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India-Saudi interfaith dialogue

  • Security
  • 10 Months ago
  • 8 min read
India-Saudi interfaith dialogue

Credits: Kartik Kakar, Newslaundry

Team NatStrat
Team NatStrat

India was host to a high level visitor from Saudi Arabia in the form of Dr. Mohammad Bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League in early July 2023. This was no ordinary visitor. Dr. Issa is a highly influential scholar and religious leader who has been in the forefront of promoting dialogue among civilisations in the world. Dr. Issa’s visit is of great significance to the India-Saudi Arabia relationship, with the two states having recently taken a number of steps to enhance the relationship, especially in the fields of culture, trade and defence. India and Saudi Arabia signed the Haj 2023 bilateral agreement to facilitate the Haj pilgrimage for Indians. It enables 1,75,025 Indians to make the pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia meets almost 18% of India’s oil requirements and millions of Indians live and work in Saudi Arabia. Under Prime Minister Modi, India’s relations with Saudi Arabia have taken rapid strides.

A high-level visitor

Dr. Issa’s visit is believed to have taken place at the personal initiative of the Indian National Security Adviser Shri Ajit Doval. The latter held detailed talks with Dr. Issa and hosted a dinner in his honour in which dignitaries from all walks of life and belonging to different denominations were present. In a display of religious unity in diversity, Dr. Issa visited Akshardham temple. In addition, Sheikh Al-Issa met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Draupadi Murmu, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Home Minister Amit Shah and External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar, and other political and Islamic and non-Islamic religious Indian individuals of eminence. It was the first time in four centuries that a non-Indian – the Secretary General of the Muslim World League – led Friday prayers at the Jama Masjid in Delhi.

The speeches delivered by Dr. Issa during his visit represents a carefully thought out presentation of Islam as well as how Islam and Saudi Arabia view India’s pluralistic and multi-religious society. 

It is clear from the speeches that Dr. Issa had high regard for the way in which India is handling its Muslim community and ensuring religious and communal harmony. He was also clear that Hindu-Muslim unity and peaceful coexistence is essential for India’s progress and offered the full support of the Muslim World League to achieve this objective. 

He was also full of praise for India’s Constitution and the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam that was the foundation of Indian civilisation.

NSA Ajit Doval’s remarks on India’s pluralism

In a major speech at the India Islamic Cultural Centre on July 11, 2023 to welcome Dr. Issa, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval outlined the role of Muslims in India and the nature of India’s diversity. The main points made by him were:

  • India is the world’s largest democracy and the mother of democracies, accommodating citizens of all religious, ethnic or cultural backgrounds. It has the world’s second-largest Muslim population, equaling the combined population of around 33 member-states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The deep spiritual contents of Hinduism and Islam brought the people together and helped in bringing about a social and intellectual understanding of each other. It gave rise to a distinct and vibrant expression of peace and harmony, notwithstanding the vagaries of political ups and downs. While the historians have focused more on the political events, they have failed to capture the societal undercurrents that brought the people together.

  • India has a centuries-old enduring tradition of accommodating multiethnic, multi-religious, and multilingual individuals: Arab exiles, Jews, Tibetans, Parsis, Shias, Bangladeshis, Afghans and many others. 
  • Over the centuries, the philosophy of cooperation and dialogue in Islam seamlessly merged with the ancient Hindu civilisational tradition of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, The World is One Family’. 
  • India emerged as a sanctuary for persecuted people of all faiths from across the world since times immemorial.

It was no coincidence that despite having around 200 million Muslims, the involvement of Indian citizens in global terrorism has been incredibly low.

  • The challenge of extremism and global terrorism compels us not to lower our guard. To preserve the security and stability within our borders and also rise to the security challenges beyond – India has been leading the fight against individuals and organisations promoting extremism, narcotics and terrorism. 
  • The terrorist attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 became a turning point in the way Saudi Arabia looked at itself and the rest of the world. The attack – conducted by a group of militants who seized the mosque and held hostages for several days – brought the issue of terrorism to the forefront and forced Saudi Arabia to reevaluate its security measures and foreign policy. 
  • India has also been a victim of terrorism for many decades. The country has faced numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which claimed 168 lives. India has actively been working to combat terrorism through various means, including strengthening its security apparatus, enacting new laws, and cooperating with other countries to prevent terrorist activities. However, in this war against terror, even in the face of grave provocations, India has steadfastly upheld the rule of law, rights of its citizens and protection of human values and rights. India is an extremely responsible power but when the need for a hot pursuit against terrorist havens was felt, we have gone all out to destroy terrorism in our national interest. 

India believes in doctrines of convergence, dialogue and peace leading to conflict avoidance and mitigation.

Dr. Issa’s speeches on Islam and India’s positive example

Dr. Issa delivered three main speeches during his stay in Delhi. The main points made by him were the following:

Saudi Arabia appreciates the ancient history of India, the cultural and civilisational history, and the importance of the communication with this history in our Islamic world. Saudi Arabia also appreciates the positive diversity in the Republic of India that is valued by the concept of coexistence through awareness, accompanied by wisdom from this coexistence.

  • Despite India being a Hindu majority state, it has adopted a secular constitution that unites all its diverse components under one umbrella. The Hindu communities in Saudi Arabia are well aware of Islam as the majority in Saudi Arabia, and there is amicable interaction and communication among both communities. Saudi Arabia and India have a lot of things in common between them to promote peace in the world, foster love, and inculcate the realisation that difference and diversity are the very part of nature.

Saudi Arabia is also aware of the fact that the Islamic community in the Indian Republic takes pride in nationalism and are proud Indians. It also takes pride in the Indian Constitution and works in collaboration with the government to implement it. 

  • The entire world seeks global coexistence. Saudi Arabia believes that the Indian people with all their different identities and traits can set a wonderful example of this. The real awareness, religious awareness, is represented by Indians taking pride in being citizens, in the Constitution, fraternity and religious diversity. This is also what Islam represents: real awareness.
  • The Muslim World League affirms, appreciates and values India’s openness (to foreign visitors) and wisdom as a state but also in relationships with all Indian components and identities. India’s openness also reinforces the shared values that the league believes in.

He praised Indian philosophy as the driving force for global harmony. Indian philosophy has the potential to resolve some of the critical challenges faced by the world today. He has learned much about peace and harmony from reading Hindu religious texts such as the Srimad Bhagwad Gita and having discussions with various Hindu leaders. He said he wanted to also study the Vedas and the Upanishads, but had found no Arabic version of them available.

  • Multiple interpretations of the Holy Quran by different leaders to suit their political agendas has created misunderstanding, mistrust and hatred for others. While the Quran advocates mutual respect, its current interpretation does not promote diversity. Recognition of diversity ensures good relationships between cultures. Therefore, establishing communication between cultures is the need of the hour.
  • He said that the Islamic world should try to understand and benefit from Indian ethos and philosophies and added that the need of the hour is dialogue between religious leaders who currently are only thinking about their own respective religions. Emphasizing that it was not possible for Islamic leaders alone to face or deal with the challenges confronting the world, Dr. Al-Issa sought the cooperation of the Hindu religious leaders.
  • A true Muslim possesses high morals that are evident in his conduct, reflecting the magnificence and beauty of Islam through the values upheld by the Muslim community. Embracing these values serves to enhance the reputation of Islam. Furthermore, adhering to these values is an essential aspect of a Muslim's genuine behavior and is required in all circumstances. The opposite behaviour – regrettably – is often attributed to Islam by those who are unfamiliar with the true essence of Islam. This misrepresentation occurs due to the actions of those who falsely claim affiliation with Islam. Such negative behaviour is considered a deviation from the path of Allah. 
  • A Muslim, with his high morals and comprehensive wisdom, coexists with love and sincerity towards everyone, guided by the national framework that encompasses all. This framework serves as the constitution of every nation. There is no choice for peace, harmony, development, and prosperity in our world except through respecting this framework that unites each nation with its citizens. A true Muslim respects the national Constitution and values the basic culture of his country.

What the Hindu leaders said

Hindu leaders on the other hand, in their interactions with Dr. Issaexplained the paramount Hindu philosophy which recognised that God pervades everything and each soul is potentially divine. They explained that Hinduism is not idol worship but Hindus recognised that as the beginning of the pursuit of spiritual growth.

They explained that all religions are equal and true, and that Hindus accept, and not just tolerate other religions. This has made them more diverse and tolerant internally as well as externally. They said Hinduism regards everyone’s faith and practices as sacred.

They said the DNA of Hinduism protected the faiths and practices of all and different people. In Hinduism, there is no Them Vs Us approach, as that is expressly condemned as small mindedness in the Rig Veda. They also emphasized the importance of diversity and evoked the Rig Veda, one of the world's most ancient scriptures, to draw lessons about universal tolerance and acceptance.

Sanatan Dharma teaches us love and compassion for everyone and true selfless service for nature. Tolerance needs to become a part of our lives. Interfaith dialogue is the only path for the future. However, it is just the beginning, and there is a need for such regular discussion.


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