Madeleine Bunting meets Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Qatar (The Guardian, 30/10/05).
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi seems frail and betrays his 79 years as he walks into the ornate sitting room in his Qatari home. But after breaking his Ramadan fast, he talks late into the night with undimmed energy and passion. Widely regarded as the foremost scholar of Sunni Islam, he is a man with many enemies and many more admirers, and that might be the least of the contradictions that surround him.
Governments across the Muslim world are irritated by his forthright criticism of their lack of democracy and free speech, yet he is consulted by leaders such as President Bashar Assad of Syria and Muammar Gadafy of Libya. He is pilloried by militant Islamists for his criticism of terrorist outrages from 9/11 to 7/7, yet his outspoken support for the Palestinians and defence of suicide bombing have led to a ban from the US and could see him excluded from Britain under new anti-terror laws.
As a conservative religious leader, Qaradawi is keenly aware that he must do all he can to shore up his tradition against the threats of a fast changing world. He emphasises the need for a Muslim ummah (nation of believers) capable of defending its political and material interests and mentions developing military technology several times. For a man of religion to speak in such terms is unfamiliar to a western ear and it’s hard to square with his protestations that Islam is a religion of peace.
Yet western governments need Qaradawi. The French foreign minister made the journey to his home in the sandy suburbs of Doha to ask him to help secure the release of kidnapped French journalists in Iraq. He didn’t hesitate to condemn the recent kidnapping of Guardian journalist Rory Carroll. The British authorities have asked him for advice. He is often prepared to help.
And still his appeal across the Muslim world is unparalleled. Here is a man who, despite being born in an era before television was invented, has mastered modern communications. In his weekly slot on the Arabic television channel al-Jazeera, Qaradawi reaches an audience of around 40 million, while his teachings attract a global readership on the website IslamOnline.
Whenever he travels to Britain, as he has regularly for over 20 years, thousands of young Muslims come to hear him speak. His last visit was in 2004, when newspapers branded him a “race hate cleric” and a “devil”. But to Muslims both in Britain and abroad the vilification of Qaradawi is an outrage. They argue that, rarely for a cleric of his seniority and authority in the Middle East, he calls for a peaceful coexistence between Islam and the west.
He answers the questions that dog his reputation in Britain in careful and lengthy detail. Consistency is a point of honour to most religious leaders and he is no exception; if you have spent years studying religious texts to deliver fatwas, you don’t often change your mind. And his answers will bring little relief to his critics.
Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, he insists, are a form of jihad. “The actor who commits this is a martyr because he gave his life for the noble cause of fighting oppression and defending his community,” he says. “These operations are best seen as the weapon of the weak against the powerful. It is a kind of divine justice when the poor, who don’t have weapons, are given a weapon which the fully equipped and armed-to-the-teeth powerful don’t have – the powerful are not willing to give their lives for any cause.”
He maintains that Palestinian suicide bombing is targeted at combatants (something his critics would strongly dispute). “Sometimes they kill a child or a woman. Provided they don’t mean to, that’s OK, but they shouldn’t aim to kill them. In every war, mistakes are made and non-combatants get killed and usually military commanders come forward (as in the case of the US) and apologise – why can’t they accept others do the same?”
But he draws a distinction between suicide bombing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its use in London or New York. “The difference is huge. What happens in Palestine is self-defence. But in 9/11 they were not fighting an invasion; they didn’t just use their own bodies but those of all the others in the planes. These young men attacked non combatants – even other Muslims and Arabs – going about their daily lives. Because of this I have condemned what happened in London, Sharm El Sheikh [the Egyptian resort] and Madrid both in my personal capacity and as chair of the International Union of Muslim Scholars.”
The comfort of Qaradawi’s house – marble floors, gilt-trimmed furniture, a large 4×4 parked outside – is a far cry from his humble origins in an Egyptian village. His father died when he was two and, without siblings, he did what ambitious poor boys have always done – pursued his only opportunity to better himself by attending a religious school. By nine, he says, he had memorised the Qur’an. After attending Al Azhar, Cairo’s Islamic university, he went to Qatar on an exchange of religious scholars in 1961. Already associated with the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi chose not to return to Egypt after the movement was outlawed. The protection of the Qatari royal family has been crucial to his independence – without it he could not have been so outspoken in his criticism of Muslim governments.
His seven children are a source of huge and evident pride. Three daughters have PhDs from British universities and are now working in Qatar; one was recently honoured as one of the few nuclear physicists from the Muslim world. He is passionate in his belief that such educational opportunities should be available to all men and women in the Islamic world. “We want an education which prepares students who understand life and reality, not students who simply memorise things.”
Comments such as these have struck a chord with young, restless and better educated Muslims – Qarawadi broke with the religion as rote tradition. His The Lawful and the Prohibited, written in 1960, became a classic for a generation because of its clarity and relevance to modern life.
Within the context of Arabic Islam, he has been remarkable in arguing in favour of female education and employment; he has even declared they can be judges and has called for more women to become Islamic jurists. But of the notorious verse in the Qur’an which allows for the “beating” of wives by their husband, Qaradawi says he accepts it as a method of last resort – though only “lightly”. His critics within the Muslim community argue that his position has been overtaken by other scholars who believe that a closer translation of the verse does not condone physical punishment, but is instead about setting an example.
The issue on which Qaradawi becomes visibly irritated is one of those on which there is never going to be any narrowing of the gap with his critics: gay rights. The sheikh is completely bewildered that the west professes tolerance of homosexuality. “One wonders if the west has given up on Christianity,” he says. “We supposed that the west’s history and roots were in Christianity and the latter objects to homosexuality. The Torah also says sodomy is punished by God. We shouldn’t give the impression that Muslims are alone on this.”
Qaradawi’s answer reveals how patchy his understanding of the west is. Secularisation seems to be a profoundly foreign concept to a man whose mind is steeped in the discipline of his faith. But unusually for a Middle Eastern cleric, he mixes his horror of immorality and materialism with praise for the west.
He may not like US foreign policy but he is happy to launch into a long list of the many attributes of western development that he admires: scientific and technological advances come top. Qaradawi and western governments have a strong mutual interest in the struggle against Islamic extremism; he is as anxious as any western government to ensure young Muslim men don’t blow themselves up on tube trains, or hijack planes. He abhors the traducing and corruption of the faith that such actions expose, and says so to his audience of millions of young Muslims. The fact that the audience is still listening to this ageing scholar, is due to his independence of mind – and it is precisely that which, to western sensibility, can make him an uncomfortable ally. On democracy ‘In the Muslim world, I hope one day we will see real, not fake, democracies. What we have is more like controlled referendums. It’s like a race with only one horse running’. On homosexuality ‘Humans should not succumb to their lusts. This should not be seen as a disagreement between Muslims and non-Muslims, this is a clash between morality and immorality’. On domestic violence ‘Islam doesn’t call for beating but it is necessitated by certain circumstances for a certain type of woman and within limits’.