In 1976, the early days of Lebanon's civil war, the Shiite cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah was driven out of the Beirut suburb where he lived when the area was taken over by Christian militias. The searing experience of being forced out of his home, along with thousands of other Shiite residents, helped to radicalise him. During the months when his neighbourhood was under siege, Fadlallah wrote a seminal book, Islam and the Logic of Force. In the volume's introduction, he described how he worked "by candlelight, under heavy shelling. This is a word I record so that it may be remembered".
Remembered it certainly has been. What Fadlallah wrote in those perilous days helped catapult him to a leading role in transforming the Shiite community into a dominant political and social force in Lebanon. He would become a grand ayatollah and Lebanon's most influential Shiite cleric. His death on Sunday at the age of 75 leaves a vacuum in that community, and robs the Muslim world of a voice that advocated a politically active, yet moderate, brand of Shiism.
In Islam and the Logic of Force, Fadlallah argued that Shiites must reject centuries of acquiescence and political withdrawal and must follow the tradition of the sect's founding figures, Ali and Hussein, who struggled against tyranny. The Shiite community, Fadlallah argued, must assert itself in Lebanon and beyond. "Force means that the world gives you its resources and its wealth; conversely, in conditions of weakness, a man's life degenerates, his energies are wasted; he becomes subject to something that resembles suffocation or paralysis," he wrote. "History, the history of war and peace, of science and wealth, is the history of the strong."
Memorably, Fadlallah wrote of the engaged life. He argued that it was not enough for clerics to devote themselves to religious rituals and life in the mosque. "Islam is both a call and a state," he wrote. "Society needs a state, it needs to be organised." Ultimately, however, Fadlallah rejected the doctrine of absolute rule by the clergy, which dominates Iran today. Iranian leaders were unhappy with Fadlallah's criticism, and that strained his relationship with Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that has become the dominant Shiite political movement in Lebanon.
In the West, Fadlallah was misunderstood. He was mistakenly labelled as the "spiritual guide" of Hizbollah. To be sure, his writings and fiery sermons were an inspiration to many young Shiite fighters in the 1980s. But Fadlallah did not have an operational role in the secretive militias that were largely directed and funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Fadlallah, though, did provide theological rulings that justified suicide bombing against military targets. He dismissed attempts by western powers to "write off Islamic resistance as terrorism" and said that the "great powers write the laws" leaving the weak with "no option but obedience". In this context, he wrote: "One must face force with equal or superior force. If it is legitimate to defend self and land and destiny, then all means of self-defence are legitimate."
Despite this carefully drawn apologia for the use of arms, however, Fadlallah was among the first clerics in the Muslim world to unequivocally condemn the September 11 attacks on the United States. He later wrote that nothing could justify the wholesale slaughter of civilians advocated by groups like al Qa'eda. Perhaps Fadlallah's most important theological contributions were to the centuries-long debate among Shiite clerics over their role in politics. The quietist school, rooted in the sect's tradition of seeking to avoid confrontation with powerful rulers, argues against direct engagement in political matters. The more activist trend emphasises the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, who advocated rebellion against unjust rulers. But even within the activist school, there is a debate over the proper scope of clerical power.
The model of absolute rule that dominates Iran is just one of several competing doctrines within the Shiite clergy. Wilayat al faqih, or "guardianship of the jurist", triumphed under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution. Khomeini's charisma and political skill overshadowed the more moderate vision of Shiism emanating from the Iraqi city of Najaf (where Fadlallah was born and trained as a cleric until the age of 30). By eclipsing the Najaf school, Khomeini succeeded in combining the role of Shiite theologian with that of political leader of the global Muslim community.
Until the 19th century, the quietist school of Shiism had held sway: most Shiite clerics steered clear of politics, and Shiites who lived under Ottoman rule in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere did not challenge the dominant Sunni regime. The concept of wilayat al faqih dates back to the early 19th century, but Khomeini reinterpreted it in 1970 while he was exiled in Najaf. In a series of lectures, Khomeini grappled with the question of how to create an Islamic state in the absence of the Mahdi, the hidden 12th imam whom Shiites regard as infallible and the last rightful successor to the Prophet. (Most Shiites believe that their Mahdi vanished in 874, remains in hiding, and will eventually return, to render final judgment on humanity.) Until the 12th imam's return, he argued, a divinely anointed senior cleric should rule in his stead.
But many Shiite clerics have long opposed Khomeini's vision of an all-powerful supreme leader. They do not want to seize political power directly, whether in Iran, Iraq, or elsewhere. One faction believes that a group of senior clerics should rule by consensus, while another camp argues that leadership should be left to politicians who are devout but not necessarily clerics. It was Fadlallah, to his lasting credit, who tried to find a common ground between the various theological factions. He argued for strong involvement of the clergy in politics, but also for a system of checks and balances. He sought a religious revival, not a theocracy. His voice will be missed.
Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City and a journalism professor at New York University.