By S.A. Abbasi
August 9, 2016
It was a surprise visit, by an all-Muslim delegation of seven distinguished-looking, middle-aged gentlemen, sometime in 1995. It turned out to be a group comprising doctors, engineers and a well-off businessman. They were organising an inter-faith meeting in which Zakir Naik would be the keynote speaker, and they wanted me to preside over it.
It was a pleasant revelation. Most people wish for inter-faith harmony but few take the pains to work for it. An initiative coming from fellow-Muslims was gratifying. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll be honoured and delighted.”
When on the scheduled date I reached the venue in downtown Puducherry, it turned out to be a fairly large auditorium, filled to capacity. I could spot a few non-Muslim faculty friends and a couple of Christian priests in the audience. So it was an ‘inter-faith’ meeting for sure.
Dr. Zakir Naik was around with an aide, perhaps his brother. Both were tall and wiry, impeccably dressed in crease-less woollen suits and ties. It was quite an achievement wearing what they were and still be at ease considering it was a sweltering Puducherry summer afternoon. In the non-air-conditioned venue, others were sweating under their thin cotton shirts and robes.
The aide began the proceedings by coming up to the mike, Quran in hand and saying “Bismillah ir Rehman nir Raheem (I begin in the name of God - the benevolent and the merciful)…. we will start the proceedings with a reading from the holy Quran.” He then read a few lines from the Quran in Arabic, gave its English translation, and asked me to take charge of the proceedings.
In my opening remarks I praised the organisers for their initiative in fostering inter-faith dialogue but said it would have been more pleasing had the opening prayers included some lines from scriptures of other faiths as well. I then invited Dr. Naik to give his keynote speech.
He, too, began with a few Quranic lines. Then he gave a speech that he must have given hundreds of times before, and since. He spoke with energy, passion, and enthusiasm, as if he had discovered all those ‘truths’ just then, and was sharing them with the world for the first time. It was a quality all evangelists need, and he seemed to have it more than most.
He also had the striking habit of mentioning not only the title of the scripture he was quoting from but also the chapter number, page number, and position of the paragraph. So, if he was quoting from, say, Yejurveda, he would begin with “Yejurveda, chapter 15, page 220, para 3, verse 2….”. As he reeled off quote after quote, with similar bibliographical details, it created an aura of omniscience. But I couldn’t stop wondering whether anyone had recorded the bibliographical details he associated with his quotes and checked whether the coordinates always matched.
Dr. Naik said nothing overtly disrespectful about any religion but left no one in doubt that he was batting for Islam. It made me, the presiding deity of that function, feel increasingly embarrassed.
Had it been an all-Muslim meeting, his refrain of “Islam is the best” might not have sounded as discourteous as it sounded at a supposedly inter-faith meeting.
So when my turn came to give the “presidential address” I referred to Dr. Naik’s emphasis that no human being can be God or can see God — which was his way of subtly saying that Islam is right when several other religions are not. I added, “I have no way of knowing if a human being can see God or not, but we can surely witness God-like acts. If a man who is dying of hunger suddenly gets one loaf of bread but on seeing another man, too, dying of hunger, gives away that loaf to him, he is performing a godly act.”
Dr. Naik rose to answer. It was clear he was annoyed at me for having tried to dilute his message and speaking something which, in his opinion, had not extolled the virtues of Islam. In his rebuttal he hinted at my lack of commitment to Islam. After the function he walked up to me and virtually berated me for “playing to the gallery at the cost of not being steadfast to Islam.” My retort that a true Muslim should not show disrespect to other religions he brushed aside. “I just speak the truth, brother,” he said, “and I never say anything other than truth out of fear.” I was amused by his cozy assumption that I had said what I had said not out of conviction but fear. But it was obvious that he had decided to put me in a slot and was disinclined to give space to points of view other than his own.
Two decades have passed since that brush with Zakir Naik. He has since progressed — perhaps prospered as well — as an evangelist. His name had been featuring in the media albeit in small stories on inside pages mainly of this or that country refusing him visa. But recent events have suddenly propelled Zakir Naik to prime-time and Page 1. The question remains whether Dr. Naik is projecting true Islam. A lot of Islamic scholars, clerics, as well as this writer believe he is not.
He stridently projects his version of Islam. Nothing wrong in it except that he seems to have no tolerance for other versions. Had Dr. Naik had the patience to listen to others, I would have told him at Puducherry 20 years ago that it was very un-Islamic to tom-tom your own religion at a supposedly inter-faith meeting. That pulling down other faiths, directly or indirectly, is against the grain of true Islam. That discourtesy to other faiths is not a test of a Muslim’s fearlessness, nor accommodation to other faiths a sign of any weakness. That the success of an Islamic preacher lies not in how many non-Muslims he converts to Islam but on how many bigoted Muslims he converts to liberal (true) Muslims.
I would have, if I could have. But there is no telling Zakir Naik….
S.A. Abbasi is UGC Emeritus Professor, Centre for Pollution Control & Environmental Engineering, Pondicherry University