By Aijaz Zaka Syed
4 September 2009
One first heard about Dr Zakir Naik nearly ten years ago, back in Bangalore. A friend of mine and an ardent admirer of his had invited me to one of his marathon lecture-and-Q&A sessions in the Silicon Valley of India. Back then, I didn’t know who he was and why just about everyone was looking forward to seeing him in action.
And then I saw his posters all over the city that has always been so close to my heart. I couldn’t believe what I saw: A maulvi (mullah?) in a smart, well-cut suit, with a strikingly colourful tie and regulation Muslim skullcap and a scrubby beard. He looked rather funny. My friend told me Dr Naik was good at giving “speeches in English” on Islam.
I opted to pass that meeting, deciding it must be one of those boring community events that we do all the time. However, Dr Zakir Naik and his face remained etched on my memory. It was not just his appearance. There was something about the man that you couldn’t quite place yet found hard to ignore.
Today, the rather ordinary looking ‘mullah in suit’ has come a long way. He has grown into a legend, a true phenomenon and has millions of followers in India and around the world. His Peace TV, with its headquarters in Mumbai and a staff of nearly 200 young and committed professionals, is the world’s first global television network that is dedicated to presenting the real face of Islam and its original, liberating teachings before the world.
Watched around the world for its engaging debates, and interactive programmes, the network is perhaps the most ambitious and cogent attempt yet to address the questions and concerns about Islam and its relations with the world. However, Peace TV is merely one chapter of the extraordinary story of Dr Naik and his monumental mission. A medical doctor by training and just 43, the man has spawned a movement that has captured the imagination of millions around the world.
The Islamic Research Foundation not just runs Peace TV but also manages world class modern schools that combine the best of Islamic teachings and scientific education, research centres, publication and distribution of books and free literature on Islam to schools, colleges and other institutions and individuals in India and around the world. But the high point of Dr Naik’s fascinating journey and his mission to present the true and moderate face of the faith that he says is the “most misunderstood religion in the world” is the traveller himself.
It has been an extraordinary quest of faith, underlined by great personal travails and sacrifices. Earlier this year, a survey of the Hundred Most Powerful Indians ranked him at 82. Another special list of the Top 10 Spiritual Gurus of India saw him debut at No. 3, after Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He was the only Muslim to make it.
But this is not about his popularity or his growing fan following among young Muslims, and non-Muslims, around the world but about his mission. He is mobbed like a rock star wherever he goes with thousands of people patiently sitting for hours and hungering for each word of his.
On both days of his marathon session in Dubai this past week, nearly 20,000 people sat and stood wherever they could find themselves a place all night to listen to him. He would stand there all alone on the stage for hours, all sweetness and light, despite being grilled and constantly challenged by some in the audience, which included both Muslims and non-Muslims.
In fact, it was mostly non-Muslims, representing all nationalities and ethnicities from the melting pot that is Dubai, who stood up to debate and seek answers on most common misunderstandings about Islam and seeking directions in their own quest for faith.
I do not know how convinced his audience is by his answers and explanations that are always backed by references from the Quran and Hadith (the Prophet’s sayings and traditions) with their verse and chapter numbers that appear to come so effortlessly to him.
And those references are not just confined to Islamic scriptures and texts. He quotes from Christian, Jewish and Hindu scriptures and texts with equal elan to make his point and to prove there’s a great deal that unites us all. Which is nothing short of a miracle for clueless creatures like me who at times find it difficult to recall their car’s registration number, telephone number and birthdays of loved ones.
But more miraculous than Dr Naik’s photographic memory are the phenomenal results of his ceaseless efforts to clear the cobwebs of ignorance and lies that continue to conceal the pristine visage of a great faith. It’s endlessly fascinating to see the number of people from all communities and countries that turn up on the stage to seek guidance. On the day two of his session in Dubai, which I attended, one was amazed to see two Indian girls in their early 20s, a Southeast Asian gentleman and a European woman among others stand up to declare their love for the faith that is not exactly the most popular religion around today, if you go by its portrayal in the world media. It takes real guts to stand up for your convictions in an age and time when just about everyone loves to hate Islam and its followers increasingly find themselves unwelcome around the world.
A great deal of credit for this should go to Dr Naik and his extraordinary persuasive skills. To understand the phenomenon that he is, one should either attend one of his talks or watch the videos of his dialogue and debates. He works the crowds like a magician plays with his captive audience.
His now famous dialogue with celebrated Indian spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on the concept of God in Hinduism and Islam held in Bangalore in 2006 remains a personal favourite.
All this is, of course, available on YouTube and offers amazing insight into how faith can heal the wounds inflicted by hatred and misunderstanding and help build bridges between people, nations and civilizations.
Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States when the world turned upside down for Muslims around the world, Dr Naik stepped up his battle of hearts and minds by travelling around the world and offering lectures, talks and interviews, to distinguish the original faith of peace from the hateful death cult championed by extremists like Osama bin Laden.
He has delivered at least 1200 public talks in the US, Canada, Europe, Middle East and Asia since 9/11, not to mention countless others held in India. Over the past few years, this one individual has done more to promote Islam and its view of a just world than numerous Muslim organisations with millions of followers and countries with infinite resources at their disposal have ever managed to.
Today, the world needs men and women like Dr Zakir Naik. The Muslims need revolutionaries like him, if they want the world to change its view about them and their faith. What this lone man has started must become a global movement. This is the jihad our world desperately needs—the jihad of ideas and hearts and minds, not the kind Al-Qaeda claims to fight.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and can be reached at email@example.com.