Qaradawi and the Struggle for Modern Islam

Understanding the late Egyptian cleric is key to understanding the Muslim world today

Qaradawi and the Struggle for Modern Islam
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi receives flowers from Palestinian girls upon arrival at Rafah Crossing in the southern Gaza Strip May 8, 2013 (Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

No matter where I went in the 1990s, books and tapes of his sermons were always there, whether in Egypt, Syria or Yemen. People told me the same about Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan. Even before the explosion of digital media, Yusuf al-Qaradawi was one of the most popular contemporary Sunni Muslim scholars, known around the world. Born in 1926, he died in September at the age of 96. Despite leaving behind a worldwide community of devotees, his adherents are having difficulties mourning in public in his home country, Egypt. This is because the jurist and legal thinker had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood — banned as a terrorist organization under current Egyptian law.

Early in my career as a student of the contemporary Muslim world, it became clear to me that ignoring Qaradawi was not an option. Yet getting to know the prolific writer was not easy either, especially if, as in my case, you come not from an Arabic-speaking or a Muslim household but rather from a well-nigh atheist, East German family. There was no mention in East Germany of the Muslim Brotherhood or similar organizations. Since they weren’t anti-fascists, friendly communists or one of the pillars of the capitalist system, it was tricky to categorize them. It was difficult to pigeonhole an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and sociopolitically-oriented Islamic movement. In the Cold War atmosphere of the time, the movement was of little interest in East Germany, though Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had been well-known and considered an ally. Only when the Berlin Wall fell and I began to travel did my perspective change. The dramatic transformation of the geopolitical map helped me understand that Islam and Islamic movements had been of no small importance — political and otherwise — to many people in Egypt as well as, for example, in South Yemen, to mention another erstwhile “brother” state of East Germany.

As a young man, Qaradawi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in Egypt in 1928. He later resigned from active membership but remained one of its intellectual and spiritual leading figures. After serving a prison term during one of Nasser’s crackdowns on the movement, at the age of 35, Qaradawi left Cairo for Doha, as many of his fellow Brothers (“Ikhwan”) also did. He settled there, married, fathered four children and even became a Qatari citizen. It was there that he began his career as an internationally-known scholar and global media mufti.

In many respects, understanding Qaradawi is key to understanding the discourse and struggle within modern Islam today.

I was able to get to know Qaradawi and his teachings, legal theory and practice, sermons, fatwas and studies when I focused my doctoral thesis on his use of new media. I visited him in Doha in the early 2000s, speaking to him and his staff. It was around this same time that he expressed his support for Palestinian suicide attacks in the wake of the second intifada against Israel. This complicated things. It was, indeed, probably the most difficult part of working on him because he went beyond merely defending Palestinians and used exceptionally harsh language against Israelis and Jews that was unacceptable to me. This language contrasted with many of his other views, which were often balanced.

In American and European mainstream media, Qaradawi is known as an “Islamist hard-liner,” mainly because of his stances on homosexuality and the subordination of women, as well as his support for Palestinian suicide attacks. Very often, he is mentioned in the same breath as al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. My own aim has never been to deny these stances of his but to contextualize and understand them as thoroughly as possible. His positions on Palestine during the second intifada are a case in point. Obviously, he supported Palestinians who, in his view, had no other means to defend themselves against powerful aggressors. At the same time, by legitimizing these violent acts, he undermined the values he otherwise propagated. His rejection of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and of al Qaeda in general was not even noticed as a result. Though he eventually withdrew his support for suicide bombings in Palestine in 2016, the violent language remained and the ongoing conflict appears no closer to a resolution.

Qaradawi studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and wrote over 100 books and countless journal articles while addressing at least three different groups of people: scholars of Islamic law, activists seeking the reform of contemporary society and a wider public beyond the circles of intellectuals and activists.

Initially, he was involved in debates about Islamic jurisprudence. The jurist’s writings were dedicated to the protection of the Islamic way of life and the reform of Islamic legal thinking and practice. His main concerns were the modern moral and political economy in Islam, especially “zakat” (alms), the role of women in society, education and the upbringing of children. He was also interested in art and entertainment, the effects of colonialism, the issue of Palestine, secularism and minorities (i.e., non-Muslims in Muslim societies and Muslims in non-Muslim societies).

Qaradawi thought the renewal of Islamic law was the best way to confront these variegated contemporary challenges. Several principles of legal decision-making are relevant in this context, the two most important being the understanding of the local realities of daily life and the task of making life easy for Muslims without a mass of interdictions.

In his published works, he dealt with notions of renewal, Islam as a solution to modern issues and “ease” in practicing the faith, as well as the newly-coined concepts of moderation and finding the middle way (“wasatiyya” in Arabic). As a jurist and scholar, Qaradawi acted as a link between the early publicists and reformers of modern Islamic thinking at the beginning of the 20th century and Sunni Islamic intellectuals after the founding of Israel in 1948, known as the Nakba (catastrophe) for Palestinians who had to leave their homes by the thousands.

His first and still most popular book was “The Permissible and the Forbidden in Islam” (1960), which was written for a general audience. A four-volume collection of his fatwas and his granular four-volume autobiography were also best-sellers. Beyond these, he also wrote books on the Islamic Awakening (1982), secularism in Turkey and Tunisia as a problem (2001) and studies about the universal intentions of the Sharia (2006). His books and essays were mostly composed as parts of various series. Of his books, only very few have been translated into English. He wrote in classical Arabic and spoke in Egyptian dialect. He did not read or understand any other language.

As for his activism, he was considered one of the proponents of the so-called Islamic Awakening (“al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya”) in the 1970s, after the defeat of the Arab states in the so-called Six-Day War against Israel in 1967. For Qaradawi and his friends and followers, the “Awakening” meant opposing ultraconservative Salafism, on the one hand, and secularism on the other. Promoting the “middle way,” he took a position between the two poles, neither advocating a literal interpretation of the sacred sources (as Salafists do) nor approving of the retreat of religion into the private sphere in the course of modernization.

Qaradawi also struggled against the instrumentalization of Islam by various nation-states. He wrote for the global Muslim community, though many saw him and his Brotherhood ties as part of a political ideology that instrumentalized religion. He saw himself as independent from the institutions of any nation-state and from political parties, although his manifold entanglements with Qatar’s ruling family cast doubt on his independence from the state. Qaradawi and his network founded their own institutions: the European Council for Fatwa and Research in 1997 and the International Union of Muslim Scholars in 2004.

Yet Qaradawi did not rely exclusively on scholarly forms of communication, such as mosque sermons, face-to-face fatwas, books and teaching. He also employed various kinds of mass media to disseminate his message. A worldwide audience of millions watched him on television in the program “Sharia and Life” — broadcast weekly every Sunday on Al Jazeera since 1996 — during which he explained his interpretation of Islamic normativity in layman’s terms.

Qaradawi was one of the few scholars of his generation who publicly brought Islamic legal discourse into focus. He was always openly involved in discussions and used digital media and the Internet, though he became much quieter after the abrupt end of the revolution in Egypt in 2013, terminating a process that had started in 2011 as part of the wider Arab revolutions with Qaradawi as one of its strong supporters. His extensive exposure across various media, including YouTube, facilitated the wide and rapid dissemination of his texts and fatwas. It was in no small part due to this that he was the subject of so much controversy.

His writings developed over time and he revised his opinion on certain topics — for example, on the participation of women in social and political life, democracy and political pluralism. However, as a legal reformer, he saw it as his duty to interpret the existing texts of the Quran and Sunna rather than to invent new rules. What he offered was the development of a flexible Islamic doctrine oriented to the lives of Muslims. This meant that scholars — and he insisted it should be scholars — needed not just to know the Quran and its legal interpretations but also to study modern life; for instance, by seeking a dialogue with the general public instead of treating its members as ignorant infidels, as more radical interpreters do. As he wrote in 1998, “The doctrine must be adapted when the time, the place and the circumstances of the people change.”

In September 2013, Qaradawi’s program on Al Jazeera ended and he slowly retired from public life.

Qaradawi’s death was announced on his official Twitter account. Under the hashtag of his name one can find countless farewells, invocations and condolences to the family and memories of important shared experiences and events. The list of his admirers is long. What is obvious is that it is a male club, even though he has supported women from his university days onward. The list of his opponents is also long. He has incited hostility, accusations and rejection, especially from Saudi Arabians, who were often on the opposing side to Qatar in the regional upheavals of the past decade.

The last time I spoke to Qaradawi, he wished me and my family a Merry Christmas. I will remember him as a respectful scholar with different views than my own, socialized in another time and place when, among other things, the oral transmission of knowledge and the struggle against Christian colonial rule were influential in Egypt. Many of Qaradawi’s positions can be explained on this basis. For example, his first book, published in 1960, began with this introduction: “People in the West have a very distorted and ugly picture of Islam, its Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and its followers, a picture painted by Christian missionaries and the representatives of the imperialist powers.” In his writings, he would often express the idea, outlined in a collection of his writings published on his 80th birthday, that “contemporary Western civilization is a materialistic civilization without soul … it subdues the earth and makes the human being fall apart … it sets man on pleasure and does not let him realize inner peace … it is not the civilization of Christ, son of Maryam, but of the Antichrist.”

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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