Zakir Naik, 51, whose Islamic Research Foundation was declared unlawful on Tuesday, is a dichotomy of sorts. He is a preacher on Peace TV, known to trigger unrest. He wears a western suit with a skull cap. He’s a suave doctor who speaks fluent English, but his speeches stir up the youth.
While the Mumbai police have denied him permission to give speeches since 2012, Britain banned his entry in 2010 over his refusal to call Osama bin Laden a terrorist. “Dr Naik can be explained in one sentence -- a preacher who believes in the oneness of God, sermonising in western attire and skull cap,” said a senior Muslim cleric from Dongri, who has seen the physician morphing into a controversial preacher over the years. “He clearly says other religions have no existence at all. This is not acceptable,” said the cleric, who asked not to be named.
Although an Islamic preacher, Naik has never been popular with the Sunni and Shia clergy in Mumbai. He has more detractors within the Muslim community than outside. In 2009, several Sunni Maulvis in Mumbai ganged up against Naik for some of his comments. Around the same time, the Shia community made a representation against Naik to the then joint commissioner of police, KL Prasad. Prasad played peacemaker and resolved the issue by getting Naik to apologise.
Naik’s detractors claim he has cleverly used controversy and event management skills to grab attention and generate funds. “Go to any mosque on Friday, you will find more people listening to the post-prayer speeches than the turnout at the much publicised events of Naik,” said another senior cleric. “The only difference is he has the skills to arrange funds to go on television channels and for his globe-trotting glitzy public shows,” said the cleric, who too spoke on condition of anonymity
“He has a global appeal, especially among the English educated new generation who don’t want to associate themselves with the paan-chewing sherwani-clad Mullahs. In fact, one would find most of his detractors in the Barelvi sect of Muslims who are opposed to his puritan version of Islam,” said the editor of an Urdu daily, requesting anonymity.
“He was a cosmopolitan in his outlook from the beginning,” said a neighbor of the Naiks’ in Jasmine apartments at Mazgaon where the family has been living for the past 60-70 years. Naik’s father, Abdul Karim Naik, a renowned psychiatrist, branched out from his family business of exporting seafood from his native village in Raigad district and set up his clinic at Char Nall in Dongri. Following in his footsteps, Zakir Naik (and his brother Mohamed) also did his MBBS from BYL Nair college, when he came across Ahmed Deedat, a South African Muslim missionary of Indian origin in 1987.
“Naik was greatly impressed by Deedat’s preaching and started modelling himself like him,” said the neighbor. Naik never practised medicine and became a serious reader of religion, before he started running the IRF out of a 500 sqft room at Dongri in 1991. “On week days, the room was used as a madrasa, while on Sundays Naik hosted lectures at night. His audience consisted mostly of local youths from all communities who would listen to the English-speaking preacher just out of curiosity,” said an old follower of Naik.
Later, he opened the Islamic International School (IIS) where his two daughters and son are enrolled. His wife, Farhat, takes care of the women’s wing of IRF.
As his following grew, the sermons were arranged in larger halls across the city and the nearby townships where he started mesmerizing the impressionable young with his ability to recall verses and couplets from various holy scriptures.
Officers in the Mumbai police who have kept tabs on Naik over the years say he started courting controversy as his stature grew. “He became more and more brash and rabid, even to the point of insulting beliefs within and outside Islam in a carefully crafted strategy. The more the controversy, the more was the TRP and flow of funds from those who appreciated such thoughts,” said an official, who had served in the Mumbai police special branch.