By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
In a previous article a fortnight ago (originally published in the Daily Times, Lahore, also accessible on http://newageislam.com/NewAgeIslamArticleDetail.aspx?ArticleID=3922) I dealt with the growing opposition to the Mumbai-based ‘Islamic’ televangelist Zakir Naik among an influential section of the Indian mullah community. I highlighted the many factors behind this development, including sharp sectarian differences as well as the challenge that the mullahs perceive to their authority from the media Moghul who they regard as an upstart daring to trespass into what they regard as their own carefully-policed territory. I discussed these issues in the context of an article written by a certain Tauqeer Qasmi in the December 2010 issue of the Mumbai-based ‘Eastern Crescent’, a magazine brought out by the Markaz ul-Maarif, a centre established and patronized by ‘Maulana’ Badruddin Ajmal, Member of Parliament from Assam, and member of the central council of the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, the world’s largest madrasa.
In this article, I wish to explore some of the same issues that I raised in my previous piece in the light of another article published in the same issue of ‘Eastern Crescent’, titled ‘Zakir Naik: A Crisis in the Making’. The writer, Muddassir Ahmad Qasmi, neatly summarises the stance of a large number of his fellow Deobandi mullahs on the Zakir Naik phenomenon. He begins by suggesting that Naik’s interpretations of Islam are ‘deviant’, and ‘destructive’, and accuses him of being in the business of religion simply for ‘vested worldly gains’. ‘Zakir Naik is a medical professional brought up in Mumbai's corporate world and he learnt well how to fetch business through religious preaching’, he writes. He even claims that some Muslims (and he probably counts himself among them) feel that Naik ‘is heading towards making a new sect’.
Qasmi’s major grouse against Naik is what he regards as the latter’s temerity of interpreting the Quran on his own. The Quran describes itself as a book for the whole of humankind. It has been translated into numerous languages, and, therefore, is easily accessible to and understandable by ‘ordinary’ folk. One does not need to be a trained religious scholar, spending a dozen-odd or even more years in a madrasa, in order to understand it. In fact, the Quran stridently condemns priests and religious intermediaries, whose claims to authority rest on their supposed expertise in understanding the scriptures, and who routinely misuse this ‘expertise’ to mislead the gullible. Yet, the mullahs insist that they alone are qualified to interpret the Quran. This in itself is hardly surprising: after all, it is on this claim that their authority and the special position that they demand for themselves in Muslim society rest. Naturally, therefore, they are wary of non-mullahs interpreting the Quran on their own, not hesitating to denounce those who do so, and who interpret it in ways distinct from theirs, as heretics and even apostates.
To shore up his claim that the mullahs alone have the right to interpret the Quran, Qasmi insists that one needs expertise in ‘seventeen kinds of religious sciences’ (which he curiously leaves unnamed) in order to be qualified to interpret the scripture. Presumably, these ‘religious sciences’ are taught only in the madrasas, and, therefore, only the mullahs have knowledge of them all. Since Naik lacks knowledge of these ‘sciences’, he suggests, he has no right to interpret the Quran on his own in any manner that departs from the interpretation of the mullahs.
Naik, so Qasmi claims, simply cannot speak for Islam, for, or so he argues, ‘he cannot pronounce even a few Quranic verses correctly’. He claims that Naik has ‘repeatedly’ misinterpreted the Quran simply ‘to satisfy his audience’. That may well be so, but the only ‘evidence’ he supplies to back his assertion might strike some as humorously trite: Naik’s reported claim that women in paradise would enjoy the company of male houris, just as many Muslims believe that males resident in heaven would cavort with female houris. This, Qasmi terms as nothing less than a ‘blunder’ for, so he claims, houris can only be female. That, indeed, is what most mullahs believe. Since Naik had, so Qasmi claims, got the genders of the houris so badly mixed up, it was sufficient ‘evidence’, as far as Qasmi was concerned, to insist that he was thoroughly incapable of interpreting the Quran. (To be fair to Naik, though, the issue of the gender of the heavenly houris cannot be so easily dismissed. In a wonderfully enlightening article some months ago titled ‘Martyrdom and Houris’, the Mumbai-based Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer very persuasively argued that houris could be of both genders. He takes the word hur, used in the Quran, to mean ‘morally pure men and women who will be companions of those who enter paradise’. There are yet other scholars who argue that houris are not physical beings at all, and that when the Quran talks of houris, it is in symbolic terms, and not to be understood literally. In the light of this, one supposes that Qasmi would shut Engineer and other such scholars up in much the same way as he summarily deals with Naik. Since the mullahs insist that houris are female, they must necessarily be so, he would thunder, adding that folks like Engineer and others have no right to contradict him, for, he would insist, the mullahs know best).
Based on the ‘expertise’ that they claim they possess in understanding the Quran, the mullahs have penned a vast number of texts that reflect their own various interpretations. Mullahs belonging to different sects have, of course, their diverse interpretations of the Quran, and this is reflected in their own voluminous writings, many of which clearly contradict each other. Since the authors of these writings and their followers believe that these writings of theirs reflect the ‘true’ intention of the Quran, these texts, too, are accorded almost divine status. Hence, to challenge even these secondary texts is seen as tantamount to deviation or worse. On this basis, Qasmi lashes out at Naik for not respecting these texts, seeing this as yet another instance of Naik’s seeking to challenge the authority of the mullahs and of his alleged ‘deviance’. In this regard, he cites Naik’s reported dismissal as simply 'too dirty to mention' of the Bahishti Zewar, a ponderous tome penned by the hugely influential Deobandi mullah Ashraf Ali Thanvi. In defending Thanvi from Naik, he insists that the Bahsihti Zewar is ‘the most beneficial book for Muslim women to know the basics of religion’, totally unmindful of the fact that the book drips with unconcealed misogyny, and has been stridently critiqued by many Muslim scholars for wrongly seeking to justify unconcealed patriarchy in the name of Islam. Qasmi berates Naik for allegedly critiquing another key text penned by a leading Deobandi ideologue, the Fazail-e Amal of ‘Maulana’ Muhammad Zakariya, ignoring the fact that numerous Islamic scholars have shown that the book is replete with absurd fabricated tales wrongly passed off as hadith or reports about the Prophet Muhammad. Naik’s criticism of key Deobandi texts, perceived as a heinous assault on the Deobandi tradition and its mullahs, is thus quickly branded as an assault on what Qasmi bandies about as Islamic authenticity, which he equates with the Deobandi brand of Islam.
Linked to the threat to the mullahs’ claims as authoritative spokesmen of Islam that Naik is seen to pose is a messy scramble over funds. The bulk of the donations made by Muslims, such as in the form of zakat, finds its way to the madrasas, which are run by the mullahs, often as hereditary, family-controlled business enterprises. Many mullahs simply live off the money that their madrasas receive. Qasmi alleges that Naik’s targeting of the mullahs is also impelled by the desire to starve the madrasas of funds so that Muslims channelize their zakat to him instead to fund his various projects, such as his English-medium schools, which, he says, cater to the rich and charge exorbitant fees.
Denouncing Naik for his alleged ‘deviance’, Qasmi calls upon his fellow mullahs to boycott Naik’s programmes. In this regard, he critiques as ‘real opportunists’ those mullahs who have lent Naik their support by participating in his programmes, including the mammoth wholly inappropriately-named ‘international peace conferences’ that Naik routinely organizes, which now threaten to become an annual jamboree. ‘To show support to a controversial person is to support the controversy itself, which is against the spirit of Islam’, he argues in seeking to dissuade his fellow mullahs from patronizing Naik. He then proceeds to list a number of mullahs who, in his view, have, as he puts it, ‘succumbed to Dr Zakir's corporate preaching and hi-fi life style, risking their own reputation and public responsibility’. Curiously, the first person he names in this regard is none other than the newly-appointed rector of his own alma mater, the Dar ul-Uloom, Deoband, ‘Maulana’ Ghulam Mohammad Wastanwi. He accuses him and certain others (including ‘Maulana’ Syed Salman Husaini Nadvi of the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow) of having ‘actually compromised with their own religious ideology and let down the spirit of the reputed institutions they are attached with’ by associating publicly with Naik. To these mullahs he says, ‘If one does anything wrong in the state of ignorance, one might be free from accountability. But after knowledge one's wrong deeds would be considered a revolt against the truth.’ He expresses his surprise as to how these mullahs have lent their support to Naik when the institutions they are associated with ‘do not endorse all that Dr Zakir Naik preaches or believes in’.
Zeroing in on the newly-appointed rector of the Deoband madrasa, he expresses his surprise as to what brought ‘Maulana’ Wastanwi to, as he terms it, ‘the glittering world of Dr. Zakir Naik’ given that the Deoband madrasa itself had ‘issued an advisory against Zakir Naik's explanation of Islam and restricted people from participation in his programmes’. How, in this way, ‘Maulana’ Wastanwi could go against the decision of the madrasa’s central council, of which he is a member, Qasmi says, is a question that ‘thousands of Darul Uloom alumni’ are asking. He himself raises the question (though he conveniently leaves it unanswered) as to whether ‘Maulana’ Wastanwi should retain his post in the madrasa’s central council after what he terms ‘this misstep’.
Winding up his long diatribe against Naik, Qasmi approvingly quotes a fellow Deobandi mullah, ‘Maulana’ Mahmood Ahmad Khan Daryabadi, General- Secretary of the All-India Ulema Council, who lambasts Naik’s brand of Islam as an assault on what he terms as the ijma or consensus of the mullahs. This, he argues, ‘might create a new crisis for the entire Muslim ummah’. Because of this, he warns, ‘the time has arrived to genuinely check Dr Naik's speeches’ that violate the supposed consensus of the mullahs. What now remains to be seen is precisely how the mullahs of Deoband now go about trying to ‘genuinely check’ and take on the world’s most popular ‘Islamic’ media Moghul.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.