Controversial preacher Zakir Naik does not seem to have widespread support among Muslims in Mumbai. Broadly, he has support among hardline Sunnis, while most moderate Sunnis and Shias are opposed to his teachings. He commands loyalty among Salafis (who believe in a return to the original ways of Islam) and Ahl Al-hadeeth (conservative traditionalists), who are backed by Saudi Arabia.
While supporters claim he is a teacher who extolls the virtues of Islam, critics accuse him of distorting the religion, creating divisions, and self-glorification.
According to Iqbal Memon, president of the All India Memon Jamat Federation, the apex body of India’s 15-lakh-strong Memon community, “Naik is a self-proclaimed scholar who makes controversial claims for publicity. In Islam it is prohibited to speak against another religion, which Naik does with élan. He does not even spare various sects of Muslims, thus creating discord among them.”
However, several groups opposed to Naik’s teachings have also defended him in the current controversy. At a meeting in the city on Sunday, community leaders said it was important to fight the allegations linking him to terrorism, which they claimed were being levelled by a “biased media”. Despite having criticised Naik in the past, they said the allegations against him are just an excuse to target the wider Muslim community and that any of them could face similar scrutiny in the future.
Zakir Qasmi, state general secretary of Jamiat-e-Ulma-e-Hind - the organisation of Islamic scholars affiliated to the Deobandi school of thought - also came out in support of Naik despite their ideological differences.
“I don’t agree with his interpretation of Quranic verses but I have never heard him promoting terrorism in any of his speeches. The allegations against Naik are a reflection of a partisan, communal mindset,” he said.
“The Muslim community can’t be silent in the face of an assault on an Islamic preacher. Whatever be our differences as Shia, Sunni and Deobandi, we should support a person whose message is peace. We may have differences of opinion with him but it’s clear that he is neither a terrorist nor supports terrorism,” said Azeemuddin Sayyed, an activist.
Major political parties that enjoy support among Muslims, such as the Congress, NCP, AIMIM and Samajwadi Party have all maintained a studied silence on the controversy.
However, Abu Azmi, who heads the SP in Maharashtra, offered his personal opinion. He said, “Was the government sleeping all these years when Naik was giving sermons? Naik invites scholars and professionals to his programmes and there is healthy debate on various issues. It is unfair to target him.”