Youssef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who was seen as the spiritual leader of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, died on Monday at the age of 96, according to his official website.
He died in the Gulf Arab nation of Qatar, where he had been living in exile following the military’s overthrow of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt in 2013. Al-Qaradawi had been tried and sentenced to death in absentia in Egypt.
For many years while living in exile, he had a popular talk show on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network and often weighed in on controversial political topics.
He supported suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinians against Israel and also voiced support for the Iraqi insurgency that erupted after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But he also backed the Muslim Brotherhood's embrace of democratic elections and was a staunch critic of more radical groups, like Islamic State. He also issued a religious ruling against female circumcision, which is still widely practiced in Egypt.
He had strongly criticized the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, calling on all Muslim nations at the time to prepare to fight the Americans there “if the Iraqis fail to drive them out.”
“By opening our ports, our airports and our land, we are participating in the war,” al-Qaradawi said in a pointed critique of U.S.-allied Arab governments. “We will be cursed by history because we have helped the Americans.”
Qatar, which hosted him for decades, also hosts American troops and now serves as the forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt nearly a century ago and has branches across the region, played a major role in the 2011 uprisings that rocked the Middle East and rose to power in Egypt's first democratic elections, after the overthrow of long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Al-Qaradawi made a triumphant return to Egypt for the first time in decades in February 2011, addressing tens of thousands of supporters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the pro-democracy uprising that toppled Mubarak.
But the year-long rule in Egypt of President Mohammed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, proved extremely divisive, and the military removed the him from power in 2013 amid mass protests. Morsi died in 2019 after collapsing in court.
Al-Qaradawi remained a staunch critic of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who led the overthrow of the Brotherhood and who rights groups say has established an even more authoritarian government than the one led by Mubarak.
Egypt considers the Brotherhood a terrorist group and has arrested thousands of its members. Ahmed Mussa, a prominent pro-government TV host, called al-Qaradawi “the biggest inciter of terrorism” and blamed him for attacks inside Egypt.
Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates included al-Qaradawi on a list of dozens of organizations and individuals that they sanctioned for alleged terrorism in 2017 as part of a diplomatic dispute with Qatar, which denied the allegations.
In 2009, Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency accused al-Qaradawi of allocating $21 million to a charity funded by the Islamic militant group Hamas to set up militant infrastructure in Jerusalem. Hamas, which was originally established as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and now rules the Gaza Strip, denied the allegations.
Al-Qaradawi was born on Sept. 9, 1926 in a small village in Egypt's Nile Delta. His official biography claims he memorized the Quran before the age of 10. He went on to study at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, the leading center of Sunni Muslim scholarship.
He fled to Qatar in the early 1960s, when Egypt's then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Arab nationalist, was waging a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, seeing it as a threat to his rule.
A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2005 that was published by WikiLeaks said Qatar had given al-Qaradawi “substantial properties, including villas, which he rents,” and suggested he also had a “substantial” income. Qatar is a strong Brotherhood supporter.
In Qatar, al-Qaradawi hosted a popular TV program, “Shariah and Life,” in which he took calls from across the Muslim world, dispensing theological rulings and offering advice on everything from global politics to mundane aspects of daily life.