With a huge global following, Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik promotes a brand of Islam that is regressive and even dangerous. It is a puritanical and evangelist form of religion that helps in the radicalization of Muslims and the number of terrorists claiming to be inspired by Zakir Naik is increasing at an alarming rate. But when looking at Zakir Naik, one has to look at the larger picture and then one would realize that this is part of the rise of the Wahabi extremists, whose money is pushing the radicalized Salafist elements to come to the fore and take control of the institutions of Islam. Saudi Arabia recently awarded him the King Faisal International Prize for being one of the best non-Arab preachers of Islam. It is a form of Islam that heavily relies on the literalist reading of the text, and most importantly, uncritical bashing of the West. All these elements combined, Zakir Naik, an English-speaking Muslim wearing a suit and tie, is able to attract large Muslim audiences, who listen to him and appreciate the fact that he is being able to prove that Islam is the only true religion, or how it is above all religions, and he quotes texts of other religions out of context to prove how their ideas in their true form are often actually in line with his version of Islam. He has been able to, in the minds of very many educated Muslims, validate their confirmation biases in favour of their faith, preventing a sizable number of educated Muslims who could be torch-bearers of reform and progressive thought, instead go about promoting unhealthy and in many contexts, illogical religious chauvinism and ludicrous conspiracy theories.
Zakir Naik poses to be a student of comparative religion. He has taken the pledge to compare all religions. But through his speeches, he has actually never compared the religions because of the fact that he does not know how to do it. His extremely sound memory allows him to memorize and then vomit out the verses of different religious texts in order to inform his audience of the meanings in each verse and compare them with each other. This further allows him to show some differences and similarities between the various religious traditions. But that is all! It has to be understood very clearly that Zakir Naik is not a student of comparative religion. He is not even a scholar of Islam. He is a very normal person, with average intelligence trying to do a literal interpretation of the religious texts and the most important factor is that he does this, firstly from his own biased position which is a precondition for reading the texts and secondly to re-confirm those biases after reading the texts. So, what is wrong with Zakir Naik is his methodology and his mode of thought along the line just suggested. From the mid-twentieth century, the locus of serious comparative religious studies has largely been ‘inter-religious dialogue’. I have said ‘locus’ in order to strategize the reading of this tradition as well, which is not monolithic and fully stable. It has treaded various paths but the fundamental paradigm for comparativists has been ‘dialogue’. This is not to suggest that fierce debates, disagreements are excluded from this mode of thinking and writing about religions, but something else. The fact is simply that most scholars, in opposition with Zakir Naik would agree that the disagreements and debates are the means to the end which is dialogue, rather than the other way round. In other words, Zakir Naik promotes a narrow form of dialogue to come to just largely disagree with other faiths, while other serious studies have promoted debates and disagreements to reach this condition of ‘dialogue’.
Once this is established as a fundamental premise to assess Zakir Naik’s contribution to what he calls ‘comparative religion’, it is not very difficult to see through his bigotry as a regressive follower of a regressive form of Islam and abiding by it. This tradition has had validity in various historical contexts, but a scholar of comparative religion would be generally expected to meaningfully and impartially engage with other versions of his own faith system, let alone other faiths. Many liberal and progressive Muslims, including some forward-looking clerics like Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, have condemned Naik (other than the not-very-progressive, old-fashioned clerics who think of him as a threat to their own position or others criticizing him only by engaging in otherwise irrelevant theological nitpicking, which is not the point here), as you can see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Some of the most regressive things said by Zakir Naik, which would incense any person who believes in the modern conception of human rights and modern science are as follows-
His support for Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban
It is a matter of great debate today as to how the 9/11 functions as a temporal demarcation in our minds. It surely marks an epistemic shift in the way we understand the world, as George Bush talked about a “new world order”. The war on terror has been criticized at many levels by many scholars and journalists and indeed there is much left to understand about the incident and how it has changed the world around us. But Zakir Naik discounts the political reasons, as he himself says that he has no knowledge of politics, but engages in an open advocacy of terror against America. He says, “If he (Osama bin Laden) is terrorizing the biggest terrorist, which is America, I am for him.” It means that he is with the person that killed thousands of people and he could not show humanity in denouncing the killing of innocent citizens of America. He, by putting forward a conspiracy theory of sorts has very conveniently ignored other kinds of video evidence which clearly show Osama proudly taking full responsibility for 9/11. His premise is the idea of revenge and not peace.
In propounding one of his ridiculous conspiracy theories, he drew a lot of flak for denying the Taliban being an oppressive organisation, most famously on the basis of some anonymous acquaintance of his telling him that the Taliban that are shown on television by the CNN and BBC are different from the actual Taliban, on account of their wearing the turban in a different way, when I know enough Afghan friends telling me otherwise with first-hand accounts!
His support for sex with slaves
This is one of the most confusing and baffling things that Zakir Naik has said. He is a doctor by profession, then he is a scholar of Islam and then he claims in this video to also know the international legal provisions for POWs. As expected, he fails horribly. He makes one point about the prisoners in Quranic law being allowed to roam free which modern-day prisoners are not. This is a valid point if we have to read the Quran as a legal text. The issue of prison-houses and madhouses becoming aligned with the idea of ‘modernity’ is something that many modern philosophers have grappled with, most prominently perhaps Michael Foucault. But the issue of having the freedom to have sex is certainly regressive. He compares two systems, one which allows Muslims to have free sex with POWs and the example of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. It is true that sexual degradation, religious persecution has been committed in Guantanamo Bay, but how does it justify the inhuman laws on POWs enshrined in a certain interpretation of Islamic law? He asks us to look at these places in order to understand that his conception of Islam is less inhuman, which is absolutely false. The excesses at the Guantanamo Bay and other such places are extra-legal. He completely ignores the fact that these excesses, if not punished, is also not enshrined in the form of a law as it is in the Quran according to many other scholars of Islamic theology.
The issue of the husband beating the wife
This is again baffling and confusing. But as with the other cases, it is wise to first point out where and to what extent Zakir Naik is right. He is right in suggesting that the Quran is perhaps the only religious book that considers ‘talaaq’ (divorce) as an option. He is also right that in the historical context, the Quran is one of the first texts perhaps that indicates that the woman can also appeal for a divorce if there is something illegal (outside the ‘Sharia’) that the husband is doing or forcing her to do. She has the right to go to the ‘qazi’ (judge) to get divorce as the last resort. But in the present historical context, the notions of equality have changed and this change has not taken place suddenly. The legal implications of the laws against women have been debated over the centuries, including in the Muslim empires and governments. In this day and age, it is incomprehensible that the man should have a right to beat the woman, even lightly because of a radical change- the rights-centric discourse, which is necessary and absolutely valid. The Quran can be read as a moral voice admonishing the deviation from divine law, but that hardly can mean that the husband is the ‘leader’ of the family. He gives an example of the situation when he can beat someone, “…if someone comes and tries to molest my sister or wife, I’ll not keep quiet. I’m not wearing bangles in my hand”, by which he indicates that he thinks of women as not being capable as protecting themselves. He then also acknowledges that there are some women who are stronger than men, which is completely opposed to the argument he had been making.
The issue of Muslim-majority countries disallowing the establishment of other religious places of worship
While Naik may be free to believe that no religion other than Islam can even be thought of as right, imposing this idea on others to curtail their religious freedom is completely against the notion of pluralism and freedom. Zakir Naik says that he does not oppose the practice of religion inside the homes and also thinking inside the mind that the religion he is following is right. He is of the view that in an Islamic state there can be no permission for the people of other religion and he quotes verse 3:85 to validate his claim. Even if we take the literate meaning that he wants to take, there is nothing in this particular verse to suggest that there can be a state policy of boycott of other religions or other religious places in the Islamic state. Therefore his claims, even going by the quotation he has provided is wrong.
The issue of the death for apostates
This issue is very contentious and has sparked several debates across the Muslim world. Zakir Naik is suggesting that the death penalty has been provided for the act of treason, which is the situation when a person has left Islam and is propagating the new faith that he has adopted. So he is clear in his mind that the person who leaves Islam but does not propagate the new faith cannot be given the death penalty, but if he/she propagates it, it could well be valid, which is again completely contrary to modern freedoms. In fact, scholars like John Esposito and others have argued that this law is not generally to be applied but there were special circumstances at the time of Muhammad (people who were committing treason against Muhammad, who was their ruler) and so can only be understood in that particular context and no other context. In pluralistic societies and the conception of democracy that the world has reached (not suddenly, but after centuries of various kinds of social and philosophical struggles), laws of this particularly extremist religious nature cannot be admitted when public law is being formulated. It is not because people have suddenly become against Islam, but for the simple reason that there has been an evolution to this point. The various traditions of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) are also evidence towards the fact that a literalist reading of the Quranic injunctions and their straightforward application is not always permissible.
The Issue of Homosexuality
The complexity of this issue is immense and there is a lot of public sentiment around this that divorces any sane reasoning from the discussions on this topic generally. LGBT rights groups have agitated for their rights as individuals and freedom for sexual orientation and under a modern conception of rights, they have every right to believe what they want to. Since the doctors and medical researchers are not confirmed themselves about the exact causes of sexual orientation, it is best left to speculation of the experts. The researchers have generally agreed that it is not a matter of absolute choice for an individual when it comes to homosexuality. There is a complex interplay of biological, environmental (both internal and external) and social factors that contribute to the development of “sexual orientation”. Having said that, Zakir Naik tries to justify legal prohibition of homosexuality and assert it as a mental illness on bizarre grounds. He, at various places says that there was “a” research on homosexuality and later it was found that the research was false and the person himself was revealed to be a homosexual. Which is this “research” he referred to? Zakir Naik never specifies it and there are many research papers that have been published on homosexuality that stand valid according to the scientific community around the world and until the time that these papers are questioned or proofs given that are contrary to these conclusions, it is to be agreed that these stand valid. Yes, the Quran, like the Bible, is not very accommodative of homosexuality but mentions no punishment. During the Abbasid Caliphate too, there were texts published on homosexuality, like Encyclopedia of Pleasure by the Arab poet, Ali ibn Nasr Al-Katib. The poet Abu Nuwas’ life denotes the tension that existed in the minds of the Muslims regarding homosexuality. Abu Nuwas was tolerated by al-Amin, the libertine son of Harun al-Rashid. However, after the death of Al-Amin, the caliphate was taken over by the Al-Mamun, Nuwas was not tolerated anymore. The swing between tolerance and intolerance of so-called “irreligion” is a feature of every society and this fact should be respected.
On the theory of evolution
There is perhaps no better video than this to explain how he lies through his teeth to exhibit fake erudition to justify his ludicrous views. By the way, there are many Jews, Christians and Muslims holding evolution compatible with creationism.
On this topic, you can refer to my article here.
Naik makes bizarre, illogical arguments to justify his version of Islam, thus promoting irrationality as a brand of rationalism among Muslims pleased by their confirmation biases being validated by an English-speaking preacher. When asked why Muslim men are allowed to marry Jewish and Christian women but Muslim women are not allowed to marry Jewish and Christian men, he said that since Muslims also believe in the prophets of the Jews and Christians, their prophets won’t be ridiculed in a Muslim household (but aren’t there enough theological disagreements like the divinity of Christ or the claim that Jewish and Christian scriptures have been altered to ridicule their faiths if the household is like that?), but if a Muslim woman goes to a Jewish or Christian household, Prophet Muhammad could be ridiculed there (what if the girl knows the family and knows of no probability of such a thing happening?). On another occasion, when a girl asked him why Hindus don’t tend to convert others to their faith as often as Muslims do, instead of explaining the missionary nature of Islam going by the mainstream interpretation (like Christianity), Naik declared that a high school student doesn’t ask college students to come to high school but the vice versa does happen, which is downright insulting! Imagine how most of his fans would have reacted had a Hindu preacher infantilised Islam.
Naik has been promoting regressive and irrational ideas and has, as I stated earlier, promoted unhealthy religious chauvinism and also denial of Muslim extremism to a great extent, preventing introspection and reform, which should have been led by the very many English-speaking Muslims, as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan did once or the likes of Sultan Shahneen are engaging in now. While he may not directly instigate terrorism (and to be fair, has pointed out that violent verses in the Quran are actually contextual – indeed, it is true that there are many Quranic verses like 2:256, 5:2, 5:8, 5:32, 6:108, 6:151, 10:99, 49:13, 60:8 and 109:6 preaching peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, and terrorists constitute a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims, terrorism actually not being a Muslim monopoly either), it may be noted that terror is the final stage of extremism, but comes from a larger outlook shaped by regressive theology and chauvinistic community-consciousness.
More recently, in an interview after terrorists in Bangladesh and India being inspired by him came to light (interestingly, there were earlier reports of terrorists being inspired by him back in 2005-2006 and several commentators like Praveen Swami and Sadanand Dhume had warned India’s civil society to take Naik more seriously, which it largely didn’t, with many otherwise well-informed, secular non-Muslims ignorant of Naik until very recently; the Congress-led UPA government had, however, thankfully disallowed his channel from operating quite some time back, something he cribs about in the interview, expecting Modi to change course!), he tried to insinuate that terrorism in the name of Islam is a media hype, though he thankfully didn’t apply his conspiracy theories about the Taliban and Al Qaeda this time around to the ISIS and did unambiguously condemn the ISIS. Further, while praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi (not something many of Naik’s fans would love, but anyway) for reaching out to Muslim-majority countries, he suggested that Indian Muslims’ unity with India’s Hindu majority should logically rest primarily or even greatly on India’s relations with Muslim-majority countries, which is plain ridiculous! India ought to formulate its foreign policy in the light of its strategic and economic interests (which benefit/safeguard all citizens, irrespective of religion) while respecting international law, which may well necessitate forging partnerships with Muslim-majority countries like Iran and Afghanistan, but that Indian Muslims’ loyalty to their motherland where they enjoy religious freedom should rest on how India engages with Muslim-majority countries is bizarre and actually even offensive. Further, Naik declared that if innocent Muslims are killed in Gujarat by some Hindus, it is not fair to kill Hindus in Mumbai, as if it might just be fine to label all Gujarati Hindus as criminals and bomb them! (Obviously, the truth is that the due process of law should be followed to even punish the rioters, and indeed, hundreds of them have even been convicted in connection with the Gujarat riots of 2002.) He said all this after a full-blown controversy involving terrorists! And I am not going to, without evidence, suggest him to be guilty by association of some of his own aides allegedly having terror links.
I am not in favour of legal action against Naik (but no, his channel shouldn’t be allowed to run again), which would make him a hero in the eyes of many, and would instead support exposing him and ridiculing his ideas. In that spirit, let us enjoy this spoof!
Thanks to my friends Suvankur Sukul and Khalid Baig for their valuable assistance with this article.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)