The "Sleeping Giant"
The Lebanese Shia are as old as Lebanon itself. They have participated with the other communities in cultivating its plains and mountains, developing its land, and protecting its frontiers. The Shia have survived in Lebanon in prosperity and adversity. They have soaked its soil with the blood of their children, and have raised its banners of glory in its sky, for they have led most of the revolts.
-Imam Musa Sadr
MARCH 17, 1974
BAALBEK, Bekaa Valley-They had waited for hours, a noisy, tumultuous throng jamming the narrow streets of this ancient town sprawling across the flatlands of the northern Bekaa Valley. From all the Shia territories in Lebanon they had come. From the cramped cinder block homes in the squalid slums of southern Beirut, from the banana plantations and citrus orchards of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, from the olive groves and tobacco fields set among the steep stony hills of Bint Jbeil and Nabatiyah in the south, from the dusty villages clinging to the arid mountain slopes flanking the northern Bekaa Valley. Some had traveled for more than a day, filling buses and shared taxis and private vehicles as they navigated over the mountains separating the Bekaa from the coast and then bounced along the rutted roads that led toward Baalbek.
To the west, sinuous fingers of snow stroked the sepia peaks of Mount Lebanon, fading remnants of the bitter winter months. A cool breeze wafted through Baalbek, rustling the branches of the poplar trees shading the shallow crystal waters of the Ras al-Ain spring.
It was a religious occasion, the fortieth day after Ashoura, marking the end of the traditional period of mourning for Imam Hussein, whose seventh-century martyrdom is the defining motif for the Shia faithful. But it was not the commemoration of Imam Hussein that had compelled such a multitude, perhaps seventy-five thousand people in all, to descend upon Baalbek this day. Nor was it Imam Hussein's sacrifice in the sands of Mesopotamia that had emboldened the men gathered in Baalbek to bring with them their weapons, bolt-action rifles passed from father to son or the more modern AK-47 assault rifle carried in hand or slung over shoulder. Instead, they had come to Baalbek to hear the words of one man-a tall, charismatic Iranian-born cleric whose soft smile and kindly eyes had won many admirers, Muslim and Christian alike, since he had arrived on Lebanese shores a decade and half earlier. Known for his humility and the gentle timbre of his voice, Sayyed Musa Sadr, "Imam Musa" to his followers, had lately begun injecting steel into his oratory, preaching a bold new discourse of revolt and defiance. One month earlier, in the village of Bidnayil, a few miles south of Baalbek, Sadr had electrified his audience with an angry denunciation of the government's neglect of Lebanon's backwater regions and of the failure of the state to protect the southern Lebanese from Israel's destructive incursions. For too long, he proclaimed, the Shias of Lebanon had been marginalized and crushed, denigrated as "Mitwali." Now was the time for "revolution and weapons."
"Starting from today," vowed Sadr in Bidnayil, "we will no longer complain nor cry. Our name is not Mitwali; our name is 'men of refusal,' 'men of vengeance,' 'men who revolt against tyranny' even though this costs us our blood and our lives."
On this fortieth day after Ashoura, the Shia faithful had chosen to answer Sadr's call by brandishing their weapons, a physical manifestation of their latent collective power and a stern warning to the Lebanese state that the Mitwali would be silent and submissive no more.
Sadr and his companions were making slow progress up the Bekaa Valley toward Baalbek. As they passed through the Shia villages north of Shtaura, they found their route blocked by crowds bubbling with anticipation and excitement. Sadr was obliged to step out of his car, to greet the local dignitaries, to listen patiently to their warm welcomes and expressions of loyalty. Sheep were slaughtered on the road before him, a traditional gesture of respect for the honored visitor. Then, politely declining the entreaties of the villagers to linger a little longer, Sadr proceeded to the next village, where the same scene would be repeated.
As Sadr's entourage finally entered the southern outskirts of Baalbek, loudspeakers attached to the minarets of the town's mosques broadcast the news of the imam's arrival. As the word spread throughout the town, thousands of rifles were pointed skyward and the deafening clatter of gunfire erupted, almost drowning out the chants of "Allah u- Akbar (God is greater)." There were perhaps fifty thousand rifles firing all at once, a true Bekaa welcome for the venerated Sadr. The hail of falling bullets stripped leaves from trees. Ejected cartridge cases flew in through the open windows of the cars in Sadr's cortege.
As the imam climbed out of his vehicle, he was enveloped in a churning, unruly mob that bundled him toward the small platform where he would make his address. Outstretched hands snatched at his cloak, and his black turban was knocked off his head. It took twenty minutes for him to reach the podium, while the celebratory shooting continued unabated.
"I have words harsher than bullets, so spare your bullets," he exhorted the crowd, urging silence so that he could begin.
He castigated the government for its failure to meet the most basic needs of the people, noting that Baalbek itself, with a population of ten thousand, had only one government school, which dated back more than three decades to the French mandate era. He spoke of the south, battered by Israel, abused by the Palestinian armed factions that had taken root there, its people scorned, its waters plundered by the Lebanese authorities. The Shia, he thundered, were underrepresented in the civil service, industry, and academia. Thousands of Lebanese in the impoverished north and south were without identity cards, denying them basic state services as well as the right to vote.
He cited Imam Hussein's martyrdom, weaving together the religious imagery and symbolism of that earlier struggle against injustice with the plight of the contemporary Lebanese Shias. "Does Imam Hussein accept this for his children?" he asked rhetorically.
Referring to the weapons on display, Sadr declared that "armaments are the adornment of men," and he urged his followers to seize from the state what was rightfully due to them or to die in the attempt.
This was the language of "rage and revolution" that Sadr used to galvanize the Shia population of Lebanon, to stir the community from its apathy and slumber and instill within it a spirit of determination, pride, and a quest for justice.
Aql Hamiyah, at the time a student supporter of Sadr and who in the following decade would become the top military commander of the Shia Amal Movement, says, "There was a man and his name was Musa Sadr. It was Imam Sadr that woke up the sleeping giant that is the Shia of Lebanon."
The Partisans of Ali
No one knows for sure where the forebears of Lebanon's Shia population originated or why they chose to settle in the mountains and valleys of the Levant. The paucity of recorded Shia history in this region attests to the community's traditional dislocation from the affairs of its confessional neighbors, the Maronites, the Druze, and the Sunnis, whose political and social struggles form the backbone of Lebanon's historical narrative.
Shiism arose from the disputed succession from the Prophet Mohammed after his death in A.D. 632. Some of his followers believed that Mohammed's successor, the Caliph, should be chosen by consensus. Others argued that the succession should follow through Mohammed's family and that Ali, as the prophet's son-in-law, was the rightful heir. The title of Caliph was bestowed initially upon Abu Bakr, Mohammed's father-in-law and a close companion of the Prophet. Ali became the fourth Caliph, but for Ali's supporters-the Shiat al-Ali, or Partisans of Ali-he was the first true Caliph, the beginning of a line of descendants known as Imams.
The "Twelver" Shia tradition holds that Ali was followed by eleven more Imams, the last of whom, Imam Mahdi, went into occultation to escape his oppressors. According to the Twelver Shia, the return of this last Imam, the "hidden Imam," will lead to the end of the world and to their salvation. The Twelvers comprise the majority of Shia Muslims-including those of Lebanon and Iran.
Jabal Amil, the hill country historically bordered by Sidon in the north, Mount Hermon in the east, upper Galilee in the south, and the Mediterranean in the west, where much of modern Lebanon's Shia population lives, fell under the sway of the Ottoman Empire in the early sixteenth century. Given its passive rural existence and its relative isolation from the centers of power, Jabal Amil attracted little direct attention from the region's rulers. Under a relatively benign system, the tradition of Shia scholarship quietly flourished in the hill villages of the area. By the sixteenth century, Jabal Amil had emerged as the main center of learning in the Shia world, with many newly licensed alim, or scholars, settling in Iran, Iraq, and Mecca.
When Shah Ismael I, the Safavid ruler of Iran, introduced Twelver Shiism as the state religion in the early sixteenth century, he turned to the scholars of Jabal Amil to help promulgate the new faith. Adopting Shiism was intended to stabilize the Shah's new empire through a sense of religious kinship and to sharpen the front line against the rival Sunni Ottomans to the west. Dozens of leading scholars from villages in Jabal Amil and the Bekaa Valley traveled to Iran, settling there, marrying, learning Persian, and involving themselves in the rivalries and intrigues of the Safavid court. Thus began a linkage of families and learning between the Shias of the Levant and Iran that endures today. Ironically, however, the very success of the Jabal Amil scholars in preaching Shiism in Safavid Iran shifted the center of the faith from the Arab world to the powerful Persian Empire. In the eyes of Arab Sunnis, Shiism, already deemed heretical, was further tainted with a Persian hue, and its adherents were considered potential agents for the non-Arab Persians. Indeed, Jabal Amil's gradual decline as a center of Shia learning was due not only to the ascension of the Safavids as a Shia power, but also to Ottoman suspicions that the Shias living within their domain were a potential source of collaboration with their Persian enemies. Such suspicions prevail today, with Hezbollah dogged by accusations from some Sunni Muslims that it is a Trojan horse carrying Iran's influence into the majority Sunni Arab Middle East.
Swift to Rebel
The conventional narrative of Shia history in Lebanon tends to dwell on the notion of the community's submissiveness, the passive assimilation of the browbeaten and hand-wringing "Mitwali" into a hostile Sunni environment. But the Shias were no mere timid subjects of Ottoman rule. Like other minorities dwelling in the fastness of the Levantine mountains, they possessed a tenaciously independent streak and were quick to rise to arms if provoked. Shia ferocity in battle was born of the realization that their villages among the hills of Jabal Amil and the plain of the northern Bekaa Valley represented their sole sanctuaries. To lose their territories meant potential annihilation, and they defended them with a determined belligerence that belied the more familiar Shia image of sullen acquiescence.
Furthermore, these Shia warriors possessed a cultural advantage over their enemies in their readiness to embrace martyrdom in battle. The paradigm of Shia martyrdom is Imam Hussein, Ali's second son, who perished in Karbala in A.D. 680 with a small band of followers against an army sent by Yazid, the Damascus-based Caliph. Hussein's readiness to sacrifice himself in battle against his oppressor helped crystallize the nascent sense of Shia identity, and it would become a source of emulation for future generations of Shia warriors.
"Life is the most precious thing that a human being has," says Hussein Sharafeddine, scion of a notable family of Lebanese Shias from Tyre in south Lebanon and brother-in-law of Musa Sadr. "But we Shia are willing to give up our life for God in emulation of Imam Hussein whose martyrdom was the pinnacle of sacrifice."
The Battle of Karbala continues to be commemorated in a passion play performed on Ashoura, the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, in which the Shia faithful reenact Hussein's doomed struggle against Yazid's army. The most vivid example of the Ashoura ceremony in Lebanon is found in the southern market town of Nabatiyah. The passion play, usually lasting more than two hours, takes place in the dusty central square, where local residents don colorful uniforms and perform before an audience while a narrator mournfully relates the unfolding tragedy by loudspeaker. But the real spectacle occurs in the surrounding streets. Here, thousands of young Shias wearing white sheets cut their foreheads with razor blades and beat out the blood with the flat of their hands while jogging through the streets chanting "Haidar, Haidar," an honorific bestowed upon Ali. Senior Shia clerics in Lebanon oppose the bloodletting, which locals say was introduced by an Iranian doctor in the 1930s. Ayatollah Khomeini even issued a fatwa against it, which is why in Nabatiyah each year, Hezbollah's followers line up patiently outside Red Crescent tents, preferring to shed their blood via tubes into sterile plastic bags for the benefit of the infirm rather than to spill it wastefully onto the streets.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a period of rapid economic growth in Jabal Amil, owing mainly to the cultivation of cotton, cotton fabric then being highly prized in Europe and North Africa for the distinctive red dye that colored the cloth. To protect their prosperity from outsiders, the Shias of Jabal Amil built up a substantial military force in the 1760s of infantry and cavalry-"ten thousand horsemen, all resolute and formidable troops"-and took over the old Crusader castles that dotted the limestone hills of the area. They forged an alliance with a rebellious Palestinian tribal chief, Dahir al-Omar, who had taken advantage of the tenuous Ottoman control to build a power base in Galilee and amass great wealth through the monopolization of the cotton trade. The alliance between Dahir and the Shias was based on mutual economic interests: cotton grown in Jabal Amil was exported through the port of Acre under Dahir's control.
Dahir's Shia troops fought with distinction against Ottoman forces at the battles of Hula in Galilee in 1771 and Ghaziyah, just south of Sidon, a year later. Of the latter battle, Baron François de Tott, an eighteenth-century French soldier contracted by the Ottomans, wrote that the Shia chief Nassif Nasser led three thousand cavalry against forty thousand Druze and "put them to flight at the first onset," rendering "the name of the Mutualis [sic] formidable."
Constantin-François Volney, a European traveler, recounted an incident in 1771 when a Druze army took advantage of the temporary absence of the Shia forces and "ravaged their country." When the returning Shias first learned of what had befallen their territory, "an advanced corps, of only five hundred men, were so enraged that they immediately rushed forward against the enemy, determined to perish in taking vengeance." But the "surprise and confusion" of the sudden attack fell in the favor of the Shias, and the twenty-five-thousand-strong Druze army was "completely overthrown."
Excerpted from Warriors of God by Nicholas Blanford. Copyright © 2011 by Nicholas Blanford. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.