Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a spiritual guide to the Muslim Brotherhood who championed the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and unsettled rulers in Egypt and the Gulf with his Islamist preaching, died on Monday. He was 96.
Born in Egypt, Qaradawi spent much of his life in Qatar, where he became one of the most recognisable and influential Sunni Muslim clerics in the Arab world thanks to regular appearances on Qatar’s Al Jazeera network.
Broadcast into millions of homes, his sermons fuelled tensions that led Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to impose a blockade on Qatar in 2017 and declare Qaradawi a terrorist.
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His death was announced on his official Twitter account.
Qaradawi, who studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, was often described by supporters as a moderate who offered a counterweight to the radical ideologies espoused by al-Qaeda. He strongly condemned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and supported democratic politics.
But he also sanctioned violence in causes he favoured.
In Iraq after a 2003 U.S.-led invasion, he backed attacks on coalition forces and he supported Palestinian suicide bombing against Israeli targets during an uprising that began in 2000.
Several Western states banned him from entry.
During the Arab Spring uprisings he called for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to be killed and declared jihad against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Qaradawi joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man. Advocating Islam as a political programme, the Brotherhood has been seen as a threat by autocratic Arab leaders since it was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna, whom Qaradawi knew.
He turned down the chance to lead the organisation, instead focusing on preaching and Islamic scholarship and building a following that extended well beyond the group.
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His prominence grew after the 2011 Arab revolts.
Visiting Cairo after the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, he told a packed Tahrir Square that fear had been lifted from Egyptians who had toppled a modern day pharaoh.
The appearance captured the scale of change that seemed to be sweeping the region, with long-oppressed Islamists enjoying new freedoms and a Brotherhood member, Mohamed Mursi, being elected president in 2012.
When the military, encouraged by mass protests, toppled Mursi a year later, Qaradawi condemned the new, army-led order as it unleashed a ferocious crackdown on the Brotherhood.
He urged a boycott of the presidential election which made army commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi president in 2014.
“The duty of the nation is to resist the oppressors, restrain their hands and silence their tongues,” Qaradawi said.
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“He’s somebody who was committed to democracy and popular sovereignty from an Islamic perspective,” said David Warren, a scholar of contemporary Islam and research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis.
“But being a democrat doesn’t mean that someone has to be a pacifist, so in the context of a civil war like Libya and Syria, he could hold those positions while similarly saying that Gaddafi is a tyrant who should be killed…,” he said.
Jailed numerous times in Egypt as a young man, Qaradawi was sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian court in 2015, along with Mursi and some 90 others. Qaradawi said the rulings, which related to a mass jail break in 2011, were nonsense and violated Islamic law, noting that he was in Qatar at the time.
He criticised Riyadh for backing Sisi, while his attacks on Sisi and help for the Brotherhood fuelled tensions between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another supporter of Egypt’s new government, on the other.
Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in 2014.
In 2014 when Riyadh and its allies withdrew ambassadors from Doha, Qaradawi stopped his Friday sermons, saying he wanted to ease some pressure on Qatar, his adopted home since the 1960s.
But he still criticised Egypt’s new ruler in statements.
Qaradawi, who memorised the Koran by age 10, chaired the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS). He opposed takfir, a concept used by Islamist militants to justify killing Muslims who disagreed with them by declaring them non-believers.
Qaradawi also opposed the ultra-radical Islamic State group, saying he totally disagreed with Daesh “in ideology and means”.
When IS burnt alive a captured Jordanian pilot in 2015, the IUMS said the group did not represent Islam in any way.
However, he rejected the U.S. role in fighting the group as self-interested. Critics noted how that position appeared to contrast with his tacit support for U.S. action in Syria in 2013 when Washington considered – but never carried out – strikes on the Syrian government over the use of chemical weapons.
On that occasion, Qaradawi suggested foreign powers were God’s instrument for vengeance.
The war in Syria, where Sunni rebels battled the Alawite-led state backed by Shi’ite Iran, turned Qaradawi against the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which he had once praised for fighting Israel. He condemned it as “the party of the devil”.
He staunchly supported the Palestinian struggle with Israel.
On a 2013 visit to Gaza hosted by its ruling Hamas Islamist group, Qaradawi said: “We should seek to liberate Palestine, all of Palestine, inch by inch.”