The first part of an analysis of the founding principles of the members of the movement of the Lebanese Shiites who for some time have been the almost uncontested masters of the south of the country. The texts and the question of their interpretation, the conception of an enemy and of ‘witness’

This article was published in Oasis 12. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:13

‘Who are we and what is our identity?’ asked the authors of the open letter of February 1985, before answering:

We are the children of the faction of God and we see ourselves as an integral part of the Muslim nation in the world, challenged by a most arrogant imperialist assault from the West and the East, with the aim of emptying the prophetic charge given to it as a grace by God. God has given it this grace so that it could become the best community that ever appeared on the earth: it prescribes good and dissuades from evil, and believes in God.[1]

Hezbollah has established itself as a central actor for more than a quarter of a century within the Lebanese Shiite community,[2] emerging from a context of civil war and external aggression in which the climate of violence was extreme and saved none of the parties involved. The Lebanon possesses the particularity of being a recent state with identity references that go back far in time. It figures in the Arab world as an area of freedom and this strengthens a constitutive fragility which inherits certain features from the Ottoman Empire and the French mandate: one can be citizens only through membership of a confessional community. Lebanese society has demonstrated an uncommon dynamism but at the same time it has been afflicted by the strong phenomenon of emigration and held at the throat by a colossal debit.

To place a creed in its historical perspective is almost impossible. The notion of a fighting role was placed in this case in the founding action and implies a specific conception of the relationship with the professed God, with men and with the future, to be found in the texts produced by the leaders of Hezbollah, in particular in the training manuals for militants. To grasp the questions involved one should first of all ask about the mediations which allow ‘God’ to be spoken about; it is then necessary to define the kind of initiative that is required, described by the term ‘jihâd’; lastly, the portrayals of the ‘future life’ have to be outlined.

The most recurrent formula in Muslim works to evoke the support of what is seen as the words addressed by God to Muhammad is al-Qur’ân al-Karîm, ‘the noble Koran.’ In one of the training manuals for militants a not very common phrase is employed, that of ‘Koranic texts’ (al-nusûs al-qur’âniyya).[3] How should one interpret this plural? An answer is provided by Muslim tradition itself. In order to conserve words transmitted orally, the Companions of Muhammad created collections, amongst which were that of Abû Bakr, which was used as a reference point to establish the ‘uthmânian vulgate; the vulgate of Ibn Mas‘ûd which, in challenging established power, remained in use in some places until the end of the tenth century; and the vulgate of ‘Alî which was defended by the Shiites. According to the sources available to scholars, differences at the level of contents emerges. Thus one reads in what according to the vulgate is sura 103: ‘By the afternoon! Surely Man is in the way of loss, save those who believe, and do righteous deeds…’ The emphasis is different in the collection attributed to ‘Alì: ‘For destiny! For the vicissitudes of fate! There is ruin of man, and until the end of time!’[4]

Various centuries were required for the ‘uthmânian vulgate to be accepted by all Muslims. Some companions of Muhammad, some Kharijite thinkers and some Mu‘tazilite thinkers called into question its authenticity. The most determined adversaries of it were the Shiites. For these last, the ‘uthmânian vulgate was a censored and falsified version of the ‘Words’ expressed by Muhammad. Their view was that only ‘Alî had the complete version containing the verses in which the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet of Islam, as well as his descendants – namely Fatima and the Imams – were cited as models and guides for the Muslim community. Other verses, they added, denounced the leaders of the tribe of the Quraysh and their betrayal of Muhammad and what he was proclaiming. Yet other verses, lastly, were said to contain ‘in a condensed or symbolic form the mysteries of heaven and earth, the events of the past, present and future.’[5]

The ancient collections of Shiite hadîth (ninth to tenth centuries) contain quotations from what was considered an ‘integral Koran.’ But the version attributed to the third caliph ended up by imposing itself amongst the Twelve Imam Shiites as well at the end of the eleventh century after the ‘concealment’ of the last Imam.

However criticism remains animated as regards the hadîth and the athâr. To illustrate their diffidence as regards the accounts transmitted by the Shiite tradition – which is never explicitly cited – the authors of the textbook al-Sîra wa al-Târîkh return to the episode of the Isrâ’ and the Mi’raj, ‘the nocturnal journey’ of Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and his ‘ascension’ through the sky.[6] What is contested is the testimony of ‘‘isha who, because she had become the wife of Muhammad after his move to Medina, could not have witnessed a fact that occurred during a night that commentators locate before the Hegira.[7] This example brings out a part of the dispute that separates Shiites from Sunnis, of which the ‘battle of the camel’ was one of the first important episodes. The sayings attributed to the Imam, rather than the collections of Bukhârî and Muslim,[8] thus constitute the sources to refer to the first centuries of Islam.


Prophets and Imams

The training of the militants of Hezbollah, similarly to the case with other Shiites, is based on a ‘dual’ and ‘dualist’ vision which makes a distinction between the hidden esoteric (bâtin) and the apparent esoteric (zâhir). On the one hand, transcendence makes ‘God’ an unknowable absolute, He before whom mystery remains total; on the other, God is He who can make Himself known, He who can manifest Himself, the line of the horizon of the whole of the creation. The most complete theophanic phrase for Shiites is ‘the Imam of Light.’[9] This cosmic being in turn possesses two dimensions. One is veiled, the other is visible, and this takes the form of the ‘friends of God’: the Imams who guided Muslim believers during the various epochs of a sacralised history. It is possible to hear, during the call to prayer: ‘La ilâh illa Allâh, Muhammad rasûl Allah, ‘Alî waliyy (‘appointed [by Gods]’, with the idea of a succession to the Prophet of Islam) Allâh[10] or ‘‘Alî hujjat (‘proof’) Allâh’. ‘Alî and his successors are called ‘infallible’ and ‘virtuous’ ma‘sûm.

According to this theological and teleological reading of time, each prophet is flanked by one or more Imams: Seth for Adam; Sem for Noah; Aaron (or Joshua) for Moses; Simon-Peter (or the apostles) for Jesus; and ‘Alî for Muhammad. The first, through tafsîr, expresses the word in its obvious meaning, whereas the second, through ta’wîl, has the task of expressing hidden meaning. ‘Alî has a central function: he is ‘appointed [by God]’; he is the Imam of Muhammad and he is his cousin and son-in-law; he was the compiler of the only integral version of the Koran, even though he transmitted it in secret because he was afraid that it would be destroyed; he was the victim of an assassin; and he was the father of the Imams Hassan and Husayn and in this capacity he was the founder of a chain of seven or twelve Imams who were the only people who could correctly interpret the text. The last Imam, the Mahdî, the twelfth of this lineage, is held to be ‘concealed’ from 941 onwards. The word ghayba refers to the historical period that goes from the moment of his ‘concealment’ until his ‘reappearance’ at the ‘end of time’. This concealment, which is defined as ‘greater’ (ghayba kûbrà), was preceded by a ‘lesser concealment’ (ghayba sughrà) from 874 to 941 when the Imam was represented by wakîl through whom he maintained relations with the Shiites.

For a millennium, with certain exceptions (the Egypt of the Fatimids, for example), the tension between the shariah and religious interiority was expressed in favour of the second. But in 1979 the revolution of Khomeini inverted the equilibrium between these two elements.[11]

The militants of Hezbollah argue that the quietist position adopted by the Shiites is mistaken and they refer to an active preparation for the ‘advent’ of the Imam which passes by way of the establishment of an ‘Islamic regime’ founded on the authority of a ‘theological jurist.’ They lay stress upon the educational work that the faithful must engage in while awaiting the ‘coming of the Mahdî and the fulfilment of his divine project…, the only possible way by which to make people come out of the darkness towards the light’: ‘presenting to the world a luminous and pure image of Islam through our behaviour, our stances and our jihâd.’[12]

The jihâd al-nafs (‘interior effort’), the first in terms of importance, is presented as the foundation of the success of man both in situations of peace and in situations of war. In the writings of Hezbollah this ‘interior effort’ is systematically associated with the al-jihâd al-‘askarî (‘the warrior act’) which allows the combatants, once freed from all ‘weaknesses’, to be victors.[13] This ‘warrior act’ is declined in two ways: the ‘initial’ and the ‘defensive’. The ‘initial jihâd has the task of spreading Islam in line with the model of the conquests achieved by Muhammad. The ‘defensive’ jihâd is ‘carried out by Muslims to defend themselves and to defend their homelands when they are attacked by the enemies of Islam, as happened with the wars of the Prophet [of Islam] against the idolaters in Badr, Uhûd and Hanîn and with the jihâd of Islamic resistance to the Zionist occupation which violates the land and sacred things.’

Both have an ‘obligatory’ character (fard, wâjib). In resorting to this, in continuity with the approach of Khomeini, Hassan Nasrallah has as his target Israel, the American ‘Great Satan’, and the ‘tyrannical and corrupt governments that outrage Muslims’[14] and which are in contradiction with the interests of Islam and Muslims.’ Nasrallah likens the struggle in the Lebanon and in Palestine to defensive jihâd. One is dealing with a collective duty (fard kifa‘i) in variable forms (cash donations, weapons, the media, shedding blood):

this defensive jihâd depends on the needs of the front, for example one day we needed to address the enemy and to make adult men and women, and also workers and sick, take up arms and if the resistance at the front depended on the participation of everyone, then everyone, men and women, should take part and they would not need the permission of the infallible Imam or his particular delegate or his general delegate.

Certain conditions are necessary: ‘obeying the leadership’; ‘being ‘pious’; being ‘loyal’ (towards God and then towards one’s own homeland or community); being ‘militarily ready’; and ‘quoting God’, who is the only worker of victory.[15]


Three Jewish Tribes

The struggle against the enemy is at the centre of the doctrinal approach of Hezbollah and is one of the aims of ideal Islamic government. Such has been the case, explain the members of the ‘party of God’, since the origins of Islam until today. In this sense the Jews are portrayed as ‘those who have most hated Islam and the Muslims’ ever since the appearance of Islam because Muhammad is said to have invited ‘men to a religion that is incorporating’ without adapting it to their ‘ambitions.’ The authors of the manuals for the training of militants explain, in addition, that the Jews have ‘contested that [Islam] refused to accord privileges in line with racial principles’ and argue that the Jews began to ‘rise up as enemies of the Prophet’ because they had ‘the sensation that would have lost their supremacy over religion and the pagans.’ Presented in these terms, the root of this antagonism lies in ‘jealousy in relation to the Arabs’ following their initial successes. The Jews then opposed Muhammad who made the proposal to them to ‘join Islam’ and nourished by ‘resentment’ they never ceased to oppose him with all the instruments to hand, applying ‘economic pressure on Muslims,’ provoking divisions amongst and between them and the pagans, and pushing them to abandon the jihâd. Not being able to tolerate an ‘internal enemy,’ Muhammad thus eliminated the three Jewish tribes (Banû Qaynuqâ’; Banû Nadîr; Banû Qurayza), whose ‘perfidy’ is narrated in detail until their final defeat, as is their submission, obtained thanks to ‘divine intervention.’ The authors refer here to the sura of the Cow: ‘when there came to them that they recognized, they disbelieved in it; and the curse of God is on the unbelievers’ (Koran 2:89-90).

The contemporary struggle against Israel ‘with weapons, with the media, with politics, with security, with the economy’ must be seen in this perspective. Identified as a ‘Zionist-racist’ identity which practises ‘terrorism,’ and never defined as a ‘state,’ Israel is presented as the source of most evils, the advance guard of the ‘imperialist powers’ which planted a ‘foreign entity in the region…a cancer that is propagated in the body of the Arab and Islamic umma in order to reduce it to pieces, divide it and control its resources.’[16]

But there is another ‘enemy,’ this time within the Muslim world, which in the account of the members of Hezbollah has its origins in the Ummayids who put ‘Alî and his successors in a corner and which has a contemporary expression in the Wahhabites of Saudi Arabia: ‘Yazîd and those who succeeded him…violated the caliphate and do not in any way represent Islam.’ ‘Gengis Khan, Haroun al Rashid [and] the traitor caliphs’ are placed in the same register and are presented, outside any chronological context, as ‘corrupt, unjust and…very often collaborators of the East and the West, ready to put into practice their arrogant policies.’[17] Such a portrayal takes part in the crushing of history to which the authors of these manuals resort on a number of occasions to justify the struggle engaged in ever since the beginning of the schism against the ‘tyrants’ and the ‘unjust’, the ‘usurpers’ of a power that should have returned to the twelve Imams. Those who meet their deaths during the waging of a jihâd are ‘martyrs.’ Martyrdom is seen, with very many quotations from the Koran to hand, as sacrificial witness, a transfiguration of earthly suffering into eternal happiness; it is a purifying and sacralised source that expresses love for God (hubb Allâh), professed with the giving of one’s own life: ‘And say not of those slain in God's way, ‘They are dead’; rather they are living, but you are not aware’ (Koran 2:154). And again: ‘So let them fight in the way of God who sell the present life for the world to come; and whosoever fights in the way of God and is slain, or conquers, We shall bring him a mighty wage’ (Koran 4:75).

The corpses of ‘martyrs’ are not washed before burial because they have been purified through sacrifice and whoever touches the body of a ‘martyr’ is not obliged to repeat their ablutions.’[18] The belief is in a direct access to heaven. The victims of bombardments are included in this salvation. This belief is written into Shiite history which really began with the death of Husayn, the son of ‘Alî and the grandson of Muhammad, at the moment of the Battle of Karbala. Its ‘position, which expresses rejection and confrontation (mawqaf al-rafd wa al-muwâjaha),’ is glorified. The public celebration of the ‘Ashurâ’, which commemorates that event has been acquiring increasing importance over the last quarter century.’[19]

For Hezbollah, Karbala constitutes the ‘cry of the conscience of the umma, which has made the thrones of tyrants tremble down the centuries’: the blood shed by Husayn prevailed over the sword of Yazîd who killed him.


Young Men Sent to Iran

The subject of shahîd is central inasmuch as that according to the leaders of Hezbollah the ability to give one’s own life for the cause is what makes the essential difference between their fighters and enemy soldiers, ‘The secret of the Resistance lies in the ‘Ashurâ’’, writes Nasrallah (19 May 1996), as a result of which the flag of Husayn is always washed and handed down from generation to generation until the ‘day of the resurrection,’ as is argued by al-sayyed al qa‘id (Khamenei). The love of a martyr is seen as a weapon, at times superior to all others because it cannot be silenced or defeated: ‘we all have available the weapon of martyrdom, so as to become, according to the concept of a martyr, the strong who make history and not the weak whom history forgets, whom God rejects and who thus lose their lives in this world and the next.’ The impetus towards martyrdom should not, however, be blind and must not constitute an end in itself, Qasîm makes clear: it is at the same time the weapon of those who do not possess the technical means to combat on an equal footing with the ‘enemy’ and the extrema ratio. In this sense, it is argued that this weapon of the ‘disinherited’ partially re-established the imbalance of military forces and appreciates the heroic courage of those who sacrifice themselves as opposed to those, instead, who count their own dead.[20] The young men for whom the ‘Party’ have a project are subject to a behavioural study and a pre-selection and then sent to Iran for training for combat.

The elements of justification seek to counter the criticisms of Muslim scholars for whom this kind of martyrdom is similar to a ‘suicide’ and can thus be seen as illegal from the point of view of the sharî‘a. The debate continues and the leaders of Hezbollah maintain their own reading. For that matter, the success of the column containing ‘biographies of martyrs, memorial of resistance’ in the newspaper ‘al-‘Ahd’,[21] like the success of testimonies and other funeral praises broadcast by the television or on internet demonstrates that their supporters are sensitive to this approach. As regards the ‘Organisation of Martyrdom,’ it does not compensate all families in the same way; the widows and children of ‘martyrs of the resistance’ obtain housing and a monthly payments, the parents receive a sum of money, and the widows and children of unintended civil victims receive a sum of money as well. This is perhaps a way of preceding in our earthly world the hierarchy of the seven heavens.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Integral and hitherto unpublished translation of the document given at a press conference of 16 February and published by al-‘Ahd, in Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourian, Le Hezbollah. De la doctrine à l’action: une histoire du « parti de Dieu» (Seuil, Paris, 2010), p. 129.

[2] Richard Augustus Norton, Hezbollah: a short history (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 20095).

[3] Durûs fî Usûl al-‘aqîda al-islâmiyya (‘Lessons on the Principles of Islamic Dogma’) (Jama‘iyya al-ma‘ârif al-islâmiyya al-thaqâfiyya, Beirut, 1999), p. 6.

[4] Régis Blachère, Introduction au Coran (Maisonneuve & Larose, Paris, 19912, 1959), 50. For a summarising and updated re-elaboration see Claude Gilliot, ‘Une reconstruction critique du Coran ou comment en finir avec les merveilles de la lampe d’Aladin?’, in Manfred S. Kropp (ed.), Results of Contemporary Research on the Qur’ân. The Question of a Historico-Critical Text (Orient Institut-Ergon Verlag, Beirut-Würzburg, 2007), pp. 33-137.

[5] Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (ed.), Dictionnaire du Coran (a.v. ‘chiisme’) (Robert Laffont, Paris, 2007), p. 161.

[6] One of the most known versions is that attributed to Ibn ‘Abbâs, Kitâb al-isrâ’ wa al-mi‘râj, published by Maktaba al-ta‘âûn.

[7] Al-Sîra wa al-Târîkh (‘The Biography [of Muhammad] and History’) (Jam‘iyyat al-ma‘ârif al-islâmiyya al-thaqâfiyya, Beirut, n.y.), p. 11.

[8] On the debate within the Sunni world on the Hadîth see Robert Caspar, Traité de théologie musulmane., vol. 1 Histoire de la pensée religieuse musulmane (P.I.S.A.I., Rome, 1996), p.150 ff.

[9] Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que le shî’isme? (Fayard, Paris, 2004), p. 32.

[10] The formula is moreover written in a wall of the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo.

[11] Yann Richard, L’Iran. Naissance d’une république islamique (La Martinière, Paris, 2006), pp. 313-315.

[12] Al-ma‘arif al-islâmiyya, (‘Islamic knowledge’) (Jama‘iyyat al-ma‘ârif al-islâmiyya al-thaqâfiyya, Beirut, n.y, p. 344 ff.

[13] Na’îm Qâsim, Hizbullah, al-minhaj, al-tajriba, al-mustaqbal (Dâr al-Hâdî, Beirut, 20084), pp. 46-69.

[14] Here reference is made to the Camp David agreements of 1979, to the treaty between the Lebanon and Syria of 17 May 1983 and to all the agreements or negotiations between Arab states (more generally the states of the OCI) and Israel.

[15] Al-ma‘arif al-islâmiyya, pp. 73-77 and 271-274.

[16] Most of these quotations are taken from Al-Sîra wa al-Târîkh, pp. 106-125.

[17] Durûs fî Usûl al-‘aqîda al-islâmiyya, p. 162.

[18] Al-ma‘arif al-islâmiyya, p. 197.

[19] Mehdi Mozaffari, Pouvoir shî’ite: théorie et évolution (L’Harmattan, Paris, 1998), p. 140.

[20] Al-ma‘arif al-islâmiyya,, pp. 79-82.

[21] Olfa Lamloum, Le Hezbollah au miroir de ses médias, in Sabrina Mervin (ed.), Le Hezbollah. Etat des lieux (Sindbad/Actes Sud, Arles, 2008), p. 32.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Dominique Avon, “We, the Children of the Best Community”, Oasis, year VI, n. 12, December 2010, pp. 98-102.

Online version:
Dominique Avon, “We, the Children of the Best Community”, Oasis [online], published on 1st December 2010, URL: