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

Article excerpt

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.

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.2

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?


According to Peters, "the Arabic word Jihad ... means to strive, to exert oneself, to struggle." Jihad is initiated for one of four principal causes: "1) defense, 2) revolution against tyranny, 3) establishment of the Shari'a [... and] 4) the punishment of treaty violators." The authority under which jihad is waged is both religious and political. In Shi'ism, a rightful jihad can be waged only under the leadership of the Imam. According to Shi'a beliefs, the Imam has been in Occultation since the ninth century, and no rightful jihad can be waged in his absence. Abedi and Legenhausen note that "[t]here have been strong elements within the ulama which insisted that neither the state nor the religious institution had any right to act on the behalf of the Imam. The Akhbari School of jurisprudence ... is famous for this position."8

This approach was countered by a follower of the Usuli School, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who developed a theory that allows the faqih (religious scholar) to combine both the religious and political attributes of the Imam: wilayat al-faqih or the guardianship of the Jurisprudent. Khomeini argued that no function of government is reserved to the Hidden Imam. …