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The Problem with Zakir Naik: Even if he can’t be linked to Terrorism yet, he must be taken to task for Outmoded and Medieval Theological Interpretation of Islam




By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

22 July 2016

For a handful of Muslims who seem to be ‘inspired’ by Zakir Naik to carry out terrorist strikes, there are millions of others who have taken a very different message from his sermons. The word inspired itself is a bit of a misnomer here: it will be very difficult to pin point which part of his numerous speeches became inspirational for Muslims to kill and maim others.

All that we have so far in terms of evidence is that Muslim youths involved in terror attacks in Bangladesh and elsewhere used to listen to his speeches. The mere fact that one follows Zakir Naik over the social media or goes to listen to his sermons is not proof enough that he or she became ‘inspired’ to carry out attacks because of these sermons. There is ample research to tell us that acts of terrorism involves complex and often multiple motivations. There is no holy grail of the cause of terrorism. To single out an individual for his sermons and label him as the inspiration behind terrorist attacks is nothing but an exercise in simplification and obfuscation.  

Let me add a caveat here. This is not a defence of Zakir Naik. The argument one is making is that the controversy around Zakir Naik provided one opportunity to debate the suitability of Islam which he preaches within the Indian context. By linking his speeches to acts of terror, the discourse has only helped him evade all scrutiny about his supposed mission of telling the world how Islam is the best religion in the world. The discussion around Zakir Naik should have debated this notion of Islamist supremacism which he expounds. In the garb of comparing and debating religious traditions, all that Zakir Naik has to tell the audience is how Islam is the best religion in the world. However, there are many ways of doing this. Zakir Naik chooses to do this with the worst of all methods: polytheism in itself becomes regressive when compared to monotheism while Christianity and Judaism become deviant forms of monotheism as compared to Islam. The message is loud and clear: Islam is the most perfect of all religions.

If one assumes that Islam is perfection, that Quran is the uncreated word of God, then perhaps there is no need for any introspection. Best of all, then perhaps there is no problem with Islam and by extension Muslims.

In pandering to these beliefs, Zakir Naik is not engaging in any dialogue. In fact, he is not even interested in a dialogue. A dialogue assumes that partners should be heard and understood as equals. Moreover, every attempt should be made to understand the point of view of the other. A genuine dialogue encompasses the capacity and empathy to understand the other, including their point of view and every attempt should be made to find common grounds within the respective religious. An exercise in comparative religion, should find the common ground within all religious traditions so as to showcase that the underlying structures of all religious traditions are the same and perhaps most of them fulfil the same social functions.

What we do get in Zakir Naik is the 18th the century practice of munazara: a tradition of religious disputation where the attempt is to delegitimize the proponent of other religious tradition. In fact, even the munazara had a formal logic to it and there were proper rules in place. Zakir Naik’s discourse in comparative religion looks more like the pre Islamic practice of mubahala, where the opponent was defeated through choicest of abuses.

There is not even a hint that Zakir Naik is interested in any kind of dialogue with other religions. Rather his sole motive seems to become the champion of a supremacist Islam. What is even more problematic is that he is not even concerned with the context within which he is doing so. Muslims being in a minority, every attempt should be made not to abuse the religious traditions of the Hindus or for that matter even other minority religions.

For Zakir Naik, it seems such expectation of sensitivity is too much to ask for. Converting Hindus and Christians on live shows goes on to show the brazenness and the disregard for political context of this missionary Islamic tele-Mullah. His audience, mostly Muslims who can at least understand English, lap his sermons not because he is convincing but perhaps because he is fulfilling a need and desire. This desire is perhaps to see Islam as the only true narrative in the world.

In a world where Muslims are increasingly besieged and called for explanations given the perceived backwardness of their religion, the figure of Zakir Naik reassures them that Islam is still alive to give a befitting reply to its critics. The problem is that often these replies in themselves are so problematic that it reinforces the image of Islam as backward religion.

Although attempts to link this man to terrorism should be countered till there is any concrete evidence, Zakir Naik must be taken to task for outmoded and medieval theological interpretation of Islam.  

A columnist, Arshad Alam is a Delhi based writer.    


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