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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics
Augustus Richard NortonAugustus Richard Norton, Taylor LongTaylor Long, Ahmad MoussalliAhmad Moussalli


Lebanon recognizes eighteen separate sects or confessional groups within its political system. In addition to fourteen Christian denominations, which account for approximately 35 percent of the country's population, there are Sunnīs, Shīʿī, Druze, ʿAlawīs, and Ismāʿīlīs.

An individual's political identity in contemporary Lebanon is defined largely in sectarian terms. The 1989 Taif Accord, which set the framework for ending the 1975–1990 civil war, preserved the distribution of political offices among confessional groups. Thus the presidency remained the sole domain of the Maronite Christians, the office of prime minister continued to be filled by a Sunnī Muslim, 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 maintained. Religion thus continues to be a primary factor in defining Lebanese politics and society.

Sunnī Muslims.

Although Sunnīs represent only about one-quarter of the Lebanese population, until the 1980s they were 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. 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 ranking Sunnī, Riyāḍ al-Ṣulḥ, and his Maronite counterpart, Bechara al-Khoury. Al-Ṣulḥ and al-Khoury became Lebanon's first prime minister and president, respectively.

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 some Shīʿīs) mounted resistance to the decision, preferring to be part of a greater Syria. As a result, the 1943 independence of Lebanon entailed 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.

Early Sunnī prominence was reflected not only in the allocation of the position of prime minister but also in religious leadership. Reflecting its Ottoman heritage, the muftī of the republic is a state employee, and the office is filled by a senior Sunnī cleric, usually one trained at al-Azhar. The Lebanese Sunnīs generally follow the Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law (madhhab), although some Sunnīs in the north follow the Mālikī school.

During the civil war, only a few Sunnī ʿulamāʾ (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 ʿulamāʾ, he was one of Iran's closest allies in Lebanon. He was succeeded upon his death by his son Bilāl. The Assembly of Muslim Clergymen (Tajammuʿ al-ʿUlamāʾ 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. Also noteworthy is the older Islamic Group (al-Jamāʿah al-Islāmīyah) that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimīn). The Brotherhood, dominated by laypeople, has enjoyed a notable following among Lebanon's Sunnīs but has generally maintained a low public profile. It was led by the scholar Fatḥī Yakan, a former member of parliament, until his death in 2009.

Shīʿī Muslims.

The Shīʿī lived for centuries on the periphery of Lebanon. Until the twentieth century, they were concentrated in the south and in the Bekáa Valley, where most of them lived in poverty. In the south, the heartland of Shiism in Lebanon, the Shīʿī comprised a large peasantry engaged in agricultural labor and subsistence farming in the hills and valleys of Jabal ʿĀmil (a region around the city of al-Nabaṭīyah). The region is an important historic center for Shīʿī scholarship.

According to the census of 1932, the last official census conducted in Lebanon, the Shīʿī were the third-largest confessional group in Lebanon and so were allocated the position of speaker of the national assembly or parliament in the National Pact. Despite their numbers, the Shīʿī were subordinate to the Sunnīs, who enjoyed generally higher social and economic status. Today the Shīʿī population is roughly equal in size to the Sunnī population, and both hold an equal number of seats in the parliament. The growth of this population has continued, post-Taif, to challenge the historic demographic logic of a political system with a Maronite president and Sunnī prime minister.

In 1967 the Lebanese parliament voted to create the Supreme Shīʿī Council (al-Majlis al-Shīʿī al-Aʿlā). The council began activity in 1969 under the leadership of Mūsā al-Ṣadr. Its founding signaled new autonomy for the Shīʿī community in Lebanon, which would no longer be overseen 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. Two political parties nominally represent the Shīʿī community in Lebanon: Amal and Ḥizbullāh. Ḥizbullāh, the more influential of the two, receives support from Iran and is presided over by its secretary-general Ḥasan Naṣrallāh.


The Druze faith, an early offshoot of Ismāʿīlī Shiism, had its origins in Fāṭimid Egypt. The largest single concentration of Druze is in Lebanon, where they comprise about 5 percent of the population. 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 Jumblattīs and the other the Yazbakīs, two of the most prominent Druze families in Lebanon. 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, oversees religious trusts, and administers confessional schools. The council draws a salary from the Beirut government.

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 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.


Historically 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 in Lebanon, particularly after the Gulf War of 1990–1991, the ʿAlawīs rose in importance and in number. Today, as many as one hundred thousand live mostly in northern Lebanon. In the 1992 parliamentary elections, the ʿAlawī community was allocated two seats out of 128, marking the first time they enjoyed formal political representation in Lebanon.

Twenty-First Century Developments.

Various factors have exacerbated sectarian 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. Equally important, regional developments—including the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and the Syrian civil war—have heightened tensions in Lebanon.

Anti-Syrian, prodemocracy demonstrations beginning in February 2005, following the assassination of the former prime minister Rafīq al-Ḥarīrī, prompted the withdrawal of Syrian military and intelligence forces from the country in compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (September 2004). However, this movement, referred to as both the Independence Intifada and the Cedar Revolution, resulted in few truly diplomatic reforms and instead solidified a new political fault line between the pro-Western 14 March Coalition and the pro-Syrian 8 March Coalition. The system of confessionalism, or consociational democracy, in 2013 (whereby power is distributed evenly between Muslim and Christian communities and then subdivided among sects) remains as entrenched as ever.

The parliamentary elections of 2005 granted the 14 March Coalition led by Saʿd Ḥarīrī, son of the late prime minister, 72 out of 128 seats in the parliament. The rival pro-Syrian bloc, led by the Shīʿī parties Amal and Ḥizbullāh, along with the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun, supported by Christian voters, won the other fifty-six seats and received the majority of the popular vote.

The new government, however, fell in late 2006, with the resignation of 8 March ministers from the cabinet and the start of an eighteen-month Ḥizbullāh-led sit-in protest in the downtown area of the capital. This political deadlock was followed by a series of violent conflicts in May 2008, with Ḥizbullāh and allied parties occupying large parts of Beirut. Shaykh Ḥammād bin Khalīfah Āl Thānī, the emir of Qatar, brokered an end to this crisis on 21 May 2008, in what became known as the Doha Agreement. All Lebanese factions agreed on a national-unity government with Fouad Siniora as prime minister and Michel Sleiman as president.

With 55 percent voter turnout in the next elections in 2009, the 14 March Coalition won seventy-one seats. Despite this electoral victory, Saʿd Ḥarīrī and his allies could neither avoid nor sideline Ḥizbullāh. Indeed, in November, after more than four months of negotiations, an agreement was reached whereby 14 March received fifteen ministerial posts, the Ḥizbullāh-led 8 March opposition ten posts, and President Sleiman was requested to nominate five “neutral” politicians to bring the total cabinet to thirty persons. Immediately after the new government formed, Druze leader Walīd Jumblatt, with his bloc of ten parliamentary seats, left the 14 March Coalition, resulting in a parliamentary configuration in which neither 14 March nor 8 March held a majority of seats.

Popular protests in neighboring Syria on 15 March 2011, calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, led to swift and violent reprisals from the Syrian government. The escalation through 2011 of a wave of protests into a full-scale civil war in Syria exacerbated tensions between competing Lebanese political interests. Pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian movements formed along confessional lines and some Lebanese parties played a more direct role in the conflict: arming combatants, or in some instances, sending fighters, to bolster the ranks of regime forces, the oppositionist Free Syrian Army, or one of a number of radical Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Ḥizbullāh, in particular, played a key role in securing a victory for the regime in the pivotal battle of Al-Qusayr in June 2013. The crisis in Syria had a significant impact on the Lebanese scene, with occasional violence between 2011–2013 in mixed areas of the country, such as in the adjacent and predominately Sunnī Bab al-Tibbaneh and predominately ʿAlawī Jabal Muḥsin neighborhoods in Tripoli. Lebanon, like Syria's other neighbors, also hosted hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Lebanon's diverse confessional makeup has made the country particularly susceptible to outside intervention. With a colonial history of the French supporting the Maronite Christians and the British supporting the Druze, outside parties play a strong interventionist role. The United States and other Western powers have supported the predominately Sunnī and Christian 14 March movement while Iran and Syria support Ḥizbullāh for religious and ideological reasons and also as a proxy in the regional contestation with Israel. As such, the future of Lebanon and relations between confessional groups will no doubt depend as much on regional developments as on internal politicking.

[See also Amal; Druze; Faḍlallāh, Muḥammad Ḥusayn; Ḥizbullāh; and Ṣadr, Mūsā al-.]


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                        Augustus Richard Norton

                        Updated by Taylor Long and Ahmad Moussalli