BEIRUT, Lebanon – Outside a petrol station in Southern Beirut, a group of young women sporting red-and-green neckerchiefs were getting their banners ready for the funeral procession of Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
They were alumni of the schools he founded, but he had continued to support them through every stage of their lives, one of them said.
“The thing he most taught us is to be open to others, to have a dialogue with others,” said Fatimeh El Din, 22.
Fadlallah, Lebanon’s most senior Shiite cleric, was laid to rest Tuesday at the mosque in the Beirut suburb where his sermons inspired Muslims, both conservative and liberal, around the world for generations. Fadlallah died of a liver hemorrhage on Sunday at the age of 75.
His funeral drew thousands and the range of commemorations reflected the religious leader’s complexity. While Fadlallah was linked to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, his robust pragmatism and emphasis on tolerance won him tributes across Lebanon’s political and religious spectrum.
Fadlallah was famous for his relatively liberal rulings on issues such as abortion, domestic violence and whether nail polish has to be removed before praying. Tear-streaked faces of old and young, veiled and unveiled, rich and poor women lined the pavements of southern Beirut as the funeral procession passed.
“I followed him because he made it easy for you,” said Sawsan, a 23-year-old Laundromat manager as she prepared to close her shop for the funeral. “When I had a problem I called his office.”
Until a few years ago Sawsan had always assumed that she could never be a proper Muslim because she liked to dance and didn’t like wearing the veil.
“Some people said that if you do only one thing wrong, then nothing else will save you,” she said. “Fadlallah said everything has its own way to God. He said wherever you are, whatever your religion, if you say there is one God — God will help you.”
Mirna, a young Arab-American woman dressed in a leopard-print headband and glitzy jewelry said she would always follow Fadlallah’s teachings.
“He was really with the new generation,” she said, adding that she would now rely on Fadlallah’s books and teachings and would not transfer her allegiance to another spiritual reference, known as a marja, which Shiite Muslims use for guidance on decisions in their lives.
Paradoxically, Fadlallah also inspired the Shiite activists who helped form Hezbollah and supported attacks on Israel, whose occupation of Lebanon in 1982 he furiously opposed.
During the funeral procession, mourners marched to the spot where a 1985 assassination attempt on Fadlallah killed 80 people. Many blamed the attack on the United States, which had long suspected Fadlallah of orchestrating terrorist operations.
A man shouting processional catechisms into a microphone briefly sang "Death to America," although it was not taken up with the same alacrity that had earlier sent other mourning chants echoing eerily through the war-battered buildings of southern Beirut.
On a nearby billboard, the yellow-and-green flags of Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, surrounded an image of Fadlallah. Despite his life-long effort to stress his independence from the group, Fadlallah was the preeminent Shiite religious figure at the time of its creation.
He supported Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, whose Revolutionary Guards helped establish Hezbollah. According to his biographer, Jamal Sankari, Fadlallah encouraged his own students to join Hezbollah.
The media often referred to Fadlallah as Hezbollah’s “spiritual mentor.”
In reality, however, while about a third of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims follow Fadlallah, Hezbollah party officials chose Ayatollah Khomeini, and later Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader of Iran, as their marja.
Although close to Khomenist doctrine in some areas, Fadlallah had his own understanding of Islamic law and after the death of Khomeini became vocal in his criticism of the notion that clerics should rule the state.
“He was the marja for every Shia in Lebanon or the world that doesn’t believe in Iran,” said Ali Mohtadi, an Iranian journalist who lived in Lebanon for 15 years and said he knew Fadlallah personally. “I think Hezbollah and Iran are trying to change things in Lebanon and Fadlallah was a big problem for them.”
Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Beirut-based expert on Hezbollah, disagrees.
“I have an acquaintance whose husband is a Hezbollah official who took Fadlallah as a source of emulation. I don’t think we can see him as a counterweight,” she said. “There is no perceived inconsistency between supporting Hezbollah and having Fadlallah.”
The diverse crowd at Fadlallah’s funeral indicated just how complex the cleric’s teachings were.
Some young men along the procession were waving a Hezbollah flag. They said Khamenei was their marja but had come because they respected Fadlallah’s religious teachings.
Among the white turbans of clerics, which floated like froth on the black sea of mourners, were ones with red centers, which indicates a Sunni sheikh.
“Fadlallah was a source of emulation for all Muslims,” said one.
As the last prayer notes fell from the minaret, the thousands of mourners dissipated into the streets of Southern Beirut. The billboards of his image will eventually be taken down, replaced by advertisements or the oft-seen posters of martyrs in the war with Israel.
Assessing the legacy of this multi-faceted figure — the war-supporting preacher of tolerance, who spent years in seminaries and told people to work out their own arrangement with God, who supported Khomeini but questioned the theological underpinnings of the Islamic Republic — will never be easy.
But Ali Mohtadi offered an epitaph. “He believed,” he said, “that we have to say new things.”