Leading Saudi Sheikh tells ALL ARAB NEWS why he led first-ever Muslim delegation to Auschwitz, and why Saudi’s Crown Prince welcomed first-ever group of Evangelical Christians to the palace
Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, head of the world’s largest Muslim organization, says it is time to “build bridges” to Jews and Christians
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by Joel C. Rosenberg | November 24, 2020
Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa leads the first-ever Delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland (Photo: American Jewish Committee)
Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa is one of the most prominent and influential Muslim religious leaders in the world.
Once a professor in Saudi Arabia, and later the Kingdom’s justice minister, the Sheikh was elected in 2016 to serve as secretary general of the Muslim World League. The MWL is the world’s largest non-governmental Muslim organization. It is based in the city of Mecca, with key offices in Riyadh, Jeddah and in 139 countries.
Upon becoming head of the MWL, he says, he has been working non-stop to counter the teaching of radical Islamists and violent extremists, and to encourage Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia and around the world to teach only moderate Islam.
He has also been on a mission to “build bridges” with Jews and Christians, despite our significant theological and political differences, something for which neither the Muslim World League nor the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has exactly been known.
I have been intrigued with – and grateful for – the dramatic change in the direction of the Saudi leadership and that of the Muslim World League.
And I wanted to better understand what is driving the Sheikh and his colleagues.
Here are excerpts of my exclusive interview with Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, who is a founding member of the Advisory Board for ALL ARAB NEWS.
ROSENBERG: In January of this year, you led the first-ever Delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, working closely with the leadership of the American Jewish Committee. Why did you decide it was time to go?
SHEIKH MOHAMMED AL-ISSA: Since taking over the Muslim World League, I have made it my mission to work with my Jewish brothers and sisters to rebuild our storied relationship that dates back many centuries to the time of Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him), all of which is vividly documented in the “Charter of Medina.”
[Note: Though it is not well known among Jews and Christians today, the Charter of Medina, also known as the Constitution of Medina, was a document written by the Prophet Muhammed in 622 C.E. It declared that Muslims should live in peace with the Jewish people, physically protect the Jews and allow Jews freedom of religion. Article 2.5 reads, “To the Jew who follows us belong help and equity. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided.” Article 8.5 reads, “Everyone shall have his portion from the side to which he belongs; the Jews…have the same standing with the people of this document” (i.e., the Muslims)]
I began by acknowledging the atrocities of the Holocaust, deeming it a crime against humanity, and I called for Muslims around the world to do the same. I made a concerted effort to expand my outreach and vowed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish community in our fight against hatred.
I felt I had a sacred duty to personally bear witness to the unconscionable crimes committed against those poor souls at Auschwitz.
With attacks against worshippers of all faiths regularly happening around the world, and the risks of genocide remaining with us today, my timely visit to the Nazi death camp not only helped preserve the memories of the victims.
It also demonstrated our solidarity in the face of those who seek to divide us, and our unmistakable resolve: “Never Again.”
ROSENBERG: You and I first had the opportunity to meet in November 2018 when I brought a delegation of Evangelical leaders to Riyadh to meet with the crown prince and other senior Saudi officials. Both during that visit and during our second Evangelical delegation in September 2019 to Jeddah, you spent many hours with us, answering our questions, and taking us on a tour of the Muslim World League headquarters. My colleagues and I have deeply appreciated the opportunity to build this friendship between our two faith communities, even though, obviously, we both have significant theological differences with each other. You were in both of our meetings with the crown prince, and you know His Royal Highness very well. Why did the crown prince invite the first Evangelical Christian delegation in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to come visit him? And why did he invite us to come back?
THE SHEIKH: All around the world, we are faced with the constant challenge of building bridges of communication, understanding and friendship. But at a time when threats have become more complex, from terrorist attacks to global pandemics, our partnerships are more important than ever.
This is why the Kingdom welcomed the Evangelical delegation to Saudi Arabia. And we are proud to have partners like you to help us in our efforts to spread the virtues of understanding, tolerance, empathy and, most importantly, a deep love for one another. These values are grounded in the scriptures of Islam, as much as they may be in the doctrine of your religion too.
The Quran teaches to treat all people justly, regardless of their faith or creed. And it calls on us to renounce hatred and extremism in all its forms. Your visit to Saudi Arabia demonstrates that Saudi authorities are committed to these principles in action, and not just words…
As you witnessed on your recent visit to the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia is forging ahead with its transformation agenda, Vision 2030, and a big component of this vision is embracing a more moderate Islam. We call this true Islam. These transformations aim to return the moderate Islam that was the very basis on which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded by King Abdulaziz.
Unfortunately, after 1979, extremist groups tried to penetrate and corrupt our ideology, and they managed to manipulate some of these principles. But today, thanks to our reformist course, we see these extremist ideologies fading at a rapid pace. Today, the Kingdom has built the most powerful international platforms to face extremist ideologies.
And while the Muslim World League is a non-governmental organization, I have a responsibility as a Muslim leader and Saudi citizen to help, in any way I can, drive this change in the Kingdom and around the world.
We at the Muslim World League have been leaders in this larger effort by cultivating new relationships with other faith communities. We have welcomed religious delegations to the Kingdom, such as the Evangelical delegations that you led in 2018 and 2019, as well as other religious leaders.
We have established close cooperation with the Vatican, all the Orthodox Churches, and a number of Protestant churches. We worked on faith-based healing with Buddhists in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Late last year, we established a historic partnership with the Church of Latter-day Saints.
All of these efforts have had the same objective: to usher in a new era of interfaith cooperation and understanding among all the peoples and communities on this earth.
And no one has been a bigger champion of this effort, with its purely humane objectives, than the King and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. For that, they should be applauded.
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