October, 2004 in Doha, Qatar
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.
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?
In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
Do you have any hesitations or qualms about using this medium?
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
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.
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?
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
Have your TV appearances been a distraction from writing?
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.
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.
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."
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?
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.
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?
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.
What is your opinion of the impact and message of your predecessor
as a very popular television sheikh, the later Sheikh Mitwalli
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
by David Wilmsen, TBS contributing editor.