Zakir Naik has a large following in Pakistan: Should we be alarmed?

Published: July 14, 2016
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PHOTO: REUTERS

Indian preacher Dr Zakir Naik has come under a lot of scrutiny after it emerged that the terrorists who carried out the terrorist attack in Dhaka on July 1st may have been radicalised by his preaching. Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla has been banned by the Bangladeshi government as a result. Peace TV has an ubiquitous presence all over South Asia, including Pakistan.

Zakir Naik is seen as having taken over the mantle of Ahmad Deedat, a preacher who was wildly popular in the VCR age. Zakir Naik is said to be “Deedat Plus,” a title given to him by the Deedat himself. He is a ghair muqalad Salafi who has more appeal to the urban middle class Muslims than other scholars. This is because he is a medical doctor by profession who addresses his audience in heavily accented but fluent English. His biggest appeal, therefore, is amongst the Anglophone Muslims right around the world. And he is an Islamic banker pitching takaful and murabaha products to good Muslims. This relation to Islamic finance is extremely significant. I will come to it a little later.

I met Zakir Naik on his lecture tour in the US in 2000 or 2001 when he spoke at my university. His main focus then was on proving that all scientific discoveries can be found in the Holy Quran. Not knowing Zakir Naik’s background, I had gone to the lecture expecting a Muslim modernist speaking on the compatibility of science with Islam but I was sorely disappointed. It was merely a repetition and regurgitation of the same mantra one has heard from evangelical preachers i.e. science needs to catch up with religion and not vice versa.

It is this attitude that has been the bane of progress in the Muslim world. We approach science and everything else with a view to confirm our religious beliefs. This approach basically means that we selectively accept those facts of science that correspond with our established religious beliefs and ignore those that on the face of it conflict with them, rather conveniently. Zakir Naik, despite being a medical doctor, rants against evolution for example. He rejects it as bad science.

This world view which makes science subservient to faith and in the process stifles it. Not only does this render the whole field useless, but more importantly, it goes against the grain of the culture of knowledge-seeking that Islam promoted in its early centuries, which produced scientists like Rhazes and Avicenna, who boldly questioned religion even in their pursuit of knowledge. Philosopher Karl Popper defined science by establishing “falsifiability” as its basic attribute. Falsifiability is that for a hypothesis to be scientific it should be inherently disprovable. The pseudoscience that Zakir Naik promotes cannot be falsified because it is based on faith and therefore certitude that comes with it. This stipulate is the nub of the perfidy that Zakir Naik is guilty of spreading amongst the impressionable young Muslim youth.

So what does this unscientific or pseudo-scientific thinking have to do with terrorism you may ask?

This brings me to takaful which is a form of mutual insurance that is said to be more Islamic than the conventional form of insurance and murabaha which is a cost plus variant of a conventional interest bearing loan.

Islamic finance, which has carved out for itself a niche amongst a captive Muslim market that sees conventional finance as being absolutely un-Islamic. It is a great tragedy of our times that Muslim modernists have failed to mount a proper doctrinal challenge to this notion. Meanwhile Islamic finance has emerged as the riba (increase) and gharar (deception) free alternative which exploits its customers just as much as conventional finance, if not more, but does so guaranteeing the customers – all pious and God fearing Muslims – reward in the hereafter.

Zakir Naik, I posit, is operating on the same business model. He is taking a captive Muslim population, which finds itself as fish out water when confronted with modernity, and giving them a hollow promise of the hereafter and he is doing so dressed up as a man of the world, a business executive in a suit, a spiritual Islamic banker of sorts. This captive population has been shocked and awed by the modern realities they confront – women’s rights, homosexuality, belief in evolution and something which many a pious Muslim refers to as the “free sex” society.

Zakir Naik capitalises on these anxieties by giving the flock a narrative of Islamic revival based on pseudo-science and a series of claims that are not falsifiable. Traditional maulvis cannot sell to this captive population but Zakir Naik can. He is the perfect salesperson for Salafism, the return to Salaf (pious forerunners). It is a literalist and puritanical approach to faith, one which brooks no disagreement and accepts no dissent. The Salafi doctrine most notably justifies acts of violence committed in the name of religion. From al Qaeda to ISIS, some of the most fanatical terrorists have been Salafi in ideology.

The dazed Muslim population, befuddled, confused and dumbfounded by the onslaught of modernity and globalisation laps up readily whatever Zakir Naik has to offer, including when he declares that Osama bin Laden is not a terrorist or when he says that he does not know if the media is correctly portraying the facts in Iran and Syria or when he declares that Shias are not Muslims.

His followers are convinced that all other religions and sects are wrong or at the very least imperfect, that Islam and especially their version of Salafi Islam alone is right and that Muslims alone are the chosen people. He does condemn violence though. He emphasises that the Quran forbids the taking of an innocent life.

Yet how long does it take to connect the dots between his position of absolute superiority of Islam over all other religions and the act of terrorism committed in the name of such superiority?

Not very long. The distance between Salafism and Salafi Jihadism is a very short one.

Zakir Naik and other preachers like him (we had Dr Israr Ahmad in this country) are like Bunsen burners of extremism, keeping the highly potent concoction of scriptural rigidity and straitjacket fundamentalism turning on a low flame, till the time comes. Then we take notice. Given that Zakir Naik has a large following in Pakistan as well, it is important to very closely watch what his TV channel is beaming into our homes. Even a hint of sectarian incitement or violence and we need to send his channel packing.

Yasser Latif Hamdani

Yasser Latif Hamdani

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He tweets as @theRealYLH (twitter.com/therealylh)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.