Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah dies at 74; Lebanon's top cleric was once Hezbollah's mentor

Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the most revered clerics in the Shiite Muslim faith and a one-time spiritual mentor to the Lebanese political organization and militia Hezbollah, has died. He was 74.

Fadlallah died Sunday in a southern Beirut hospital, the nation's official National News Agency reported. His doctors told local Lebanese media that the cleric, who had been ill and frail for years, died of bleeding in his stomach. He had been hospitalized with a liver problem.

Once considered the unquestioned spiritual leader of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah, Fadlallah had been steadily drifting away from radical Islamist politics for years, instead espousing relatively progressive views on gender relations, women's social role and family life.

He spoke out against domestic violence — including verbal abuse — and in favor of women in the workplace.

"He represented … a voice of moderation and an advocate of unity among the Lebanese in particular and the Muslims in general," Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in a statement. "He rejected strife and issued fatwas [religious rulings] to prohibit it, calling for dialogue as a way to elevate logic in addressing contentious issues."

Fadlallah's death highlights a vacuum of spiritual leadership within Lebanon's Shiite community and probably will spur a power struggle within the religious establishment and soul-searching among the faithful.

He was born in November 1935 to Lebanese parents in the Iraqi seminary and shrine city of Najaf. Fadlallah, who moved to Lebanon in the 1950s, was among the last of the Shiite clergy straddling a quickly fading medieval world of religious scholarship epitomized in the seminaries of Najaf and the youthful, high-tech religious milieu of today, when ayatollahs publish fatwas on their websites and preach via satellite television.

Fadlallah is best known to Americans as the black-turbaned cleric accused of masterminding the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. He had strenuously denied any connection to the attack, which killed 241 Americans. But he remained a strident critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and offered rhetorical support for militant action against the state of Israel.

Fadlallah survived several assassination attempts, including a 1985 car bombing near his south Beirut home that killed 80 people. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, his residence was bombed and reduced to rubble by Israeli warplanes. Fadlallah was not at home.

Though he was harshly critical of U.S. foreign policy and Israel, he had also begun speaking out against Iranian policies. "I think the current Iranian president lacks diplomatic skills, and I think he creates problems for Iran," he said of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a 2008 interview with The Times.

Lebanon's Shiites have been in spiritual turmoil since the 1978 disappearance and presumed assassination of the moderate Shiite cleric Musa Sadr, which contributed to the rise of radical groups in the community, which accounts for about 40% of the country's 4 million inhabitants.

Unlike Hezbollah, Fadlallah opposed the concept of Guardianship of the Jurispudent, the bedrock of the Iranian system, which gives ultimate political power to Shiite clerics.

"We might witness a silent, behind-the-scenes battle to replace Fadlallah," said Oussama Safa, analyst at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a Beirut think tank. "Hezbollah will try to slow that process."

Hassan Nasrallah, political leader of Hezbollah, is a mid-ranking cleric who is unqualified to issue religious edicts even though he is revered as a quasi-spiritual figure by many Lebanese Shiites. Within Hezbollah's political and social orbit, many officially choose Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, as their marja, or source of emulation.

But Safa predicted that many Lebanese would turn to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the relatively moderate Najaf-based cleric who is also Iraq's most revered senior Shiite cleric.

In addition to followers and influence, high-ranking Shiite clerics compete for funds, and Fadlallah's mostly middle-class supporters lavished his charitable organization with cash, analysts say. His eldest son, Jafar, will take control of his network of orphanages and religious institutions.

In addition to his son, Fadlallah is survived by his wife and 10 other children. The funeral will be held Tuesday, his office said.

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