By A. Nizar Hamzeh*

(Courtesy of Middle East Quarterly - Mirrored from MERIA Middle East Review of International Affairs - Sept. 1997)

In the last decade, Islamist (fundamentalist) groups in Lebanon have become a significant force not only in that country's politics but throughout the Middle East. Nowhere in the region do such groups have the freedoms they enjoy in Lebanon, giving them a wide cultural influence. In addition, Hizbullah is capable of stopping the Arab-Israeli peace process from advancing by launching Katyusha rockets against Israel and giving Iran an opening to act directly against Israel.

Given the great variety and kaleidoscopic changes of Islamist groups in Lebanon, here is an analytical directory of these movements:


The origins of Shi'i Islamism in Lebanon go back not to Iran, as is commonly thought, but to Iraq in the 1960s where a Shi'i religio-political revival took place in the "circles of learning" (hawzat al-'ilmiya) in Najaf, led by the charismatic Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr. These circles became the epicenter of Shi'i activism and the home base of the Party of Islamic Call (Hizb ad-Da'wa al-Islamiya), which propagated a revivalist message calling for a revolutionary transformation of society among Shi'i communities in Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and Lebanon.1 Virtually all of Lebanon's major Shi'i leaders came out of this circle in Najaf.2

Although on reaching Lebanon the radical sheikhs established their own circles, they did not develop a revolutionary program patterned after Khomeini's until after two events took place in 1978: the disappearance of the charismatic Imam Musa as-Sadr, an Iranian leader who moved to Lebanon in 1959 and quickly attracted a mass following; and the Khomeini movement in Iran brought Shi'i religious militancy to the cusp of power.

Several factors converged during the 1970s to trigger activism among the Shi'a of Lebanon. They lacked a political role commensurate with their numbers, which made them Lebanon's largest sect; they languished at the bottom of the economy; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in south Lebanon led to a massive Shi'i exodus to Beirut's southern suburbs, the breeding grounds of Shi'i militancy in the 1980s. Leaders such as Kamil al-As'ad, 'Adil Usayran, and Sabri Hamada expressed their alienation from the political establishment, but it was Musa as-Sadr who permanently changed the Shi'i political role. His influence led to the emergence of two major groups: Amal (meaning "hope," an abbreviation for Afwaj al-Muqawma al-Lubnaniya), 15,000 members:.

Sadr launched the Movement of the Deprived (Harakat al-Mahrumin) in 1974, and the next year founded Amal as the Movement of the Deprived's military wing. By about 1976, Amal had become a political organization with an Islamist character. After Sadr's disappearance in August 1978, Amal (first under Husayn al-Husayni and then Nabih Barri) lost its Islamist character. Amal and the Supreme Islamic Shi'a Council (headed by Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad-Din) proposes a democratic pluralism (at-ta`addudiya) based on intersectarian consensus.3

Amal has ten seats in Lebanon's parliament. Hizbullah (Party of God), almost 15,000 members. The Israeli invasion of June 1982 then provided the crisis that won Shi'i radicalism a mass constituency. Hizbullah's ideology derives from the political writings of ayatollahs Baqir as-Sadr and Khomeini, plus the experience of the Iranian Revolution. It subscribes to Khomeini's theory that a religious jurist (wilayat al-faqih) should hold ultimate political power. The authority of this jurist, both spiritual and political, may not be challenged; he must be obeyed.4 Hizbullah sees itself fulfilling the messianic role of turning Lebanon into a province of Islam. In its "open letter" of February 1985, Hizbullah declared that Muslims must "abide by the orders of the sole wise and just command represented by the supreme jurisconsult, who is presently incarnate in the imam_Ayatollah Khomeini".5 It also called for a battle with vice, meaning foremost the United States, and for the destruction of Israel to make way for Palestine.

Hizbullah built a powerful presence in Lebanon, so that it now has 5,000 active fighters in its combat organization, the Islamic Resistance (al-Muqawama al-Islamiya). It runs three hospitals, seventeen medical centers, and a commercial network that includes supermarkets, gas stations, department stores, and construction companies.6 Hizbullah's social welfare activities won it additional members, especially after 1984, when Tehran financed 90 percent of Hizbullah's social program.7

None of Lebanon's Shi'i religious leaders has established a Khomeini-like preeminence, but Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah is recognized as Hizbullah's spiritual guide (al-murshid ar-ruhi), though he keeps himself apart from Hizbullah's activities and sees his mission as transcending specific Shi'a groupings to embrace the whole Muslim community if possible. Despite Hizbullah's appeals for Islamic unity and efforts to recruit non-Shi'i Muslims, its membership remains limited to Shi'a. Not just Christians and Druze rejected its declared aim to establish an Islamic order along Iranian lines, but so did most Sunnis.

Amal resisted its goal of establishing an Islamic state and its moves to dominate the south. Hizbullah's militant anti-Israeli stance led to bloody conflicts with Amal in the years 1985-89, as the latter feared that Hizbullah would use jihad (sacred war) against Israel as a pretext to undermine its strength. Symbolic of Hizbullah's limited appeal, its representation in the Lebanese parliament amounted to just eight seats in the 1992 parliamentary elections and seven in those of 1996.


The Islamic Association (al-Jama'a al-Islamiya), 5,000 members: An Islamist group whose origins go back to the height of Gamal Abdel Nasser's efforts at Arab unity in 1964, when members of an older organization8 established the Islamic Association in Tripoli.9 Following the Arab defeat in 1967 and the decline of Nasserism, the Islamic Association and other Islamist groups throughout the Arab world gained strength. During the civil war, its militia, called the Mujahidin, fought with the Lebanese National Movement against Christian Maronite forces; in 1982-83 it participated in fighting the Israelis.

The Islamic Association follows the doctrines of militants among the Muslim Brethren in Egypt and Syria. Fathi Yakan, a follower of Sayyid Qutb's radical brand of Islamist thought, is its main ideologue. Yakan joined Sa'id Hawwa of Syria's Muslim Brethren in the wake of the 1967 war to advocate a holy war (jihad al-muqaddas) against the Western and Israeli "crusaders".10 Later, the Islamic Association tacitly rejected Hizbullah's model of an Islamic state.11 It believes in achieving an Islamic order based on the Shari'a (Islamic sacred law) through jihad of the heart (spiritual struggle), jihad by word (education and propaganda), and jihad by hand (economic, political and military action). The Islamic Association engages in internecine struggles with the Ahbash and the Tawhid, as well as with the traditional Sunni religious establishment as represented by Juridical Office (Dar al-Ifta') and traditional leaders (the Karamis of Tripoli, the Salams of Beirut, and the newly-emerged Hariris of Sidon), whom it regards as the instruments of foreign interests. Its members tend to live in Lebanon's urban centers with large Sunni concentrations_Tripoli, Beirut, and Sidon. It recruits the young via the Muslim Students Association (Rabitat at-Tullab al-Muslimin). The Islamic Association offers social welfare services, though less sophisticated ones than Hizbullah provides, but has not succeeded in attracting many Sunni votes; it won three seats in the 1992 parliamentary elections and just one seat in 1996.12

The Islamic Unity Movement (Harakat at-Tawhid al-Islami), almost 1,000 members: Originating in Tripoli during 1982, it was the creation of Sheikh Sa'id Sha'ban, previously a leader of the Islamic Association. Islamic Unity serves as an institutional extension of Sha'ban, one of Lebanon's Islamist movements' few charismatic leaders. Its fighters consolidated their control over Tripoli in 1983-1984 by defeating a number of rivals and then, at the height of its power in 1985, splintered, as Khalil `Akkawi and Kan'an Naji left to organize their own associations.13 In the fall of 1985 the Syrian army entered Tripoli and crushed Islamic Unity's militia, though it permitted Sha'ban to maintain leadership of his now unarmed movement.14 This defeat did not prevent the militia's subsequent reemergence in Beirut, Sidon, and south Lebanon. In 1988, the Tawhid forces joined the Islamic Resistance to fight the South Lebanese Army and the Israeli forces in Israel's "security zone." Sha'ban's ideology springs from the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Curiously, Sha'ban is said to have come from a Shi'i family of Batroun in North Lebanon and only later became a Sunni.15 He forged close political ties to Iran during visits to Tehran and through Hizbullah, which considers Sha'ban doctrinally a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini.16 While accepting the validity of the Iranian Revolution and emphasizing that the path started by Khomeini should be followed by all Muslims, Sha'ban does not call for an Iranian-style order in Lebanon, knowing that this would alienate his Sunni followers.17 He seeks ways to unite Sunnis and Shi'a, for example by suggesting that the Qur'an and the prophet's biography provide foundations on which all Muslim groups and sects can unite. Instead of arguing about sectarian representation in the parliament, he suggests that Muslims call for Islamic rule based on the Shari'a, without which no government can be legitimate. Sha'ban rejects nationalism, sectarianism and democratic pluralism in favor of an Islamic rule that "absorbs and dissolves all social differences and unites them in one crucible".18 He laments the Syrian intervention into Lebanon of 1976 to help the Maronites who, he asserts, would have otherwise fled to Cyprus or Latin America.19 Aside from rare instances of mild criticism, he is careful not to antagonize the Syrian authorities; indeed, he speaks favorably of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon as a framework for unified, armed action against Israel.20

The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (Jami'at al-Mashari' al- Khayriya al-Islamiya), known as Al-Ahbash ("the Ethiopians"), almost 8,000 members: One of the most controversial and interesting of contemporary Islamic groups, due to its origins, its eclectic theological roots, and its teachings, which do not fit the conventional Islamist mold.21 The Ahbash is a Sufi (or spiritualist) movement that devoutly follows the teachings of Sheikh `Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Hirari ash-Shi'bi al-Abdari, also known as al-Habashi, a religious thinker of Ethiopian origins. It is spiritually Islamist but not politically. By the late 1980s, the Ahbash had become one of Lebanon's largest Islamic movements, having grown during the civil war from a few hundred members to its present size. The Ahbash did not create a militia of its own, nor did it engage in sectarian violence or fight Israel. Proselytizing and recruitment are its main aims, along with a commitment to moderation and political passivity.

The Ahbash became a key player in Lebanese politics by offering a moderate alternative to Islamism, attracting a wide following among the Sunni urban middle class by advocating pluralism and tolerance. Its ideology makes the Ahbash politically significant, including sharp controversies with Islamist movements. While Habashi pays allegiance to the pious ancestors (salaf) and the Shari'a, his emphasis on "the science of hadith" makes him suspect as being a follower of the Kalamiya (literalist) tradition of the Mu'tazila who stressed the superiority of reason over revelation. He rejects such Islamist authorities as Ibn Taymiya, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, and Sayyid Qutb. In contrast to Hizbullah and the Islamic Association, the Ahbash opposes the establishment of an Islamic state on the grounds that this divides Muslims. Instead, it accepts Lebanon's confessional system (which used to give Christians six slots for every five Muslim slots, and now gives them parity). Its foreign policy orientation is equally mild, making no reference to jihad and directing no anger toward the West. To achieve a civilized Islamic society, it recommends that members study Western learning. Also, the Ahbash has established branches in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the Ukraine, and the United States (with headquarters in Philadelphia). It enjoys excellent relations with most Arab states, particularly Syria. In rivalry with the Islamic Association for dominance of the Sunni community, it entered the parliamentary elections of 1992 and won one seat in Beirut, though it lost it in 1996.

Islamic Amal, almost 500 members: Headed by Husayn al-Musawi, who left the Amal movement in 1982 to protest its secular orientation. Musawi, a former school teacher, made Islamic Amal a devoted follower of Khomeini's ideology, including his theory of the religious jurist and its strong opposition to the West.24 Principally based in Baalbak, with close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (an Iranian militia sent to Lebanon in 1982 and mostly withdrawn in late 1991), Islamic Amal appears to be aligned at present with Rafsanjani and the Syrian government. The Islamic Movement (al-Haraka al-Islamiya), almost 200 members: A seemingly independent, semi-clandestine group based in the Bekaa Valley, headed by Sadiq al-Musawi, a cousin of Islamic Amal's Husayn al-Musawi. It follows Khomeini but is independent of Hizbullah and enjoys direct access to Iranian militants. Its militia, Army of the Truth (Jund al-Haqq), has ties with Shi'i minorities in the Arabian peninsula; in the mid-1980s it targeted Saudi diplomats in revenge for the Saudi execution of Shi'i activists.25 Though apparently inactive since 1989, the movement may have gone underground. In 1993, Sadiq al- Musawi accused Hizbullah of having deviated from Khomeini's teachings and called for an Islamic Republic in Lebanon.26

The Faithful Resistance (al-Muqawma al-Mu'mina), almost 200 members: An Amal splinter group, seemingly independent. It carried out a Katyusha rocket attack on northern Israel in January 1986 (at a time when Shi'i Islamists were accusing Amal of having entered into a secret agreement with Israel).

The Revolutionary Justice Organization (Munazzamat al-`Adala ath-Thawriya) and the Oppressed of the Earth Organization (Munazzamat al-Mustadafin fi'l-Ard), almost 100 members each: Both served as covers for Hizbullah's militant activities and held Western hostages: the former in December 1986 claimed responsibility of kidnapping four university professors whom it described as spies and the latter claimed responsibility for kidnapping two U.S. citizens and four French television crewmen. Both organizations have been inactive since 1988.

The Husayn Suicide Squads (Majmu'at Husayn al-Intihariya), almost 100 members: Obscure except for the name of its leader, Abu Haydar al-Musawi, a relative of the other Musawis. The group surfaced only in 1982 when it claimed responsibility for attacks against the South Lebanese Army to protest its collaboration with Israel.

The Islamic Struggle Movement (al-Haraka al-Islamiya al-Mujahid), almost 100 members: First appeared in 1987 under the direction of Sheikh Abdullah al- Hallaq, a Sunni influenced by Hizbullah and the Islamic Resistance. The movement aims to recruit Sunni and Palestinian fighters in the Sidon area to attack Israel. It failed, however, to organize a Sunni resistance in the south similar to Hizbullah's.

The Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas), roughly 500 members in Lebanon (and many more on the West Bank and in Gaza): Sheikh Ahmad Yasin of Gaza founded the Islamic Assembly (al-Mujamma' al-Islami), an activist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1973 in Gaza. Soon after the onset of the intifada in December 1987, he established Hamas, the leading Palestinian Islamist movement. It also has a presence in the Palestinian camps of south Lebanon, under the leadership of `Imad al-`Ali.27

Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami fi Filastin), almost 1,000 members:28 A grouping of small, militant Sunni bands such as the Brigades of Islamic Jihad (Saraya al-Jihad al-Islami) and the `Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Born in the despairing slums of Gaza, Islamic Jihad followed the teachings of Khomeini and Egypt's Jihad Organization (Tanzim al-Jihad) in its use of violence and readiness for martyrdom to achieve an Islamic order.29 With PLO support, it accelerated guerrilla attacks against Israeli targets in 1986, thereby helping trigger the intifada. Israel responded in the spring of 1988 by expelling its spiritual guide Abd al-`Aziz `Awda to Lebanon and arresting scores of his followers. The Islamic Jihad continues its attacks against Israel from Gaza and south Lebanon.

Supporters of the Islamic League (Ansar al-`Usba al-Islamiya), almost 200 members: Headed by Ahmad as-Sa'di (known as Abu Muhjin), formerly of the Islamic Association. The League declares its aim to be the liberation of Palestine and the Muslim community.30 The League first appeared in August 1995 with the assassination of Nizar al-Halabi, president of the Ahbash. Despite evidence of Abu Muhjin's involvement in the assassination, the Lebanese authorities have not been able to locate him.

The Association of Muslim Clergy (Tajammu' al-Ulama' al-Muslimin), almost 200 members: An umbrella group led by two activist sheikhs, Mahir Hammud (a Sunni) and Zuhayr Kanj (a Shi'a), that seeks to promote Muslim unity. Founded by Sunni and Shi'i leaders in response to the Israeli attack of 1982, the Association represents a coalition of militant clerics who share Khomeini's ideals and a determination to fight Israel and to establish an Islamic order in Lebanon.31

The Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya), almost 100 members: A second umbrella group, founded in 1985 by Sheikh Mahir Hammud. It brought together sheikhs and lay leaders; its program is generally critical of the West, its Arab allies, and their willingness to make peace with Israel.32 Party of God Collectivity (Ummat Hizbullah): Despite its name, not a political party but an umbrella organization of some half dozen radical Shi'i groups affiliated with Hizbullah.33

Lebanese Islamic Resistance Front (Jabhat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya al- Lubnaniya), almost 500 members: Founded by Sheikh `Abd al-Hafiz Qassim in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut. A militia made up of an alliance of the Sunni Muslims and Palestinian guerrillas, it claimed responsibility in 1982- 83 for attacks against Israeli troops inside West Beirut. It flirts at Arab unity in 1964, when members of an older organization8 established the Islamic Association in Tripoli.9 Following the Arab defeat in 1967 and the decline of Nasserism, the Islamic Association and other Islamist groups throughout the Arab world gained strength. During the civil war, its militia, called the Mujahidin, fought with the Lebanese National Movement against Christian Maronite forces; in 1982-83 it participated in fighting the Israelis.

Minor Groups

In addition to these five major groups, a number of lesser organizations, many clandestine, operate in Lebanon. Many are affiliates and offshoots of Hizbullah.22

Islamic Resistance (al-Muqawama al-Islamiya), almost 5,000 members: Established after the Israeli invasion of 1982, when it fought a guerrilla war against Israel and General Lahd's forces. It originally consisted of both Shi'i and Sunni fighters, who represented virtually all Islamic militant groups, but Shi'i fighters played a growing combat role over time. In 1985, the Islamic Resistance became the combat arm of Hizbullah.

Islamic Jihad (al-Jihad al-Islami), almost 200 members: Widely believed to be the twin of the Islamic Resistance, used by Hizbullah for attacking Western interests. The name first appeared in claims of responsibility for the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in April 1983, followed by the suicide bombing of the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre in October 1985, and the kidnapping of Westerners, mostly Americans, in March 1984. `Imad Mughniya reportedly controlled the organization. Although no news has been heard about Islamic Jihad since 1988, some reports indicate Mughniya is still active and in charge of Hizbullah's overseas security apparatus (which handles intelligence and conducts overseas terrorist acts).23

Future Prospects

Lebanon's Islamic movements enjoyed tremendous growth due to crisis conditions that beset the region in recent years: Arab defeats by Israel, the failure to achieve balanced socioeconomic development, political oppression, gross maldistribution of wealth, and the disorienting impact of Westernization. Other factors contributing to Lebanese instability before the civil war broke out include the sharpening of class differences in a market economy beset by official corruption; strife between Israel and the Palestinians; and the proxy battles fought by Arab states on Lebanese soil. The victory of Islamist forces in Iran further shaped the dynamics of Islamic militancy in Lebanon.

But this florescence of Islamism will probably not continue long into the future due to the Islamists' lack of unity, the role of Syria, the decline of Iranian militancy, reconstruction efforts by the Lebanese government, and the possibility of a Syrian-Israeli peace.

Deep doctrinal differences and conflicting objectives make the Islamists more likely to fight each other than work together. Although the large Islamic movements have created a political, social, and economic presence in the Muslim community, their constituencies remain segmented. They developed along geographical and sectarian lines, with Sunnis in some organizations and Shi'is in others. Within each community some ten groups pursue their sometimes contrary interests. The lack of unity among Islamists has made them weaker and prevented any group from capturing political power. Only Hizbullah has managed to increase its constituency, due mostly to its social welfare services; but even it has neither dominated the Shi'a nor attracted Sunni participation.

The Syrian government, which maintains a military presence in Lebanon and makes key decisions in the country, has made it clear that Islamist groups must be disciplined as a prelude either to a war or to a settlement of the conflict with Israel. Damascus has prevented them from expanding by its support of the confessional formula, which is a direct impediment to the establishment of an Islamic order. Instead, Damascus has used the Islamist organizations as a military instrument against Israel. It permits them to exist, in other words, as a means to pressure Israel, not as a threat to Syria's interests.

Iran's strength in Lebanon began to decline soon after `Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of the country in 1989. He charted a more pragmatic course, one opposed by militant factions led by Ali Akbar Mohtashemi and Hasan Kharubi. With the radicals' eclipse, the most militant Islamist factions in Lebanon also lost power, which had the effect of forcing them to work within the Lebanese political system.

The Lebanese government of President Ilyas Hirawi and Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri has to a certain extent succeeded in accommodating sectarian interests that bring tangible benefits to Lebanon's poor, for example by launching reconstruction projects in public transportation, education, agriculture, state hospitals and by providing housing loans. This somewhat undercuts Hizbullah's social welfare programs.

Finally, a peace agreement between Syria and Israel would very much harm Lebanon's Islamists. The Arab-Israeli conflict did not create Islamist movements in Lebanon (or in other Arab countries) but it undoubtedly helped them win popular support. Conversely, an Arab-Israeli settlement would contribute greatly to the decline of Islamic militancy by automatically leading to a Lebanese- Israeli agreement, ending Hizbullah's activities in the south.


This article is reprinted with the kind permission of the Middle East Quarterly. A. Nizar Hamzeh is associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut.


From Tue Sep  9 11:56:21 1997
Date: Sun, 7 Sep 1997 02:52:44 +0300 (WET)
From: Barry Rubin 

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