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How Zakir Naik Appropriated Liberalism’s Flaws—and Won

Busting Presumptions about Religion and Modernity

Shireen Azam (shireen@epw.in) is Assistant Editor (Digital), Economic & Political Weekly.

If Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik is symptomatic of religious fundamentalism, we have to pin which part of his rhetoric accounts for it, and how is it different from other secular affirmations of truths. Any attempt to rerun the old narrative of the irrationality of religion, and of Naik’s supporters being blinded by unexamined religious passion, falls flat on its face. Naik’s religion in fact, is an embarrassingly evolved version of how a rational religion was conceived post-Enlightenment, and his justification of punishment and justice in Islam strikingly mimics the operation of the modern secular world. This is also how he has been able to gain legitimacy amidst an audience that sees itself as modern.

 


Booklets by Naik, handed out free to visitors at IRF office in December, 2013

 

 

"Suddenly, an average Muslim could argue why polygamy is allowed and why we don’t eat pigs through logic rather than just saying its god’s will when arguing with people of different faiths" (SU, email interview with the author, 2013).

 

Zakir Naik’s media trial could or could not set forth a chain of events which define how the lines between the extremist and moderate Muslim will be redrawn in the nation’s imagination. As news of a Dhaka terro­rist having quoted Naik’s lectures on his Facebook wall spread—and “terrorists being inspired by Naik” changed to “Naik inspiring men to be terrorists” within seconds, there was a scramble to make sense of Naik with familiar labels: does he support terrorism or peace, are his views fanatical or not, is he modern or regressive.

Probes into Naik’s muddled speeches evaded an easy attempt at fitting him into these boxes—that he had no interest in criticising the Indian state and said that he believed in coexistence of religions, while affirming the absolute truth of Islam over all other religions; that on his channel Peace TV, Naik tries to find commonalities bet­ween Islam and other religions, but the “common” is always on the side of Naik’s version of Islam; that he talks about women’s rights and then justifies poly­gamy, that he congratulates the atheist for not believing what his father taught him, and then says every tenet of Islam is compatible with modern science.

Over the last couple of weeks, listicles from digital native sites, free of the burden of creating a system of logic, framed their responses by plucking out meaty bits of Naik’s hundreds of videos with the “5 most ridiculous things,” or “dangerous things” Naik has said—how pigs should not be eaten because they cheat on their partners, how it is alright to beat your wife lightly with a tooth-brush, how suicide bombing might be okay if it is done as a last resort and not for personal interests, etc.

However, Naik’s immense popularity among Indian and Bangladeshi Muslims, especially among people who are educated under modern formal education systems, and many of whom think of themselves as liberals and modern, makes it mandatory for us to understand the structure in which he has earned ­legitimacy.1 One has to attempt to understand why people who inhabit modern spheres: education, democracy, and enc­hanted by ideas of progress, industrialisation, and scientific discoveries are simultaneously enchanted by Naik.

Any attempt to rerun the old narrative of the irrationality of religion and the naivety of Naik’s supporters, that they are fanatics, brainwashed and blinded by their religious passion, falls flat on its face in understanding Naik and his fan-following. Naik, the Islamic evangelist, is a complete product of the modern, secular world (I use the term “secular” in the sense of its West-European trajectory—as distinct from the sacred, not the communal, as discussed in Section 3), who has earned legitimacy from incorporating religious unbelief as a valid option, who values the exercise of what he calls logic and reason over feeling, arrived “truths” over justice, and sees religion as a system of injunctions, and practices as mere products of people’s cognitive propositions. What counts as logic and rational argument in Naik’s speeches could be contested for authenticity, but in using the form, Naik is already within the domain of public sphere.

Clearly if contemporary analyses of Naik thinks of him as symbolic of and symptomising religious fundamentalism, we have to pin which part of his rhetoric accounts for it, and how is it different from other secular affirmations of truths—his insistence that Islam is the best ­religion in the world, his attempt to bombard scientific terminology to “show” logical inconsistencies in other religions, or his relativisation of violence, that is, the justification that violence can be ­allowed under some conditions.

To point out the exact problem with Naik’s rhetoric is crucial, for many of the forms of Naik’s dangers, notably Naik’s justification of crime and punishment, strikingly mimic the operation of the modern world. This is also how he has been able to gain legitimacy amidst an audience which is more modernised than not.

The fact that he wears a three-piece suit, talks in perfect English and invokes science and logic are only motifs. Naik’s charm is in the form of his speeches, the premises of unbelief from which he persuades, his employment of conspiracy theories of scientific facts and statistics, and the discourses of modernity that he draws from.

These together play with the anyway murky division of the secular and the sacred in the modern world and make it surprisingly simple for him to fool a generation of Muslims left to deal with insecurities coming from crimes they did not themselves commit.

 

1 Helping Muslims Frame a Response

 

It is a matter of deep irony to the current situation that Naik’s first claim to fame on cable TV in the 2000s was through talking about misrepresentation of Islamic terrorism in the media. In his talk “Islam and Media: Peace or War,” and in many others with similar names, Naik would say that “international media is projecting Islam as though it is a religion of terror,” they are “picking a few black sheep” and “projecting as if Islam is asking them to do these illegal activities” (YouTube 2012b). His advice to Muslims was not to be apologetic when pestered by others with questions regarding terrorism and Islam. We should not become defensive and say, “Oh no some Muslims do it, not me … we should know how to turn the tables over … should use the force of the opponent to throw him over” (YouTube 2012b). A well-prepared opening sentence Muslims should keep ready to handle jibes about Islamic terrorism, Naik has said in multiple ­lectures, is to ask which human being killed the most number of people in the world. “Who is the man who has killed the maximum number of human beings in the world? ... Hitler, you don’t get an award for guessing it is common knowledge. So which Madrasa did Hitler pass from?” (YouTube 2012b).

 


Still from lecture : Media and Islam- War or Peace?

 

Naik would go on to list other non-Muslim violent organisations in the world whose actions are not called terrorism by the media. He would then take a detour to question the meaning of the term terrorist, an argument that has understandably come in the scanner now for showing sympathy to terrorism. Naik made ordinary Muslims comfortable about not belonging to the most violent community in the world, and simultaneously, through examples of “freedom fighter” Bhagat Singh, let questions linger about whether certain cases of violence can be justified. He would then return to his initial stand and reiterate the same thing—Islam is a religion of peace.

In other lectures, Naik made fun of maulanas—that they go around “shouting haram haram” and make others wonder “what is this religion that isn’t allowing a sportsman to play” (regarding Sania Mirza’s fatwa) (YouTube 2010). “Unfortunately we are like sitting ducks. We have made ourselves a laughing stock” (YouTube 2010). There was only one-solution, he said on his one hour slot on Q-Tv—have a fully-English channel which both show misguided Muslims and the Western world the real meaning of Islam. He compared it to the kind of money God TV gets from Christian donors. He wondered aloud if Muslims could raise this kind of money. It was important for it to be in English, for us to change perceptions, he insisted.

In January 2006, Peace TV went on air. The stage on which Naik spoke was suddenly manyfold  grander and brighter, comparable to any Filmfare award set we have seen, albeit still “fully Islamic” in its grandeur, while the background music of the channel was comprised by natural sounds, another of Naik’s inferences from the Quran.

Born in 1965 in Mumbai, India, Naik obtained a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from Mumbai University. The fact that he is a doctor by profession who gave up practice for the sake of Islamic preaching, is emphasised time and again in his talks, both by him and people who introduce him. While defending madrasas, he would readily point out that he did not go to one and had a “normal” education (YouTube 2012b). In 1991, he founded the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) whose aim is to promote Islamic Da’wah and “proper presentation, understanding and appreciation of Islam, as well as removing the misconceptions about Islam amo­ngst less aware Muslims and Non-­Muslims”.2

He borrows his style of scriptural hermeneutics and secular criticism from South African televangelist Ahmed Deedat (1918–2005), who confessed to start preaching Islam because he was bothered by Pentacostal Christian evangelists’ “knocking on his door” and politely quizzing him about Quran (YouTube 2012c). Deedat used “the Qur’an to provide divine substantiation to what Deedat has already proved by biblical her­meneu­tics and ­human reason” (Larkin 2008: 112).3

Over the years, Naik’s IRF organised many live events in major Indian cities as well as other cities of the world, published 10 booklets with condensed versions of Naik’s lectures (which were handed out free to me in his Dongri ­office in 2013, albeit after I was ushered into the “ladies wing”), sells DVDs of his talks, and also launched a “Peace ­mobile” which again, came pre-installed with Naik’s videos. Naik introduced himself as a student of “comparative ­religion” and his method as “use of reason, logic and scientific facts”. He quotes from the Bible as well as Sanskrit verses from the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads, of which he displays erudition. A reference to any of these texts is always made with the exact verse number, and a ticker at the bottom of the TV screen highlights it.

His talks are mostly in ­interaction with a live audience and a long question and answer session where “non-muslim bro­thers and sisters” would be encouraged to ask questions over Muslims, even if it meant breaking the queue. Naik would greet his question-askers with cordiality, sometimes appreciating that the “sister has asked a very good question,” his tone always even, with programmed pauses for rhetorical humour and not losing temper or appearing angry at a question. The title of his talks were reactionary—Misconceptions about Islam, Is Quran Compatible with Modern Science, Is Terrorism the Monopoly of Islam?, among others like similarities between Hinduism and Islam and concept of god in Christianity.

It was clear that Naik was not there to talk of the beauties of following Islam, neither was he interested in telling Muslims the ideals of living a good life, and how to best the read namaz or go to heaven. Instead, he was there to answer all those questions about Islam that had come up in a world where the Muslim had started doubting her identity and her religion. Naik was speaking to a post 9/11 world. Naik was not interested in a political Islamic state. His guidance was for individuals who will continue to live within liberal states, operating within the freedom to propagate religion in these states.

“I personally prefer asking the non-Muslim upfront, what he feels is wrong in Islam,” insisting that most will only have five or six questions about the Quran—polygamy, polygandry, hijab for women, if Islam spread by the sword, that muslims are fundamentalists and terrorists, on non-vegetarianism and so on (Naik 2000: 5). In his speeches, Naik would teach Muslims to give a foolproof response to the insistent questions of the world about Islam. It was like live-casting a rehearsal.

“I request that if every Muslim memorises the answer to these questions, even if he is not able to convince a non-Muslim to accept Islam or make him realise the (inaudible), at least inshallah he will be able to remove the animosity in the mind, at least he will be able to neutralise him” (ZakirNaik.net 2015). It is not enough for the Muslim to be convinced of the truth of Naik’s answer once, the point was to be able to reproduce it when the time of need arises, when confronted by a colleague, friend, security guard, arguably daily spheres where Muslims were constantly ambushed to give a defence about violence done in their names half-way down the globe.

Indeed the idea of reproduction is so central, that arguably every new Naik lecture that one would hear now are replicas of an argument he would have ­developed 15 years ago, with the same intonation and pauses for humour. A lecture by a person from IRF, that I attended in 2014 in Manipal, replicated not only Naik’s argument but the pauses and modulations in Naik’s intonation as well.

2Reading Naik’s Arguments

The Islam Naik was propagating, was not centred on going to heaven, and conversion, even though occasionally mentioned was only a secondary concern. Naik was an apologetic, where with “da’wa”, defending Islam’s position in the real world is the core part of religion. However, unlike other religious apologetics, there is a remarkable mixing of the worlds of the transcendental and the secular in Naik—in thinking of Islam as a divine system of truth with a benevolent god, and in defending the position of Muslims in a post 9/11 world.

Naik seems considerably less interested in the former than in the latter. If one looks at it, the motivation of “da’wa” is not primarily to gain brownie points from god in the transcendental world, or convert others, but for the Muslim himself, who has silently come to doubt his faith. His audience is not convinced of the truth of Islam but in profound doubt about their position as Muslims. They have internalised both the good and true of what Naik calls the “Western world” as well as the humiliation meted out to Islam in it. Working with this paradox, Naik then both attacks and affirms these ideas of the “Western world”. Naik plays with modernity’s division of the sacred and the secular, between the supernatural and the material, and between teleological and rational, and uses it to his advantage. He turns the model of separation on its head by attaching the reverence of the secular to religion.

 Naik first rides on the idea of a European scientific revolution of the 17th century, which is widely understood as having changed the world and having brought a leap from the world of faith to the world of observation and reason (Shapin 1996: 1). Naik reads vague lines from the Quran to force the meaning that it already mentions the Big Bang Theory “which scientists found only recently” (YouTube 2011c). He quotes other lines to say Quran mentions that the earth is egg-shaped, that the light of the moon is ­reflected, that interstellar matter exists, that the universe is expanding, that atoms can be divided, etc (Naik nd). His claims are made in a syntactical structure of three parts (i) “earlier it was believed that”, (ii) “now modern science has told us this”, (iii) “but Quran said it 1,400 years ago.


"Verily we created man from a drop of mingled sperm" -  A still from Naik's lecture

 

In one of his shows, a man asks in the question–answer session, “How can I convince a non-Muslim that Islam gives permission to have more than one wife, how do I convince them that it is the best” (YouTube 2011b). In yet another video, a woman says, “For me it’s one man one woman” and “I don’t see any logic in polygamy” (YouTube 2011a). Naik would get up from his chair smiling and his rehearsed 10 minute answer would always be exactly the same:

Sister…Islam is the only religion and Quran is the only religious scripture on the face of the world which says marry only one. There is no religious scripture besides the Quran, I am a student of comparative religion. There is no verse in the Bible, no verse in the Bhagavad Gita, no verse in the Veda which says marry only one except the Quran….Sri Krishna, according to Mahabharata, how many wives did he have?...Not unlimited you don’t know your scriptures well…Now, let’s analyse what the Quran says, the Quran says in Sureh Nisa Chapter 4, verse 3: ‘Marry a woman of your choice in twos threes or four, but if you cant do justice marry only one’… (YouTube 2011a).

 

It is only after diligently following his steps of “turning the table over,” he would get to his niche of “applying logic and scientific facts,” technical jargon and throwing statistics:

Now what are the logical reasons that a person can think that why Islam has permitted certain men to have more than one wives…By nature, if you ask any medical doctor he will tell you that male and female are born in equal proportion …[but he] will tell you that the female child is stronger than the male child, that’s the reason there are more deaths in the male children than the female children. As life goes on, there are people dying due to accidents, due to alcoholism, due to war, there are more males dying as compared to females. Today if you analyse in the world, there are in the world as compared to males. There are some few third-world countries like India where the male population is more than the female population, and do you know why? Because of female foeticide and female infanticide….If you stop this evil practice, in India, our beloved country…the population of female will be more than the male population. If you see the rest of the world, in New York alone there are 1 million females more than males, in USA alone, there are 7.8 million females more than male. In UK alone, there are 4 million females more than males; in Germany alone, there are 5 million female more than male, in Russia alone, there are 9 million female more than male…. Suppose, I agree with your philosophy sister, you said one man one woman, if I agree with you sister, your philosophy, and suppose my sister happens to live in America…. and suppose the market is saturated; one man one woman saturated! And yet there will be 7.8 million females who will not find life partners. (YouTube 2011a)

 

Several questions can be, and indeed must be immediately raised upon this farcical explanation. Even if we ignore the several logical leaps Naik to come to his conclusion, one has to engage with what Naik has efficiently done here with using systems of logic that we are ­familiar with. This also gives insight into a generation who idolise science and scientific truths, are bothered when Islam is seen as a religion of terror, and their simultaneous want to be scientific and their ready acceptance of Naik’s ­answers.

It should be noted that Naik needs the reference to science, the detour to speak against female infanticide to make his point. He covers all these grounds which have become important campaigns in the modern world. It is noteworthy that Naik does not attempt to explain the legitimacy of polygamy as a practice by itself, and instead frames it as an effect of natural law. That “biologically” women are stronger than men, and that it is a consequence of this that there are and there will be more women in the world than men, are the “facts” that enable Naik to offer the validity of polygamy.

He does not attempt to explain how the instance of a man marrying four wives can be right within a certain world view. He does not attempt to give a different view of gender relations or marriage. Instead, he makes the question a problem of the natural world and polygamy as a response to set of natural laws. Naik’s god then is limited by natural laws, bound by the laws of the secular world.

God, here, is subservient to the natural world, god like the woman asking the question, would ideally like to have one woman for a man, but god is bound by the natural world’s restraint of the female zygote being stronger and there being more women. God according to Naik, has no essential reason, wisdom or intelligence for allowing four women for a man. There is a characteristic loss of ­divinity in god that is seen across his other arguments of justifying the Quran as well. God, instead of being the all-powerful, is instead trying his best to devise a just system within limits of (supposed) natural law, as humans have found at this point of time.

Robbing god of his divinity in this argument, as in many others (Section 5), is surely something Naik does not do on purpose, neither does he or his followers seem to note the paradox in it. However, a religion without divinity is an indispensable feature of the religion that Naik is trying to create.

Naik’s religion in fact is an embarrassingly evolved version of how a rational religion was conceptualised by advocates of liberal thinkers while conceptualising liberal democracy post Enlightenment. Naik’s Islam demonstrates not fanaticism, or religious passion but a secularisation of religion.

 

3 Naik’s God without Divinity

 

Naik’s religion of tenets, which feels correct to the believer because they are similar to other common-sensical things in the world, has to be traced to a long history of secularisation of religion. Unlike it is often seen in retrospect, the “scientific revolution” of 17th century Europe did not entail a complete overthrow of teleological explanations and reference to the divine, for methods of observation and reason (Shapin 1996; Bala 2006; Osler 2010). Most natural philosophers of the 17th century were believers and “the entire enterprise of studying the natural world was embedded in a theological framework that emphasised divine creation, design, and providence” (Osler 2010: 81). Isaac ­Newton, citing the intelligence and design in the natural world—“how come the Bodies of Animals be contrived with so much Art and for what ends were their several Parts?” insisted that it ­appears from “Phenomena that there is Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent…” (Osler 2010: 80–81). God was the upholder of the natural world.

Naik’s premise of the transcendental and natural, however, is not similar to Newton’s. For Newton the divinity of god is to be inferred from the design of the world which is perfect. Naik does not see the natural world as a perfect creation, whose beauty inspires wonder about the divine. What must be rem­arked in Naik’s conception of god and his relation to the natural world is Naik’s absolute lack of divinity in taking about god, the un-interest in magic, beauty, wonder, incorporeality and the supernatural in his idea of religion, and his insistent need to bring down god to a set of tenets and mundane objects of the secular world. Religion here is a set of rules which can be made to look reasonable with reference to the world around us. It is different from other secular rule books, only as much as in that they might have parts of the truth, while it has the whole.

Naik hardly invokes god as a mystical being who must be revered. The primacy of the text remains, god cannot be possibly reached or felt without it. There is almost no interest in ­Islam as a form of truth in relation to god, the interest in establishing the truth of Islam is purely secular, that is, in terms of the current material world as we know it. God happens to be the author of the book for whose confirmation Naik is probing the natural world. Naik’s natural world too is not perfect and god is intelligent insomuch as he can solve the problems that the faulty material world has set upon the world.

Further, Naik’s talks are not addressed to a community of Muslims. There is little or no invocation of a Muslimhood in a conventional sense of a religious community, of parables or historical events that would invoke a sense of communitarian memory. Naik, wittingly or unwi­ttingly, is playing upon a series of divisions about the sacred and the secular that was conceived in enlightenment and post enlightenment liberal theorisation.

This line between secular and sacred, in its many manifestations, is an undertone in many spheres in our modern worlds, whose origins can be traced to the Protestant reformation, and of which the most relatable version today is the theorisation of a secular state—the wall of separation between state and religion—and which, it must be emphasised, continues to influence our understanding of religious violence and extremism as a tussle between irrationality and rationality, fanaticism and liberalism, and as inspired by a believer’s unexamined passion for god.

The idea of separation of religion and state, as that of belief and practice, and rationality and irrationality comes from a set of theological and metaphysical assumptions of dividing the world into spheres of secular and sacred which have been normalised globally to a large extent without realising the underlying assumptions.4

 

4 A Rational Religion

 

Naik then walks on lines that Enlightenment thinkers envisaged for religion, and the divisions they formulated, and comes across as charmingly transgressive when he is able to use its flaws to his advantage, for example, by simply showing that he can make an attempt justifying polygamy, however contorted, without invoking any “religious obligation”.5 The idea of a rational religion emerged from the premise of distinguishing sacred and profane time. Charles Taylor, in his monumental work A Secular Age, shows that the idea of the secular developed with Latin Christendom as one term of a dyad—“the secular had to do with the “century”—that is, with profane time—and it was contrasted with what related to the eternal, or to sacred time” (Taylor 2011: 32). Certain times, places, institutions and actions were seen as rel­ated to sacred or higher times, while others were for profane time alone (Taylor 2011: 32).

Thus, in initial understandings of secular spaces and times, even when the temporal and celestial can be conceived separately, they function in a dyad where both are necessary to understand the meaning of the other. The ­reference to secular is distinct from but not opposed to sacred and eternal time (Taylor 2011: 32).

With people like Newton however, we see a partial move where the natural world begins to be seen as a whole functioning independently, but nevertheless held from above by god’s will. It is a further development of this, from the 17th century on, where the “secular” went from being what is different from the ­sacred, to the sphere which is natural, and the bare minimum, and thus fundamentally opposed to the sacred, which is the “super” natural and thus excessive to meaning in the natural world. In the new version of social life, “secular” was all there was.

As Taylor point out, the word “secular” was still the same, but its meaning had changed, “the contrast was no longer with another temporal ­dimension, in which “spiritual” institutions had their niche; rather, the secular was, in its new sense, opposed to any claim” (Taylor 2011: 33).

Thus all goals now had to be “this-wordly” and justified only if it involved human flourishing, peace, prosperity, etc. An unproductive religiosity came to be seen as superfluous, characterised with un-arrived beliefs which neither added to prosperity and ran the risk of hindering the authority of the state. The deist template,

helped to define ‘good’ or acceptable religion for much of the Western discussion of the last few centuries. A good or proper religion is a set of belief in God or some other transcendent power, which entails an acceptable, and in some versions, a ‘rational morality’. It is devoid of any elements that do not contri­bute to this morality and thus of ‘superstition’ (Taylor 2011: 35).

 

Religious practices were seen as mere products of beliefs without any value in themselves, and religion, came to be solely defined as a “a state of mind that produces practice,” “as something with external manifestations that can be ultimately traced back to an inner assent to a cognitive proposition” (Sherwood 34). Thus, Enlightenment onwards, religion solely got its identity from being belief and faith, which was potentially dangerous in a public sphere because of being a series of propositions that come from divine sanction and not through reasons independent of religious sources. A common theme in the writings of people theorising liberal democracy in the 17th century, for example,

is that a good citizen of a liberal democracy will impose certain epistemological restraint …[and]…specifically refrain from allowing religious reason be determinative when deciding or debating political issues of certain sorts—or perhaps any sorts whatsoever, unless perchance, those religion reasons are themselves held for reasons of the acceptable sort (Audi and Wolterstorff 1997: 69).

 

These acceptable reasons have been described by different scholars as being “publicly accessible reasons,” as “secular reasons” as derived from the shared political culture of one’s democracy, and others like Rawls have said that they should not come from any “comprehensive perspective” (Audi and Wolterstorff 1997: 74). The idea is that religious authority has a “unique potential for undue influence ...” by contrast, secular reasons are not commonly regarded as having the same kind of authority as religious ones” (Audi and Wolterstorff 1997: 126).

Understanding religion’s core to be belief and “inward faith,” of which enthusiasm and superstition were manifestations, the attempt was to deride religion of its excessive features, and make acceptable that part of religion which could be deemed acceptable by “reasonably believed” or those that overlapped with “secular sources of obligation”.6 John Locke, for example, held that by appealing “solely to the deliverances of our generic human nature applied directly to things themselves” we could arrive at a “rational religion” and prove the reliability of the New Testament (Audi and Wolterstorff 1997: 85).

The idea was that unsubstantiated claims to the divine pose threat to the state’s sole authority and thus a rational religion would not pose these problems. But in Naik’s case, devoid of magic or invocation of divinity, it is the rational religion which poses threat to the state, because it has found a way to be sure of its truth in the grammar of the state. The grammar itself maybe flawed, but in being able to incorporate it, it is both legitimate and real.

This brings us to Taylor’s theorisation of the third step of the dyad of secular-sacred. Taylor remarks that modern unbelief is not understood simply a condition of absence of belief or merely indifference. It is a historical condition that requires the perfect tense, “a condition of ‘having overcome’ the irrationality of belief” (Taylor 2007: 169). This cons­cious­ness, of unbelief being seen as a coming of age, of having overcome past irrationality, is ingrained in Naik’s rhetoric. Naik plays a double chequered game with these categories. He uses the secular stadial consciousness,7 the understanding in people that secular arguments have overcome religious ones, to double “prove” to this audience the validity of his version of Islam. As Larkin (2008: 105) contends with the case of Deedat, the very idea of a public has been imagined to be forged against the idea of religion, and thus ­using that form itself is a transgressive act. Naik uses this thrill of transgression.

Thus Naik walks backwards on the same dyad that liberals constructed and leeches the reverence of secular to attach it to religion. He begins his argument from a non-religious premises, taking his listener to hate Islam. Naik finds popularity amidst a Westernised audience because of his and their inhabitation of the secular public sphere (as Deedat did according to Larkin). Naik’s authority comes from the fact that he eschews religious authority.

 

5 Borrowing Logical Premises

 

Further, when Naik cannot hurl “scientific facts” and conspiracy theory statistics to prove random injunctions, he takes help by borrowing logical premises from institutions of the modern world. Consider a reply that he gave in a lecture about “Is Allah so unmerciful that he will send otherwise good people, who have done good deeds but don’t follow Islam, to hell”:

If I get 10% marks in Hindi and 99% marks in five other subjects, will I pass 10th standard or not? Sister, tell me…[No]... Just like that to go to heaven four conditions need to be fulfilled (YouTube 2012a).

 

One can come out of this analogy by saying that modern education system is not flawless in its judgment of merit and education, neither is it universal. However, it is difficult to come up with a critique if one takes the modern education system with its system, of examinations, marks, passing and failing for granted, which many of his supporters do. To a similar question by a Hindu person, as to why is the god in Islam so egoistical to punish people who don’t believe him, “why are we attributing human nature to god,” Naik says “Suppose tomorrow there is a student studying with you, he writes wrong answers, you stay awake in the night, this person plays hooky, enjoys, writes everything wrong, and teacher says both get first class first. Will you be happy with the teacher”. “No” says the res­po­n­dent (YouTube 2013). “Because you believe in justice,” Naik said. Naik’s premises of justice and punishment are borrowed.

In another speech, when justifying the mention of “killing the enemies” in the context of a particular war mentioned in the Quran (and after spending a lot of sentences showing that the Muslims tried their best to avoid the war), he says, “Imagine there is a war between America and Vietnam today,” “now any army general to boost the morale of his soldiers will say wherever you find an enemy kill him, he wouldn’t say get killed” (YouTube 2012b).

Thus like in the case of polygamy, or the act of killing soldiers, or sending non-believers to hell, Naik justifies the dictums by references to modern systems. There is absolutely no attempt to think of Islam as a metaphysical system on its own merits, or to think of it as a way of life forgetting other prevalent views, what one would expect from “fundamentalist” and “extremist” belief in a system.

Even his much touted, and now infamous argument against disallowing the building of churches and temples in ­Saudi Arabia, is done using the reality of mathematical numbers:

Now, I ask these non-Muslims, will you allow the candidate to teach in your school who says that 2 plus 2 equals 3 or that 2 plus 2 equals 6? They’ll say, no. I ask, why? They’ll say, because he does not have correct knowledge of mathematics. Similarly, as far as matters of religion are concerned we know for sure that only Islam is a true religion (YouTube 2011d).

Naik’s justification of controversial Islamic tenets is not by invoking a special metaphysical order of thought, a clash of civilisations. Instead, absurd ideas are justified by referring to other absurd ideas in the secular world we have taken for granted. It is in their relatability to arguments we are used to hearing in the modern world that their apparent “truth” lies.

This by itself: by “proving” religion by showing its similarity to common-sense—that Quran is like other things in this world—an utter stripping of divinity, should not ideally be reason sinister enough to make men feel so inspired and “fanatic” as to pick up arms. If it does, then surely the problem lies somewhere outside the logic of the dyad.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

1  See Samuel and Rozario (2010) for interviews of Naik’s followers in Bangladesh.

www.irf.net.

3  Deedat practised in the 1960s and 1970s, when Pentacostal televangelism was rampant in South Africa. Larkin (2008: 101) traces the form of Deedat’s Islamic Evangelism which not only used the rhetoric of missionary evangelism to his benefit but also its infrastructure; circulating pamphlets and audio-videocassettes of public lecture tours.

4  Several Indian scholars notably Ashis Nandy and T N Madan have pointed that Indian ­cultures might not share the same lines of ­separation between the material and the ­transcendental.

5  Audi and Wolterstorff (1997: 10) notes five kinds of religious ­obligations.

6  See Audi and Wolteustorft’s  (1997: 13) theorisation of mixed ­obligations.

7  See Jose Casanova (2011: 59).

 

References

 

Audi, Robert and Nicholas Wolterstorff (1997): Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Bala, Arun (2006): The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Casanova, José (2011): “The Secular, Secularisations, Secularisms,” Rethinking Secularism, Craig Calhoun et al (eds), New York: Oxford University Press, pp 54–74.

Larkin, Brian (2008): “Ahmed Deedat and the Form of Islamic Evangelism,” Social Text, Vol 96,
No 3, pp 101–21.

Naik, Zakir (nd): “Quran and Modern Science: Compatible or Incompatible,” www.irf.net, accessed on 30 July 2016.

—  (2000): “Answers to Non-Muslims’ Common Questions about Islam,” www.irf.net, accessed  on 30 July 2016.        

Osler, Margaret (2010): “Religion and the Chaning Historiography of the Scientific Revolution,” Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives, Thomas Dixon et al (eds), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 71–86.

Samuel, Geoffrey and Santi Rozario (2010): “Contesting science for Islam: The Media as a Source of Revisionist Knowledge in the Lives of Young Bangladeshis,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol 18, No 4, pp 427–41.

Shapin, Steven (1996): The Scientific Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sherwood, Yvonne (2015): “On the Freedom of the Concepts of Religion and Belief,” Politics of Religious Freedom, Winnifred Fallers et al (eds), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Charles (2007): A Secular Age, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

— (2011): “Western Secularity,” Rethinking Secularism, Craig Calhoun et al (eds), New York: Oxford University Press, pp 31–53.

YouTube (2010): “Dr Zakir Naik on Sania Mirza,”  posted on 2 August 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHDHQez80xo, accessed on
30 July 2016
.

—  (2011a): “Woman Challenging Zakir Naik on Polygamy,” posted on 11 June, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQaPBU5ppsk, accessed on 30 July 2016.

— (2011b): “Why Polygamy Is Allowed in Islam— Dr Zakir Naik,” posted on 2 August, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2bDkw57xRE, accessed on 30 July 2016.

YouTube (2011c): “FULL—New: Dr Zakir Naik —Quran & Modern Science,posted on 24 August,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v= r5h6CNhtVls, accessed on 30 July 2016.

—  (2011d): “Truth About Intellect Level of Islamic Scholar Zakir Naik Who Holds a Degree in Medicine and Surgery,” posted on 7 August,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXwjhJhaVck, accessed on 30 July 2016. 

— (2012a): “Why All Muslims Will Go to Heaven…,” posted on 1 January, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1w U7eBQjSCU, accessed on 30 July 2016.

—  (2012b): “سبحان الله استغفر الله, “Media & Islam War or Peace…?” posted on 29 March, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb1iiSxf3W4, accessed on 30 July 2016.

— (2012c): “Combat Kit Course Against Bible Thumpers–Sheikh Ahmad Deedat,” posted on 10 April, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= uT5HCFVGaAM, accessed on 30 July 2016.

— (2013): “Zakir Naik—Is God Egotistical for Punishing Us If We Believe in Other Gods?,” posted on 12 April, http://www.youtube.com/watch? v= 5WvMI47gRyw, accessed on 30 July 2016.

ZakirNaik.net (2015): “Twenty Most Common Questions about Islam…,” posted on 15 November, http://www.zakirnaik.net/20-most-common-questions-about-islam-dr-zakir-naik/, accessed on 30 July 2016.

 

 

 

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