Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:33 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:33 | SYDNEY

Death of an Ayatollah


Rodger Shanahan


14 July 2010 12:14

The death of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah last week brought out tens of thousands of people to his funeral in Beirut, giving an indication of his following in the country. Those who have since spoken well of him, such as the British ambassador to Lebanon and the CNN editor Octavia Nasr, have respectively had their knuckles rapped or been sacked. I will just say that the man did definitely exude a sense of gravitas (and was extremely well protected) when I interviewed him as part of my academic research in 2008.

More importantly, his death opens a window into the complex world of Shi'a Islamic jurisprudence, particularly what occurs on the death of such a highly regarded marja', or source of emulation. We can roughly equate the relationship between the Pope and observant Catholics to that which a grand marja' has with his followers — both are regarded as infallible in their interpretations of God's will and there is thus a binding unwritten agreement between followers and the guide to trust in his wisdom.

There the similarities end, however. While there is only one Pope, there are several marja', and observant Shi'a are free to switch between marja' as they see fit or even to follow different marja', depending on the subject matter. This marja' for political issues and that one for social policy matters, for example.

One's choice of marja' depends on a number of things; your view of his level of learning, the topics he discusses, his political leanings, his ethnicity. Fadlallah, as the only Lebanese marja', naturally attracted support from Lebanese Shi'a both at home and among the diasporic community (including in Australia). But he was also popular with youth and women because of his willingness to address practical contemporary topics and issue fatawa (religious opinions) about women's rights, smoking and medical research, topics that more conservative clerics steered away from.

There is no set limit to the number of marja', as it is a merit-based informal system of acknowledgment based on a complex mix of peer acceptance, scholarly achievement and popular following. Lebanon has no religious scholar of sufficient renown to replace Fadlallah, so his followers must find another living (non-Lebanese) marja' to follow, most likely based in Najaf or Qum. 

Interestingly, while Shi'a jurisprudence has traditionally held that deceased marja' can no longer be a source of emulation, Fadlallah's website says it is permissible for his emulators to continue to follow him even after his death. Given that Lebanon is considered a scholastic backwater by learned Shi'a, there is likely a degree of 'relevance deprivation' syndrome at work here. If Fadlallah can still be followed even in death then his Lebanese centres still play a role in wider Shi'a jurisprudence (and are able to collect the tithe that followers pay their marja').

Practically, though, his body of interpretation has now ceased, so guidance on any new issues that arise will need to be given by another marja' — gradually, Fadlallah's followers will leach away through practical necessity.

The death of Fadlallah in the Shi'a periphery raises some interesting questions about life after the two most influential marja' in the Shi'a heartland die — Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf and Grand Ayatollah Khameini in Tehran.

Photo courtesy of the Fadlallah website.