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'Naik evokes a closed reading of the Quran to establish Islamic supremacy'

July 11, 2016 19:42 IST

'Naik is an outcome of an image-centric Islam, which is linked to the technological changes introduced by new media.'
'English educated upper middle class Muslims embraced Naik's image-centric Islam in the 1990s.'
'Television converted him into a religious object.'

What philosophy does controversial Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik preach?

Does he promote terrorism?

Why did the terrorists who executed the Dhaka attack claim inspiration from Naik's speeches?

Hilal Ahmed, assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and author of Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation, tells's Syed Firdaus Ashraf about the complex connections between Zakir Naik and Islamic extremism and how the preacher's exceedingly constricted approach to religious interpretation fuels the religious hardline.

How would you explain Zakir Naik's philosophy to a layman?

In my view, Naik represents a kind of contemporary Islamic religiosity, which I call image-centric-Islam.

There are three features of this religiosity: Mechanical reading of Islamic texts such as the Holy Quran and the Hadith; a reading that provides 'ready-to-use' answers to social problems; an imagined online-ummah (community).

These three aspects constitute his religious thinking.

Naik claims that the most appropriate method of understanding Islam is to understand the authentic sources of Islam' -- the Quran and the authentic Hadith.

In his opinion, the Quran, being the words of Allah, could only be decoded through the sayings of Prophet Muhammad because it was revealed to him. No Islamic scholar would deny this Islamic adherence to holy books.

However, it does not mean that complex texts like the Quran should be read mechanically. There is a vast Islamic literature which deals with the question of Quranic interpretation.

Naik pays no attention to the discussions of these kinds and rules out all possibilities of multiple meanings of the texts like the Quran.

Could you explain these features?

Naik's image-centric Islam is related to his ready to use answers to thematic issues, which he addresses in his speeches, discussions, and even writings.

The categorisation and classification of the FAQ section on the Islamic Research Foundation website provides a broad overview of what Naik calls 'misconceptions about Islam.'

The books, pamphlets, and Islamic manuals written by Naik are also based on these FAQs. His verbal responses to the questions given as FAQs on the IRF website are transcribed and compiled in these publications. In this sense, Naik's writings might be described as an extended version of his speeches.

There are five types of FAQs: Most common questions asked by non-Muslims; most common questions asked by non-Muslims who have some knowledge of Islam; common questions asked by Hindus; common questions asked by Christian missionaries; and queries on Islam.

Besides these FAQs, there is a sub-menu where each section is devoted to the leading faiths of the world, including atheism. These FAQs offer us an interesting thematic schema: Women/sex and Islamic superiority over other religions are the most dominant subjects that are followed by issues related to idol worship, debates on halal dietary rules, and ritualistic obligations for Muslims.

Naik, quite intriguingly, does not refute the claims and beliefs that he identifies as misconceptions. On the contrary, he seems to endorse the prevalent interpretations rather implicitly, and even goes on to substantiate them through evidences/facts extracted directly from the Quran and the Hadith.

In other words, Naik seems to take up popular 'misconceptions' as a reference points for evolving an equally essentialist media-centric discourse of Islamic Da’wah.

Two examples are very relevant to elaborate this point. Replying to a question regarding the use of term kafir for non-Muslims, Naik says: 'Kafir is derived from the word kufr, which means one who conceals the truth of Islam if any non-Muslim considers the word as an abuse, he may choose to accept Islam and then we will stop referring to him a kafir.'

Similarly, when he is asked about the freedom of religion in Islamic regimes, he argues that since Islam is the only true religion and Muslims believe in it, propagation of other religions is not permissible in an Islamic country.

By the same logic, Naik also supports the entry restriction imposed on non-Muslims in the cities of Mecca and Medina. He says, 'The primary condition required for any human being to enter Mecca or Medina is to say there is no God but Allah and Muhammad (Peace Be Unto Him) is his messenger.'

The imagination of an online-ummah is the third feature of Naik's Islamic religiosity. This online-ummah, we must note, is not merely constituted at a point when Naik delivers his speeches in front of a large congregation, rather it is also formed, in fact more powerfully, when the images of this Islamic public attending Naik's programmes are disseminated through the internet and mobile apps.

Naik, in this sense, has been addressing a community that follows his image -- an image of an English educated, well-clad (he always wears suits), skull-caped Muslim doctor, who relies primarily on his exceptional memory and 'scientific' knowledge!

Did the 1990s cable television revolution and the advent of the internet in the 2000s build Naik's image?

Naik is an outcome of an image-centric Islam, which is inextricably linked to the technological changes introduced by new media in the 1990s.

Naik is the president of the IRF which he established in 1991. The IRF is involved in various religious philanthropic activities. It also manages Peace TV, the official channel of the organisation, and the International Islamic School in Mumbai.

The emphasis on propagation of the Islamic message made Naik a media phenomenon. His image of an authoritative modern-rational Islamic orator is created, nurtured, and proliferated primarily through his media establishment, the IRF, and Peace TV.

The IRF employs technology to reach out to its target audience through international satellite TV channels, cable TV networks, the internet, and the print media.

Naik's Peace TV has been a highly successful venture. This channel telecasts free to air TV shows in English, Urdu, and Bangla covering many countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Australia.

Many of Naik's talks, dialogues, debates, and symposia are also available on CDs, and vaideo and audio cassettes.

How did his style originate? Is he a carbon copy of his mentor Ahmed Deedad?

Naik's Da’wah project (invitation to Islam) traces its genealogy in the works of Sheikh Ahmed Deedat, another famous orator on Islam. In one of his speeches, Naik claimed that Deedat changed his life and encouraged him to give up his medical career for the sake of the Islamic Da’wah.

According to Naik's official website, Deedat once described Naik as 'Deedat plus.' However, there is a considerable difference between the two men.

Naik's project is much more ambitious, which even goes beyond the conventional Islamic reformist discourse of Islaah (meaning to improve, correct, rectify or repair).

According to Naik, Da’wah means a 'call' or 'invitation' to invite non-Muslims to Islam as well as the Muslims to the true understanding and practice of Islam.

Many Muslims doing Islaah have completely ignored Da’wah. Therefore, it is our responsibility to concentrate on Da’wah in order to fill this vacuum.

Naik's Da’wah, in this sense, is more concerned about the modes by which his interpretation of Islam could adequately be disseminated.

Why does Naik believe in humiliating other faiths publicly, apart from making Muslims feel good about the supremacy of their religion?

To respond to a question of this kind, we must have to look at the nature of modern inter-faith dialogues.

There are two kinds of interfaith meetings in India: One is a gathering of religious leaders to address the issues of common concerns so that a clear social message could be disseminated.

The other is the interfaith discussions by a leader of a particular faith aiming at establishing the supremacy of one particular religion.

Naik represents this latter category. He evokes a closed reading of the Quran to establish Islamic supremacy.

For instance, he does not recognise the Hindu gods Rama and Krishna as prophets of Allah as he does not find any direct reference to these figures in the Quran and the Hadith; he opposes customary practices such as wearing a mangalsutra by Muslim women because he finds it offensive to the Islamic dress code; he does not approve of music because there is no mention of it in texts.

It is worth remembering that Islamic scholars in India did not historically make such provocative remarks. In fact, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and the late Maulana Ali Mian Nadavi were involved in various interfaith peace initiatives.

Do you think some members of the Barelvi sect of Sunnis are envious about Naik's popularity? After all, he has changed the way Islam is perceived in India, also how it is taught.

There is an Islamic criticism of Naik as well which should be seen in a broader perspective. The ulema (a body of Muslim scholars who are recognised as having intricate knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology), particularly a section of ulema associated with Deoband, criticise Naik for disregarding the established traditions of Islamic reasoning.

It is argued that Naik overemphasises the Quran and Hadith and pays no attention to two other components of reasoning: Qiyas (analogical reasoning) and ijma (consensual opinion of Muslim ulema on a particular issue).

This internal criticism is also related to the changing configuration of the contemporary Islamic intellectual domain.

Naik is not trained in any Islamic system of education, yet he ventures to challenge the hegemony of the ulema class by evoking the original sources.

Although Naik's call to go back to the original does not produce any radically different interpretation of Islam, the ulema class finds it difficult to accept it primarily because Naik's textual approach has no place for them.

How will you explain how Ahl-e-Hadith, Salafi and Wahabbism are different?

One has to recognise the difference between ideas and practice. Ideas are not always embodied in practices, though they continue to shape and nurture our social conduct. This is also true about Islamic ideas and practices.

Islam has always been a highly diversified religious philosophy. This has been the reason why various streams of thought evolved over time.

However, 19th century reform movements paved the way for a new kind of debate in Islamic societies, especially in South Asia.

There were scholars who argued for establishing a pure Islam based on the readings of the Quran and imagination of the society established by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). On the other hand, there were those who adhered to the historically evolved ritual-centric Islam.

Wahabbism, which also adhered to pure Islam, emerged as a political idea in Arabia in the 18th century (named after a radical Islamic preacher Muhammad Ibn Abad al-Wahab 1703 to 1792). Although the reflections of this movement found expressions in British India, South Asian debate on pure Islam had its own trajectories.

Ahl-e-Hadith (who describe themselves as Salafis) in India also emphasises on the pure teachings of Islam and Sunnah (the practices of the Prophet) and reject the Islamic sharia.

But they do not advocate radical reforms in Islamic societies. In fact, Ahl-e-Hadith has become an Islamic sect in post-colonial India, which talks of Muslim religious unity.

In my view, it would be inappropriate to establish a direct link between Wahabbism of the 18th and 19th centuries and the practices of Ahl-e-Hadiths in contemporary India.

Which philosophy does Islamic State follow? Which philosophy is prevalent in Saudi Arabia? Is the the same?

It is important to underline the fact that there is a dialectical relationship between stated philosophies of States and non-State actors (like the Al Qaeda or IS) and actual political practices.

Saudi Arabia describes itself as an official Islamic State which adheres to the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet.

Officially, there is no explanation to these terms. However, at the same time, the basic law of governance of Saudi Arabia very clearly says that the kingdom is a monarchy. Specifically article 5 (b) says, 'the dynasty right shall be confined to the sons of the founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman Al Faisal Al Saud and the sons of sons. The most eligible among them shall be recognised as king, to rule in accordance with the Holy Quraan and the Prophet's Sunnah.

How could it be possible? The Quran as well as the Sunnah of the Prophet do not approve of the monarchy. Similarly, IS, about which our knowledge is very limited, kills innocent people, promotes suicide attacks and helps creating an anti-Islamic environment in the name of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet.

These two examples show that the idea of pure Islam is subject to various interpretations. Unfortunately, the ruling powers are using these ideas to get certain kind of political legitimacy in a deeply divided globalised world.

Do you believe Naik's philosophy propagates terrorism because he did not condemn Osama bin Laden and his acts of terror in a speech?

Naik's version of Islam and his Da’wah project are criticised for being highly provocative. Naik's project is described as 'tempered jihad' because of its seemingly sympathetic attitude toward Islamic fundamentalism.

For Naik, a fundamentalist is a person 'who follows and adheres to the doctrine or theory he is following.'

Following this definition, he describes himself as well as all practicing Muslims as fundamentalist. The same logic is evoked to justify terrorism.

Naik argues that 'a true Muslim should be a terrorist to selective people' -- anti-social elements, and not to common innocent people.

These refined but commonsensical explanations somehow contribute to Naik's image of a prominent Muslim figure, which is usually found in the top ranks of various lists of 'influential individuals.'

This image is further consolidated whenever he is opposed directly. The denial of a visa for him to visit the United Kingdom and Canada in 2010 is a relevant example in this regard.

According to media reports, the UK as well as the Canadian authorities rejected his visa applications primarily because of his controversial stand on terrorism and fundamentalism.

After it was discovered that some of the terrorists involved in the Dhaka attack followed Naik's speeches, is it right to assume that his philosophy propagates terrorism?

It would be very simplistic to believe that there is a direct relationship between Naik's understanding of Islam and violent terrorist acts.

As I pointed out. Naik is the most accessible Islamic voice partly because of his media presence and partly because of his ready-to-use answers. In such a context, there is a possibility that his polemical argument could be interpreted differently.

His supporters say Naik is being targeted unfairly? Do you agree?

I think there is a need to go beyond the 'support versus oppose' kind of framework. His polemical preaching is controversial and problematic. That was the reason why the Indian ulema went against him in the 1990s.

However, Naik is a very popular preacher who has been awarded by many States, including Saudi Arabia, for his services.

Keeping this aspect in mind, one should not rely on ready to use conclusions!

Do you personally believe that Naik's speeches should be banned?

No. I think he should be given full freedom to propagate his views as per our Constitutional norms.

What does Naik give his followers, in your opinion? Why are they so fanatical about him?

As I said, Naik gives 'ready to use' answers to his followers and somehow does not encourage them to think critically. Since they rely on the closed readings of Islam of the Naik type, they feel equally agitated when someone offers a different perspective to them.

Naik has been saying he opposes IS and its terrorism. Do you think he has opened his mouth too late against IS?

Naik is a media phenomenon. He knows how to survive in public life. In my view, he always takes polemical positions simply to carve out a space for himself in the public domain.

After the Bangladesh attacks though, his options were limited.

Do you think he opened up against IS now because of the suicide attack in Medina last week?

I do not think it is so simple.

What kind of following does Naik have? How many followers does he have in India and the world?

In my view, English educated upper middle class Muslims actually embraced Naik's image-centric Islam in the 1990s. However, television converted him into a religious object. Yet, it would be difficult to offer the exact figure.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf