Tens of thousands of people swarmed the coffin of Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric as it made its way through the streets of south Beirut to the mosque for burial on Tuesday.
Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, 75, died on Sunday after a long illness. The cleric was one of Shiite Islam’s highest authorities and most revered religious figures.
Seen by some as a spiritual mentor to the Hezbollah militant movement and by others as a voice of pragmatism and religious moderation, Fadlallah enjoyed a following that stretched beyond Lebanon’s borders to Iraq, the Gulf and Central Asia.
“This is a sad day for the Muslim and Arab nation. I have been one of his followers since I was a child and I don’t know if anyone will be able to fill the vacuum left behind by Sayyed Fadlallah,” said Sayed Ali, a 32—year—old Kuwaiti mechanical engineer who flew in on Tuesday morning to attend the funeral.
The government declared Tuesday a national day of mourning and schools and government offices were closed.
A sea of people surged forward as Fadlallah’s coffin, wrapped in black cloth with gold Quranic inscriptions, was carried out of his house in Beirut’s southern suburb of Haret Hreik. Many of the black—clad mourners carried his portrait as they marched.
Overcome by the heat and their emotions, several people fainted and were treated on the spot by paramedics.
Known for his staunch anti—American views, Fadlallah was described by Western media in the 1980s as a spiritual leader of the Lebanese militant Hezbollah, a claim both he and the group have since denied.
He supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, but distanced himself from the key principle advocating the leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a supreme, undisputed spiritual leader for the world’s Shiites.
Ahmad Jannati, a representative of Iran’s supreme leader, as well as Ali al—Adeeb, an aid to the Iraqi prime minister, attended the funeral along with other prominent foreign officials.
The stocky, gray—bearded cleric with piercing brown eyes below his black turban, was known for his bold fatwas, or religious edicts, including one that gave women the right to hit their husbands if they attacked them and another that banning so—called “honour killing” of women.
Fadlallah was born in Iraq in 1935 and lived in the country’s Shiite holy city of Najaf, where he was considered one of the leading clerics. He moved to Lebanon at the age of 30 - his family hailed from the southern Lebanese village of Ainata - and began lecturing on religion.
In the ensuing decades, he would prod Lebanon’s Shiites, who today make up a third of the country’s population of four million, to fight for their rights.
During Lebanon’s 1975—90 civil war, he was linked to Iranian—backed Shiite militants who kidnapped Americans and other Westerners, and bombed the U.S. Embassy and Marine base in Lebanon, killing more than 260 Americans.
Fadlallah repeatedly denied those links but argued such acts were justifiable when the door to dialogue is locked shut.
With age, Fadlallah’s views mellowed and he lost much of his 1980s militancy. His sermons, once fiery diatribes denouncing American imperialism, took on a pragmatic tone as he urged dialogue among nations and religions.