Skip to main content


  • Morgan Clarke and Marcia C. Inhorn

This article concerns the dominant institution of religious authority within modern Usuli Twelver Shiʿi Islam: the marjaʿiyya. The most senior clerics serve as “sources of emulation” (marājiʿ al-taqlīd), informing the moral conduct of their lay “imitators” (muqallidūn). Despite the importance of this relationship, academic writing on what we call its “affective” qualities, especially from lay perspectives, is limited. We provide ethnographic data from anthropological research into Islamic medical ethics in Lebanon. Interviews in 2003 with infertile Shiʿi patients who were considering controversial assisted reproductive technologies revealed rare insights into which authorities they followed and in what numbers and how this relationship was experienced and drawn upon by those in need. We compare the very different relationships inspired by the two authorities most cited in our study: the late Beirut-based Ayatollah Fadlallah; and the Iranian Ayatollah Khaminaʾi, Hizbullah's patron. From his local base, Fadlallah offered a vivid and responsive persona of a qualitatively distinct type.

Corresponding author
Morgan Clarke is Simon Research Fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Manchester, Manchester, U.K.; e-mail:
Marcia C. Inhorn is the William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs in the Department of Anthropology and The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; e-mail:
Hide All


Authors’ note: Morgan Clarke thanks all those who helped in his research in Lebanon, which was supported by an Economic and Social Research Council studentship at Oxford, a British Academy fellowship at Cambridge, and a Simon Fellowship at Manchester. Marcia C. Inhorn thanks the many Middle Eastern IVF physicians, embryologists, nurses, and staff members who helped her in Lebanon, as well as her Lebanese research assistants, Abbass Fakih, Mary Ghanem, Azhar Ismail, Loulou Kobeissi, and Hanady Sharara, and the Faculty of Health Sciences at the American University of Beirut for providing institutional affiliation. Her research was generously supported by the National Science Foundation's Cultural Anthropology Program and the U.S. Department of Education's Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Program. Thanks are also due to Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, Soraya Tremayne, and Shirin Garmaroudi for their comments on a draft version of this article. Responsibility for its content remains the authors’ alone.

1 See, for example, Keddie, Nikki, Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Iranian Tobacco Protest of 1891–1892 (London: Cass, 1966); and Cole, Juan R. I., The Ayatollahs and Democracy in Iraq, ISIM Paper 7 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006).

2 See, for example, Khalaji, Mehdi, The Last Marja: Sistani and the End of Traditional Religious Authority in Shiism, Policy Focus 59 (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2006), 6, 9–10, 25, 27, 30–31. In the overwhelming majority of opinion, we should say, a marjaʿ can only be male. Ayatollah Fadlallah differs: see Hamiyah, Siham, al-Marʾa fi al-Fikr al-Falsafi al-Ijtimaʿi al-Islami: Dirasa fi Fikr al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadl Allah (Beirut: Dar al-Malak, 2004), 121.

3 For a full list of references see Walbridge, Linda, ed., The Most Learned of the Shiʿa: The Institution of the Marjaʿ al-Taqlid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

4 Khalaji, The Last Marja, 6–7.

5 See, for example, Inhorn, Marcia C., Quest for Conception: Gender, Infertility, and Egyptian Medical Traditions (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994); idem, Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996); idem, Local Babies, Global Science: Gender, Religion, and In Vitro Fertilization in Egypt (New York: Routledge, 2003); idem, “Middle Eastern Masculinities in the Age of New Reproductive Technologies: Male Infertility and Stigma in Egypt and Lebanon,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 18 (2004): 162–82; and idem, “‘He won't be my son’: Middle Eastern Muslim Men's Discourses of Adoption and Gamete Donation,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 20 (2006): 94–120.

6 Clarke, Morgan, Islam and New Kinship: Reproductive Technology and the Shariah in Lebanon (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009).

7 As the interviewer's interest was in the use of ARTs, the patients’ allegiance to one marjaʿ or another was not the subject of direct questioning at the outset. It rapidly and spontaneously emerged, however, in the course of conversations about donor-gamete procedures. Patients noted the differences in opinion on the topic between the marājiʿ, and some volunteered the identity of their chosen marjaʿ and the importance of that relationship. The interviewer subsequently broached the topic directly in the course of such conversations. Although the marjaʿiyya was not the subject of the interviews per se, it thus seems reasonable to suggest that where a patient was committed to a marjaʿ that commitment would have emerged in the course of his interview.

8 Walbridge (The Most Learned, 233, 244) talks of “a mutual relationship,” “interdependence,” and “a grassroots institution.” Amanat deems the marjaʿ “the willing dependent of the muqallid.Amanat, Abbas, “In Between the Madrasa and the Marketplace: The Designation of Clerical Leadership in Modern Shiʿism,” in Authority and Political Culture in Shiʿism, ed. Arjomand, Said (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), 101. For Lebanon, see Abisaab, Rula, “Lebanese Shiʿites and the Marjaʿiyya: Polemic in the Late Twentieth Century,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 36 (2009): 217–18 et passim.

9 Louër, Laurence, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London: Hurst, 2008); Clarke, Morgan, “Neo-calligraphy: Religious Authority and Media Technology in Contemporary Shiite Islam,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (2010): 351–83. We owe the phrase “politics of immediation” to Allen, Lori, “Martyr Bodies in the Media: Human Rights, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Immediation in the Palestinian Intifada,” American Ethnologist 36 (2009): 161–80.

10 Deeb, Lara, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shiʿi Lebanon (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006).

11 See, for example, Ajami, Fuad, The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (London: I. B. Tauris, 1986); Norton, Augustus Richard, Amal and the Shiʿa: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1987); idem, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007); and Shaery-Eisenlohr, Roschanack, Shiʿite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

12 Abisaab, “Lebanese Shiʿites.”

13 Shaery-Eisenlohr, Shiʿite Lebanon, 97–98; al-Hasani, Salim, al-Maʿalim al-Jadida li-l-Marjaʿiyya al-Shiʿiyya: Dirasa wa-Hiwar maʿa Ayat Allah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadl Allah (Beirut: Dar al-Malak, 1994), 3845 et passim. Fadlallah claimed in the early 1990s that many Lebanese Shiʿi Islamists found little problem in following both al-Khuʾi and Khomeini simultaneously: ibid., 139. See also Abisaab, “Lebanese Shiʿites,” 234.

14 Khalaji, The Last Marja, 22–24, 27–31; Ansari, Ali, “Iran Under Ahmadinejad: Populism and Its Malcontents,” International Affairs 84 (2008): 686–87, 689–94. Arjomand, Saïd, After Khomeini: Iran Under His Successors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 190–91, talks of al-Khaminaʾi's “fragile personal rule over an inharmonious amalgam of clerical conciliarism and brute post-revolutionary military-intelligence domination.” For the opinion of a prominent Iranian dissident, see Ganji, Akbar, “The Latter-Day Sultan: Power and Politics in Iran,” Foreign Affairs 87 (2008): 4566.

15 See also Roy, Olivier, “The Crisis of Religious Legitimacy in Iran,” Middle East Journal 53 (1999): 201–16; and Walbridge, The Most Learned, 234–37.

16 Shaery-Eisenlohr, Shiʿite Lebanon, 144.

17 For Fadallah's biography see Sankari, Jamal, Fadlallah: The Making of a Radical Shiʿite Leader (London: Saqi, 2005). For a more detailed examination of the distinctive and contested nature of his marjaʿiyya see Morgan Clarke, “Marjaʿiyyat Beirut: Contemporaneity and Tradition in the Hawza of Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah,” in Religious Authority in Shiʿite Islam: Knowledge and Authority in the Hawza, ed. Robert Gleave (forthcoming).

18 Fadlallah, Muhammad Husayn, Fiqh al-Shariʿa, vol. 1 (of 3) (Beirut: Dar al-Malak, 2002–2003), 1719; idem, al-Masaʾil al-Fiqhiyya, vol. 1 (of 2) (Beirut: Dar al-Malak, 2005), 26; idem, al-Masaʾil al-Fiqhiyya Tibqan li-Fatawa al-Marjaʿ al-Dini Samaha Ayat Allah al-ʿUzma al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadl Allah: al-ʿIbadat, new ed. (Beirut: Dar al-Malak, 2009), 32, 36. Interview with Shaykh Husayn al-Khishn, Beirut, 4 February 2008.

19 Al-Hasani, al-Maʿalim, 80–81, 87–89, 122–23.

20 Clarke, “Marjaʿiyyat Beirut”; Aziz, Talib, “Fadlallah and the Remaking of the Marjaʿiya,” in The Most Learned of the Shiʿa: The Institution of the Marjaʿ al-Taqlid, ed. Walbridge, Linda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 205–15.

21 Al-Hasani, al-Maʿalim, 71–73 et passim; Sukkariyya, Mona, ʿAn Sanawat wa-Mawaqif wa-Shakhsiyyat: Hakadha Tahaddath . . . Hakadha Qal (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, 2007), 3568. See also the tribute to Fadlallah made by British ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy, on her weblog after his death (7 July 2010), withdrawn after pressure from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but still posted on Fadlallah's website: (accessed 28 August 2010).

22 Sukkariyya, ʿAn Sanawat, 69, 169, 172, 196–97.

24 Deeb, Enchanted Modern.

25 Shaery-Eisenlohr, Shiʿite Lebanon, 108.

26 Deeb, Enchanted Modern, 71.

27 To forestall one possible explanation, while al-Sistani's opinions on assisted reproduction were not widely known at the time of this research, they are not exceptionally restrictive by any means. See Clarke, Islam, 133–36.

28 Khalaji, The Last Marja, 3–7; Visser, Reidar, Sistani, the United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Macchiavellianism? NUPI paper 700 (Oslo: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2006).

29 Norton, Hezbollah, 151. Norton's assertion that (in 2006) “most rank-and-file Hezbollah members emulate Iraq's Ayatollah ʿAli al-Sistani or Lebanon's Ayatollah Fadlallah,” because “[t]he Iranian leader is simply not taken very seriously as a religious scholar,” seems tendentious (Norton, Hezbollah, 100–101). Our study suggests otherwise, for 2003 at least. To give an idea of the uncertainty here, Louër, Transnational Shia Politics, 205, by contrast reports in 2008 that “some say [al-Khaminaʾi] may be the most emulated marjaʿ in Lebanon.”

30 See, for example, Clarke, Islam; Inhorn, Local Babies; idem, “Making Muslim Babies: IVF and Gamete Donation in Sunni versus Shiʿa Islam,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 30 (2006): 427–50; and Sachedina, Abdulaziz, Islamic Biomedical Ethics: Principles and Application (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 101–24.

31 al-Khaminaʾi, ʿAli, Ajwibat al-Istiftaʾat, Part II (Beirut: al-Dar al-Islamiyya, 2006), 70; Clarke, Morgan, “Children of the Revolution: Ayatollah Khameneʾi's ‘Liberal’ Views on In Vitro Fertilisation,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 34 (2007): 287303; Inhorn, “Making Muslim Babies,” 434–39.

32 Abbasi-Shavazi, M. J., Inhorn, M. C., Razeghi-Nasrabadi, H. B., and Toloo, G., “The ‘Iranian ART Revolution’: Infertility, Assisted Reproductive Technology, and Third-Party Donation in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 4 (2008): 128. On ARTs in Iran see also Tremayne, Soraya, “Law, Ethics, and Donor Technologies in Shiʿa Iran,” in Assisting Reproduction, Testing Genes: Global Encounters with New Biotechnologies, ed. Birenbaum-Carmeli, Daphna and Inhorn, Marcia C. (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009); and Naef, Shirin Garmaroudi, “Gestational Surrogacy in Iran: Uterine Kinship in Shia Thought and Practice,” in Islam and Assisted Reproductive Technologies: Sunni and Shia Perspectives, ed. Inhorn, Marcia C. and Tremayne, Soraya (New York: Berghahn Books, in press).

33 Clarke, Islam, 152–81; Inhorn, “Middle Eastern Masculinities”; idem, “‘He won't be my son.’”

34 For more details see Inhorn, “Middle Eastern Masculinities,” 165–66; idem, “‘He won't be my son,’” 100–102.

35 A cycle of IVF treatment cost on average around $2,000 at this time but could be as much as $5,000 depending on the clinic.

36 See previous note.

37 Again, the patients’ allegiance to one or other marjaʿ was not the central subject of the interviews but arose in the course of conversations about the religious permissibility of various procedures. It seems relatively unlikely, although hardly impossible, that the topic would not have been broached in some form in this context by those so committed.

38 All names are pseudonyms.

39 That is, working to derive the rulings of the religious law according to the standards of the school, the preserve of the clerical elite.

40 Fadlallah, Fiqh, 3:403.

41 Fadlallah, al-Masaʾil, 1:195–200, 2:340–45.

42 That seems unlikely to be the case, as Fadlallah stated that, despite his qualified permission of music, he did not have a “musical personality.” Sukariyya, ʿAn Sanawat, 167.

43 Clarke, Islam, 126.

44 “[F]or us the origin of the relation of the child to its mother is its being from her egg, without there being a role for her nurture of it in her womb and its being delivered of her.” Fadlallah, Fiqh, 3:523.

45 Clarke, Islam, 121, 130–31; idem, “The Modernity of Milk Kinship,” Social Anthropology 15 (2007): 1–18.

46 and Despite the resources lavished on these websites, they were rarely mentioned in the context of our study. Few of these mostly working-class men had any access to computers. One Sunni man did talk of checking websites in his attempt to justify his decision to use donor eggs. He lived in the United States and had returned to Lebanon to obtain Lebanese donor eggs. The only other mention was by some Shiʿi immigrants in the United States who had sought Fadlallah's opinion via e-mail.

47 See, for example, Z. Ghusn, “al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadl Allah Yashrah Fatwa Tahlilihi li-l-Istinsakh,” al-Safir, 28 August 2001.

48 Interview with Shaykh ʿAli Halawi, Beirut, 25 June 2007.

49 Interview, Beirut, 5 April 2008.

50 ʿAli al-Hajj, Muhammad and Jawad, Asʿad, al-Masaʾil al-Muntakhaba: al-ʿIbadat wa-l-Muʿamilat: Tibqa Fatawa Ayat Allah al-ʿUzma al-Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Khuʾi wa-Ayat Allah al-ʿUzma al-Sayyid ʿAli al-Husayni al-Sistani (Beirut: Dar al-Safwa, 2007), 461; Salamah, Ahmad, Atfal al-Anabib: Bayn al-ʿIlm wa-l-Shariʿa (Amman: al-Dar al-ʿArabiyya li-l-ʿUlum, 1998), 102.

51 “[T]he child born in this way is related to the sperm and egg producers, and its relation to the owner of the womb is problematic, and [the husband and wife] must take care to exercise caution regarding the particular legal rulings of kinship [nasab].” al-Khaminaʾi, Ajwibat, 70.

52 Clarke, Islam, 126–27, 145n23; Tremayne, “Law, Ethics, and Donor Technologies.”

53 Al-Khaminaʾi, Ajwibat, 70.

54 Although similar problems do in fact arise, as Hasan pointed out (see previous).

55 Because sperm donation is anonymous in Lebanon, the couple had no information about the donor. The doctors did allow the couple to view the semen sample, taken directly from a medical student, and the wife said a prayer over the semen in a plastic cup.

56 Anonymous interviewee, Beirut, 2004. Fadlallah's resulting fatwa created considerable controversy. Aziz, “Fadlallah,” 210–11.

57 Houjaij, Ali et al. , IVF in Lebanon: Assessment of Its Current Status (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 2000), 89.

58 Inhorn, “‘He won't be my son,’” 115–16.

59 Fadlallah, Fiqh, 3:523; idem, al-Masaʾil, 1:273–74.

60 Al-Hasani, al-Maʿalim, 86. See also 71–72, 103–104.

61 Interview with Shaykh ʿAli Halawi, Beirut, 25 June 2007.

62 Fadlallah's eldest son Sayyid ʿAli, who now heads the organization, is most likely not yet of sufficient clerical seniority.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed