Ayatollah Fadlallah dies

Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah has passed away in Beirut at the age of 74. He had been in poor health for some years, suffering from diabetes and heart problems. Fadlallah became famous (and, to his enemies, notorious) in the 1980s, for his role in channeling the message of Hezbollah to thinking young Shi’ites and to the world. He played a complex game, and it long fascinated me. I published a first short piece on him in 1985, and I explored him further in a 100-page study, finished in 1992 and accessible here.

In the years since I followed him, Fadlallah’s presence diminished. First, Hezbollah acquired a political leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, with a powerful presence of his own. Hezbollah became less reliant on Fadlallah, at least as a mobilizer within Lebanon. Second, Fadlallah drifted even further into the stratosphere of grand ayatollah-hood, well above party politics, including those of Hezbollah. Third, some rival Shi’ite clerics, especially in Iran, thought he was getting too big for his breeches, and worked to cut him down through nasty accusations of theological deviation. Fourth, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power breathed new life into the religious academies in Najaf in Iraq, and its clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, again began to loom large among Arabic-speaking Shi’ites. Fifth, Fadlallah’s poor health began to drag him down. His forte had always been the pulpit sermon, delivered in a controlled but fiery style, but in recent years, there wasn’t much flicker in his performances.

He was a permanent stop on the circuit for foreign dignitaries, some of them pursuers of Islamist “moderation.” They would see him (after stringent security checks), get their photo taken with the wise man, and come away pondering his elliptical comments. Last year Jimmy Carter turned up (photo), much to the chagrin of the State Department, and Noam Chomsky paid his respects last May (photo). Within Lebanon, he built a substantial empire of charitable institutions such as schools and clinics, many of them funded by wealthy Shi’ites outside the country. The institutions will long outlive him.

When I first published on Fadlallah in 1985, I wouldn’t have put a nickel on his dying a natural death. That same year, he was the target of a car bombing that missed him and killed over eighty persons. But Fadlallah was an expert in planting seeds of doubt, and over the years he dropped off the hit lists of Hezbollah’s enemies. Still, without him, Hezbollah would have had a much tougher row to hoe in the early years. He wasn’t responsible, as far as I know, for any one act of violence, but he justified quite a few of them after the fact. Up until today, he was on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated nationals.”

Needless to say, when it came to Israel, he was uncompromising. I do think I treated him fairly and respectfully in my long study, and I made sure he received it—especially the subsequent Hebrew edition, which appeared as a monograph with his portrait on the cover. At the peak of his powers, he was truly formidable. It’s unlikely that Lebanon will be home to another figure quite like him again.