You may lionise him as an ardent ‘defender of the faith’ or detest him as a pugnacious demagogue, but Zakir Naik is one person you just cannot be indifferent to. Based in Mumbai, this doctor-turned-‘Islamic’ missionary-to-the-world-at-large presides over a vast media empire, centred on his Peace TV channel that is avidly watched by literally millions of viewers across the world. Naik’s forte lies in his practised ability to readily denounce other religions and to thereby, at least in the eyes of his awe-struck admirers, prove the superiority of (his own brand of) Islam.
Most non-Muslims who have seen Naik blabber on television, instinctively find him repulsive, or so I would hope and imagine. But Naik’s share of critics is now rapidly expanding to include not just non-Muslims and sensible, liberal, progressive-minded Muslims who are disgusted with his obnoxious tactics and what they regard as his warped and supremacist interpretation of their faith, but, curiously enough, a growing number of influential mullahs or ‘Islamic’ clerics as well. Their grouse against him, apparent from their statements and writings, is not his vituperative attacks on other faiths that so embarrasses Naik’s liberal Muslim critics. Rather, it has almost everything to do with the challenge that Naik poses to their claims of being the sole arbiters of ‘Islamic authenticity’.
Last month, the Mumbai-based monthly Eastern Crescent carried a cover story that summed up, fairly neatly, the arguments of a growing number of mullahs against Naik. The magazine is one of its kind, the mouthpiece of an influential section of Deobandi mullahs. It is probably the only English language periodical that is almost entirely mullah-run. Its editor, all its senior staff and almost all its writers are madrassa-trained mullahs, all of them graduates of the Darul Uloom, Deoband, the largest and probably most influential madrassa in the world. Its founder and chief patron, the Assamese millionaire and politician Badruddin Ajmal Qasmi, is a graduate of the Deoband madrassa and a member of its central governing council.
The cover story of the December 2010 issue of Eastern Crescent is revealingly titled ‘How a Maulana Rejects Zakir Naik’s Glamour World’. Penned by M Tauqeer Qasmi, it is a winding and rather convoluted report that explains how and why the head of one wing of the Deoband madrassa, ‘Maulana’ Salim Qasmi, vice president of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, was finally convinced by his fellow mullahs at a meeting held recently in Mumbai to desist from accepting Naik’s invitation to participate in a mega event being organised by Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation. Around a hundred mullahs were present at the meeting. In describing the meeting, Tauqeer Qasmi highlighted various aspects of Naik and his ‘Islamic’ channel that have now won him the ire of a major section of the Deobandi mullah community.
Naik’s trespassing into what they regard as their closely-guarded exclusive zone of interpreting Islam, doing so on his own and without their assistance, seems to have been a major sore-point for the mullahs present at the meeting held in honour of the visiting Deobandi head. Although, interestingly enough, the holy Quran stridently denounces priesthood (and this would include mullah-hood, too), the mullahs act virtually as priests, and presume it to be their sole prerogative to interpret Islam. Their authority and leadership, and the worldly pelf that goes with these, are all inextricably linked to this untenable claim. Naturally, then, they regard as nothing short of anathema, Naik interpreting Islam on his own, without their sanction or approval. Not surprisingly, Naik was repeatedly denounced at the meeting for ‘wrongly’ interpreting the holy Quran.
Naik’s brand of ‘Islam’ shares much in common with that of the Saudi Wahhabis, who stress a very literalist understanding of the holy Quran and the Hadith, the corpus of traditions containing what are believed by many (though not all) Muslims as the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Like many Wahhabis, Naik does not appear to believe, so Tauqeer Qasmi alleges, in two other sources of jurisprudence that most other Muslim groups uphold: qiyas, or analogical reasoning, and ijma, or the consensual opinion of Muslims on a particular issue. In contrast, the Deobandis stress all four sources of jurisprudence. In their view, ijma denotes the ‘consensus’ of the ulema or ‘Islamic’ clerics (of their particular sectarian persuasion) on a particular issue. Their stress on ijma is central to the claims they make for themselves as the sole authoritative interpreters of Islam. This is because their interpretation of the concept translates
into enjoining on Muslims taqlid or blind conformity to their own dictates, which they derive from the texts of the mullahs of the past belonging to their own sectarian persuasion. Any interpretation of any issue that goes against this supposed ijma is quickly branded by the mullahs as ‘dangerous heresy’. In this way, the concept of ijma is routinely deployed by them to stifle dissent, impose a mindless conformity and shore up their authority, thereby also bolstering their own vested worldly interests.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Naik’s supposed refusal to abide by ijma (as the mullahs understand it) was yet another ground for the Deobandis present at the meeting to roundly denounce him. As Tauqeer Qasmi bluntly put it, ‘Zakir Naik attempts to deny ijma […] and this is against the spirit of shariah’. He bitterly castigated Naik for allegedly ‘mislead[ing] common youth by not conforming to these traditional sources of the shariah.’
For the Deobandi mullahs, the issue of Naik’s refusal to abide by the ijma of the mullahs, which they regarded as an affront to their authority, was no harmless academic quibble. They viewed his stance, so it seems, as virtually leading him out of the Sunni Muslim fold, which, in their eyes, is the sole authentic version of Islam. Thus, Tauqeer Qasmi contended, ‘Zakir Naik repeats that he believes only in holy Quran and sahih (authentic) Hadith. All Muslims from Ahle Sunnah Wal Jamah [ie Sunnis] believe and consider the Quran, Sunnah [the practice of the Prophet], ijma and qiyas as sources of Islamic shariah.’ The insinuation, therefore, was that since Naik reportedly did not abide by ijma and qiyas, he was not a Sunni Muslim at all. And, according to the Deobandi mullahs, only Sunni Muslims (as they define the term, which is deeply contested by rival groups that also claim the Sunni label) are true followers of Islam.
Muslim sects have been battling each other for centuries, each pompously insisting that they alone are true Muslims and that all other Muslims (and the rest of humanity as well) are doomed to everlasting torment in hell. In the current Deobandi offensive against Naik, their sectarian differences are, not surprisingly, routinely invoked. Naik’s critics accuse him of alleged links with the hardliner neo-Wahhabi Ahl-e-Hadith sect, with which the Deobandis have been engaged in fierce competition for decades, each claiming to represent the sole ‘authentic’ Islam, roundly denouncing the other as wholly ‘un-Islamic’. Tauqeer Qasmi accused Naik of covertly working to promote an ‘undeclared mission’: to ‘force people’ to ‘convert to’ ghair muqallidiat, an offensive term for the Ahl-e-Hadith derived from its refusal to abide by taqlid or blind following of any of the four generally prevalent schools of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence which the mullahs adhere to. As ‘evidence’, he cited the instance of a Muslim employee of Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation who was a Hanafi, the school of jurisprudence to which the Deobandis advise rigid adherence. This man, Taqueer Qasmi alleged, was compelled by his employers to pray in the Ahl-e-Hadith manner. The difference in the Hanafi and Ahl-e-Hadith manner of praying may strike one as so trivial as to be completely unworthy of comment, but since the mullahs thrive on such matters and use these to fan endless sectarian conflict, it is unsurprising that Tauqeer Qasmi regarded this employee being reportedly made to place his hands on his chest (in the Ahl-e-Hadith fashion), instead of his navel (as the Deobandi Hanafis do), while praying as a heinous crime, one that was tantamount, in his view, to forcible conversion to the Ahl-e-Hadith sect.
The literally thousands of madrassas that they control are the basis of the authority of the mullahs, where would-be mullahs are carefully schooled. Not surprisingly, therefore, the mullahs carefully seek to protect the madrassas from even the most well-meaning and sensible criticism. Tauqeer Qasmi lashed out at Naik, accusing him of seeking to undermine the authority and appeal of the madrassas, probably regarding this as yet another impudent challenge by Naik to the mullahs and their authority. As ‘proof’ in this regard, he referred to a new method that Naik claimed to have discovered to memorise the entire Quran in a mere three months. He dismissed it as a complete hoax invented by Naik, whom he accused of ‘do[ing] everything that may catch public attention.’ He denounced Naik for blaming madrassas for having proven unable to ‘do such an “easy work”’ and, on this basis, for questioning their usefulness. One mullah present at the
meeting, Taqueer Qasmi approvingly wrote, went so far as to declare, citing a ‘conspiracy theory’ that is routinely invoked in the speeches and writings of the mullahs and their followers, that, ‘Dr Zakir Naik has been doing exactly the same that the Christians and Jews are failed (sic.) to do in India, that is alienating common Muslims from madrassas and ulema [Muslim clerics]. He and his men discourage people from visiting ulema for knowledge and sending children to madrassas.’
Naik, the mullahs at the meeting admitted, had done ‘some good work’ — which they equated with ‘successfully debating’ with people of other faiths, this being their curious way of understanding what serving God and the Islamic cause is all about. However, they argued that Naik had outlived his ‘usefulness’, and that his missionary (dawah) work ‘is now becoming part of his past.’ They contended that Naik, presiding over a rapidly expanding global ‘Islamic’ media empire, had ‘now become more of a glamorous person, looking for petro-dollars to finance his mega events’. One mullah even claimed that Naik was misusing zakat money, sent by Muslims to be used for the poor and the needy, which, so he said, Naik was diverting to fund his television channel, cover advertising expenses and pamper speakers at his mega events in the form of jaunts at five-star hotels, free air tickets and gifts.
Bringing these serious charges against Naik, the mullahs prevailed upon the visiting head of the Deoband madrassa to refuse to accept Naik’s invitation. They claimed that Naik’s intentions in inviting him were wholly sinister. ‘The reality behind [Naik’s] calling big names and ulema like Maulana Salim Qasmi’, argued Tauqeer Qasmi, ‘is that complaints have been made to the Auqaf ministry of Saudi Arabia that Zakir Naik is misusing their money and no authentic alim [Islamic scholar] of India supports him. So, Dr Naik is looking to bring renowned ulema to his fold to market his position around the world.’ Salim Qasmi was also advised by his followers that in inviting him, Naik was not at all interested in putting across his views through his television channel. Rather, they claimed, Naik wanted his presence only to use his face, as head of an influential madrassa, so as to attract viewers and thereby bolster his sagging popularity. If Salim Qasmi accepted Naik’s invitation, they warned, it was likely that Naik would excise portions of his speech that did not conform to his ‘deviant’ Ahl-e-Hadith brand of Islam.
Having carved for himself a ‘flourishing’ career as the world’s largest ‘Islamic’ media Mogul essentially by debating non-Muslims and mocking their faiths, Zakir Naik now has a new set of people to debate with — the influential mullahs of Deoband. And, for their part, the latter have now got yet another target to drum up public support against.