"Throughout my life, I have always supported the human being in his humanism and I have supported the oppressed. I think it is the person’s right to live his freedom and it is her and his right to face the injustice imposed on each by revolting against it, using his practical, realistic and available means to end the oppressor’s injustice toward him, whether it is an individual, a community, a nation, or a state; whether male or female."
- Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah (1935-2010), perhaps sensing his imminent death, during his last dialogue with the Washington DC-based Council for the National Interest on June 2, 2010.
Tens of thousands of people swarmed the coffin of Lebanon's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Fadallah, as it made its way through the streets of south Beirut. His passing shocked and saddened the region and the loss of his advocacy of dialogue, respect and unity among all religions is incalculable.
The loss of his support for the current campaign to obtain civil rights for Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees will make that struggle more difficult. Justice for Palestine and ending the Zionist occupation was part of his unwavering lifelong work. Some media outlets reported that shortly before he died, upon being asked by a medical attendant if he needed anything, he replied, "Only the end of the Zionist occupation of Palestine."
On the morning of July 4, Zeinab, the nurse on duty at the blood donor’s clinic at Bahman Hospital, a block from my former home in Haret Hreik, had just instructed me to remain sitting for five minutes and to drink the juice she gave me before I returned to south Beirut’s blazing sun.
A companion and I had each just donated a pint of blood in response to an appeal from friends who worked in the Translation Office of Lebanon’s much loved Fadlallah. He had been hospitalized for the past 12 days but on Friday his stomach bleeding had increased dramatically, related to complications from a liver problem he had been treated for over the past several years. Fadallah also suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.
As we waited, Zeinab returned, tears in her eyes, and simply said, "The Sayeed has passed away." And she disappeared. So did my Shia hijabed companion, and as it seemed, everyone from the floor. I decided to walk down the stairs to the main level and could hear sobs from hospital staff on each floor, now seemingly darkened with each level eerier than the preceding one as I descended.
As I left the main entrance of the hospital, a bit numbed, I was thinking about some of the more than a dozen meetings I had the honor to attend with Fadlallah and some of his staff over the past three years. Such as those who regularly visited him from the Washington DC-based Council for the National Interest (cnionline.org), and one that I had arranged for former US president Jimmy Carter.
Suddenly, there was movement for two blocks in front and along the side streets adjacent to Bahman, a state of the art and science Hospital operated by Fadallah’s Al Marbarrat Charity. This hospital was among hundreds of civil buildings in Haret Hreik and South Beirut that Israel had bombed in July 2006.
"How did these guys get here so fast," I wondered, for it was only minutes since the marja (religious guide) to millions in the Middle East had died. Some security units, dressed in black shirts, caps and trousers, walkie talkies in their left hands, others in civilian clothes, quickly placed traffic barriers in the area. They politely asked that all vehicles including motorcycles be relocated a least two blocks away.
Some, from their appearance obviously war toughened fighters, wept and consoled men and women who began arriving at the hospital to pay their respects, first in twos and threes and then streams. The loudspeakers from the Hassanayn Mosque, where every Friday Fadlallah, for the past nearly 20 years, delivered sermons to tens of thousands of faithful, Muslim and Christian alike, began broadcasting religious music and Koranic verses to our shocked and grief-stricken neighborhood.
During the night of the 27th day of Ramadan, known as Laylat al-Kadr, more than 50,000 filled Fadlallah’s mosque and surrounding streets. "The father, the leader, the marja, the guide, the human being is gone. Sayyed Fadlallah has died this morning," senior aide Ayatollah Abdullah al-Ghurayfi told a hastily called news conference, at the hospital, joined by the late cleric’s sons, Sayyed Ali Fadlallah and Jaafar, who, like nearly everyone else in attendance, could not hold back tears.
On the sweltering evening of July 5, Hezbollah security gave an American delegation the rare honor of viewing the body of Lebanon’s senior Shia cleric inside his mosque near where he would be buried at 1:30 pm the following afternoon. The group met a wide spectrum of Lebanon’s political and resistance leadership, but was not joined by anyone from the US embassy since the US government will boycott Lebanon’s national day of mourning and the burial of this Washington-branded "terrorist".
It was in 1995 that then president Bill Clinton, at the urging of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and facing a re-election campaign, so designated him. Carter promised during a visit in June 2009 that he would contact President Barack Obama immediately about this travesty but was unable to have his name removed before the Sayeed’s death.
The American delegation paying their respects included residents of New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Hawaii and Oregon, a Catholic priest and two nuns, some of whom were in Beirut as participants in the delayed Lebanon flotilla to help break the siege of Gaza. They felt they were the true representatives of their country, not their embassy, thought by some to be in Lebanon to promote Israel’s agenda, not American interests.
Ever misleading the public with respect to the Middle East, the mainstream Western media began a thousand reports with the words, "A fiery anti-American critic died ..." It is nonsense of course. Fadallah was very pro-American in the sense that he often extolled the founding American principles and his relationship with the American people was valued by both.
Barely two weeks before his death, he left his sick bed to meet with a group of Americans from Washington DC against the advice of his doctors, and he urged them to work to preserve the principles on which their country was founded, encourage dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews, and end the occupations of the Middle East.
Like the rapidly growing number of American critics of US policy in the Middle East, many of Fadlallah’s Friday prayer sermons denounced arming and supporting serial Israeli aggressions. For more than 50 years, he worked at "modernizing" the sharia (Koranic law) and rendering it accessible to modern day youth, addressing their concerns, expectations and fears in a fast-changing world.
He was truly the cleric of the youth and of women, their guide who never oppressed their dreams and always simplified rulings. He was available for questions regarding the most taboo of social and political subjects. He was also the enemy of stalemate and a rejecter of tradition in its inflexible sense. He insisted on subjecting all ideas to discussions, debates and reassessments and was much more interested in human beings than doctrines.
As the Beirut Daily An-Nahar editorialized: "Sayyed Fadlallah is a unique guide who will be missed by Lebanon and the Arab and Islamic worlds. A long time will pass by before we see the surfacing of someone so tolerant and open-minded who has so much faith in mankind and a wish to cooperate with all the attempts and efforts deployed during the days of friction with all the forces and elites."
His followers revered him for his moderate social views, openness and pragmatism. Fadlallah issued religious edicts forbidding female circumcision, condemning domestic violence, allowing women to wear cosmetics and finger nail polish which some clerics opposed, and insisting that women could physically resist abusive husbands.
He rejected the blood-letting at Ashoura events and, like Hezbollah, encouraged his followers to donate blood to the Red Crescent Society instead of cutting themselves. In 2007, he issued a fatwa (religious edict) forbidding "honor killings" which he viewed as barbaric and anti-Islamic. He also opposed the call to jihad by Osama bin Laden and cursed the Afghan Taliban, which he viewed as a sect outside Islam. He was among the first to condemn the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Fadlallah opposed suicide attacks but distinguished the right of an individual to sacrifice himself as a weapon during asymmetrical warfare by aggressors. He supported the Islamic revolution in Shi'ite Iran and advocated armed resistance to Israel. In 2009, again during a meeting with Americans, including Jews, Fadlallah, whose family came from the southern Lebanese village of Ainata, reiterated his call for a Muslim-Jewish dialogue as part of interfaith efforts aimed at bridging the gap among various religious, rejecting any offense against Jews or Christians in any Arab or Muslim country.
But he emphasized to the delegation the importance of a Muslim-Jewish dialogue away from Zionist influence, stressing that Jews need to be freed from the cycle of world Zionism and that Israel should be confronted because of its occupation of Arab lands.
He welcomed the election of Barack Obama in the US, telling the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that "some of Obama’s statements show that he believes in the method of dialogue". He added: "We don’t have a problem with any American president, but our problem is with his policy that might affect our strategic interest." He later told visitors of his disappointment at Obama’s Middle East policy, accusing him of being "under pressure" from Israeli supporters and "not a man who has a plan for peace".
Fadlallah had a widespread reputation for piety and scholarship through his teaching and the more than 40 books and treatises he wrote. He established orphanages, religious schools, foundations, clinics and libraries as part of the charitable Al Marrarat Foundation. They are open to all of Lebanon’s sects and foreigners alike, and comprise part of his legacy.
Fadallah was too moderate, progressive and too effective a spokesman advocating for the deprived to be tolerated by the US administration and Israel. Both required more stereotypical radical Muslim clerics to smear the region. The Mossad is believed to have targeted him more than half a dozen times, including during the July 2006 Israeli attack.
In Lebanon and in the US, the Central Intelligence Agency is confirmed to have been behind the 1985 bombing outside his home. American author Bob Woodward wrote in his book, Veil: The Secret War of the CIA, that the late CIA director William Casey ordered Lebanese agents Amine GEMAYEL and Jhonny ABDO, using Lebanese military intelligence and other surrogates... to plant the car bomb in frustration and retaliation for unsolved attacks on US interests in the Middle East. Fadlallah escaped death but 85 civilians outside his mosque did not and more than 300 were injured.
Fadallah’s role as a mentor for resistors to Israeli aggressions and his complicated relations with Hezbollah, including false US allegations that he was the "spiritual guide of Hezbollah" is treated in some detail in Chapter IV of a volume entitled Hezbollah: Inside-Out, to be finalized and released following the achievement of Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon.
A generation was inspired by Fadallah and listened to him and studied his voluminous writings. Two generations feel the emptiness of his passing away. He was a rare man with an angel’s wit, mirth and singular learning. A marvelous man of gentleness, lowliness and affability. Sometimes, when defending the rights of Muslims, Christians, Jews and all people of faith, or non-believers of good will, his countenance was changed by a sad gravity and his smiling eyes darkened. For to his core, Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah believed in the right and responsibility to resist injustice and occupation.
He was a man for all seasons whose conscience and piety would not allow him to be idle as long as the poor and downtrodden remained dispossessed and voiceless or his beloved Lebanon and Palestine were occupied. For this, and for no other reason, he was placed and kept on the US political terrorism list as a Specially Designated Terrorist (SDT) in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, and his American charitable assets were confiscated.
Like Thomas More, Fadlallah rejected inducements and bribes including removal from Washington's "T [terrorist] list" if he stopped supporting the Lebanese national resistance. He wore his nonsensical "terrorist" label as a badge of honor as his daily good works mocked and marked the list keepers with shame and cowardice for squandering American founding principles.