Center for Strategic Communication

By Jeffry Halverson

The latest book by Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Fiqh al-Jihad, has received considerable attention of late in the press and blogosphere.  For those of you who may not know him, Qaradawi is arguably the most influential Sunni cleric (alim) in the Muslim world today, widely known for his many writings, rulings (fatawa), and Arabic satellite television show Shariah and Life on al-Jazeera.  Although an Egyptian graduate of the (once) venerable al-Azhar and associate of Egypt’s ostensibly banned Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi has been in self-imposed exile in the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar for over thirty years. Life in Qatar has given Qaradawi the opportunity to speak and think independently of the state-run al-Azhar University and escape the almost routine periodic imprisonments he would face back in Mubarak’s Arab Republic of Egypt. As you may have guessed, Qaradawi is also no stranger to controversy and scandal.

Of all the arguments put forth in the new book, it’s Qaradawi’s discussion of the appropriate levels of violence in jihad that will likely receive the most attention, both in the Arab media and among Middle East and terrorism analysts, pundits, and political opportunists.  Qaradawi’s refuses to denounce military struggle (jihad) and resistance (muqawama) as a whole.  Instead he places them within the framework of what he calls Islam al-Wasati, or “centrist Islam” (as opposed to the extremist radicalism of al-Qaeda and its franchise proxies).

This concept is not at all new. It was articulated by the third Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Umar al-Tilmisani (d. 1986), the chief architect of the “Neo-Brotherhood” that took shape in the 1970s after the death of ‘President’ Gamal Abdel-Nasser (d. 1970). Tilmisani’s understanding of “centrist Islam” was probably more pacifistic than Qaradawi’s though.  He always preferred courtroom battles to those waged with a gun or a bomb.  In fact, Qaradawi’s call for al-Qaeda to revise their thinking on jihad is reminiscent of the way Tilmisani attempted to intervene with the radical Islamist students of the Gama’a in Egypt in the 1970s. Some of them responded to Tilmisani, like Dr. Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Qudus, while others, like al-Zawahiri and the assassins of Sadat, did not.  It may well be that Qaradawi’s efforts will find similar successes (and failures).

The contribution to contemporary Islamic thought that I find most interesting and original in Qaradawi’s book is the concept of the “jihad of the new age.” This is the notion that jihad should move away from violence to “to the realm of ideas, media, and communication,” such as the internet, video, and satellite television.  Proponents of dialogue with the Muslim world should welcome this notion (or so I think).  And getting Islamists to stop and actually think about their ideas and positions is always a good thing. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as you would think.

One of the problems faced by “centrists” in their efforts to curb the rampant violence of groups like al-Qaeda is that–despite the validity of their ideas–the channels for centrist action are limited, most notably by repressive state regimes like Egypt, Syria, Algeria, or Saudi Arabia (need I go on?). In contrast, the “radical” extremists, despite their tenuous and rudimentary (sometimes laughable) ideas, offer an immediate and tangible plan of action.  This appeals not only to frustrated youth (many of whom are boys, who like to play with guns and set things on fire anyway), but also to elders with no hope of social mobility.  When state regimes eliminate the ability of Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, to fully participate in civil society, they embolden the extremists who argue that violent revolution is the only way.

Lastly, Rob at Arab Media Shack believes the book will not be read by average Arabs, and will probably have little influence outside of “the few hundred or so Jihadis still technically at war with the Algerian government.”  But a similar comment might have been made fifty-odd years ago about Sayyid Qutb. He was thoroughly a man of the pen. He never fought on a battlefield or fired a Kalashnikov in his entire life.  In fact, almost his entire career as an Islamist thinker was spent in Nasser’s prisons in Egypt (often in the infirmary), and his most famous book, Milestones, didn’t become the alleged manifesto of “radical” Islamism until after his execution in 1966 (perhaps in part because of his execution).  If Milestones is (as many assert) the inspiration for Islamist extremism, then Qaradawi, with all the ‘weapons’ of mass media at his disposal, could have a similar, or even greater, impact.

This is not to mention Qaradawi’s stature in the Muslim world.  As Marc Lynch points out, Qaradawi is different because of “his vast influence and his long track record as an accurate barometer of mainstream Arab views.”  My colleague Mark Woodward, writing from Indonesia, confirms that he is regarded as a significant authority there, as well. Furthermore, Qaradawi’s credentials as an al-Azhar trained scholar are important. Islamist thought tends to be dominated by laymen trained in fields like engineering, education, or medicine, rather than ulama trained in Islamic law.

We won’t know the full impact of Fiqh al-Jihad for years to come (perhaps decades).  In fact, given Qaradawi’s advanced age (he’s 82), he himself may never know the significance of his book. But it’s certainly tantalizing to think that we could be witnessing a new milestone in Islamist thought (pun intended). The difficult task then left to us, those in the West, is to respond by fully engaging Qaradawi and other like-minded individuals and groups in this “jihad of the age” where ideas can take the place of bullets.  It’s most certainly an exchange worth having.