Dr Zakir Naiks tragedy (Daily Times (Pakistan))

Dr Zakir Naik is known across Pakistan as a physician by training, a learned scholar of comparative religions and the founder of the television channel by the name Peace TV. His extraordinary ability to reel off quranic and biblical versus with equal speed, along with his confidence and accuracy has inspired many young Muslims who after listening to his speeches read the scripture more attentively. I am not sure, if they focus on the message as much, but they do memorise the exact number of every single verse along with the name of its chapter (Sura). So when they quote the Quran in a discussion, they would also rattle off its numerical details. This strategy works in their favor every time, giving them an edge over their peers, boosting their confidence and making it easier for them to make their point. Do give it a try and you yourself would feel as if the divine authority now resides with you.
Dr Naik, an Indian by origin, is a tall man with an elongated face covered with a patchy salt and pepper beard, which for religious reasons stays untrimmed. A pair of glasses sits on top of his wide nose overlooking the eyes, magnifying them both in size and impact. Except for the eyes (perhaps), nothing in his appearance is extraordinary. Yet, you feel uncomfortable. I could not figure this out until recently. However, now, I think it is the oddity of his attire that creates confusion. He wears a formal, well-fitted, modern two-piece suit with a perfectly knotted necktie. What sets him apart is that while dresses in western clothes he always covers his head with a knitted kufi cap and pulls up his pants above the ankles following the Islamic principles, an odd combination, dont you think?
When I watched him for the first time a few years ago on television he was addressing a huge crowd. At least five thousand people had gathered to listen to his lecture. Not all of them belonged to his faith, there were Hindus, Sikhs and yes, Christians as well. His popularity was soaring at the time, spilling over to the neighboring states and piercing through the sectarian divides. Was his message that impressive? Or was it the blistering speed with which he fired off the verses from the Quran and the Bible?
I think his message stood controversial from day one, sugar coating his fanaticism and covering up his intolerance. But, he rose to prominence anyway. That happened not because of his fund of knowledge, although it played an important role, but because it was the right time to have an expert on the study of comparative religions.
After 9/11, unsure of how to react to the allegations from the west, Muslims did not know how to defend their faith. Dr Naik, quite simply, through his command, both on the Bible and the Quran, cheered them up. After listening to his lecture, instead of getting nervous about the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, every Muslim felt revitalised, confident about the supremacy of their religion and the accuracy of their scripture.
At that time, he should have stayed focused on the area of his expertise limiting his discussions to the scriptures. But, like any other religious scholar who gets carried away with media attention and notoriety, he too started commenting on every subject, from international politics to evolution, in his lectures and made the same mistake as his predecessors: combining religious facts with personal opinion. On one occasion he said that the 9/11 attack was an inside job and that he could not pronounce Osama Bin Laden (OBL) a terrorist because he (Dr Naik) has never met the leader of Al Qaeda personally nor does he have any proof of OBLs guilt. He did not stop there, and went on to say, “If bin Laden is fighting enemies of Islam, I am for him, but I am not sure if he is.” True, these comments made him unpopular in the west but here at home, as an emerging anti-imperialist scholar, his popularity graph climbed higher and higher.
As if the geo politics was not enough, he then commented as a scientist specialising in evolution and said, “Evolution is still a theory, which has not been confirmed yet,” implying that soon a new evidence could emerge that would undermine, refute or oppose the current concepts of human existence.
But the final nail in the coffin that destroyed his clean reputation was his repetitive, unapologetic and incautious remarks concerning Yazeed, the notorious Ummayad caliph responsible for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (RA). That statement unmasked the facade of his neutral and objective approach towards religious discord, exposing him as the supporter of the doctrine promoted by Ibne Taimeyyah and followed in letter and spirit by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through a pact between the House of Saud and its religious elite. What should have happened next if you took a stance against Shias, in public, in favor of the Salafi doctrine? Yes, you guessed right.
Standing next to the newly crowned King of Saudi Arabia and holding the certificate with him, Dr Zakir Naik received the most prestigious award of the kingdom last week. It was handed over to him in recognition of his “Service to Islam” in a ceremony hosted by the Royals, held at a splendid five star hotel. Facing the camera, a big smile runs across his face as if he truly believes he has served the religion well and has built a bridge between the hostile sects, which of course did not happen.
The tragedy with many scholars, in my opinion, is that the more you want to define Islam through the eyes of a single expert, the more you reject the alternative points of view, and the more you elevate yourself on a higher moral pedestal, the distortion and fragmentation you are going to create in religion would be much deeper and harder to reconcile, and that is what has happened to Dr Naik as well.