Saudi leader of Muslim World League: Interfaith partnerships during pandemic ‘religious, moral duty'

Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa says, “We try to lead by example, and show that we are all in this together.”

al-monitor Pope Francis greets Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, during a meeting at the Vatican, Sept. 20, 2017.  Photo by Osservatore Romano/via REUTERS.

Mar 29, 2020

Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, considers interfaith partnerships a “religious and moral duty,” a commitment that has only deepened as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

“The need for interfaith partnership will continue beyond this crisis,” Issa wrote in an exclusive email interview with Al-Monitor. “And that is why we continue to work hard to build more bridges of understanding and cooperation, and to remove the artificial fences created by detachment from each other, and exacerbated by the lack of substantive dialogue in the past.”

Issa, who is Saudi and based in Mecca, has been a leader and champion of interfaith dialogue. In January, he headed the most senior Islamic delegation to visit Auschwitz to participate in the 75th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation. In 2017, he met with Pope Francis and forged the first cooperative agreement between the Muslim World League and the Vatican.

“Throughout this global health crisis, we in the Muslim World League have provided significant humanitarian assistance to Muslim and non-Muslim countries,” Issa said. “So we try to lead by example, and show that we are all in this together, and we should be extending the bridges of support and assistance to all in need.”

Issa, who also heads the Intellectual Warfare Center, which is affiliated with the Saudi Defense Ministry to combat extremism and terrorism, has been praised by the State Department and world leaders for his message of moderate Islam. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Issa and the Muslim World League have kept the focus on “spreading awareness of moderate Islam,” as well as the importance of “following health guidelines designed to maintain public safety.”

He said that “suspending umrah [pilgrimage to Mecca] was a difficult decision” but that “Muslims in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have understood this decision and overwhelmingly backed it,” adding that Muslim community leaders and worshippers worldwide understand the “imperative to protect human life.”

Asked about how Iran has managed the pandemic, Issa responded, It pains my heart to see Muslims or non-Muslims anywhere suffer because of the irresponsible behavior of their government.”

He added, “I think Iranian authorities approached this issue too lightly in the beginning. I think Iranian authorities erred in believing that somehow the sanctity of a place would protect people from disease. The consequences have been disastrous.”

Returning to his interfaith engagement during the pandemic, Issa said, “Some of our collective plans are still in development. But what I can say is I am working every day with my fellow religious leaders on how to unite our efforts for the common good of all. This action represents our religious and moral duty, and none of us are resting at this time of so much need.” 

A lightly edited transcript of the email interview, conducted by Andrew Parasiliti, follows. The answers were translated from the Arabic.

Al-Monitor:  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has suspended the umrah, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. The kingdom is custodian of the most holy places in Islam, and the pilgrimage means a great deal to many Muslims around the world. Was this a difficult decision, and has there been any resistance to doing so, in the kingdom or elsewhere?

Issa: Yes, suspending umrah was a difficult decision. But it would have been more difficult not to issue this "interim" suspension. Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the world, has been dealing with a critical situation and a painful emergency. And its primary focus was on saving lives, both in Saudi Arabia and overseas, because hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would risk infection and then return home to their countries and communities. As a result, there really was no choice but to issue the suspension. However, it is important to note this "temporary" decision is fully supported by the provisions of Islamic Sharia. In Islam, human life comes first. And in this sense, Muslims in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have understood this decision and overwhelmingly backed it. The Muslim World League has received hundreds of messages of support from muftis, senior Islamic scholars and governments with significant Muslim minorities. They realize the necessity of the decision and the imperative to protect human life. In fact, some of these messages expressed it exactly the same way as we see it — as a religious duty to protect lives.

Al-Monitor: We read this week that authorities have closed the secondary doors of the Grand Mosque, but are keeping the main doors open. Could you explain what will be the impact of this decision? Are individuals or small groups still allowed to pray?

Issa:  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to preserve the places of worship, especially the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, free of this virus. These two holy mosques constitute the largest congregation point for Muslims in the world. They are held in the hearts of Muslims with the highest sanctity. Hajj and umrah pilgrims visit both sites as part of their spiritual journeys, and this creates a “natural” close contact among millions of people. We view the temporary closures as a necessary and sensible precautionary measure. But at the same time, the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina still perform prayers in front of a reduced number of worshippers. These prayers occur with extensive health controls to prevent any unsafe congregation or convergence among people. As always, human life comes first.

Al-Monitor:  We understand it is early, but what lessons can be learned so far about how to mitigate public health concerns during umrah in the future? The kingdom hosts up to 8 million pilgrims each year for hajj; this itself is a massive security, infrastructure and public health challenge — even without coronavirus. Have there been similar experiences during past umrahs that have informed your thinking?

Issa: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has developed high-level competence for dealing with crowds, and especially as it pertains to protecting them from epidemic diseases. Saudi Arabia has extensive health capabilities, and no one should be worried about this at all. Saudi Arabia will keep close tabs on changing conditions, and make adjustments in its regulations at the appropriate time. One thing is certain. I am not concerned, and no Muslim should be concerned, about the issue of health safety at the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Everyone will be safe.

Al-Monitor: What is your contact and engagement with the authorities at Muslim religious institutions worldwide, including Al-Aqsa [Mosque in Jerusalem]? What is the nature of those discussions and counsel during this crisis?

Issa:  My consultation and engagement with them focuses on coordinating efforts to spread awareness of moderate Islam. And in this environment, that encompasses the need for the public to understand how important it is that we follow health guidelines designed to maintain public safety. This is after all a duty dictated by religion to everyone. My consultations and engagements also encompass the duty to help others to the best of our abilities and as much as is allowed by the national authorities of each country. We want Muslims and all other citizens to be aiding one another in this time of common challenge, without discrimination for religion or race, or gender or ethnicity. Throughout this global health crisis, we in the Muslim World League have provided significant humanitarian assistance to Muslim and non-Muslim countries. So we try to lead by example, and show that we are all in this together, and we should be extending the bridges of support and assistance to all in need.

Al-Monitor:  How do you consider Iran’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and what does it say about the government’s claim to moral or religious authorities among Shiite Muslims?

Issa: Firstly, it pains my heart to see Muslims or non-Muslims anywhere suffer because of the irresponsible behavior of their government. I think Iranian authorities approached this issue too lightly in the beginning. Religious gatherings occurred in different places in Iran, contributing to the spread of the virus, and that is not the best way to deal with such a serious pandemic. I think Iranian authorities erred in believing that somehow the sanctity of a place would protect people from disease. The consequences have been disastrous. But this does not represent the way all Shiites around the world are looking at coronavirus. Most are approaching this crisis with a great deal of awareness and do not believe in such ideas. And, of course, there is always a minority that maintains misconceptions about the virus, and do some Sunnis. When myth takes hold of everyone, everyone is in danger. No cure is available except through a proper awareness of the truth of religion, the enlightened religion. And this religious truth reaffirms sound decision-making to protect public health.

Al-Monitor: You are internationally recognized as a leader in interfaith dialogue — meeting with Pope Francis, being the most senior Islamic leader to visit Auschwitz, and your extensive engagement with Jewish communities worldwide. Do you see an opportunity for interfaith dialogue in the COVID-19 crisis? What more can religious leaders of all faiths be doing? 

Issa:  Even in this crisis, the Muslim World League continues its extensive dialogue with people of different faiths and nations. Although we have to communicate remotely, I am in constant contact with religious leaders around the world and discussing many important issues with them. The need for interfaith partnership will continue beyond this crisis, and that is why we continue to work hard to build more bridges of understanding and cooperation, and to remove the artificial fences created by detachment from each other, and exacerbated by the lack of substantive dialogue in the past. So in some ways, during this period of social distancing, reaffirming our intellectual and spiritual proximity is more important than ever before. We stress the importance of dialogue overcoming its traditional approach so that it yields more effective and tangible results. We do not need more words; we need more action. And so our interfaith discussions are focused on producing real partnerships with real and tangible benefits for humanity. As for the coronavirus pandemic, some of our collective plans are still in development. But what I can say is I am working every day with my fellow religious leaders on how to unite our efforts for the common good of all. This action represents our religious and moral duty, and none of us are resting at this time of so much need.

Al-Monitor:  And further to that, do you see an opportunity for any progress or breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Can interfaith dialogue play a role?

Issa: There is no doubt that religious leaders must contribute and have a central role to support a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Frankly, this religious dimension has been missing from previous peace efforts. I am not the only one who recognizes this fact. Mr. Dennis Ross, the longtime Middle East peace negotiator from the United States, also speaks about how important this element is because religion has played such a significant role among all parties to the conflict. It is therefore very important that religious leaders be at the front line to support a just and comprehensive solution to this issue. It should not be an auxiliary dialogue. Religious leaders should be right alongside the political leaders in pushing for this peace, and in ensuring it is just and comprehensive.