Thousands of Lebanese Shias converged on Beirut's southern suburb Tuesday (July 6th) for the burial of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who died Sunday (July 4th) at the age of 75 from internal bleeding.
Fadlallah was a leading marjaa (source of emulation) for Shias in Lebanon and abroad who looked to him for fatwas on a range of social and religious issues. He was revered by his followers for his moderate social views and openness towards dialogue with other religions. He issued fatwas forbidding female circumcision and honour crimes.
Fadlallah was born in Najaf, Iraq in 1935, where his father had immigrated to study religious sciences. He was a student of leading professors in the Najaf Islamic Hawza. He returned to Lebanon in 1966.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman described the passing of Fadlallah as "a national loss of a figure who was distinguished by an open and enlightened mind." The Lebanese government declared Tuesday a national day of mourning.
Hani Abdullah, Fadlallah's political and media advisor, said Fadlallah "filled the Arab and Islamic world with intellect, culture, renovation and reform. He was distinguished by being the first personality calling for dialogue at the Islamic level, and he has books on this subject including "Dialogue in the Holy Qur'an" and "Within the Horizons of Islamic Christian Dialogue".
Abdullah noted Fadlallah's defence of women's rights and his call for the use of modern science. "He issued a fatwa a year and a half ago giving permission to women to retaliate against their husband's aggression if they beat them," he told Al-Shorfa.
"He also introduced a new methodology in issuing fatwas particularly in what concerns the benefits of science to confirm the appearance of the crescent of Ramadan. Numerous Islamic countries resort to viewing the crescent moon with the naked eye to confirm the beginning of the fasting month," he added.
Hani Fahs, a member of the Higher Shia Council and a member of the Arab Group for Dialogue, said Fadlallah's approach to issues "goes back to his beginnings in Najaf where he was occupied with reconciling what was inherited with the new, past and present, constant and changing in knowledge."
Fahs said Fadlallah's "cultural foundation went beyond the Najaf hawza as he was interested in the concerns of the era and its questions, and he was looking for answers to those questions."
Fahs praised Fadlallah for "announcing his opinion with courage, thus establishing a new jurisprudence methodology characterized by shortening the distance between religion and civilian sciences."
He said Fadlallah's views were also shaped and influenced by "the Lebanese environment and the culture of a society characterised by partnership between Christians and Muslims and debate between Eastern and Western influences."
Fadlallah was referred to at the beginning of the 1980s as the spiritual leader of Hizbullah, a title he rejected.
"Fadlallah embraced the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and in spite of that he refused to be described as the spiritual guide of Hizbullah," said Abdullah.
Despite Fadlallah's support for military action against Israel, differences with the Iranian authorities as well as his following of an independent fiqh (jurisprudence) are cited as the causes of a rift between him and Hizbullah.
In an interview with the weekly al-Shiraa in 1986, Fadlallah announced his disagreement with Iranian authorities over the timing of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon, saying there were no objective conditions to implement it right away.
Fadlallah also reportedly never accepted Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's authority following Khomeini's death. In 2009, he told the Wall Street Journal that he didn't see wilayat al-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent) as the definitive Islamic regime.
"Fadlallah and the late Mohammad Mahdi Shamseddine had achieved a major accomplishment for Lebanese [Shia Islam] in becoming marjaas with transnational reach, not based out of Qom or Najaf," wrote Lebanese scholar Tony Badran in Now Lebanon.
"Now once again, there's a void in the marjaiyya, and the race is on to fill that gap he left behind. In his eulogy, [Hizbullah secretay-general Hassan Nasrallah] called Fadlallah a 'wise guide [murshid]', which could be taken as a nod to Fadlallah's old role with [Hizbullah] members. But Nasrallah is likely seeking to co-opt Fadlallah's legacy to [Hizbullah's] benefit, even as the party's press release made no reference to Fadlallah as a marjaa," he said.
Fadllallah's death was announced during a press conference at Fadlallah's office by Bahraini Ayatollah Abdullah Al-Gharifi.