Yusuf al-Qaradawi in 2011.Image ANP / EPA

    Twenty years ago, when the Arab channel Al Jazeera first came into existence, there was one talk show with millions of viewers. The show was called Sharia and life, centered on the Egyptian Muslim scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi. At a round table, the sheik spoke for hours, answering viewers’ questions on every conceivable topic, ranging from the war in the Gaza Strip to women’s self-gratification.

    Qaradawi died Monday in his hometown of Doha, the capital of Qatar, at the age of 96. More than a religious authority, he was one of the most important intellectuals in Sunni Islam. As a teenager he became active in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and although he later renounced membership, he remained a spiritual father figure to Muslim brothers around the world. His fatwas were considered moderate. He condemned female circumcision, honor killings and the 9/11 attacks. He spoke out against Islamic State and tried (in vain) to convince the Afghan Taliban to spare Bamyan’s ancient Buddha statues.

    The cleric, born in 1926, is said to have memorized the Quran by the age of 10. He grew up in a village in Egypt’s Nile Delta and studied theology at al-Azhar University in Cairo. There he came into contact with Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Presenting a response to the temptations (gambling, alcohol) and ‘decadence’ of the West, the Muslim Brotherhood had a tussle with the government throughout the 20th century, starting with King Farouk I and his successor, President Gamal Abdel Nasser. . Qaradawi was arrested, released and fled to Qatar in 1961, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

    New impetus for sharia

    He established his name among Muslim scholars in 1973 with the book Fiqh al-Zakat, in which he attempted to reform the practice of ‘zakat’ (alms to the poor, one of the five pillars of Islam). Donating to non-Muslims, until then taboo, he considered justified, provided the recipient did not adhere to an anti-Islamic ideology.

    That reform agenda holds its appeal for millions of Muslims in both East and West: Qaradawi sought to revitalize Sharia (Islamic law) by linking its teachings to principles such as wasatiyya (‘middle way’) and taysir (“facilitation”). A well-known example is his statement about French public schools, where the headscarf was banned. Given the choice, Qaradawi said, a young woman can take off her headscarf as long as there is good education in return.

    He became really famous with his talk show on Al Jazeera, the channel that was founded in Qatar. He became a forerunner among the ‘TV imams’, a phenomenon that later took off with the advent of YouTube. The small Gulf state also gave him ample scope to establish a forum for Muslim scholars, the International Union of Muslim Scholars, of which he himself became president. He also founded the website IslamOnline on, a source of information that still exists.

    Anti-Semitism

    On the world stage, reactions to Qaradawi’s performances and books (he wrote about 120) have always been mixed. As popular as he was among Muslims worldwide, his reputation was controversial in the West. He was repeatedly anti-Semitic. He called the Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel religiously legitimate (‘one of the highest forms of jihad’). Gays were ‘perverts’. During a sermon, he asked God “to kill all Jewish Zionists, to the last man.” On domestic violence, Qaradawi said, “Slaps are not effective with every woman, but they are effective with some.”

    In the Middle East, he has often been accused of stoking the fire between Sunnis and Shiites. After the Western invasion of Iraq (2003), he sided with the anti-American resistance. The French and British governments subsequently refused him an entry visa. He has not been welcome in the United States since 1999.

    Qaradawi did get the chance to return to his homeland at an advanced age. In the spring of 2011, President Mubarak had been ousted after weeks of protests, and the sheikh had spoken out for more democracy in the region. He called for jihad against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and encouraged Libyan insurgents to kill their president. “Let no one steal this revolution from you,” the then 84-year-old said in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in front of tens of thousands of demonstrators.

    Sentenced to death

    His triumph was short-lived: Mubarak’s successor Mohammed Morsi (a Muslim brother) was overthrown in a coup, after which Qaradawi was sentenced to death in absentia. Under current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Muslim Brotherhood has once again been completely banned.

    More than a struggle between east and west, Qaradawi embodied a struggle within the Arab world. Many heads of state in the region fear the Muslim Brotherhood and have labeled them a terrorist organization. In 2017, this led to a diplomatic clash between (among others) Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, culminating in a regional boycott of Qatar and Al Jazeera.

    Qaradawi was denounced as a terrorist by the Saudi royal family, his oeuvre was blacklisted. He has never been removed from that list. His death was announced on his Twitter account on Monday.

    3x Yusuf al-Qaradawi

    After the attacks on the Twin Towers in September 2001: ‘Islam never permits a Muslim to kill the innocent and the helpless.’

    During the Gaza War, January 2009: ‘Throughout history, Allah has always punished the Jewish people for their corruption. The last sentence was carried out by Hitler.’

    In a 2010 fatwa: “There is nothing that prohibits women from singing, as long as singing is not accompanied by prohibited practices, such as dancing and consuming alcohol.”

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