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Naik, Zakir

By:
Hilal Ahmed
Source:
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

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Naik, Zakir

(b. 1965)

a leading Islamic public intellectual, was born on October 18, 1965 in Mumbai, India. A medical doctor by professional training, Naik is the president of the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) which he established in 1991. The IRF is involved in various religious philanthropic activities. It also manages Peace TV, the official channel of the organization, and the International Islamic School (IIS) in Mumbai, India.

Zakir Naik’s Da’wah project (invitation to Islam) traces its genealogy in the works of Sheikh Ahmed Deedat, a famous orator on Islam. In one of his speeches, Naik claimed that Deedat changed his life and encouraged him to give up his medical career for the sake of Islamic Da’wah. According to Naik’s official website, Deedat once described Naik as “Deedat plus.” However, there is a considerable difference between Deedat and Naik.

Naik’s project is much more ambitious, which even goes beyond the conventional Islamic reformist discourse of Islaah. According to Naik, “Da’wah means a ‘call’ or ‘invitation’…to invite non-Muslims to Islam as well as the Muslims to the true understanding and practice of Islam, ….many Muslims…doing Islaah… have completely ignored Da’wah…Therefore, it is …our responsibility to concentrate on Da’wah in order to fill this vacuum.” Naik’s Da’wah, in this sense, is more concerned about the modes by which his interpretation of Islam could adequately be disseminated.

This emphasis on propagation of the Islamic message makes Naik a media phenomenon. His image of an authoritative modern-rational Islamic orator is created, nurtured, and proliferated primarily through his media establishment, the IRF, and Peace TV. The IRF employs technology to reach out to its target audience through international satellite TV channels, cable TV networks, internet, and the print media. Naik’s Peace TV has been a highly successful venture. This channel telecasts free to air TV shows in English, Urdu, and Bangla covering many countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Many of Naik’s talks, dialogues, debates, and symposia are also available on videocassettes, CDs, and audiocassettes.

Naik’s media-centric image is also related to thematic issues, which he addresses in his speeches, discussions, and even writings. The categorization and classification of the frequently asked questions (FAQ) section on the IRF website provides a broad overview of what Naik calls “misconceptions about Islam.” The books, pamphlets, and Islamic manuals written by Naik are also based on these FAQs. His verbal responses to the questions given as FAQs on the IRF website are transcribed and compiled in these publications. In this sense, Naik’s writings might be described as an extended version of his speeches.

There are five types of FAQs: most common questions asked by non-Muslims; most common questions asked by non-Muslims who have some knowledge of Islam; common questions asked by Hindus; common questions asked by Christian missionaries; and queries on Islam. Besides these FAQs, there is a sub-menu where each section is devoted to the leading faiths of the world, including atheism. These FAQs offer us an interesting thematic schema: women/sex and Islamic superiority over other religions are the most dominant subjects that are followed by issues related to idol worship, debates on halal food/vegetarianism, and ritualistic obligations for Muslims.

Naik, quite intriguingly, does not refute the claims and beliefs that he identifies as misconceptions. On the contrary, he seems to endorse the prevalent interpretations rather implicitly, and even goes on to substantiate them through evidences/facts extracted directly from the Qur’an and the Hadith. In other words, Naik seems to take up popular “misconceptions” as reference points for evolving an equally essentialist media-centric discourse of Islamic Da’wah.

Two examples are very relevant to elaborate this point. Replying to a question regarding the use of term kafir for non-Muslims, Naik says: “Kafir is derived from the word kufr, which means one who conceals…the truth of Islam… if any non-Muslim considers the word kafir as an abuse, he may choose to accept Islam and then we will stop referring to him a kafir.” Similarly, when he is asked about the freedom of religion in Islamic regimes, he argues that since Islam is the only true religion and Muslims believe in it, propagation of other religions is not permissible in an Islamic country. By the same logic, Naik also supports the entry restriction imposed on non-Muslims in the cities of Mecca and Medina. He says, “the primary condition required for any human being to enter Makkah or Medina is to say… …there is no God but Allah and Muhammad (PBUH) is his messenger.”

Naik claims that the most appropriate method of understanding Islam is to “understand the authentic sources of Islam”—the Qur’an and the authentic Hadith. In his opinion, the Qur’an, being the words of Allah, could only be decoded through the sayings of Prophet Muhammad because it was revealed to him. Two aspects of this method of interpretation are relevant: (a) the absolute and unquestionable authenticity of Islamic sources (the Qur’an and the Hadith) and (b) a self-evident hermeneutics embedded within the sources, which set out the adequate terms of interpretation. Evoking this text-centric approach, Naik seems to rule out all possibility of human intervention in the divinity of Islam. For him the words of Allah as well as the meanings given to these words by the Prophet are fixed, objective, unbiased, and above all rational.

This strict adherence to Qur’anic textuality helps Naik to draw legitimacy for his explanations. He does not recognize the Hindu gods Rama and Krishna as prophets of Allah as he does not find any direct reference to these figures in the Qur’an and the Hadith; he opposes customary practices such as wearing a mangalsutra by Muslim women (a black thread wore by married women, mainly Hindus in India) because he finds it offensive to the Islamic dress code; he does not approve of music because there is no mention of it in texts.

Naik’s version of Islam and his Da’wah project are criticized for being highly provocative. Naik’s project is described as “tempered jehad,” because of its seemingly sympathetic attitude toward Islamic fundamentalism. For Naik, a fundamentalist is a person “who follows and adheres to the doctrine or theory he is following.” Following this definition, he describes himself as well as all practicing Muslims as fundamentalist. The same logic is evoked to justify terrorism. Naik argues that “a true Muslim should be a terrorist to selective people, i.e., anti-social elements, and not to the common innocent people.” These refined commonsensical explanations somehow contribute to Naik’s image of a prominent Muslim figure, who is usually found in the top ranks of various lists of “influential individuals.” This image is further consolidated whenever he is opposed directly. The denial of a visa for him to visit the United Kingdom and Canada in 2010 is a relevant example in this regard. According to media reports, UK as well as Canadian authorities rejected his visa applications primarily because of his controversial stand on terrorism and fundamentalism.

There is an Islamic criticism of Naik as well. The ulema, particularly a section of ulema associated with Deoband, criticize Naik for disregarding the established traditions of Islamic reasoning. It is argued that Naik overemphasizes the Qur’an and Hadith and pays no attention to two other components of reasoning qyas (analogical reasoning) and ijma (consensual opinion of Muslim ulema on a particular issue). This internal criticism is also related to the changing configuration of the contemporary Islamic intellectual domain. Naik is not trained in any Islamic system of education, yet he ventures to challenge the hegemony of the ulema class by evoking the original sources. Although Naik’s call to go back to the original does not produce any radically different interpretation of Islam, the ulema class finds it difficult to accept it primarily because Naik’s textual approach has no place for them.

Although there are a number of articles, news reports and commentaries on Zakir Naik, he has not been given any sustained academic attention and appears merely as a passing reference in the discussions on fundamentalism, Islamic modernities, secularism, and human rights. As a result, his version of Islam, his method of mobilization, and his multiple receptions in Muslim societies, remain analytically unexplored.

Zakir Naik is an influential contributor to an emerging and powerful discourse of online Islamic ummah, a community of seemingly believing internet and TV users, who seek to discover ready to use solutions for the challenges posed by the contemporary moment of globalized modernity. Precisely for this reason, Naik should also be studied in relation to the images, metaphors, and vocabularies by which Islamic faith(s) is expressed and contemporary Islamic religiosities are constituted.

Bibliography

  • Brekke, Torkel. Fundamentalism: Prophesy and Protest in an Age of Globalization. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Dhume, Sadanand. “The Trouble with Dr Zakir Naik.” The Wall Street Journal. June 20, 2012. online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704365204575317833268479268.
  • Kulkarni, Sudheendra. “Who’s Responsible for the Stereotypes of Islam??” The Indian Express, April 1, 2007.
  • Robinson, Rowena. Tremors of Violence: Muslim Survivors of Ethnic Strife in Western India. Delhi: Sage, 2005.
  • Sikand, Yoginder. “Dr. Zakir Naik: New Target of Mullah Ire.” New Age Islam. January 27, 2011. newageislam.com/NewAgeIslamArticleDetail.aspx.
  • Sikand, Yoginder. “Zakir Naik: ‘Islamic Media’ Mogul Faces New Foes.” New Age Islam. January 11, 2011. www.newageislam.com/NewAgeIslamMuslimMedia_1.aspx.
  • Swami, Praveen. “Roads to perdition? The politics and practice of Islamist terrorism in India.” In Religion and Security in South and Central Asia, edited by Kulbhushan Warikoo. London: Routledge, 2011.
  • Zakir Naik’s official website: www.irf.net.
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