What Happened?

On September 26, Yusif al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born cleric with Qatari citizenship, passed away at the age of 96. Qaradawi was one of the more prolific Muslim religious figures, and was particularly associated with a specific modernist trend. He owed his profile to his willingness to engage in a broad variety of contemporary subjects, his media presence provided by Al-Jazeera, his wide network in the broader Muslim Brotherhood following, and the support of his hosts in Doha. His death was marked by condolences in different parts of the Muslim world, as well as renewed conversation and debate over his scholarly legacy.


Why Is It important?

Qaradawi was the last of a generation of proponents of modernist Salafism, and perhaps the one with the most public profile. Not to be confused with the Saudi Salafi movement, modernist Salafism was a 19th and 20th century intellectual trend, the main impetus of which was to restore Muslim political autonomy in a world still reeling from Western colonialism, and then imperialism. Its followers deemed certain reforms and adaptations necessary in the religious arena to achieve this. The original figures of the movement included the likes of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Mohammed Abdu (the former mufti of Egypt), and the Syrian intellectual Rashid Rida. The trend was critiqued on religious grounds by various figures within the Muslim religious establishment. However, it continued to survive and inspire a number of different political movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna, a key proponent of Rida’s work.

Qaradawi became deeply connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1940s. This was an association that continued for the rest of his life and that resulted in his imprisonment in Egypt on multiple occasions for his connection to the banned organization. He eventually left Egypt as a result, though he returned as a visitor many years later, both prior to and after the uprising in 2011.

It was in Qatar, where Qaradawi moved in 1961 to become a religious teacher, that his profile and fame began developing. He wrote a number of different works on contemporary subjects. He departed from his peers by expressing conclusions in simple idioms aimed at the masses, rather than at his fellow scholars, and he also relied less on traditional religious methodologies than his counterparts. As a graduate of Al-Azhar University, Qaradawi had the clerical credentials necessary to satisfy his more religious followers, but was also able to speak in a plain, nonscholarly language, more often than not with an activist bent. As a result, his profile and mass appeal far exceeded that of most of his peers.

As much as his approach was appreciated by his audiences, there were also many who critiqued it. This was particularly true because Qaradawi’s attachment to the modernist Salafi trend meant that more traditional mainstream scholars found his work problematic and questioned his religious methodology. In this regard, there were many such critics, most notably the famous Syrian religious scholar Said Ramadan al-Bouti. Beyond the mainstream, there was also disapproval voiced by purist Salafis associated with Saudi Arabia.

Qaradawi’s fame continued to grow from Doha, where he was made dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law at the newly established Qatar University, which eventually provided him with a huge platform. His TV program on Al-Jazeera, Al-Shariaa wa al-Hayat (Sharia and Life), widened his international profile further, and provided content for a large online database as the internet came of age, which was unique among Muslim religious figures of the time. He also courted controversy in the political arena, which resulted in bans on his entry into the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere, ending his regular visits to the West.

Some examples include his support for the use of suicide bombings by Palestinians fighting against Israeli occupation and Syrians fighting the Assad regime (though he would change his mind years later). Critics accused him of normalizing a tactic that would eventually be used on a much wider scale by far more extremist groups than Qaradawi might have envisaged. While he signed the Amman Message for intra-Muslim unity in 2004, his discourse on the Shia became increasingly combative, particularly after 2011, against the backdrop of Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Shia militias in Iraq, as well as Qaradawi’s assessment of their proselytization activities against Sunnis internationally.

This also resulted in Qaradawi opposing the uprising in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, which he portrayed as a Shia uprising against a Sunni monarchy, even as he supported revolutionary uprisings almost everywhere else in the Arab world. His record during the Arab uprisings was also controversial. While counterrevolutionary movements and governments could be expected to censure Qaradawi for supporting most of the uprisings, there were also revolutionary groups who condemned his support for the Muslim Brotherhood.


What Are the Implications for the Future?

Qaradawi’s television show on Al-Jazeera ended in 2013, after almost two decades. Qatar, his adopted country and main state backer, became entangled in a wider geopolitical conflict with its immediate neighbors in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain. Qaradawi’s often fiery media statements against the political directions in these countries fueled tensions between Doha and other regional capitals. As a result, Qaradawi’s voice had been absent for several years.

In Qaradawi’s earlier life, he had benefited from various networks of support due to his Muslim Brotherhood connections as well as Qatari state and media support—quite distinctly from others in the wider religious establishment in the Arab world. As international media and the internet has developed, there is now a more fragmented information environment, with competing groups mobilizing religious soft power in the Middle East and North Africa, supported by various countries, notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey.

These trends may be unaffected by Qaradawi’s passing. However, his death certainly bookmarks a particular period when religious figures came into contact with the age of expanding regional satellite channels, as well as the proliferation of online resources and social media outlets.