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Why visit of World Muslim League head to India may have far reaching consequences

Dr.Mohammad Bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, Secretary General of Muslim World League (Left) will meet National Security Adviser Ajit Doval (Right) during his upcoming visit to India

In what appears to be a follow-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting last month with the Egyptian Grand Mufti in Cairo, Dr. Mohammad Bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, Secretary General of Muslim World League, will be visiting India for six days from July 10 to 15. The rigorous tour will focus on interfaith harmony and connect Indian political and religious leadership with the leading body of the Islamic world. His visit is also being seen as “peace diplomacy”.

Founded and funded by Saudi Arabia, the Muslim World League or Rabitat al-Alam al-Islami has been active as an International Islamic NGO. Under the stewardship of Dr al-Issa, it has emerged as an ambassador of Islamic moderation and champion of interfaith unity.

With counter radicalism, promoting religious moderation and building bridges with forces of peace being key ingredients of India’s foreign policy in recent years, New Delhi has sought to connect to such voices in the Islamic world. Dr al-Issa’s visit is a pivotal stride in that direction.

Itinerary in India

Issa will arrive in New Delhi on July 10 and will have a meeting with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.

On July 11, at the invitation of Khusro Foundation, he would address a gathering of prominent religious and community leaders, academics, and media persons at the India Islamic Cultural Centre, in the national capital. NSA Doval will also address the event.

During the course of his visit, Issa is expected to meet External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Minority Affairs Minister Smriti Irani.

According to sources, Issa might visit the Akshardham temple and meet some prominent personalities.

During his stay in Delhi, he is likely to pay tributes to martyrs at the National Police Memorial, Chanakyapuri.

An important part of his engagement will be the visit to historic Jama Masjid for Friday prayers.

He is also scheduled to visit Agra later.

Areas of India’s concern

India has been vigorously courting clerics, and other leaders in the Muslim world that are seen as champions of moderate Islam and are active to counter radical forces. Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Egyptian Grand Mufti Dr Shawky Ibrahim Allam in Cairo and they discussed issues related to social and religious harmony in society and countering extremism and radicalisation. Dr Allam had also visited India in 2022, toured many cities and met a number of people ranging from different spectra. Dr al-Issa’s visit is on the same lines.

Besides, New Delhi might also be seeking “soft channels” in the Middle East to counter China whose footprints are fast spreading in the region.

Paradigm Shift

Till very recently, the MWL was considered as a “sponsor” of many radical outfits world over, including some in India. Post-Iranian Revolution in 1979, the MWL reportedly infused money into building mosques, madrasas and other institutions in India and Pakistan. Because of the Saudi funding, the League has been widely recognised as a representative of the Islamic principles promoted in that country. It has in fact been facing many ongoing counterterrorism investigations in the US because of its suspected links to Hamas, Al Qaeda and other militant groups. However, as the world changed following the 9/11 attacks, the MWL too changed its outlook and focused more on “interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and peaceful coexistence with global religious authorities”.

A Delhi-based religious leader who has kept track of the MWL activities in the Muslim world says that the League is now in the league of Islamic moderation and freeing itself of conservative Saudi brand of Islamism. “We don’t hear that the League is promoting hardline groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and their spin-offs in the Indian Subcontinent. Otherwise in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was a trend. Many Muslims connected with such organisations minted huge money and are now leading prosperous lives. Opening a madrasa or a mosque was a profession in itself,” he told the India Narrative.

He added that Dr al-Issa’s visit and his interaction with Muslim academia and religious leadership in entirely a new milieu and mindset will shift the sands in the right direction. “His message will matter and how it is received by Indians will matter more,” he said.

MBS and His Vision 2030

Dr al-Issa is originally an expert of comparative law and not Islamic Studies as may be believed. He was actually Minister of Justice in the Saudi Cabinet. He was selected to spearhead the MWL specifically to put Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s “makeover” of religious landscape of the kingdom. MBS’ plan suggests concentrating the constitution and laws on the Quran, eliminating many hadiths (sayings of the Prophet). He speaks of the need for a current “interpretation” of the Quran. A real change in ideological direction that goes beyond the Wahhabism propagated by Riyadh to date. No more stoning, scourging, killing apostates and homosexuals, and many other reforms.

One institution that has said labbayka (I will stick to obeying you again and again) to MBS’ Vision 2030 is the World Muslim League under Dr al-Issa’s leadership. Dr al-Issa has been interpreting the doctrines and structures of the yet-conservative Islam to suit requirements of modern age.

Wahhabi interpretations of Islamic texts and teachings — pursued and enforced by bodies like the religious police, the Ministry of Education, and a judiciary trained in sharia (Islamic law) that retains general jurisdiction — have given the Saudi state a religious character with no real parallel in the region. But as part of the MBS plan, the country’s governing structures are being centralised, remolded, and reigned in.

Dr al-Issa as head of the MWL is coming to India exactly with this message.

Also Read: Not Wahabi hardliners but Ahle Quran group is behind MBS’ bold reforms in Saudi Arabia