Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim scholar who influenced millions

Al-Qaradawi, who died on Monday aged 96, was a leading voice in the Muslim world, both in religion and in politics.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi
Yusuf al-Qaradawi was one of the most recognisable religious figures in the Arab world [File: Ali Ali/EPA]

The passing of Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Qatar on Monday marks the end of an era in contemporary Islam. Al-Qaradawi was one of the world’s most influential Muslim scholars, and a vocal advocate for Palestinian liberation as well as for the Arab revolutions of 2011. His passing at the age of 96 brings to a close the career of one of the most important Muslim scholars of the last century.

Born in 1926 in a village in the Nile Delta of Egypt, which was still under British colonial rule, al-Qaradawi went to study at the prestigious Al-Azhar University based in Cairo. As a teenager, he was closely associated with it and the Muslim Brotherhood – two of the most important institutions of his day.

These two institutions would play a decisive role in his formation as a scholar and as a Muslim activist. Decades later, al-Qaradawi would write about his association with these institutions with great pride in his memoirs. With respect to Al-Azhar, he graduated top of his class before eventually gaining his PhD in 1973.

But it was the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, whom he saw as his spiritual guide, and it was the latter’s comprehensive (shumuli) conception of Islam, which incorporated the personal, the social and the political, that inspired al-Qaradawi’s understanding of the role of Islam in public life.

His active association with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest socio-political movement in the 1940s, whose leadership was often at loggerheads with Egypt’s rulers, meant that he was imprisoned repeatedly in the 1940s and 50s, experiencing torture at the hands of his jailers.

Yet, unlike some of his fellow detainees, and likely due to his theological training, he opposed the emergence in prison of extreme offshoots from the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed al-Qaradawi may have been one of the contributors to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership’s formal rebuttal of this tendency within their organisation in the 1960s.

He would go on to write several nuanced and influential critiques of illegitimate violence and its causes in subsequent decades, perhaps, most notably in his 1982 work, Islamic Awakening: Between Rejection and Extremism. His unequivocal condemnation of the violence perpetrated by al-Qaeda on 9/11 and armed groups like ISIL (ISIS) in later years would earn him recognition as an important voice indicative of mainstream Muslims’ rejection of such groups.

Moving to Qatar

In 1961, al-Qaradawi would travel to Qatar as a teacher, in part so that he could escape the persecution of Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt. He would soon develop a close relationship with the-then Qatari emir, Sheikh Ahmad Bin Ali Al Thani who passed away in 1977. The emir came to hold him in high esteem and would later grant him Qatari citizenship.

During this period, he also began publishing more frequently for a wider Muslim readership. In 1960, he wrote his first key work, commissioned by Al-Azhar as a guide for Muslims living in the West, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam.

Al-Qaradawi’s written style was highly accessible – he steered away from the relatively obscure language of pre-modern Islamic legal manuals to write a book that could be read and understood by the lay reader. In addition to his lucid prose, al-Qaradawi would show himself to be unusually prolific, authoring more than 100 works over the course of his career.

Indeed, recognising the significance of his scholarship and influence, Al Jazeera Arabic dedicated a weekly programme on which al-Qaradawi began participating in the very same week that the channel started broadcasting in 1996.

Al-Qaradawi’s weekly prime-time religious show, al-Shariʿa wa-l-Ḥayah (The Sharia and Life), was at its peak one of the pan-Arabic channel’s most popular shows with tens of millions of viewers.

Saudi King Abdullah talks with leading Sunni cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, President of the International Union for Muslim Scholars in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah (right) talks with Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Riyadh on January 4, 2009. [File: Saudi Press Agency/Handout]

Global mufti

By now, al-Qaradawi had reached his 70s and was a globally recognised scholar who had authored dozens of books establishing himself as a religious expert in a range of Islamic scholarly fields. But the legacy of his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood continued to loom large.

Despite his distance from Egypt, he was twice asked to assume the leadership of the influential Egyptian organisation, though he declined on both occasions considering himself better suited to a life of scholarship.

Yet unlike a cloistered scholar, al-Qaradawi was a globally recognised religious authority with his own TV show on the world’s most watched Arabic news network, and he used this platform to promote the ideas that he discussed across his many writings.

Alongside this show, he also helped establish and presided over the European Council for Fatwa and Research and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, two transnational Islamic scholarly organisations that helped consolidate his reputation as a “global mufti”.

In keeping with his comprehensive understanding of Islam, he wrote and spoke about a wide range of issues including everything from theology and religious practice to democracy, Palestine, and climate change, all from a Muslim perspective.

His views frequently elicited controversy, however, both in the Muslim world and in the West. After the attacks of 9/11, which he vocally condemned, he issued a joint religious edict encouraging Muslim servicemen and women in the United States Army to serve in Afghanistan. He would retract the edict and apologise for it years later.

By contrast, in the West, he garnered controversy (and travel bans) for supporting the use of “suicide bombing” or “martyrdom operations” in resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Once again, he would subsequently reverse his position, citing changed circumstances.

International union of muslim scholars
Yusuf al-Qaradawi played a leading role in the formation of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and became its chairman. [File: Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters]

Arab revolutions

His most notable interventions towards the end of his career took place in the context of the Arab uprisings of 2011. Al-Qaradawi emerged as the most vocal globally-recognised Muslim scholar supporting the 2011 popular uprisings against the despotic governments of the Middle East.

This in fact drew on his writings going back decades in which he had argued that peaceful revolution could bring an end to tyrannical regimes and help usher in the form of Muslim democracy he had long advocated.

In making such arguments, al-Qaradawi stood at odds not only with the various repressive governments in the region; he also was opposed by some religious voices who were either concerned about social breakdown and/or had been co-opted by such governments.

Yet, al-Qaradawi’s support for democratic revolution had its limits. His apparent fear of Iranian influence led to his opposition towards the incipient revolution in Bahrain, which was defeated with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other regional states in March 2011.

As repressive power structures reasserted themselves in 2013 with the Egyptian post-coup massacres and the Syrian chemical weapons attacks jointly killing thousands of civilians in the space of a few weeks, al-Qaradawi found his aspirations for the region suffering significant setbacks.

By September 2013, his Al Jazeera show ended after nearly 17 years of continuous broadcasting. He would finally retire from public life in 2018, dedicating his remaining years to the compilation of his collected works into a single 50-volume encyclopedia.

Given his long career in the public eye, he will probably be most remembered for championing the Palestinian cause and agitating for Islamically inflected democratic reform in the Middle East. While neither of those goals has been achieved, his example is likely to inspire future generations of Muslim activists and scholars for years to come.

Source: Al Jazeera