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A Formidable Foe

Anyone paying even perfunctory attention can observe that a war of ideas is being waged throughout Islamic societies. There are Muslims who call for women’s rights and there are Muslims who maintain that women should be subordinate and obedient to their husbands and fathers. There are those who call for democracy and those who call for an Islamic state. Some Muslims justify and encourage suicide bombings and some condemn al-Qaeda and 9/11-style attacks. On issues such as the Danish cartoons, there were calls for rage and there were warnings against the use of violence. On broader issues, such as political and religious reform, some Muslims argue for a modern approach in line with twenty-first century realities, and some Muslims argue that they should take their cues from Islam’s roots in the seventh century.

One might expect that this list of issues and positions was drawn from the various warring factions throughout the Islamic world. In fact, every single view that I listed above can be attributed to one highly controversial and very influential man. He is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is widely regarded as the most prominent living Islamic scholar. In a theology he calls the “middle-way” (wasatiyyah), he has managed to stake out a position between Western liberalism and the most radical forms of Islamism. His undaunted willingness to address the controversial issues, as well as his ability to offer religious guidance that appears to be both relevant to the modern world and authentically Islamic, has earned him a large international following and a tremendous amount of respect throughout the Islamic world.

Bettina Gräf and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen bring together a wide range of scholars to address the many facets of what the subtitle of their book describes as “The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi.” The editors assert that the book is “more than a biography.” They are more interested in Qaradawi as a phenomenon than as a person. In discussing the issues that have brought him considerable influence, and helped him to establish the beginnings of a global Muslims community, they have certainly succeeded. Yet, while Qaradawi is undoubtedly a reformer, his ideas are often criticized by liberals and these criticisms need to be taken seriously. This book often fails to do so.

Qaradawi was born in Egypt’s delta region in 1926. He received a traditional Islamic education and eventually graduated at the top of his class from al-Azhar University, the most esteemed center of Sunni Islamic learning. He later earned his doctorate from the same institution. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was active in the Muslim Brotherhood and served a prison sentence when Nasser’s regime brutally cracked down on the organization. In the 1960s Qaradawi found a more welcoming environment in Qatar, where he was sent as part of an al-Azhar delegation. He quickly established himself there as an Islamic authority, and was embraced by the ruling family. Since then, he has kept his primary residence in Qatar and only traveled back to Egypt for short periods of time.

As a twentieth-century Islamic leader, Qaradawi is unique. The Muslim Brotherhood was, for the most part, made up of and run by lay Muslims. Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, was a school teacher, as was the Brotherhood’s most influential intellectual, Sayyid Qutb. Other leaders of the Brotherhood have been lawyers, judges, doctors, and engineers. This lay status gave the organization’s leadership a semblance of legitimacy, because most of the traditionally trained Islamic scholars had been co-opted by the state. Despite this, in Muslim society there remained a high level of respect for traditional Islamic learning and traditional scholars. Qaradawi likes to emphasize his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and unlike most classically trained Islamic scholars, he has been able to remain largely independent of state powers. This hybrid identity as a traditional Islamic scholar who also enjoys the credibility of the Muslim Brotherhood has afforded him a high level of authority among modern Muslims, who are weary of state power and want to live an “authentic” Islamic life.

Qaradawi was also one of the first Islamic intellectuals to embrace the media and new forms of mass communications. He has a long history with television. His sermons have been broadcast throughout the Arabic-speaking world for decades, and he has hosted a religiously-themed show on Qatar television since 1970. In the late 1990s, he began hosting a program on the fledgling satellite channel al-Jazeera, which has since become one of the network’s most popular shows. Qaradawi was also quick to embrace the internet: in the 1990s he launched his own website and helped to establish as the most important Islamic-themed website in the world. He has been instrumental in the founding of several important international institutions; the most important of these are International Union of Muslim Scholars and the European Council for Fatwa and Research.

Essential to this project of building a global Muslim community is Qaradawi’s doctrine of the “middle-way.” The middle-way, like Qaradawi’s hybrid identity as a traditional scholar and a Muslim Brother, allows him to straddle two worlds. He assures those concerned with living Islamically acceptable lives that they do not have to give up on modernity, and he has been able to keep those Muslims more concerned with modern life within the Islamic fold. The term “middle-way” denotes a fine sense of moderation, yet as the noted scholar Gudrun Krämer asserts in the preface of the book, “moderation can mean different things in different contexts: What is moderate with regard to the rights of women or non-Muslims hinges on a definition of the extremes.” Thus when Qaradawi offers a religious edict that might be considered “extreme” in the West, he compares it with views such as those held by al-Qaeda, and presents his ruling as the moderate center. And when he takes positions that break from those of more conservative Islamists, Qaradawi juxtaposes his views with what he considers to be the overindulgences of liberalism.

With insightful chapters on Qaradawi’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Azhar, mass media, and the middle-way, Global Mufti makes a considerable contribution to the understanding of many of the most important aspects of this significant figure. But the book is far from a perfect or even complete rendition of the issues that surround the Qaradawi phenomenon. The title makes a claim for a global context for Qaradawi, but this context is lacking. Qaradawi is portrayed throughout the book as a moderate, which may be true in the Islamic Middle East, but is not the case in the West. In chapters with titles such as “Qaradawi in Europe, Europe in Qaradawi?”, one would expect the authors to address some of the controversy that Qaradawi has caused in the West. This is a man, after all, who has had nice things to say about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and has suggested that Muslims will one day finish the job. He has justified the death sentence for homosexuality, recommended female circumcision as a way for fathers to control their daughters’ sex drives, supported terrorism and called for the use of children as suicide bombers (he referred to them as “the children bomb”).

Instead of addressing these issues head-on, the authors often offer apologetic accounts of Qaradawi’s views. In the chapter on Qaradawi in Europe, for example, the authors argue that he “has become, with remarkable symmetry across Europe, the epitome of the Islamic fundamentalist threat…” but they never give a clear depiction of why so many Europeans might see him in this vein. Instead, they present Qaradawi’s more problematic views not as his true positions, but as “the accusations levelled at the Muslim scholar.” Not once do they state clearly the extent of Qaradawi’s problematic positions, preferring to elide them by claiming that his “views on the legitimacy of violence are too well known to be fully recalled here.” The problem is that they are not recalled at length anywhere in the book; and in this chapter they are presented not as his views, but as European overreactions and misrepresentations of his views. Surely the stakes are too high for scholars to shirk the controversial issues.

The chapter on women is also flawed. Barbara Freyer Stowasser gives a good account of Qaradawi’s views on women, but an analysis of these views is lacking. She has Qaradawi argue that “men and women have ‘equal rights’ in the family…”, but in the same paragraph she shows that he grants “permission for the husband to hit his rebellious wife.” In this case, as in many others where Qaradawi is presented as an advocate of both “gender equality” and male dominance, the reader is left wondering how Qaradawi squares the circle. No explanation is ever given. Instead, his views on women are presented as coherent and self-explanatory when nothing could be further from the truth.

Still, this is an essential book for anyone interested understanding contemporary Islam and the Muslim world. And while the book may downplay some of the most controversial of Qaradawi’s views, these are too often the only aspects of his thought that are discussed in the West. The editors have therefore done a great service in bringing other, less discussed, yet probably more important issues into focus. But discussing his entire outlook is not incongruent with giving him the harsh criticism that he often deserves.

Samuel Helfont is a graduate student at Princeton University. He is the author of Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Islam and Modernity (Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University: 2009).