Mehdi Khalaji, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a hawkish pro-Israel think-tank, wrote the following memoir of his relationship with the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. The article largely stands on its own, and is valuable reading on its right. It is particularly poignant given that CNN’s senior Middle East editor Octavia Nasr was fired for tweeting her regrets on this figure’s passing. The irony of Octavia Nasr being fired from a nominally neutral news outlet for mourning the death of an enemy of the Israeli state while senior staffer of a militantly pro-Israel think tank gets to say that and more without even a thought of losing his job will not be lost on any reader who is not completely blinded by the conventional wisdom in America on the Arab-Israeli dispute.
The translation appears below, followed by the translator’s comments. As a translator, I feel I should say that the transliteration of Arabic/Persian names is a bit of a hodgepodge. I prefer to follow the standard usage to make the translation more readable to the reader who lacks these language skills and to make the page more search-engine friendly.
The original article appears here.
Fadlallah, the Unusual and Unique Faqih
The first time I sat with Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah was in Zainabiya, Damascus, in the porch of his home for about two hours. My friend and I, two educated youths from Qom, had heard his voice from afar and were eager to visit him. There was a seminary around his home in Zainabiya where he would go from Beirut for several days each week for years to teach the students.
Of cheerful mien, friendly, humble, and kind, he received us and patiently answered our “infidel-type” questions. Those were years of unequal combat with Ayatollah Khamenei. Ayatollah Khamenei had launched a propaganda war in Qom as well as Lebanon against him.
One of the leading and renown Shiite clerics of Lebanon told me that His Eminence Jaafar Mortaza Amili, had received a million dollars from His Eminence Khamenei to, in the name of setting up madrasehs, launch a propaganda campaign against Fadlallah in Southern Lebanon. Ayatollah Khamenei saw Fadlallah’s influence and authority as an obstacle to his own political influence in Hezbollah and, indeed, among the Shia of Lebanon and tried to portray him as lacking the power of ijtihad and even having a whiff of innovation about him and violating the well-known principles of Shiism.
The last time was six years ago, when I saw him in his home in Beirut. This time, I went from Europe to visit him. He listened to me with that same simplicity, honesty, and patience he always showed for about two hours and answered my questions. He was very upset by Ayatollah Khamenei. He said, When they declare this man “The Custodian of the World’s Muslims,” doesn’t he ask himself what kind of a meaningless title this is? And how does he expect that all the Shiites would consider him their custodian? And how is such an expectation logical when it comes to the Sunnis? And then his heart bled for the Qom clergy who, as he put it, live hundreds of years behind his times. He said, “I would recite ‘Lord, forgive my people. Indeed, they know not.’”
In recent years, nursing an ambition to have an office in Qom, he entered into something of a reconciliation with the Islamic Republic and received its officials and said things which would suit their nature. These same officials, too, nursed an ambition that he should open an office in Qom so that they could use it to keep him sweet and repair the appearance of a relationship with him.
It was as if Ayatollah Khamenei had understood that it was impossible to completely eliminate Fazlallah from Lebanon and Fazlallah, for his part, had agreed that since [as Saadi wrote],
You do not have sharp, lacerating claws
It would be best to infrequently get into fights with beasts.
The money which Ayatollah Khamenei spent in Lebanon was not in the same league as the insignificant income Fadlallah received for his religious wages from his few followers.
In an interview with Ms. Muna Sakariya, he said,
People have said to me, “The problem is not with your opinions and fatwas, but with Kuwaiti dinars and Saudi rials. You might use your religious authority to attract this money to yourself …” It was for this reason that they considered my religious authority a danger.
Second, there was the problem with the religious authority being Arab. They were not very happy with the religious authority being Arab.
Third, my religious authority was a danger for that of His Eminence Khamenei, since my cultural and political perspective was broader than his … They very much wished that the religious authority would remain in Iran, and if they put up with His Eminence Sistani’s religious authority, it was only because Iraq’s peculiar political circumstances gave them no option.
(عن سنوات و مواقف و شخصیات، منی سکریه، دارالنهار، بیروت، 2007، ص. 69)
Fazlallah was a Lebanese faqih. His being Lebanese was not the only feature which showed his ancestry. Rather, his way of thinking and manner of doing fiqh also showed this. Lebanon is a fairground of thought and politics, and the faqih in this intellectual and political display cannot be a scribe like the anti-political faqihs of Najaf or the politics-smitten faqihs of Qom. Fadlallah knew Lebanese society well, like Musa Sadr, and did fiqh based on this knowledge.
During the years of war and beyond, when pious women had no opportunity to marry or saw their opportunities as having slipped away or were far from their husbands, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah declared female masturbation permitted, arguing that masturbation [استمنا] entails the release of sperm and women do not have sperm; but his answer to this request for a fatwa was in essence rooted in expedience:
In our research and review, through the requests for fatwas which had been made of us, we have looked at the depths of the problem under certain circumstances, such as when a woman’s husband is in prison or the woman does not know if her husband is alive or dead, or under circumstances pertaining to being between divorce and the continuation of the marriage, etc.
In the event of the husband’s absence, the commandment for this is well-known, that the wife must wait for four years after which the sharia judge can grant her a divorce, and if her provider gives her her alimony, she must live like this the rest of her life. Or if her husband is exiled to another country for a period which is not ordinarily tolerable and becomes a refugee and is not able to see his wife. [sic]
Under these circumstances, lethal sexual difficulties will appear which compel the faqih to come up with a positive outcome if he can by using the sharia’s logic so as to think up a solution to solve this problem. Naturally, masturbation leads to special problems of its own, but from the point of view of the sharia, abstinence or putting off this problem leaves behind greater problems for the woman’s life, particularly a married woman who has no solution under the sharia to solve her sexual problems.
These are matters which compelled me to study and review the subject in a sharia-responsible fashion.
Similarly, Fadlallah believed that in sexual intercourse, if the man comes but leaves the woman without having reached the peak of pleasure, “he has committed an unethical and inhuman act.”
From these personal matters to political and social issues, Fadlallah was a pragmatist. In the interview he gave to Ms. Muna Sakariyah, he clearly said that he is in agreement with the velayat-e faqih in Iran, since it is in harmony with the Islamic Republic’s system, but is opposed to it in Lebanon, since it is not in harmony with the political realities there. (ibid., pp. 172-173)
Fadlallah was an unusual faqih. He was a poet and had a divan of qasidas and ghazals and discussed his poetry on television with litterateurs. He had many love poems and his poetry was far from that of the religious bazaari. He held conversations with intellectuals. He participated in conferences and seminars and television programs in those days when he was not so broken and exhausted. He discussed with critics of fiqh and religiosity, and when the Sunni sheikhs smote Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid with the fist of takfir, he defended him alongside the other intellectuals of the Islamic world, although he did not approve of his views.
Fadlallah was considered Hezbollah’s spiritual father and even issued fatwas permitting suicide missions, but kept himself removed from party relations. He was revered by the Shia independently of Hezbollah and for precisely this reason he enjoyed unparalleled respect and credibility among non-Shias. Fadlallah was the sole religious Shiite powerhouse of whom there was none more moderate and thoughtful in all of Lebanon. It was for this reason that not only as a Shiite faqih, but as a Lebanese figure that he will enjoy a prominent position in the contemporary history of this country.
Fadlallah was a unique faqih. He was pragmatic, realistic, and moderate in issuing fatwas while being politically hard-line. Fadlallah was a counter-example to the hypothesis that moderate faqihs were necessarily apolitical and secular.
Fadlallah, in comparison with the average age of a normal cleric, left this world early. His death was a great boon for the Islamic Republic and for Ayatollah Khamenei. There is no longer a Shiite religious powerhouse in the way of Hezbollah and, for that matter, Iran’s assault on Lebanon. And now his death will have severe consequences, particularly for the Lebanese Shia. They have no choice but to abandon their traditional powers and form or strengthen modern powers in parties or groups against Hezbollah.
It is impossible to resist consigning Shiism to Hezbollah in Lebanon using some other religious authority. Lebanon’s Shiite society has no choice but to take seriously the formation of political and modern institutions. The disappearance of Musa Sadr and the death of Fadlallah have uprooted the hopes in religious authorities of Lebanon’s Shia society, a society which wants to break from Hezbollah and preserve its tribal and religious character in Lebanon and act within the framework of the country’s national interest.
The national mourning in Iran for Fadlallah has taken on the form of shameless fraud. Qom’s faqihs who had anathemized him in their lessons and ordered that notices saying, “God’s curse upon the killer of Fatima al-Zahra” to be pasted everywhere as an allusion to cursing him, are now satisfied. [In Shiite historiography, the killers of Fatima al-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad and husband of Imam Ali, were supposed to have been Umar ibn al-Khattab, who assaulted her while she was pregnant, leading to her death months later. The recitation of this event in all its horror is part of Shiite martyrology. Evidently this is a reference to Sheikh Fadlallah's having reached out to the Sunnis.] The Islamic Republican government is now relieved of the burden of spending money to outflank Fadlallah.
[end of translation]
The article somewhat trims the ayatollah’s beard a bit. He died an implacable foe of the Israeli state. Reuters reported, “[A] nurse asked Ayatollah Fadlallah what he needed. Without hesitation, he replied, ‘For the Zionist entity to cease to exist.’” He was commonly believed to have been involved in the bombing of the Marine and French paratroopers barracks in 1983 and the CIA tried to assassinate him him using a high-powered car bomb which narrowly missed killing him, but did kill 80 people and wounded hundreds of others.
The last paragraphs also seem politically skewed. After the June 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, it would surprise me to think that the Lebanese Shia feel that an Iranian onslaught is their biggest problem and that Hezbollah is the enemy against whom they have to organize. I would imagine it is quite the opposite: That the Lebanese Shia see Hezbollah as a source of power and the Islamic Republic of Iran as powerful ally. Saying this brings me no satisfaction, but it seems pretty clearly to be the truth.