Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a top Lebanese cleric and an early mentor of Hezbollah, died Monday at the age of 75. He was one of the most important Shi'ite clerics in the Muslim world, considered one of the founders of Hezbollah in the 1980s and its spiritual leader.
But above all, Fadlallah was one of the most fascinating Shi'ite religious leaders in the modern era: A man whose decrees were not only a source of worship for hundreds of thousands of people around the world, but also what put him at odds with the dominant Shi'ite religious institutions situated in Iran.
The Lebanese Ayatollah was even caught in a bitter disagreement with Hezbollah and the Tehran authorities over some of his decrees, and his defiance of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Fadlallah was born in 1935 in Najaf, Iraq, to a religious father of Lebanese descent. He began to write poetry by the age of 12, at which time he began his studies in one of the city's Shi'ite religion schools, or Madrasah. In 1966 he moved to Lebanon, where he continued his religious studies and dealt with welfare issues within the local Shi'ite communality.
Without a doubt the most interesting chapter of his life began when Hezbollah appeared on the scene. He backed the formation of the Islamist group and went on to become a central figure in the organization.
But his disagreements with Tehran began as soon as the Islamic Revolution took place. He had wholeheartedly supported the revolution, but quickly became a staunch critic of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his inner circle. He often warned against the Islamic movement having charismatic leaders (specifically mentioning Khomeini), which might overshadow the message they were trying to convey to their followers.
Beginning in 1982, Fadlallah formed a chain of social institutions in Lebanon, as the emissary of his spiritual mentor and role model Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abul-Qassim al-Khoei, his Marja al-Taqlid (a religious authority to be followed and emulated). The rest of Hezbollah, however, considered Khomeini as its Marja al-Taqlid.
Over the years, Fadlallah offered extremely permissive stances regarding women's rights - a subject he dealt with quite a bit – arguing that unequal standing between a man and his wife was against the teachings of the Koran.
Fadlallah also expressed very progressive views regarding abortions, saying that the procedure should be allowed at any stage of the pregnancy if the fetus in some way endangers a woman's health.
Regarding men's participation in housework, Fadlallah wrote: "The source of the claim that it is shameful for a man to help in the house is a culture of ignorance, not Islam."
He even went as far as explaining that Ali, whom Shi'ite Muslims consider as the first Imam, used to help his wife Fatima (the Prophet Mohammed's daughter) with her housework, and cleaned the house and collected firewood while she baked the bread. Fadlallah encouraged women to engage in religious studies, to participate in the commentary on religious rites and to discuss those issues in the presence of men.
Following Khomeini's death in 1989, Islamist began to consider Fadlallah as a possible heir to the role of Marja al-Taqlid of the Shi'ite world.
When Fadlallah's own mentor al-Khoei died, he began to follow Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani as his primary religious leader. But it was only when Golpayegani died as well, that a true rift began to surface between Fadlallah and Hezbollah, which was allied with Iran. Tehran had declared that 100-year-old Ayatollah Sheikh Mohsen Araki would now be Shi'ite Marja al-Taqlid – a move in effect preparing for Khamenei's ascension.
Tehran announced that Ayatollah Araki will serve as a source of emulation for Shi'ites – as a man over 100-years-old – and would prepare the ground for Khamenei's ascension to the position after the prior's death.
Although Fadlallah declared his own support for Ayatollah Sistani when he was in Najaf, Hezbollah opposed that idea and Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced that every member of his movement must support Araki as the only "source of emulation".
Three months after Araki died in December 1994, Iran announced that Khamanei was now the supreme spiritual leader of the Shi'ite world. Fadlallah charged Iran with trying to use that move to strengthen the political-religious stance of Shi'ites, and continued to throw his own support to Sistani.
Immediately thereafter, he became a target of Shi'ite religious figures – particularly in Lebanon and Iran. His opponents boycotted his mosque and on one action, gun fire was opened in his directions.
Fadlallah has since then reconciled a number of times with the Hezbollah echelon, but has nevertheless kept his distance. He still refuses to recognize Iran's position as leader of the Shi'ite world, and thus maintained his autonomy in religion and politics.
Fadlallah died three days after suffering a blood clot in his brain.
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