What makes Zakir Naik so dangerous? How does he encourage terrorism, and why should Muslim Ulema confront him?
“If Osama bin Laden is fighting the enemies of Islam, I’m for him. If he is terrorising America, the terrorist, biggest terrorist, I’m with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist. The thing is that if he is terrorising the terrorist, he is following Islam. Whether he is or not, I don’t know. Now, don’t go around outside saying Zakir Naik is for Osama bin Laden. If he is terrorising the terrorist I’m with him.”
This is the quote of the week. Here Dr. Zakir Naik, the controversial but popular Islamist tele-evangelist is reacting to a question about Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind of 9/11 that killed 3,000 innocent Americans. He doubts Osama bin Laden’s role in 9/11, as many Muslims and even American conspiracy theorists do. They think 9/11 was an inside job. Dr. Naik plays on this sentiment. He clearly supports terrorism, and goes on to say, every Muslim should be a terrorist in the sense of terrorising “enemies of Islam.” Now the question is: Who gives Naik the authority to sanction “terrorising” any one? Also: who are these “enemies of Islam” today?
Who is Zakir Naik?
1. Dr Zakir Abdul Karim, an international orator on Islam, was born on October 18, 1965, in Mumbai
To find an answer any follower of Zakir Naik would go to the literal words of the holy Quran. Naik is a Wahhabi-Salafi-Ahl-e-Hadeesi who has full Saudi financial and logistical support. He recently received Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian award, the Shah Faisal Award consisting of $200,000 and a gold plaque. Wahhabis consider themselves ghair-muqallids, i.e., Muslims who do not follow any of the five mazahib or schools of thought like, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi΄i, Hanbali and Ja‘fari. Muslims on the Indian sub-continent used to follow the most broad-minded and moderate school of thought, the Hanafi, before the advent of Saudi Wahhabism in full force 40 years ago. The distinguishing feature of this sect is literalism. They read the Quran literally and consider all verses equally relevant, universal and eternal in their applicability to Muslims of all ages and all places.
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As the controversy surrounding Zakir Naik is flaring up, the Muslim community seems to have divided on whether to support the televangelist or not. Shedding more light into the appeasement policy of Congress, Baghpur MP and former Mumbai Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh revealed that Mumbai Police had forwarded a report of Zakir Naik’s activities to the then UPA government in 2008, but no action was taken on it.
Many Islamic clerics have come against the controversial preacher. “Zakir is no messenger of peace. Far from peace, his TV channel promotes contempt, if not hatred, towards other religions and its followers,” secularist-activist Javed Anand said at a news conference.
Prominent Shia Muslim cleric Maulana Kalbe Jawad Naqvi demanded a complete ban on Naik’s books, speeches and lectures. “Zakir Naik is spreading terrorism,” he said, “Naik is a part of the Saudi Arabia-funded Wahhabi terror network, which creates scholars and clerics who in turn brainwash young Muslims.” A Shia group, Hussaini Tigers, went so far as to declare a Rs 15-lakh bounty on the head of Zakir Naik by saying that he is not Naik but a ‘khalnayak’ (villain).
Surprisingly, Darul Uloom Deoband of the Deoband has issued a series of fatwas against Naik since 2007. They reiterated that he was a self-styled preacher unaffiliated to any of the four schools of Sunni Islamic thought. Supporting Zakir Naik, Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi said that Naik has known him for a long time and that he can't be involved in any kind of terrorist activities or indoctrination. In Kashmir, the Jamaat-I-Islami and Jamiat-ul-Ahlihadees have condemned what they called a campaign by the government and media against Naik. In Kerala, Indian Union Muslim League came in support of Naik and passed a resolution condemning portraying him as a terrorist. MP and IUML national secretary ET Mohammed Basheer lashed out against BJP-led central government's attempts to check freedom of expression and propagation of religion.
So any Muslim who accepts Naik’s exhortation that Muslims should terrorise “the enemies of Islam,” would consult the Quran. The Internet has made it much easier to access various renderings of Quran, as well as tafasir (exegesis and interpretations). The spirit of Quran, the overall sense of what the Quran is saying, a holistic view that the Sufis and moderates take, is completely missing in Wahhabi-Salafi Islam that Zakir Naik propagates.
Now what would a victim of Naik who takes him as a great scholar on the basis of his rote memory find in the Quran? Before we go into this question, we should acquire a little background of the advent of Islam, otherwise we are likely to be misguided in the same way the Indian Mujahedin or the Dhaka youth were. The Islam that came in Mecca with its foundational verses was a spiritual path to salvation of mankind. It taught honesty, integrity, equality of all humanity in the dominion of One invisible, formless God, patience and perseverance in dealing with other human beings and in the face of adversity, co-existence of all religions, good neighbourliness, gender equality, etc. However, the Meccan elite could not accept equality of all human beings, which brought them at par with the lowly, the poor and the slaves. They started persecuting Muslims and eventually planned to assassinate the Prophet. The prophet and most Muslims left and took refuge in another town, later called Medina. The Meccans followed them. A point reached when the only way for Muslims to survive was to defend themselves.
It is natural for the Quranic revelations, that were guiding the Prophet and his followers, to ask Muslims to defend themselves, fight and kill, terrify, put panic in the hearts of their enemies in those wars. So when a follower of Dr Zakir Naik, who has heard that “every Muslim should be a terrorist for the enemies of Islam,” goes to Quran and finds war-time, contextual verses like 9: 5, 3:151, 8:60, 33:35-36, etc, and takes them literally as an exhortation valid for even today, he is likely to go astray, particularly in the absence of any contrary opinion.
Muslims have already dismissed as obsolete many verses whose instructions can no longer be followed. Take this verse of Sura Hajj: “They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel, (to perform Hajj).” (Quran 22: 27) Now, who goes for Hajj on foot or on a lean camel today. Even the nearby Salafi-Wahhabi Arabs come to Mecca for Hajj in their air-conditioned cars and buses. Clearly even Salafi-Wahhabis consider this verse obsolete.
So these later Medinan verses ask Muslims to fight in the way of Allah, as they were engaged in an existential battle for survival. But what was the message of Islam that these Muslims were fighting to safeguard? Obviously, the spiritual message they had received in Mecca. Early Meccan Islam represents the foundational, essential, constitutive, eternal, universal teachings of Islam, valid for all times. Not the instructions given later at Medina to fight to safeguard Meccan Islam in an existential battle.
Islam is now safe. It has 1.6 billion followers. We no longer live in the 7th century when at one time in Medina if just 313 people had been killed in the battle of Badr, Islam would probably have ceased to exist. Special instructions are always given to protect an infant. But these instructions are no longer followed as the infant grows strong with age. These contextual verses of war are no longer applicable to us as we live in the 21st century in a world governed and protected by the UN Charter. Islam is not faced with an existential crisis like the one in seventh century Medina. Just as we have discarded the instruction to go for Hajj on foot or on camels, we should discard the instructions related to war.
But the problem is this. No, mainstream, peaceful, Sufi, Barailwi, Eiteqadi ulema who claim to oppose Zakir Naik are willing to say this in so many words. And, of course, you can’t expect Salafi-Wahhabi literalists to say so. And this explains why our youth is turning to Zakir Naik and other Jihadi ideologues and running away from the mainstream, peaceful Muslims. Zakir Naik is wrong, maybe evil, but he is not mincing his words. Youth is always attracted to honesty and courage of conviction, and repelled by hypocrisy.
Our focus should not be so much on Zakir Naik as on the question: why and how has he so easily succeeded in radicalising millions. Only a few of these millions may go on to join terrorism, but radicalisation of the millions is the real problem. Saudis and ahl-e-hadisis have only provided him logistical support. In my view the reason he has succeeded is that he is not saying anything new, or vastly different from what other clerics say. He is using the theology of consensus, the same theology that is taught in universities and madrasas. His distinction is in the presentation, using modern means of communication. He is reaching those who did not have access to this theology before. That is why ulema cannot oppose him in a meaningful way. Sufi-Barailvis and even some Deobandis have tried. They are angry because Naik has exposed their hypocrisy. But they will find it impossible to oppose him and others effectively unless they decide to let go of their hypocrisy and clarify their stand on Jihad, particularly offensive Jihad.
You cannot say in the same breath that instructions in all verses of Quran and narrations of Hadees are applicable to us Muslims even today in the 21st century and that those who are following these 7th century war-time instructions to fight and kill are wrong. If ulema indeed wants to save the community from further radicalisation, they just have to introspect on their own hypocrisy and help evolve a new and coherent theology of peace and pluralism based on the foundational, universal verses of Quran.
(The writer is the founding editor of a Delhi-based progressive Islamic website NewAgeIslam.com)