Why even Islamic clerics love to hate Zakir Naik

The media trial can also prove counter-productive as the televangelist enjoys considerable support and his position will only get consolidated.

 |  9-minute read |   10-07-2016
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After a newspaper in Bangladesh reported that one of the perpetrators of the Dhaka café terror attack was "inspired" by Indian televangelist Zakir Naik, the Indian media has gone amok, digging out decade-old videos in its desperate campaign demanding strict action against Naik and his organisation, the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF).

What is interesting about this ongoing debate is the way it has united Muslim clerics and their followers, subscribing to different sects, and Hindutva chauvinists as well as leftist liberals in their condemnation and ridicule of Naik.

Talk to any cleric, preferably in private, about his views on religion, other sects, blasphemy, American policies in Muslim countries, terrorism, or for that matter, polygamy, position of women in Muslim society, purdah, "light beating" of wives, and so on, and chances are that they would not vary a lot from the stated position of Naik.

Also read: Zakir Naik is full of rubbish, but doesn't spew hate

That is these views are all equally conservative, regressive and supremacist, if not more, except perhaps a few exceptions. What then explains the common disdain that Muslim clerics appear to have against him?

Naik follows the puritanical Salafism that believes in a conservative interpretation of the Holy Quran and Hadiths, often in the process ignoring the plurality of local culture, history and sociology.

There is nothing new in this school as in all ages there have been some adherents of religion who claimed to follow the Holy Scriptures strictly.

zakir-55_071016074827.jpg Zakir Naik packages himself as a true glocal product, a hybrid of modernity and tradition. 

In the age of globalisation, as simultaneous religious assertions have emerged the world over, Salafism too has gained momentum, particularly under the influence the Saudi petro dollar. Traditional clerics, particularly those belonging to the Hanafi School - Deobandis and Barelvis in India - feel threatened by its rising popularity as it seriously endangers their hegemony.

Also read: Why exposing Zakir Naik might be a better idea than banning him

Writers and critics have been quick to condemn Naik, some calling him "Terror ka Naik" while others regarding him "the preacher from hell".

But there has been little attempt to understand his popularity, leading to sweeping stereotypical labelling of rising extremism. It is important to understand the cult that the controversial televangelist and Islamic scholar has built for himself.

Naik packages himself as a true glocal product, a hybrid of modernity and tradition, in his attire, his language, and his use of technology, comparable to the likes of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, with whom he once had a public debate in 2008. This is his unique selling point (USP, and that is the reason for his immense popularity, and that makes other clerics uncomfortable.

Rising popularity ingrained in socio-political context

The socio-political churning in the last three decades - communally charged atmosphere preceding and following the Babri Masjid demolition, NDA's rise to power, 2002 Gujarat riots, and global events like the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US, war in Afghanistan-Iraq, and so on fuelled Islamophobia world over.

Also read: Why Zakir Naik, the doctored preacher, is misinterpreting Islam

Among the Indian Muslims, there appeared a huge leadership gap as the sarkari Musalman, as always, were busy in their narrow vested interests while the religious leadership appeared indecisive and inept at handling or answering everyday problems and questions pertaining to faith, identity and related issues. At best, they gave an impression of being religiously conservative, at worse, backward, regressive and devoid of reasoning.

In such an environment, Naik seemed to be refuting every Islamophobic allegation aggressively while at the same time posing questions to leaders from different faiths that he invited for "debate" which most of them fumbled in responding.

Ask him about Islam teaching violence and he would quote from the Bhagavad Gita and Testament; polygamy and he would cite example of Lord Rama's father; status of women, and he would go on to "prove" that Islam was the "most scientific religion".

Muslim youth, many of them with limited knowledge of Islam, saw in him a ray of hope. A thin, bearded guy, sporting a skull cap, wearing a suit and speaking accented English; but at the same time, articulate and appearing knowledgeable, considering the way he was freely quoting, not only from the Holy Scriptures, but also from latest surveys and reports.

Also read: 5 ways Zakir Naik sold his curious brand of Islamic supremacy

While English-educated youth developed disdain for traditional clerics and saw them as old hacks from the past century, Naik appeared closer to home owing to his attire and use of English as the primary language of communication.

They were immediately drawn to his lectures and started following his shows keenly. Thus he developed a huge "fan base" and he was invited to deliver lectures in different parts of the country and the world, including even Oxford Union, in which he participated through a video conference in 2011 as he was denied visa.

Today his Facebook page has over 14,230,054 "likes" while on Twitter has over 109 thousand followers.

Why clerics love to hate him

Things looked good in the beginning and he developed a massive "following" among a large section of the society, irrespective of sects or fiqh. He was challenging and answering accusations against Islam or trying to prove the "superiority" of faith in debates on "comparative religious studies" that often bordered on mocking other religions.

Problems cropped up once he started going deeper into the Islamic philosophy, questioning every practice that "deviated" from the Salafist interpretation of "true path", ingrained in the local culture. Thus he mocked Shia, Sufi, Barelvi and several other Hanafi traditions as biddah or innovations.

Naik's praise of Yazid as a pious Muslim particularly angered a large number of Muslim ulemas, particularly the Shias as Yazid was responsible for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Clerics of the Barelvi fiqh declared him a "kafir" or infidel, allegedly for denigrating the Prophet.

Darul Ifta, the fatwa-issuing body of the famous seminary Darul Uloom Deoband, has issued a number of fatwas since 2007, appealing to refrain from watching Naik's videos or following him.

He has been declared as "religiously deviated", some of his talks have been termed as "unauthentic", and people have been urged to "avoid listening to his speeches (as) they are feared to fall in deviation. Another fatwa warns that people are "most probably feared to fall in fitnah by listening (to) his speeches".

But the most intriguing was a 2012 edict that said, "Zakir Naik is a scholar of English and wears coat and pant. He has no right to say these things. Is wearing the dress of Jews and Christians established from the holy Quran?"

Muslims are believed to have 72 sects and almost everyone looks down upon all the others as deviant and themselves as the true followers of Islam. There is nothing new in this debate; most would not even share a mosque.

What is unique in the context of Naik is that he is practically poaching a large number of Sunni youth through his lectures perhaps because the youth connect with him more than traditional clerics.

Go to any Muslim mohallah and if you are not wearing a skull cap or if your elbow shows, or your hand gestures are not strictly the Hanafi way, you might get strange looks or in extreme cases, even some bad-mouthing, as you will be accused of being a Wahhabi instantly.

It was hence not surprising that as soon as the Indian media reported on Naik's alleged terror link, unlike earlier instances when the Muslim leadership used to be generally lukewarm owing to a large number of fabricated cases, it was quick to reiterate its resentment and even demanded declaring Naik's organisation a terror outfit and probing his "linkages" with terrorists.

The Barelvi group Raza Academy, which has become notorious in Mumbai for unruly agitations, staged a protest on the occasion of Eid by wearing green bands. Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Jawad demanded a ban on Naik's books, TV channel and speeches, accusing him for inciting the youth and suggesting that he had terror links.

Liberals in shock

Naik's ultra-conservative and supremacist opinions on several socio-religious affairs, his Salafi interpretation of Islam, including openly deriding other religions or sects, as well as his failure to condemn the slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, or the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha in clear terms had disappointed many. Further, if one reads more about Islam, Naik would come across as an aggressive televangelist, but not scholarly enough.

To ears trained in 21st century sensitivity and knowledge of sociology and feminism, his lectures would appear crass at times, ignoring the social contexts and the pluralistic culture. It is interesting to note that he plays with words and used to get away by even using words like "fundamentalist" and "terrorist". Now the same wordplay has landed him in a soup.

Many liberals who so far appeared ignorant of him are now scandalised as they see his decade-old video to discover how regressive and backward he is. There is an awkward moment when liberal writers who always ridicule Deoband's fatwas as regressive are now favourably citing from their edicts to show that Naik is a deviant.

Apprehensions of another round of witch-hunting

The brouhaha has forced even the Union home ministry to issue a statement calling Naik's speeches a cause of concern and assuring a fair and speedy probe.

Meanwhile, Naik has issued a video from Mecca where he is on pilgrimage, condemning the Islamic State (ISIS) and all forms of terrorism and suggesting that he has a huge fan following and if anyone of them takes to extremism, he cannot be blamed. A banner on his official Facebook page suggests blaming him for a terror attack is like blaming physicist Albert Einstein for atom bombs.

The media trial can also prove counter-productive as Naik enjoys considerable support and his position will only get consolidated as we saw in past when clerics ridiculed him.

Meanwhile, there are speculations that Naik is too influential and the police may not actually arrest him. But this may lead to another round of scare-mongering, resulting in incarceration of several youth merely for being his "fans" as it happened a decade earlier in the run-up to the banning of the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

Writer

M Reyaz M Reyaz @journalistreyaz

The writer is a journalist who also shares his knowledge with young minds as an assistant professor of media communication at Aliah University, Kolkata.

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