Yousuf Al Qaradawi recited the Koran so beautifully as a child that his family and neighbors gave him the title sheikh long before he earned a scholarly reputation.
But in the middle of Ramadan, Islam's month of fasting, his voice is edgy when asked about Islam's fin de sicle reputation for violence, especially his own dormant links to the Muslim Brothers in Egypt more than 40 years ago.
"We never called for violence in our era like Al Jihad in Egypt or the Algerian groups today," says Dr. Qaradawi in a voice full of ire, talking about the relation between the Muslim Brothers, who suffered imprisonment trying to spearhead Islam in Egypt under King Farouq and Gamal Abdel Nasser, and today's more militant Islamic movements. "Such incidents that happened were due to the circumstances and atmosphere of our time."
Fitting the Western caricature of the fundamentalist with his spectacles, white headdress, grey beard, and matching robe, Qaradawi flips such stereotypes on their head with more than 50 books of scholarship advocating a reconciliation of the Holy Koran with democracy, human rights, and modernity. "I am an independent scholar," he says.
In his 70s, Qaradawi belongs to the school of Islamist thinkers who emerged from the 19th- and 20th-century Arab nationalist struggles to advocate a peaceful call for Islam.
He follows in the footsteps of such Egyptian clerics as Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali and Sheikh Abd al-Halim Mahmud, who propagated a similar liberal interpretation of Islam and advocated flexibility in Islam when faced by the challenges of Western progress and power.
Qaradawi remains aloof from the more rigid and arch-conservative philosophies espoused in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
But he does not renounce his encounters with the teachings of Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brothers, while still a student in Egypt in the 1940s. "The Muslim Brothers regarded Islam from a comprehensive viewpoint. It included devotion, dawa [the call], the politic, the economic, and relied on the Koran," Qaradawi says. "They never concentrated on one side and abandoned another. They never stood with traditional Muslims against the modern ones."
The crucial point for Qaradawi and other Muslim Brothers came with Nasser's arrest of party members in 1954 after a bungled assassination attempt. In the crackdown that followed, Qaradawi spent 20 months in jail. "People were tortured severely. It pushed them to leave Egypt," Qaradawi says.
The prison years turned the Muslim Brothers away from a belief in armed struggle, he says. "After people had been released from Nasser's prison, they forsook violence. Their method became to introduce Islam peacefully in a civilized way - that is why the Muslim Brothers joined the trade unions, doctors' associations, engineering unions, lawyers' associations, and teaching staff at universities," he says. "They have never sought revenge."
After a short prison term in 1962, Qaradawi left Egypt. He traveled to Qatar where he has lived for the past 37 years. He has taught at Qatar University, served as a religious chairman for Islamic banks, hosted an Al Jazeera Satellite Channel show on sharia law, and amassed a considerable body of work devoted to the construction of a progressive Islamic state.
His TV show, "Shariah Al Hayat," draws an audience of several million, and is believed to be as popular as Al Jazeera's favorite political programs. "He is well-respected by Sunni and Shia," said an Al Jazeera staffer who added that Qaradawi's show receives a thousand letters a week, running the gamut from fan mail to requests for his religious opinion.
Whether endorsing the peace initiative last summer to end Algeria's bloody civil war, or speaking out for women's rights, Qaradawi has urged reform. "The Islamic scholar [mufti] should be fully aware of his contemporary reality. He should not live in the past and in books because times change," Qaradawi says.
Springing from this conviction, Qaradawi marshalled Islamic thinkers and affluent Gulf Arabs to create an Internet site called Islam Online last October (www.islam-online.net). The site hosts a database of different scholars' fatwas, or religious rulings, regarding modern life. People can even e-mail their own questions to the different muftis. Qaradawi explains that the site's aim is to facilitate and promote freedom of expression and thought.
"We should not be fundamentalist. We should not be fanatic. We should not concentrate on a certain critique or jurisprudence school. We should be flexible," he says. "At the same time we should be inspired by the Islamic heritage and have a futuristic view to serve Islam. We should gather people, not scatter them like dead leaves."
He believes an independent fatwa database can defend Islamic thinking from government censorship and coercion. "The mufti should be free," says Qaradawi who was banned from preaching in Egyptian mosques during the late 1950s. "Certain muftis are following rulers, kings, presidents, emirs, and sultans. They come close to these rulers and they give them exactly the fatwa or order that they want. This is haram [forbidden]. This is against Islam. He should not give any excuses for rulers. He should be independent."
Qaradawi declares democracy Islam's best hope. He argues the two concepts are fundamentally compatible. "The sense of democracy is that people should select their leaders and be in a position to question them in case they make a mistake or become unfair. This is the essence of Islam." Nonetheless, the dream of an Islamic state has also seen Qaradawi pledge his support to the regime in Sudan, where the present leaders seized power by toppling a popularly elected government in 1989. The endorsement still casts a contradictory light upon a man who has strongly denounced abuses of power.
But for Qaradawi, the bottom line is always Muslim unity. And in his view, Sudan is marching toward Islam's goals. He believes that Israel is a thief of Muslim lands and suspects America and Europe of trying to weaken Islam. In Friday mosque, he cites Chechnya as only the latest example of Western hostility and indifference. To not stand by Sudan, would be to weaken the Islamic world, he says.
Qaradawi also points to the elections held by Sudan's military regime in 1996 and its recent peace initiatives to the opposition as vindication of his position.
"We take from democracy its means, its styles, and mechanisms to stand against tyranny and dictatorship," he says.
"We never take the parts that make prohibited things acceptable."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society