A disparate mix of Egyptians packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square for Friday’s prayer service-cum-political rally: young and old, secular and devout, Muslims and Christians.

At least a million people filled the now-emblematic square, but the event was most remarkable for the presence of one man – Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most influential Sunni Muslim cleric in the world, making his first public appearance in Egypt in 50 years.

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“Don’t fight history,” he urged the assembled crowd, and the millions more watching the televised address live. “You can’t delay the day when it starts. The Arab world has changed.”

As often in the past, Qaradawi spoke of democracy and pluralism. He urged the army officers temporarily ruling Egypt to deliver on their promises of handing power to a civil government founded on principles of pluralism and freedom, and cleanse the cabinet of former Mubarak cronies.

“Don’t let anyone steal this revolution from you – those hypocrites who will put on a new face that suits them,” he said. “The revolution isn’t over. It has just started to build Egypt… guard your revolution.”

Born in 1926 to a devout peasant family in the Nile Delta, Qaradawi had memorized the Koran by age nine and later enrolled at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the foremost theological institution in the Sunni world.

By the 1940s and ‘50s, he had fallen afoul of Egypt’s secular rulers, and was imprisoned three times in the country before fleeing for Qatar in 1961.

His professed embrace of progressive values has earned the cleric a reputation as a moderate.

“Qaradawi is very much in the mainstream of Egyptian society. He’s in the religious mainstream, he’s not offering something that’s particularly distinctive or radical in the context of Egypt,” Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center in Qatar, told the Christian Science Monitor on Friday.

“He’s an Islamist and he’s part of the Brotherhood school of thought, but his appeal goes beyond the Islamist spectrum, and in that sense he’s not just an Islamist figure, he’s an Egyptian figure with a national profile.”

Qaradawi is widely seen as a source of intellectual inspiration for the banned Muslim Brotherhood. As a young religious scholar, he was a follower of the movement’s founder, Hassan al- Banna, and has long been a member of the organization.

Twice – in 1976 and 2004 – he turned down offers to lead it.

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In 2006 he told the Brotherhood website IkhwanWeb that the Islamist group “asked me to be a chairman, but I preferred to be a spiritual guide for the entire nation.”

Today he is best known in the Arab world for his program Shari’a and Life, broadcast on Al-Jazeera to an estimated audience of 40 million. A 2008 Foreign Policy magazine poll put Qaradawi third on its worldwide list of public intellectuals.

In his 2001 article for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Al- Qaradawi: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Reuven Paz noted the contradictory nature of the cleric’s statements.

He was one of the first Islamic scholars to have condemned the September 11 attacks – but has supported attacks on US forces in Iraq and suicide bombings against Israelis.

“There is no enmity between Muslims and Jews,” he told rabbis from the radical anti-Zionist sect Neturei Karta visiting Qatar in 2008. “Jews who believe the authentic Torah are very close to Muslims,” he said, adding that “Muslims are against the expansive, oppressive Zionist movement, not the Jews.”

On several other occasions, however, the cleric has made comments critics denounced as anti-Semitic incitement.

“Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them,” he said during the Gaza War in January 2009, in remarks translated by the press monitoring organization MEMRI. “Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.”

Later that month, he said on his Al-Jazeera program, “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the Jews people who would punish them for their corruption.

The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them.

“Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”

In a 2005 BBC interview, Qaradawi said of suicide bombings: “Allah Almighty is just; through his infinite wisdom he has given the weak a weapon the strong do not have, and that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs, as Palestinians do.” In the same interview, he said, “I consider this type of martyrdom operation as an evidence of God’s justice.”

Qaradawi’s stance on Jewish claims to holy sites in Jerusalem is unambiguous.

In a 2004 statement about the Western Wall on Islam- Online, the website he founded, he wrote: “The Jews’ claim to Al-Buraq Wall [dates back] only to recent times. The longest reign of the Jews lasted for 434 years. Their reign in Palestine dates back to the times of Kings Saul, David and Solomon.

“Solomon’s sons split after his decease: Jude [sic] headed for Jerusalem while the state of Israel was established in Shakim, that is Nablus. The Jewish state in Nablus lasted for 298 years and the former for 434.

This is the longest period that the Jews reigned. So those who claim that they have a long history in Israel are liars.”

Close observers say that, more than anything, the cleric is shrewd.

“Qaradawi’s ability to be ‘the man for all seasons,’” Paz wrote, “should not mislead the West in its efforts to attract Arab states into positive support for the coalition against global jihad.”

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