On Monday, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most iconic clerics, passed away.
Most of the obituaries memorializing Qaradawi will focus on his infamous fatwa in 2001 justifying suicide bombings, an edict that helped mainstream a practice that until then had been confined to the fringes of militant jihadist groups.
For those within the Middle East, however, his legacy is more mixed. His theology and fatwas, which challenged conservative social mores and fundamentalist values by suspending the rules of the seventh-century moral codes that underpinned Salafist thought and liturgy, were often seen as too progressive, earning him both admiration and notoriety.
Surprising as it may seem to Westerners accustomed to thinking of Qaradawi as an extremist, many Muslims will remember him as a scholar who epitomized moderate Islam. From banning female circumcision to allowing coeducation, the Qatar-based Egyptian cleric’s bold and progressive edicts challenged conservative views for decades. That legacy led fundamentalists to mock his book titled “al-Halal wal-Haram fi al-Islam” (“The Permissible and the Forbidden in Islam”) as “halal … and some more halal,” because they viewed his edicts as permitting everything, including the clearly forbidden.
Qaradawi’s leap to international fame coincided with the spread of satellite TV channels in the Middle East. He had his own show on Al Jazeera, called “Sharia and Life,” where he talked about religion and offered live fatwas to callers from the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. On the same channel, he appeared in a widely publicized 135-minute-long live debate with one of the region’s most iconic secular intellectuals, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, in the late 1990s.
Unlike hundreds of clerics who emerged from traditionalist religious institutions as they built up their credentials and popularity in an often organic way, Qaradawi was aided by media and politics. In strict Muslim clerical terms, he was more of an intellectual than a traditional clergyman per se. Regardless, he went on to become one of the most popular scholars in the region and beyond, including in the West. His legacy was carefully refined through Al Jazeera and his political links, first in the United Arab Emirates and later in Qatar. In Dubai, he won a $1 million prize for his religious credentials and was named the Muslim Personality of the Year in 2000. In Doha, he was bestowed a brand-new Muslim body claiming to represent all Muslim clerics worldwide, called the International Union of Muslim Scholars, established in 2004 and headed by him until he fell seriously ill in the past few years. This fame, together with his close ties to the broad Islamist movement, earned him a reputation as the spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, Qaradawi’s tendency to break from traditional views crossed into the other extreme, to justify suicide bombing. In April 2001, he became the most prominent cleric to declare that suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians against Israelis were religiously permissible. He described the tactic as “one of the greatest forms of jihad.” His fatwa was a response to Salafi clerics who asserted that suicide operations were forbidden on account of the Islamic prohibition of suicide.
Qaradawi was famous and popular, and his celebrity helped enshrine his ideas in the minds of millions. His progressive edicts became grounded in the mainstream, far more effectively than those of much more notable clerics with the right bona fides over the past two decades. Yet the same goes for his justification for suicide bombing. It would be unfair to blame Qaradawi entirely for suicide bombing, as the tactic was already accepted by mainstream Palestinian militants and backed by seemingly secular regimes like the Baathists in Damascus, before the cleric voiced his support for it. But the fact that he and other reputedly moderate clerics did endorse it undoubtedly helped it enter the mainstream. The danger of fatwas issued by otherwise moderate clerics is that they normalize suicide bombings, long perceived to be fringe and extremist, more than any radical rhetoric.
Historically, suicide bombing had not been widely endorsed by mainstream Muslim clerics or even Sunni militants in general. Throughout the 1980s, multiple Sunni militant movements in places like Syria and Afghanistan confronted brutal occupations or regimes without a single instance of what came to be known as “istishhadi” (martyrdom) operations. The first use of suicide operations by a Sunni group was in the early 1990s, by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose leader then stated that the tactic was borrowed directly from the Lebanese Shiite armed group Hezbollah. The latter had used the tactic against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon, and such operations usually had military goals, such as the 1983 bombing of the U.S. and French barracks in Beirut and the detonation of the Israeli Defense Forces headquarters in Tyre the same year by the 17-year-old Ahmad Qasir. When Sunni jihadists adopted the tactic of suicide bombing, they went much further, including purposely killing noncombatants with the aim of spreading terror among the population and, in the case of groups like the Islamic State, even killing worshipers inside mosques.
As strange as it may sound, this lack of restraint on the Sunni side is sometimes explained by the fact that mainstream clerics opposed the tactic; once it was pronounced permitted under any context as a tool of war, it was left for extremists to apply it whenever it was expedient in their view. By contrast, all traditionalist clerics have been unequivocal about the issue. Suicide bombing is rejected by traditionalists because suicide is explicitly prohibited in the Quran and Hadith.
The first notable and mainstream justification among the Sunni clergy came in 2001, from Qaradawi.
On the surface, this view by Qaradawi appears to contradict his reputation as a moderate cleric. But in fact his very method of reinterpreting Islam rulings was itself liberal. The psyche of a militant carrying out a suicide operation, he argued, is not the same as a depressed person committing suicide. This ostensibly paradoxical legacy speaks to his own theological beliefs and also serves to show how “liberal” much extremist thought is. It is much harder for a traditionalist or literalist to justify such tactics.
The same cleric who can justify the suspension of seventh-century penal codes in favor of modern laws — like cutting the hands of thieves and replacing the penalty with imprisonment — is able to overlook the religious textual evidence against suicide and pragmatically apply a modern context to justify suicide operations.
As long as only radical clerics issue such fatwas, the practice stays on the margins and can easily be dismissed as an essentially extremist trend. Fatwas issued by moderate clerics, by contrast, help bring issues to the mainstream and leave the window open for extremist groups and impressionable Muslims to extend the fatwa to everybody who opposes their “Islamic project,” with scant regard for civilians who get killed in the act. Once Qaradawi opened the door, the militants found it easy to step through it.
In 2016, after a wave of suicide bombings by the Islamic State in the region, multiple calls by Islamists and Arab intellectuals urged clerics to take a clear stance against suicide bombing.
Ibrahim Munir, then deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, asked clerics to rethink their opinion on suicide operations. “Killing innocent civilians has become common because suicide bombers rely on these fatwas to blow themselves up,” he said. Before he was assassinated in 2017, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote of Qaradawi’s old fatwa that “it’s time for the sheikh, in light of the prevalence of violence and bloodshed committed by ignorant Muslims, to endorse the views of his colleagues in Saudi Arabia who have consistently refused to sanction suicide operations despite immense pressure.” Saudi Arabia’s top clerics have refused to sanction suicide bombing, not for political reasons but rather based on Islam’s strict prohibition against suicide in all of its forms.
In the summer of 2016, Qaradawi changed his view on suicide bombing.
“The Palestinian brothers were in need of the [tactic] to instill terror in the hearts of Israelis,” he said in July of that year. “They told me they no longer need it, so I told them I no longer approve of it.”
The way he disavowed the fatwa is telling, almost as though prescribing medicine to a patient. The prescription was stopped because the patient no longer needed it. He declined to condemn the practice in general. The genie is out of the bottle and the side effects are too damaging — exemplified by the fact that his supporters justified his endorsement of suicide bombing later when he was attacked for it, not realizing he had already disavowed it.
If Muslims are to properly deal with the issue of extremism, which ended up affecting Muslims more than others, the right way to remember Qaradawi is to emphasize this complexity of his legacy, as a way to identify how extremist thought is sustained not by the fringe but by the mainstream nod to it.
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.