Friday, December 29, 2006

Hezbullah: Origins and Historical Context

In order to best understand a movement such as Hezbullah, one must, out of necessity, address the social, historical and political contexts that had birthed it, moulded it and continue to influence it. If we are to take one singular milestone as the cause for its inception (the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon), we risk falling into a simplistic and limited perception of the movement which would not contribute to an understanding of it. The seeds of Hezbullah had been planted much earlier than the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in fact, one could argue that the origins of Hezbullah lay in both the dismal social conditions of the Shi’ite poor, al-Mahroumeen (the Deprived) and the great Islamic study centres of Najaf and Qom. As much as attention is currently focused on the struggle against Israel, Hezbullah’s prime concern was and arguably remains, the age old concern of justice and good governance, within an Islamic framework, for al-Mustaza’feen (those who are made weak) of the Earth. An Islamic state can wait until it is brought about by overwhelming popular consent and any other attempt at hastening it’s arrival would be unjust and ultimately, in Hezbullah’s belief, be doomed to fail. Furthermore, the conflict with Israel is viewed strictly within the paradigm of defensive jihad. This defensive jihad concept must be understood not just with regards to the Israeli occupation of the South of Lebanon, but also with regards to its very existence over Palestine, something which is not recognised or acceptable to those in the movement. Anyhow, moving on..

Though Hezbullah is to a large extent an organisation animated by religious belief in Islam, it's formation and roots lay in political and secular contexts. The politicisation of the Lebanese Shia in many ways matched that of many disillusioned and under-privileged minorities throughout the developing world following decolonisation (Ghorayeb, 2002: 7). Though not of an Islamic nature, the various secular and nationalist movements of the time were the principle outlet through which Lebanese Shi'ites could hope to challenge the status-quo. Lebanon, since 1943 had been run along the lines of al-Mithaq al-Watani, 'The National Pact”. This effectively left the Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims of Lebanon with most of the political power, leaving the Shia trailing behind in a poor third place (Ghorayeb, 2002: 8,9). The legitimacy of this pact, based on a census of dubious accuracy made in 1932 and under the auspices of French colonial occupation, arguably remains the source of much debate and contention to this day.

For the Shia of Lebanon, this 'rediscovery' of religion in the place of politics began quite innocuously. From the nineteen sixties, groups of Lebanese clerics were returning from the great religious schools of Najaf in Iraq imbibed with a renewed vigour for Islam as they perceived it. Having experienced first hand and for some decades now, the transformation of their socieities under colonial occupation and through contact with Western 'modernisation', the religious scholars there had had enough time to contemplate and consider the “proposed role in life” of Islam as Sheikh Naim Qassem put it (Qassem, 2005: 13). Though initially concerned with community concerns such as religious observance, education and advice, the general living conditions of the Shia poor was a cause of much concern for these clerics. In particular, three clerics eventually stood out who would articulate the concerns and voice of the Lebanese Shia and who would become the main ideological and intellectual founders of Hezbullah (Ibid.). These were: Imam Musa al-Sadr, Ayatullah Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddine and Ayatullah al-Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (Qassem, 2005: 14-17). Of these, it was Imam Musa al-Sadr who was the most energetic in trying to improve the lot of the poor by forming Harakat al-Mahroumeen 'Movement of the Deprived'. He was also an ardent believer in that Israeli occupation must be resisted and was instrumental in forming Amal (al-Muqawamah al-Lubnaniyah), 'The Lebanese Resistance'. It was he who became most closely associated as the originator of Hezbullah and his mysterious disappearance while on an official visit to Libya's President Muammar al Qaddhafi in 1978, helped boost the ranks of Amal considerably (Ghorayeb, 2002: 9). al-Sayyed Fadlallah continues to provide more of an ideological inspiration and spiritual leadership (Ibid.).

In a wider context, events both in Lebanon and in Iran would later have a profound impact on the Shia. Firstly with regards to Lebanon, increased sectarian violence which later flared into full scale civil war led to a 'communal re-identification' (Ghorayeb, 2002: 10) which helped bolster solidarity within the community and renew the allegiance of many Shia. From Iran, the fall of the most powerful and increasingly repressive pro-Western government in the region led to the establishment of an Islamic Theocracy. The fact that it was Shia did not go unobserved by many in the region and not just in Lebanon. This will bring us to another important area which is often misunderstood or distorted, that is the relationship between Iran and Hezbullah. For that we really need to understand the paradigm within which Hezbullah operate, Shi'ite Islam. Watch this space.


  1. Saad-Ghorayeb, A. (2002), Hizbu'llah: Politics & Religion, Pluto Press, London & Sterling, Virginia
  2. Qassem, N. (2005), Hizbullah: The Story from Within (translated from the Arabic by Dalia Khalil), Saqi Books, London

  1. Qassem, N. (2005), Hizbullah: The Story from Within (translated from the Arabic by Dalia Khalil), Saqi, London

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