Religion, Politics and the Challenge of Reforms:
The Case of Yusuf al-Qaradawi
Mohammed Hashas 13 October 2022

The passing away of the “global mufti” and religious scholar Doctor Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (09 September 1926 – 26 September 2022) poured a lot of ink especially among Muslims, scholars and laymen, worldwide. Al-Qaradawi lived a century (96 years) that is marked by vital events at the regional and international level. While some consider him the “last” great Muslim public religious scholar, ‘Alim and Sheikh, and situate him among the pioneers of Islamic “moderation school” (madrasat al-wasatiyya), others consider him ultra-orthodox for having further tied religion and politics in Islamic thought instead of separating them as modern times require. Some of his critics call him an “extremist” because of his political views, or even go so far as to consider him “jihadist” though he condemned Al-Qaeeda, 9/11 terrorist events, and ISIS horrendous crimes. Al-Qaradawi grew up with the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, and saw Islam as the “solution,” especially for the Arab and Islamic world, and he ended up being more global in his perspective, having lived in the age of Satellite TV, Internet and Social Media dissemination. Apparently, he was the most public religious figure in the Arab world, and probably also most Islamic majority societies through the translations of his works into their languages. He influenced scholars, activists, and laypeople for about seven decades of his engagement with Muslim socio-political and religious issues. This piece reflects on his heritage and contextualizes it.


The Beginnings: From Egypt to the World

Al-Qaradawi was born in Egypt in 1926, memorized the Quran at the age of nine (09), and graduated from the prestigious al-Azhar University in Cairo (founded in 970 AD) in Arabic studies in 1954 and 1958,  got the Masters in Quranic studies in 1960, and PhD in jurisprudence in 1973. At an early age he attended a talk by Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and he was electrified by the vision of the speaker; he joined the movement and vowed allegiance to its leader afterwards, as he narrates in his four volumes autobiography Ibn al-Qarya wa al-Kuttab (The Kid of the Village and Religious Seminary), published gradually between 2001 and 2010. He was imprisoned during the monarchic period in Egypt, for anti-British activism, and thrice under Nasser’s regime for Muslim Brotherhood adherence. He had to flee to Qatar in 1963 where he became a citizen in 1968, and from where he moved to become the global sheikh of Muslims.


Al-Qaradawi directly or indirectly influenced millions of Muslims – the Sunnis in particular – with his jurisprudential views on various topics on which he left some 170 books – a lot of them are booklets -, besides hundreds of lectures and visual fatwas (legal opinions). He was encyclopedic in religious sciences and Arabic language – in which he also composed poetry in classic format. His works were direct in style, heavy with quotations from the founding sources, legalist in form, and not theoretically sophisticated. His complete(d) works (mawsū‘rat al-a‘māl al-kāmila) are expected to be published posthumously soon; he himself took care of revising it in his late days.


Al-Qaradawi wrote and spoke on politics, the state, secularism, sharia objectives, sharia law, globalization, the “West,” jihad, culture, education, economics, environment, ethics, women, family, and the human being in Islam. One of his most important first books is Fiqh al-Zakat (The Jurisprudence of Zakat), in two volumes, published in 1973; it was originally his doctoral thesis from al-Azhar; and it is an important reference in the literature of what is now called “Islamic economics.” That marked the beginnings of his scholarly erudition and reputation.


During the 1970s and 1980s, while still under the influence of the Brotherhood, he, however, wrote against the radical writings of Sayyid Qutb (who was hanged in 1966 by Nasser’s regime). He condemned the radicalization of his thought and its influence on the violent wing of the Islamist movement which acted against the will and order of the larger community and its broader interests; this he did in lectures and is also written in his autobiography. At the same time, he kept his admiration of the literary skills of Qutb and his Quranic exegesis and book on social justice in Islam. Similar critique was directed afterwards to the ultra-orthodox salafis, and to Al-Qaeda in the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as against ISIS when it appeared in 2014. His wrote two volumes on jihad in 2009, to contextualise the practice in Islamic formative period and later periods, and to delegitimize it in its violent forms of current radical Islamists. He defended international law and its United Nations institutions, to which States of Muslim majority societies are signatories. At the same time, he retained it as a form of recognized right of resistance and self-defence.


The era of writing against radicalization since the 1970s is what marks him as a pioneering figure of what is called Islamic Awakening (al-Sawa al-Islāmiyya) as well as moderation school (al-Wasatiyya).  This is not only because of his criticism of Qutb’s heritage but also because he did not side with the socialists or liberals in especially the Arab world during the Cold War and the polarization that marked society and intelligentsia at the time. While he still championed Islam as the religion of the future, and the holder of answers to society’s malaise, he did not incline towards socialism, for instance, as did some of his peers, like the prominent Marxist-turned-Islamist Mohammed ‘Amara (1931-2020); he, instead, remained close to the conservative moderation of Mohammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996), another influential Azhari scholar, his senior. In his autobiography he says that he was invited to chair the Muslim Brotherhood twice but he refused the offer. He saw himself the sheikh of all Muslims, and not only of the movement.


In Qatar since 1963, al-Qaradawi would move from local to regional and subsequently to global intellectual and institutional activism. In a society that is Wahhabi and Hanbali in origins, he finds the land fertile to exercise his erudition and vision. He founded Sharia College within the University of Qatar in 1977, and led research on the Prophetic Tradition there as well, and with time becomes the spiritual father of religious revival in the country, and from there in the whole region and the Muslim world through the space Qatari leadership and Al Jazeera network offered him.


Al-Qaradawi became a symbol of Qatari religious diplomacy worldwide. Through Al Jazeera TV, he virtually entered the home of millions every week in an important call-in show entitled “Al-Sharī‘a wa al-Hayāt” (Sharia and Life), a programme that run from the beginning of the channel in 1996 to 2013. The believers that watched also from outside the Arab world would call during the show broadcast to ask their questions, and he issued his fatwas/legal opinions on their issues. Al-Qaradawi’s early youth yearnings to serve Islam and Muslims became a reality for him through the means he got in his hands in Qatar, his window to the world.


Al-Qaradawi was already a religious known figure before Al Jazeera broadcasted him. For instance, it was he who led the funeral prayers in Lahore on the founder of Pakistan political Islam, Abu al-Aala al-Mawdudi in 1979. His influence in the Sub-Indian continent had roots: he was considered a disciple of the reformist school pioneered by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Rashid Rida (1865-1935), among others; and these were known in these parts of the Islamic world, as elsewhere. Al-Qaradawi was seen as a continuity of this school. Added to this is the fact that a number of religious scholars of the Sub-Continent studied in al-Azhar and in Qatar and some of them were his students in Qatar, and they translated some of his major books and fatwas into Urdu, or other local languages. The same applies to other contexts in South East Asia, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, etc., where he had disciples and followers. With this internationalization of his thinking from the 1970s, it was obvious that he would reject the invitation to be a leader of a local or regional movement like the Muslim Brothers. He was the Sheikh of all, and not the few.


Through Al Jazeera, al-Qaradawi also had live arguments with some prominent “secular” Arab thinkers, such as the Syrian Sadiq Jalal al-Azm (1934-2016); they argued with intensity all the while maintaining mutual respect in the famous programme “Al-Ittijāh al-Mu‘ākis” (The Opposite Direction) programme in 1999. Al-Qaradawi had a very conservative interpretation of the meaning of secularism; that is, it is against religion, which is the interpretation of many not only in the Arab world, so he would not accept that the Muslim community be labeled as secular, even though he saw at the same time that Islamic jurisprudence brought answers to life (secular) affairs – for the sake of human beings and their welfare. One of his major shortcomings here is that he did not distinguish between different types of secularisms; or, most probably he was aware of its varieties but he did not accept any of them since in all cases that would diminish the role of religion, according to him.


Al-Qaradawi championed the rights of women, though he overall remained conservative. He defended the right of women to hold the highest positions in society, like being judges or heads of governments or states, which ultra-orthodox and many orthodox scholars still oppose. (Two of his daughters are professors of physics at the university of Qatar). Some twenty years ago, Al-Qaradawi issued progressive fatwas on some scientific issues related to the family and the human right to live the stage of motherhood or fatherhood in life, even after infection with malignant tumors that prevent fertility. He wrote and spoke about the right of organ transplantation and fertilization banks. For example, he defended the right of (Muslim) women to store eggs in private banks for later use, especially women who do not marry at an early age, or who develop a tumor or cancer that may prevent them from having children after surgeries that aim to cure them. The same thing for men: they could freeze their sperm for later use for such reasons. These are advanced positions that the average Muslim as well as many orthodox scholars do not think of, let alone issue a fatwa on.


Nevertheless, the Arab secular-liberals still viewed al-Qaradawi as a very conservative sheikh. Some have labeled him “terrorism-instigator.” Of course, he was conservative in many matters of faith and jurisprudence, and he himself wanted to be so, and never prophesied that he is progressive in the liberal sense. Compared to his peers, he was revolutionary in his voice when it comes to defending independence, freedom, social justice, and dignity, though he was conservative on individual liberties; traditional Islamic ethics were his reference here.  That is why he was not welcome in some Arab states of which he was critical directly or indirectly – to which I return below. He was also very critical of the “West” for its double standards when it comes to Muslim societies. He raised a Muslim voice against the international community’s silence against the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kashmir, Burma, among other places, and was the most outspoken global religious authority in defence of the Palestinians. He was also against the war on Afghanistan and Iraq, and he supported the Iraqi’s resistance, in all types, against the Americans and British – which is also why he was banned from entering Britain and the US.


At the same time, Al-Qaradawi played an important role in pacifying Muslim-Western relations through his publications and fatwas on Muslim minorities in Western lands, at a time when excummunicating the “West” was still present among ultra-orthodox Muslim Wahhabis and salafis and their followers. Through Al Jazeera TV call-in show referred to above, through the “Islam Online” website in its early years, as well as through his founding of the “European Council for Fatwa and Research” in Dublin, Ireland, in 1997, and his book Fiqh al-Aqalliyāt (Jurisprudence of Muslim Minorities), 2001, al-Qaradawi emphasized the necessity of integration of Muslims in European and American societies, while preserving the foundations of religion in worship and transactions; this was also a form of proselytism for him and dissemination of the bright side of Islam. His views played an important role in making the “West” a “land of Islam” (Dār al-Islām), habitable for good by Muslims and not only for work, in the sense that it guarantees the fundamental rights of freedom, belief and dignity for Muslims. He asked Muslims to honour their citizenship allegiance to their European lands. Now that nearly 25 years have elapsed since the foundation of the Council and publication of the book, a lot has been further said and done on Islam and Muslims in the “West,” and his contribution may appear outdated, but in terms of history of ideas, it remains an important step.


Still, the global sheikh was not welcomed in the “West” because he gave a legal opinion (fatwa) in support of suicidal resistance as a means of self-defence; this he did in support of the Palestinians after the Oslo Accords and during the Second Intifada; later on, in an interview in 2016 with Salman al-Awda, one of his prominent disciples in Saudi Arabia, he said that he restricted the fatwa to the Palestinians, and that he now withdraws it, and the suicidal resistance is not allowed since the Palestinians have new means of defending themselves (i.e. they have access to weapons, instead of just their bodies).


Al-Qaradawi was also open to dialogue between the Shi‘ites and Sunnis, and between global religions, especially between Christianity and Islam. On Al Jazeera live, he prayed on Pope Paul II on the day following his death, in early April 2005, and took about four minutes to talk about the Pope’s good qualities, his love for peace, his defense of his religion and all human dignity; and he consoled Christians around the world and his Christian friends in Rome from the Sant’Egidio community for social services for their loss of the Pope. He also said that Muslim scholars hope to be able one day to choose their “Grand Sheikh” freely, without states interferences, just as Christian scholars choose their Supreme Pontiff through free elections. This is an important point worthy of mention and reflection. This compassion for a great religious figure of a different – and competing – faith may seem a simple act, but not all the sheikhs of Islam and scholars of other religions pay tribute and wish mercy to scholars of other faith leaders, because mercy in all conservative religious traditions is bestowed only on those who belong to the same faith tradition. Such a gesture of respect should be underlined in the age of takfir/excommunication, sectarianism, terrorism, and Islamophobia.


Al-Qaradawi’s establishment of the “International Union of Muslim Scholars” in 2004 was the culmination of his journey as an engaged religious scholar who seeks to protect his independence from central political authority, especially if this authority is not democratic and does not care about human rights. The Union was – and still is – an attempt to make the religious scholar connected to people and society through issuing manifestos and opinions on major matters that afflict Muslim societies in particular. Scholars may find the Union’s published data interesting to compare with, for instance, the statements of some national and regional institutions that aim at the same goal, to see where they meet and diverge, and which one of them is more free than the other, and more progressive or regressive.


Perhaps the last decade of the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2010-2011 was the decade in which the global sheikh issued fatwas and opinions that did not appeal to many in the Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian contexts, i.e. fatwas to fight and resist central regimes that torture and kill people who protest peacefully for social change. In the case of Egypt, his homeland, he stood on the side of the social protests, and this support led him to go and lead the first Friday prayer in Cairo, after Hosni Mubarak resigned in January 2011.  Al-Qaradawi was critical of the same prestigious institution from which he got his learning and fame, al-Azhar, for its neutrality on the Rabaa massacre in August 2013 and the coup d’état that followed it in Egypt. Grand Sheikh Dr Ahmad al-Tayyib condemned the use of violence then, but for al-Qaradawi this was not enough; for him, neutrality here sides with the regime and its excessive use of force. In the case of Libya, in February 2011, he issued a fatwa live against the national army that kills the people in the country, and asked the army to turn against its dictatorial leader Muammar al-Ghaddafi, and went further and asked them to kill him and get rid of him, for his dire devastation of the land and the people. As to the case of Syria, here too he stood with the people, and asked all those who could to fight against the regime of Assad. He also took the occasion to condemn the Iranian theocratic regime for its support of Assad against the people and their massacre, and displacement; he went so far as to say that he was wrong decades back when he was calling for Shi‘a and Sunni dialogue, since the Twelver political ruling Shi‘a élite revived old sectarianism in the region through its involvement in the Syrian conflict.


Overall, al-Qaradawi’s opinions have been consistent with his thought: Arabs and Muslims have to struggle for change for a better life and world; ijtihad (intellectual exertion) is a must for reviving the tradition, and sharia law is able to cope with modern challenges if well contextualized. And he had to take a stand when the moment came, i.e. the “Arab Spring”, and so he did; he may not have been successful in that, for some, but that is the case for someone who takes a stand, either for or against. As for silence, it was not of his characteristics, which is what made him respected by a broad class of the ordinary public in the Arab world and beyond. Al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Khaldun, Muhammad Abduh, Emir Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, Allal al-Fassi, Ibn Badis, al-Taher Ibn Ashour, and other prominent religious scholars of classical and modern times in Islamic social and intellectual history did, too, take political positions during their lifetimes, and they often suffered for that, and led a life of isolation in their end of times, either chosen or imposed isolation. Al-Qaradawi, too, experienced a similar end since 2013, when he was  no longer heard on Al Jazeera in particular. He spent the last period of his life with his daughter Ola, who was released from jail in Egypt, after about three years of pre-trial detention for having allegedly joined a terrorist group (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood that is listed as such in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). When she was released in 2021, Ola left to join her father in Qatar, while her husband is still in pre-trial detention in Egypt. Al-Qaradawi himself is sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Egypt, as of 2018, for “incitement to murder,” “spreading false news,” and “vandalising public property.” He was previously sentenced to death in absentia, in 2015.


Religion, reforms, and the dilemma of moderation

In the end, I would like to focus on one point here, which specifically pertains to the Arab world and its thinkers. The point is that Al-Qaradawi was a jurisconsult (faqih) in the first place. His main concern was to preserve the legal heritage of Islam, and to facilitate the jurisprudence as much as possible to keep pace with the present, without “liberalizing” it, because that would have meant the end of heritage, and the end of the meaning of the sheikh and his role in preserving it as he sees it; “scholars are the inheritors of the prophets,” as a Hadith goes, which al-Qaradawi would often repeat. This has always been the practice of mainstream Muslim scholars-jurists. Every innovator/mujtahid among them strives – within limits that he takes into considerations – to change the ideas that preceed him, but without at the same time loosening the ropes to reach a space that is beyond the established limits. If he loosens the ropes, what remains to be the difference between him and a liberal reformer?


It should be remembered that al-Qaradawi was an Azharite scholar, a holder of a turban, so he could not get rid of it, and he chose it as a guide for seeing the present and future of Islam and Muslims. He, thus, should not be asked for more than his specialization and choice allowed him. The permanence of Islam as we know it today is the work of moderate scholars such as al-Qaradawi – some of his political views aside. This does not apply to Islam alone; this applies to all religions and faith traditions. Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Calvinist Christianity, Judaism and its various currents, etc., all defend their heritage and try to remain faithful to it while calling for adaptation to human changes, without at the same time espousing very radical changes.


That is, no matter how reformed they try, moderate religious scholars will always remain “backward” – in the literary descriptive sense of “lagging behind,” and not in its pejorative sense – in the eyes of the liberals. This does not mean that liberals are always ahead; there are very conservative liberals, moderate conservative ones, and progressive ones. The issue is a question of interpretations, and religion as a social institution is also an intellectual tradition, based on an idea, one idea, that is interpreted differently by religious scholars and scholars of other disciplines differently, besides politicians and ordinary people who also hold various interpretations of the same idea.


Al-Qaradawi played on the middle ground, seeing the overall global context in which he lived: colonialism, socialism, Cold War, Palestinian Question, Islamophobia, terrorism in the name of Islam, internal authoritarianism, globalization, neoliberalism. In such a context, al-Qaradawi played a leading role in saving Arab and Islamic societies from terrible extremism through his views on moderation, gradual adjustment to modern challenges, non-sectarianism, and inter-and-intra religious dialogue, despite all the shortcomings that these endeavours have encountered and made these views appear little to his critics, or null to his predators.


In other words, the Islamic heritage that ordinary Muslims defend, and the Muslim philosophers who provide models in reforming Arab and Islamic thought among them, remain mostly grateful in the end to reformist and moderate sheikhs, because such people are the ones who are gradually moving with jurisprudence towards reform, albeit with little steps. Society is not led by religious scholars alone; it is especially led by politicians, scientists, and businessmen; this is more so in the modern era; this then makes each of these leading groups responsible for making change in society; and they share the responsibility at times of success and failure. While religious scholars may have strong influence on the masses and public culture, this does not always translate into political influence or victory, again especially in modern times in which the religious establishments have been tamed by “secular” politics and the “secularization” of society; only financially independent scholars do dare to retain their intellectual freedom and their ability to express themselves freely.


This does in no way mean that religious scholars in societies in transformations, like those in the Arab and Islamic world, do not play a centripetal or centrifugal power in these dynamics. While these scholars were the motor of cultural renewal nearly two centuries ago, and played a major role in liberation movements against modern colonialism, they soon turned into silent or regressive figures in their societies in the postcolonial period; their fear of liberalism and/or socialism pushed them to the conservative camp – and exceptions are always existent. The fragility of their societies, governed by non-democratic regimes, and a business elite that is not innovative enough to empower the lower classes in society left the religious scholars with the only easy alternative: to defend the masses through conservatism, moderate and non-violent in its utmost majority. The issue here is that moderation cannot push society for radical changes, if it is not supported by revolutionary changes at the economic and industrial levels, for instance. Change can happen – and is happening – in religiously “moderate” societies, but it is slow. Religious scholars are not the only ones to blame for the socio-economic and cultural malaise in the Arab and Islamic worlds.


Many so-called liberals in the Arab context – as in the Euro-American context – are very conservative compared to some religious scholars. They would prefer a dictatorship or a military regime to an enfant democracy led by religious politicians or politicians of religious reference.


Human societies do not like reform, and are content with what is common to them, and Arab societies, like other human societies, prefer the tradition, even if talks about change and reform are constant. The Arab chariot is now drawn by many horses, internal and external, and the sheikh is one of many horses. The sheikh needs someone to pull the chariot with him forward, not backward, so that he does not bear all the responsibility alone, and so that he does not embarrass himself and his clan of sheikhs in making decisions that his turban does not allow. The philosopher, the technocrat, the scientist, the businessman, the politician, the civil society activist, and every free citizen, should bear some responsibility with him and pull the chariot with him forwards! If all responsibility is given to him “alone,” sooner or later he grabs the occasion to lead society “alone,” and we fall into the same blame-game!


The passing away of the global sheikh al-Qaradawi closes an epoch of engaged Islam but it does not close the epoch of Islam in the public. Religion in the public sphere is there to stay, in the worlds of Islam as in the rest of the world, at least in the foreseeable future, especially that the rise of conflicts over territories and resources worldwide leads to the rise of prices in basic products and services, which can easily be turned into religious conflicts by populists and into religious demands for social justice by public religious scholars. Another al-Qaradawi is not impossible to rise again, since all the circumstances that led to the rise of the first are still there for another, or others, to arise. However, his disciples must have learnt a lot of lessons from his 20th century of vivid engagements, successes and limitations, and I assume that the tradition they will keep is that which turns jurisprudence into an ethical apparatus of engagement with social and global affairs, away from direct politics and political thought à l’antique! The Moroccan philosopher and historian Abdallah Laroui (b. 1933) wrote the following in The Arabs and Historical Thinking, 1972, one of his early important works in which he critiques traditionalist figures of all ideologies, be they religious or secular: “The Islam of the current century can only be built at the hands of a heroic few who are aware of their minority status and of the major tasks that await them.” By the “heroic few” he meant very daring reformists.


Mohammed Hashas is Lecturer at Luiss University of Rome, and is currently also a Research Fellow affiliate to Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. His publications include The Idea of European Islam (2019), Islamic Ethics and the Trusteeship Paradigm (2020), and Pluralism in Islamic Contexts (2021). He is presently working on a comprehensive collective volume on Contemporary Moroccan Thought, due in 2023.


Cover Photo:  Yusuf al-Qaradawi speaks to the press in Istanbul, Turkey on August 26, 2014 (photo by Munir Zakiroglu/Anadolu Agency via AFP).


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