Dr. Zakir Naik’s run-in with controversies is not a novel affair. Since the famed Islamic preacher and speaker took the stage, his audacious speeches and the ability to quote religious text from memory was always met with a thunderous applause from the audience, but a sober critique from activists and government bodies.
What has not changed over the years – along with his style, much of the speech’s content and even rhetoric – is India’s fixation with holding on to its favourite Islamic speaker.
As reports emerge that one of the perpetrators of the attack at a café in Dhaka was ‘inspired’ by the preacher, the controversy – however contentious – begs reflection from the wider Muslim community in India on a more pressing issue. For far too long, Zakir Naik has remained India’s sole poster-boy and predicament. The new controversy looming over him and his vehement supporters in India calls for the need to move beyond the unilateral narrative of a single public figure and prepare for the future.
To expect the same speaker to endure an unending grind of defending oneself is an untenable position, perhaps even a tad bit embarrassing considering that Muslims constitute 14.2% in a country of 1.2 billion. It is time for India to respectfully bid adieu to the long legacy of Zakir Naik that is now caught in an unfortunate web of accusations and explanations.
As long as the community does not groom confident, English speaking Islamic preachers with traditional scholarship and a familiarity of modern challenges, local dialogue on Islam and its international image risks stagnancy.
The preachers of tomorrow may borrow from Naik’s admirable repository of knowledge, but supplement it with a healthy dose of wisdom that often eludes his speeches. The need for an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism and terror outfits has never been more critical. Islamic scholarship today needs be to be equipped with a respect for diversity and a call for social cohesion despite differences.
Being under perpetual scrutiny in the current political climate also requires the ability to sift clarity from the ambiguous, and, most importantly, the need to connect with the country’s burgeoning young Muslim population which browses the internet for answers on spirituality.
The new preachers will inspire fellow Muslims to win against arguments within the heart, and not against fellow brethren of varied faiths. The renaissance in community leadership – demonstrated strongly amongst Muslims in the west where they are a more pronounced minority – will oil social cohesion and not fuel communal friction.
It is time for a new breed of Islamic speakers to emerge out of the Indian soil, and not out of the shadows of their controversial predecessors. Islamic scholarship was never a privilege of the elite, and to that extent, they don’t need to fit in any boots but manufacture their own. It is time for a confident, well-trained, and learned English-speaking Islamic scholar to not look to win an applause, but win hearts that are inspired towards deep reflection of their faith.