Arabic, English and French.

Since the early 1990s, he adopted a more pragmatic tone, preaching against the division between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. He raised money for a sprawling international network of charities and willingly met with prominent Americans, including critics of his beliefs, and considered dialogue with the enemy an Islamic imperative.

But he never shed his fiery pedigree. He railed against the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and against United States policy in the Middle East. He never missed an opportunity to criticize Israel, denouncing Arab governments for what he said was a lack of organized opposition to and military confrontation of the Jewish state. When he was admitted to the hospital on Friday, Reuters reported, a nurse asked Ayatollah Fadlallah what he needed. Without hesitation, he replied, “For the Zionist entity to cease to exist."

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.