Saturday, February 19, 2011

[wvns] 'Islamic media' mogul faces new foes

Dr Zakir Naik: 'Islamic media' mogul faces new foes
Yoginder Sikand

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.

Yoginder Sikand frequently writes on Muslim issues.

This article first appeared in Daily Times, Lahore.


Ulema, Dr Zakir Naik and Common Muslims
Kaleem Kawaja

Much debate has ensued recently among the supporters and critics of Dr Zakir Naik from a variety of angels. Without doubt Dr Naik is a well intentioned Muslim who wishes to refute the attacks on Islam and dispell misconceptions about Islam that the enemies of Islam are trying to create. There is no problem with his intention or motivation. But as they say the devil lies in the details.

In developing his campaign, Dr Naik apparently looked at the very theatrical campaigns and discourses that have become common among the Christian evangelist preachers in western countries. Apparently he may have felt that today's youth needed a different medium than the sober style of detailing the tenets of Islam. In emulating that semi-entertainment oriented manner of discourse, Dr Naik has developed a style that comprises of, "tit-for-tat", "in-your-face-sucker", "if you call me terrorist I will call you terrorist", "define for me what is terrorist", "what was Karbala like" etal pantomine-look-alike discourses that are loaded with hyperbole and double meanings.

Such entertaining style of religious discourse is what TV evangelists practice on Sundays in front of large audiences in North America and Europe. As expected his style made him popular among many Muslims and youth who have been feeling frustrated due to the long anti-Muslim baiting that is going on in media at least since 9/11/01. They feel good that one of them is lobbing the missiles back at the adversaries of Muslims.

In addition Dr Naik, who is a scholar of Islamic history but has no formal education in Islamic fiqh, choose to read up sharia books and then start commenting on matters of fiqh when his audience asked him those questions. But his scholarship is very surfacial. Thus in several instances he went overboard and said things that offended many Muslims, some moderate Muslims, some conservative Muslims, some non-Sunni Muslims and some learned Ulema. It also offended many secular non-Muslims. He also gave religious opinions on matters of fiqh where he has little formal education.

Many of Dr Naik's ardent supporters are going so far as to say that anyone can read quran and hadith and expand on it without the need for formal education in fiqh. Now this is strange, because like theologies of all religions, in order to comment on Islamic theology topics, one should have pursued a regular scholarship in that. This is not a subject in which hobbyists should indulge. The core of Islamic theology and Islamic value system is based on the inavaluable research, commentary, tafseer and elaboration that countless learned Ulema and Islamic seminaries over the millenia developed and imparted to the Muslims at large. This fountainhood of autrhentic Islamic knowledge is the proud heritage of Muslim ummah.

In India seminaries like Darul Uloom Deoband, Nadvatul Uloom Lucknow, Imarat e Sharia Patna, and many other illustrious seminaries nurtured scholarship in fiqh and augmented the sound core of Islam. Granted that from time to time some misfit Aalims and maulvis have indulged in strange fatwas and some of them have been rigid to the extent of being impractical. But they are the exception like it happens in all occupations and communities. For the fault of a few unfit Aalims we simply can not make the institution of Ulema and their seminaries a subject of derision. And we can not pit them against some Muslim leader who lacks that scholarship and choses to make causual interpretations using hyperboles.

Scholars in Islamic history and sociology and commentators like Dr Zakir Naik have an important role to play in dispelling the attacks on Islam, but without infringing on the institution of Ulema or getting into competition with them. The last thing we need is a competition between the two because that may make the Muslim ummah the laughing stock of others.

Also such defenders of Islam should resist adopting the American TV Christian evangelists' approach and style. Those folks resort to that style because irreligiosity has seeped in so deep in western society that the only way to make people pay attention to them is to make religious preaching an entertainment. But Islam's strength lies in it being a sober and well defined order that does not resort to gimmickry to seek adherents.

I have read several articles in recent weeks in which non-Muslim writers have made fun of the revered institutionsd of Ulema, Islamic theology, Muslim leaders, Dr Zakir Nak etal as trying to snatch the audience from each other and to maintain their hegemony over the Muslim community. That is putting the Muslim qaum's dignified institutions to ridicule.

Of course most of the Muslims are neither ulema nor scholars of Islamic history nor spell- binding speakers. Some people are of the opinion that such lay Muslims should not even read or discuss matters relating to either ulema or the Islamic commentarors (like Dr Naik) and that they should simply wait for the Ulema and other commentators to settle their issues in private and issue a dictum that all should follow. But that flies in the face of the fact that Islam is an open faith that encourages Muslims to believe after reasoning out relegious tenets and learn, and learn still more. No dogmas here. Thus Ijtihad (interpretation) and Ijma (consensus) are the core values of the living and growing Islam.

At this time it behoves us common Muslims to be careful and refrain from adulation or condemnation. We should remain respectful of the institution of Ulema and encourage commentators like Dr Zakir Naik to seek guidance from the ulema and to correct their course.
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