Yusuf al-Qaradawi: A controversial voice for moderation in the Muslim World

Yusuf al-Qaradawi: A controversial voice for moderation in the Muslim World
4 min read
28 September, 2022
Influential Muslim religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who died in Qatar this week at the age of 96, was an outspoken opponent of extremism but also a critic of pro-Western dictatorships in the Arab World.
Yusuf Al-Qaradawi was one of the Muslim world's most outspoken and influential clerics [Getty]

Influential Muslim religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi died in Qatar on Monday at the age of 96, marking the end of a long life in which he gained a huge following across the Arab world and influenced millions of people.

Born in the village of Saft Turab in northern Egypt in 1926, Qaradawi became known as a voice of moderation in the Muslim world, rejecting the extremism of groups like Al-Qaeda and espousing democratic politics.

However, he was no stranger to controversy, and his comments on the Palestinian cause and opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq led to media campaigns against him in the West.

Islam played a central role in Qaradawi's life from his earliest years. He memorised the Quran by the age of 10 and attended Egypt’s Al-Azhar University after graduating from high school.

He joined the Muslim Brotherhood from an early age and was imprisoned several times in Egypt for his political beliefs, both in the 1940s under the monarchy, and in the 1950s after President Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power. Like hundreds of other Muslim Brotherhood members, he suffered torture during his time in prison.

He moved to Qatar in 1961, at a time when members of the Muslim Brotherhood were heavily persecuted under President Abdel Nasser's rule in Egypt.

Qaradawi soon developed a reputation as a leading Islamic scholar, gaining a doctorate with distinction from Egypt's Al-Azhar University in 1973 and founding Qatar University’s Faculty of Sharia and Islamic Studies in 1977.

He also became a prominent figure in the Brotherhood and was offered the post of Supreme Guide of the movement several times but turned it down. In his later years, he would often be critical of the group and emphasise his distance from it.

He wrote at least 170 books in his lifetime. One of the most important and influential was Islamic Awakening: Between Rejection and Extremism, the first edition of which appeared in 1982.

This work criticised both the rise in violent and intolerant interpretations of Islam, which became particularly pronounced in Egypt after Nasser’s ferocious suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s, and the pressures of the modern world which Qaradawi believed led to extremism.

Qaradawi said that Muslim extremists were "perpetually committed to excessiveness", with expectations "out of time and out of place", and he condemned the practice of takfir – declaring Muslims to be infidels – which extremist groups had adopted.

Qaradawi’s books were written in an accessible style which led to a huge popular following. He became known as a voice of Islamic moderation amid the rise of extremist groups.

When Al Jazeera was launched in 1996, it gave him a television programme called Al-Sharia wal Hayat (The Sharia and Life) which quickly became one of the most popular shows on the then ground-breaking channel.

Qaradawi was outspoken on a range of issues, and while he was vocal in condemning Islamist extremism, this did not mean that he was in agreement either with the West or with ruling Arab regimes.

His support for the Palestinian people during the Second Intifada, which broke out after the failure of the Oslo peace process in 2000, was unequivocal, as was his condemnation of the US’s invasion of Iraq.

This led to him often being branded an “extremist” in Western media despite his mainstream popularity in the Arab world.

When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, Qaradawi threw his support behind pro-democracy protesters, backing the use of armed resistance in Libya and Syria in the face of violent regime suppression.

After longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, Qaradawi was able to make a triumphant return to his native Egypt and speak to crowds in Tahrir Square, but after democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by a military coup in 2013, he found himself in exile once again in Qatar.

Sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by an Egyptian court following the coup, Qaradawi lived to see his hopes for moderation and reform in the Muslim world dashed. But his ideas are likely to remain influential in the Muslim world long after his death.