BOOK FORUM | Rivals in the Gulf by David H. Warren with Courtney Freer, Walaa Quisay, and Usaama al-Azami

Maydan Book forum on 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) by David H. Warren. ISBN 9780367280628; 136 pages; paperback $19.96.

David Warren-Introductory Remarks |

Courtney Freer |

Walaa Quisay |

Usaama al-Azami |

David Warren- Closing Remarks

David Warren - Introductory Remarks

David Warren is Lecturer of Middle East Studies and Arabic at the Washington University in St. Louis and the author of 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).

The relationship between the Muslim scholarly-elite (the ulama) and Muslim rulers is a discussion that has a long history in Islamic thought. In his book Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformations, Columbia University Professor Wael Hallaq details how premodern Muslim story tellers, narrators, and biographers equated scholars’ serving the ruler and engaging political power with corruption and impiety, and established scholars’ virtue by highlighting their avoidance of government service. As Hallaq put it, “Jurists are reported to have wept – sometimes together with family members – upon hearing news of their appointment; others went into hiding, or preferred to be whipped or tortured rather than accept [judicial] office.”[1] Following the rise of dictatorial states and the nationalization of Islamic scholarly institutions, this rhetorical device has taken on new characteristics as those who avoid state structures mark their integrity by accusing scholarly insiders of being little more than “scholars of the regime and agents of the police” (ulama al-sulta wa-umala al-shurta).

Rivals in the Gulf takes this broad theme as a point of departure and details the relationships between two of the most prominent Arab Sunni scholars, the late Egyptian Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1926-2022) and the Mauritanian Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah (b.1935), and explores their respective relationships with the ruling families of Qatar and the UAE: the Al Thanis and the Al Nahyans. These relationships stretch back decades, and the book uses these histories as a foundation to examine the connections between Qaradawi’s and Bin Bayyah’s rival projects and the development of Qatar’s and the UAE’s contrasting state-brands and competing foreign policies. Since the beginning of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah were among the most visible scholars to speak to events as they unfolded from an Islamic standpoint. In turn, Qatar and the UAE both adopted vigorous interventionist foreign policies to markedly different ends; Qatar became known as the chief supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mursi-led government in Egypt, while the UAE led the more recent counter-revolutionary wave whose crowning achievement was the 3 July 2013 Coup that overthrew Egypt’s first democratically-elected government.

In placing Qaradawi’s and Bin Bayyah’s political thought and activism in conversation with each other and considering them alongside the policies of their state-sponsors, some of the broader questions I explored included: What are the kinds of relationships that form between scholars and a regime in the contemporary period defined by the rise of the modern state? What are some of the ways that those relationships differ in the Arab Gulf context as opposed to more commonly studied countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia? In the book, I also consider the varying ways that Islamic scholars do, and do not, matter for a sponsoring state. Consequently, in the Arab Gulf context when ruling families such as Al Thanis and the Al Nahyans have relatively little to fear from their local populations due to their generous largesse and American military protection it is important to think about what such states have to gain from sponsoring prominent scholars, and what impact those scholars actually have on states’ policies. The underlying question I wanted to better understand was why Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah adopted their contrasting political positions during the Arab Spring and its aftermath, in light of their previously close working relationship and the similarities in many areas of their intellectual production.


Within this book that analyses individual scholars, a prominent theme is the importance of personal relationships. Qaradawi arrived in Doha in 1961, a journey that changed the course of his life and afforded him the possibility of building his global brand. However, Qaradawi’s opportunity to move to Qatar came about almost by chance via a meeting with the Qatari Abd Allah b. Turki al-Subay‘i  (d.1968). al-Subay‘i  was from a scholarly family on the Qatari peninsula who, using the prevalent academic definitions of the terms, could be categorized as Hanbali, Wahhabi, or Salafi. On the bases of those categorizations, it might seem surprising at first that such a figure would have travelled to Egypt and al-Azhar to recruit scholars to come to Qatar and help establish the country’s burgeoning state-run Islamic institutions given the tensions between Hanbali scholars of the Arabian Peninsula and al-Azhar exemplified by intra-Sunni rancor following the 2016 Grozny Conference. That al-Subay‘i a Hanbali scholar and student of a leading Saudi Arabian Wahhabi from Najd, would recruit Qaradawi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose approach to the legal schools was to draw upon all of them, or none of them as needed might seem surprising. Likewise, despite their different intellectual positions regarding democracy and their stances during the Arab Spring and its aftermath, there are many similarities between Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah’s intellectual thought that become elided when one foregrounds Bin Bayyah’s status as a prominent Sufi figure and Qaradawi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the close relationships between Qaradawi and al-Subay‘i or Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah prior to their split in late 2013 / early 2014 highlights the fluidity and limitations of heuristic academic categorizations such as Wahhabi, Salafi, Sufi etc., when it comes to analyzing individuals’ relationships to one another.

The personal relationships between Qaradawi and the Al Thanis, and between Bin Bayyah and the Al Nahyans is an important theme that runs throughout the book. Both Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah have had relationships with multiple generations of these two families. After his 1961 arrival, Qaradawi would meet regularly with the then-current and future Emirs Ahmad b. Ali Al Thani (r.1960-1972, d.1977) and Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani (r.1972-1995, d.2016). Likewise, I find it noteworthy that to this day when Bin Bayyah gives interviews or records lectures from his office, it is not uncommon to see a framed picture of Zayed b. Sultan Al Nahyan in a prominent position on the bookshelf behind him. Bin Bayyah often cites fond memories of Zayed Al Nahyan, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 until his death in 2004 and founded the UAE in 1971, a fondness he extends to Zayed Al Nahyan’s offspring who rule the UAE today. Consequently, when Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah praise the rulers of Qatar or the UAE or back their policies, this support is rooted in these long-standing affectionate relationships just as much as it emerges out of their reflections on, say, classical conceptions of Islamic statecraft or their theorization of an ideal Islamic democratic state, if not more so.


History emerges as particularly important when it comes to analyzing Qaradawi’s and Bin Bayyah’s responses to the Arab Spring and its aftermath, be it their personal histories or their reading of the history of the Arab World. For Bin Bayyah, we see in the book that his understanding of the 1991-2002 Algerian Civil War, which began following a military coup overturning the Islamic Salvation Front’s electoral victory, emerges as a significant factor in his reading of the Syrian Civil War, the Egyptian Coup, and informs his now (in)famous 2014 statement, “In societies that are not ready, the call for democracy is essentially a call for war.” For Qaradawi, his personal experiences as a young man brutalized in Nasser’s Egypt informed his dismissal of the protests in early 2013 against the Mursi-led government as simply the work of hired thugs, which later grew into the military-backed tamarrud protest movement. The legacy of the civil war in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion, whose impact on the Gulf region to the South remains understudied, also emerges as a noteworthy factor for both Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah’s political positions. Qaradawi reportedly refrained from supporting the Bahraini uprising partly out of concern for what a successful revolution might mean for Bahrain’s Sunni minority (in light of the violence in Iraq). For his part, Bin Bayyah’s skepticism toward democracy is partly justified by his cynicism toward the “Western messenger” (al-rasul al-gharbi) who cites spreading democracy in the region as a justification for war, and international institutions such as the United Nations that are ostensibly neutral but in reality serve as a means for strong states to dominate weak states by other means.


When it comes to the states that sponsor Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah (Qatar and the UAE respectively), Rivals in the Gulf points out that the influence these scholars and states have over each other is not as obvious as one might initially suppose. More specifically, neither Qaradawi nor Bin Bayyah directly inform Qatari or Emirati policy, nor do they simply serve at the beck and call of their respective rulers. Moreover, when it comes to domestic security, neither Qatar nor the UAE are in particular need of scholars to buttress their legitimacy in the eyes of their publics. Qatar and the UAE’s plentiful largesse to their citizenry combined with sophisticated internal security forces have prevented opposition movements from developing local support to a large extent. Moreover, outside powers – notably the United States – remain powerful backers of the Al Thani and Al Nahyan families to the extent that any determined local efforts to call for democracy would be easily suppressed.

It is in relation to this latter point that we can see the significance of Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah, which emerges via a concept known as state-branding. Small states must brand themselves, like corporations in a way, in order to ensure continued outside investment. In the case of the small Arab Gulf states, which historically have all had territory either claimed or occupied by their larger neighbours, this external investment takes the form of outside powers investing in ruling families’ security through the maintenance of military alliances and bases. Both the Qatari and Emirati regimes have established themselves as essential US partners in maintaining the smooth running of the global economy by developing themselves into key hubs for international banking, commerce, transportation and so on. Qatar and the UAE’s state-branding in this regard extends to their sponsoring of scholars (namely Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah, but also others) in order to demonstrate their utility as US partners at the intersection of religion and international relations. Thus, Qatari sponsorship of Qaradawi plays an important role in the country’s relations with groups such as Hamas with whom the US on occasion may need to indirectly communicate, while the UAE’s sponsoring of Bin Bayyah and hosting of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) conforms to particular US expectations of what the desired Islamic reform ought to look like. While in the aftermath of 9/11, US foreign policy in relation to Islam sought to promote secularism across the region, a more recent shift has moved toward the promotion of a particular kind of Muslim religiosity that is viewed as both authentic and quietist. Bin Bayyah’s Jurisprudence of Peace (fiqh al-silm) accepts the hegemonic discourse that Islam is a key driver of violence in the Arab World and views peace as the absence of violence rather than a condition established via justice and accountability. This view neatly accords with both US and Emirati expectations. Indeed, FPPMS’ lavish annual conference in Abu Dhabi has become a key fixture of the interfaith calendar and is continually well attended by leading figures from the US religious establishments as well as those who work in the field of international religious freedom promotion.

The book concludes by posing questions about how academics who study contemporary Islam in the Arab World might think about the cities of Doha and Abu Dhabi in relation to historical centers of Islamic scholarship such as Cairo, Medina, or Qom that receive the bulk of academic attention. In that vein, just as Doha, Abu Dhabi (and Dubai of course) have become a veritable London, Paris, and New York in terms of their being centers of capitalist consumption, aspiration, and migration, not only for the Arab World but also globally, then so too should Doha and Abu Dhabi be taken seriously as Islamic centers that serve as key nodes in transnational Islamic networks.

Finally, I would also like to express my gratitude to my peers and colleagues for engaging with some of the ideas detailed in the book, and to the Maydan and Jadaliyya for organizing this roundtable discussion.

[1] Wael Hallaq, Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) p.138.


Courtney Freer

Courtney Freer is Visiting Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University and a Nonresident Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of The Resilience of Parliamentary Politics in Kuwait: Parliament, Rentierism, and Society (Oxford University Press ,2023)


In Rivals in the Gulf, David H. Warren examines the understudied role of religious soft power and branding in Qatari and Emirati discourse and foreign policy since the Arab Spring. He does so by analyzing the roles of Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah during this period. Previous literature on the roles of these state state-affiliated clerics in GCC foreign policies has largely been journalistic, aside from some limited academic work focused on Qaradawi exclusively. This book is therefore a very welcome addition to the scant existing literature on the political role of religion in the rentier states of the GCC.

Warren sees his work as contributing to two overlapping academic debates: one related to the relationship between the ulama and Arab regimes during and after the Arab Spring, and the other linked to the development of competing Qatari and Emirati foreign policies during the same period (1). I see his book as contributing to other scholarly conversations as well, particularly those related to the role of state-sponsored religion and religious figures in wealthy rentier states – a topic on which I have written extensively – as well as the role of global capitalism in pushing forward specific versions of Islam in Qatar and the UAE. As such, I find Warren’s contribution incredibly valuable; he demonstrates ways in which hydrocarbon wealth is instrumentalized by rentier regimes to put forward specific religious ideas, which have political consequences. Another theme that he explores, the process of the “de-traditionalization of Islam” and the circulation of religious media more broadly (24), will only become more relevant as religious figures become more visible on both traditional and social media.

Warren begins by introducing Qaradawi’s ideology of Jurisprudence of Revolution, as linked to Qatar’s foreign policy during the Arab Spring, in contrast with Bin Bayyah’s Jurisprudence of Peace and the UAE’s promotion of security and stability above protest and democratic governance during the same period (2). And although Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah appear to hold similar views in some areas – indeed both were members of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) – over the course of the aftermath of the Arab Spring, their ideas became increasingly contrasting, mirroring the growing chasm between Qatar and the UAE.

Warren briefly describes the history of Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar, beginning with Qaradawi’s arrival in 1961 to join the Azhar Mission that had recently opened in Doha (20). The historical link between Qaradawi, a well-known Brotherhood figure, and Al Azhar demonstrates the extent to which Al Azhar’s views on Islamism have evolved as policies of the Egyptian Government have also changed regarding Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and the potential political dangers of supporting such groups. In Qatar, Qaradawi famously developed a relationship with former Qatari Amir Shaykh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani (27-28), who ruled between 1972 and 1995 and, though not mentioned in Warren’s text, was an avowed Arab nationalist  – a fact that demonstrates, in my view, the extent to which Qaradawi was seen as a religious rather than political figure in Qatar, as well as the extent to which people can support his religious teachings without adopting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1968, Qaradawi was offered Qatari citizenship and a permanent post at the Religious Institute before later founding the College of Sharia at Qatar University in 1977 where he became dean (28).

Warren then delves into the relationship between Qatar’s Wahhabism and Qaradawi’s Islamism – a topic that is fascinating but still remains largely understudied. He points out, that, although Qatar is officially Wahhabi, the state’s Wahhabism does not resemble that of Saudi Arabia. In particular, Warren cites that Qatar has not needed to train an indigenous ulama as part of its state-building effort, as compared to Saudi Arabia where the development of a state-linked national clergy has been critical to enhancing Wahhabi identity (28). Interestingly, then, Qaradawi’s students in Qatar largely did not go into the clergy but into other parts of the state apparatus (29), demonstrating the ways in which he was able to use his posts to influence Qatari society beyond the religious sphere.

Warren also explores Qaradawi’s role within Al Jazeera and the importance of the network more broadly over the course of the Arab Spring. He makes the interesting observation that Al Jazeera differentiated itself from other state-run media outlets in the Arabian Peninsula in the way that it “dissolved state boundaries in favor of a supranational framing that envisioned the Arab World as an umma undergirded by a Muslim ethos. Al Jazeera constructed a binary between the state-run national media on the one hand and Al Jazeera’s supranational brand on the other. This binary, coupled with the Arab public’s general suspicion of state institutions, meant Al Jazeera was able to portray itself as the ‘counter-narrative to the dominant hegemonic discourse of nation-states and their communication apparatuses’” (32). Al Jazeera during the Arab Spring was considered to broadcast opinions from the streets (indeed, its slogan is “the opinion…and the other opinion”), rather than continuing to parrot the messages of government leaderships or state-run television stations, which gave it credibility throughout the region.

Qaradawi therefore fit quite well with Al Jazeera’s messaging and counter-narrative, as he vocally supported democracy, considering it to have intrinsic moral value due to its links to an Islamic precursor (32). Qaradawi was also able to distinguish himself as being an independent, rather than a state-employed, religious figure due to his employment outside of the government. In Warren’s words, “Qaradawi’s binary distinction between the state-ulama and the free-ulama (i.e. himself) accorded perfectly with al-Jazeera’s binary distinction between state-media and free-media (i.e. al-Jazeera)” (34).  Qaradawi was therefore able to speak freely and often about “the people” or umma who wanted democratically elected governance, leading to his alignment with the Egyptian revolution in 2011 (66).

Beyond Al Jazeera, Warren cites the creation of the Qaradawi-led and Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) in 2004 and the spread of the Jurisprudence of Revolution by Qaradawi after the Arab Spring when state-linked ulama at Al Azhar spoke out against popular protests that were sweeping the region (42). While the story of Qatar’s support for the Arab Spring protests, particularly in contrast to the counterrevolutions supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has been told many times, Warren uses Qaradawi as a window into understanding Qatar’s foreign policies more broadly and therefore advances our comprehension of the relationship between Qatar and Islamists.

Qatar’s involvement in the joint GCC initiative to stop protests in Bahrain in February 2011, which Warren in my view overstates, and later involvement in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi revealed inconsistencies within Qatar’s support for protest and the counter-public which Qaradawi sought to represent (48). While Qaradawi insisted that a sectarian Iranian plot was unfolding in Bahrain and therefore should be stopped, he issued a fatwa on Al Jazeera calling for Qaddafi to be killed and even more controversially called on all able-bodied Sunni men to travel to Syria to fight the Asad regime (48). By taking such contradictory and in some cases extreme stances publicly, “he became a risk to Qatar’s carefully cultivated state brand” (49). Interestingly, Warren cites reports of Iraqi Sunni members of the IUMS as having pressured Qaradawi to support the Bahraini regime against protesters, demonstrating ways in which the Qatari state created a space for transnational Islamism that in some instances undermined its foreign policy interests (51).

Notably, the voicing of Qaradawi’s more extreme stances coincided with Qatari foreign policy facing increasing international scrutiny, particularly Qatari funding of various Islamist groups in Libya and Syria. As 2013 went on and Qaradawi’s statements, particularly about fighting in Syria, became more contentious, Warren documents that the Qatari authorities sidelined him from Al Jazeera – notably at the same time that the US was trying to improve Emirati-Qatari relations (61-62). Also at the time, Warren documents, Turkey, and Erdogan himself, began to vocally defend Qatari foreign policy (64), foreshadowing their strong bilateral ties particularly in the face of the GCC crisis in 2017. Importantly, “because he never held an official position in the Qatari bureaucracy, the Al Thanis could plausibly attenuate their relationship when it suited them. Eventually, that became impossible, and when the Quartet demanded Qaradawi’s expulsion in 2017, the Al Thanis did not comply” (66).

While Qatar and Qaradawi sought to empower, at least rhetorically, the people mobilized against their governments during the Arab Spring, the UAE’s reaction to the Arab Spring was to focus on security and stability above all else. Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s opinions became increasingly aligned with these ideas, as he left the IUMS in 2013, having become more sympathetic to Sufism and more concerned about the chaos unfolding in the Middle East (74). Bin Bayyah also developed the Jurisprudence of Peace after founding the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FFPMS) in 2014. The forum often includes non-Muslim religious figures as well as non-religious figures as a means of showcasing peace and tolerance, which are critical to Emirati state-branding efforts as well as their efforts to stem the tide of Islamism at home and abroad (73).

Like Qaradawi, Bin Bayyah benefitted from a personal relationship with key state figures, in particular getting to know Emirati President and Abu Dhabi ruler Shaykh Zayed in the 1970s when Bin Bayyah was a minister in the Mauritanian government (73). As in Qatar, Qaradawi and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated scholars went to the UAE, which only came to oppose the group in recent decades (77). Warren also touches on the UAE’s historical use of unilateral humanitarian aid as a means of shoring up relations and “to boost the new country’s prestige and state-brand,” a less explicitly political way of differentiating itself from Saudi Arabia than the route that Qatar took after the Arab Spring (75). The UAE gave a staggering amount of humanitarian aid in particular to Bin Bayyah’s native Mauritania (78) before coming to focus more keenly on shoring up ties with the US after 9/11 (76).

In terms of the political views of the two shaykhs Warren discusses, “Bin Bayyah’s and Qaradawi’s basic understanding of democracy is very similar. They view democracy as the empowerment of the majority and give little consideration to the rights of the individual in the face of state power” (74). Because of their different views of the role of the state, they had different desires in terms of how closely they would be linked to their state sponsors: “while for Qaradawi state-sponsorship was something to be disavowed and an image of independence was key to his brand, for Bin Bayyah state-sponsorship is a necessity to be welcomed” (75). Arguably, direct state sponsorship is also critical in a place like the UAE, where political space has increasingly been restricted since the Arab Spring, particularly for Islamist and religious figures.

As the protests of the Arab Spring went on, Bin Bayyah came to see Qaradawi’s statements and his Jurisprudence of Revolution as driving forward chaos, which he (and the Emirati leadership) want to avoid above all (83). As Warren explains, “[w]hile for Qaradawi, democracy and shura are essentially one and the same, for Bin Bayyah, democracy is one model among many for practicing shura, but democracy has no inherent moral valence [….] democracy is not suitable for implementation in every society” (81). Also, where Qaradawi became more vocal in 2013, Bin Bayyah was silent, letting developments take place without commenting on them (84). Further, Bin Bayyah developed a more anti-democratic strain: “For Bin Bayyah, a dictatorship can be just as consultative as a democracy, and even a better system, if it maintains social cohesion” (88). This view accords with that of the Emirati leadership, who have come to consider Islamism of any type as fundamentally threatening to the UAE’s social fabric and stability. Bin Bayyah’s Jurisprudence of Peace thus seeks to stop the chaos in the region and as such “becomes an important justification of UAE foreign policy” (90). In a sense, then, it was formulated in reaction to Qaradawi’s increasing political activism, which was aligned with Qatar’s activist foreign policy at that time.

Bin Bayyah came to be increasingly visible through the Al Muwatta’ Center, which trains Emirati ulama and aims “to safeguard the spiritual security (al-amn al-ruhi) of Emirati society” (100). The Emirati Government since the Arab Spring has sponsored a variety of religious institutions and events of the type that highlight above all the need for stability, peace, and tolerance. To that end, Warren mentions the Marrakesh Declaration in 2016, which supported the freedom of religious minorities and resulted from a meeting in Morocco sponsored by the FFPMS and the UAE. The declaration ultimately did not make a huge impact in the Muslim world, instead becoming more important as a messaging tool to the US; it is important insofar as it “is part of a recent trend in state-branding that began with the Amman Message of 2004” (107). The Alliance of the Virtuous is another such religious branding project, launched at 2018 FPPMS annual meeting, and since that time meeting US involvement and approval. Warren does not mention the 2016 international conference on Sunni Islam in Grozny, which was also financed by the UAE and Egypt and coordinated by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. It was another important step in refining the type of Islam that the Emirati leadership approves of and hopes to promote – one which is “tolerant” and largely apolitical, as well as explicitly opposed to Islamism as related to Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In his conclusion, Warren makes the important point that most literature on Shaykh Qaradawi sees him as an Egyptian rather than Qatari figure (115). This trend is also, I argue, linked to broader bias against seeing the Gulf as housing important religious and cultural centers in the Middle East; the oil-wealthy Gulf states have traditionally been viewed through the prism of oil and finance or security. Doha and Abu Dhabi are, however, cultural and religious hubs, as are other Gulf capitals, and Warren’s study is an important step toward recognizing their role in global religious discourse. In his words, “To date, studies of state-branding and foreign policy in the UAE highlight its status as a center of commerce, finance, travel, naval ports, and tourism, and they overlook its position as a key node in a transnational network of ulama” (117). It is my hope that additional research on such topics emerges, incorporating the role of indigenous religious figures as well, to redress the imbalance when it comes to recognizing the cultural and religious roles of the Gulf states.

Walaa Quisay

Dr. Walaa Quisay is a Leverhume Early Career Fellow at the School of Divinity at University of Edinburgh and the author of Neo-Traditionalism in Islam in the West: Orthodoxy, Spirituality, and Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2023)

David Warren’s Rivals in the Gulf is an exceptional work of scholarship. In this book, he explores a number of understudied themes – most notably the production of political theologies as a response to the Arab Spring. Warren brings the recent political history of the Arab Spring in conversation with the responses of two prominent political theologians – Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Abdullah Bin Bayyah. He examines the role of regional powers often overlooked in the literature on the Arab Spring – namely the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Warren asks how Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah respectively ‘shaped’ the Qatari and the Emirati normative vision of Islam. Furthermore, he examines how these small gulf states have used these visions of Islam as a part of its brand-building. In doing so, Warren attempts to move beyond the trope of state sponsorship of ʿulamāʾ. I suspect that Warren finds this concept of little use for one of two reasons. The conception of state sponsorship often carries the stigma that anʿālim is unethical or ‘bought off’ rather than working from a place of conviction. Otherwise, Warren may have found the concept of state sponsorship to be theoretically deficient in accounting for ʿulamāʾ-state relations. The book is divided into two parts. The first part examines the relationship between Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Qatari foreign policy, and the Al Thani ruling family. The second part looks at Abdullah Bin Bayyah, Emirati foreign policy, and the Al Nahyan ruling family.

In the first part of the book, Warren gives an account of the religious and political development of Qatar itself. Yusuf al-Qaradawi arrived in Qatar in 1961 as a part of al-Azhar’s mission. Warren points out that at the time Qatar, like most other Gulf states, was dominated by Wahhabi scholars. In the half-century in which Qaradawi resided in Qatar, he was able to shape the religious orientation of the country through his educational reforms. Warren points out that despite the country’s nominal Wahhabism, Qaradawi’s Muslim Brother-vision was more popular. It is important to note, however, that Salafi scholars and scholarly families did not cease to be of importance. Rather, there was a fluidity or pluralism in religious discourse where tenets of Qaradawi’s pan-Islamism were absorbed into the doctrinal Salafism of these families. Despite their closeness with Saudi Salafi intelligentsia, Qatari Salafis should not be seen as an extension of them but rather should be understood in accordance with the Qatari context.

Qaradawi’s closeness with generations of Al Thani rulers, Warren argues, enabled him to spread his political vision to them. Emir Hamad b. Khalifa, who took power in 1995, branded Qatar as a mediator of international conflicts. The founding of the Al Jazeera news channel became central to the country’s brand and foreign policy from the mid-1990s and throughout the Arab Spring. Qaradawi was of course very supportive of the majority of the Arab Spring protests – excluding the protests in Bahrain – as was Al Jazeera, and the Qatari state. Therein lies the crux of the book. Whereas Qaradawi saw democracy as a necessary good that could be expounded upon through the Islamic concept of shura, Bin Bayyah was more ambivalent. Warren cites Qaradawi as saying,

[Rejecting God’s sovereignty] does not even occur to most people calling for democracy. What they do seek [in calling for democracy] is rather the rejection of dictatorship, a refusal to accept oppressive and tyrannical rulers… [What] all [people] mean by democracy is that the people elect their rulers as they please, that they hold them accountable for their actions, that they refuse their orders when these violate the nation’s constitution – that is, in Islamic terms, when the rulers command that which is sinful – and that people have the right to remove their rulers when they deviate and act unjustly.[1]

Bringing in Khaled Abou El Fadl’s critique of Qaradawi, Warren suggests that Qaradawi has a very limited view of democracy. As such, he contends that there is an inherent tension that rulers cannot go against the shariʿa; thereby the ʿulamāʾ become necessary to gauge these boundaries. Furthermore, Warren argues that “Qaradawi understands democracy in majoritarian terms and does not pay due attention to the rights of the individual in the face of the coercive power of the state.”[2] Coincidently, in a recent conversation between myself, Khaled Abou El Fadl, and Sami Al-Arian, Al-Arian asked Abou El Fadl about this very point.[3] Abou El Fadl is seemingly closer to Qaradawi’s position after the Arab Spring than he had been in 2004 – when the review Warren cites was written. Abou El Fadl pointed out that all democracies are based on a set of immutable principles – be they liberal in nature or not. He argues that all democratic societies have their version of morality laws; they may differ but that does not make it inherently undemocratic. Al-Arian followed up by asking him who gets to define these boundaries and whether there is a risk that this could turn into a theocracy? Abou El Fadl responded by noting that during the Egyptian revolution there was a brief point where Islamist and secular forces met in Al Azhar to try to reach a consensus. This very meeting was democracy in action had the revolution not been thwarted by the military. With that said, Abou El Fadl maintains that a majoritarian view of democracy could potentially be very dangerous as it could be used to crush minorities.

I do, however, agree with Warren that Qaradawi’s view of democracy is limited but not for the same reasons. Liberal democracy is not the only model of democracy that is conceivable. Qaradawi’s problem is perhaps a symptomatic problem not just to Islamists in the region but also secular forces. Their theorization of democracy is both shaped by state violence and too impoverished to truly counter it. The respective visions of democracy were thus reduced to buzzwords such as an ‘Islamic reference’ and difference was elaborated only through culture wars. One can say that Qaradawi’s vision of democracy is not an entirely coherent manifesto for the future as it is a staunch rejection of authoritarianism. With that said, Warren makes an important point that this insufficiency – based on majoritarianism – has led Qaradawi to oppose the revolution in Bahrain on sectarian grounds. Here, I am inclined to revisit Warren’s theoretical rejection of the notion of sponsorship. There were clear Qatari interests at stake when the revolution in Bahrain broke out. It seems to me a more convincing argument that Qaradawi believed in safeguarding those interests.

I found chapter three “War in Syria, coup in Egypt, crisis in the Gulf” to be somewhat limited in context and felt that it perhaps overstated Qaradawi’s role. The sheer violence perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad and his forces, with Iranian backing and the support of Hezbollah, scandalized many in the Arab public. It was only comparable to the violence of Libyan forces. Warren cites Qaradawi’s sermon on Qusayr in Syria as an indication of his sectarianism and consequently the discrediting of the Qatar brand. Qaradawi was far from alone in expressing his outrage at the utter destruction in Qusayr and the involvement of Hezbollah militias alongside Assad’s troops. Hezbollah lost many supporters that had believed it was a resistance movement. An interesting counterpoint to Qaradawi’s significance may have been the increasing importance of Azmi Bishara to the Qatar brand.  Bishara is an Arab nationalist, secular intellectual. Coming from an Arab ’48 background, Bishara served in the Israeli Knesset but was made to resign after being accused of aiding Hezbollah in the 2006 war with Lebanon. Like Qaradawi, he was interviewed on a daily basis by Al Jazeera during the Arab Spring. In many ways, it could be argued his voice was comparably as important as Qaradawi’s.

In the second part of the book, Warren examines Bin Bayyah’s relationship with Al Nahyans and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was founded in 1971 by Shaykh Zayed b. Sultan Al Nahyan. Like Qaradawi, Bin Bayyah has a long history with the Al Nahyans that dates back to the 1970s when he was still a minister in the Mauritanian government. That said, unlike Qaradawi’s relations with the Al Thanis, this was just a relationship of acquaintance. Warren points out, “[t]he UAE built its state-brand through high-profile humanitarian aid projects. UAE aid policy foregrounded Arab-Muslim solidarity, notably the plight of the Palestinians. Led by Abu Dhabi, the senior Shaykhdom ruled by the Al Nahyans, the UAE participated in the 1973 Oil Embargo.”[4] After 9/11, the UAE sought to be an important ally of the US in the region. This was particularly important since many of the hijackers were Emirati citizens, and as were some of the people implicated in financially facilitating the attacks. Warren points out that the UAE was the only Arab country to have troops stationed in Afghanistan alongside US troops. Internally, Warren notes, the UAE tolerated some moderate Muslim Brotherhood presence. Some were involved in educational initiatives up until the 1990s when the government decided to crack down on them.

Warren may have slightly understated the mainstreaming of the Muslim Brotherhood in the educational sector in the UAE during the reign of Shaykh Zayed b. Sultan Al Nahyan. The internal and dramatic shifts the country had undergone after the death of Shaykh Zayed and the ascension of Mohammed b. Zayed needs to be examined further. Although Khalifa b. Zayed was the de-facto leader of the UAE until his death, it was widely known that his brother Mohammed b. Zayed was in fact in charge during that period. In March 2011, 133 UAE citizens – mostly intellectuals, judges, and journalists – submitted a petition for reform to the government. This caused tremendous paranoia and led the government to a major crackdown on the pretext of fighting the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Qatar, the UAE was adamantly opposed to the Arab Spring, many times intervening in these countries. It is important to note that Mohammed b. Zayed’s discourse has dramatically shifted from his father’s pan-Arab and pan-Islamic vision. As such, many of those that had belonged to the previous government were targeted and detained. I would thus be interested in hearing Warren’s thoughts on the transformations the UAE has undergone as a strong carceral nation-state; particularly that things such as familial ties, tribal esteem, and even gender have lost their power in protecting UAE citizens from the arm of the state.

The question of the scholars ‘shaping’ as opposed to being ‘sponsored’ needs to be revisited in the context of Bin Bayyah and the UAE once again. Just as the question of sponsorship raises the question of the ethical independence of the scholars, the question of ‘shaping’ too has its implications. Does the government have religious commitments, and can they be ethically bound or even limited by these commitments? Indeed, as Warren has shown, the UAE has hosted a number of neo-traditionalist and Sufi initiatives but they a have also hosted Mu’minūn bilā Ḥudūd (Believers without Borders) – which is staunchly anti-traditionalist. The question becomes: in the face of state policy, how much do ideas actually matter? As Warren shows, the UAE government echoes Bin Bayyah’s theologically grounded fear of chaos. However, what does it mean when the state is the one that enacts the very chaos that is prohibited?

Lastly, I want to engage Warren on Bin Bayyah a little further. As he noted, it is surprising to most onlookers how similar Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah are. In fact, Bin Bayyah was Qaradawi’s deputy within IUMS (The International Union of Muslim Scholars) for many years before resigning in September 2013 to establish the rival UAE-based FPPMS (Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies) in 2014. They share the same conception of wasaṭiyya; they both draw from Rashid Rida. They even share similar conceptions of democracy – with some notable different attitudes to it. Qaradawi sees democracy as a logical conclusion to shura, Bin Bayyah sees it as one of many possibilities. Qaradawi sees it as a moral good, Bin Bayyah sees it in more neutral terms. He seems to be of the belief that because the Arab people lack common ground, democracy will lead to more bloodshed. In turn Bin Bayyah developed the Jurisprudence of Peace in the FPPMS. He defines peace as the absence of conflict. As such, he argues that peace should supersede accountability and that holding leaders to account could in fact halt peace. This message is particularly important in the post-Arab Spring context where many are owed retributive justice.

In an article by the Islamic Monthly in 2014, Bin Bayyah seems to have somewhat of a different attitude. The article stated that Bin Bayyah was meeting with then-President Barack Obama so he can lend his support to Syrian rebels. In a question about Syria, Bin Bayyah says,

We should build this opinion on wider principles such as human rights and justice. So, for example, the genocide that’s happening in Syria, we can call it a “genocide” and we can say that this is injustice, that this is against human rights, but we’re not making an argument for one group versus another. And this type of approach is something that will be more accepted and will lead us into less trouble — that we don’t build an opinion on a particular group or a particular madhab or a particular side of the conflict, but rather from the general point of view of human rights and, again, the values that are shared and understood. We’re against injustice whether it’s against a Sunni or a Shia.[5]

Even here Bin Bayyah is quite careful in his choice of words; still, his position here evidently diverges from his quietest stances in the FPPMS. My concluding question would be: Can we account for the role of the state and its policy agenda in shaping the religious discourse of the ʿālim?

Rivals in the Gulf is a crucial book to the study of the impact of regional powers on political theology in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. David Warren makes indispensable contributions to the field. I have found my ideas on the topic challenged and ultimately enriched by it.

[1] David H. 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), 33

[2] Ibid

[3]Conversation with History: Khaled Abou El Fadl,” Centre for Islam and Global Affairs

[4] Warren,  Rivals in the Gulf, 75

[5] Souheila Al-Jadda, “Why America Needs To Know This Man: Abdallah bin Bayyah, Sectarianism and Global Muslim Respect,” The Islamic Monthly, March 4th, 2014

Usaama al-Azami

Usaama al-Azami is Departmental Lecturer in Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford and the author of Islam and the Arab Revolutions: The Ulama between Democracy and Autocracy (Hurst & Co., 2021)

Qaradawi on Democracy, Bin Bayyah on Autocracy

David Warren’s Rivals in the Gulf offers a fresh look at the intersection of religion and state in the Persian Gulf. While he focuses primarily on just two Islamic scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Abdullah bin Bayyah, affiliated respectively with the Qatari and UAE states, the importance of these two figures who arguably represent the most salient nodal points of religion-state relations in the Persian Gulf in the early twenty first century entirely justifies the degree to which they have been scrutinized in this work. The detailed histories of these two scholars’ work with the countries in question, drawing on previously unused primary sources, have provided essential background for our understanding of both scholars and their relationships with their respective states of residence in Qaradawi’s case, and employment in Bin Bayyah’s. There are innumerable fascinating arguments and threads that run through the text that I would love to grapple with at length, but given the inevitable brevity of a review, I will focus my attention far more narrowly in the present piece. Specifically, I hope to consider two themes that run through the text, one pertaining to Qaradawi’s conception of democracy, and the other concerned with Bin Bayyah’s predilection for authoritarianism. My reflections on Warren’s work attend to certain debates in Islamic political theology he alludes to but which are not central to his thesis. Thus, my engagement with these themes here is not necessarily intended as a critique of his work. Rather, I am taking the opportunity of engaging his work to offer an alternative exploration of these scholars’ interventions with their religio-political contexts, an exploration that is in dialogue with his richly documented history.

Can there be an Islamic as opposed to liberal democracy?

As I have briefly discussed with Warren in a short interview not long after the book’s release, the critique of Qaradawi’s understanding of democracy that Warren articulates in the book, which draws on that of Khaled Abou El Fadl, is itself open to a kind of critique. In recent decades, perhaps in part due to the work of Fareed Zakaria, a state’s democratic bona fides have been called into question if the form of democracy adhered to is not liberal. For a democracy to be respected in the West, that democracy must be, even if minimally so, a liberal democracy. But as Shadi Hamid has thoughtfully highlighted, it is unreasonable to expect democratic Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to embrace liberal values.

Instead, I would like to argue that the form of democracy that Islamists are calling for in the region is “Islamic democracy.” And this, I submit, is as legitimate a form of democracy as liberal democracy is in a Western context. What do I mean by this? In essence, I understand liberalism as a check on unconditional democracy. Democracy as it was incorporated into Western political systems over the past two or so centuries was adapted from the Ancient Greek notion of direct democracy into the Western norm of representative democracy. In addition, liberal values were understood by classical liberal thinkers writing after the Enlightenment to act as a further constraint on democracy in a way that would preserve individual freedoms in the form of political freedoms and civil rights that are articulated in the liberal tradition. The rights of minorities were also highlighted in the wake of the rise of Nazism and the subsequent mass extermination of Jews and other minorities during the Second World War. This tradition of liberalism thus exemplifies the experience of Europe and subsequently the wider West in developing norms that accorded with their historical circumstances, and that were eventually globalized in the postcolonial world order underwritten by American military supremacy. But to draw on the ideas of the decolonial philosopher, Salman Sayyid, we need to ask why we should simply accept Western claims to “copyright” over a given concept, in this particular case, over democracy.

The notion of Islamic democracy has been articulated over the last few decades as an alternative to liberal democracy. While Warren notes Abou El Fadl’s assertion that Qaradawi’s conception of democracy is “superficial and imprecise” (33), arguably this is only true if one accepts that the West or liberalism holds exclusive copyright over the concept of democracy.[1] If on the other hand, such a concept can organically (as opposed to colonially) travel beyond the West, then presumably it can be adapted into an indigenous discourse in organic dialogue with that discourse. In the context in which a scholar like Qaradawi writes, this would be in conversation with a fourteen-hundred-year-old Islamic discursive tradition after a fashion that can help develop an Islamic conception of the idea.

Add to this the fact that the Sharia is a rule of law system, as  Anver Emon expresses it, but one that is distinct from liberal constitutionalism as a rule of law system, and it seems quite conceivable to recognize Islamic democracy as the meaningful alternative form of democracy that Qaradawi is advocating. It is true that the full set of norms that govern such a regime type have not been systematically articulated by Qaradawi, but in the context of the Middle East where democratic movements have been suppressed for decades, this is hardly surprising. Nor does his limited theorizing extensively explore (even if it is aware of this problem) the disjuncture between the way in which law is conceived of in relation to the modern state versus the conception of law in a Sharia rule of law system which historically developed legal structures largely independently of states. Qaradawi, and many other scholars writing enthusiastically about democracy with an Islamic inflection, may thus be seen as starting a discourse rather than concluding it.

Islam limiting democracy?

Additionally, Qaradawi and other Islamists’ view that Islamic democracy would allow for people to “choose their rulers,” so long as they do not “forbid that which Islam has permitted or permit that which Islam has forbidden” is not an altogether unusual feature of modern rule of law systems (33). Consider the United States, where the basic law is expressed in the US Constitution which has in the American legal system a position analogous to the Qur’an in the Sharia. The democratic will cannot under normal circumstances override the dictates of the constitution. Where democratically elected branches of government do engage in such a manner, they can be challenged through judicial review on the part of an institution that could be seen as analogous to an unelected clerical council. So, while the textual sources of authority in the US system, as well as the modern states whose discursive power most forcefully impact modern Muslim-majority states, are founded by human beings of a largely classical liberal orientation, they form a canon that can be understood as limiting democracy.

With this borne in mind, we can view Qaradawi as advocating an alternative constitutional arrangement to the liberal one. Indeed, his understanding of liberal democracy may appear to be “superficial and imprecise,” but that would only matter if he is seeking to advocate for liberal democracy. In the event, his advocacy is for Islamic democracy, and while his Islamic democratic theorization is arguably incipient in his 1997 fatwa on the matter, we can recognize that his decades-long preoccupation with the Islamic scholarly tradition and its relevance in modernity is not unrelated to the question of thinking about the organization of a modern political society along Islamic as opposed to liberal lines.

In this connection, Warren appears to express surprise that Qaradawi would understand a democratic regime as requiring that: “while the people could elect their rulers, once elected they should be obedient to that ruler cum president until the end of the term” (59). Yet, properly understood, I would argue that this is how all democratic regimes actually operate in the West in the overwhelming majority of cases. In presidential systems like the United States, it is rare for the president to be removed before the end of his term in anything but the most exceptional of cases. In parliamentary systems like the United Kingdom, this applies to the ruling party which will also generally complete its term. Qaradawi’s wider discourse makes perfectly explicit that the “obedience” he is referring to in the above quote is not a slavish obsequiousness. The self-same fatwa Warren quotes refers to correcting Caliphs with one’s sword. And Warren a page earlier notes that Qaradawi had said that Morsi could be corrected by people if he made mistakes, since in Islam: “There is no one above questioning” (58).

Warren also remarks that Qaradawi’s opposition to protests against Morsi belied: “a lack of appreciation for the democratic norm of non-violent protest” (59). Here again, I would suggest that a different reading is possible. Qaradawi was one of the pioneers of developing an argument to justify protests in Islamic terms, and it seems implausible that he would oppose protests against Morsi tout court. Yet, his opposition to the protests against Morsi which he gave a fatwa prohibiting was clearly part of the wider upheaval taking place in Egypt in the summer of 2013 in which there were fatwas and counter-fatwas supporting and (in Qaradawi’s case) opposing anti-Morsi agitation. In that context, and in light of the efforts to unseat Morsi on the part of so-called deep state forces in 2013, Qaradawi’s fatwa could be read as a reasonable if unsuccessful effort to prevent the fall of a democratically elected government.

Bin Bayyah and the trope of chaos

While Qaradawi receives a good deal of critical attention in Warren’s monograph, I feel that Bin Bayyah could have been treated with greater scrutiny than this otherwise excellent book offers. In particular, Warren could have explored a number of inconsistencies in Bin Bayyah’s arguments that I interpret to be a consequence of the latter’s giving primacy to the wishes of the autocratic rulers he serves. As I argue in my own work, in contrast with Qaradawi’s Islamic conception of democracy, Bin Bayyah has developed a systematic Islamic legal argument for legitimating the absolute and indeed unquestionable authority of autocratic rulers. Once this is centered in one’s analysis of Bin Bayyah, other aspects of his thought make better sense.

Thus, Warren (following Mohammad Fadel) attributes to Bin Bayyah, but not Qaradawi, a preoccupation with “chaos in the realm of fatwas” (fawḍā al-fatāwā) which the latter associates with democracy. As I have noted to Warren in personal communication, Qaradawi too had prior to the Arab revolutions expressed his concern regarding such “chaos” (fawḍā al-fatāwā) and “misguided fatwas” (fatāwā shādhdha), neither of which he attributed to democracy. By contrast, Bin Bayyah appealed to the trope of chaos to justify bringing religious authority under the control of the authoritarian state.

This statist reading also helps us understand Bin Bayyah’s development of a “Jurisprudence of Peace” in opposition to Qaradawi’s and other revolutionary scholars’ “Jurisprudence of Revolution.” As Warren puts it,

Bin Bayyah also watched events unfold across the region with increasing concern. To him, it soon became clear that Qaradawi’s fatwas and the Jurisprudence of Revolution were a driving force behind the chaos in the region. This view led Bin Bayyah to resign from IUMS [the International Union of Muslim Scholars] and advance his own project. (83, emphasis added)

Warren thus argues that Bin Bayyah’s realignment away from the Qatar-based IUMS to the UAE where he founded the so-called Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (FPPMS) was a consequence of his concern for the “increasing chaos throughout the region” (2). That is to say, Warren appears to suggest that Bin Bayyah was engaged in a good faith effort to interpret his circumstances as a participant in the IUMS, an effort that led him to switch his allegiance to the UAE, since they would ultimately do better to prevent chaos in the region. But this seems to me to disregard the key commitment that underlies Bin Bayyah’s actions, namely his commitment to absolute autocracy regardless of the cost. This commitment is expressed well by Warren in the following quote from Bin Bayyah:

I absolutely believe that the establishing of a centralized, strong, and stable government (sulṭa markazīya qawīya mustaqirra) is one of the higher intentions and purposes (maqāṣid) of the Sharia; because opening the door to unstoppable change, and setting out on a journey without any settled destination, is a situation that leads to civil strife, unrest, and greatly contravenes the common good. (81)

Ultimately, Bin Bayyah’s ideological commitment to autocracy renders unlimited chaos in the form of civil war to be acceptable in practice, notwithstanding his theoretical opposition to chaos. His UAE sponsors have been active participants in perpetuating various proxy wars throughout the Middle East, none of which have elicited Bin Bayyah’s expression of concern. I would argue that scholars studying him could thus view his rhetoric concerning social breakdown as a form of political speechmaking on the part of an official of the UAE. They are better understood as part and parcel of the rhetorical repertoire of the UAE’s foreign policy. It is important to highlight, as Warren does in this connection, that Bin Bayyah’s FPPMS is officially sponsored by the UAE foreign minister (95).

Warren illustrates that he is thoroughly aware of the various activities of Bin Bayyah’s sponsors in fomenting instability in the lead up to the Egyptian coup of 2013 which led to bloody crackdowns and the deaths of over a thousand people who were peacefully protesting the coup (58). He notes that Bin Bayyah effectively deployed silence in response to these sorts of actions on the part of his sponsors (102, 111, 116). But such silence would seem to call into question Bin Bayyah’s ostensible opposition to “chaos throughout the region” (2). I make sense of Bin Bayyah’s stance by filling in an ellipsis in his articulation of the kind of chaos he is opposed to, namely chaos that is not fomented or directed by the states in the region who are upholding the autocratic status quo. When this is made explicit, we can recognize that Bin Bayyah is not opposed to “chaos” unconditionally, but rather he only refers to as “chaos” efforts to oppose autocracy on the part of democratically-oriented forces in the region. In other words, he is opposed to democracy, but calls it chaos as this is more rhetorically expedient. But this would need to be highlighted, I would argue, in a critical evaluation of his ideas.

The reason this is a more reasonable reading is because of Bin Bayyah’s careful silence in instances of “chaos” when those instigating it are his own counter-revolutionary sponsors in the UAE, or their allies in states like Saudi Arabia. For such states have also been engaged in warfare, directly or by proxy, throughout the region, from nearby Yemen to distant Libya and Syria. The interventions of the UAE and its counter-revolutionary allies in these and other states have never elicited Bin Bayyah’s expressions of concern regarding fomenting chaos despite frequent global outcries about “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” in Yemen, or the UAE’s arming Libyan militias in recent years, in contravention of a UN arms embargo. That these activities have contributed to civil wars, in the Yemeni case ongoing, that have claimed thousands of lives, including the lives of nearly 100,000 children, have not elicited comment on the part of Bin Bayyah, presumably because of his view that autocratic rulers are not to be questioned on issues of policy. Thus, Bin Bayyah’s discomfort with the Jurisprudence of Revolution was not due to his aversion to chaos per se, but rather due to its potential to displace the dominance of the autocratic order that had controlled the Middle East for so many years.

In this connection, we may interpret his alignment with Qaradawi from at least the 1990s till 2013 as a reflection not only of their mutual regard as eminent jurists, but also because Qaradawi did not, during this period, materially threaten the autocratic order in the region. Qaradawi’s theoretical fatwas in support of democracy from the 1990s, or indeed, his support for revolution even earlier, did not translate into the actual displacement of autocratic rule in the region. So, Bin Bayyah could continue to work alongside one of the world’s most recognizable Islamic jurists whose Al Jazeera platform from 1996 to 2013 was occasionally even afforded to Bin Bayyah. All of this changed from 2013, once the disruptions of the revolutions came to a head in the form of the Egyptian coup. Until that point, it was not clear who had the upper hand over the course of the Arab revolutions, but the Egyptian coup showed the advantage to be clearly in the hands of the Saudi-UAE counter-revolutionary nexus. Accordingly, Bin Bayyah resigned from the pro-revolutionary IUMS to setup the counter-revolutionary FPPMS under the explicit auspices of the UAE foreign minister.

Bin Bayyah as a principled mercenary scholar?

This framing would suggest that Bin Bayyah is not so much influencing the UAE’s policy, as Warren argues (11, 73f., 111), as aligning with it. This is not to suggest that he is behaving purely as an unprincipled political mercenary. Rather, as I briefly argue elsewhere, he has set out his justifications for why it is incumbent on subjects of an autocracy, including its scholars, to recognize that they lack jurisdiction in public affairs and must ultimately accept the absolute authority of the autocrat. I would thus contend that Bin Bayyah is properly viewed as a scholar who acts as a “principled political mercenary,” as it were. It is in this context that I feel Warren’s reading of Bin Bayyah seems to read the latter’s words without sufficiently taking into consideration this dimension of the latter’s work. Given he is acting as an official of the UAE government, Bin Bayyah’s words in certain instances seem better understood as those of a public-facing politician than a scholar engaged in intellectual reflection. Thus, we find Bin Bayyah’s critique of democracy as akin to declarations of war, and then add:

Is it not our right and obligation to find a better solution than democracy and to establish a system based on the principles of consultation and higher justice? . . . Our approach must employ transparency and goodwill. No party should use victory to inflict financial, moral, religious, or worldly damage on another party. (97f.)

I feel that Warren could have further explored the performative dimension of this statement in the context in which Bin Bayyah made it, in light of the latter’s role as a political appointee of the UAE state. We could recognize that Bin Bayyah has in fact made no discernible effort to even theorize an approach to governance characterized by “transparency” in which the victorious party does not “inflict financial, moral, religious, or worldly damage on [the vanquished] party,” but that he has rather simply offered his approval to the actions of his sponsoring state, namely the UAE. The UAE has enjoyed many relative counter-revolutionary victories against its opponents from the Egyptian coup to its engagements in Yemen, but Bin Bayyah has not shown any interest in scrutinizing these actions in accord with the aforementioned ideas he enunciated in 2014. By contrast, in 2020, in line with UAE policy, he declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization—a fact Warren criticized in a piece in 2021.

In his introduction, Warren argues that neither Qaradawi nor Bin Bayyah should be viewed as “scholars-for-hire” and that both have “actively shaped” the visions of their sponsors in Qatar and the UAE respectively (2, 10). But this claim seems unpersuasive as applied to Bin Bayyah. Bin Bayyah, I would argue, can be viewed as a scholar-for-hire in a sense, because his juridico-theological views which Warren ably outlines require his absolute obedience to his rulers in principle. In this connection, rather than seeing him as an influence on the UAE’s views, I would argue that the UAE found in Bin Bayyah’s discourse an argument for their pre-existing absolutism that was opportune for them to deploy through their patronage and promotion of Bin Bayyah. Thus, Bin Bayyah did not so much influence them as prove useful to them; and should he no longer prove to be so, they would equally speedily discard him.

Notwithstanding my occasional disagreements with this important book, it is an extremely valuable contribution to the literature on the much-neglected study of state-religion relations in the Persian Gulf. Warren has drawn painstakingly on an extensive array of both primary and secondary literature and offered a compelling portrait of how two small but ambitious states have managed to virtually corner the regional market on Islamic soft-power projection. We are much better informed about the region and its often-tense religious debates as a result.

[1] A minor correction to Warren’s meticulous presentation is that Abou El Fadl does not say of Qaradawi that he believed that “Islam invented democracy before anyone else.” Abou El Fadl was referring to Muqtader Khan and Fahmi Huwaydi in this connection. See: Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Reply,” in Islam and the Challenge of Democracy: A Boston Review Book, ed. Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 120.

David Warren - Closing Remarks

Response to the Forum

I am grateful to my colleagues’ for their thought-provoking and detailed responses. I can see some shared themes emerging:

A Political Economy of Islam in the Gulf

Freer and Quisay draw our attention to what we might term a political economy of Islam in the Gulf. That is, they help us think about the ways that capital and international relations intersect to contribute to the rise of certain Islamic ideas at the expense of others. From this vantage point, we can consider how the pooling of capital in cities like Doha and Abu Dhabi has enabled an ingathering of particular groups of ulama and the creation of a supportive ecosystem for their ideas, and the marginalization of others. In the book, I compare these movements of ulama to the Gulf to the migration of other kinds of highly-skilled labor. In the case of the ulama, one vehicle for this labor migration were al-Azhar’s missions. These missions utilized highly-trained ulama in Cairo who were then sent to places of need throughout the world, ranging from India, to Tanzania, to Qatar. Qaradawi was one of these missionaries. Chanfi Ahmed also describes a movement of West African ulama to the Arabian Peninsula. While these migrations of foreign ulama to the Gulf had profound political consequences, Freer also calls attention to the need for further study of ulama who are native to the Gulf region. Moreover, Quisay also notes that the UAE has not only gathered figures associated with the neo-traditionalist trend, but from all across the Islamic intellectual spectrum. Her point reminds me of a quote from Allen Fromherz who, speaking of Qatar, reflected on how and why such states might be interested in any and all streams of thought, rather than those narrowly aligned with their immediate interests,

The positioning of Qatar as a forum for independent thought in the Middle East […] is not, of course, simply a selfless act done out of spontaneous benevolence and an idealistic belief in freedom of speech. There is perhaps no better way to subtly tune the ideas that will determine the future of the Arabic and Islamic world than to own the stage upon which those ideas are expressed (Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History, 25 [1st ed.]).

While the UAE has not followed the exact same path as Qatar, with Quisay’s point in mind, we can also think of the UAE’s promotion of a range of Muslim thinkers and Islamic trends as its own effort to “subtly tune” ideas and “own the stage upon which those ideas are expressed.”

The Ulama between Intellectual Production and Political Activism

One theme that emerges in all three responses pertains to the relationship between the ulama’s intellectual production in the years prior to the Arab Spring and their political activism as events unfolded. In the epilogue to his work Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age, Muhammad Qasim Zaman reflects on this relationship and how academics might best make sense of it. To Zaman, the ulama,

[A]re best not seen as systematic thinkers articulating an internally consistent philosophy but rather as intellectuals responding, over the course of long careers, to new and old controversies […] That such multisited discourse makes for some incoherence should not be surprising. Nor should we lose sight of the seemingly obvious point that the reformist ulama [or all ulama, we might add here] have their own understanding of how particular ideas fit together (Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age, 310-311).

I reflected on Zaman’s point while writing Rivals in the Gulf. In my analyses of Qaradawi’s and Bin Bayyah’s thought and activism, I examine their interventions in 2011 and since in relation to their political thought, though only as one among many factors that can be taken into consideration. Consequently, rather than assessing Qaradawi’s or Bin Bayyah’s action and thought as (in)consistent on my own terms, I consider areas of critique from their inner circles or fellow ulama while investigating how such ideas might “fit together” for them. For example, in the case of Qaradawi’s support for the Bahraini regime, I begin my analysis by quoting Qaradawi’s ally in the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Muhammad Ali al-Taskhiri, who wrote in an open letter,

The repression that the protesters [in Bahrain] faced was vicious […] killing, wounding, and imprisonment, but the government has succeeded in casting the protesters as sectarian. You [Qaradawi] have assisted these reactionary media operations and colonialist mouthpieces […] We demand that you take a strong and honorable stance to defend the oppressed people [of Bahrain]. (Rivals in the Gulf, 50)

When it comes to analyzing how Qaradawi’s support for the Bahraini regime might fit with his professed support for other uprisings, I investigated how and why his description of the Bahraini uprising as armed, sectarian, and supported by Iran might have made sense to him. Consequently, I consider (alongside his personal relationships with the Bahraini royal family) the possible significance of the legacy of Sunni-Shi‘i violence in Iraq, which may well have more explanatory power than assessing his understanding of views on democracy articulated in the late twentieth century, though that is something I also consider.

In the case of Bin Bayyah, I took seriously his claim to be deeply concerned about what he considers to be chaos in the region and its causes, while noting that it has been the UAE, Bin Bayyah’s sponsor, that led the counter-revolutionary effort. However, if we focus on that seeming (glaring) inconsistency in Bin Bayyah’s thought or, as al-Azami suggests above, consider his speeches “performative,” do we not foreclose the possibility of further investigation into how such arguments might be internally consistent for him? Otherwise, in my view our analyses of figures like Bin Bayyah become confined to uncovering how and why they have intentionally misread Islamic texts or deceptively misrepresented their tradition. That kind of work is important, to be sure, but it was not the kind of project I wanted to engage in here. Rather, in Rivals in the Gulf I prefer to draw upon Samuli Schielke’s concept of register (Rivals in the Gulf, 44) to highlight the importance of Bin Bayyah’s normative claim that the cause of violence in the region and its solutions are to be solved by the empowerment of certain ulama at the expense of others. Taking a figure like Bin Bayyah seriously is different from taking his claims at face value.

In the book, I consider a range of critiques of Qaradawi’s and Bin Bayyah’s intellectual production, including their various theorizations of democracy, as one among many factors in my analysis. In the case of Qaradawi, I do this in reference to the work of Khaled Abou El Fadl on two pages (33, 59). It is noteworthy to reflect on how these references can serve as an impetus for a wider ranging discussion on what has been referred to as a “Liberalism versus Islam” debate, as al-Azami lays out in his rich response. Though, as al-Azami notes, that particular debate is not something I engage with on in my own writing, either here or elsewhere. In this book, I take for granted the viability and vibrancy of democratic thinking from the perspective of Islamic texts and tradition, and the Islamic tradition’s capacity to foster democratic thinking in an organic manner. Consequently, my own references to Abou El Fadl or critiques of Qaradawi’s views on democracy are by means critiques of the wider Islamic tradition writ large in the name of Liberalism. Indeed, there is little in al-Azami’s response above I would disagree with as far as the relationship between the Islamic tradition and democracy is concerned. For my own part, I read Abou El Fadl’s engagement of Qaradawi as part of a critical conversation among traditionally trained Egyptians. What I find to be of interest in that critique are not those elements that can be viewed as indebted to Liberalism, but rather what I read as El Fadl’s critique of Qaradawi’s conception of public order (al-nizam al-‘amm). To be sure, all societies have shared values that have emerged organically over time (or at least since the concept of society emerged). Where I see a debate is over the role of the nation-state and its coercive mechanisms in upholding such values in the name of public order, which is not something unique to the Arab World. My reading of Abou El Fadl’s critique of Qaradawi concerns a criticism that many of the ulama have appropriated the particular European, colonial version of public order in order to posit the nation-state as the final arbiter of how societies’ shared values might be upheld. Readers will note here my drawing on Wael Hallaq’s critique of many among the ulama and organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood for their presuming the state is “a neutral tool of governance, one that can be harnessed according to the choices and dictates of its leaders” (Hallaq, The Impossible State, 74) but this need not be read as a criticism of Islamic democracy as a project. In any case, with the work of figures like Salman Sayyid in mind, public order / al-nizam al-‘amm would appear to be the kind of concept that, given its colonial legacy, would be a candidate for renegotiation, at least in the manner it was being articulated by Qaradawi and his circle in the late twentieth century. As Quisay highlights, a more organic debate over this subject was emerging in Egypt before being forestalled by the military. In the case of a term such as obedience (ta‘a), what would be surprising is if Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah did not reference it in their political discourse, and I read such references as a dialogue with the concept’s centuries-long history rather than a rearticulation of a static, essential meaning that such concepts do not have.

In my reading of al-Azami’s response above, I see a difference in our approaches with regard to how the relationship between the ulama’s thought and action can be analyzed best. One example is in relation to how to frame Qaradawi’s dismissal of the initial protests against the Mursi government. In the book, I begin my analysis of this incident in early 2013, long before the tamarrud movement has officially emerged, and before the summer when (both at the time and in hindsight) the role of the Egyptian military was clearer. Al-Azami writes above that because Qaradawi had been “one of the pioneers of developing an argument to justify protests in Islamic terms,” which he certainly was, “it seems implausible he would oppose protests against Morsi tout court.” I agree with this point. Yet, I also consider it important to explore how Qaradawi’s dismissal of the anti-Mursi protests might “fit together” with his earlier arguments. Here, I reference Abou El Fadl’s argument that Qaradawi may have viewed democracy “as basically an institution that gives effect to the will of the majority.” However, what I find interesting (and of potentially greater significance) is considering how and why Qaradawi came to describe the anti-Mursi protesters in early 2013 as hired “thugs” (baltagiyya). Thus, alongside a consideration of critiques of Qaradawi’s democratic thinking, I also draw upon fieldwork in Doha to examine how Qaradawi and his personal staff’s shared experience of repression in Egypt as affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood (the mihna narrative), shaped their attitude toward anti-Mursi discontent through the first half of 2013. In any case, as I note in the book, given what we know now about the role of the Egyptian military and the UAE in supporting the tamarrud movement, Qaradawi and his staff’s view was “at least partially correct” (Rivals in the Gulf, 59-60).

There is much merit to excavating the tenets that underpin what al-Azami considers Bin Bayyah’s “principled mercenary” approach. However, I would consider this characterization to be overly foregrounding Bin Bayyah’s intellectual production at the expense of other areas of analysis. For example, in the book I suggest that, when Bin Bayyah imagines his ideal autocrat he has in mind a particular figure: Shaykh Zayed Al Nahyan. I argue that he has adopted this imagining for a number of reasons, such as Shaykh Zayed’s branding of massive Emirati aid to Mauritania in the 1970s as resulting from his personal largesse (though, given the blurred relationship between Gulf rulers and state treasuries at the time, that is not necessarily inaccurate). In the UAE today, this image of the nation’s founder is memorialized through events such as the Shaykh Zayed Humanitarian Day (Rivals in the Gulf, 78). In my view, if we understand Bin Bayyah purely as a “principled mercenary” who allied himself with the UAE because that country was the most determined authoritarian, counter-revolutionary state, then we unnecessarily overlook the history of his relationship with the Nahyan family and other historical, contextual factors.

The Ulama and the State

This point brings me to my last theme, the relationship between the ulama and the state.

Over the course of the twentieth century the rise of the nation state was arguably the most profound challenge the ulama had to contend with, intellectually and politically. Consequently, the relationship between the ulama and the state remains one of the central issues in the study of the modern ulama, and it is significant in this discussion for all three of my interlocutors. We can think of the modern nation state as a collection of institutions and bureaucratic apparatuses. We can also think of it as a discursive construct, which opens up certain avenues of interpretative possibility for the ulama (in our case) while closing off others.

I see both Freer’s and Quisay’s responses speaking to these alternate definitions in different ways. Freer draws attention to the rich discussion around the relationship between those ulama that can be termed Wahhabi and those close to the Brotherhood in Qatar. I use the first chapter of the book to highlight the porous and overlapping nature of the Wahhabi-Salafi-Brother-(Neo)Traditionalist categories, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. During that period, I highlight the importance of major figures such as Muhammad Ibn Mani‘ both for the development of Islamic institutions in his native Saudi Arabia as well as in Qatar, where he spent a significant portion of his scholarly career in the service of the Qatari Emir. Similarly, I also highlight the figure of Ibn Mani‘’s student Abd Allah b. Turki al-Subay‘i who came from an established Hanbali lineage, but could also quite reasonably be categorized as Wahhabi or Salafi. Yet, Subay‘i also travels to Cairo and al-Azhar to recruit qualified ulama to fill the gaps in the burgeoning Islamic institutions of the new Qatari state. It is in Cairo, in Zamalek to be precise, where Subay‘i encounters a young Qaradawi, himself an Azhari and member of the Brotherhood. In turn, Qaradawi and Subay‘i bond over their shared interest in the Hanbali authorities Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. Eventually, Subay‘i recruits Qaradawi to come to Qatar, not in his capacity as a leading scholar from among the Brotherhood, but rather in his capacity as an Azhari and member of the al-Azhar Mission to Doha. Consequently, I note that it was al-Azhar that was “exporting” its Islamic orientation through its missionary activity long before the commencement of the Wahhabi Mission with the founding of the Islamic University of Medina in 1961. Indeed, Qaradawi’s impact in Qatar is just as much indebted to his status as an Azhari as it is an affiliate of the Brotherhood, though it is his latter capacity that draws the lion’s share of analytical attention as far as Qatari politics is concerned.

Quisay, in her discussion of Bin Bayyah and the Emirati state, highlights a fascinating and fruitful area of reflection on the notion of a state or government as ethical and in what ways the ulama are significant for states. In the book, I use the term “shaping” to conceptualize what the impact of ulama such as Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah on the worldview of Qatari and Emirati royals might be. Here, shaping does not mean the same thing as influencing, in terms of policy. Rather, the term refers to how a particular language and conceptual framework, which originates with Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah, then gets taken up and repeated by Qatari and Emirati royals and officials. Through this dynamic, then, I argue that a figure like Bin Bayyah shapes the worldview of the Al Nahyans inasmuch as his language and concepts regarding the “chaos of religious discourse” are repeated by the Al Nahyans in interviews, speeches etc. Here, we can recall that the language and concepts one uses in communication do not just reflect a speaker’s view of reality, they also play a role in constituting the reality that one experiences. Consequently, it is Bin Bayyah’s ontological belief (his “register”) that “religious chaos” is the cause of regional conflict that in turns shapes the beliefs and worldviews of the Al Nahyans. Al-Azami is indeed correct to point out that Qaradawi has his own, quite different reading about what he understands of the emergence of misguided fatwas and its relationship to extremism, which I note in a previous publication (Warren “The Ulama and the Arab Uprisings”, p.16 fn81). In this book though, I do not engage Qaradawi’s work in this regard since his work on that subject is not taken up and repeated by Qatari royals (they use other elements of Qaradawi’s language) in the same way that the Emiratis draw on Bin Bayyah’s language.

My last point relates to how to think about a figure like Bin Bayyah, and all ulama who appear closely involved with modern states and/or brutal regimes. As Quisay notes, I do not find terms like state sponsorship or co-optation of the ulama to be particularly useful, as they can appear too unilinear and monocausal. Moreover, if one sees acceptance of a state post as a distinct move, then Qaradawi’s relationship with the Qataris becomes categorically different from Bin Bayyah’s relationship with the Emiratis. In al-Azami’s response above, I read his emphasis on Bin Bayyah’s “role as a political appointee of the UAE state” to imply that he may perceive Qaradawi’s role as qualitatively different, on the basis that Qaradawi was never a political appointee of the Qatari state. Indeed, the Qatari state never created a role for him that could be compared to Bin Bayyah’s current position as head of the UAE Fatwa Council. As I note in the book, the fact that no post was created for Qaradawi meant the Al Thanis could distance themselves from him when it suited them, and draw on his prestige when it did (Rivals in the Gulf, 63). In turn, Qaradawi could also claim, as he did in a 2013 interview with the Qatari daily al-Watan that “my opinions are completely separate from Qatari politics, I’m just a part-time university professor, I have never held a political post in the state in all my life” (Warren, “The Ulama and the Arab Uprisings 2011-13,” 32). Here, we can see that Qaradawi himself also saw a qualitative difference between his own relationship with the Qatari state and other ulama in states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE who had taken up such positions. So indeed, Qaradawi does see a distinct difference between himself and other ulama because he never accepted an official state post. As with Bin Bayyah, we can take Qaradawi’s self-understanding seriously without taking it at face value. To conclude, it is clear that in recent years small states like Qatar and the UAE have become major regional, even global, powers. This power extends to some extent to the ulama those states sponsor. Consequently, though ulama such as “Qaradawi and Bin Bayyah might be ridiculed as hypocrites and stooges, or praised as moral voices in equal measure, what they could never be is ignored” (Rivals in the Gulf, 120).

I would also like to thank once again Courtney Freer, Walaa Quisay, and Usaama al-Azami for their thoughtful and thought-provoking readings of my work, and to the Maydan and Jadaliyya for hosting this forum.