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NOW Lebanon’s Interview with Sayyed Fadlullah: The Progressive Marjaa

Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah is a Lebanese cleric who preaches to a dedicated group of followers from across the Shiite community in Lebanon. He is a marjaa, which means he studied extensively to gain a place as a spiritual leader for his community on social, religious, political and family matters, to name a few.

He is in many ways best known for his departure from the conservative interpretation of Islam espoused by other Shiite spiritual leaders, especially regarding women, and he has issued a number of fatwas, including one allowing women to defend themselves against physical and social violence.

NOW Lebanon’s Hanin Ghaddar visited Sayyed Fadlullah at his home in Haret Hreik and talked about his views on women, politics, religion, and the regional situation, especially regarding the Sunni-Shiite tensions simmering across the Middle East.

Women’s rights

Q. You are concerned with women’s rights and issued several pro-women fatwas that garnered positive and negative reactions. What is the reason behind the negative reactions, and why are you concerned with women’s rights?

Fadlullah: Throughout my life, I have always supported the human being in his humanism and [I have supported] the oppressed... I think it is the person’s right to live his freedom… and [it is his right] to face the injustice imposed on him by revolting against it, using his practical, realistic and available means to end the oppressor’s injustice toward him, whether it is an individual, a community, a nation, or a state; whether male or female. God created the people free; thus no one has the right to enslave people and no one has the right to enslave himself for others. Imam Ali said “do not be a slave of others, as God created you free.”In light of this, I realized that throughout history [people have considered] women second-class citizens, in other words, the woman does not represent a human but a margin of the man in his humanity, thought and work. That is why the woman was deprived of developing her mind through education and thinking.

We even notice that in some situations, the woman as a wife, daughter or sister has no right to think, but has to obey others’ thinking. Perhaps some people have the idea that the woman does not have a full brain but has half or one-third the brain [of a man]. This issue is neither true nor realistic nor human. There is no difference between the man and the woman in terms of their humanness. A woman can outperform the man when given the necessary knowledge and [when in] a situation where she can innovate and carry out private and public projects, and handle huge responsibilities.I have noticed that the Quran did not undervalue women’s brain power in the human sense, but there has been some legislation that stems from men and women’s practical situation rather than their humanistic situation.We read that God has set the woman as an example for men and women... The Quran gives the example of Queen of Saba'… as having a brain bigger than that of men… because she has a free and independent mind that allows her to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, I feel that we should support the human’s humanism and give him the right to live as an individual by developing all his capabilities, or to live socially through handling public and private responsibilities in life. The woman is able to be equal to a man or to outperform him in this regard.

We realize that in Islam… marriage is a matter of contract. It is not a hidden and mysterious secret but a human relation based on affection and mercy as well as comfort. It focuses on the contract that the wife freely establishes with her husband. No one can impose a husband on her. [Islam] did not dictate that the woman be a housewife or a second-class citizen; she is rather committed, with the man, to what is imposed by the contract on her, just as he should do.

Thus, I realized that I should change the unrealistic and uncultured concept of people who think that religion undervalues the woman [and] prove to them that religion made men and women equal.

Q. But some legislation give men more rights than women in issues of inheritance and custody.

Fadlullah: This is not a general issue. If a man only has one daughter, she inherits all the money. If he has two daughters only, they inherit all the money. But, if he had sons and daughters, then the male’s inheritance is equal to that of two females. The reason is that Islam gave the man all the responsibilities in the marriage. He pays the Mahr (dowry) and the expenses of the wife and the children. The woman does not handle any financial responsibility. Some humorous people say that men should demand equality with women and not the opposite because the woman’s share is bigger than that of the man. If the father of a daughter and a son has an amount of money equal to $30,000, the daughter takes $10,000 while the son takes $20,000. However, when he gets married he will eventually spend this $20,000 on his wife and children, even if the wife is rich. Meanwhile, the woman keeps the whole $10,000. So there is a balance between the man and the woman… God took half from the woman but gave her more. [But] the society we live in has historically considered the woman a secondary human being or less.

The causes of the Sunni-Shiite conflict

Q. Things are getting more complicated between the Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunni-Shiite conflict started in Lebanon over the past few years and now it is raging between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni rebels. What is the major reason for these problems and how will we resolve them?

Fadlullah: Perhaps the problem is that this diversity stemmed from the caliphate complications between two Muslim communities [Sunnis and Shiites] and developed and became part of human feelings, creating hatred among them. 

This issue was, on and off, based on the mental backwardness that deprives people of freedom of thought and belief.

We feel that the conflict inside religious institutions is historical and has survived among the Christians, between the Christians and the Jews, and between the Christians and the Muslims. There have been political plots to control the natural resources of the Muslims. They tried to instigate Sunni-Shiite strife and take advantage of the underdevelopment of the Sunni and Shiite religious clerics and people, and distract them from playing a basic role in major issues in a way that complies with their numerical power. They total around 1.5 billion people, which the West could politically control, along with their resources and their markets. 

The issue is a mixture of politics and confession. If we do a popular referendum among the Sunnis and the Shiites, and ask about the common points between the Sunnis and Shiites, we will find that the majority do not have an answer. The issue has stemmed from a psychological and historical situation rather than from knowledge and culture.

The political conflict is being looked at as a confessional or religious conflict. We should carry out an awareness campaign to separate the religious from the political perspective. The religious aspect is cultural… while the political perspective has different aspects.

The religious issue is conflicting, so they are trying to exploit religious intolerance in favor of political intolerance.

We call for Islamic unity. We have agreed on around 80% of matters, and we can solve the rest through dialogue. 

Q. Can one solution to political-religious strife be separating religion from the state?

Fadlullah: I do not think that the issue is related to separating religion from the state.

Q. But wars among states are religious.

Fadlullah: It is not about the relation between religion and the state. It is rooted in a historical perspective that is still alive in humans through blind fanaticism. There are disputes even within the same religion. For instance, there are disputes among the Sunnis in their own regions, as is the case in the Shiite regions. It is a political issue whereby some intelligence services are trying to exploit religion in favor of politics.

The Shiite community in Lebanon

Q. The Shiite community is perceived as a closed society. At the same time, people who do not understand the Shiite society are afraid of it. Some say this fear is due to the deprivation of the Shiites throughout history while others say it is because of Hezbollah’s weapons.

Fadlullah: I think the issue has no realistic basis. Politically speaking, the Shiite people are diverse in their [political] affiliations just like the Sunni and the Christians. Some Shiites are leftists while others are rightists. The two major Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, are integrated in Lebanese issues on the level of the Resistance and on the level of politics. The Shiites entered the national-unity cabinet as an important group although they did not request a huge [ministerial] share like the other parties. I think the Shiites are exercising their civil rights and having disputes just like the others. I can assure that the Shiites in Lebanon are the least sectarian because they are open to all religions.

Negative reactions to the Sayyed's fatwas

Q. What is the reason behind the negative reactions to your fatwas?

Fadlullah: I think our society is still underdeveloped, exploiting the backward historical situation. Our societies have witnessed inequality between men and women. Even in developed societies, we know that working women are paid less than men although their duties and productivity might be more. Thus, the man still feels more powerful than the woman and tries to persecute her. So, we issued a fatwa that a woman has the right to self-defense if a man persecutes her. The right to self-defense is a human right. This fatwa provoked many who thought that I wanted to destroy families. But I said that the offender rather than the offended destroys families.


Q. The Islamic community in general, and in Lebanon, needs a social and intellectual renaissance. You are capable of leading a social movement to create radical change in the Islamic community. What is the means to this end?

Fadlullah: I think that the social reform movement’s priorities are creating awareness and changing people’s mentality from a closed to an open one… As humans, we act according to our ideas and feelings. So, we should work on changing mentality to ensure that the woman is a human being just like the man and that both have human rights within their relationship…The Quran considers the couple’s life to be based on love and mercy…I think that the backward mentality [of inequality] that survived for hundreds of years cannot be reformed in one or two years. Even in the West, which is considered the nation of freedoms, the prevailing mentality perceives women as a gender rather than a human being. This is why the woman is harassed at work. 

We think that sex is a personal and instinctual thing that represents women’s and men’s needs. It is a mutual right for each, but within the contractual legal system [of marriage].

Lebanon is distinguished for its education and culture, but I think it is still living with the mind-set of Bedouins.