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The Shias in Lebanon: A Short History

THE LEVANT NEWS EXCLUSIVE – By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem* —

The Shias of Lebanon gained global reputation in the early 1980s of the 20th century with the emergence of Hezbollah and its military operations against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. Hence; their destiny came to be synonymous with that of Hezbollah and Amal’s movement, in addition to their relationship with Syria and the Islamic republic of Iran ever since.

Shias in Lebanon constitute almost a third of the population, residing in the South, Bekaa and the capital—Beirut and its southern suburb, along with few villages in Jbeil(Byblos) and Kisrwen, and North Lebanon.

Historians and researchers do not agree over the exact period of Shiism’s inoculation into Lebanon; however, it prevails that Shiism entered this land that was part of the Islamic caliphate since the first century of hijra (7th century AD). That was concurrent with the early spread of Islam in the Levant, especially after Prophet Muhammad’s death.

Some historians say that Shias in Lebanon are indigenous to the land, and who embraced the Prophet House’s branch of Islam. Moreover; Shiism’s inoculation into Lebanon is linked to the revered companion of the Prophet, Abu Dharr Al- Ghafari, who was the fourth or fifth person converting to Islam. He was a staunch opponent of the rein of the third caliph, Uthman Bin Affan, who pandered to his tribe, The Umayyads, and thus banished Abu Dharr from Madina to Damascus. Abu Dhar is remembered for his opposition to Muawiyah I during the caliph Uthman ibn Affan era.

Thus, Abu Dharr moved to the region known as “Jabal Amel” that enclosed southern Lebanon and some areas of the western Bekaa (as they are dubbed according to present administrative divisions). Abu Dharr died in that region in 652 AD, and two memorials were built commemorating him in southern Lebanon.

Despite that; there is another view that says that Shias’ entrance into Lebanon came along with the migration of a part of the Shia Yemeni tribe of Hamadan, from Al-Koofa in Iraq to some regions of Syria and Lebanon; after the Umayyad clan seized control of the Islamic governance after the death of Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib. The tribe of Hamadan had embraced Islam under the homage to Imam Ali, and became among his staunchest stalwarts, and then migrated with him from Yemen to Al-Koofa. It also fought alongside Imam Ali against the army of the Kawarijs and that of Mu’awiya Bin Abi Sufyan.

Muslim historians have pointed out to the existence of contingents from Yemen (especially Hamadan region) in Homs in Syria and in Baalbek and Jabal Amel in Lebanon, counting from late 7th century AD.

Shias also resided in Aleppo, Damascus and the Syrian coastal side. Shiism even protracted to the outskirts of Palestine and Jordan; such that residents of Tiberius and half the number of those residing in Nablus and Jerusalem, and the majority of those residing in Amman, were Shia ; according to one historian.

Shiism spread during the reins of the Umayyad and Abbasid states, in southern Lebanon and in Byblos and Kisrwen. The city of Jezzine and the town of Mayss- al-Jabal in south Lebanon were among the most important Shiite cities. The Shiite tutelage grew bigger with the takeover of the governance by the Fatimid dynasty. Thus Shiism spread in northern Lebanon, and the northern plains of Akkar (the stronghold of the Sunnis today) became a big base for Shiism.

Some may be surprised to know that Tripoli, the capital of northern Lebanon and its biggest Sunni city, was a residence of the Shias from the beginning of the 10th century AD; and remained one of Shiism’s capitals in the Levant until the 12th century. The Shiite existence was culminated with a prosperous emirate called Bani Ammar, who was slated to govern Tripoli by the Fatimid Dynasty, so it established an independent emirate there.

The Persian voyager and poet, Nasir Khisro (1004-1088 AD), describes Tripoli in the 11th century as of Shia residents who established beautiful mosques along the land.

Some researchers say that during the crusaders governance of the region, 85% of Lebanon’s population was of the Shia, until they were slammed brutally by Salah El- Deen, and later by the Mamluks who derived a religious jurisprudence (Fatwa) from an extremist Damascus clergy (Faqih), called Ibn Taymiyyah, that allowed the killing of Shia whom he dubbed as Rawafids (alluding to “those who ‘refuse’ to give homage to the three caliphs prior to Ali Bin Abi Talib) especially in Byblos and Kisrwen.

On the latter backdrop; carnages were carried out in 1309 against Shias, and the Mamluk army was able to occupy the region of Byblos and Kisrwen; which led to the fleeing of the Shias to the Bekaa and residing there. Others fled to southern Lebanon, especially Jezzine .

And because of the persecutions pressed against the Shias in Mount Lebanon, some resorted to practicing the principle of “Taqiyyah” (Dissimulation), pretending through which to have converted to Christianity, the likes of the Hashem clan; and other to the Sunni sect of Islam.

And like in Tripoli; Shias resided in Byblos, Kisrwen, and Mount Lebanon; until they were persecuted by the Mamluks Dynasty, and deported to Baalbek, Al-Hermel and other Lebanese regions.

And after the ouster of the Mongols; the Harfoosh clan (“Al-Harafisha”) stood out in Baalbek as a Shiite family who governed the region and built mosques within it. Their emirate lasted two centuries. Also; the town of Kark Nooh, near Baalbek, stood out as a Shia enlightenment hub form which the renowned inquisitor Ali Bin AbdulAl Al-Karaki Al-‘Amely came to be known in the 15th century.

Al-‘Amely was among the first introducers of the theory of Velayat e-faqih(the governance of the jurisprudent) and Niyabat Al-faqih(the surrogating of the jurisprudent) in the absence of Imam Al-Mahdi (the 12th Imam of the Prophet’s family). And with the establishment of the Safavid state, Al-‘Amely was invited to Iran by the Shah Ismael Al-Safavi who inaugurated him as “Sheik Al-Islam” (“the Jurisprudent of Islam”) within the state; and, in turn, Al-Karaki Al-‘Amely granted the Shah the warrant to govern in the absence of the 12th Imam. Al-‘Amely acted as a jurisprudent on the behalf of 12th Imam, and had a big role in the spread of Shiism in Iran, and in teaching the Shia jurisprudence to its clerics.

Hence; it would appear naïve to indict Shias and Hezbollah in Lebanon with the charge of being the first specimen of linkage to Iran, thus charging them with committing treason for the benefit of Iran, or with being succumbing negatively to Wilayat Al-Fqeeh; when their Arab Lebanese ancestors are the ones who innovated the latter theory and, through it, helped spread Shiism in Iran.

Some historians invoke that the persecution of Shias and their accordingly practice of the “Taqiyyah” to hide their beliefs (out of fear for their lives), continued until the time of the “First Martyr” the cleric Muhammad Bin Makki, who called for the stop of that safety practice and to begin professing the practicing of Shiism; and as a consequence, the majority of the residents of the South and Bekaa and some villages of Byblos and the North returned to practicing Shiism openly. But residents of the coast of southern Matn (namely the southern suburb of Beirut) and the adjacent regions did not return to Shiism, excluding residents of Burj Al-Barajneh, Ghobeiry, Jiyyeh and the two villages of Kayfoon and Kmatiyyeh in Mount Lebanon. Then, the building of mosques and Huseiniyyahs resumed.

Following the Ottoman state took control of the Levant; it committed massacres against the Shias, most notably by Sultan Selim the first (28 May 1524 –15 December 1574); who killed 44,000 of the Shias in Jabal ‘Amel and 40,000 of them in Aleppo. The same was with the rein of Ahmad Al-Jazzar who killed dozens of thousands of them.

Among the enlightened clerics of Lebanon; Muhammad Bin Makki, “The First Martyr”, from the town of Jezzeen, stood out in the 14th century. He was put to death in Damascus by the Mamluks. Also standing out, was “The Second Martyr”, Zeiniddeen Bin Ali, from the town of Jebaa’, in the 16th century.

Sheikh Al-Baha’i, a jurisprudent from Baalbek, travelled to the city of Asfahan to gain more enlightenment and study further. He was revered by the Shah Abbas Al-Safawi, who inaugurated him as “Sheik al- Islam” (“the Jurisprudent of Islam”) in the Safadi state.

Also standing out among Shia clerics; is the jurisprudent Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hurr Al-‘Amely, from the town of Mashghara in the western Bekaa. He is the innovator of the most vital Shia encyclopedia; namely “Wasael al-shia”.

The town of Jebaa’, Jezzine, Mashghara, Al-Kark, Mayss Al-Jabal, Shaqra and ‘Aynata were renowned for their religious Shia schools, and their outstanding Shia jurisprudents and authorities on an Islamic world level; as their books are still being taught until this day in the Shia Hawzas (religious schools).

But these schools’ role has lagged after the Ottoman occupation of Syria and Lebanon in 1516, and the scholars and novelists were dispersed, as some migrated to Iraq, Iran and Hijaz(Saudi Arabia today), whereas others remained in the region practicing Taqiyyah.

After the French mandate and the establishment of “Lubnan Al-Kabeer” (The Great Lebanon”) in 1920, the situation if Shias in Lebanon changed socially, politically, culturally and religiously. The most prominent of change came along with the arrival of the Iranian cleric Mussa Al-Sadr in Lebanon, coming from Iran in 1960, at the behest of the Lebanese Shias’ yearning for an Imam (leader) who would take care of the sect’s affairs after the death of its prominent authority Ayatollah Abd Al-Husein Sharafiddeen.

Al-Sadr established the “Islamic Shia Supreme Council” in 1969, to unify the sect against social injustice and political and economic marginalization inflicted upon it throughout its history in Lebanon. Al-Sadr contributed to the Islamic awakening in Lebanon, and to bringing up a generation of religious individuals, and to establishing a number of schools, benevolent charities, associations and hospitals in Beirut, the South and Bekaa.

Religious Hawzas (schools) have been developed in Lebanon with the development of the political, economic and social situation of the Shias, especially with the emergence of Hezbollah in 1982 as a resistance force against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.

Dr. Haytham Mouzahem
Dr. Haytham Mouzahem
Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is the executive director of Beirut Center for Middle East Studies, and the editor in chief of The Levant News site.

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