Points of View

'Lebanon' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article on the history of Lebanon provides background information for Anthony Shadid's book House of Stone. The article by Augustus Richard Norton is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


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 no more than 35 percent of the country 's population, there are: Sunnīs, Shīʿah, Druze, ʿAlawīs, and Ismāʿīlīs. The first four are represented in parliament; the Ismāʿīlīs, 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 defined largely in sectarian terms. Even the 1989 Ṭāʿif 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 Sunnī Muslim privilege, and the speaker of the parliament was to be Shīʿī Muslim. The relative power of these offices changed somewhat, but the underlying principle of confessional distribution of political office and privilege was sustained. Religion thus continues to be a primary factor in defining Lebanese politics and society. All Lebanese have a hyphenated identity; while religiosity may vary from one period to another, secularism has been only a weak force in public life. A celebrated example of the strength of confessionalism is the fact that there is no civil marriage in Lebanon. A serious attempt to institute civil marriage failed in 1998 as a result of popular opposition and the strident opposition of the major religious authorities.

Sunnī Muslims.

Although Sunnīs represent only about one-quarter of the Lebanese population, until the 1980s they were unquestionably the dominant Muslim sect. Concentrated for the most part in the coastal cities—Tripoli, Sidon, and especially Beirut—they were favored during four hundred years of Ottoman rule, and their leaders were senior partners in the founding of the modern republic. In fact, the unwritten National Pact (al-mīthāq al-waṭanī) of 1943, which defined the terms of confessional power-sharing in the independent state, was an agreement between the leading Sunnī of the day, Riyāḍ al-Ṣulḥ, and his counterpart from the Maronite community, Bechara al-Khoury. Al-Ṣulḥ and al-Khoury 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 Sunnī Muslims were at home in the wider Arab world. In 1920, France, holding a League of Nations mandate over Lebanon, created Greater Lebanon (Le Grand Liban) in order to establish a viable state under Maronite domination. The Sunnīs (joined by a number of Shīʿah) mounted resistance to the decision, preferring to be part of a greater Syria. The creation of Lebanon in 1943 was a compromise between the Sunnīs ’ preference for an Arab identity for the independent state and the Maronites ’ preference for sustaining links with the West and France in particular.

Sunnī prominence was reflected not only in the allocation of the position of prime minister but also with respect to religious leadership. Reflecting its Ottoman heritage, the muftī of the republic is a state employee, and the office is naturally filled by a senior Sunnī cleric, usually one trained at al-Azhar, the venerable Islamic university in Cairo. “Azhar Lubnān,” as the sharīʿah college in Beirut is popularly known, is of much lower status, and few of its graduates are upwardly mobile. The Lebanese Sunnīs generally follow the Shāfiʿī school of law (madhhab), although some Sunnīs in the north follow the Mālikī school.

Shaykh Muḥammad Rashīd Qabbānī, the muftī of the republic, is nominally the senior Sunnī authority in interpreting Islamic law, but he effectively shares his authority. Lebanon is divided into provinces (the North, Mount Lebanon, Beirut, the South, Nabaṭīyah, and the Bekáa [Biqāʿ]), and in each province there is a sharīʿah court headed by a muftī. In Beirut the muftī of the republic heads the provincial court, but the other provincial courts are quite autonomous. The Supreme Islamic Council, which until 1969 nominally represented all Lebanese Muslims, is chaired by the muftī of the republic and is charged with representing Muslim interests in the nation, sometimes at personal risk. For instance, in 1989, when Qabbānī 's predecessor, Muftī Ḥasan Khālid, spoke out against the shelling by the Syrian army of Muslim (and Christian) neighborhoods in Beirut, he was assassinated in a car bombing.

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 Sunnīs, the Maqasid Foundation (Jamʿīyat al-Maqāṣid Khayrīyah al-Islāmīyah, established 1878) oversees a number of schools, as well as a hospital in Beirut, a complex of other social welfare institutions such as orphanages, and it is also an important source of patronage. For many years the head of Maqasid was Saʿib Salām (d. 2000), a prominent Sunnī political boss or zaʿīm who headed several Lebanese governments.

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

During the civil war only a few Sunnī ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) were engaged in organizing paramilitary forces. In Tripoli, Shaykh Saʿīd Shaʿbān (d. 1998) founded the Islamic Unity Movement (Ḥarakāt al-Tawḥīd al-Islāmīyah). Shaʿbān, who was known for his militant views, maintained especially close ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and among the Sunnī ʿulamāʿ he was one of Iran 's closest allies in Lebanon. He was succeeded by his son Bilāl. The Assembly of Muslim Clergymen (Tajammuʿ al-ʿUlamāʿ al-Muslimīn) led by Shaykh Māhir Ḥammūd, a Sunnī, and Shaykh Zuhayr Kanj, a Shīʿī, is committed to Muslim unity and argues that Sunnī-Shīʿī differences are merely juridical. Like the Islamic Unity Movement, the Assembly of Muslim Clergymen is closely aligned with the Iranian-supported Party of God (Ḥizbullāh); both emerged in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Also noteworthy is the older Islamic Group (al-Jamāʿah al-Islāmīyah) that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimūn). The Brotherhood, dominated by laypeople, has enjoyed a notable following among Lebanon 's Sunnīs but has generally maintained a low public profile. It is led by the scholar Fatḥī Yakan, a former member of parliament who has been a focus for criticism for Salafī groups, who disdain Lebanon 's political system for its impiety and often reject equal status for political Christians and view the Shīʿah as apostates.

Shīʿī Muslims.

In contrast to the city-dwelling Sunnī Muslims, the Shīʿah lived for centuries on the periphery of Lebanon. Until the twentieth century they were concentrated in the south and in the northern Bekáa Valley, where most of them lived in deep poverty. Tribal organization prevailed in the Bekáa; in the south, the heartland of Shiism in Lebanon, the Shīʿah comprised a large peasantry engaged in agricultural labor and subsistence farming in the hills and valleys of Jabal ʿĀmil (the region east of Tyre and Sidon and centered on the city of al-Nabaṭīyah). The region is an important historic center for Shīʿī scholarship and remains the heartland of Shiism in Lebanon.

According to the census of 1932, the last official census conducted in Lebanon, the Shīʿah were the third-largest group in Lebanon and so were allocated the position of speaker of the national assembly or parliament in the National Pact of 1943. Despite their numbers, the Shīʿah as a whole were decidedly subordinate to the Sunnīs, 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 Shīʿī Muslims begin migrating from the hinterland to Beirut and to overseas locales—particularly West Africa, where an emerging Shīʿī bourgeoisie won a financial foothold in the middle class.

The Shīʿī counterpart to the Sunnīs ’ Maqasid Foundation is the ʿĀmilīyah Foundation (Jamʿīyat al-Khayrīyah al-Islāmīyah), created in 1923. It finances a range of welfare activities and religious events, especially ecumenical commemorations of the martyrdom of Imām Ḥusayn, whose death in Karbala in 680 C.E. is the seminal event in Shīʿī history. The foundation 's most far-reaching program has been to support a number of schools, especially in village settings where only Qurʿānic schools (sing. form kuttāb) existed previously, as well as an important high school in Beirut.

While the Shīʿī middle class grew in size and ambition, the Shīʿah as a whole comprised the largest single confessional group in Lebanon by the early 1980s. Thus the underlying demographic logic for the dominance of the Sunnī Muslims and the Maronites came to be challenged.

As the forces of modernity were propelling the Shīʿah into a potentially dominant political position in Lebanon, the Shīʿī clergy were not left behind. The Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ, in contrast to their Sunnī counterparts, are integral to the practice of the faith. The Lebanese Shīʿah, except for the small community of Ismāʿīlīs, are commonly referred to as Twelvers or Ithnā ʿAsharī, a reference to the central role in their dogma of the (twelfth) Hidden Imām. In his absence the authoritative interpretation of religious law devolves on the Shīʿī clergy, the mujtahids (those qualified to interpret the sharīʿah). The believer, doctrinally incapable of autonomously interpreting the faith, must follow a qualified cleric in the Jaʿfarī school of Islamic law. Most Lebanese Shīʿah adopt the legal rulings of Najaf    's Ayatollah ʿAlī Sīstānī. However, the senior religious legal authority recognized by the state is the Jaʿfarī Muftī al-Mumtāz, presently ʿAbd al-Amīr Qablān. Shaykh Qablān emerged as an assertive but moderate voice for Shīʿī 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 Mūsā al-Ṣadr, founder of the leading Shīʿī populist movement in Lebanon; Muḥammad Mahdī Shams al-Dīn, who headed the Supreme Shīʿī Council; and Muḥammad Ḥusayn Faḍlallāh, the militant but progressive mujtahid who inspired many supporters of Ḥizbullāh.

In 1967 the Lebanese parliament voted to create a Supreme Shīʿī Council (al-Majlis al-Shīʿī al-Aʿlā). The council began activity in 1969 under the presidency of Mūsā al-Ṣadr. Its founding marked the autonomy of the Shīʿī community in Lebanon, no longer subsumed by the Islamic Council and the muftī of the republic. In 1974 al-Ṣadr created the Movement of the Deprived (Ḥarakat al-Maḥrūmīn), a dynamic force in Lebanese politics and the forerunner of Amal, the populist Shīʿī movement.


The Druze people, offshoots of Ismāʿīlī Shiism, trace the beginnings of their sect to Fāṭimid Egypt. After the mysterious eleventh-century disappearance of al-Ḥākim, the Fāṭimid 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 Rāshayā and HāṢbayya (site of the al-Bayādah monastic retreat).

Druze practitioners are divided into two categories, the juhhāl (the ignorant) and the ʿuqqāl (the mature or wise). Upon reaching middle age a Druze of either gender may opt to join the ʿuqqāl and thereby be admitted to the study of the Messages of Wisdom, through which the tawḥīd (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 into two factions, the Jumblatt (Junblāṭ) and the Yazbak, although they have often exhibited remarkable unity in times of tribulation. In fact, the Druze are unique in having maintained 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 Mashyākhat al-ʿAql. In the 1950s and 1960s two men shared this position, one representing the Jumblattis and the other the Yazbakīs. The Shaykh al-ʿAql heads a High Council that brings together distinguished men of religion with secular notables. The High Council is the counterpart to the Sunnī Islamic Council and the Shīʿī 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 Mashyākhat al-ʿAql plays an important role in linking the Druze community to the state, but the moral consensus of the Druze is sustained by the ajāwīd, the religious specialists, who number about 1,500 or almost one for every 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 khalwah, a meeting of ajāwīd. The Druze distinguish between shaykhs of religion (shuyūkh al-dīn) and shaykhs of the highway (shuyūkh al-ṭarīq), the latter wielding coercive power; when the community is at risk, the shaykhs of religion predominate. Thus Druze ajāwīd have not played a significant role in organizing political or paramilitary organizations.


The ruling minority in Syria, the ʿAlawīs, were numerically insignificant in Lebanon into the early 1980s, when they numbered about twenty thousand. However, with the growing influence of Syria on Lebanon, particularly after the Gulf War of 1990–1991, the ʿAlawīs rose in importance and in number. Today, as many as 100,000 live mostly in northern Lebanon. In the 1992 parliamentary elections the ʿAlawī community was allocated two seats out of 128—the parliamentary seats now being evenly divided between Muslims and Christians—marking the first time they enjoyed formal political representation in Lebanon.

The ʿAlawīs revere ʿAlī as the last manifestation of divinity, and for this reason—and because of their observance of a number of Christian and Persian holidays and their use of sacramental wine in religious ceremonies—they are viewed as apostates by some Muslims. It is noteworthy, though, that the respected Shīʿī leader Mūsā al-Ṣadr recognized the ʿAlawīs as a Shīʿī sect, thereby enhancing their legitimacy.

Like the Druze, the ʿAlawīs 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 late Syrian president (d. 2000) and an ʿAlawī, approximated this coalescence of roles, and he was the dominant political figure for the Lebanese ʿAlawī community, which benefited from his protection. Bashar al-Assad, his successor, has had trouble emulating his father 's feat and the Lebanese ʿAlawīs have become a target for militant Sunnī Salafī groups.


If there is a theme common to the major Islamic sects, it is the rejection of secularization (ʿalmānīyah) in favor of preserving the influence of religious institutions in public life. Yet Lebanon 's confessional political system is widely condemned for its corruption, inequity, and instability. Radical Islamic voices, both Shīʿī and Sunnī, have called for the replacement of the present regime with a government informed by the sharīʿah, but some of the more thoughtful thinkers in these groups have recognized that Lebanon 's diversity, including its large Christian minority, makes this infeasible. Moreover, there is no consensus even among Muslim activists about the appropriate form of an Islamist government in Lebanon.

Various factors have exacerbated confessional animosities in Lebanon. The rise of Ḥizbullāh—notorious for terrorist acts like the kidnapping of innocent foreigners in the 1980s, yet a participant in Lebanese political life and the leader of the resistance struggle that finally prompted a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon in 2000—is one important factor. Equally important, regional developments—including the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the rise of Islamist oppositional motifs, and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq—have often heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 stoked anti-Syrian sentiment and prompted massive demonstrations that led to the withdrawal of Syria 's armed forces from Lebanon. While support for or opposition to Syria does not follow strictly confessional lines, the elimination of Syria 's overt control of Lebanon exposed a significant and potentially dangerous Sunnī-Shīʿī cleavage.

Although Lebanon is not exactly a microcosm of the Arab world or the Middle East, it is a fascinating if not altogether successful experiment in managing cultural and religious diversity. The pragmatic adaptation that many Lebanese Muslims have demonstrated should be instructive for other societies, while the violent lapses that mark Lebanon 's recent history are cautionary tales.


  • Bar, Luc-Henri de. Les communautés confessionnelles du Liban. Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1983. Indispensable guide to Lebanon 's significant confessions.
  • Deeb, Lara. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shiʿi Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Focusing on Shīʿī women in Beirut 's southern suburbs, this ethnography demonstrates how Shiism provides a modern ideology stressing empowerment, community engagement, and religious education.
  • Hanf, Theodor. Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation. London: Centre for Lebanese Studies, in association with I. B. Tauris, 1993. A rich sociological appraisal of the impact of conflict in Lebanon and the durability of inter- and intraconfessional mechanisms for conflict regulation.
  • Khalaf, Samir. Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon. Columbia University Press, 2002. An impressive account of the social origins and cultural dimensions of turmoil and violence in Lebanon.
  • Khuri, Fuad I.Imams and Emirs: State, Religion, and Sects in Islam. London: Saqi Essentials, 1990. Thoughtful examination of the social organization of the leading Lebanese sects and the roles of their respective religious authorities, by a Lebanese social anthropologist.
  • Makarem, Sami Nasib. The Druze Faith. Delmar, N.Y.: Caravan Books, 1974. One of the few reliable treatments available in English.
  • Mallat, Chibli. Shiʿi Thought from the South of Lebanon. Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1988. Incisive introduction to Shīʿī political thought.
  • Norton, Augustus Richard. Hezbollah: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. An overview of the political mobilization of the Shīʿī community and rise of the “Party of God.”
  • Picard, Elizabeth. Lebanon, A Shattered Country: Myths and Realities of the Wars in Lebanon. Rev. ed.New York: Holmes & Meier, 2002. An accessible and nuanced examination of the conditions that gave rise to civil war and its many violent chapters.
  • Rougier, Bernard. Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon. Translated from the French by Pascale Ghazaleh. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. A richly detailed account of the spread of Islamist currents and Ṣūfī movements among the Sunnī underclass in Lebanon and among Palestinian refugees.
  • Traboulsi, Fawwaz. A History of Modern Lebanon. London: Pluto Press, 2007. A masterful and insightful political history that is especially valuable for understanding the mechanisms of confessionalism.
  • Zain, Muhammad Husain al-. Al-Shīʿah fī al-tārīkh (The Shiʿah in History). Beirut, Dār al-Āthaar, 1979. A valuable account of the origins and history of the Lebanese Shīʿah.
  • Zisser, Eyal. Lebanon: The Challenge of Independence. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000. A meticulously written history that is especially noteworthy for its account of the founding of Lebanon in 1943.


Norton, Augustus Richard. "Lebanon." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e0474.

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #228: 'Lebanon' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", June 20, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/228.