The Secretary General of the Muslim World League, Muhammad al-‘Issa, was appointed to lead the main prayer at the annual pilgrimage, arousing the indignation of the Islamists. Who is al-‘Issa and why is he so controversial?
Last update: 2022-08-04 12:24:22
The Saudi royal family seems increasingly determined to leave the Wahhabi tradition behind. In the last few years, countless signs have pointed in this direction. The most recent one is King Salman’s decision to entrust the sermon for the day of Arafah—a crucial moment during the annual pilgrimage, which brought a million people to Mecca only a few weeks ago—to Muhammad al-‘Issa, former Saudi Minister of Justice (in office from 2009 to 2015) and current Secretary General of the Muslim World League. A member of the Council of Senior Scholars since 2016, which is the most important religious institution in the country, created by King Faisal in 1960 and composed of (mostly Saudi, though not all) sharia experts who are directly appointed by the king, in the past few years al-‘Issa has become the face of Saudi Islamic renewal. The national newspaper al-Riyādh called him “a leading model of ‘moderation.”
At first, the Council was a kind of committee, composed of the most influential members of the Wahhabi clergy. But the situation changed after King Salman ascended the throne in 2015 and his son Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) rose to political prominence. Theoretically, this institution is charged with advising rulers on religious matters and issuing fatwas through the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Ifta. In recent years, however, the first prerogative has been greatly downsized, while the second remains predominant. This evolution is part of a broader process implemented by the crown prince that has centralized power and weakened the authority and influence of religious scholars. Furthermore, after changes introduced by the royal family, two factions currently coexist within the Council: the conservative one, best represented by its president and Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia since 1999, sheikh ‘Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Āl al-Sheikh (a descendant of a branch of the ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s family, the founder of Wahhabism), and the reformist one, of which Muhammad al-‘Issa is the highest expression.
For more than thirty years, from 1982 to 2015, the sermon for the day of Arafah was delivered by sheikh ‘Abdulaziz bin ‘Abdullah Āl al-Sheikh, who represents the conservative trend in the Council of Senior Scholars. But beginning in 2015, King Salman has entrusted this task to a different person each year: in 2016 it was assigned to ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sudays, imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca; in 2017 it was given to sheikh Saad bin Nasir al-Shathri; then the imam of the Medina Mosque; Hussein Āl al-Shaykh had this role in 2018; next the position was filled by sheikh Muhammad bin Hasan Āl al-Sheikh in 2019. In 2020 sheikh ‘Abdullah bin al-Mani‘ (the Deputy of the former grand mufti Ibn Baz in the 1970s) gave the sermon, followed in 2021 by sheikh Bandar bin ‘Abdulaziz Balila, one of the most famous Saudi reciters of the Qur’an. All these figures align (though some more than others) with tradition. The appointment of Muhammad al-‘Issa, therefore, marks an important change in the country’s religious policy, towards what can be understood as a further break with the Wahhabi clergy.
Who is Muhammad al-‘Issa?
A right-hand man of Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman Al-‘Issa received his BA, MA and PhD in Comparative Law from the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. After being appointed Secretary General of the Muslim World League in 2016, he acquired international stature. Under his leadership, the League has taken on a new role. Founded in 1962 by King Faisal, for many decades it was the main body responsible for spreading Salafism abroad. After September 11, the Muslim League’s prerogatives and prestige declined sharply, but today it is experiencing a moment of strong visibility and has become one of the main vectors of MbS’s new approach to religious issues. The League’s task today is rehabilitating Saudi Arabia’s image abroad by promoting “moderate Islam” and encouraging interfaith dialogue.
Al-‘Issa has become the harbinger of this new orientation. In 2017 he went to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the then-president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (the following year the Cardinal returned the visit and was received by King Salman himself in Riyadh), in 2018 he was awarded the Galileo prize in Florence for the promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue and participated in the Meeting for Friendship among Peoples in Rimini (and he will participate in the Meeting again this year), while in 2021 he received the Norwegian Bridge Builder Award for his commitment to building bridges between different religions and cultures.
Recently, the Secretary General of the League has also opened up a channel of communication with the Russian Orthodox Church and Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow, with whom he signed a cooperation agreement in 2019. Above all, he has cultivated relationships with various Jewish institutions in the United States and around the world. In 2020, al-‘Issa led a delegation of more than 60 Muslims (25 of them religious leaders) on an official visit to Auschwitz concentration camp for the 75th anniversary of the liberation from Nazism. This act earned him a lot of criticism from the Islamic world and appreciation from Jewish leaders, particularly in the United States.
Another initiative aimed at promoting “moderate Islam” is the Mecca Declaration signed on May 28, 2019, by King Salman and 1200 ulema from 139 countries at the end of a conference sponsored by the Muslim World League. Among the aims of the Declaration (which seems to partially echo the Document on Human Fraternity, signed only a few months earlier in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib) is the promotion of “the Islamic values of tolerance, peace, and coexistence” (point 27 of the Declaration) and “global citizenship” (point 22). In a speech al-‘Issa gave during the first international forum of the Mecca Declaration, which was held in Washington in November 2021, he defined the document as “an extension of the Constitution of Medina, which establishes the values of religious tolerance and human fraternity.” Moreover, citizenship is a recurrent theme in the new discourse of the League, so much so that even at the opening ceremony of the VIII Forum for the promotion of peace in Muslim societies at Expo Dubai last December, al-‘Issa mentioned “inclusive citizenship,” referring to the Charter of Medina yet again.
The Wrath of the Islamists
Thus, the League guarantees the Saudi Kingdom an international Islamic outreach through the figure of al-‘Issa, who represents the face of the religious renewal that MbS has called for on more than one occasion. King Salman’s choice to entrust the leading of the prayer to the League’s Secretary General during one of the most important occasions of the year for Muslims all over the world is thus very significant, especially if one remembers that the ‘Arafa prayer is traditionally broadcast on televisions and radios in all Muslim countries, and that this year the sermon was translated into fourteen languages.
But al-‘Issa’s appointment sparked a wave of protests among the Islamists, who even launched a Twitter hashtag, “Remove al-‘Issa from the pulpit.” In their eyes, what makes him unacceptable is his commitment to interreligious dialogue, and above all his relationship with the Jewish world. Islamists, who have dubbed al-‘Issa “the Zionist imam,” fear that his appointment is a ploy by the royal family to pave the way for normalization with Israel. In this sense, a cartoon circulating on Twitter a few days ago is quite eloquent: it depicts al-‘Issa at the pulpit of the Nimrah mosque next to Mount Arafah, reading a sermon that is handed to him by a rabbi standing behind him.
Cartoon circulating on Twitter: it depicts al-‘Issa reading a sermon that is handed by a rabbi
In addition to political concerns, his detractors put forward legal reasons for opposing him: the imam in charge of leading prayer on the most important days of the Islamic calendar must be an upright person who adheres to the teachings of the prophet, since he is invested with the important task of “protecting pilgrims’ beliefs, ethics, and thoughts from deception, confusion, and sedition”—all qualities al-‘Issa lacks, in their estimation.
Muhammad al-Saghir—Secretary General of the International Organization to Support the Prophet of Islam and a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars in Doha—issued a fatwa the day before the celebration that stipulated that it was unlawful to follow Muhammad al-‘Issa in prayer. Despite the protests, the Secretary General of the League led the prayer as expected and delivered a rather conventional sermon.
Leaving the Islamists’ objections aside, the move made by the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques—the title of the Saudi ruler, which recalls the role of the royal family—certainly has a strong symbolic and political value. Internally, it reaffirms the monarchy’s desire to marginalize the conservative Wahhabi clergy, who were deprived of a great opportunity for visibility this year. At the international level it offers the image of a reformist and moderate country, which is gradually leaving behind the intransigence of the Wahhabi doctrine and is ready to become an interlocutor for interfaith and intercultural dialogue, placing itself in direct “competition” with the United Arab Emirates, which have been the leading interpreters of religious tolerance in the Muslim world in recent years.