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Interview with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi

17 October, 2004 in Doha, Qatar

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the best known, longest established, and most controversial of Arab world satellite preachers. TBS's senior editor S. Abdallah Schleifer interviewed Sheikh al-Qaradawi in Doha about his relationship with the medium.

TBS: When did you first start speaking about Islam on television? What were the circumstances? And how long after your graduation from al-Azhar did you begin this work? How do you evaluate the channel that serves as your minbar, or pulpit: Al Jazeera?

YQ: In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

Muslims are obliged to use any medium and technology to convey their concepts and call to people. Other reformers have been using these technologies as they appear: when radio was first invented, they used it; when television came along, they used that, and now in the age of the internet, they are using it too. We must use whatever medium possible to bring our message to people.

The first time I was given the opportunity was with Qatar television; as soon as they started broadcasting, I began with them. Then it was impossible for me to begin with Egyptian television: my position with regard to Egypt and the politics of Abdel Nasser was well known, and no one was going to give someone like me any place on Egyptian television. So from the inauguration of Qatari television--I was on a summer holiday in Lebanon at the time, it started up in the summer--they wrote to me asking me to record a number of episodes--six episodes--in a studio in Beirut. I did it wearing the garb of a Gulf cleric, since I did not have my usual Azhari garb with me. Those six episodes were broadcast with the inauguration of Qatari television. That was in the '70s, and the program was called The Guidance of Islam, the brainchild of the then director of broadcasting Mahmoud Sherif, who later became a minister of information in Jordan. That program is still broadcast every Friday night.

After that, whichever Arab country I went to--Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and various and sundry others-they would record programs with me there. But my regular programs began in Qatar with The Guidance of Islam. So when Al Jazeera was launched, they began airing al-Sharia wal-Hayat (The Law and Life) from the very first day. Sheikh Hamad bin Tamir and others at the station suggested that there should be a religious show or an Islamic one. Now, I don't particularly like the word "religious," as I don't see that it necessarily means "Islamic," which is a more comprehensive term. So we chose the title The Law and Life. The term "religion" in people's conceptualization means "faith" or "doctrine" like, say, Judaism, whereas Islam as we understand it is faith and canon law, values, mores, and culture. We say that the sharia (law) encompasses all necessities, which are conceived of as five--religion, spirit, mind, progeny, and wealth. Religion is just one of these. So I see the word "Islam" as being wider in connotation than "religion."

So, I welcomed the idea of an Islamic program on Al Jazeera. No one imagined that it would be as popular as it is, but Allah willed that it be a run-away hit, and people from all over the world watch it. Anyone who understands Arabic watches--East or West, in places like America, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, all of these countries, and of course the Arab world.

TBS: Am I correct that your thinking was already well known and appreciated in the Arab world because of your writing, and in particular from the popular book al-Halal wal-Haram (The Permitted and the Forbidden), before you began to appear on television?

YQ: No doubt one's reputation, his personal history and legacy, will have an influence on people's reception, because they do not readily accept the unfamiliar. Many people had read my books or heard my lectures and sermons; Allah be praised, I had traveled to many, many countries and developed a following. In Algeria, with the Islamic revival there, I would give lectures attended by tens of thousands--at one mosque the crowd reached two hundred thousand. It was a multi-storey building surrounded by a plaza, which filled up, along with all the roads leading to it, blocking traffic.

That was at the height of the Islamic revival, when it was at its greatest strength, and these were its public, most concerned for what we call moderate Islamism, which is able to harmonize the principles of Islamic law with the advances of the modern age. It welcomes the useful from the old and avails itself of the correct from the new. It respects the past, draws inspiration from it, accommodates the present, and looks to the future. This is moderate Islam, which respects tradition but does not neglect the intellect. It neither ascribes too much weight to one nor diminishes the merit of the other.

It has its adherents everywhere, and the benefit of Al Jazeera is that it has increased the size and breadth of my audience wherever they are. If there were two hundred thousand attending my lecture in Algeria, or if my books were published in runs of ten or twenty thousand each edition, and they went into numerous reprints--for example, al-Halal wal-Haram was reprinted sixty or seventy times, and it was translated into more languages than I can count, even local dialects, all over the world--all of this is limited. But Al Jazeera has provided me with millions of viewers; where my audience was once numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands, they are now in the millions. I never go to a country now where people do not know me through Al Jazeera. Once they knew me by name; now they know face. My name was known, or perhaps my thought was known, and some people recognized the name as well. Well, now they put a face to the name. All of this is the effect of al-Sharia wal-Hayat and Al Jazeera, Allah be praised!

TBS: Do you have any hesitations or qualms about using this medium?

YQ: I have never ever hesitated to use television. From the day it was invented, many would ask me about it, and I would say that it is simply a tool, and a tool used for Islam will be judged by the intent with which it is employed. The television by itself is not to be judged either way; it is like, say, a rifle: is that forbidden or allowable? In the hands of a mujahid, it is a tool for striving in the way of Allah and of defending truth; in the hands of a bandit, it is an implement of crime. Similarly, some people may use the television for things unseemly to religion, morals, or traditional values; but when we use it for calling people to Allah, to increase their awareness of the truth, even simply to give them correct information or considered opinion, then the television is an instrument of good.

For that reason, I have never hesitated. On the contrary, I used to argue with clerics in Saudi Arabia who were adopting a conservative attitude about television. Some were against it for its content, saying that it broadcast music and other such things. Others were opposed to it for its appearance itself, saying that it reproduces the likeness of creatures of Allah, which is forbidden in the Prophetic Traditions. I don't know how many times I have tried to point out that those are not likenesses but the very creatures of Allah themselves who appear. They are not likenesses or anything of the sort. So, I have never once opposed the television or hesitated in using it. Nor the Internet, for that matter. We have created one of the first Islamic web sites, Islam Online.

TBS: Do you believe that your talks on television are as effective, more effective, or less effective than your books in presenting your ideas and understanding of Islam?

YQ: I say that each one of these media has its advantage and influence and its particular audience. Books allow you to delve deeply into an idea, to organize things and place them in sequence, and so on. But how many people read books? They have a limited audience. Meanwhile, the mass media have a very wide audience. Perhaps media style is not written style, with its precision of expression and expansion of ideas, but that is forgivable in that the consumers who utilize it are uncountable. Thus the one does not remove the need for the other. There are some preachers who can shake the very pulpit but cannot write. I know some sheikhs like that. Some people can write very well; but put them up in the pulpit and they stutter and stammer. They can't perform. To others, our Lord has granted the gift of powerful writing and speech; I think Allah has granted to me something of both: I can perform in one arena and the other, praise be to Allah.

TBS: Have your TV appearances been a distraction from writing?

YQ: There is no disputing that everyday activities take large amounts of time away from writing. This is really an old complaint. The problem is the conflict between the work of a scholar and that of a media preacher. A scholar lives something of a monastic existence, ensconced in the cell of learning, absorbed in the pursuit of knowledge. To build reliable, verifiable, original knowledge requires a certain amount of free time. Meanwhile, a preacher is concerned with communicating with people all of the time, flying off into the sunset from one place to the next to meet with so-and-so and then so-and-so. That conflicts with the pursuit of a scholar. So, if one is able to do both, because Allah has made him both a preacher and a scholar, he does whatever he can to save time.

I remember one time in Malaysia, I was meeting with members of the faculty at the Islamic University there, and after the meeting they said to me, "We would like to ask you a question, and please answer with complete frankness." I said, "Please do." They asked, "You are a world traveler; we never attend a conference without seeing you there, there is no panel that you do not participate in, trips and travels and the like, and meeting with people, and television programs. All of that, and we who are dedicated only to academic work cannot produce a half, or a quarter, or even a tenth of your output. How do you manage between this and that"? I answered, "First of all, it is a blessing from Allah, may He be exalted, and success is from Him. Then, it comes at the expense of free time for rest and relaxation. I hardly ever take a vacation, because even in the summer I sit and write.

One time a colleague, Dr. Ezz El-Din Ibrahim, saw me while I was on a trip from Cairo to London--he was on the same plane, and I was absorbed in writing. About an hour after the plane took off, he got up and came over and asked, "What are you writing?" I told him, "Scholarship, my friend." He replied, "Scholarship without any references?" I said, "Yes, it's all stored in my memory. I can pull up the citation later from such-and-such a page of such-and-such a book." To that he replied, "So that is the secret of your great output--you exploit the time spent traveling!" I said, "Travel time, time spent waiting at airports, I seize upon it for writing. I try to use the time granted to me; that is the secret of the blessing of my output, praise be to Allah."

TBS: The traditional dars, or lesson, was delivered by a sheikh face to face in personal communication to his students or disciples sitting close by, which meant a certain degree of face-to-face interaction between sheikh and students, who were there because they wanted to learn from their sheikh, not because they wanted to dispute or argue with the sheikh. Do you consider the absence in television of that face-to-face direct communication and personal relationship of sheikh and student a drawback or liability?

YQ: Of course the rapport with students developed in sessions in mosques and universities and other teaching venues offers more immediate communication and influence. It is probably the case that the bond between students and professors or novices and sheikhs cannot be formed except by sitting in that circle. That has a character of its own, not felt by other people. But I do feel that some of my more avid followers develop a type of spiritual discipleship amongst themselves. I have noticed that with some people; it is as if reading my books and listening to my tapes brings them together into sort of a fellowship, or discipleship, or novitiate, with me.

TBS: While the Qur'an proclaims the equality of souls in the eyes of God, it also insists that there is no equality in knowledge. Doesn't the format of your program--which resembles that of the secular TV talk shows, with anonymous listeners calling in their often uninformed opinions that are not based on serious study of Islam's canonic texts under the guidance of a recognized scholar--doesn't the format of your program just possibly subvert the Islamic hierarchy of knowledge?

YQ: That depends on the subject and upon the people involved. Sometimes people can be very superficial, making no distinction between scholarship and preaching. Many people are in fact superficial, and unfortunately they find an audience; the truly aware have almost entirely disappeared. A more attentive community can recognize scholarliness and can differentiate between someone with a broad perspective and one with a narrow perspective, between a deep thinker who knows the import of the law and the more abstruse aspects of the religion and a superficial thinker who stops at the literal interpretation of the text and the outward meaning of the words; this all defines the nature of the audience. I think that in general the audience that follows programs of mine such as al-Sharia wal-Hayat is reasonably well aware. I would not say that all of them are of the same caliber, no. But it seems that Allah has distinguished me, or at least it is written about me that I have the ability to provide instruction in general terms and in the specifics. That is to say, some are only able to address specialists; if they try with the public, they will not be able to understand. But, Allah be praised, I am able to instruct both specialists and the general public, and the audience is composed of both. Everyone takes what he is able to get out of the programs.

TBS: What is your opinion of the impact and message of your predecessor as a very popular television sheikh, the later Sheikh Mitwalli al-Shaarawi?

YQ: Sheikh Muhammad Mitwalli al-Shaarawi was known as an exegete of the Quran who would expound upon the meaning of the Quran in the Egyptian dialect in the style of a high school teacher of Arabic rhetoric; he had great powers of evocation and drama. And as a teacher of rhetoric, he had a real sense of the subtleties of Arabic and the niceties of rhetoric. The things he could extract from the words and the knowledgeable deductions he could make! I think his programs were quite successful and greatly influenced his viewers. He repeated himself a great deal, but there are summaries of his sayings.

TBS: Amr Khaled is without question an extremely popular TV preacher, especially with modern educated youth. Why? Ands what is your opinion of his message, his manner, and his qualifications?

Amr Khaled does not hold any qualifications to preach. He is a business school graduate who acquired what he knows from reading and who got his start by way of conversations with friends about things that do not really involve any particular thought or judgment. Like the program Nalqa al-Ahibba (Let Us Meet the Beloved ) for instance. The whole thing is about the Companions of the Prophet and heroes of Islam, popular stories, especially amongst the young. What makes him even more attractive to youth is that he is young like them, clean shaven, in regular Western attire, and he speaks in simple language. This has attracted an audience to him, especially as he got his start in Egypt, and Egyptians are drawn to religious discourse. He appeared at a time when people were serious about these matters to a certain extent and there was no one else on the scene. The well-known scholars and preachers were all outside of Egypt, so the stage was set, and he struck while the iron was hot, as the saying goes. People here and there accept him, but he has never issued a fatwa or a legal judgment. Maybe that has helped him.

TBS: I know that the spread of Islam in the West is of great importance to you, but most of your talks concern social or even political issues whereas that dimension of Islam which has had the greatest impact upon those educated Westerners drawn to Islam are the spiritual concerns of tasawwuf, or Sufism. Do you or will you address this dimension of Islam that is so appealing in the West?

YQ: That is something I have not failed to notice, praise be to Allah; from the time I first started writing, with my first real book, al-Halal wal-Haram, which covers every aspect of life. The second of my books, al-'Ibada fil-Islam (Worship in Islam), concentrates on one of the most important aspects of Islam: "The Jinn and humanity were not created except to worship." (Quran). The third, al-Iman wal-Hayat (Faith and Life), is about the influence of faith in the life of the individual-the cultivation of a divine peace of mind, hope, contentment, love, conviction, self confidence, morality, and the values for constructing society. Faith influences all of this. I point out that knowledge cannot do without faith. Neither can technology, development, or the information revolution. These are books from the time I first started writing.

Then, a few years ago I began a series that I called Taysir Fiqh al-Suluk: al-Tariq ila Allah (A Simple Theology of Conduct: The Path to God, and in which I actually have included a few books on a correct Sufism free of any heretical innovation, superstitious fables, and other such excesses. All these are written in an up-to-date style. I have four books in this series entitled al-Hayat al-Rabbaniyya wal-'Ilm (The Divine Life and Knowledge), al-Niyya wal-Ikhlas (Intention and Devotion), al-Tawakkul (Trust), and al-Tawba ila Allah (Returning to God). I am still writing books for the series, in which I discuss fear and hope, recompense, asceticism, piety, and so on.

For some time now, I have been delivering sermons in which I talk about purifying the soul, several of them at the mosque of Umar Ibn al-Khattab in Cairo, broadcast worldwide on the Qatar satellite channel. So I have been talking about purification for a while. Before that, I was speaking about those worshippers of Allah who are like those [spoken of in the Quran] "Worshipper of Allah who tread lightly on the earth," or those "who pass the night standing and bowing in prayer," and "those who say, 'Our Lord, keep us away from the punishment of Hell." I have very often imbued my sermons with these impressions; though I have been more interested in aspects of social, political, and cultural life, I have not been unmindful of the spiritual side, which is the basis of Islam. Without this aspect, there is no value in religion for the human soul. Praise be to Allah, I have never neglected this dimension throughout my life.

Translated by David Wilmsen, TBS contributing editor.

About Abdallah Schleifer

S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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