Muslims divided on cleric's teachings

The debate on Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi shows the difficulty of defining 'moderate' Islam, a concept with radically differing …

The debate on Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi shows the difficulty of defining 'moderate' Islam, a concept with radically differing interpretations. He talks to Mary Fitzgerald

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi doesn't have much time for journalists, and it shows. Getting an interview with the man banned from the US yet considered the world's most influential Muslim scholar involves much toing and froing.

He is wary of the western media, I am told, because he feels they twist and misinterpret his words. Months of wrangling eventually culminate in a short conversation snatched between sessions at a conference in Istanbul. It feels rushed and Qaradawi seems preoccupied. It is hardly an illuminating encounter but perhaps that is not surprising. Despite being endlessly scrutinised, the octogenarian Egyptian cleric remains a complex enigma behind all the controversies and sensationalist tabloid headlines.

Qaradawi is many things to many people. To his millions of followers, he is a moderate reformer who helps seam Islam with modern life; a brave and independent voice in a world where too many Muslim clerics fail the credibility test because of their links to corrupt governments; a powerful figure whose swift denunciations of al-Qaeda attacks in New York, London, Bali and Madrid carry extra weight within the Muslim community.


To his critics, however, he is an extremist provocateur who hails Palestinian suicide bombings as "martyrdom operations" and says those killed trying to expel US forces from Iraq should be considered martyrs. His uncompromising views on homosexuality have also drawn fire in Europe and the US.

More than anything, the debate surrounding Qaradawi shows the difficulty of defining "moderate" Islam, a concept that often appears to have radically different meanings for Muslims and non-Muslims.

Qaradawi likes to present himself as taking the middle path, albeit one that doesn't stray far from the central tenets of Islam. "You find people split into three categories," he told The Irish Times. "There are those we call extremists who deprive people of everything. They view women as low and human rights as a narrow horizon. There are the liberals who don't commit themselves to anything in religion and open the gate wide to everything. Then you have the moderates who like to facilitate things. They believe that God made things easy for humans.

"They believe in conversing with others and forgiveness for the sinful. They believe in peace, not war. They believe in peace and tolerance but warn those who want to fight them that they will fight back."

Two days before, hundreds of Turks had crowded into a theatre on the outskirts of Istanbul to hear Qaradawi speak. It was just before the crisis in Lebanon erupted and tensions were high in Gaza.

In his sonorous classical Arabic, Qaradawi railed against what he referred to as "our [ Islamic] nation's tragedies". The simultaneous Turkish translation crackled through loudspeakers positioned around the auditorium. "Islamic blood, my brothers, became the cheapest blood on earth, and the Islamic nation became the easiest nation on earth," he thundered, going on to lambast Muslim countries hamstrung by weak and dictatorial regimes.

Speaking to an audience of scholars, clerics and ordinary Muslim men and women, it was interesting that much of his lecture was taken up with the Islamic world's relationship with itself, an unsparing analysis that didn't shy away from pointing out shortcomings.

"There is no life for this [ Islamic] nation, no strength, no survival, no victory without Islam," he said. "But which Islam? There are people who show Islam as if it is an enemy to civilisation and modernisation, as if it is an enemy to life. They show Islam as a frowning face that doesn't smile and doesn't know how to smile and doesn't know what life is about. This is the dark side of Islam which we see in some people. That is not the real Islam."

Later he told the crowd: "We need modernisation. If we want to promote ourselves, we can get this by modernity."

The speech earned him a standing ovation. Outside, a young Turkish woman explained why she pays more attention to Qaradawi than any other scholar. "He brings clarity to the issues that affect us as Muslims," she said. "He knows what he is talking about and because of that his message of coexistence is an important one."

Although a prolific scholar with more than 40 books published, Qaradawi arguably owes his influence as much to his canny embrace of technology as to scholarship. His weekly TV show on al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite network, pulls in around 40 million viewers. His teachings and fatwas reach a global audience through the website IslamOnline, of which he is a patron. Tapes and videos of his sermons are available in translation in most Muslim countries.

"There are probably other scholars who are as or more knowledgeable but not as well known," says Azzam Tamimi, director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought. "His publications and in recent times his regular appearances on al-Jazeera have made the difference. He is also outspoken when others are silent."

Born in a village on the Nile delta, Qaradawi is very much a product of his generation, shaped as it was by the rise of political Islam in Egypt. After studying at Cairo's Al Azhar university, Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning, he was imprisoned several times for membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement aimed at triggering an Islamic revival in Egypt.

Linked to a number of assassinations in its early years, the organisation now has a significant presence in parliament despite being officially banned.

Qaradawi is often described as the spiritual leader of the brotherhood but has reportedly turned down several offers to become the group's de facto chief. There are suggestions that he has distanced himself from the organisation in recent decades.

"When he left Egypt he devoted himself completely to study and writing books, and moved away from politics," says Sheikh Hussein Halawa, a Dublin-based cleric and chair of the newly established Irish Council of Imams. "That is not to say, however, that he is not allowed to agree with the Muslim Brotherhood on certain points, although he has also publicly disagreed with them on a number of occasions."

Sheikh Halawa, also from Egypt, is a close friend of Qaradawi. Many Muslim Brotherhood members I met recently in Cairo asked me if I knew Sheikh Halawa after hearing I was from Ireland. I tell Halawa this and ask if he is in the brotherhood himself. "I am not an Ikhwani [ Muslim Brother]," he says. "I am not a member of any party or political organisation. I am a Muslim scholar."

Sheikh Halawa is secretary general of the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), a 35-member body set up in 1997 to provide fatwas (Islamic theological opinion) on issues pertaining to Muslims in Europe.

Qaradawi serves as permanent chair of the council and its main office is based in the country where the serving secretary general lives. For this reason, the ECFR has had its headquarters in Dublin's Clonskeagh mosque since Sheikh Halawa was appointed secretary general five years ago. The council meets twice a year, often in Dublin, but Qaradawi's visits here have not proved as controversial as in Britain and the US.

Soon after Qaradawi issued his infamous fatwa sanctioning Palestinian suicide bombings, his 10-year US visa was revoked. Whenever he visits Britain, there are calls for a similar ban to be enforced there.

He repeated his position on suicide bombings against Israel in an interview with BBC's Newsnight: "It's not suicide. It is martyrdom in the name of God," he said, justifying civilian casualties including pregnant women on the basis that Israeli society is "militarised".

Such methods are legitimate self-defence, he has argued. "[ Allah] has given the weak what the strong do not possess and that is the ability to turn their bodies into bombs like the Palestinians do."

It was pronouncements like this that led to calls for Qaradawi's arrest in Britain. In an article headlined "The Evil Has Landed", one tabloid newspaper called him a "devil".

In Istanbul he appears sanguine about the controversy he stirs in the West.

"It is for one reason alone and that is the Palestinian issue," he says. "I am against the Israeli aggression. I support jihad and the Hamas and Hizbullah movements. Because of this the Israeli and American media work against me. Why are they against me only because of this issue when I am working on others which are of concern to them, like women's issues, human rights, peace, dialogue and forgiveness."

Sheikh Halawa agrees. "The most important thing for Sheikh Qaradawi is peaceful coexistence. How do those who criticise him explain his condemnation of attacks in London, Spain and the US? I would like them to find one example where he supported violence outside Palestine and Iraq."

Not every Muslim scholar or cleric supports Qaradawi's stance on suicide bombings. In 2004, a group of Muslim scholars and academics filed a petition to the UN accusing Qaradawi and others of "providing a religious cover for terrorism".

Sheikh Shaheed Satardien, a Dublin-based cleric who recently clashed with mainstream Muslim leaders in Ireland when he claimed the country had become a "haven for fundamentalism", believes Qaradawi's fatwas damage Islam. "He is not a moderate," Satardien says.

"He will become a moderate when he says suicide is haram [ forbidden] full stop. He was the first scholar to say suicide bombings were allowed and even though he restricted it to the Palestinian situation it is very difficult to climb back from that.

"His fatwas have given nutcases elsewhere legitimacy and made them feel they are doing something that is right in Islam. He is a dangerous embarrassment and he has put Islam back hundreds of years."

When confronted on his views about homosexuality, Qaradawi insists his role is simply to discuss the different interpretations of the Koran.

"It is forbidden in Islam, just as it is forbidden in Christianity," he explains, saying any question of punishment is a matter for the state to decide.

He has also faced criticism for his reading of the Koranic verse which allows for the "beating" of women by their husbands - Qaradawi has stated it is not obligatory or desirable but acceptable only if done "lightly" as a last resort.

His critics, particularly in the West, may scoff at any notion of Qaradawi as a reformer but others point out that he has been branded a heretic by hardliners who accuse him of selling out to the modern world. "He is often condemned by extremists for what is considered to be his 'concessionary position'," says Azzam Tamimi.

Qaradawi's insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about land and not religion has angered those who believe there is a fundamental religious conflict between Jews and Muslims, as has his demand that Jews and Christians be respected and engaged with as "People of the Book" who share the God of Abraham.

When he travelled to Afghanistan in early 2001 to ask the Taliban not to destroy the ancient statues of Buddha at Bamyian, the same critics accused him of condoning paganism and idolatry. Later that year he enraged many by putting his name to a fatwa allowing American Muslims to join US forces fighting in Afghanistan.

His push for greater democracy and better rights for women in the Muslim world has also riled ultra-conservatives.

For many in the West, the issue remains how much governments should engage with someone like Qaradawi - if at all. British police commissioner Ian Blair admitted to a lecture audience in the US that the cleric "has views on the Palestinian intifada that probably would not be very acceptable either here or in the UK" but said he was impressed that Qaradawi can "command an audience of 50,000 young people at the drop of a hat".

Qaradawi says he is hopeful. "These tensions can be dealt with. Civilisations can dialogue with the other. In the past we all took good things from each other.

"Islamic culture took some influences from the Greeks, from India and Persia and other cultures took different things from the Islamic world. There is no reason why people cannot live together peacefully."

And with that he is gone, his long robe billowing around his ankles. Extremist or moderate? The jury is still out.

Mary Fitzgerald is the first winner of the Douglas Gageby journalistic fellowship. Her reports on "The Faces of Islam" appear in Fridays's Irish Times