Tuesday, July 06, 2010
The Ayatollah of Canterbury
The ayatollah of Canterbury
The life of ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah shows that Islam can be liberal without assisting Western policies
o Ian Williams
o guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 6 July 2010 09.00 BST
o Article history
Today Lebanon will see the funeral of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Grand Ayatollah often described as the "spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah. Of course, in many parts of the West that immediately starts a chain of associations leading directly to terrorism, Islamo-fascism, anti-Westernism and so on. Some might even see significance in his death, at 75, on July 4th, which will doubtless bring up his support for the attack on the American marine barracks in Beirut. But then they might also think about the joint Saudi/alleged CIA operation that tried to kill the Ayatollah with a massive bomb but ended up killing 80 men and women worshippers at his Mosque.
The Saudis later apologised, but Washington's "whoops, sorry," must have been lost in the mail, which did not stop the Ayatollah from immediately denouncing the attack on the World Trade Centre.
In fact, the Ayatollah, who had his own website (http://english.bayynat.org.lb/) epitomised what Western critics, with varying degrees of sincerity have been suggesting Islam should be. He took the West at its face value, decried the idea of theocratic rule in affairs of state and indirectly paved the way for Hezbollah, formerly the party of economically, socially and politically excluded Lebanese Shi'a to become part of a, relatively, democratic polity.
In a small way, his indicative fatwa, allowing women to use nail polish by turning obscurantist Islamic doctrine around, symbolizes his achievement in helping Hezbollah and Lebanese Shi'a into the mainstream. It is almost inconceivable to think of middle class Lebanese women without manicures! More importantly, instead of being a strict constructionist as claimed by the Justices of the Supreme Court, he took into account the original intent of Islamic family law, and interpreted it in the light of modern society to emphasise women's rights.
There is no doubt that the Ayatollah Fadlallah was a modernising and progressive influence in Islam, much more "modern" than many of his Christian counterparts.
A year ago he told the Wall St Journal "I don't believe that Welayat al-Faqih has any role in Lebanon… Perhaps some Lebanese commit themselves to the policy of the Guardian Jurist, as some of them commit themselves to the policy of the Vatican. My opinion is that I don't see the Guardianship of the Jurist as the definitive Islamic regime."
Hopefully such statements will inoculate the Hezbollah against any Iranian-influenced successor who wants to reinsert theocracy. But this Ayatollah's stand against religious authorities interfering in the polls compares favourably with American bishops telling Catholics to vote against candidates who support a woman's right to choose, or indeed the Evangelical conservatives in the US – not to mention the Christian Democrats of Europe who have been known to support the Vatican's views on occasion.
The Ayatollah supported Hezbollah in their battle against Israeli occupation, and supported the Palestinians as well, which will of course militate against acceptance of him as a cozy Episcopalian Ayatollah, although Rowan Williams's predecessors have not been averse to claiming the support of the Almighty against Britain's enemies.
As the Ayatollah's funeral takes place, along with whatever sura from the Quran, maybe there should be a quotation from that eminent theologian Robert Burns for the benefit of Western commentators, "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us." As a happy atheist I can say, as religious leaders go, here went one of the better ones.