“Don’t stop history! Nobody will be able to fight the divine decrees, nor delay the day when it rises. This world has changed and the world has evolved.”1 Only one week after President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was announced in 2011, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi delivered those words during a powerful speech blessing the Egyptian revolution. Sitting before millions gathered in Tahrir Square for Friday prayers, the 84-year-old Qatari-based Egyptian cleric praised the Egyptian people’s resilience and fortitude. “The youth who have triumphed in this revolution did not triumph over Mubarak only,” Qaradawi exclaimed. “They triumphed over Mubarak, they triumphed over injustice, they triumphed over falsehood. They triumphed over robbery and they triumphed over plundering. They triumphed over egoism and they initiated a new life by this revolution.” Indeed, this bespectacled cleric with the carefully cropped beard has long dichotomized the world as just and unjust. But as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi’s categories and belief in the centrality of Sharia law as the bedrock of Egyptian justice count as more than clerical abstraction. At the time, his impassioned speech seemed to mark the return of Egypt’s prodigal son.
Nearly four years later, however, Qaradawi’s declaration of a world transformed appears in tatters. The brief success of the Muslim Brotherhood, which peaked with the election of Muhammad Morsi to the Egyptian presidency in 2012, came crashing down with his subsequent ouster in July 2013. Worsening its crisis, the Brotherhood once again has been forced underground by the new military government’s harsh crackdown and sweeping arrests. Outside of Egypt, the group’s position has rapidly deteriorated as well, with the United Arab Emirates officially designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in 2014.2 Even Qatar, a longtime Brotherhood haven, has expelled several key leaders. Qaradawi himself has been prohibited from delivering public sermons in Qatar since the middle of September and, at the behest of Egyptian authorities, Interpol has issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of incitement and involvement in arson, vandalism and theft.3
And yet, despite these mounting obstacles, Qaradawi remains unbowed. He continues to condemn all attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood and stresses the inevitability of its success. In early December 2014, for example, Qaradawi issued a statement to the Egyptian people warning of the challenges ahead. “These days are crucial in Egypt’s modern history, critical days that bring hardships and tribulations,” he observed, before underscoring the importance of “clinging stubbornly to [the Truth] and having patience in the face of adversity.”4
Qaradawi’s resolve in the face of deteriorating circumstances should come as no surprise. In fact, it aligns perfectly with the narrative he has cultivated his entire life, from his precocious student days in the Nile Delta to his rise as a “global mufti” astride the international stage.5 Qaradawi views his life’s work through the lens of Islamic history; he identifies with Islam’s prophets who similarly faced adversity and hardship in their day. Dawa, the proselytization of Islam, demands patience and requires long-term struggle. Along the way, a da’i, or preacher, will inevitably face setbacks. Therefore, as a da’i practicing dawa, Qaradawi’s response to the Brotherhood’s recent misfortunes springs from his long-time emphasis on patient struggle in the face of adversity.
Spanning more than 2,000 pages and four separate volumes, Qaradawi’s autobiography, Ibn al-Qarya wa-l-Kuttab: Malamih Sira wa-Masira (Son of the Village and the Kuttab: Characteristics of the Trajectory), guides the reader through key events in Qaradawi’s life, including many of the historic events that shaped the Middle East over the past century. The memoir’s four volumes, published over the course of ten years, cover Qaradawi’s life through the mid-1990s. While it is difficult to confirm the veracity of much of his account, the importance of Qaradawi’s memoir lies in how he perceived and wove together events.
As his memoir underscores, Qaradawi’s interest in and involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood began early in his childhood. He vividly recalls his fascination with Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, from the moment of his first encounter in elementary school. In describing his deep veneration for Banna and his vision, Qaradawi writes, “If in the land of love they talk about love at first sight, in the land of dawa we can talk about love from the first word.”6 He details the first lecture he heard from Banna, who expounded upon the Brotherhood’s mission, tools and dawa. Banna described how the Brotherhood divides its mission into three stages, all revolving around the concept of watan, or homeland. Each stage requires the liberation of part of the Muslim world – first Egypt and Sudan, then the Arab region, and finally the entire Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.7 Qaradawi was deeply moved by Banna’s explanation of the Brotherhood’s mission; in recounting his experience with the movement’s founder, he describes Banna as “brilliantly radiating, as if his words were revelation or live coals from the light of prophecy.”8 These early impressions of the Muslim Brotherhood leader shaped Qaradawi’s worldview as a Muslim cleric.
Qaradawi’s focus on liberating the Muslim world continued to evolve as he rose within the Muslim Brotherhood. He began his activities with the organization while still in high school, quickly distinguishing himself as a masterful da’i in his village and in the surrounding towns. Qaradawi attributes to the Brotherhood his inspiration for getting involved in dawa, and his burgeoning sense of obligation toward the Ummah, or global Muslim community. In describing his approach to dawa, Qaradawi explains,
I transformed from being simply a religious preacher in a village and its environs to an Islamic proselytizer. My interest was no longer limited to protecting the religiosity of individual Muslims, which of course is necessary. We require a general Islamic awakening to awake minds, revive hearts and bring new life to people.9
Qaradawi’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood broadened his horizons by connecting him with the larger Muslim world. This deeper connection to the Muslim Ummah became a defining characteristic of his dawa work and transformed him from a judicious student into a true activist.
While studying at the prestigious al-Azhar University in Cairo, Qaradawi further developed his understanding of his life’s mission. He enrolled in the Arabic Language faculty in the early 1950s where he specialized in teaching. In his memoir, Qaradawi reflects on these early memories of al-Azhar, emphasizing his disappointment in the widespread lack of student activism. As the preeminent bastion of Sunni Islamic learning, he believed that the university should not confine itself to higher learning, but rather needed to engage the Muslim community at the dawa level as well. As such, he promoted internal reforms within the university: “I was interested in everything that would reform al-Azhar and raise the prestige of its students and promote the performance of their mission, which is the message of Islam, and remove the stumbling blocks from their path so that they can carry out their mission to the best of their abilities.”10 In other words, Qaradawi was not content with the partitioning of Islamic learning from Islamic activism, but rather envisioned student activism grounded in Islamic learning that would contribute to the broader mission of spreading the message of Islam.
Before long, Muslim Brotherhood members convinced Qaradawi to write an open letter to the student body demanding reform. In the letter, Qaradawi discussed dawa, and reminded his fellow students that they have a responsibility to help guide the Ummah on the proper path of Islam. “We have to undertake our complete duty in this jihad, and light the torches of guidance in the night of doubt whose darkness has surrounded the Muslims,” he intoned, fervently. “We wait for reward only from God who loses nothing, as we link the present to the glorious past while looking towards a radiant tomorrow and an enlightened future.” 11 Already, Qaradawi viewed the world as steeped in lies, and as a Muslim, he felt compelled to unmask those falsehoods. Therefore, he considered anything but persistent efforts at dawa and active engagement with, and guidance of, the Muslim community as insufficient.
Qaradawi’s focus on reclaiming the proper mantle of Islam by liberating the Muslim world from Western hegemony became his lifelong mission. He summarizes this idea, writing:
I began to aspire towards freeing the entire Nile Valley and the Arab and Islamic lands from all foreign powers. I sought to expel all imported ideas, organizations and laws, and putting in their place Islamic ideas, organizations and laws. I hope for the Muslim Ummah to advance and take its place in the retinue of science and technology and leave the prison of dreadful backwardness. I hope that, after being divided by the ignorant nationalism, imported ideologies, ruling egoisms and especially the colonial induced strife with the slogan "divide and conquer," the Ummah can unify. I hope that the Islamic caliphate returns to rule the Ummah under the banner of the Quran and the leadership of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). 12
Qaradawi believes that Islam and the Muslim world have been corrupted by outside influences and foreign powers; only in ridding itself of such fraudulent ideas can the Ummah reclaim its past glory. At the core of this purge, according to Qaradawi, is the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate, allowing Islam to emerge from its “prison of dreadful backwardness” and “take its place in the retinue of science and technology.”
Patience in the Face of Adversity
Patience is the key concept operationalizing Qaradawi’s mission. Neither Qaradawi nor the Brotherhood view themselves as revolutionaries; rather, they believe in the gradual implementation of their vision. In this vein, they seek to first reform the individual, then the larger society, and eventually the entire Muslim world. This gradualist approach differentiates Qaradawi and the Brotherhood from other Islamist groups who believe in an immediate implementation of a caliphate and Islamic law as they understand it.
Throughout his memoir, Qaradawi explores this notion of patience in the face of adversity. For example, he vividly describes the tough conditions and oppressive heat he endured during one outing to a nearby village as a young preacher, carefully noting that such hardships are ephemeral and worth enduring as a youth.13 At various points, Qaradawi stresses that while a Muslim preacher will undoubtedly face difficulties in his mission, it is his duty to shoulder his burdens unflinchingly.
Qaradawi experienced the challenges of dawa on a much larger scale while still a young member of the Brotherhood. By 1948, the Brotherhood had developed into an organized movement with a strong membership base. However, some members of its secret apparatus, an internal paramilitary organization established by Banna, turned to violence and targeted British citizens and institutions across Egypt.14 In response, the prime minister of Egypt, Mahmoud al-Nukrashi Pasha, banned the Brotherhood and impound its assets. This set off a series of assassinations – less than three weeks later the prime minister himself was assassinated by a member of the Brotherhood and shortly thereafter Hasan al-Banna was killed. A massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood ensued, including waves of arrests targeting the movement. Although Qaradawi originally fled to the village of Salmawiyyah, he too eventually surrendered to the authorities. In 1949, he was moved from a small holding cell in the Gharbiyah governorate to a permanent prison camp at al-Tor in the southern Sinai Peninsula.15
Interestingly, Qaradawi reflects positively on this experience in his memoir. He recalls that while the Muslim Brotherhood was officially dissolved with many members sent to the al-Tor detention center, the organization emerged from prison stronger and more determined than ever before. Qaradawi could hardly refuse noting the irony: “Al-Tor prison was a permanent camp for the Muslim Brotherhood in 1949. Travel, costs, expenses were all on the government.” 16
For Qaradawi, prison proved reinvigorating and underscored the Brotherhood’s durability. In his memoir, he discusses how the Brotherhood’s communal identity allowed it to grow spiritually and organizationally. At the core of the group’s success, according to Qaradawi, was their ability to navigate tribulations through hardened and deliberate patience: “Indeed, the Brotherhood’s patience during their adversities, certainty about their dawa, cohesion amongst themselves, and the utilization of this adversity to increase their faith did not come haphazardly. Rather it was a result of a long term breeding of faith, well-established, deep-rooted pillars.”17 In other words, Qaradawi’s experience in prison served to confirm that the Brotherhood and its mission remain inviolable, and that unyielding commitment is essential. Paradoxically, the group managed to grow despite – and in part because of – its imprisonment.
Qaradawi similarly emphasizes patience in his analysis of the Brotherhood’s dissolution: “Indeed, the dissolving of the Muslim Brotherhood and taking down of their signs did not change the truth which is that the Brotherhood cannot be dissolved. Because the bond that ties them together is adherence to God’s strong rope which is more powerful than any force.”18 In his memoir, Qaradawi returns to the importance of patience in his assessment of another crackdown that targeted the Brotherhood and other Egyptian opposition movements in 1981. As he laments, “if a disaster happens, we ask God for patience.”19 Thus, Qaradawi’s worldview is shaped by his experiences with adversity; he strongly believes that patient “adherence to God’s strong rope” is fundamental not only to the Brotherhood’s own success, but for the entire Ummah as well.
This mantra of patience also colors Qaradawi’s reaction to criticism. In the fourth volume of his autobiography, Qaradawi responds briefly to several criticisms levied at the first three volumes of his tome, arguing:
A person must prepare oneself mentally for possibility of such criticisms – or accusations – as long as he believes that what he is saying is the Truth as he sees it. It is not incumbent on him to appease all the orientations, or all types of people, this is an unachievable goal, an unattainable wish. The believer must please his Lord even if the displeased are angered.20
He warns his readers that dawa is a mission that not only invites adversity but demands it, and as such, will inevitably attract detractors and skeptics. Muslim preachers must remain steadfast in their convictions to stave off such critics.
Qaradawi’s worldview is deeply intertwined with his Brotherhood experiences in Egypt and the hardships the organization endured. In order to recreate an authentic Islamic caliphate that would counter the ideas and laws of the West, Qaradawi counsels patience and commitment. Crucially, in highlighting the centrality of adversity and hardship to dawa, Qaradawi’s worldview becomes unfalsifiable; instead of adapting in the face of adversity, it is the setbacks themselves that underscore the legitimacy of dawa.
But Qaradawi’s narrative does not end there. In his memoir, he further cloaks his infallibility in a personalized rendering of Islamic history. Qaradawi believes that his life can serve as a model for future generations of Muslims who are looking for the best way to carry out their dawa missions. In the introduction to his memoir, Qaradawi argues that despite his hesitations in embarking on such a comprehensive project, he became convinced of the need to document his life, since it would offer “a great good for the readers, and especially the promising and emerging generations of the nation’s youth…and the people can learn a lesson from it, and the youth can take it as an incentive to work and a reason to hope.”21
Qaradawi extends this idea by retelling the stories of earlier prophets from the Islamic tradition. Throughout his memoir, he often compares his own experiences with those of the prophets, finding solace in their experiences. For example, Qaradawi describes his first stint in prison in 1949, and the activities of his fellow imprisoned Brotherhood members, as a diligent effort to preach Islam to other prisoners. Qaradawi cites the Quranic story of Joseph who, after being left to die by his brothers, was brought to Egypt and sold into slavery before ending up in prison. He notes that Joseph took advantage of his imprisonment to practice dawa.22 In doing so, Qaradawi draws thinly veiled comparisons to himself, emphasizing that while both were imprisoned by oppressive regimes, they remained undeterred and managed to carry out important missionary work. Later on, in recounting his experience of being transferred to Tor prison by boat, he references the prophets Noah and Moses, connecting Noah’s experience during the flood with God’s revelation to Moses at Tor Mountain, the scene of Qaradawi’s imprisonment.23 These comparisons serve not only to boost Qaradawi’s own profile, but re-imagine his life and struggles through the prism of Islamic history, thus conferring a sense of purpose upon himself and his mission. In other words, just as the prophets throughout Islamic history overcame challenges, so too has Qaradawi prevailed over adversity.
Qaradawi continues the theme of prophets in recounting his subsequent arrests. Following the Free Officers Revolution of 1952 that toppled King Farouk in Egypt, the government’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood deteriorated further, ultimately resulting in President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to outlaw the group in 1954. That same year, Qaradawi was detained twice. Reflecting on his incarceration, Qaradawi initially highlighted the silver lining in his misfortune, noting that in “every adversity there is reward, in every decree of fate there is benevolence,”24 but he continued by comparing his predicament to that of the Prophet Joseph. As Qaradawi hints, his experience would not have been unfamiliar to Joseph: “Just as in the case with Joseph’s tribulation when he was sold to the minister of Egypt, he was faced with accusations and then imprisonment. God Almighty spared him so that he could undertake a mission to save Egypt and everything around it from a destructive famine.” 25 Qaradawi’s implicit suggestion that he, like the Prophet Joseph, was sent to prison as part of a larger mission to help save Egypt is not an arbitrary connection – it is a deliberate attempt at framing his life and, more generally, the struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of Islamic history.
In painting himself as the future savior of Egypt, Qaradawi bestows on his mission a sense of inevitability. In 1961, constrained by the Egyptian authorities, Qaradawi decided to seek opportunities outside of Egypt, ultimately leading al-Azhar to dispatch him to Doha, Qatar to direct a new institute of religious studies. Although he occasionally visited Egypt in the summers, Qaradawi feared imprisonment and so took a nine-year hiatus from the country, beginning in 1964. Qaradawi compares his eventual return to Egypt to that of Jacob and his sons traveling from Canaan to Egypt.26 Although a seemingly innocuous comparison, here too Qaradawi is fashioning a deliberate narrative that seizes on the past greatness of Islamic history, tying it to the present day. As such, the comparison furthers his self-conception as a great leader who is on a sanctified path to restore glory to Islam and the Muslim world.
In Search of a New Platform
For Qaradawi, dawa is a lifelong mission. “I am the son of dawa, its brother and its father. It is of me, and I am of it,” he proclaims, explaining its centrality.27 Qaradawi dogmatically believes that he and the Brotherhood will be eternally relevant to the Muslim world provided they remain patient and stay the course. Qaradawi attributes his rise to clerical stardom to steadfast devotion, allowing him to brazenly wave his al-Azhar credentials and tout his weekly television program “Sharia and Life” on al-Jazeera. With Qatari patronage, he has traveled the world for over thirty years and established transnational Islamic organizations such as the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS) and the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR).
In particular, in the 1990s, Qaradawi began to actively engage Muslims abroad, frequently traveling to the United States and Western Europe. In embracing his role as a global Islamic authority, Qaradawi devoted significant effort and research to questions concerning the intersection of Islam and the West and, more specifically, the status of Muslims as minorities in the West. He even developed a legal framework to address the needs and concerns of the Muslim community in Europe: Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat, or Islamic Jurisprudence for (Muslim) minorities. In 1997, Qaradawi helped establish the ECFR, a council of important and influential Muslim ulama dedicated to researching and writing fatwas in support of Western Muslim minority communities. A critical concept that emerged from Qaradawi’s ECFR writing is the concept of tadarruj, or gradualism, paralleling his broader emphasis on patience. Qaradawi utilized this legal concept to argue that a gradual, deliberative process is superior to radical, drastic action in reforming society through Islam. Similarly, Qaradawi’s IUMS, founded in 2004, claims to be “an institution concerned with the call dawa to Islam by tongue, pen, and every contemporary legitimate medium, be it recorded, audio, or visual.”28 Thus, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s setbacks in Egypt, Qaradawi has established himself at the helm of an international dawa movement, thereby projecting his brand of Islam across the world.
Qaradawi sees parallels between his story and those of the prophets of Islam. He views his life as one phase in the long lineage of prophets and Muslim preachers who were able to overcome the obstacles placed before them to realize their vision. For him, “the practice of dawa preachers and messengers and the path to victory in this world and heaven in the Hereafter is furnished with thorns, covered in blood, full of the corpses of martyrs.”29 This deeply ingrained belief in the nature of dawa fuels Qaradawi’s vision and sustains the narrative of his eventual triumph over any enemy or challenger. In Qaradawi’s mind, the current pressures on the Brotherhood and the accusations against them are no different than the pressures and accusations faced by Quranic prophets and earlier generations of Brothers.
Even so, with the continuing deterioration and repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and around the region, there are growing questions about the future of the group. While Qaradawi and the Brotherhood once stood for carrying the banner of a unique and compelling vision, his message fails to mesh with post-Morsi Egypt. Moreover, Qaradawi has come under a great deal of personal pressure: during the ongoing crackdown on the Brotherhood, the government has even impounded his assets.
Most directly, the proliferation of viable groups in the Sunni Muslim world has placed Qaradawi’s relevance in doubt. On the one hand, there are a growing number of jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which are offering tangible results and a stronger narrative of success. Rather than a gradualist vision for patiently forming an Islamic society, these groups offer immediate results, and in the case of ISIS, present an already established caliphate that implements Islamic law. On the other hand, there is a reinvigorated constituency in the Muslim world that has shunned revolutionary movements and placed their confidence back in state institutions. These states offer to restore the rule of law and ensure an era of stability that Islamist political movements cannot match. The growing success of these two alternative models represents an entirely new challenge to Qaradawi. Unlike colonialism and capitalism, these new models are homegrown and have found traction in the Sunni world.
In response, Qaradawi has turned to new political vehicles. Utilizing international organizations such as the IUMS, he continues to engage the Muslim world in an attempt to project power and reestablish the credibility and righteousness of his mission. For example, in July 2014, Qaradawi and other members of IUMS issued a letter condemning ISIS and repudiating its claims to an Islamic caliphate. The letter carefully stresses that the signees dream of “an Islamic caliphate on the path of prophecy and hope from the depths of [their] hearts that it will arise as soon as possible.”30 However, Qaradawi’s letter goes on to diligently show how ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate contravenes the legal requirements prescribed by Sharia, stating that a “faction’s declaration – whichever it may be – of a caliphate is legally void and does not have any legal implications.”31 This letter represents Qaradawi’s concerted effort to position himself as the legitimate and preeminent religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world. Clearly, the stark contrast between the recent successes of ISIS and the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood is forcing Qaradawi to justify his leadership.
This is evident in Qaradawi’s response to the U.S.-led coalition campaign against ISIS. Soon after President Obama announced the formation of the international coalition to fight the group in September 2014, Qaradawi vocalized his strong opposition on Twitter, posting, “I oppose ISIS completely in ideology and methodology, but I can never accept that the ones to fight them be America, which is not moved by Islamic values, but rather by their own interests even if they shed blood.”32 Qaradawi does not want his opposition to ISIS to be understood as tacit support for the U.S.-led coalition. He is determined to define himself in a way that underscores his unyielding, longstanding commitment to the Brotherhood ideology.
Yet Qaradawi faces challenges even from within the Muslim Brotherhood. As the Brotherhood’s position in Egypt continues to deteriorate, there are signs of internal discord and tensions between the old vanguard and the group’s younger cadres.33 Disillusioned with the slow, gradual dawa promoted by Qaradawi and his generation, some Brotherhood factions have begun calling for violence, invoking jihad. One recently published letter on the Brotherhood’s official website urges Brothers to “summon our strength and evoke the meaning of jihad, and prepare ourselves, our wives, our sons and daughters and whoever follows our path for relentless jihad where we ask for martyrdom.” Such inflammatory rhetoric is increasingly apparent in the programming of pro-Brotherhood outlets like Turkey-based Rabaa TV; in some cases, these outlets have advocated directly for violence, jettisoning the group’s longstanding commitment to peaceful gradualism.34
Despite this multi-front challenge to his long-cultivated message of patience and perseverance, Qaradawi’s resolve has not wavered. In his letter condemning ISIS, he highlighted his dogmatic view of patience and the long-term nature of his vision. True to type, Qaradawi assessed that “[m]ajor projects must be subject to long reflection, serious preparation and consolidated powers.”35 For Qaradawi and his generation of Muslim Brothers, the harrowing defeats of the last nineteen months seem only temporary. Not only have these setbacks failed to compel them to change their tactics or ideology, but they have in fact reaffirmed their basic choices. Whereas other Islamist leaders might respond to the sorts of defeats suffered by the Brotherhood by reassessing and possibly recalibrating their strategies, Qaradawi continues to preach patience and ideological resolve in the face of adversity.