Jews in the Discourses of the Indian Muslim Televangelist, Zakir Naik
By Shehnaz Haqqani
“Brother asked a very good question,” Zakir Naik begins in a response to a question about relations between Muslims and Jews, “that I’ve said in a speech that according to the verse of the Qur’an in Surah Mā’idah, Ch. 5 verse 82, which says that the strongest in enmity to the Muslims would be the Jews and the pagans, and the closest in love would be the Christians…” “It does not say that Muslims should fight with the Jews…There are Jews who accept Islam, there are many Jews that are good to Muslims. But on the whole, if you take Jews as a whole and the Christians as a whole, the Christians are closer than the Jews. As a whole. This is a fact. For example, the Qur’an says the Jews are intelligent also. This is a fact…” Still, both Christians and Jews “will never be satisfied until [Muslims] follow their brand of religion – until [every Muslim] become[s] a Jew or a Christian.” As is exemplary of Naik, he oversimplifies Islam’s relationship with Jews (and with other non-Muslims). Generally, however, Naik’s underlying message about Jews can be summed up as follows: Jews are the most powerful group of people in the world—and the Qur’an warns that they are Muslims’ “staunchest enemies.”
Zakir Naik is a Mumbai-born Muslim Televangelist who enjoys immense authority particularly among South Asian Muslims, including in the diaspora. Although a problematic figure for various reasons (including because of his misogynistic teachings, his anti-non-Sunni positions and his reductionist attitudes towards all religions), Naik has a large fan-base particularly among the youth. His teachings about religions can be summarized simply as: If studied carefully and critically, all religions point to the correctness and rationality of Islam; the scriptures of each religion predict and acknowledge the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad, each religion requires belief in one God Who neither begets nor is begotten, and all religions except Islam have been corrupted over time because their followers did not comprehend or practice them correctly. In his lectures available on YouTube, one can observe Naik’s restlessness to convert non-Muslims to Islam, challenging the occasional non-Muslim questioner about her/his faith (or lack thereof) and awkwardly ending his response with, “So are you ready to accept Islam?” in front of a large audience—a question to which few are likely to respond in the negative, given particularly the cheering and laughter of the audience. As I have argued elsewhere, his popularity and influence can be attributed to multiple factors, including changes to the construction of (religious) authority in Islam, to Naik’s use of modern media and his appeal to modern concepts and terminology that appeal to his audiences, and to his professional and social standing as a medical doctor in a society that privileges medical professions over all other professions.
Inspired by Ahmed Deedat (d. 2005), a South African Muslim televangelist of Indian origins, Naik appears to be a complete replica of Deedat—in preaching style, in oratory skills, in the gestures he makes, and in the views he espouses and preaches. This includes, for instance, Naik’s description of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which, like his views on Jews, appear to be identical to Deedat’s. Both Deedat and Naik argue that Jews and Muslims have not historically had any problems with each other, that the conflict between the two groups is recent and began only with Palestine and Jews’ claim to it.
For Naik, Jews are intelligent, cunning (“it’s not that we have to fight the Jews—unless they fight us first—but it’s that we have to be careful of them”), and powerful. They are the richest, most influential people in the world because of their complete hegemony over “the full world,” seen through their control of all the banks of the world, despite their being “negligible in percentage.” Naik attributes Jews’ influence and power to “the modern banking system,” because of which “power is concentrated in the hands of [a] few individuals”—the Jews. But their influence should not come as a surprise to Muslims because the Qur’an has already noted that “Jews are intelligent”—but also that they are “our staunchest enemies.” Further, the September 11th tragedy was carried out not by Muslims, as popularly believed, but by Jews. When asked how he can prove that 9/11 was “an inside job,” Naik refers to a “newspaper article which said that 75 professors of the U.S. that they believe that 9/11 was an inside job,” presumably referring to The Times of India article on September 7, 2006.That Jews are intelligent and “our staunchest enemies,” Naik insists, are simply facts, as the Qur’an does not entertain falsehood. He cautions, however, that this does not mean that Jews are destined to be Muslims’ enemies, or that they are inherently so; the Qur’an presents Jews’ animosity towards Muslims merely as a fact, as a reality.To prove his claims, he reminds his audience, “According to the American survey, no one can become a president of USA without walking the Star of David” (03:50).
Importantly, Naik appears to recognize the Holocaust, which is significant because Holocaust denial is promoted widely by some of the countries that celebrate Naik and his teachings, including Saudi Arabia. In fact, when asked about the pros of hellfire in the Hereafter, Naik uses the example of Hitler to support his argument in favor of hellfire: Hell exists so that people like Hitler can be punished in the most just way possible, something that cannot be done in this life. This is because, Naik points out, Hitler was the worst, most ruthless human ever because he has killed millions of Jews. If he were alive and punished, he would at most be burned alive, which, Naik says, would be justice for only one of the millions of Jews he killed, certain not for all.
When asked why “the Qur’an curses Jews,” Naik responds that the Qur’an does not curse the Jews (at least not for being Jews by default), that Islam actually recognizes Jews as God’s chosen people, at least for a time. But this superior standing was revoked because they “did not do their job,” thus leading to God’s choice to replace their status with the Arabs as the “torch-bearers” (2:09-2:13). Significantly, he continues on to say that the reason God cursed the Jews is that they were the chosen people—thus insinuating that the curse was God’s response to Jews’ inability to guard their status as the chosen ones. Naik goes on to say, however, that God moreover curses not just the Jews but “all the people who are wrong,” including slanderer and backbiters, no matter what their religion.
What exactly is the status of Jews in the Qur’an, then, one might wonder? In another lecture, Naik cites the Qur’an, insisting that Jews, Christians, and the Sabians will go to heaven—but that this can happen only if, like all other religious groups, the Jews accept the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. This latter claim of Naik’s does not find much evidence from traditional Muslim interpretations, which, while denouncing contemporary Jewish and Christian thought and Scriptures as having been “corrupted,” do acknowledge that Jews and Christians enjoy the special status of People of the Book in the Qur’an and that they are among those to whom God promises Heaven.
Two points can be raised with certainly with regards to the question of Jews and Christians’ status in the Qur’an: The first is that the Qur’an’s relationship with them is complicated because we read, on the one hand, in verse 2:63, that Christians, Jews, Sabians, and others who “work righteousness” “will not grieve” on the Day of Judgment (i.e., they are promised paradise); yet, verse 9:30 states, “The Jews say, ‘Ezra is the son of God’; and the Christians say, ‘The Messiah is the son of God.’ That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them].” It is therefore worth questioning whether Jews and Christians are actually considered believers (in One God) or not. Naik’s oversimplification of Christians’ and Jews’ beliefs and the Qur’an’s relationship with them is therefore misleading and inaccurate.
Given the inconsistencies in Zakir Naik’s teachings about Jews, one might have difficulty concluding what exactly Naik’s message about Jews might be. However, what can be ascertained with certainty is that he considers them to be a misguided, corrupted religious group that the Qur’an warns are Muslims’ “staunchest enemies” while simultaneously being the most intelligent, most powerful people in the world, at least today.
Importantly,contrary to Naik’s presentation of verse 5:82 of the Qur’an, many traditional Muslim commentaries contextualize it as well as Muslim-Jewish relations, by noting that the verse is specific to the Prophet’s time period and implying that the verse is not prescriptive and does not generally inform Muslim-Jewish relations in all times.
 The Sabians are referred to three times in the Qur’an; they are believed to have been a group of monotheists whom the Qur’an seems to consider among the People of the Book.
Shehnaz Haqqani, a Pashtun from Swat, Pakistan, is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her Bachelor’s from Emory University (2011) and her MA from UT Austin (2013). Her academic research interests include the construction of religious interpretive authority in Islam, which she first began to explore during her BA thesis on Zakir Naik and the construction of religious authority in the modern Muslim world; she also works on Islamic feminism and Pashtun/Afghan immigrants in the West. Shehnaz is interested in the gendered nature of (religious) knowledge and authority, and her dissertation explores tensions between Muslim feminist scholars of Islam and traditionalist Muslims.
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