Fourth Ummatics Colloquium Meeting
October 7, 2021

This colloquium meeting was focused on Dr. David Warren’s recently published book entitled, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis. Dr. Warren is a scholar of contemporary Islam, politics, and the media in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the understudied Arab Gulf states and Islamic soft power. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, and in his recent book, he details the relationships between Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Al Thani royal family in Qatar and between Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the Al Nahyan royal family in the Emirates. In doing so, he raises questions about how to theorize the relationships between the Muslim scholarly elite, the ulema, and the nation-state and offers new ways to think about Doha and Abu Dhabi as hegemonic centers of Islamic scholarly authority alongside the historical centers of learning such as Cairo or Medina. His topic is, of course, one of ever-increasing importance as we examine the multi-fold impact of these shifting fault lines in the Gulf on the rest of the Muslim world, and how this can affect Muslim minorities and scholars in the West.

Presentation by Dr. David Warren: The Ulama, the Umma, and the Gulf States

This paper is based on a book I published last January, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis. As the title suggests, the book examines the interventions of Shaykh Qaradawi and Shaykh Bin Bayyah in relation to the foreign policies of Qatar and the UAE since 2011, as well as their relationships with the Al Thani family in Qatar and Al Nahyan family in the UAE, which date back to the 1960s and 1970s respectively.

With the theme of this colloquium in mind, in my remarks I will highlight a few areas where the theme of the umma and attendant concepts such as democracy become relevant in order to open a larger conversation in which we can all participate. I will keep my comments relatively brief as all the other participants here today will also have a great deal of expertise, comments, and contributions of their own to make to the wider discussion.

What is the Umma and How is it Made? Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Al Jazeera

Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b.1926) left Egypt for Qatar in 1961, where he still lives today. Over the years, he developed close relationships with multiple generations of the Al Thani ruling family in Qatar. In 1996 the then ruler of Qatar, Hamad b. Khalifa Al Thani, took the decision to found Al Jazeera. At the time, Qatar was seen as being on the periphery of the region and Al Jazeera was intended by the Qatari government to be seen as a channel that existed over and above the nation states in the region, in contrast to the explicitly state-media organizations controlled by regional hegemons (e.g. Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc.).

Among Al Jazeera’s many offerings was the Islamic program Sharia and Life, hosted by Shaykh al-Qaradawi, which at the time was unique in many ways. Given Shaykh al-Qaradawi’s long-running relationship with the Qatari royal family and his reputation as a scholar, it was only natural that he would be the leading figure on the program. Al Jazeera in general, and Sharia and Life in particular had (relatively) much greater editorial freedom in contrast to other Arab channels at the time, and consequently Shaykh al-Qaradawi was better able to speak his mind in relation to the issues of the day.

In his programming, Qaradawi spoke to his viewers as members of an umma, treating/imaging them aspart of a global believing public and members of a Muslim community that existed over and above the national divides in the region. By referencing the umma as an established fact, it is interesting to think about the way that he and others ‘spoke’ the umma into existence in a new way in the satellite TV age.

One way of theorizing this process—how an idea becomes shared among individuals and made manifest—is via the French thinker Louis Althusser’s theory of ‘interpellation’. Althusser’s basic point was that through a process of ‘hailing’ and ‘acknowledgement’ did an idea or ideology become shared and real among people. A famous example Althusser used to explain this theory is that of a friend knocking on your front door. Once you hear the knock, you would then ask “who’s there?” Significantly, it is only once you hear a voice that sounds familiar to you (saying “it’s me” or something similar) do you then open the door. As you do so, you take part in a “practice of ideological recognition in everyday life.” In other words, and in relation to this case, when an Al Jazeera viewer in the 1990s (and up until the program was shut down in 2013) heard Shaykh al-Qaradawi speaking of the umma as an established fact and talking to his audience as members of that umma, this is akin to hearing a ‘knock on the door’ in Althusser’s parlance. The ‘acknowledgement’ or ‘recognition’ of the viewer, be they in the US, Morocco, Bangladesh or wherever, that Shaykh al-Qaradawi was speaking to them was their part in this dialectical process of making an umma real and manifest by being ‘interpellated’ into it.

Notably, Qaradawi used his position to speak about various issues of the day as issues facing the umma – the hijab bans in France, the 2nd Intifada, the invasion of Iraq etc., which then became an issue of concern for everyone, an ‘ummatic’ issue we might say. Of course, the concept of umma has always existed, but the emergence of Islamic programming of the like found on Al Jazeera brought this concept into being in a new way. For al-Qaradawi, this umma did not replace membership of a nation exactly, one was still an Egyptian or a Moroccan etc., but membership of the umma existed / exists over-and-above that of today’s nation-states.[1]

Who Are the Umma and How Do You Know What They Want? The Free Ulama and the Public’s Islamic Conscience

The emergence of the nation-state as an entity, and its appropriation of the ulama’s scholarly institutions is a theme that occupied much of the ulama’s writings in the latter part of the twentieth century. In Shaykh al-Qaradawi’s two-volume work The Jurisprudence of Jihad he writes:

Who is to judge [the rulers’] apostasy (ridda) when the judges and official mechanisms for issuing fatwas are in their hands? There is only Muslim public opinion and the public’s Islamic conscience, which binds those among the ulama who are free.

We can see here Shaykh al-Qaradawi referencing the ulama’s scholarly institutions such as al-Azhar (nationalized by the Nasser regime in 1961) falling into the “hands” of the state. As the slogan, popularized bythe Muslim Brotherhood, went those ulama who remained in such institutions became little more than “ulama of the authorities and agents of the police” (ulama al-sulta wa-umala al-shurta). By contrast, in Qaradawi’s parlance those who eschewed advancement in such institutions were the “free ulama” who are bound, not to the state, but to the “Islamic conscience” of the public, or the umma.[2]

But what is this conscience and how is it found? An interesting way of thinking about this is presented by Wasfi Abu Zayd, a colleague of Qaradawi and member of his scholarly organization the International Union of Muslim Scholars, in his book Qaradawi: The Revolutionary Imam. In the book, in his discussion of the Egyptian Revolution he presented a rationale for Shaykh al-Qaradawi’s decision to come out in support of the Egyptian Revolution in early 2011 with a reference to his “attentiveness” to the social reality, or the public conscience, we might say. As Abu Zayd put it, when Shaykh al-Qaradawi “heard” the size the crowds of protesters against the Mubarak regime numbered in their millions, he then realized that the Revolution represented the will of the people (or more precisely the Egyptian nation, al-umma al-misriyya) on the basis that those who went to protest also did so with the support/permission of their extended families and on their behalf. Thus, crowds numbering a few million would represent the will of a far larger number. It was on that basis, Abu Zayd suggests, that al-Qaradawi then began to call for Mubarak’s resignation and declare his support for the Revolution. Here then, we see the will of the umma, or the will of an umma, being measurednumerically and then used as a justification for a particular action by an alim.[3] At the same time, Qaradawi’s references to the Egyptian nation (al-umma al-misriyya) provide an opportunity to think about the ways that the ulama’s usage of the term umma to refer to national communities (al-umma al-misriyya, al-umma al-suriyya etc.) complicate the meaning of the term.

Bin Bayyah: A Scholar Cannot Know the Ruler’s Rationale

These two points drawn from Shaykh al-Qaradawi lead to an interesting contrast with the Mauritanian Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, who also needs no introduction here. Of course, there are many contrasts between ulama such as Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah as well as their peers and allies who have coalesced around the hubs of Doha and Abu Dhabi. Here though, I would like to briefly contrast Shaykh al-Qaradawi’s notion of thefree ulama being bound to the Islamic conscience of the umma, which in the example above appears to be something that can be measured numerically and then acted upon, with that of Bin Bayyah discussion of the relationship between the ulama and a ruler.[4]

Like Qaradawi, Bin Bayyah appears to take seriously the importance of governance by consultation, or shura, but with a very different outcome. While Qaradawi and his peers are advocates of democratic governance, for Bin Bayyah consultative governance need not be democratic. For Bin Bayyah, while a ruler should engage and consult representatives of the communities they rule – who in turn should know the needs and affairs of their communities intimately – such representatives need not be elected to be legitimate.

Just as Qaradawi elaborated on the relationship of the free ulama to the public conscience, Bin Bayyah also elaborates on the relationship between an alim and a ruler. To explain, he builds a model from the ground up, beginning by stating that an individual believer’s conscience is able to determine whether or not they are able to comply with certain Islamic legal rulings and obligations. For example, it is up to the individual believer to determine whether or not they are too ill to fast during Ramadan, for only they can fully know their individual circumstances. To Bin Bayyah, such a determination is valid and while a scholar might advise, they cannot be the one to decide such an issue. Building up from there, Bin Bayyah eventually then applies a similar reasoning to an alim’s capacity to impinge upon a ruler’s decision making. For Bin Bayyah, the ulama cannot constrain the ruler’s decision-making in any formal or constitutional manner, since they inevitably lack a full knowledge of a situation. The alim, Bin Bayyah says, cannot impinge upon the decisions of the ruler because he does “not know the facts of the matter or the consequences of particular courses of action.” Bin Bayyah adds that the jurist may not be aware of a country’s “internal tensions, or external concerns that may lead to civil war, which need to be taken into account in matters of state.” By contrast, the ruler – in a manner a little similar to the believer who knows best whether they can or cannot fast – has a full understanding of the underlying reasons for their decisions and has to deal with particular circumstances that are difficult/impossible for others to know or comprehend.

Both Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah, and the Sunni ulama at large, have increasingly validated individual believers’capacities to make decisions in accordance with their own estimations, for example by acknowledging that the individual believer has the capacity to gain correct Islamic knowledge reading from books on their own inrecognition of rising levels of education and the availability of Islamic reading material. However, that validation is often in tension with the need to maintain the authority of the scholar and as Bin Bayyah often insists throughout the book that ulama do not have a monopoly (hukr) over correct Islamic interpretations both he and Qaradawi take the validation of individual will in different directions: Qaradawi considers himself bound to follow the Islamic conscience of the people, and it is interesting to think about such a conscience might be conceptualized and measured, while Bin Bayyah shies away from attempting a constitutional check on a ruler’s power either through the ulama or any other means. This comparison brings up an interesting notion of what may or may not be known in this context. For al-Qaradawi, it appears that the will of the umma issomething that can be known and acted on, since it binds the free ulama, while for Bin Bayyah the innerworkings of the ruler’s mind and the factor that shape their decision-making can never be known completely.

Bin Bayyah elaborates that shūrā, or consultation, is a divine principle of consultation that pertains to authoritative relationships throughout social life. Bin Bayyah gives the example of a relationship between ahusband and a wife. Though a husband has authority over a wife, Bin Bayyah says, the marital bond is characterized by mutual compromise (tarāḍī) and mutual consultation (tashāwūr), rather than imposition (imlāʾ) and absolute authority (al-sulṭa al- muṭlaqa). A husband exercising his authority without consultation or compromise would negate “the love and mercy that is the essence of the marital relationship.” Yet, just as Bin Bayyah does not imagine any legal constraints on the authority of the husband, on moral-ethical self- restrain, he does not envisage any constitutional or other legal constraints on the authority of the ruler. The only check is a ruler’s benevolence and mercy.

As Bin Bayyah elaborates on his view of governance through consultation he references the example of the Prophet Muhammad. In Bin Bayyah’s reading, the Prophet’s modelling of consultative governance took twoforms. Sometimes, Bin Bayyah says, Muhammad would consult with the community as a whole. Other times, however, he would consult with representatives of the people (nawāb al-nās). In particular, Bin Bayyah cites a well-known hadith in which Muhammad directed the Hawazin tribe to consult with their representatives (ʿurafāʾ) on a matter pertaining to captives taken after the Battle of Hunayn. Significant for Bin Bayyah is the word ʿurafāʾ (sg. ʿarīf, derived from the Arabic root ʿ-r-f meaning ‘to know’). He cites classical exegetes such as Ibn Hajar who interpreted the word ʿarīf to denote someone from within a community who knew that community’s affairs intimately. Consequently, what Bin Bayyah takes from this example is that a representative must be selected from within community to be a legitimate representative of said community, but they need not be elected. To Bin Bayyah, it seems that knowing a community’s needs and affairs intimately is what makes a representative a legitimate partner for consultation with a ruler, not the manner in which they were chosen. As a result, Bin Bayyah says that “elections are one way of implementing consultation” but not the only one, because shūra is a divine system (niẓām ilāhī), while democracy is human system (niẓām insānī).[5]

Bin Bayyah and Dictatorship

While Qaradawi and his colleagues have long affirmed the legitimacy and importance of democratic elections, a trend that has become more significant recently is that put forward by ulama around Shaykh Bin Bayyah and the Abu Dhabi-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies that is either suspicious or overtly hostile toward democracy a system of government.

In my reading of Bin Bayyah’s books and speeches from recent years, as his skepticism toward democracy developed into hostility the theme of civil war appeared relatively frequently, such as the bloody Algerian Civil War or more recently the ongoing civil war in Syria. For example, Bin Bayyah gives additional justifications for his skepticism toward democracy in a 2007 speech in Jeddah – a time when the war in Iraq was at its height -that demonstrate the significance of his reading of recent history for his anti-democratic views. There is a clear discrepancy, Bin Bayyah said, between democracy as a universal message (risāla insāniyya) and the fact that the Western messenger (al-rasūl al-gharbī) who bears it does not act in accordance with democratic principles. For example, though democracy is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, the strong statesin the assembly dominate the weak. Moreover, Bin Bayyah also says that democracy is not suitable forimplementation in every society and in fact “might open the door to terrorism” and lead to violence as in theAlgerian civil war that began after the army cancelled the elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

In Bin Bayyah’s view, in societies he calls immature (ghayr nāḍija) because they lack common ground (arḍīya mushtaraka), electoral fraud and coups become common place, since the risks for those who lose elections are so great that they then seek to hold on to power by any means necessary. It was this line of reasoning underpinned his infamous speech in Abu Dhabi in 2014 when he stated, “In societies that are not ready, the call for democracy is essentially a call for war.” Here, we might deconstruct Bin Bayyah’s reference to societies that are “immature” are those where identification with a nation-state has not been sufficiently inculcated into the populace to the extent that it becomes a common ground that overrides other, more organic, communal identities and solidarities.[6]

Bin Bayyah and Shaykh Zayed Al Nahyan

When it comes to Bin Bayyah’s relationship with the Al Nahyan ruling family of the UAE, there is also a personal history here. During the early 1970s, Shaykh Zayed Al Nahyan (the founding ruler of the UAE) made a number of high-profile visits to Mauritania during the time when Bin Bayyah was a part of the Mauritanian government. During that time, and today, the UAE invested hugely in foreign aid, which was a key part of thecountry’s state-branding and Shaykh Zayed’s personal branding. Indeed, in Mauritania the UAE continues to fund infrastructure projects, solar panels, hospitals etc., which are oftentimes named after members of the Al Nahyan family or Shaykh Zayed himself. Moreover, to this day in the UAE there is a Shaykh Zayed humanitarian day, as his personal-branding into an icon of humanitarianism and religious tolerance is presented as core elements of Emirati nation-building. Through a cult of personality around Shaykh Zayed hispersonal values are presented by the UAE regime as the essential values of the Emirati nation. For Bin Bayyah’s part, he often recalls the memory of Shaykh Zayed fondly. Without wishing to be too speculative, we might suggest that Bin Bayyah imagines a figure such as Shaykh Zayed as a kind of ideal type of the benevolent and pious autocrat that he considers best placed to rule the nations of the Arab World, rather than the conscience of the umma to which scholars such as Qaradawi attempt to conceptualize and bind themselves too.[7]

Many of his publications can be viewed on his page.

[1] See Warren, Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis (Routledge: 2021) pp.31-32.

[2] Ibid., pp.34-35.

[3] Ibid., pp.46-48.

[4] A similar point goes for Shaykh al-Qaradawi’s support for constitutionally regulated elections, where the people’s will is also measured numerically to elect a president or party for a period of time.

[5] Ibid., pp.80-81.

[6] Ibid., pp.80-81

[7] Ibid., pp.71-76, 77-78

Response by Dr. Alexander Thurston:

The first response to Dr. Warren’s presentation was delivered by Dr. Alexander Thurston. Dr. Thurston is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. His research focuses on Islamic thought and activism in West Africa, and his most recent book is Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel published by Cambridge University Press.

I’ll draw here in my remarks on Dr. Warren’s presentation, paper, and book. I want to congratulate Dr. Warren on this book. I think it’s important, it’s very clearly organized and is a well-selected pair of case studies and a vital comparison of these two key figures. It also builds on and complements a series of important books about Muslim scholarly authority over the last even 25 years and more. So, you have Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori’s Muslim Politics. You have a set of important books about Saudi Arabia by Stéphane Lacroix and Nabil Mouline. You have Thomas Pierret’s book about Syria. So, there’s this growing body of literature about the ulema and states, especially in the Mashreq. So, I think this is important, especially for this colloquium and this group when thinking about the trajectories of Muslim scholarly authority going forward.

Dr. Warren does a nice job highlighting five kinds of factors that stood out to me. First, this idea of personal scholarly authority, second is the backing of states — and not necessarily the states of an individual’s birth, right? This ability to move from one state to another was key for both figures. A third factor is mass media, a fourth factor is formal institutions, and then, finally, transnational audiences. It’s clear from the book how carefully these figures are thinking about the multiple kinds of audiences that they’re addressing all at once.

Dr. Warren also does a nice job of showing what these two figures have in common, and of course, they know each other well and have worked together closely, at least through the Arab Spring, but they also have these key differences. So, Sheikh al-Qaradawi’s attentiveness to this kind of public conscience, although with serious inconsistencies in that. One part of the book that is powerful and thought-provoking is talking about Sheikh al-Qaradawi’s response to the protests in Bahrain in 2011 and some serious potential inconsistencies with his stances there. So, you have that attention to the public conscience, on one hand, versus, Sheikh Bin Bayyah’s skepticism about democracy and his reliance on the idea of rulers being voluntarily benevolent. And another thing that the book does nicely is showing, as David argues, that these are not simply scholars for hire, that this is a widespread image out there, but they are also kind of participants and shape the vocabularies that are used and the ways that rulers in the Gulf talk about their foreign policy agendas. And then, there’s all sorts of subtle ways, of push and pull and authority between the states and the scholars. So, David points out that unlike in Saudi Arabia, for example, the rulers are not likely to imprison these scholars if they’re perceived as getting out of line, but that they have other tools such as threatening deportation, removing scholars, or suspending their participation in certain key institutions. They have tools of disciplining the scholars, but the scholars also have ways of pushing back and ways of triangulating. They have other potential patrons and other relationships. So, there’s this interesting push and pull.

One thing that stood out to me, which was a brief part of the presentation and the book, is what Sheikh Bin Bayyah says about Algeria. Here I want to disagree with the Sheikh, hafidhahu Allah. What’s interesting to me about situations like Algeria is just how prismatic history becomes, where different people look at the same events and can take precisely opposite lessons from them. I think one important thing is paying close attention to the sequencing of events in particular places. So, for example, in Algeria, you had the single-party state starting to try to open up things in the late 80s to liberalize a bit amid the economic crisis and serious protests in the country. But then, you also had the elite of the country trying to manage the political space and manipulate it in certain ways and being surprised by the success of the FIS. Then you have the local elections of 1990, where the FIS did very well, the parliamentary elections in two rounds in 1991, and then, supposed to be in 1992, where the FIS did very well in the first round. Then, it was the military that stepped in and did a coup, right? So, one could take Sheikh Bin Bayyah’s lesson and his reading that Algeria was not ready for democracy somehow. But you could take, and this is what I take, precisely the opposite lesson that it was not a problem within the society, but that it was the military in their unwillingness to give up power. And so that it’s not some sort of immaturity within the society, but it’s a problem with the ruling elite. And I think, with this, a lot of countries have become these kinds of prismatic cases. Thinking about some of the trajectories of countries during and after the Arab Spring, like Syria, Libya, and Egypt, one can, again, take precisely opposite lessons from what happened, depending on where one sits and how one views them. I think one additional point to make is that there’s no overarching lesson from looking at these different cases. I think looking closely at the trajectories of, for example, Syria, Egypt, and Libya, I think it would be simplistic to walk away and say that the problem was that the societies weren’t ready for democracy. I think it’s condescending and even sort of subtly orientalist. But the trajectories are different in the way that the sequences of events played out. And it’s important to scrutinize claims that are made about history, including recent history.

Leaving that aside, a couple of issues that I thought that the group could discuss today, questions that I’ll put on the table that I thought of as I read the book, looked at the paper, and listened to the presentation: first, generational change. So, what is likely to happen as the last major figures of the ulema born in the 1920s and 30s, leave the scene? You know, a lot of the major scholars of that generation of course have already passed away, like Sheikh Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, Sheikh Ibn Uthaymeen and others have passed. But how will the departure of Sheikh al-Qaradawi and Sheikh Bin Bayyah affect the landscape of global Muslim authority? Are there figures who will have the same kind of stature, and how will they navigate all these same institutions and so forth?

The second batch of questions, then, is this idea that came up a lot in David’s presentation, about the authority of the ulema versus or in combination with, the authority of the ordinary believer. I think it’s really interesting how seriously Sheikh al-Qaradawi seems to take the capacity of the lay Muslim to interpret things, to be literate, and so forth. And we live in an era of mass education and mass literacy, but there’s also this tension there, right? So, how is this tension going to evolve? I liked one phrase in the book, as David pointed out, there’s not just this fragmentation of authority, but also this fragmentation of knowledge. And I thought that was an interesting notion to pick up on.

The third batch of questions, then, has to do with state backing and with the credibility of the ulema vis-a-vis their audiences. So, what space do the ulema have now to operate independently of states without facing substantial consequences? On the other hand, if all of them are seen as too close to particular states, then how will that affect their reputations and their credibility? And then the last, batch of questions has to do with the trajectories of particular currents within contemporary Islam. So, I thought the introduction of the book does a nice job of discussing Salafism, Islamism, Neo-traditionalism, modernism, and so forth. But the introduction also shows how these currents borrow from one another, and how there’s some real fluidity in how they’re evolving. And so, how coherent are these trends likely to remain going forward and how will that affect the branding of the ulema? A lot of them have branded themselves around particular currents but as those currents become maybe less distinguishable from one another, how will that affect this branding process?

My final takeaway is that I hope to see more independent ulema, but I think the book also shows just how tricky that is and how difficult it is once one rises to a certain level of global prestige, to avoid entanglements with states and again possibly states other than the country where one was born. And then I think the book also shows how difficult it is to remain consistent about politics to some extent. This comes up with Sheikh al-Qaradawi in particular. There’s this idea that the alim reacts to politics as they unfold, and so maybe absolute consistency isn’t possible. On the other hand, there were these glaring contradictions and tensions that hurt his brand with certain audiences, and I think this is a major challenge that goes beyond him but to the ulema in general, which is how to react to politics in a way where there is some sort of guiding principle.

Last modified: November 18, 2021

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