Lebanon's grand ayatollah a moderate with millions of followers


Lebanon's senior Shia cleric, although seen as mentor to Hizbullah, is a man of moderate views who preaches dialogue, writes Michael Jansenin Beirut

SAYED MUHAMMAD Hussein Fadlullah, Lebanon's sole grand ayatollah, reached the top of the Shia hierarchy, the marja'yiat or emulated clerics, through piety, scholarship and good works.

His office is deep in the Dahiya, the southern suburbs of Beirut ruled by Hizbullah. Although of Lebanese origin, Sayed Fadlullah (73), was born and educated in Shia seminaries in Iraq.

In 1952, he moved to Beirut where he became a scholar, wrote books and founded an association which established a public library, a hospital, schools, orphanages and Islamic centres. Regarded by some as the spiritual mentor of Hizbullah, although Iran's late Ayatollah Khomeini holds that place, the sayed was targeted by assassins on several occasions. A car bomb near his home in 1985 killed 80 people.

He wears the high black turban of the sayeds, men who can trace their lineage to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, and dons a tan caftan covered with a white, fine linen abbaya, or cloak.

His visage is pale and acetic, his eyes are gentle. Sayed Fadlullah, a moderate, is a reformer who has millions of followers in the Shia world.

He blames the centuries-old divergence between Shias and Sunnis on figures who sought to exploit differences for political gain. This, he says, "resulted in tribal feuds" leading "some Sunnis and some Shias to regard each other as infidels". The groups should, instead, "develop a common understanding and bring closer their interpretations of Islamic law and philosophy . . . we strive to bring together Sunnis and Shias to arrive at the great goal of Islamic unity".

Speaking in general terms, he argues: "In any religious dispute, differences are accentuated by feudalism and extremism and transformed into political problems." He compares disagreements between Muslims to divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland.

"We believe in dialogue between religions. I wrote a book 20 years ago on Islamic-Christian dialogue. We believe dialogue brings minds together and allows people to understand one another. Many religious problems are due to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Dialogue solves problems if minds are open . . . Violence never solves problems, rather it complicates problems".

He rejects the domination of small countries by great powers and says the US "tries to control the Islamic world . . . by deepening differences and feuds." He gives as examples Shias and Sunnis in Iraq and Lebanon and argues that the powerful seek to "outlaw" Iran.

On Muslim attacks in the West, he says: "We find many Muslims living in the West who could not find a dignified, healthy existence in their own countries. But western extremists try to complicate their lives, leading some Muslims to react against the extremism of the West."

Sayed Fadlullah says the system of governance installed by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, walayet-e-faqih, or rule by the imam, should involve election of the imam by experts, along with monitoring and removal, if he is found to be a "dictator","ruling in a personal manner" or straying from Muslim law.

Walayet-e-faqih is subject to "different interpretations, even in Iran itself, where some scholars do not accept it . . . I myself don't believe in the absolute authority of the imam unless the interests of the nation are endangered".

On this point, he differs with Hizbullah, which accepts the absolute authority of Iran's spiritual guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini.

On treatment of children and the place of women, the sayed adopts a progressive line.

"Children have rights in the family and society. Fathers are responsible for taking care of their children's welfare, education and intellectual development."

Parents and teachers must not beat or abuse children physically or psychologically. He mentions a ruling (fatwa) he issued stating parents and teachers should pay children compensation if harmed.

"A woman is a human being exactly like a man . . . There is no difference in their mental or other capacities. Women have the right to be respected . . . educated to the maximum, [to] take part in political life, elect and be elected at all levels and assume responsibility for administration in the state . . . She is also legally and financially independent and is free to dispose of her financial resources without interference from her father, brother or husband . . . I issued a fatwa saying that a woman has the right to defend herself . . . if a man strikes her.

"The marriage relationship is defined in a contract, like any other contract," in which the two sides must honour their commitments. Partners must also undertake to provide for each other's sexual needs, without oppression, so spouses do not look outside marriage for satisfaction.

On the communal power struggle in Lebanon, he observes: "I believe reconciliation is happening at the upper level and that this will have a positive affect on ordinary people . . . [However] various countries are benefiting from the sectarian regime in Lebanon by trying to promote conflicts".

He warns that "America will be upset if the [current pro-western] majority [in government] becomes a minority and the [Hizbullah-led] minority becomes a majority" in next spring's parliamentary election.