Saturday, July 19, 2008

The power of the spoken word

Zakir Naik, famed speaker, talks about Islam and other religions

By Shevlin Sebastian

"If there is no God, there is no salvation," says Zakir Naik, an Islamic speaker who had come to Kochi a few weeks ago. "But if you know God, then you will know salvation."

There is an appreciative murmur from the audience on Naik's clever word play. His tone is reassuring, but he makes some interesting distinctions: "The Hindu says everything is God, but the Muslim says everything is God's." There are more nods. Throughout his one-hour talk, he is able to quote, verbatim, from verse and chapter from the Bhagwad Gita, the Upanishads, the Bible and the Quran.

The audience listens with rapt silence. Because of the segregation of the sexes, the women sit at the back, most of them dressed in black chadors, while the men throng the front rows. Behind Naik, on the stage, sit several local dignitaries.

At the conclusion of the talk, he asks for questions from the audience. A young man asks, "Why are there no women on the stage?" Naik categorically states that Islam does not allow the intermingling between the sexes.

Another man reads out a verse from St. John in the Bible and says that Naik had got it wrong in his speech. Naik defends himself admirably, quotes verses before and after and wins the point, to sustained applause.

"Naik has done an enormous amount of study over the last 15 years to master the different scriptures," says his close associate Dr Syed Mohammed Shuaib. "Most of the non-Muslims are convinced by his replies because he usually quotes from the scriptures of the religion of the person asking the question." Clearly, apart from his knowledge, Naik has the talented speaker's ability to grip an audience.

A day later, Naik explains his oratorical brilliance: "When a person stands on a stage, what he speaks carries only 7 per cent weightage. The others skills -- eye-to-eye contact, proper pronunciation, modulation and gestures -- make up the rest."

Asked about his subject matter, he says, "I usually talk about the similarities between the various religions. Most people who follow any religion have hardly read the scriptures. They blindly follow what the priest, the pandit or the maulana says. I tell them to read the scriptures and if it is tallying with what the preacher is saying, then accept it. Otherwise, don't."

He admits there are some elements within the Muslim community who are against him. "They are afraid of losing their flock," he says, with a smile. He says he gets the maximum support from educated Muslims, Christians and Hindus.

Naik, of Konkan origin, was born in Mumbai, and qualified as a doctor of medicine, but changed his mind when he met the great South African speaker Sheik Ahmed Husain Deedat, who was best known for his witty inter-religious debates.

"I met him in December, 1987, and felt inspired," says Naik. So, even while he was studying for medicine, Naik got involved in Da'wah (inviting people towards Islam). "So, from being a doctor of bodies, I became a doctor of souls," he says.

Today, Naik is a rising star among speakers of Islam and has already given more than 1,200 talks worldwide. So what are the questions that audiences ask him all the time?

He replies rapidly: "What is the meaning of jihad? Why does Islam allow a man to have four wives? Why does Islam subjugate women by keeping her behind the veil? Why are there Muslims terrorists?"

Regarding Muslim terrorists, he says, "Before India got freedom in 1947, many Indians were fighting for the freedom of the country. These people were called terrorists by the British government, but we regard them as freedom fighters. The same people, the same activity, but there are two different labels. It is a matter of perception. So, today, whoever is in power, whatever label he gives to a person, it sticks to him."

Naik has been fighting these misrepresentations through his talks, his books and CDs and the Peace TV channel, which is owned by the Islamic Research Foundation, of which he is the founder-president.

Asked about the current state of Hindu-Muslim relations, he says, "Relations between educated Hindus and Muslims are good, but there will always be elements on both sides who will try to create mischief."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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