Like millions of other Muslims, I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Dr Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. He truly was one of the greatest of contemporary Islamic scholars whose life and work had a huge impact on us all in both the 20th and 21st centuries.
As a moderniser, he had a special place in the hearts of many converts to Islam who sought his advice. 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, as well as the understanding to balance our religious commitments and hectic lifestyles, and thus avoid falling into extremist traps.
One of the biggest tropes still being pushed around the world about Sheikh Al-Qaradawi is that he was an Islamic extremist who fuelled hate and fanned the flames of intolerance. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there was hate, but it was directed at him by his detractors within the Muslim community and beyond.
The first tsunami of criticism hit him the moment that he called out Israel as a state built on the terrorism of the Irgun, Haganah and Stern gangs. He mentioned the atrocities committed by Zionist terrorists during the Nakba, and the murderous expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, in some of his books, most notably Jurisprudence of Jihad. Sheikh Al-Qaradawi became a lightning rod for unbridled Zionist hatred fuelled by lies, media distortions and manipulation for doing nothing more than telling the unvarnished truth.
During a 2004 visit to Britain, the Arabic speaker was hounded by journalists who were so misinformed about what he actually said and didn’t say, that he gave an exclusive interview to the Guardian and made it very clear that comments attributed to him about homosexuality and wife beating were “totally inaccurate and unfair”. The article is rarely referred to by media researchers because it is at odds with the usual tropes and narratives about the so-called “hate preacher”.
For the past two decades, a pro-Israel propaganda machine has spewed out lies about him by distorting and weaponising his words aided and abetted by lazy, gullible journalists who allowed themselves to be spoon-fed without fact-checking or daring to question the “get Qaradawi” agenda. Some of the blame can be put down to poor Arab-to-English translations, but this didn’t stop equally ignorant politicians, pressured by pro-Israel lobbies, to ban his overseas visits.
I mentioned his name in passing to a friend recently and, without thinking, she bristled automatically, calling him a hate preacher and terrorist sympathiser. When I asked exactly what she was referring to she was unable to give a specific answer. Had she had read any of the 120 books penned by him? She stared back blankly. Her only defence was: “Well, it’s what I’ve been told. I know I’ve read it somewhere.”
And this is exactly how ill-informed poison is spread. The truth is that most Westerners would never have heard of Sheikh Al-Qaradawi but for his robust defence of the Palestinians who, if you really need reminding, have every right under international law to resist the brutal Israeli occupation that they are forced to endure on a daily basis. It is this recognition of the right to resist the occupation which angers the apartheid state and its allies, and so anyone who tries to justify Palestinian resistance gets targeted, as I wrote in MEMO the day before the Sheikh died. Check it out for yourself: Google “Israeli apartheid” and the first thing you will see is a paid-for advert by the Israeli government shooting the messenger and criticising Amnesty International’s apartheid expose.
Sheikh Qaradawi probably did more behind the scenes fighting for justice for the Palestinian people than the corrupt armchair warriors sitting in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. I even wonder if Al-Aqsa Mosque would still be standing had he not originally called out the Zionist threats to Islam’s third holiest site years ago and established the Jerusalem International Foundation.
Thanks to the Sheikh’s work, a whole new generation of young Muslims and converts to Islam from around the world know about the special history and blessed status that Jerusalem has for Muslims and Christians alike. His legacy is to secure the long-term presence of Palestinian Jerusalemites in what he always prayed would be the capital of an independent Palestine.
The whole of the Muslim world should be in mourning at his passing, but millions of Arab Muslims are too afraid to shed even one tear in public. Why? That brings me to his other detractors: Arab despots.
Many of these tyrants would have had Al-Qaradawi arrested, tortured and killed had they been able to get their hands on him. His wisdom, popularity, immense knowledge and charisma made him an instant threat to their regimes. And his ability to weave together religion and politics while pushing for unity and reconciliation made him a threat to those who rely on instability in the Middle East to maintain their grip on power. I don’t want to soil this tribute to the Sheikh by mentioning their names, but we all know who they are. More importantly, his name will go down as one of Islam’s all-time greats while theirs will be in history’s grubby footnotes.
Yusuf Abdullah Al-Qaradawi was born under British colonial rule in 1926 in a village in the Nile Delta before going to Cairo where he studied at the influential Al-Azhar University. Playing a decisive role in his early years as a student of Islam, Al-Qaradawi became involved in the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, helped to inspire his understanding of the role of Islam in public life.
Almost inevitably, his active role in the socio-political movement led to him being imprisoned repeatedly during the 1940s and 50s. While others in the Brotherhood left prison and went on to form or join extremist groups, Al-Qaradawi was able to shake off the trauma of torture in the notorious Egyptian prison regime to continue his development within the movement.
However, as the persecution in Egypt continued he headed for the tiny gulf state of Qatar to teach, and very soon his knowledge was sought by Sheikh Ahmad Bin Ali Al-Thani. The Emir of Qatar passed away in 1977, by which time he and Al-Qaradawi had become firm friends. It was the Emir who granted the scholar Qatari citizenship.
Immersing himself in his work in Qatar, the Sheikh embarked on a hugely influential publishing career and his easily accessible style gained him admiration from a generation of Muslims in the West who found his writing so easy to understand. When Al Jazeera Arabic channel launched in 1996 Al-Qaradawi was given a weekly show called “Sharia and Life” which became prime-time viewing with more than ten million viewers around the world. In the late 1990s, he launched two websites — Qaradawi.net and islamonline.net — to provide religious guidance, especially to converts and the curious who wanted to know more about Islam.
There were opportunities for him to expand his career outside of Qatar but the Sheikh wisely declined a leadership role in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on several occasions. As someone who could engage so easily with whoever was at his table, he used Islam to discuss everything from religion to politics, western democracy and climate change, as well as the challenges facing the Muslim world, including Palestine.
This all earned him the title “Global Mufti” which enraged his detractors even more. Determined to demonise him as an extremist his critics were derailed in their mission when, after the horrific events of 9/11 Sheikh Al-Qaradawi used his platform to condemned the attacks, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaida. Ignoring his moderate position, detractors turned to citing his support for the use of suicide bombers to resist Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. In later years, he would reverse his position on suicide bombing due to what he insisted were changed circumstances. He never regarded changing his view or opinion as a weakness, and while every fatwa — Shari’ah opinion — he issued was backed and supported by immense knowledge and understanding, he was also flexible without diluting his faith.
It is little wonder, then, that when the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 Muslims looked to him for advice and support. To the delight of ordinary Muslims he duly gave his support, but from the despots threatened by the uprisings he faced a new wave of animosity. Like many of us, Sheikh Al-Qaradawi hoped that peaceful revolution would bring an end to their brutal regimes and sweep in the Muslim democracy that he had long advocated.
The widespread failure of the Arab Spring and the downfall of the first democratically elected President of Egypt, Dr Mohamed Morsi, through a military coup in 2013, were extremely painful moments for the Sheikh. Far from being a divisive figure, he was constantly urging reconciliation.
Another huge disappointment for him was the failure of the revolutions in Iraq and Syria which saw the emergence of extremists in Daesh who declared their own “caliphate”. Bereft of any intellectual scholars of note, their ambitions rang hollow when the International Union of Muslim Scholars led by Al-Qaradawi declared this to be “legally null and void”.
I am going to miss the Sheikh’s ability to communicate with Muslims new to the fold of Islam using theology and sacred texts adapting to the needs of those like myself who weren’t born into a Muslim family or any of the various cultures at play in the Muslim world. Many of us Western converts were brought up to choose our own way of life, and so the “one size fits all” approach adopted by some scholars did not fit at all well, and Sheikh Al-Qaradawi knew that. For him, Islamic law was more a matter of conscience than coercion, and because he was able to embrace modernity, he was very popular among many Muslims wishing to live in the modern world while retaining or embracing a distinct Islamic identity.
As with most religions, Islam’s sacred texts are constantly reviewed and interpreted by scholars and this is where Al-Qaradawi’s skill of moving effortlessly in the contemporary world put him ahead of just about everyone else. He always looked for the meaning behind a Qur’anic verse instead of taking it literally, in stark contrast to the more traditionalist interpretations of other scholars.
Sheikh Al-Qaradawi has also been credited as a pioneer of what some viewed as a new jurisprudence called fiqh al-aqalliyyat — the “Jurisprudence of Minorities” — covering the growing Muslim communities living outside Arab and Muslim countries. In this, he drew on the traditional Islamic concept of “taysir”, often translated as “facility”, to argue that Muslims in the West should be treated more leniently with regard to Islamic law.
I remember someone sending me a copy of his fatwa published by islamonline.net permitting a European woman to remain married to her non-Muslim husband after she converted to Islam because of their otherwise harmonious union. This was ground-breaking stuff for converts who face all sorts of challenges while trying to embrace a new faith and lifestyle.
He also permitted European Muslims to take mortgages on houses and small businesses in order to function and work while living in the West. Both of these practices are normally strictly forbidden for Muslims, but he also recognised the impracticality of forcing traditional interpretations of Islamic law on those of us living in the West.
I am going to miss Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi’s common sense approach to our great faith and its diverse family of believers, but I’m confident that his legacy will live on through his followers and supporters. In my view, he was someone who could navigate all points of the compass; definitely a man for all seasons.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.