Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Legacy of Political Islam

Yusuf al-Qaradawi
Egyptian-born Muslim cleric Sheikh Yussef al-Qaradawi looks on in Tahrir Square in Egypt’s capital Cairo on February 18, 2011. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Dana Hourany

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born cleric based in Qatar and spiritual guide to the Muslim Brotherhood, died on Monday, 26 September at the age of 96.

Qaradawi’s religious contribution was central to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and political influence. With more than 100 books under his belt, the preacher left a conflicting legacy that confused Arab audiences as time passed.

Hailed for his ‘moderate‘ religious approach by some, he was also accused of fueling sectarian tensions and bolstering extremism in the MENA region. Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official at the FBI, described Qaradawi as “one of the most popular figures in the extremist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood,” according to Al-Arabiya.

Qaradawi joined the Muslim Brotherhood at a young age and revered its founder, Hassan al-Banna. He denounced the position of leadership to focus on preaching and Islamic scholarship to extend his influence beyond the Brotherhood.

According to Said Sadek, a professor of sociology at a Cairo university, Qaradawi amassed a large following outside of the Muslim Brotherhood not only for his religious preaching but for his ability to address topics other religious figures steered clear from.

“Unlike ‘soft preachers’ who only focus on daily life, Qaradawi would make comments on political issues with no filters or red lines. He wasn’t officially tied to any government and was guaranteed the protection of the Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani,” Sadek told Fanack.

The cleric was granted a weekly show in 1996 on Al-Jazeera called “Sharia and Life” that gifted him a loyal fanbase, alongside his two websites for religious advice to converts and devotees: and

However, experts contend that his popularity and extent of influence were overestimated by the Islamists of the Arab world and that his death indicates the demise of political Islam in the MENA region.

Career and influence

Qaradawi was born in 1926 in a village in the Nile Delta of Egypt, under British colonial rule. He went on to study at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo while remaining closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The latter influenced his ideology and shaped his perception of Islam as a comprehensive jurisprudence combining the personal, social, and political aspects of society. His association with the religious group led to his imprisonment in the 1940s and 50s, where he was tortured, according to Al-Jazeera.

Upon his release, he authored several pieces on religious literature that disavowed illegitimate violence and criticized extremist behavior in Islam. He also condemned the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, which propped up his reputation as a moderate preacher.

His layman language and concise writing contributed to his likeability, particularly by Western audiences and converts. “Unlike some of the heavyweight Arab scholars today, he understood the unique challenges which confront the ethnically diverse Muslims emerging in the West. With wisdom and knowledge, he gave us newbies the courage to stand up to our critics and defend Islam,” wrote British journalist Yvonne Ridley in her piece on the clergyman for Middle East Monitor.

His prominence grew during the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, which he strongly advocated for, and even flew to Egypt to address demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Sadek says this triggered a wave of concerns regarding his and the Brotherhood’s political ambitions.

“We thought this would be another Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini scenario where we would have a person or a group aiming to monopolize power and guide the country towards an Islamic state,” Sadek said.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign was short-lived. They rose to power in 2012, following the ousting of autocrat Hosni Mubarak but were met with a military coup in 2013, which eventually brought the current leadership of President Abdel Fattah Sisi to power.

Extremism and modernism

“The duty of the nation is to resist the oppressors, restrain their hands and silence their tongues,” Qaradawi said in 2014 in response to Sisi’s presidency.

Qaradawi was then sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian court in 2015. His criticism was not limited to his home country. When he openly denounced both governments, he added to the already existing tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates.

Sadek notes that Qaradawi’s incitement to violence inside Egypt and against the military that he deemed as “Kharijites,” as those who broke away from Sunni Islam in the seventh-century, stripped him of local legitimacy and support. The prestigious Al-Azhar Foundation in Cairo and its head, Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb disregarded the need to express condolences for his death for reasons unknown to the public.

Egyptian writer Karim El-Gammal notes that outside the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist circles, Egyptians have lost interest in Qaradawi since 2010.

“Regular citizens did not take his fatwas (religious edicts) into consideration. After 2010, he became a different person and demonstrated an unstable political influence, particularly before and after the Syrian conflict,” El-Gammal told Fanack.

Egyptian news website El-Watan news reported that Qaradawi had once condoned Syrian president Bashar Assad and his regime. The cleric was also impressed by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah party during the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon in 2006. However, his stance on both changed after the Syrian conflict escalated.

While in a sermon, Qaradawi called for jihad in Syria against Assad’s regime and described Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) as “Hizb Al-Shaytan” (“Party of Satan”), calling the Lebanese Shiite movement an Iranian proxy plotting “continued massacres to kill Sunnis.”

“Political statements of such grandeur released during a Friday sermon in a spontaneous erratic manner couldn’t be taken seriously by Egyptian society. This is also a symptom of a wider problem of mixing politics with religion in our region,” El-Gammal said.

End of political Islam?

Static religious teachings that stem from ancient texts intermingled with the unstable world of politics create a mixture devoid of positive outcomes, El-Gammal adds.

“It is important to update religious teachings based on societal developments. If you look at the Islamic Caliphs, each one ruled differently and advanced new concepts. To simply have a theocratic rule that uses religion to bolster political interests creates deception,” El-Gammal said.

The writer considers Qaradawi to have done that in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, which further damaged his credibility and made him look like a tool of political propaganda.

Qaradawi’s vision for a “New Egypt” ruled by Islamists faltered in 2013, and its outcome according to Sadek, was the beginning of the collapse of political Islam in some Arab states.

“In the last ten years we’ve seen the decline of power of Islamists when Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was toppled and President Kais Saied rose to power in Tunisia; the Islamists were also defeated in Morocco’s elections and now we have the protests against theocracy in Iran,” the professor said.

Iranian women have taken to the streets to protest against mandatory headscarves following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police.

“Even if the Iranian regime manages to subdue the protests, the idea of political Islam has been severely bruised beyond repair,” Sadek added.

Terrorism Mufti,” “Nato Mufti” and “moderate Islamist” are but a few of the descriptions that have accompanied the controversial clergyman – who observed 96 years of criticism and adoration – throughout his life.

“His literature needs to be carefully scrutinized and studied. Not all should be adopted or thrown away. Like everything else in life, his legacy is complex and can’t be restricted to a few lines,” El-Gammal said.

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