Why Yusuf al-Qaradawi Still Matters

The ‘global mufti’ had a deep understanding of Islam in postcolonial modernity

Why Yusuf al-Qaradawi Still Matters
Yusuf al-Qaradawi gives a speech in 2016 in Turkey (Photo by Orhan Akkanat / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The passing of Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a significant event in contemporary Islam. Love him or loathe him, Qaradawi was a figure who was impossible to ignore for the past few decades. He died on Sept. 26, a few days after his 96th birthday, in Qatar, the country where he lived for more than 60 years.

Qaradawi had spent much of the past decade advocating for the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world from 2011, before condemning the counterrevolutionary authoritarian wave that has taken hold since 2013. But this was only the last decade of his life. For nearly 20 years before that, Qaradawi had his own show on the influential Qatari-owned, pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, which revolutionized public debate in the Middle East starting in the mid-1990s.

Even before that, Qaradawi had emerged as one of the most prominent and prolific Islamic voices in the so-called Islamic Awakening (“al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya”). Starting around the 1970s, Islamic actors once again appeared to become socially and politically salient in the Middle East in ways that, arguably, had not been seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.

This phenomenon was one of the reasons sociologists began reassessing their belief that religion would disappear over the course of the 20th century as the world collectively became secular. Instead, in much of the Muslim world, we have witnessed a resurgence of interest in religion in the public sphere, and Qaradawi was an important participant in this phenomenon.

Indeed, some of his admirers have called him the scholar par excellence of the Islamic Awakening. Already in his mid-40s as the revival came about, he was well-positioned to become one of its most important writers, publishing a series of books and pamphlets on the theme of guidance and steering the Islamic Awakening. In a seminal book they published in 2009, the scholars Bettina Graf and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen described Qaradawi as the global mufti. The German academic Gudrun Krämer, who is no admirer of the recently-deceased scholar, describes Qaradawi in the opening sentence of the work as “easily the best-known if not the most popular Muslim preacher-scholar-activist of the early 21st century.”

What makes Qaradawi demand our attention is his attempt to merge two worlds that are seen as having bifurcated in the wake of European modernity: the sacred and the secular. He was a well-regarded Islamic cleric who graduated at the top of his class at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University — sometimes considered the world’s most prestigious Islamic religious institution.

Yet while he spent his formative years at the institution, he simultaneously joined the earliest of mainstream Islamist organizations: the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Qaradawi considered the founder of the Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, to be his most important spiritual guide, and expressed his admiration for Banna in several of his writings.

It is the Muslim Brotherhood and Banna’s vision for Islam in postcolonial modernity that most deeply characterized Qaradawi’s ideological outlook. At the heart of this outlook is an understanding that Islam is characterized by “shumuliyya,” meaning “comprehensiveness” or “totality.”

According to this view, a sound Islamic understanding conceives of the relationships between religion and state as well as between the public and private spheres in ways that are at odds with modern secular ideologies. Islamist organizations and activists like Banna rejected what they saw as the colonial project of secularism, which sought to reconfigure Islamic understandings of how the state and society were to be organized.

This difference lies at the heart of the contention between Islamism and secularism, and it is worth dwelling on, since Qaradawi was an influential defender of this mainstream Islamist vision over the past half-century. Secular scholars often argue that Islam is a “religion” while Islamism is an “ideology.”

Intellectual historians have been arguing for decades, however, that this bifurcation is a distinctly modern phenomenon that emerged in Europe over the past few centuries. For many, this separation is the essence of what it means for a state to be modern.

Yet this was not how much of the world saw the relationship between what we today call religion and the secular ideologies that form the basis for our mechanisms of governance. This changed over the colonial period, when Europe took the idea of secularism global, often at the end of a bayonet.

Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist associations that emerged as the secular vision began to be imposed on the Muslim world argued that the Islamic configuration of the public sphere and governance in harmony with religion was violently disrupted by colonial states and the nation-states that were created in their wake.

In its broad contours, this idea is uncontroversial among Muslim scholars, past and present. But it does fly in the face of the secular orthodoxies of contemporary political practice in the West. Among contemporary Islamic scholars, Qaradawi was probably the most vocal advocate of this mainstream Islamist vision, one that characterized his long-standing advocacy for democracy in the Muslim world.

Qaradawi’s reputation in the West was adversely affected by his attitude toward secularism in particular. Typically understood as the separation of religion and state, this notion was anathema to Qaradawi in Muslim-majority contexts, and he was vocal in his criticism of such a stance throughout his career. In his view, such a perspective was entirely antithetical to how Islam envisioned Muslim societies.

A sound understanding of Islam, he believed, necessitated that certain aspects of social and political life would need to take into consideration the rights and obligations laid down by Islamic scriptures in the form of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad — the latter also known as the Sunna.

An influential Western conception of modernity views politics under religious influence as leading inevitably to violent sectarian conflict. The wars that followed the European Reformation are typically invoked to justify such a stance. However, recent Western scholarship, perhaps most notably William Cavanaugh’s book “The Myth of Religious Violence,” has mounted a direct attack on such a view.

But this argument is a decades-old one in Islamist circles. Both Western critics like Cavanaugh and Islamists like Qaradawi point out that secular ideologies have been the basis for the deadliest conflicts in human history, particularly over the course of the 20th century.

Islamists including Qaradawi additionally contend, as do some Western scholars, that Islamic societies have not been historically characterized by the kinds of religious wars that are the distinct experience of Europeans. This is just one of the reasons why Islamists like Qaradawi argue against the wholesale imposition of secular ideologies on Muslim lands in a way that excludes forms of governance that take into consideration what he calls an Islamic “reference.”

The Islamic reference to which he refers may be understood as the scriptures, suitably adapted to a modern context. Secular ideologies would generally hold these to be historical texts that might be valued in private but are irrelevant to public concerns, which must be conducted on the basis of shared universal values.

Once again, recent scholarship in the West, particularly the writings of scholars of non-European heritage, have argued that this understanding of universalism is in fact itself profoundly Eurocentric — it unjustifiably takes Western perspectives as the default. Scholars like Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, Dipesh Chakrabarty and many others point to ways in which claims to universalism are frequently part of the justification to colonize and “civilize” backward peoples.

This has given rise to a trend of “decolonial” studies in Western academia, involving scholars who argue there are in fact a variety of equally contestable claims to universalism across the world. The imposition of one template of values globally is simply an ongoing form of colonialism, according to such scholars.

Qaradawi is worth highlighting in this context because he was a decolonial theorist and activist before the trend began to be recognized as important in Western scholarship. Such calls for pluralism continue to go largely unheeded in the realm of international relations.

It is thus important to recognize that Qaradawi was not anti-modern. Rather, he opposed the imposition of Western understandings of modernity by force on unwilling populations outside the West. This is a productive, if potentially contentious way of understanding Qaradawi’s vocal advocacy for ideas such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities.

Qaradawi stated explicitly that the modern Islamic reformist tradition within which he operated self-consciously seeks to blend the new and the old. Aspects of the Islamic tradition that he understood to have been authentically preserved as mandated by God and Muhammad must be adhered to, though he believed these should still be adapted to the needs of a modern context.

This was illustrated by his ready adoption of core concepts from the Western political lexicon, such as democracy and human rights. Still, he did not accept that their forms in Western political practice must be adopted wholesale by Muslims. Rather, he sought to indigenize the concepts he found resonant with Islamic concepts already present in Islamic scriptures.

Qaradawi had been engaged in this process for decades. Given his scholarly stature and authority, he was remarkably well-placed to try to incorporate elements of modernity into the Islamic tradition in a way that Muslims could argue represented both Islam and modernity equally and authentically. This is one of Qaradawi’s signature contributions to contemporary Islam.

No discussion of Qaradawi is complete without addressing his long-standing commitment to the Palestinian cause. Qaradawi was probably the most prominent and vocal scholar to advocate for Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation. This is also one of the areas in which he garnered the most controversy — ironic in light of his reputation as a moderate voice when it came to groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The reality is that Qaradawi was committed to the Quranic concept of jihad, but unlike terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, Qaradawi understood the concept in a manner far closer to the Islamic mainstream as akin to that of just war.

In the context of colonial occupation, which is how he understood the Palestinian question, it was legitimate to engage in violence against occupiers. His thoughts on jihad were further developed later in his life, in a two-volume encyclopedia on the subject published in 2009.

His advocacy in the 2000s for “martyrdom operations,” usually referred to in the West as “suicide bombings,” has been the greatest source of controversy for him in the West. But he was not alone in voicing this view. In 2002, when Ahmad el-Tayeb was grand mufti of Egypt, he gave the same fatwa as Qaradawi. (Tayeb is currently the rector of Al-Azhar.) The same was true of his successor as grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, as well as his three predecessors as rector of Al-Azhar. All of these scholars had been appointed to their positions as the most senior religious officials of Egypt by the country’s president.

Gomaa is currently one of the most loyal scholars to Egypt’s president, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In 2021, he was appointed by Sisi to the Egyptian House of Representatives. Meanwhile, he has long been on record as saying that those who insisted on rejecting “martyrdom operations” should be excluded and excommunicated from the Muslim community.

Throughout these years, Egypt has been a close ally of Western powers. The reason Qaradawi was singled out on this issue during his lifetime appears to be due to his broader hostility to what he portrayed as Western geopolitical ambitions for the region. We can understand this to be in keeping with his wider decolonial commitments.

Yet, for all his hostility to what he saw as U.S. neo-colonialism in the region, the Qatari state in which he resided has long been an ally of the U.S., hosting the largest U.S. military bases in the region, a fact publicly criticized by Qaradawi on at least one occasion.

Qaradawi was easily the most studied living Islamic scholar in terms of the number of books and scholarly articles written about him by Western scholars, not to mention those written in the Muslim world. This is unsurprising, given that Qaradawi offered an Islamic perspective on almost every subject of importance in the past century.

His contributions and controversies are far more extensive than can be addressed in a single article and are likely to be the subject of academic interest for years to come. It is his legacy as an Islamist ideologue that, I would argue, deserves special attention. As suggested above, this is not because of any alleged anti-modernity in his ideas. Rather, it is because many of the prevailing assumptions about modernity can unravel when one examines with an open mind an admittedly controversial thinker like Qaradawi.

This essay is part of a series on the legacy of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential clergyman with a mixed legacy of being a moderate scholar who broke away from traditionalists on many modern issues but held extreme views such as suicide bombing and antisemitism. Read about his legacy here and here.

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