ONE of the modern era’s most prominent scholars, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, has been visiting South African shores. Now 84 years-old, the Shaikh has been a bastion of independent, but moderate thought in an age pockmarked with the legacy of Salafi-Wahhabi extremism and post-colonialism.
As a faqih, a master of Sacred Law, he has been a strong proponent of wasatiyyah, the Prophetic middle way of moderation. Often misunderstood, and frequently maligned, he has faithfully stuck to his guns for decades, speaking without fear or favour.
For example, nobody but Shaikh Yusuf Qaradhawi could tell his hosts with such candour (as he did at Newton mosque in Gauteng) that women, comprising fifty percent of Islam, should be present in his male-dominated audience. In the misogynist north, one could almost feel the discomfit as far south as Cape Town.
But that has always been the quintessential down-to-earth Shaikh Qaradhawi, a man whose beginnings were in a humble, but homely Nile Delta village. Orphaned in childhood and having memorised the Qur’an by the age of ten, he graduated from Al-Azhar in 1946 with a Ph.D on Zakat, the alms tax.
His youth in Egypt, however, was marked by great social turbulence. The North African country was struggling with the socio-political fall-out of colonialism, and in 1926 (the year of his birth) Hasan al-Banna founded the Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen, the Islamic Brotherhood.
Al-Banna – a schoolteacher – envisaged Islam as a social alternative to a secularised, demoralised Egyptian society. This influenced Shaikh Qaradhawi greatly. He has said in interviews that what attracted him to al-Banna was his insistence on the Prophetic middle way.
By the 1940’s the Ikhwan had devolved into a powerful extra-parliamentary movement; but tragically, when it tended to violence on its ideological edges, the Egyptian government cracked the whip. After being arrested several times, Shaikh Qaradhawi left for Qatar, where he has remained since 1963.
And having turned down offers of Ikhwan leadership (Qaradhawi is regarded as its spiritual patron) in 1976 and 2004, he has fiercely insisted upon his personal independence. He has pilloried Arab governments lacking political liberties, but has allowed leaders such as Muammar Qaddaffi and Bashar al-Asad to knock on his door.
Shaikh Qaradhawi first rose to prominence after penning Al-Halal wal Haram fi Islam (the Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam) in 1960. Written to make the application of everyday Sacred Law easier for young people, it displayed early signs of him coaxing Islam back to its doctrinal centre via traditional methodology. This book was published by the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa in 1989, and I still have a copy.
As Head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, as chair of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and as chair of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Shaikh Qaradhawi has maintained an active public and academic life.
But it was probably his weekly appearance on Al-Jazeera in a programme entitled Al Shari’ah wal Hayyah (The Sacred Law and Human Life) that saw him, as the BBC says, achieving “star status”. Al-Jazeera gave him a captive audience of 40 million viewers. His role in founding the popular website Islamonline.net in 1997 had him achieving further prominence in cyberspace.
His futuwwa (religious opinions) are sometimes regarded as “progressive”, which is a total misnomer, especially considering his classical applications of Sacred Law and ijtihad (legal thought). His view, for example, that Muslims can consume medical potions or beverages that contain 0, 05% alcohol is hardly new in the annals of Fiqh.
Nor for that matter are his views permitting music, the mawlud (the commemoration of the blessed Prophet’s birth) and women becoming Qadis, or religious judges. All are interpretations of different classical perspectives, perspectives revisited by Shaikh Qaradhawi after the stark decades of simplistic neo-Deobandism, and petro-dollar gibberish.
Of course, Shaikh Qaradhawi is not infallible, and I feel that he has sometimes fallen victim to his own human frailties. I sincerely believe that it was his undying passion for the Palestinian cause that coloured his controversial, if not erroneous fatwa condoning “martyrdom operations” in Israel.
Considering that he has harshly condemned suicide bombings and terrorism everywhere else in the world, his opinion here evinces a political schizophrenia not healthy for a legal expert. And whilst respecting the Shaikh for his superior knowledge, I find his view that all Israelis are potential combatants a reprehensible one.
For those wanting to examine this issue further, the “counter fatwa” of the Malaysian jurist, Shaikh Afifi al-Akiti, expresses a more balanced view. His fatwa, like Shaikh Qaradhawi’s, can be found online http://www.livingislam.org/maa/dcmm_e.html. Then it can be added too, that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades ceased their “martyrdom operations” in 2006.
I have also felt uncomfortable about Shaikh Qaradhawi’s “Days of Anger” edicts to protest events affecting Muslims, but then again, they have to be afforded the context of the contemporary Arab political landscape he inhabits, dotted as it is with dictators.
Another area where Shaikh Qaradhawi has raised the West’s hackles is his antagonism to homosexuality. His retort to a journalist: “have you given up on Christianity?” saw him facing the wrath of the pink lobby.
But, as Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi approaches the latter years of a long life, these very frailties – I believe – have veiled the true essence of his greater legacy. Few have strived as hard as he has, to pull Islam back from the precipice of ignorance, fear and psychic unrest.
And lighting the lamp of knowledge, by far, has to be Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi’s biggest contribution of all.