To Hezbollah, the departure of Fadlallah is an opportunity to co-opt local Shiites – traditionally aligned with quietist Iraqi religious leaders – to the more militant ideology espoused by Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The effort to shift the orientation of the community will take time, but should Hezbollah succeed, it will strengthen Tehran and further erode Washington’s influence in the region.
Fadlallah was a marja, the most senior rank in the Shiite clerical hierarchy. When he declared himself a marja in 1995 – some thirty years into his career – virtually no one else in Lebanon held that status or questioned his credentials. Indeed, Fadlallah’s predecessor, the marja Seyyid Moshen al-Ameen, passed away in 1952, leaving a gap of 43 years. In the absence of a formal succession procedure, it’s unclear what will happen next.
By tradition, Shiites adopt a marja, or religious guide, whose interpretations and rulings inform the individual’s practice. Among Shiites in Lebanon, Fadlallah and the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani – both trained in the Iraqi city of Najaf and opposed to velayat-e-faqih – have long been the most influential religious figures. With Fadlallah gone, and Sistani nearly 81, Iran and Hezbollah hope to nudge Lebanon’s Shiites toward Tehran and Khamenei.