Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Foundation of a "Global Muslim Authority"

The International Association of Muslim Scholars aims to be an alternative to the global network of radical Islamists. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often referred to as the most influential contemporary Sunni scholar, is one of the founders. Bettina Gräf reports

The International Association of Muslim Scholars aims to be an alternative to the global network of radical Islamists. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often referred to as the most influential contemporary Sunni scholar, is one of the founders. Background report by Bettina Gräf

Yusuf al-Qaradawi (photo: Qaradawi.net)
Yusuf al-Qaradawi - co-founder of the IAMS and of Islamonline.net also has his own TV show on Al-Jazeera

​​During July 2004 in Ireland, several Islamic scholars and Islamist intellectuals of various religious denominations from different parts of the world founded The International Association of Muslim Scholars, IAMS. The association describes itself as a non-governmental body with the objective of establishing a 'global Islamic authority'.

The driving force behind the IAMS is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based scholar, one of the main players in current Islamic debates.

Among the 200 participants of the founding conference in Dublin were eminent scholars of different religious schools, such as Sunnites, Shiites, Sufis, Omani Ibadites and Yemenite Zayidites. Sheikh Yusuf cAbdallah al-Qaradawi, the renowned Azhar-educated Egyptian scholar and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected to be president of the IAMS.

The intellectual Muhammad Salim al-cAwwa, attorney of the Egyptian Wasat Party, became the secretary general, with the former Mauritanian justice minister cAbdallah Bayn Bihi, the Shiite cleric Ayatollah al-Takhiri and the Ibadite Sheikh Ahmad al-Khalili as his deputies.

"Islamic, global, moderate and energetic"

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi outlined the main characteristics of the new association as being Islamic (representing all Islamic schools and groupings), global (aiming to get its message to Muslims across the entire world), people-oriented (it is sustained by the trust of Muslim peoples worldwide), independent (not connected to governments or political parties), scientific (referring to cilm, i.e. an association of culama'), missionary (using communicative methods to promote Islam), moderate (eschewing extremism and bigotry), as well as energetic (translating its words into action and setting examples).

The association's basic principle is to apply a 'middle way for the Islamic community of the middle,' according to al-Qaradawi.

Two of the main points in the IAMS founding declaration that concern the work of the association are particularly remarkable in content: first, the opposition against undemocratic ruling principles in Islamic countries, and second, the enforcement of legal and legislative equal rights for men and women, based on sura 9, verse 71.

"Conflicts among Muslims ought to be settled by Muslims"

According to al-Qaradawi, the scholars exclusively rely upon communicative ways and means such as sermon, legal opinions (fatawa) as well as the dialog with all social groups for the realization of their objectives. One of the IAMS scholars' first actions was in September 2004.

They sent a delegation to Sudan in order to help to settle the conflict in Darfur, arguing that a conflict between Muslims should be settled by Muslims. They had talks in Khartoum with Sudan's president cUmar al-Bashir as well as with representatives of the different rebel factions and the military in the Darfur region.

The aim of their stay was to get the parties involved around the same table for negotiations and thus prevent the intervention of international, non-Muslim troops in Sudan.

Opposition to the West

At the same time the scholars appraised reports from Western media that mass rapes and ethnic purges were occurring in Darfur as exaggerated and possibly as false reports intended to distract the world from the Palestine conflict.

This example sheds light on the claim of IAMS to exercise their own global influence on events important to Muslims (that is, in sweeping opposition to the West).

Another example is a two-page declaration from IAMS published on the Internet in September 2004 that the kidnapping or even killing of civilians in war or in war-like circumstances, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, was forbidden.

Humanitarian workers, journalists are protected, unless …

Here the Association was responding to the murder of two Italians in Iraq and the kidnapping of 300 schoolchildren in Beslan in southern Russia. The declaration emphasized that this prohibition applied in particular to people working in Iraq for humanitarian purposes or as journalists, even if they were of the same nationality as the occupiers.

However, a qualification was made. This prohibition applies only to civilians who were not collaborating with the enemy. What exactly entails collaboration is not explained. Nor has IAMS's position on the elections in Iraq been made public.

A contrast to the global network of radical Muslims?

The IAMS seems to want to act as a mediating body in global events that are of importance to the Islamic community. And the founding of the organization seems to be an attempt to create an association that will stand in contrast to the international network of radical Muslims, an association that is based on communicative actions, mediation and dialogue.

The participation in the IAMS of renowned local authorities of all religious schools is the key to enabling worldwide interaction. According to the plan, the institutionalized assembly of local authorities ensures the support of the population and enables the association to act as a global authority.

Keeping in mind this network nature, al-Qaradawi's statement that the IAMS will not compete but compliment the existing Fiqh Councils becomes more understandable.

The Fiqh Councils in question are national institutions such as the Islamic Research Academy of the Azhar University or the Indian Fiqh Academy, international institutions such as the Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League, which was founded in 1962, and more recent institutions of jurisprudence for Muslim minorities such as the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), which was founded in 1997 and whose chairmanship is also held by al-Qaradawi.

Al-Qaradawi's life and works

Yet before the IAMS establishes its presence on the Web as planned with its own Internet site in Arabic and English as well as other languages, one could not say the networking capacity and assembled authority of the culama' is effective.

So far, the association seems to be mainly al-Qaradawi's project. This impression is reinforced by the fact that all detailed information on the IAMS to date has been published only via al-Qaradawi's private website (www.qaradawi.net) and on Islamonline.net.

The establishment of the IAMS would surely not have been possible without the commitment of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a scholar who was born in Egypt in 1926, who has lived in Qatar since the 1960s and is generously financed by the State of Qatar.

The two basic ideas that have characterized his work for years are the idea of balance – and the vision of unity for the Islamic community (umma).

The method of the "Middle Way"

Based on the "umma justly balanced" concept in the Koran (2/143), al-Qaradawi has been arguing for nearly thirty years now for a balanced implementation of Islamic law, meaning both the balance between new and established views as well as between different doctrines.

In the preface to the first part of his collection of legal opinions (1979) he writes that fatwa should always be drawn up "according to the spirit of mediation" and not based on extremist beliefs.

In an essay on fatwa (1988) he refers to the necessity of resorting to all legal traditions equally and calls this non-dogmatic approach the "position of the middle". In the second part of his collection of legal opinions (1993), he describes his legal approach as the "method of the middle way".

These remarks on legal opinions point beyond a mere juridical context. They imply that the experts of Islamic law are responsible for the moral guidance of the Islamic community. Sheikh al-Qaradawi also stresses explicitly that it is the duty of the culama' to make their understanding of Islam public knowledge, as only they have the necessary expertise to properly interpret Islamic law with regard to the issues of our times.

Islam and the New Media

In this respect, al-Qaradawi is committed through a series of projects for the Islamic community, which, in his view, comprises all Muslims worldwide and which he thus calls a "global Islamic community".

Ever since technology allowed, he has been presenting his views to a global public. He has been a regular guest on the program Al-sharica wa 'l-hayat by satellite TV station Al-Jazeera since 1996, has started to use the Internet to publish information on his works and activities on his own website in 1998, and has become committed to promoting the Islamic Internet portal Islamonline (www.islamonline.net) which has become the most popular of its kind.

"This very ambitious venture is the project of the ummah on the hold of the new millennium".

Suicide attacks are "legitimate"

Al-Qaradawi is a firm supporter of the Palestinian struggle for independence, especially since the Second Intifada of 2000. He initiates solidarity events, collects money, and speaks out against the occupation of Palestine on television, on the Internet, in Friday sermons and at conferences. In Islamic legal opinions he has defended suicide attacks by Palestinians as a method of defense against Israel's policies.

For Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the suicide bombers are martyrs, not suicides. In Islam, suicide, unlike martyrdom, is regarded as a sin. According to him, in Palestine Islamic territory and the holy city of Jerusalem are being defended. On Al-Jazeera, in the broadcast "Islamic Law and Life", he asserted: "I am not the only one saying that these attacks are legitimate, hundreds of other Muslim legal scholars see it that way too. (…) A person who sacrifices himself for a great cause is not a suicide".

This point of view makes it possible to justify Palestinian suicide bombings as acts of martyrdom, while the attack on the World Trade Center and attacks against civilians in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are firmly condemned.

Al-Qaradawi: Supervision for transnational channels

Also, he has been striving to bring together the representatives of Islamic erudition worldwide and concentrate their abilities.

For instance, in 1999 on Al-Jazeera he appealed for the establishment of an "international board of culama' to supervise the ethics of the new transnational channels".

Hence, the establishment of the IAMS seems to be the logical consequence of his vision and his work to date. This poses the following question: What connects Muslims to al-Qaradawi's global umma, of which the IAMS strives to be its institutionalized authority?

Al-Qaradawi brings legal discourse back into everyday language without becoming unfaithful to it. What makes him attractive to scholars and laymen alike is his belief in gradual instead of radical reforms and his ability to take up issues of current interest and negotiate them within the scope of an innovative legal discourse.

This, for instance, becomes evident in his support for the equality of the sexes in Islam.

The umma - an "imagined community"?

By doing so he opposes not only the conservative religious establishment but also many archaic national legal practices. Yet is the interest some Muslims show in reforms and a new legal discourse enough to speak of a global umma?

How can one define this umma that reaches beyond national frontiers and language barriers and cannot be localized geographically? It could be an "imagined community" in the sense of Benedict Anderson, according to whom individuals feel related to one another through certain media, in his examples the national press, to millions of others without ever having met them.

The contemporary Muslim reality, however, is a far cry from this image: there exist countless contrary voices, organs and media. Some viewers of the Al-Jazeera program posed critical questions, for instance how is it possible to integrate the Shia within the IAMS or why was the IAMS founded in a European city and not within the Islamic world.

This illustrates a certain skepticism towards the IAMS but also towards a global umma.

The effect of religious consensus on everyday life

In addition, when one takes a closer look at the lists of participants of the first IAMS functions, it becomes obvious that the organization was initially dominated by Egyptians. Therefore the global umma does not seem to be a worldwide imagined community of Muslims but rather an imagined political space of scholarship.

It remains to be seen which functions the IAMS will take on and to what extent Muslims in the West and in the Islamic world will recognize the global authority claimed by the new institution.

Another core issue is how the concept of the "umma justly balanced" will be applied. How will the scholars find a balance between all the denominational, methodic and political differences around the world? And, is it conceivable that a minimal consensus which may be reached will affect legal and/or everyday practices of Muslims all over the world?

Bettina Gräf

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Lefteris Bratopoulos, Nancy Joyce

This article has previously been published in the ISIM Review of the 'International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World', Leiden, Netherlands.

This article is based on eight texts referring to the IAMS which were published between 13 July and 3 September 2004 under different headings on al-Qaradawi's website as well as on the program Al-sharica wa 'l-hayat by the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera broadcast on 27 July 2004, whose transcription can be found at www.aljazeera.net.

Bettina Graef is assistant to the director at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin. Her Ph.D. thesis focuses on the 'Production and adoption of fatawa in the era of electronic media with reference to the works of Yusuf al-Qaradawi'.

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