By Shakil Khan, NewAgeIslam.com
10 Jan 2011
Regular TV channel-hoppers must certainly have bumped into him some time or the other. Sporting a tell-tale skull-cap, a wiry, goat-like beard, and what seems to be a permanent scowl stuck on his scrawny face, he can be seen 24/7 spewing venom against other religions and brandishing his Wahhabi-inspired version of Islam on his Peace TV channel that can now be seen all across the globe. Mumbai-based Zakir Naik is a living icon for vast numbers of Muslims, dazzled by his penchant for aggressively denouncing and seeming to trounce other religions. What are touted about as Naik’s ‘victories for Islam’ make his avid fans feel good about themselves, assuring them that they are on the boat to heaven while reconfirming them in their mistaken belief that the rest of humanity is doomed to everlasting perdition in hell.
Zakir Naik is probably the world’s most (in-)famous ‘Islamic’ televangelist. His channel is watched by millions of Muslims across the world. His booklets are available at many Muslim bookshops, and they have been translated into numerous languages. Curiously, though, Naik is not without his Muslim critics. Many secular- and progressive-minded Muslims rightly condemn him for vociferously denouncing other religions and their adherents and for instigating Muslim intolerance, insisting that such behaviour is neither polite, nor properly Islamic at all. The Quran, they point out, advises Muslims to relate to people of other faiths kindly and to abstain from harsh polemics with them. They fear, and probably justifiably, that Naik’s obnoxious dismissal of other religions and their adherents, now readily available in every home thanks to satellite television being so freely available, is only fomenting what they regard as Islamically-unacceptable Muslim communal supremacism, hardening communal boundaries and further reinforcing negative images of non-Muslims and their faiths that are already so deeply rooted among many Muslims. At the same time, they argue, Naik’s tactics are also only confirming and reinforcing widespread prejudices about Muslims as combative, aggressive and wildly intolerant which abound among non-Muslims in general. This man, they insist, bodes ill for Muslims themselves, making them even less able to live comfortably and harmoniously with people of other faiths. That Naik was recently denied a visa to enter the UK, being accused by the Home Office of supporting terrorism in the name of Islam (an accusation that he tried to stoutly deny), his Muslim critics point out, is evidence enough of his potential for worsening already greatly strained relations between Muslims and others, something that Muslims themselves can ill afford.
Surprisingly, Naik is now having to contend with strident opposition from a wholly unexpected quarter: from a host of Muslim clerics, who might otherwise have been thought of as potential supporters of his hardliner, exclusivist and supremacist version of Islam. Although he does not often talk about it, Naik’s brand of Islam is akin to Ahl-e Hadith-type Salafism, which is almost identical with Saudi Wahhabism. This is hardly surprising, given that Arab Wahhabis are rumoured to be among the many powerful backers of what must certainly be his multi-million dollar media empire. Given the fierce sectarian divisions that abound among Muslims, with each sect claiming to represent the sole authentic version of Islam, it is understandable that loud denunciations of Naik are now beginning to be articulated by mullahs associated with rival ‘Islamic’ sects.
Several months ago, Naik stirred a major storm by praising Yazid, the tyrannical Sunni Caliph who murdered Husain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. ‘May God’s mercy be on him’ (radiallah tala anho), Naik added after taking Yazid’s name at a public rally, a move that won him brickbats from mullahs of the Shia and Barelvi sects, who deeply revere Husain and, in contrast to many Wahhabis, regard Yazid as a blood-thirsty monster.
The Deobandis, who are the most organised and influential of the South Asian mullahs, have not been behind in denouncing Naik. The Dar ul-Ifta, the fatwa-spewing office of the world’s largest traditional madrasa and nerve-centre of the Deobandi movement, the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, has, in recent years, issued a number of fatwas denouncing Naik and advising Muslims to stay away from him and his ‘Islamic’ channel.
It is certainly not Naik’s heated polemical attacks against other religions and their adherents or the Muslim supremacism that Naik preaches that the Deobandis are up against. After all, they, too, share Naik’s firm belief in the supremacy of (their own version of) Islam, and the falsity of other religions, which they regard as sure roads to hell. What the Deobandis are particularly troubled by, as the fatwas of the Dar ul-Ulum very clearly bring out, is the fact that Naik is not a fellow Deobandi, that he belongs to the rival Ahl-e Hadith sect, and that, therefore, his version of Islam is, so they insist, dangerous and deviant simply because it does not correspond to the Deobandi version, which they firmly believe alone represents ‘Islamic authenticity’. Further, simply because Naik dresses differently from the Deobandi mullahs, and does certain other seemingly trivial actions that the Deobandis, in their ‘wisdom’, regard as wholly ‘un-Islamic’, they insist that Muslims must avoid him. The Deobandis’ growing opposition to Naik is also related to the grave challenge that they now see in him to their authority as increasing numbers of Muslims, particularly among the educated youth, turn to the media savvy and seemingly more ‘modern’ televangelist and his TV channel for ‘Islamic’ knowledge, turning their backs on the mullahs, whom they increasingly see as old-fashioned and hopelessly out-of-date.
In 2008, a certain software professional called Mohammad Ashraf approached the Dar ul-Ifta of the Dar ul-Uloom, asking for a fatwa on Zakir Naik. Could Muslims watch Naik’s lectures, he wanted to know, given the fact that he appears on television? What did Islam have to say about watching and appearing on TV? Was it permissible at all? Naik wears Western-style suits, he pointed out. Is this permissible, according to the shariah?, he asked the mullahs of Deoband. Naik drinks water while standing and using his ‘opposite’ (ulta or left) hand. Was this Islamic behaviour?, he wanted to know. Women also attend Naik’s lectures, he said. Was this Islamically permissible? Naik wanted to ‘engage in research on the Sunnat’, the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. Could he be permitted to do so?, he sought to know. Finally, he pointed out, Naik’s photograph was regularly published in newspapers and magazines. What did the shariah say about this?
In their short, crisp reply, the Dar ul-Ifta declared that, based on the issues that Mohammad Ashraf had raised, it was clear that Naik ‘is having (sic.) deviation.’ Therefore, they concluded, ‘one is most probably feared to (sic.) fall in fitnah [chaos, strife] by listening (sic.) his speeches.’ They accepted the objections that Mohammad Ashraf had raised, declaring these actions that he attributed to Naik to be ‘against Shariah’, adding that ‘some of them are unlawful and haram.’
Again in 2008, the Dar ul-Ifta of the Deoband madrasa received a request for a fatwa, this time from an unnamed questioner from Afghanistan. He wanted to know if Muslims could engage in missionary work using the same strategies as Zakir Naik. In their fatwa, the mullahs of Deoband replied that Muslims must ‘not rely upon his speeches.’ The reason: that Naik ‘is of free mind and does not wear Islamic dress’ and also because he belongs to what they called the ‘ghair muqallidin’, another term for the Ahl-e Hadith and Salafist Wahhabis who do not, at least in theory, believe in taqlid or blind conformity to the formulations of the traditional schools of Muslim jurisprudence as the Deobandis do.
Besides Naik’s sectarian differences with the Deobandis and the fact of his manner of dressing, drinking water and other such trivial traits that the Deobandis appear so incensed about, it is also clear that mounting Deobandi opposition to Naik owes also to the very real threat that he poses to their claims of being the sole authentic spokesmen of Islam and Muslims, and to the very real-world interests that are inextricably tied-up with these pompous pretensions. This is clearly suggested, for instance, in a fatwa issued by the Deoband madrasa in 2008 in response to a questioner based in the USA, who wanted to know if, ‘as a simple Muslim’, he could be allowed by the mullahs of Deoband to watch Naik’s TV channel.
In their reply, the Muftis of Deoband resolutely insisted that this was simply impermissible. ‘Religion should always be learnt through authorized ulama and authentic books,’ their fatwa insisted, implying that the Deobandi ulema alone were ‘authorised ulema’, and that Naik was not part of that charmed circle. ‘According to the beliefs and thought (sic.) that we know about him,’ the fatwa related, Naik ‘is deviated from the path of well-versed ulama in many of the (sic.) thoughts. His approach seems contradicted to (sic.) authentic ulama’. Hence, the fatwa laid down, ‘one should avoid attending his programmes.’
With growing numbers of Muslim clerics now speaking out to denounce Naik and his TV channel, opposition within the Muslim fold to this sensationalist media Moghul is no longer limited to just a few progressive liberals worried about his hardliner, triumphalist creed that they insist has no basis in their understanding of the Quran. What this new development means for the man’s fortunes and his admittedly vast following among millions of Muslims remains to be seen.
Shakil Khan is a regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com