Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the most respected Sunni Muslim scholars in the Arabic-speaking world. As the author of more than 100 books, his followers consider him an authoritative and moderate voice in the region for espousing democracy and condemning major terrorist attacks across the world.
Yet beneath the surface, his politics are considerably sectarian, making him an uncomfortable and divisive figure among Western governments and regional analysts.
He was born in 1926 in Egypt’s Nile Delta, where he claims to have memorized the entire Koran by the age of nine. Less than two decades later, he obtained a degree from al-Azhar University, the oldest and most renowned institution in Sunni Islam.
Like reformists before him – such as Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani – al-Qaradawi has attracted a massive following by reconciling Islamic practices with the modern world. But rather than preaching for an ‘Islamic reformation’, al-Qaradawi insists that the Koran answers all of today’s most important questions.
His position runs parallel to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – a movement he inspired and belongs to – making him an enemy of Arab dictators. The MB has long been a thorn in the side of repressive leaders, who fear that the organization’s grassroots popularity and vast resources pose a direct threat to their rule.
Egypt has never been an exception. Al-Qaradawi was first arrested by King Farouq in 1949, then three times by Egypt’s second and most charismatic President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who also stripped al-Qaradawi of his Egyptian citizenship.
By 1961, he had left for Qatar and served as a sort of ambassador for the tiny Gulf country. Six years later, the MB experienced a revival in Egypt following Israel’s devastating victory in the 1967 war. The outcome triggered the demise of Arab nationalism, setting the stage for figures like al-Qaradawi to guide disenfranchised youth in the region.
Dr Azzam Sultan Tamimi, a supporter of the MB and the founder of the satellite channel al-Hiwar, said that he was greatly influenced by al-Qaradawi’s teachings. “What made al-Qaradawi very popular with my generation was the simplicity and moderation of his discourse,” he told Fanack Chronicle. “He seeks to relate Islam to people’s lives and answer tough questions independently from any political authority.”
Qatar has helped al-Qaradawi reach out to generations of young Muslims. For two decades, he has starred in the programme Ash-Sharia wal-Hayat (‘sharia and life’) on Qatar’s state-owned broadcaster al-Jazeera. The show airs on Sunday night and reaches approximately 60 million viewers. He is also the head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, lending him legitimacy to millions of people.
“Al-Qaradawi advocates the blending of politics with religion and so does Qatar. His views generally overlap with the Qatari authorities, which explains why they have built a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with each other,” said Abu Hanya, a Jordanian expert who has written several books about Islamic movements in the Middle East.
Al-Qaradawi’s call for freedom and democracy strongly resonated with youth at the start of the Arab Spring. It was then, weeks after Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled in January 2011, that he returned to Egypt after 50 years in exile. On 18 February 2011, he gave a speech to millions of people in Tahrir Square.
“Don’t fight history,” he said, warning dictators who were brutally cracking down on protestors across the Arab world. “You can’t delay the day that [revolutions] start. The Arab world has changed.”
The region had changed, but not for the better. Except for Tunisia, popular uprisings either descended into civil war or were brutally repressed. Rulers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) quickly denounced al-Qaradawi as an aid to extremism. Their reasoning was simple: they perceived him as a threat to their power.
They were not wrong. After the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, al-Qaradawi returned to Qatar, where he urged his supporters in Egypt to become martyrs for the sake of restoring Morsi. The fatwa failed to resonate with most Egyptians and infuriated General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was violently accruing power.
His political interference was not limited to Egypt. While al-Qaradawi fervently denounced religious extremists, such as the self-declared Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, he may have empowered these groups by inciting sectarian divisions with his views and fatwas. Most notably, in 2012, he condemned Shiites for ascribing divine status to people they perceive as the Prophet Muhammad’s legitimate successors.
He then called for Sunni Muslims to take up arms in Syria. His fatwa framed the Syrian crisis as a religious war to liberate the country from the rule of Alawites, a Shia offshoot and minority sect in Syria, rather than from President Bashar al-Assad.
This was not his first controversial fatwa. Ten years earlier, he condoned Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel as a legitimate act of self-defence. Many Islamic scholars were outraged, arguing that suicide is prohibited in Islam regardless of the situation. The fatwa also angered Israel’s allies, notably the United States, United Kingdom and France, which all banned al-Qaradawi from visiting.
Hassan Hassan, one of the highest profile experts on Islamic extremism, criticized al-Qaradawi for approving Palestinian suicide missions in Israel. In a column for The National, he argued that even though Palestinians are helpless in the face of Israeli attacks, sanctioning suicide bombings risks normalizing the tactic in other circumstances. Not to mention, he added, that civilians are almost always killed in these attacks.
In Hassan’s view, the violent and sectarian fatwas that al-Qaradawi issues outweigh his other noble achievements. They empower radicals to kill innocent civilians, while inciting sectarian tensions. But Abu Hanya, the Jordanian expert, disagrees. He told Fanack Chronicle that al-Qaradawi should not be held responsible if his fatwas are applied out of context. “He condemned 9/11 and he condemned the London bombings,” Abu Hanya stressed. “He doesn’t sanction the killing of civilians.”
That is not necessarily true. In 2009, during Israel’s war with Hamas that resulted in the disproportionate loss of civilian life in Gaza, al-Qaradawi stated on al-Jazeera that the holocaust was a divine punishment of the Jews for their corruption. The anti-Semitic statement damaged the imam’s reputation in the eyes of many who considered him a moderate.
Western governments are still apprehensive of the old sheikh. And while his followers are quick to blame Saudi Arabia and the UAE for framing him as a terrorist, some of al-Qaradawi’s views do not help his case.