Between a report in the Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star linking the name of the preacher Dr Zakir Naik to a terrorist said to be responsible for the recent Dhaka killings and the subsequent clarification by the newspaper a few days later, Naik started trending on social media. All the international awards and television appearances could not have got him the attention the report did.
With hashtags like #BanZakirNaik and #SupportZakirNaik becoming popular, it became clear to all that Zakir Naik mattered. Some loved him passionately, and others loathed him just as furiously, but nobody could ignore him. That may just be what Naik might have hoped for at the best of times. And soon after Naik accused the Bangladeshi newspaper of “sensationalising” a report by saying that he was responsible for inspiring one of the terrorists of the attack in Dhaka, the newspaper issued a denial.
“ TheDaily Star categorically denies this allegation and wants to say it did not report that any terrorist was inspired by Zakir Naik to kill innocent people. The report said that one of the terrorists had propagated on Facebook last year quoting Peace TV’s preacher Zakir Naik urging all Muslims to be terrorists,” it said, but the clarification did little to take the spotlight away from Naik. His fans and opponents interpreted it in their own ways, just as they have interpreted sacred verses over the years.
Meanwhile, Naik continued to thrive under the increased attention, arguing via pre-recorded messages that he had urged all Muslims to be terrorists in the sense of a thief being afraid of a policeman. His messages explained his success in doing what he has been doing for more than a couple of decades. With a neat mix of smart articulation and smarter deflection, he has been able to tap into the common sentiment among Muslims. Having started as an ordinary preacher whose audience was initially confined to middle-class Muslims in Mumbai, Naik rapidly became more popular and soon occupied a unique slot all his own, which culminated with the arrival in 2006 of Peace TV as a unique Islamic channel in English that aimed to hold sway with the MTV generation. Along the way, he scoffed at all the stereotypes of a Muslim cleric.
Unlike established scholars, he had no direct link with either Jamaat-e-Islami or Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the premier Muslim bodies, nor was he associated with other organisations such as Darul Uloom Deoband or Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama. He was not part of any jamaat , or religious organisation, which was an oddity considering the faith he practised wants an individual to be linked to a larger body. Unlike most maulanas (Muslim clerics), Naik is usually clad in Western attire.
Of course, his formal trousers with blazer and tie offended many a traditional head, but Naik could not care less. Further, unlike most Islamic clerics, Naik spoke English, exhibiting a rare fluency in the language to a live audience.
This set him apart from other preachers who usually spoke in chaste Urdu, thereby limiting their audiences. Naik spoke to youngsters in their language even as he upheld age-old religious beliefs.
Also, his ability to quote verbatim chapters and verses not just from the Quran but also from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and the Bible left many impressed. Add to that his ability to play to the popular sentiment with declarations like “I love my country. India is among a handful of countries where you have the freedom to practise, propagate and preach any religion”, and the package was complete.
The author Tabassum Ruhi Khan, who wrote about him in her book Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism: Emerging Muslim Identity in Globalized India , said: “Unlike the foaming mullah of caricature, Naik eschews traditional clothing for a suit and a tie. His background as doctor and his often gentle demeanour set him apart, as does his preaching in English. Unlike traditional clerics, Naik quotes from non-Muslim scripture.” However, this helped him only for a while. Around 2008, Peace TV was banned, although many small-time private cable operators continued to provide the channel in Muslim-dominated areas.
Tabassum Ruhi Khan said: “I found nothing in the channel’s offering that was particularly threatening or revolutionary. To begin with, Naik did not address the very inflammatory subject of internal debate within Islam. The fact impressed upon me is his situatedness within the same globalised, interconnected, and interlinked milieus that the Muslim youth were grappling with and his ability to speak to them from within the same contradictory conditions. For many, Naik as a doctor-turned-Islamic cleric presents an alternative model which is divorced from the orthodoxy, rigidity and televisual unattractiveness of erstwhile Muslim mullahs .”
An old associate of Naik, who has known him for more than a couple of decades, said: “He has always been gentle in his talk. At his school, he listens to parents carefully. He has vast knowledge and carries out charity in private. Of course, the fact that he is punctual and a strict disciplinarian does not go down well with everybody.”Naik had his critics
It is true that not everybody has been impressed with him. Among them are followers of the Barelvi school, besides clerics, at various times, from Deoband and Lucknow, and academics from Mumbai, Jaipur and even Bangladesh, where he commanded such an immense following that Peace TV’s Bengali channel was also launched.
Many found his live shows with a vast audience a smart marketing strategy, wherein he almost reproduced the ambience of a mushaira , or Urdu poetry soiree, where a particular couplet appeals to the audience with limited knowledge of the field, and the same couplet, divorced from the unique milieu of the occasion, seems to lose its sting when recited later. Ditto with Naik’s impromptu expression of religious verses. They argued that his interpretation of verses from scriptures was often questionable, and he, at times, quoted from the scriptures of other religions to support his argument.
His pick-and-choose policy with respect to other faiths did not endear him to non-Muslims and left many wondering whether his knowledge went beyond the words of the verses to the spirit which they sought to convey or to the times in which they were revealed. His knowledge of the hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad or reports of something he did) and his alleged words about Yazid, a Caliph, did not go down well with many, especially the Shias. His pronouncement about the Prophet’s grandson’s war being a political one also raised the hackles of the Shias. Some also accused him of getting his references wrong. His subsequent defence, that he was quoted out of context and did not actually say things in favour of the killers of the Prophet’s grandson, found few takers. His rapid-fire question-answer sessions did not entirely convince the discerning; many accused him of having chosen the men and women who would ask him questions.
However, this was refuted by others who gave him credit for being bold enough to take questions from non-Muslims in public.
Many clerics accused him of merely memorising certain hadith and Quranic verses, arguing that a complete picture could never be presented with time-bound answers. He made up for his lack of depth with sharp wit and memory, they alleged.
For all his attempts at cultivating a new image, Naik is essentially an orthodox cleric; take your eyes away from his Western attire, forget his language and his reasoning, his arguments have the same old feel of a cleric with a holier-than-thou mindset. Part of the package comes with the territory; a cleric of any faith cannot be expected to do otherwise.
Yet Naik thrived. His Islamic Research Foundation grew, attracting donations from across the world, with ordinary Muslims donating to the channel, believing it to be for the cause of religion. It was probably a first-of-its-kind effort where the faithful at least partially financed the channel or its various social benefit schemes.
When his channel was not allowed to be carried by private cable distributors, Naik launched his own satellite network to make it accessible to everybody.
When there were protests within the country against his huge gatherings, with many in the political arena denying him permission to host the same, he decided to host them in the safer confines of West Asia, notably Dubai. Not long ago, he was awarded the King Faisal International Prize for service to Islam. His critics could go on with their disparaging comments, but Naik was unruffled.
Until Dhaka changed it all.
Around 20 Muslim bodies closed ranks to condemn the attempts to characterise him as an inspiration for terrorists, offering him their support; the reaction of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) reflected an overwhelming desire to overcome the fissures of the past.
The spokesman of Darul Uloom Deoband, Ashraf Usmani, pleaded with the media not to link any past fatwa which the body had issued with the current controversy. “We stand with Dr Naik and request the media not to indulge in any trial. Let’s wait for the government report.”
The Jamaat-e-Islami reiterated that it was important to stand by him today at a time when attacks on Muslims by Hindutva activists were rampant. Its vice president, Nusrat Ali, said: “It is surprising that all of a sudden his services are brought to question and attempts are made to deteriorate the communal situation in the country by making him the target. Dr Naik has been propagating the Islamic creed of monotheism and prophethood in a peaceful manner for many years now.”
Arshad Madani of the Jamiat echoed the sentiments, stating: “The attack on Zakir Naik is part of a conspiracy against Muslims.”
With a groundswell of support in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and other places, the battle lines are clearly drawn—the intellectuals taking to social media and the common followers to the street.
Calling the #BanZakirNaik campaign an exercise in vilification, SDPI general secretary Elyas Muhammad Thumbe said it was a conspiracy by the saffron brigade. Naik’s old associate said: “There have been reports of investigation by the National Investigation Agency and various other outfits into his speeches, his finances, etc. Everything is available online. So far, not a constable has come to our office. Everything is normal. It is only media trial that we see every day.” It is a trial Naik may just have to live with until the dust settles.