The Curious Case of Zakir Naik

Like many, I too was drawn to Peace TV and the myriad of Islamic clerics and speakers it lent a platform to. It was, at least to my knowledge, the first time a Muslim had easy access to understanding his faith from scholars belonging not just to a handful of Gulf states, but from speakers who practiced their faith in UK, Canada, USA, Pakistan and India. To a majority of Indian Muslim, the barrier of Arabic language was broken and knowing their religion made easy and comprehensible with verses of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet explained in Hindi & English. Amongst the many speakers & preachers that the viewers saw for the first time, there was one that few were not familiar with – Dr. Zakir Naik.

Hailing from the state of Maharashtra in India, his prolific talks demonstrate uber-memory strength and an impressive ability to rattle references down to the detail of book names, sections, page numbers, and verse numbers of holy scriptures of the Islamic, Christian, Jewish and Hindu faith. For someone who virtually binge-talks on the many aspects of a religion that forms the centre of much discussion and news, Zakir Naik may have well memorized the various controversies he’s been into too.  While I don’t intend to list down every sticky situation he has been in, a recent development may help me touch on a few of them. What should be a proud moment for the preacher and the people who follow his views was responded with an adversarial stance from the media. Or I must say, a stance that manifests into critical denunciation of his life and achievement.

Zakir Naik was awarded Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal International Prize for his service to Islam as one of the renowned non-Arabic speaking promoters of the religion. What would sound like an innocuous story calling for a celebration is actually reported as a controversy in itself. An analysis of the keywords used at the beginning of this paragraph, namely Saudi Arabia and Islam, may help one understand why. However, to understand the mood employed in reporting this story, there’s another keyword that very few can miss – Zakir Naik.

Zakir Naik was awarded the Saudi Arabia's King Faisal International Prize on 3rd February, 2015

Zakir Naik was handed the King Faisal International Award by the recently appointed King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on 3rd February, 2015

 

A Case in Skewed Reporting

With a humble recognition of the chinks in his verbal and intellectual armour, which I will address in this blog, the reportage of his award by most outlets betrayed a hatred for his success and the following he enjoys. Right from the headline and hanger, drifting down to the body, most articles conveniently mix the man with controversies and the man with the award. The content is beefed up with his views on 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, and is made to sound mutually non-exclusive with the award and the rationale behind rewarding his services. Very few, like the one I read in Economic Times, introduced the reader to Naik’s run in with the West as a reflection reserved for those who cared to read the article in full. Instead, the articles cast their judgement on the one awarded and questioned the authority of the one awarding, thereby reducing the award itself to an incidental mention – all this in the headline and introductory sentences. The articles do nothing to educate the reader except cast suspicion over Naik and the bygone years of work that resulted in this recognition from the Kingdom.

The controversies cited are no feat of investigative journalism too, with allegations echoing Naik’s remarks on the infamous 9/11 attacks and the issue of terrorism looming large over Muslim societies. He is harshly critical of the US foreign diplomacy and equates their advances on foreign soil as terrorism clad in the garb of democracy and liberation. If this statement provides no breakthrough to your intellectual fodder, it is because many academics and intellectuals around the world, ones with faith or without, have cast similar aspersions.

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If the headline and the image are important entry points for a story, then this article in The Guardian takes the readers on a scary flight. The image chosen builds a paranoia and adjudges the subject as a culprit

The author of this Scroll.in article goes onto to link Naik to Salafism, a term loosely thrown in so as to suggest an inherent threat associated with it. Had the author taken the mild pain of searching, he would know that Naik publicly disassociates himself with any revivalist movement, specifically Salafism, which has ironically resulted in several ‘pukka Salafis’ rejecting his teachings and ideals. Following the trail of other pieces, albeit with deeper analysis in the Indian context, the writer zeroes in on Naik’s controversial remark to debunk his pedigree, thereby making him look like a laughing stock for the wider Hindu audience whose literature on Zakir Naik may be limited to this online article. 

Saif Mahmood, a student of the University of Waterloo and a keen observer of developments in current affairs & Islam, understands the pitfalls that Zakir Naik’s stage time entails. Acknowledging a smear campaign directed towards Naik, Saif commented:

“I can’t say I would expect it differently from the western media. They probably haven’t read or seen a lot of his work. The reality is that all academics who preach comparative religion and challenge the worldview of the existing paradigm will get a backlash.”

India could barely boast of any English-speaking, globally acclaimed Muslim speaker as an authority in his own faith, leave alone comparative religions. Zakir Naik was that breakthrough, but along with his message of peace and harmony lurked the shadow of his analysis and deconstruction of events and scenarios that was best left unaddressed.

The Folly of Frankness

I cannot help but agree with those who regard his penchant for conspiracy theories on 9/11 as problematic. His critical lambasting of the US aggression in the Gulf sounds more of an emotional outburst than a thorough analysis for the audience to reflect on. It’s one thing to be unsure of the nuances involved in a disaster that changed the dynamics of the world, and another to avowedly side with alternative explanations to a people who take him by his word.

In today’s day and age, the average Indian citizen should rather be inspired to lead a change in his own backyard than explore sinister motives behind the policies of another country. What matters more than ever is the role of Islam in the post-9/11 era, and not a reflection on the nature of the attacks that the world has struggled to grapple with. The sensitivities associated with this event are deep and addressing them deserves a special faculty. Zakir Naik’s open confrontation of this topic and expression of controversial views in front of an audience which –  on many occasions – numbered in thousands, elicited the kind of response that would leave few surprised. Statesmen of UK, USA and Canada took note of his views – perhaps even at times out of context – and denied him a visa. Others who took note were journalists whose stories travel without one.

Another inescapable chink is his ultra-simplistic approach to a much-sophisticated issue. A lot of queries from the listeners that deserved a tailor-made response was instead picked up from one of his previous regurgitation. For an intellect that sharp and a reach so massive, I’d believe that the changing trends in societies could be met with a more dynamic approach. While the average Muslim was equipped with answers to pressing questions that Islamic societies are faced with, a discerning listener could detect waning relevance as questions became more pertinent to modern challenges.

The information accessible to critics and Islamophobes in the age of the internet could not be dealt with the suave yet rudimentary replies of the past. Some of his statements were so plain that they were ready made material over the net to be picked and shred of its context. For instance, several questions on the emergence of sects in Islam were not greeted with an intellectual discourse on its history, rather as a completely rejection of it as an outlier in the body of Islamic orthodoxy. While his narrative on this matter cannot be rejected, a topic so relevant to Indian societies deserved a comprehensive response.

His attempt to relax the ‘terrorist’ stereotype on Muslims with a play on paradox has contributed heavily in landing him in a pit of trouble. “A terrorist is a person who terrorizes the society, and miscreants – be it a thief, rapist or murderer, should be terrorised by the presence of Muslims,” Naik explains to the audience. He concludes the point with his maxim – “hence, every Muslim should be a terrorist.” Though this is usually met with a thunderous applause from the audience, you don’t need a Sherlock moment to understand how other forms of miscreants have (mis)used this statement.

His efforts at harmonious exchange between different faiths sometimes result in tense showdowns. Having watched his videos in full and having had the privilege to watch one of his talks in a live audience, I can sense that his intention has never been to hurt sentiments. Despite his well-intentioned attempt at bridging the gap between Islam and other faiths, his lectures could not escape the odd instances of petty argumentative exhange between the participants of the discussion – which also included members of the mixed-faith audience.Things were changing, but sadly, Zakir Naik’s style and content trailed behind.

To reflect further it bears mention that  Zakir Naik’s views are never meant to be the be all and end all for Muslims in India. In a country caught in a clash of polemic views on modernity and Islam, Naik is the flame that can ignite the quest for Islamic knowledge amongst the educated and rational Muslim.

Beyond Babri Masjid

In the 21st century and particularly post 9/11, there has been a dearth of Muslim speakers from the Indian subcontinent who have guided discussions to core Islamic thinking. Islam in India, like other philosophies, is often embattled with a dash of political cynicism and skepticism. What people found in Zakir Naik was a relief from the debate on mere peripheries of Islam and instead a focus on the fundamental aspects of the faith – the theology, Prophet’s legacy, deconstruction of holy verses, and Islam’s relationship with other Abrahamic and its simalirites with pagan faiths. Far from being apologetic for one’s Muslim identity, Zakir Naik tried to champion a cause of revival in confidence amongst the Muslim youth. Instead of shedding away one’s faith and embracing a false sense of modernity, Naik proved that the skull cap and neck-tie could survive a happy marriage, especially if they were bound by the force of knowledge and conversation.

His oft-repeated invocation from Chapter 3 of the Qur’an can in fact guide the concerted efforts to nurse wounds of communalism – “come to common terms as between us and you.” While the drama of stage, lights, camera, questions and tensions may have taken this focus away from Naik’s lectures, even if momentarily, every individual holds the power to test his or her own mohalla with a renewed philosophy of peace and mutual understanding.

If there’s one thing that I admire Zakir Naik for, it’s his unbridled confidence in representing Islam. Most of us may shy away from our religion and languish in our mediocre understanding of our own faith. Growing into adolescence with a passion for public speaking, Naik’s strong oratory skills was always a treat to watch and admire. To learn further that he was once an acute stammerer speaks fluently of his dedication and will-power. But here’s a man torn between the fan following of thousands and hate-mongering of plenty. We need not choose sides, for choosing the scholar we would like to follow is not an emotional or patriotic decision. It’s a choice we make after a thorough understanding of our context and the ability of the scholar to inspire an honest religiosity.

There was a time when I was inspired by Zakir Naik, but I have now grown beyond his favourite topics he chooses to address. Perhaps, had it not been for him, I would not chance upon and find solace in the teachings of other learned scholars that broaden my horizon of understanding the religion. He was the foundation that now empowers me to respectfully look beyond his style and sermons.

Whether or not Zakir Naik’s sincere contribution to Islam deserves to be dwarfed by the controversies is a topic that would be best addressed by him. And I reckon this face-off between him and his adversaries will not be a simple one.

Come to common terms as between us and you: Surah Imran [Ch:3], verse 64