• Category Category: L
  • View View: 1418
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

LEBANON. In Lebanon’s remarkably diverse society eighteen separate sects or confessional groups are recognized within the political system. In addition to a variety of Christian sects, which account for about 40 percent of the country’s population, five Muslim sects are found in the country: Sunnis, Shfis, Druze, `Alawis, and Isma’ilis. As of 1992 the first four enjoyed political representation in parliament; the Isma’ilis, commonly referred to as “Seveners,” number only a few hundred and play no significant role in Lebanese politics. Personal status law, which governs key domains of social life such as marriage, divorce, birth and death, remains the preserve of religious officials.


The individual’s political identity in modern Lebanon is largely determined along sectarian lines. Even the 1989 Td’if Accord, which set the framework for ending the civil war that had raged since 1975, preserved the distribution of the major political offices among the major confessional groups. Thus the presidency remained the sole domain of the Maronite Christians, the office of prime minister continued to be a Sunni Muslim privilege, and the speaker of the parliament was to be ShM Muslim. The relative power of these offices changed somewhat, but the underlying principle of confessional distribution of political office and privilege was sustained. Thus religion continues to be a prime factor in defining Lebanese politics and society. In a very real sense, all Lebanese have a hyphenated identity; while religiosity may decline from one period to another, secularism has been only a weak force in public life.

Sunni Muslims. In the Arab world, as in the ummah, Sunni Islam accounts for nearly 9o percent of all Muslims, but in Lebanon the Sunnis represent only about one-fifth of the population. Nonetheless, until the 1980s the Sunnis were unquestionably the dominant Lebanese Muslim sect. Concentrated for the most part in the coastal cities-Tripoli, Saida, and especially Beirut-the Sunni Muslims held the privilege of speaking for Islam in Lebanon. Favored over four hundred years of Ottoman rule, Sunni Muslim leaders were senior partners in the founding of the modern republic. In fact, the unwritten National Pact (mithdq al-watani) of 1943, which defined the terms of confessional power-sharing in the independent state, was an agreement between the leading Sunni of the day, Riyad al-Sulh, and his counterpart from the Maronite community, Bisharah al-Khuri. AlSulh and al-Khuri became Lebanon’s first prime minister and president, respectively.

Unlike the Christian and Muslim sects that sought refuge in the hinterlands and mountains of Lebanon, the Sunni Muslims were at home in the Arab world. In 192o France, enjoying a League of Nations mandate over Lebanon, created Greater Lebanon (Le Grand Liban) in order to establish a viable state under Maronite domination. The Sunnis mounted resistance to the decision, preferring to be part of a greater Syria. The creation of Lebanon in 1943 was a compromise between the Sunnis’ preference for the independent state’s Arab identity and the Maronites’ preference for sustaining links with the West and France in particular.

Sunni prominence was reflected not only in the allocation of the position of prime minister but also with respect to religious leadership. As part of its Ottoman heritage, the mufti of the republic is a state employee, and the office is naturally filled by a senior Sunni cleric, usually one trained at al-Azhar, the venerable Islamic university in Cairo. “Azhar Lubnan,” as the shad `ah college in Beirut is known popularly, is of much lower status, and its graduates seldom enjoy great upward mobility. The Lebanese Sunnis generally follow the Shafi’i school of law (madhhab), although some Sunnis in the north follow the Maliki school.

The mufti of the republic is nominally the senior authority in interpreting Islamic law, but he effectively shares his authority. Lebanon is divided into provinces (the North, Mount Lebanon, Beirut, the South and Nabatiyah, and the Biqa` [Bekaa]), and in each province there is a shari `ah court headed by a mufti. In Beirut the mufti of the republic heads the provincial court, but the other provincial courts exercise a fair amount of autonomy. The Supreme Islamic Council, which until t969 nominally represented all Lebanese Muslims, is chaired by the mufti of the republic and is charged with representing Muslim interests in the nation.

There is a system of public schools in Lebanon, but many Lebanese attend private, confessionally organized schools where the quality of education usually surpasses that of the public schools. Among the Sunnis, the Maqassid Foundation (Jam’iyat al-Maqasid Khayriyah alIslamiyah, established 1878) oversees a number of schools, as well as a hospital in Beirut and a complex of other social-welfare institutions like orphanages. For many years the head of Maqassid was Sa’ib Salam, the prominent Sunni political boss or za’im who served several Lebanese governments.

Although senior Sunni clerics often enjoy a broad public reputation, few of them have exercised significant political power. In Sunni Islam, in contrast to the Shi’i pattern, the cleric is not indispensable to the practice of the faith, and most Sunni clerics remain dependent on the support of lay benefactors as well as the salaries provided by the state.

During the civil war only a relative handful of Sunni `ulama’ were actively engaged in organizing paramilitary forces. In Tripoli, Shaykh Said Sha’ban founded the Islamic Unity Movement (Harakat al-Tawhid alIslamiyah). Sha’ban, known for his militant views, maintained especially close ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and among the Sunni `ulama’ he is arguably Iran’s closest ally in Lebanon. The Rally of Muslim Clergymen (Tajammu` al `Ulama’ al-Muslimin) led by Shaykh Mahir Hammud, a Sunni, and Shaykh Zuhayr Kanj, a Shi’i, is committed to Muslim unity and argues that Sunni-Shi`i differences are merely juridical. Like Tawhid, the Rally is closely aligned with the Iraniansupported Party of God (Hizbullah); both emerged in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Also noteworthy, though led by laypeople, is the older Islamic Group (al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah) that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun). The brotherhood has enjoyed a notable following among Lebanon’s Sunnis but has generally maintained a low public profile.

Shi’i Muslims. In contrast to the urban-dwelling Sunni Muslims, the ShNs lived for centuries on the periphery of Lebanon. Until the twentieth century they were concentrated in the south and in the northern Bekaa Valley, where most of them lived in deep poverty. Tribal organization prevailed in the Bekaa; in the south, the heartland of Shiism in Lebanon, the Shi’is comprised a large peasantry engaged in agricultural labor and subsistence farming in the hills and valleys of Jabal `Anvil (the region east of Tyre and Saida and centered on the city of Nabatiyah). The region is an important historic center for Shi`i scholarship and remains the heartland of Shiism in Lebanon.

In the census of 1932, the last official census conducted in Lebanon, the Shi’is were counted as the third-largest group in Lebanon and accordingly were allocated the position of speaker of the national assembly or parliament in the National Pact of 1943. Despite their numbers, the ShNs as a whole were decidedly subordinate to the Sunnis, who enjoyed generally higher social and economic status, reflecting their superior access to public services-including education, health, and sanitation-as well as centuries of preferential treatment under Ottoman rule. Only in the twentieth century did a significant number of Shl’! Muslims begin migrating from the hinterland to Beirut and to overseas locales-particularly West Africa, where an emerging Shl’! bourgeoisie won a financial foothold in the middle class.

The Shi’i counterpart to the Sunnis’ Maqassid Foundation is the `Amiliyah Foundation (Jam’iyat alKhayrlyah al-Islamiyah), created in 1923. It finances a range of welfare activities and religious events, especially ecumenical commemorations of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, whose death in Karbala in 68o CE is the marking event in Shi history. The foundation’s most far-reaching program has been to support a number of schools, especially in village settings where only Qur’anic schools (kuttdb) existed previously, as well as an important high school in Beirut.

While the Shi’i middle class grew in size and ambition, the population share of the Shi’is swelled as well. Over time, and certainly by the early 1980s they comprised the largest single confessional group in Lebanon. Thus the underlying demographic logic for the dominance of the Sunni Muslims, not to mention the Maronites, came to be challenged.

As the forces of modernity were propelling the Shi’is into a potentially dominant political position in Lebanon, the ShN clergy was not left behind. The ShIN `ulama’ in contrast to their Sunni counterparts, are integral to the practice of the faith. The Lebanese Shi’is, except for the small community of Isma’ilis, are commonly referred to as Twelvers or Ithna `Ashari, a reference to the central role in their dogma of the Hidden Imam. In his absence the authoritative interpretation of religious law devolves to the Shi’i clergy, the mujtahids (those qualified to interpret the shari`ah). The believer, doctrinally incapable of autonomously interpreting the faith, must follow a qualified cleric in the Ja’fari school of Islamic law. The senior religious judge is the Ja’fari Mufti al-Mumtaz, presently `Abd al-Amir Qablan. Shaykh Qablan emerged as an assertive but moderate voice for Shl’! rights, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the latter half of the twentieth century Najaf in Iraq became the locus for the reformulation of Shiism as an ideology of political activism and protest. Among the Lebanese leaders who were trained there are Musa al-Sadr, founder of the leading Shi`i populist movement in Lebanon; Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din, who heads the Supreme Shi`i Council; and Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the militant ideologue who has given definition to the Party of God or Hizbullah.

In 1967 the Lebanese parliament voted to create a Supreme Shic! Council (al-Majlis al-Shi’i al-A’la). The council began activity in 1969 under the presidency of Musa al-Sadr. Its founding marked the autonomy of the Shi`i community in Lebanon, no longer subsumed by the Islamic Council and the mufti of the republic. In 1974 al-Sadr created the Movement of the Deprived (Harakat al-Mahrumin), a dynamic force in Lebanese politics and the forerunner of Amal, the populist Shi’i movement.

Druze. The Druze people, offshoots of Isma`ili Shiism, trace the beginnings of their sect to Fatimid Egypt. After the mysterious eleventh-century disappearance of al-Hakim, the Fatimid ruler whom the Druze believe to be divine, they found refuge in what is today Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. The largest single concentration is in Lebanon, where approximately 200,000 Druze comprise about 7 percent of the population. They have long been associated with the history and governance of Mount Lebanon, and there are important concentrations of Druze in southern Lebanon, particularly in Rashaiya and Hasbaiya (site of the al-Baiyada monastic retreat).

Druze practitioners are dividers into two categoriesthe juhhdl (the ignorant) and the ‘uqqal (the mature or wise). Upon reaching middle age a Druze of either gender may opt to join the ‘uqqal and thereby be admitted to the study of the Messages of Wisdom, through which the tawhid (highest fulfillment of religious knowledge) is disclosed. The Druze do not proselytize, and membership is restricted to those born into the faith. Thus, even in a region in which endogamy is the rule, the Druze have been unusually successful in sustaining their communal identity.

Traditionally the Druze have been split between two factions, the Jumblatt (Junblat) and the Yazbak, although they have exhibited remarkable unity in times of tribulation. In fact, the Druze are unique in having sustained their solidarity throughout the fifteen years of civil war that wracked Lebanon from 1975 to 1990.

The highest legal authority among the Druze is the Mashyakat al-`Aql. In the 1950s and 1960s two men shared this position, one representing the Jumblattis and the other the Yazbakis. The Shaykh al -+`Aql heads a High Council that brings together distinguished men of religion with secular notables. The High Council is the counterpart to the Sunni Islamic Council and the Shi’i Supreme Council, and like those institutions it supervises the dispensation of justice and charity, the overseeing of religious trusts, and the operation of schools.

The Mashyakat al-`Aql plays an important role in linking the Druze community to the state, but the moral consensus of the Druze is sustained by the ajdwid, the religious specialists, who number about 1,500 or almost one per one hundred people. Each Druze village maintains a majlis that meets weekly on Thursday evenings. The majlis combines elements of a prayer meeting and a town meeting and is the forum where local issues are discussed. Major issues that confront the Druze as a whole are dealt with at a khilwa, a meeting of ajawids. The Druze distinguish between shaykhs of religion (shuyukh al-din) and shaykhs of the highway (shuyukh altariq) who wield coercive power; when the community is at risk, the shaykhs of religion predominate. Thus Druze ajdwids have not played any significant role in organizing political or paramilitary organizations.

`Alawis. The ruling minority in Syria, the `Alawis are numerically insignificant in Lebanon, where by the late 1980s they numbered about twenty thousand. However, with the growing influence of Syria on Lebanon, particularly after the Gulf War of 199o-1991, the `Alawis have risen in importance. In the 1992 parliamentary elections the `Alawi community was allocated two seats out of 128 (the parliamentary seats are now divided evenly between Muslims and Christians), marking the first time they enjoyed formal political representation in Lebanon.

The `Alawis revere `Ali as the last manifestation of divinity, and for this reason-coupled with their observance of a number of Christian and Persian holidays and their use of sacramental wine in religious ceremoniesthey are viewed as apostates by some Muslims. It is noteworthy, though, that the respected Shi`i leader Musa al-Sadr recognized the `Alawis as a Shi`i sect, thereby enhancing their legitimacy.

Like the Druze, the `Alawis divide society into two broad sectors, one centered on religion and the other on power and coercion. Thus they distinguish between emirs and imams-men of power and men of religion. Men of power who evince religious purity may, however, combine the two roles. Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian president and himself an `Alawi, approximates this coalescence of roles, and he is the dominant political figure for the Lebanese `Alawi community, which has benefited from his protection and leadership.

Conclusion. Islam in Lebanon is not an easy subject for generalization. If there is a theme that crosscuts the major Islamic sects, it is the rejection of secularization (‘ilmaniyah) in favor of preserving the sacred character of public life. Yet Lebanon’s confessional political system is widely condemned for its corruption, inequity, and instability. The challenge for Muslims in Lebanon is to preserve their identity as believers while improving a political system that is still badly in need of reform. Moreover, there is no denying the internal tensions that the rise of an assertive Shi`i community has provoked in Sunni quarters, and even more among the Druze.

Radical Islamic voices from both the Shi`i and Sunni communities have called for the replacement of the present regime with a government informed by the shari’ah, but some of the more thoughtful thinkers in these groups have long recognized that Lebanon’s diversity, including its large Christian minority, makes this infeasible. Moreover, there is no consensus even among Muslim activists about the form of an Islamist government in Lebanon. A striking feature of the 1990s is the inchoate willingness of many of these groups to change the system from within. Thus Hizbullah, notorious for its role in terrorist acts like the kidnapping of innocent foreigners, participated quite successfully in the 1992 elections. Although Lebanon is not a precise microcosm of the Arab world or the Middle East, it is still a fascinating experiment in managing cultural and religious diversity. The pragmatic adaptation that many Lebanese Muslims now demonstrate might well be an instructive example for other societies.

[See also `Alawiyah; Amal; Druze; Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islamil; Hizbullah, article on Hizbullah in Lebanon; Za’im; and the biographies of Fadlallah and Sadr. ]


Bar, Luc-Henri de. Les communautes confessionnelles du Liban. Paris, 1983. Indispensable guide to all of Lebanon’s significant confessions.

Cobban, Helena. The Making of Modern Lebanon. London, 1985. Good introduction.

Collelo, Thomas, ed. Lebanon: A Country Study. 3d ed. Washington, D.C., 1989. Useful primer.

Collings, Deidre, ed. Peace for Lebanon? From War to Reconstruction. Boulder, 1994. Important collection of articles by leading scholars and participants in Lebanese politics.

Deeb, Marius K. Militant Islamic Movements in Lebanon: Origins, Social Basis, and Ideology. Washington, D.C., November 1986. Handy overview of some of the Sunni and Shi`i organizations that emerged in Lebanon over the course of the early 1980s.

Khalaf, Samir. Lebanon’s Predicament. New York, 1987. Fine collection of studies analyzing the creation of social organizations in Lebanon, among other themes.

Khuri, Fuad I. Imams and Emirs: State, Religion, and Sects in Islam. London, 1990. Thoughtful examination of the doctrines and social organization of a number of Middle Eastern Muslim and Christian sects, by a Lebanese social anthropologist.

Makarem, Sami N. The Druze Faith. Delmar, N.Y., 1974. One of the few reliable treatments available in English.

Mallat, Chibli. Shi’i Thought from the South of Lebanon. Oxford, 1988. Incisive introduction to Shi’i political thought.

Norton, Augustus Richard. Amal and the Shi`a: A Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon. Austin, 1987. Close look at the emergence of the Shi’i Muslims in Lebanese politics.

Saadeh, Safia Antoun. The Social Structure of Lebanon: Democracy or Servitude? Beirut, 1993. Provocative exploration of Lebanese politics in the post-civil war period.

Smock, David R., and Audrey C. Smock. The Politics of Pluralism: A Comparative Study of Lebanon and Ghana. New York, 1975. Dated but still useful analysis of how Lebanese politics “work.”


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/lebanon/

  • writerPosted On: July 28, 2014
  • livePublished articles: 768

Comment (1)

Most Recent Articles from L Category:

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Translate »