He was born in the same year as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and also departed in the same month and year as her. However their life stories are from two different worlds, two diverse trajectories and two uniquely contrasting and complementing legacies.
He was born in a village in Saft Turab in the Gharbiya Province of Egypt as the only child to a poor peasant Muslim family whilst she was born in Mayfair, United Kingdom into a Christian household of royal pedigree. His father passed away when he was two years old and he lost his mother in his teens. Her father became the King of the United Kingdom and her mother the Queen. Her people occupied his land whilst he and his fellowmen fought to regain their independency. She dedicated her life to public service for seventy years whilst he selflessly worked for over seven decades for the empowerment of his faith and people all across the globe. She was head of the Commonwealth and he established and presided over the largest body of Muslim scholars worldwide.
I never met her but was fortunate and blessed to meet him — not only to meet him but to also know him and learn from him for over two and a half decades. Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1926 – 2022) was arguably the modern world’s most influential Islamic scholar. His ideas, his lectures, his writings, his TV appearances and the numerous organisations (including universities, charities, research institutes, fatwa councils, Islamic banks, mosques and media platforms) he founded helped shape contemporary Muslim thought, identity and practice across the East and West. He was a living legend. With the passing away yesterday on Monday 26th of September 2022 of our beloved teacher Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi at the age of 96, we witness the end of an era. A sad moment it is — not just for Muslims but for all of humanity. A powerful voice of reason, social justice and wisdom has departed. I don’t think we will witness another scholar of his calibre and with his impact in our lifetime.
As we are reminded by the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, scholars are inheritors of the prophets. They inherit their knowledge, not their wealth. I first attended a lecture by Shaykh al-Qaradawi in my teens in London. The subject was ‘Islam and Co-Existence’. The first book I read by him was his famous work ‘The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam’. The first time I drove him was from a trustees meeting at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies to SOAS in London. The first book I translated whilst a teenager (from Arabic – English) from the two hundred books he authored was ‘Priorities of the Islamic Movement’ and the first lecture I hosted for him two decades ago in London as the inaugural lecture for a one month residential leadership and knowledge program was entitled ‘Priorities for Western Muslims’. This close engagement with Shaykh al-Qaradawi afforded me the opportunity to benefit from him, learn from him and be inspired by his ideas and his personality.
Trained as an Al-Azhar scholar with a PhD and having committed the Quran to memory at the young age of ten, he not only mastered Islamic traditional knowledge disciplines but sought to revive the ijtihadi tradition to make Islam relevant and accessible for Muslims of the contemporary age. And accessible he did make the teachings and values of Islam through his books, lectures, TV appearances and international visits. From populous Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan to Muslim minority diasporas in Finland and New Zealand, his influence was felt. He made tradition a living reality not a nostalgic nod to the past.
Three traits in particular caught my attention when reflecting over his life and legacy:
Dynamism: Shaykh al-Qaradawi led a dynamic life full of work, productivity and baraka at all levels for nearly a century. His life itself was a movement. He researched, he wrote, he lectured, he taught, he organised, he convened, he mobilised, he travelled, he founded pioneering organisations and he led his scholarly fraternity. He had wit and intelligence combined with deep insight and wisdom. He had warmth and a good sense of humour. I once introduced my close friend Nadim to him and he remarked ‘Are you named after Ibn al-Nadim who compiled the Kitab al-Fihrist (catalogue of 10,00 books and 2,000 authors) or are you a drinking companion (one of the literal meanings of Nadim in Arabic)?’
Courage: He was a courageous scholar and leader who never hesitated in standing up for truth, peace and justice. Dictators of the Muslim world were terrified of his presence and influence and sought to silence him by imprisoning him and sending him into exile. Even until recently his own daughter Ola and her husband were imprisoned in an effort to silence him and put pressure on his backers. His principled stance against tyrants, oppressors and injustice never changed and he was always a powerful advocate of peace, justice and freedom. On his South Africa tour in 2010 he met with Nelson Mandela and gifted him some of his books. His courage was not only evident in the socio-political realm but also in voicing dissenting Islamic legal opinions on wide range of issues.
Charisma: – that elusive trait which is difficult to define but is always felt and recognised. His presence was certainly always felt when he was in a room or a gathering. He commanded not only respect but also love. He had what Professor Joseph S. Nye calls ‘smart power’. His physical stature, commanding voice and brilliant oratory meant that he would be seen and heard. And millions across the world heard him, loved him and were influenced by him.
Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi pioneered and revived many valuable ideas — three of which I will share here:
Wasatiyya: Shaykh al- Qaradawi was a jurist par excellence. He sat on many fiqh councils across the world. Adopting a centrist position was his default methodology. He tirelessly advocated against the extremes of neglect and excessiveness. He was named by many of his peers and students as the Imam of the School of Wasatiyya.
Adopting a wasati approach also meant combatting religious extremism in all its forms – bigotry, hatred, excommunication (takfeer) and violence. He was unsurprisingly rejected by such extremists. His pioneering work entitled ‘Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism’ is a masterpiece.
He coined the terms ‘taswif al-salafiyya’ (sufi-isation of salafism) and ‘taslif al-sufiyya’ (salafisation of sufism) in his attempt to harmonise the extremes of both strands and draw them closer to the Quranic ideal and Prophetic heritage.
Maqasidiyya: The shaykh was always focussed with big picture thinking — reflective of a growth mindset. Ascertaining the higher objectives of Islam and what I would term the meta-narrative of Islam was his methodology. He wasn’t interested in winning the battle but always had his eyes on winning the war. This guided his approach in issuing fatwas or legal opinions and building unity across the Muslim space. He told me at times he would adopt a weak jurisprudential opinion if it resulted in Muslim unity, solidarity and empowerment.
Awlawiyyat: Understanding priorities of life, work and faith as envisioned by the Quran and Sunnah. He actually introduced the term ‘fiqh al-awlawiyyat’ or the fiqh of priorities and wrote a full book on the topic laying down maxims and principles. This was a paradigm shift. His concern for maintaining a hierarchy of priorities led him to intervene on an Al-Jazeera program where the former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mamun al-Hudaiby was advocating prioritising Sharia over freedom. Shaykh al-Qaradawi respectfully disagreed and opined that Muslim countries needed freedom first and then can willingly choose the Sharia to guide and inspire their communities. Another small but powerful lesson I remember is his position that leaving a sunnah act sometimes is from the sunnah so that we don’t elevate a sunnah to the rank of a fard.
Penning his autobiography in five volumes entitled Ibn al-Qaryah wal Kuttab (Son of the Village and Quran School) he provides us with a unique insight into his life and his experiences. It is a fascinating read and is essential source material for researchers across several disciplines – history, anthropology and autobiographical literature. We need to document our own history — including autobiographies — or else it will be written for us by others.
Shaykh al-Qaradawi leaves behind three sons — Dr Mohamed, Abdurrahman and Osama and four daughters — Dr Ilham, Dr Siham, Ola and Asma. They are professors, poets, diplomats and physicists. May God ease the pain of this separation for them and all their loved ones.
‘Conscience of the Ummah’ was how he was described by his one time deputy and former close associate the Mauritanian scholar Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah. Now that Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi has returned to meet his Creator, may his sins and shortcomings be overlooked by the Almighty and may he be granted the companionship of prophets, martyrs and the righteous. The question I find myself asking now is – who will be the Ummah’s conscience for the next century?
Sharif Hasan al-Banna writes from Doha, Qatar.
27 September 2022
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