NEW YORK (VINnews) — “The Qur’an instructed Muslims to be righteous and benevolent to non-Muslims as long as they are peaceful and do not attack you or fight you. Muslims treated well the Jews who refused to enter Islam, starting with the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, until our time,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL), a leading religious Muslim nongovernmental organization based in Mecca, in an interview with Arab News.
Since taking his position in 2016, Sheikh Al-Issa has been traveling the world, forging relationships — with governments, religious institutions and NGOs (including the American Sephardi Federation and the American Jewish Committee) — and announcing historic initiatives to counter extremism, guarantee religious freedom and improve human welfare.
Despite Al-Issa’s efforts, many people remain skeptical about MWL’s agenda and about Islam’s doctrinal teachings concerning other religions, claiming that a proselyting religion can never give equal treatment to non-converts.
In the interview, Al-Issa addressed these issues and other controversial topics forthrightly, especially in the light of recent images of Islamist and terrorist organizations indoctrinating their followers and converts through deception or force.
Al-Issa responded that most religions except Judaism practice proselytization. That fact does not inherently signify a lack of respect, nor mean that practitioners of various religions should be locked in an illogical and endless struggle.
“We, as Muslims, respect, love, understand, cooperate, coexist and tolerate everyone. Our historically documented and verified actions demonstrate this, and in the Muslim World League we have played a major role in this aspect, pursuant to our Islamic values,” said Al-Issa.
“With our Jewish brothers, we concluded agreements and mutual cooperation, and we love them and respect them greatly, far from the problems of politics, as our principle is not to interfere in politics.”
Al-Issa emphasized that it is permissible to engage in normal business and friendly relations with members of other faiths, including Jews, as was the case in the Prophet Muhammad’s time.
Political disagreements are separate from religious precepts. Moreover, he added, Islam considers Jews and Christians to be Peoples of the Book who are accorded privileges in judicial proceedings.
At the same time, Islam respects other religions and guarantees the rights of all people to religious choice.
But what about the Qu’ranic quotes, as well as hadiths and alleged accounts, that point to a conflict between Islam’s prophet and the Jews of Arabia and even recount a massacre which occurred in that period?
Nothing could be farther from the truth, according to Al-Issa.
The Qu’ranic references criticizing Jews that some have taken to mean a generalized attack on all Jews actually admonish specific followers of Judaism who went “off the derech” – strayed from the faithful commitment to the letter and spirit of their own Abrahamic tradition, he said.
To illustrate his point, he presented two seemingly paradoxical quotations: The Qur’an differentiates between the types of people, as the Almighty says: “They are not [all] the same; among the People of the Scripture is a community standing [in obedience], reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating [in prayer].”
The Almighty also said: “And among the People of the Scripture is he who, if you entrust him with a great amount [of wealth], he will return it to you. And among them is he who, if you entrust him with a [single] silver coin, he will not return it to you unless you are constantly standing over him [demanding it].”
The Qur’an adds that “Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans [before Prophet Muhammad] – those [among them] who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.”
Al-Issa explains that the Qu’ran is speaking about different categories of people, but due to historical misinterpretations, mistranslations and, at times deliberate distortions, there is an appearance of a contradiction.
Al-Issa adds that: “The Qur’an admonished a group of Jews, not all Jews, and reminded them of the honor of affiliating with the Prophet Jacob, peace be upon him: ‘O Children of Israel! Remember My favor which I bestowed upon you, and that I favored you over all nations.’”
But what to make of the alleged massacres of the Jews that have become so closely associated with the extremist outcries of “Khybar, khybar ya yahood?”
They, too, should be viewed in their proper context. Al-Issa pointed out that there was no mass extermination of Jews for their religious affiliation. On the contrary, the issues that led to tribal violence were purely political, not religious.
Contemporary audiences should look to the example of the prophet himself, Al-Issa said.
“The prophet, peace be upon him, stood out of respect to a passing Jewish funeral, lived next to a Jew, and married Safiya, the daughter of Hayy bin Akhtab from Bani Al-Nadir. He told her: ‘You are the daughter of a prophet, your uncle is a prophet, and you are the wife of a prophet.’” Muhammad was referring to the fact that his wife was descended from Aaron and Moses, peace be upon them.
From this quote it follows that Muhammad not only respected Safiya’s Jewish heritage, but encouraged her to take pride and inspiration in her lineage.
Al-Issa also emphasized Muhammad’s signature achievement, the Madinah Charter, as an example of Islam’s position on religious existence put into practice: “The Prophet, peace be upon him, signed the most important Islamic constitutional document, which is the Madinah Charter, which preserved religious and civil rights, as well as provided for Jews and others to live within Madinah in dignity as part of the ummah (community).”
So what effect, if any, has MWL’s activity had on the discourse in the Muslim world? To start with, Al-Issa practices what he preaches in Arabic and uses the MWL to advance his campaign to assert the true, inclusive and benevolent nature of Islam.
Anyone in doubt can refer to the Charter of Makkah, a historic statement drafted by Al-Issa, who then convened a meeting of 1,200 pre-eminent Islamic scholars near Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, to debate and sign the document, which reaffirms these principles of Islam.
Undoubtably Al-Issa’s visit to Auschwitz last January to mark the 75th annivesary of the death camp’s liberation had a deep effect on the Muslim world, with one Saudi columnist calling for wider recognition of the “Jewish tragedy” (the Holocaust) in the process of bridge-building.
Another example is the MBC Ramadan drama “Um Haroun.” Based loosely on true stories of the Bahraini Jewish community in the 1940’s, the series, which had a Kuwaiti director and star and portrays Jews in a sympathetic light, aired in Saudi Arabia.
There is a desire to undo the damage of decades of politicization of Jewish life that led to attacks, expulsions and fear and Al-Issa claims that his organization is leading the way to a more peaceful and accommodating approach to interfaith relations which eventually will also lead to political harmony between Israel and its Arab neighbors.