Thursday, July 24, 2008

Resistance, Jihad, and Martyrdom in Contemporary Lebanese Shi‘i Discourse

An elderly Lebanese man walks under a poster of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah martyrs erected on the facade of a mosque in the village of Tiri in south Lebanon, 26 October 2006. The large text in the photo reads: "Men of God."

Resistance, Jihad, and Martyrdom in Contemporary
Lebanese Shi‘a Discourse

By Rola el-Husseini

The Middle East Journal, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Summer 2008)

Abstract: This article examines the contemporary Shi‘a understanding of jihad, martyrdom, and resistance through an analysis of the writings of two leading Lebanese Shi‘a scholars: Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah and Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din. This article shows the impact of their writings on resistance movements in the region. It maintains that their discourse is central to the ideological foundation of Hizbullah, and also has affected the development of Hamas and its adoption of tactics developed in Lebanon against Israel.

Excerpts: In recent years, the terms jihad and martyrdom have become synonymous in the Western media with that of terrorism. This simplistic conflation disregards the multiple meanings of these terms as they are used within their discourses of origin. This article aims to add conceptual clarity to this muddled language by examining the contemporary Shi‘a understanding of these concepts, and the closely related concept of resistance, through an analysis of the writings of two leading Lebanese Shi‘a scholars: Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah and Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din.A poster Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (L) is seen 26 October 2006 along with posters of Hezbollah martyrs erected at the entrance of the devastated town of Bint Jbeil in south Lebanon.

By scrutinizing four of their works published in Lebanon between 1998 and 2001, I will tease out their conceptions of jihad and martyrdom and articulate how these prominent Lebanese Ayatollahs base these concepts on their understanding of Shi‘a tradition. Specifically, in the tradition that Michael Fischer has dubbed “the Karbala paradigm,” which provides an exemplar for taking an active role and rebelling against injustice and tyranny, manifest in this case with the Israeli invasion and occupation.

In this article, I answer the following questions: What is the Shi‘a definition of jihad and of “Islamic resistance?” Are they one and the same? If so, are they to be understood as an exclusively armed form of resistance or can “Islamic resistance” be non-violent? And more importantly to a Western audience, who is the target of this resistance? More specifically, can “resistance” occur against local corrupt rulers or is it always directed against Israel, against the United States, or against what has locally been termed “Western Imperialism?”

I then examine the impact of these writings on resistance movements in the region and analyze their implications. I argue that the discourse of Fadlallah and Shams al-Din has influenced Hizbullah in Lebanon, and I contend that the Party of God incorporated this resistance discourse into its ethos and made it its defining attribute if not its raison d’être. I also maintain that through its influence on Hizbullah, this discourse has affected the development of Hamas in neighboring Palestine. What do Fadlallah and Shams al-Din mean by resistance? How do they define the concept, and in what ways do they link it to jihad?

.............A poster Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is seen 25 October 2006 in front of tent of a displaced family in the village of Yarin. The text reads, roughly, "Lebanon: Strong for its Resistance."

The discourse of Fadlallah and Shams al-Din in the 1980s and 1990s paved the way for the emergence of Hizbullah as a Shi‘a resistance force. The clerics’ writings and sermons on jihad, resistance, and martyrdom constituted the intellectual underpinnings of Hizbullah’s approach to these issues. Hizbullah borrowed the tactic of suicide bombings from secular leftist groups and endowed it with an Islamic character derived from the Iranian model of the Basijis: “Throughout the [Iran-Iraq] war, the main motive for the martyrdom of the Basijis was a desire to protect the threatened Islamic fatherland and to fight an Iraqi enemy supported and aided by Western Imperialism.” Indeed, the use of suicide attacks was first adopted by the Basijis during the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988: They would run into areas covered by land mines, triggering them
in preparation for the advance of more conventional troops. The suicide missions assigned to the young Basijis were given religious sanction: The young men would be following in the steps of Imam Husayn.



AH Dabaja said...

excellent work! please continue with your thorough analysis of Shi'i of Lebanon, a misunderstood and complex society.

How can I stay updated on any new work that you publish?

"علي " said...

Thank you, but I did not write this article. Although I sometimes add commentary or information to contextual the subjects of my posts, this is not one of those posts.

To answer your question, I believe there is a way to sign up for e-mail updates, though, I must say that I do not know how to do that. I think that there is a link on the blog page.

"علي " said...

I would highly recommend the new book by Roshanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, SHI'ITE LEBANON: TRANSNATIONAL RELIGION AND THE MAKING OF NATIONAL IDENTITIES. It's the most sophisticated analysis of Lebanese Shi'ism in English that I have yet seen.

"علي " said...

I try to highlight articles and news that (often) does not receive a lot of attention in the mediocre U.S. media and news. My hope is that the blog serves as an alternative source for news and analysis for at least some modest number of people.