By Saba Naqvi
July 9, 2016
In an ideal situation Indian Muslims should navigate the world, heads held high, knowing they are participants in the cultural landscape of the region. Be it architecture, music, language, literature or poetry, over centuries individuals who happened to be Muslims have given us so many strands that contribute to our culture, nationhood and identity.
A preacher like Zakir Naik negates every pluralist cultural component of our existence and promotes a version of Islam that is an arid desert of dreary habit. It is an Islam that mocks other faiths even as it seeks to purge every local strand out of Islamic practice in India. It is nothing more than hard-line Wahhabism that the Saudis have promoted with missionary zeal across the world. There is a clear theological-ideological continuity between Wahhabism and the Islam followed by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Taliban and now Islamic State.
As for Naik, just a year ago Saudi Arabia’s King Salman personally handed him the King Faisal International Prize for being one of the most renowned non-Arabic speaking promoters of Islam. According to his award citation, the Peace TV channel founded by Naik has an English language audience exceeding 100 million. There was a cash component of $2, 00,000 attached to the prize.
What exactly does Naik do? For the uninitiated, his sermons mostly consist of answering questions put forward by the audience. If they were not so offensive to other belief systems including those within Islam, they could be vaguely amusing.
Most queries are about conduct of a Muslim and so on, and the answers are littered with references to other religious texts besides the Quran. To put the message of Naik on speed dial, music means you go to hell, Dargah worship also hell, participating in non-Muslim festivals, hell again. Also, a disobedient wife could be beaten, first lightly, as if “with a toothbrush” and not on the face “where you could leave marks”.
Naik valiantly rises to every question including many about bodily functions and secretions, such as is it a sin to have a wet dream while fasting, asked in English, answered in English (It’s ok he opines if it’s an involuntary action but have a Ghusul or bath when you awake). At times, he’s almost like an agony aunt of Islam.
But there is a serious dimension to what he preaches. Islam came to the entire subcontinent through the Sufi route and incorporated many syncretistic traditions. These have mostly been purged in Pakistan and the project is underway in Bangladesh. In India, where too there is a crisis of identity confronting many educated Muslims, a preacher like Naik simplifies existence to a series of do’s and don’ts. But in doing so, he promotes an exclusivist identity that does not sit easily in a secular society. And he does so in an age when educated Muslims are grappling for answers about their place in societies that are increasingly suspicious of Muslims and Islam.
In an age of globalisation, the backdrop to individual dilemmas is the battles that are raging in the world: within Sunni Islam between moderates and hardliners; between Sunnis and Shias (the latter also go to hell according to Naik); and with terrorists who target Muslims, non-Muslims and the West.
Within India we have hardly promoted modernity in the Muslim community. On the contrary, political compulsions of the “secular” kind have strengthened the control of the clerical class, mostly conservatives. But given Indian realities they do not go out of their way to insult other faiths. One side-show of the entire Zakir Naik affair is that many of the clerics who are demanding a ban on him are Barelvis (who also go to hell according to Naik) who are themselves turning intolerant and sectarian towards other denominations.
Frankly there is nothing enlightened emerging from Islamic religious scholarship within India, one more reason why a mediocre peddler of half truths like Naik could get such a following because he mounts a show. For individuals the best answer lies in the words of the Prophet Mohammad: “The greatest Jihad is to battle your own soul. To fight the evil within yourself.”