Zakir Naik’s Appeal and the Quagmire of Inter-religious Relations in Malaysia
June 17, 2016

1.Para1The recent visit by Indian preacher, Dr Zakir Naik, had raised considerable debate on the state of inter-religious relations in Malaysia. It came amidst rising tensions and unease over several issues plaguing the multi-cultural nation that is seeing an increasing turn towards religious conservatism. Zakir Naik’s visit was certainly not an ordinary one. He was invited to Malaysia by no less than the Chief Minister of Terengganu, Datuk Seri Ahmad Razif Abd Rahman. Two years ago, Naik was awarded the prestigious “Tokoh Ma’al Hijrah” by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah. Amidst protests against his visit by Hindu groups, Chinese and Indian-based political parties, as well as the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), Minister at the Prime Minister’s Department, Shahidan Kassim warned non-Muslims not to “interfere in [Muslim] religious matters” and called Zakir Naik a “special human being” (Malay Mail, 12 April, 2016); while his deputy, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki regarded him as representing “a voice of moderation [for Islam], not only among Muslims, but especially non-Muslims.” (Today, 19 April, 2016) Given criticisms against many of his views that were seen as ambivalent or sympathetic to terrorism, as well as his derisive approach towards other faiths, it is certainly infelicitous to uphold him as a voice of moderation.[1]


The political context of Malaysia

The support accorded by the Malaysian government, including a meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak, had raised legitimate fears that multi-cultural sensibilities in Malaysia are taking a sharp turn for the worse and egged by certain extremist quarters that now dominate the ruling party, UMNO. Academics such as Alatas (2014) and Osman (2014) had identified “Salafism” as the hardline Islam that now dominates the Malaysian government, with consequences, including in inter- and intra-religious relations. Zakir Naik’s views certainly mirror those of the Salafists.[2] Peace TV, a 24-hour television broadcast over more than 200 countries and heavily funded by Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation International, features popular Salafist preachers such as Bilal Philips, Waleed Basyouni, Yusuf Estes, Abdur Raheem Green, Ismail Musa Menk, Yasir Qadhi, Salem al-Aamry and Hussain Yee.[3]

However, the entrenchment of Salafism may be one aspect of a longer trend happening within the Malaysian religio-political landscape. Since the early 1980s, state-sponsored Islamisation has taken centre stage as the ruling party UMNO engages in identity politics over its rival, the Islamist party PAS. (Muzaffar, 1987; Mutalib, 1990) Much of this move towards Islamisation drew upon ideas and literatures of Islamist ideologues and movements, ranging from Abul a’la Maududi (d. 1979) and the Jamaat-e Islam of the Indian subcontinent, Syed Qutb (d. 1966) and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt; and the networks of Saudi-funded institutions, such as the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and others. These were to form a global proliferation of what El Fadl (2002) calls “puritanical Islam”, of which, Malaysia was a part of, driven by the fervour of “dakwah” (Islamic mission) since the late 1970s (Nagata, 1984; Kepel, 2002).

Nonetheless, the deterioration in inter-religious relations in Malaysia must also be located within more recent happenings. It was in the early years of 2000 that tensions over inter-religious relations occupied significant public attention. The case of Lina Joy who failed in her application for the Federal Court in 2007 to recognise her apostasy from Islam “became a focal point for tensions between religious Muslims and religious minorities” that eventually forced her into hiding over threats to her life. (Tan & Lee, 2008) Another significant controversy was over the formation of the Initiative for Inter-Faith Commission (IFC) in 2005 that saw the emergence of the Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs (ACCIN) protesting against the commission over fears that it will erode the position of Islam as the “religion of the Federation” as well as the power and rights of Muslims and institutions such as the Majlis Agama and the Syariah Court. (Abdullah & Sieh, 2007)

In the aftermath of the 2008 general elections, these tensions took an acute turn. In 2009, a cow head protest over the building of a Hindu temple erupted in opposition-controlled state of Selangor that saw one protestor charged under the Sedition Act for “inciting racial animosity with carrying a cow-head” and another for for carrying and stepping on a cow-head with “the intention to create racial tension”. (The Malaysian Insider, 19 October, 2010) Along with several other incidents, Muslim-non-Muslim relations saw a sharp decline over the prohibition of the use of the word “Allah” for non-Muslims. In 2009, the newsletter, Herald – The Catholic Weekly, received a ministerial order to stop using the word “Allah” or risk having the newsletter’s publication permit revoked. The Church challenged the order in court and had the High Court decided in its favour but overturned by the Appeal Court who ruled in favour of the government in 2013. Following that, the Selangor Islamic Religious Council raided the premises of the Bible Society of Malaysia and confiscated Malay and Iban-language Bibles. (Neo, 2014)

The controversy over Zakir Naik’s visit must be seen within these longer and larger context. Mohamad (2010) identified the expansion of the religious bureaucracy within Malaysia’s ethnocratic state as key to understanding events within the last few years: “The enlargement of the Islamic and Syariah bureaucracy produced a new class of Syariah Islamists spawning an Islamic civil society which was bent on prolonging the state of ethnocratization to its advantage. Furthermore, this phase of Islamization fashioned a majority out of the legality of being Muslim. The way that this could be possible was to ‘ring-fence’ the identity of the Malay as one being attached to Islam. Both Syariah and the civil judiciary complemented one another to ensure that the legal majority can be created within a non-negotiable premise. While also criminalizing all forms of heterodoxies within the Islamic worldview, the rule of no-exit out of the system was rigidly implemented. The controversial litigations involving Muslim-non-Muslim rights thus reflected how the Syariah system and its proponents have become the salient structures and players in the prolongation of ethnic democracy.” (p. 80)

2.Para7Since the last few years, right-wing Islamo-Malay agenda are increasingly playing central role in prodding the direction of Malaysian politics. The fusion of “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay supremacy) with “Ketuanan Islam” (Islamic supremacy) took place within this backdrop. They grew in importance over a perceived twin notion of “erosion of Malay rights” and “Islam under siege”. Welsh (2013) traced this to the former Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi’s era, where “Many of the reactionaries inside the system lost faith in Abdullah’s leadership to protect their interests and began to organize and take to the public space.” (p. liii) The fear of the Malays losing political power – of which UMNO had positioned itself as the protector of Malay rights – became real after the 2008 General Elections. Seeing a substantial erosion of Chinese and Indian votes towards the ruling party, the ruling national coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) cannot afford to further lose Malay votes. Thus, negotiations with PAS (who fared badly in the 2008 elections, compared to their Opposition partners, the Democratic Alliance Party and the Parti Keadilan Rakyat) under the Malay Unity Plan, began soon after. Issues of race and religion were hyped in order to stoke fears of the Malays against all sorts of threats. It is little wonder that Naik’s visit was used to promote calls for Malay/Muslim unity. Naik was quoted as saying, “I am happy when the resistance [towards his presence in Malaysia] opened the eyes of the two Islamic political parties in Malaysia, Umno and PAS, and united them. As can be seen, when enemies appear, the Muslim community becomes more unified.” (Malay Mail, 13 April, 2016)


Abuse of ‘Comparative Religion’

Malaysian news agencies reported that some 40,000 people attended Naik’s final lecture on 14 April, 2016 in the Malaysian state of Terengganu. No less than five people converted to Islam during the Malaysian lecture tour. (Malay Mail, 17 April, 2016) Naik’s lectures, hence, is no different from the religious performativity often seen in evangelistic circles, where charismatic preachers took centre stage in what is essentially a mass spectacle. Typically, his lectures would stretch for three to four hours, often into the wee hours of morning. Occasional outbursts of claps and shouts of takbir can be observed whenever he was deemed to have ‘scored a point for Islam’ in a typical debate style speech.

Much of Naik’s approach can be properly identified as “confrontationalist”. Bennett (2008) defines confrontationalists as those who “believe that they already possess the truth and that they possess this exclusively, so the Other cannot possibly have anything valuable to offer. They may also believe that they know all about the Other’s beliefs before the encounter, and consider them to be wrong. At best, this may be due to human error. At worse, a more sinister explanation is available. When Others are encountered, polemic, diatribe and debate follow. The aim of such debate is to convince the Other to change their minds, to admit that their religion is wrong. They will then be expected to convert. Confrontationalists may compare their own best practice with the Other’s worse, or ignore planks in their own eyes.” (p. 9). Typically, confrontationalists resent others’ caricature of themselves, but they have no qualms about caricaturing the Other because, as Goddard (1995) posits, “it makes them feel good – and superior” (p. 9).

3.Para10.RightMore sinister is Naik’s claim that he is engaging in “comparative religion” – a term that refers to a specialist discipline in the academic study of religion. Claiming so gave Naik an aura of respectability as a “scholar of comparative religion” when he was engaging in no more than a polemical debate with only rudimentary knowledge of the various religions he claimed to be an expert in. One of the cardinal rules in comparative religion discipline was noted by Parrinder (1962): “If other religions are to be studied, it must be fairly and freely.” (p. 33) This requires the removal of prejudices as well as imbibing the spirit of tolerance and respect. Hence, the confrontational approach to other religion is precisely the opposite of doing comparative religion. “The important thing,” Parrinder notes, “is to get beyond attacking and denigrating other faiths.” (p. 62) He adds: “If there is to be any judgment or comparison of religions it must be by their best, and not by their worst. With what measure we judge, we shall be judged. And if we recognize that other religions stand in need of reform, this cannot be done in a spirit of superiority as if we needed no reform in our own religion. We need it as much as they do. We can learn from other religions, and from the religious and moral criticisms they offer to us. We can learn from their criticism to seek the essence of our own faith better. We can learn from their religion.” (p. 115)

Judged from the aims and methodology employed in the discipline of comparative religion, Zakir Naik is certainly not engaging in ‘comparative religion’. His misappropriation of a discipline that had contributed to deeper and meaningful inter-religious understanding, is serious and fatal. It informs public perception on how “comparative religion” ought to be done – which is, in fact, the very opposite of what the discipline is all about. Clooney (2010), in delineating an emerging similar discipline known as comparative theology, notes that the word comparative indicates “a reflective and contemplative endeavour by which we see the other in light of our own, and our own in light of the other.” (p. 11) Naik’s sense of completeness and almost absolute certainty in his views under the cloak of “Islam”, prevents a humble and earnest exchange of religious insights. Such an exchange will require a certain need for suspension of judgment and the willingness to adopt principles such as humility and empathy, which Cornille (2013) highlighted as among those needed when encountering the religious Other. No fruitful exchanges – marked by mutual learning and deep understanding – can occur when one party assumes superiority and infallibility; hence, the inability to listen and self-reflect when encountering difference. As noted by Kimball (1991), inter-religious dialogue “should not be understood as a kind of pre-evangelization or a forum for evangelization.” (p. 114) Naik, unfortunately, subverts the task of serious scholars of comparative religion by debasing inter-religious encounters to a matter of debate and boxing match, and ultimately, fishing for converts. He is not seeking mutual understanding through dialogue, but a platform to prove himself right (often conflating his views with “Islam”) and others wrong.


The Deedat connection

Zakir Naik’s own rise to stardom status within Muslim evangelical circles would not be possible without the path paved earlier by his mentor and equally, if not more celebrated preacher, Ahmed Deedat. It was in December, 1987, during Deedat’s lecture tour in India, that Zakir Naik was unearthed and touted as a potential replacement for Deedat. Naik himself reflected on his personal connection to Deedat – the latter hailed as one of the most gifted orators in the Muslim evangelical circle. Naik confessed: “I got inspiration from Shaykh Deedat. Believe me, if it hadn’t been for Uncle Deedat, I’d have been in the surgery doing some operations [Naik was a trained surgeon]. Uncle Deedat has changed many people like me – I’ve met several hundred who told me this personally. As far as I am concerned, he has completely changed my full life, every hour of my life, every second.” (Vahed, 2013; p. 194) Naik even claimed that “As far as da’wah is concerned I don’t think there is anybody in the world who knows him [Deedat] better than me because I am in his shoes now.” (ibid.) In many aspects, Naik unabashedly borrowed the style and arguments used by Deedat. But while Deedat focused primarily on attacks against Christianity, Naik ventured into Hinduism, which raised the ire of Hindus in India and elsewhere throughout his career as a polemicist preacher.

4.Para13But who is Ahmed Deedat (d. 2005)? Hailed from South Africa, Deedat was known as a polemicist for Islam in a long tradition of Muslim-Christian polemics. Deedat himself would attribute his inspiration to Izhar ul-Haq – the work of a 19th century Muslim scholar, Rahmatullah Kairanawi (d. 1891) – which Deedat said “was the turning point in my life”.[4] Responding to Christian missionary attempts to convert Muslims in India, Kairanawi wrote the influential voluminous text called Izhar ul-Haq. First published in Arabic in 1864, it was a response to Christian criticisms on Islam while showing the errors of the Bible and Christian doctrines. Kairanawi, in particular, was debating a prominent missionary, Karl Gottlieb Pfander of the Church Mission Society in India. Much of the arguments used by Kairanawi was adopted by later polemicists, including the reformer, Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) (Goddard, 1996). Both Kairanawi and Rida’s polemical works on Christianity were proven to be influential in the Muslim world. Ryad (2009) notes that Rida’s views on the Christian faith and its Scriptures had left their impress upon later Muslim writers, although the earlier works by Kairanawi had played a greater role in Muslim polemics and apologetic discourse. (p. 316)

However, Deedat was no scholar and certainly not of equal intellectual stature as Kairanawi, Rida or even later influential thinkers in Christian-Muslim polemics, like Maududi and Syed Qutb whose critiques of Christianity associated with the West were similar to Deedat’s. But despite his lack of scholarly writings (apart from pamphlets and short tracts with little substance), Deedat cannot be ignored. Like Naik, Bennett (2008) reckons that “regrettable or not, it is a fact that Deedat’s views resonate widely with much Muslim opinion.” (p. 167) But what made Deedat adamant on taking on Christianity in a polemical way, may have got to do with the similar experiences of earlier Muslim polemicists such as Kairanawi and Rida. Ebi Lockhat, who worked for Deedat for several years, revealed that the colonial context had greatly shaped Deedat’s outlook: “He came from an era where he was under colonial domination. He was a product of that British colony when he came to South Africa, and here we had this policy of segregation and later apartheid, especially with the Indian Muslims…Now within that environment, what was the way to strike back? The only way to strike back – and he found it – was to stand up for, and not feel inferior about, his religion.” (Vahed, 2013; p. 7) Coupled with aggressive Christian door-to-door proselytisation, Deedat, as with a lot of Muslims, felt that Islam was under attack and in need of a defender. Deedat assumed that role and his gift of the gab convinced many Muslims that he was indeed God-given to reclaim the lost dignity of a humiliated community facing the “threats of Christianisation, in addition to colonialism”.

Deedat’s style is certainly flamboyant and rhetorical, with the intent to both, entertain, as much as to edify. Zebiri (1997) notes how Deedat “employs ridicule and sarcasm, and not infrequently raises laughter from the Muslim section of his audience. He also utilizes crude language and images which seem designed to shock.” (p. 47) Often, Deedat made aggressive calls to debate with the aim to humiliate his opponents. An example was when he issued a pamphlet in January 1985, titled “His Holiness Plays Hide and Seek with Muslims.” In a follow-up interview three months later, he accused Pope John Paul II as “trying to bluff the people by ‘dialogue’” when in fact, “he is telling his people, don’t convert to Islam.” (Vahed, 2013; p. 167) In his last tour of Britain in 1995, a report for a local education authority noted: “Deedat invited the audience to join him in mockery of the papacy and of an elementary and literal reading of the Bible. He scolded them because they remained ignorant of Papal trickery: behind the smooth talk of dialogue there was a dangerous attempt to undermine and attack Islam…Deedat uses humour and scurrilous innuendo to make sure his audience sees Christianity, the Pope, the Catholic Church and the Bible as unworthy of respect. His approach is populist. He invites his audience to join him in an infantile and sneering assault on central tenets of the Christian faith. He quotes strong and occasionally obscene language (e.g. a recent Christian drama about the crucifixion) without fully appraising the audience of the context from which he quotes, to pour scorn on Christianity. The person of the Pope emerges from this treatment as, at best a self-deceived clown, at worst a consummate and skilful deceiver…bent on attacking Islam under the guise of false calls to a dialogue.”” (Lewis, 2001; p. 212-3)

5.Para16.RightSince 1982, Deedat was banned from entering Singapore. The White Paper on “Maintenance of Religious Harmony”, submitted to parliament and forming the basis for the republic’s Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act 1990, cited Deedat as making “disparaging remarks about Christianity, branding it as the most foolish religion because Christians believe Jesus to be God.” (p. 17) Zakir Naik, following the footsteps of his mentor, was also denied permit to deliver public speeches in the island-state known for strong stance against provocateurs of inter-religious harmony. His last attempt to speak in Singapore – albeit denied – was in 2009, upon the invitation of local dakwah group, The Muslim Converts’ Association of Singapore. His first public lecture in Singapore was in 1998, where he made a controversial remark: “If he [Osama bin Laden] is fighting the enemies of Islam, I’m for him…If he’s terrorising America, the biggest terrorist, I’m with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist!“[5] Naik was also barred from entry into the UK and Canada in 2010. Among reasons cited was his remarks that were construed to be supportive, if not sympathetic towards terrorism, advocating for death penalty for apostasy and homosexuality, and disparaging remarks against other faiths. (BBC News, 18 June, 2010; National Post, 22 June, 2010)

Apart from the similarities in style and content, a continuity of funding can be observed from the institutions that both, Deedat and Naik, founded and helmed. It is important to note that Deedat’s shot to global fame in the Muslim world was facilitated by the Saudi-funded institution, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) in 1977. WAMY was to play a crucial role in the spread of Salafi ideas globally, particularly among emerging youth leaders. The role of WAMY in supporting Deedat’s forays into the global scene occurred during the time that Anwar Ibrahim (an influential dakwah activist who later became the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia) became the Asia Pacific representative, hence, facilitating the transmission of Deedat’s ideas into the Malay Islamic scene through WAMY. But it was Ahmad Totonji, a revivalist leader with ties to dakwah institutions in the West such as the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in UK and Eire (FOSIS), the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) of the USA and Canada, and the International Islamic Federation of Students Organizations (IIFSO), who provided the platforms and linkages necessary to shoot Deedat to fame internationally in the late 1970s. (Vahed, 2013; p. 159; cf. Poston, 1992 for links to Muslim Brotherhood). It was also noted that Deedat, through Totonji and WAMY, received considerable financial support from the Saudis, including the Bin Laden family and Abd al-Aziz bin Baz. In fact, Deedat was accorded the King Faisal International Prize in 1986 by the Saudi government. Lewis (2001) highlighted “the influence of Saudi Arabia in lending lustre and economic support to a polemicist who contributes nothing to serious Islamic engagement with non-religious traditions. Such expressions of Saudi influence over Islamic institutions in Britain give cause for concern.” (p. 214) As observed, the Wahhabi faith – the official creed of the Saudi regime – is often inimical to positive inter-religious relations. It is little wonder that Deedat and Naik’s polemical approach found support through the Saudi regime, who may also be riding on the preachers’ popularity to bolster the regime’s image internationally as a supporter of Islamic dakwah – which is often seen as a resistance to “the West”, even as the regime continues to be an ally to the US in its political rivalry with Iran. (Mabon, 2015)


Unresolved issues

It has been noted that polemical works, largely of anti-Christian nature, are not entirely new throughout Muslim history. Among the earliest such works were the writings of ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025), Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) and Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328).[6] The polemical approach adopted by early Muslim scholars can be attributed to several factors. Abdelmajid Charfi mentioned six, as summarised by Goddard (2000): (1) the need to balance demographic factors, given that Muslims in this period were still numerically only a small minority of the population of the Empire as a whole; (2) the need to integrate converts to Islam without adopting a syncretistic approach; the concurrent theological elaboration of Islam, which was not a separate endeavour from the production of polemical literature, given that many individuals were involved in both processes; (3) the Muslim community’s research about its roots, which included the search for Biblical references to Muhammad’s message, in order to promote its authentication and legitimation; (4) the need for a solution to social antagonism, which arose particularly in times of economic stagnation, and where the role of polemical literature was to justify the repression of Christians; and (6) the defence of Islamic civilisation against other civilisations. (p. 60)[7] Given the circumstances, Ayoub (2007) surmised that “The history of Muslim-Christian relations has largely been a story of mistrust, misgiving, and misunderstanding.” (p. 43)

Nonetheless, early Muslim writings were not all of the same sort. There were also those that were conciliatory in approach, such as the works of al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), or that of the Muslim-Hindu reconciliation in the works of Dara Shikoh (d. 1659).[8] But Deedat and Naik chose the polemical path and adopted several critique of other faiths as laid out by their predecessors. Even so, as Zebiri notes, Deedat and Naik clearly “fall short of medieval Muslim scholarship, which sometimes demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the contrasting beliefs and practices of different Christian sects.” (Zebiri, 1997: p. 87) While early polemicists can be located within the level of interactions and standards of knowledge of their era, the modern context offers wide avenues to know the Other in more intimate details with the proliferation of technology that allows ease of contact and access to information. Hence, modern polemicists’ – Deedat and Naik, in particular – failure to represent other faiths accurately and fairly, is a function of prejudice and lack of empathy, in addition to intellectual laziness.

But what could account for the popularity of Deedat and Naik? There may be multiple factors, but one of them is certainly, as Lewis opined (2001), the “trauma colonialism wrought on Muslim peoples whose religious self-understandings as “the best of all communities” led them to suppose that Islam should prevail over all religious and ideological alternatives.” It is marked by “the wounded pride of living in a post-colonial world within the continuing hegemony of western culture; the painful realisation that for many Muslims voluntary exile or political asylum in the West provides greater security and religious freedom than many Muslim-majority countries; and the dislocation wrought by migration, exacerbated by racism and Islamophobia.” (p. 214) Hence, the “humiliated mind” (Lindner, 2006), would be conducive to preachers like Deedat and Naik to drum the idea of “superiority” and “defeat” of the religious Other. If one cannot win in this world, at the very least, one is assured of winning in the hereafter. Ayoub (2007) too notes that supremacist attitudes – marked by supercessionist exclusiveness – “was motivated more by political than religious considerations.” (p. 45)

As with the rise of fundamentalism as a mirror response to Western supremacy (Euben,1999; Sayyid,1997), the dakwah phenomenon was yet another mirror response to the charge that Islam is an inferior religion vis-à-vis the Christian faith of the civilised world. As noted by Zebiri (1997), “Given the close identification in Muslim writings between Christianity and the West, a primary factor [for proliferation of polemicist approach] must be the still-fresh memory of the colonial experience, compounded by the continuing economic and political dominance of Western countries. In these circumstances, some dignity at least can be preserved by the claim to moral and religious superiority.” (p. 45) Deedat’s own statement was telling of this. He implored Muslims to stand up to the West who was “brainwashing our children in such a manner that they [are] feeling inferior. The missionary, who knocks on your door, is militant. No matter what smiling face he comes with, he knows in his heart that he is better than you, otherwise he wouldn’t dare knock on your door to tell you that you are going to hell, he wants to save us from hellfire. He tells you that all your good deeds are like filthy rags, all your fasting and your prayers and your zakat and your hajj is all a waste of time… This means the giver is superior to the taker.”[9] (cited, Vahed, 2013; p. 8) Given the socio-political climate and historical baggage, it will not be surprising to find mass support for preachers who can at least give semblance of dignity back to the inferior complex that Muslims had suffered from a long history of being dominated and humiliated in an unresolved post-colonial condition. Muslim rulers too would be supportive of moves to ride upon this – as seen in authoritarian regimes’ appropriation of Islam for political legitimacy. Saudi Arabia’s support, in particular, to the likes of Deedat and Naik as discussed above, can be located within this context. As Zebiri (1997) notes, in today’s context, “it is Muslim rather than Western governments who are now more likely to be found sponsoring activities aimed at religious propagation.” (p. 2)


Way forward

What we had seen above is that the controversy over Zakir Naik’s visit to Malaysia in 2016 must be seen within the context of Malaysian religious politics that emerged from the period of dakwah resurgence in the 1970s, as well as the more recent political instability after the 2008 general elections. In addition, Naik must not be seen in isolation from a long polemical tradition within Islam, which contains two strands: one, the early historical contestations between Muslim and Christian empires, and two, a struggle to fend off Christian missionary movements that came along with colonisation of Muslim lands. The mess from de-colonisation process further exacerbates the situation and ensuring a ready audience for polemicists like Naik, and his predecessor and mentor, Ahmed Deedat. But where is this headed to?

6.Para23First and foremost, the polemicist approach to inter-religious engagement must be properly scrutinised and critique. Zebiri (1997) laments that “Muslim anti-Christian polemic goes relatively unnoticed, even in the age of the mass-media, because it occurs within an almost exclusively Muslim market, and is rarely subjected to critical scrutiny.” (p. 89) She further notes that, “where Muslim bookshops stock books on Christianity authored by non-Christians”, they tend to be selected titles, often bestsellers, which are deemed either to cast aspersions on the origins of Christianity or to reflect badly on Christians by exposing some scandal.” (ibid) Hence, a way to further positive inter-religious relations is to populate the market with quality works that offer correct information and help to bridge mutual understanding. (p. 89) Such works are readily available but tend to be written in a manner that may not be accessible to lay readers. Therefore, efforts must be made to commission, produce and disseminate comparative religious works that can cater to the popular market, but without the trappings of essentialism and disinformation as found in polemical literatures that currently dominate Muslim bookstores.

Second, the exposure to alternative ways of engaging with the religious Other, must be cultivated by those who seek greater peaceful co-existence among people of faiths. Kimball (1991) had noted that education should be the starting point. This educational process “must never presuppose that we fully understand another religious tradition.” (p. 108) Hence, continuous education through dialogue and mutual learning must take place, where contact with the religious Other can occur in a friendly and safe environment, rather than a hostile and confrontational one. This, in many aspects, is already in place in many parts of the world, examples of which had been compiled by interfaith activist-scholars such as Patel (2006), Bharat (2007), and Abu-Nimer (2007). Through inter-religious education, instilled from young and guided by wise religious leaders and interfaith activists, confrontational engagements can give way to reconciliatory approaches, with the aims of forging mutual respect, embrace of diversity and differences, and the desire to pursue the common good for all in the spirit of peaceful co-existence, justice and equality among the different faith and non-faith communities. While politics may derail this process at times, it is important to pursue the building of communities that can tide through attempts to cause dissension. This will also require calling out personalities like Zakir Naik and raising the standards of religious discourse to constrict spaces for populist preachers like Naik to garner an audience. This may not be in the form of outright banning – which may instantaneously make them into martyrs and reinforced the “conspiracy” against Islam – but a robust attempt to show the dangers that Naik can wrought upon inter-religious relations if left unchecked.

Imran TaibMohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an interfaith activist and founding member of Leftwrite Center, a dialogue initiative for young professionals in Singapore. He writes and research on Islam in the Malay-Indonesian world, and issues of multi-culturalism.

End Notes

* A note of thanks to Dr Paul Hedges for his critical comments on this paper.

[1] Naik’s ambivalence towards terrorism may stem from his propensity for conspiracy theories and rhetorical use of terminologies to suit his argument. For example, he inapproriately defines fundamentalism as someone who “follows and strives to practice the fundamentals of Islam”. He also defines a terrorist as “a person who causes terror” and that “every Muslim should be a terrorist” to “selective people i.e. anti-social elements”. He remains elusive as to what these “anti-social elements” are. See, Zakir Naik, Most Common Questions Asked By Non-Muslims (Selangor, Malaysia: Dakwah Corner Bookstore, 2013; pp. 27-29).

[2] For example, Naik was against the Christmas greeting, prohibits celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and condemns belief in intercession (tawassul). These are in addition to his other hardline views often found in Salafist literatures, summarised by Dhume as the following: “Dr. Naik recommends the death penalty for homosexuals and for apostasy from the faith, which he likens to wartime treason. He calls for India to be ruled by the medieval tenets of Shariah law. He supports a ban on the construction of non-Muslim places of worship in Muslim lands and the Taliban’s bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He says revealing clothes make Western women “more susceptible to rape.” Not surprisingly, Dr. Naik believes that Jews “control America” and are the “strongest in enmity to Muslims.”” (Sadanand Dhume, “The Trouble with Dr. Zakir Naik”, The Wall Street Journal, 20 June, 2010).

[3] See,

[4] Refer, Ahmed Deedat, Is the Bible God’s Word? Birmingham: IPCI, 1987.

[5] See the recording:; clip 1:45:15 onward. Zakir Naik’s remarks were in relation to questions that this author posed to him during the lecture.

[6] Examples, ‘Abd al-jabbar, Tathbit dala’il nubuwwa (The establishment proofs for prophethood); Ibn Hazm, Kitab al-fasl fi al-milal wa al-ahwa’ wa al-nihal; Ibn Taymiyyah, Al-jawab al-sahih li-man baddala din al-masih (The correct answer to those who changed the religion of Jesus).

[7] Abdelmajid Charfi, “La function historique de la polemique islamochretienne a l’epoque abbaside”, in S.K. Samir and J.S. Nielsen, eds., Christian Arabic Apologetics during the Abbasid Period (750-1258) (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 44-56.

[8] Examples, al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ulum al-din (Revivification of the religious sciences) – particularly, Kitab al-‘ilm (Book of knowledge); Ibn ‘Arabi, Fusus al-hikam (Bezels of wisdom); Dara Shikoh, Majma’ al-bahrayn (Mingling of two oceans).

[9] In an interview with Faiza S. Ambah of Arab news, Al-Burhaan, December 1989.




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