Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thesis Defense Preparation Notes


April 12, 2011, 11am.

1.       Thank You / Acknowledgment 
2.       Background – Spring 2010. Courses on Islam (particularly Islam in South Asia) at the institution
a.       I’ve noticed that the role of preachers has been under-studied in academia. More focus instead on those who have formal training in Islamic sciences.
3.       Importance
a.       Preachers play a major role in the practice and understanding of Islam. They are not shackled by the restraints placed on muftis and other traditional scholars of Islam because preachers give direct/simple answers to all sorts of questions posed at them.
b.      In order to understand a society, we should study the kinds of preachers of that society to get a stronger sense of how they practice a certain religion.
4.       My contribution: Introducing Zakir Naik, an Indian medical doctor turned preacher, to academia; contributing to the larger debate on religious authority, particularly that of preachers' and in the South Asian Muslim society 
5.       Questions I wanted to address
a.       How is religious authority constructed in contemporary times? Different pathways; what is the one Zakir Naik has pursued?
b.      Who is Zakir Naik, and how has he been able to not only gain but also maintain his authority?
c.       What role do new media play in the construction and interpretation of religious authority in a globalized world?
6.       Theoretical framework
a.       I draw on available material on notions of religious authority in Islam and Muslim societies and the competition among the various groups of authorities, the reconstruction of authority in the modern world as a result of modernization and new media, and the role of preachers in Muslim societies.
7.       Main point
a.       My study combines the three points above to show that, while modern Muslim preachers exemplify many of the same elements of medieval Muslim preachers, their modus operandi has evolved noticeably in the last two centuries in part due to Western colonialism and the development of modern science and technology.
b.      I show this by conducting a case study on Zakir Naik.

8.       Focus: Zakir Naik (although I also briefly discuss Amr Khaled (Egypt) and Ahmed Deedat (South Africa))
                                                               i.      Zakir Naik: an Indian medical doctor in his 40s. Began preaching – or proselytizing, as he puts it – in 1991. Defines his specialty as “comparative religion”; is often introduced as a scholar of comparative religions.
                                                             ii.      Makes frequent references to non-Islamic scriptures, including the Bible and Vedas, and has memorized all of them
                                                            iii.      Speaks with deep confidence on political, social, religious, ethical, medical, and scientific issues
                                                           iv.      Has institutionalized the Islamic Research Foundation, the objective of which, according to him, is to present true Islam and remove misconceptions about the religion by relying on logic, reason, and science
9.       Why I chose Ahmed Deedat and Amr Khaled (for comparison)
a.       Deedat (d. 2005) = Naik’s predecessor; influenced Naik’s decision to enter preaching
b.      Amr Khaled = similar to Naik’s case: a phenomenon in the Arab world. Shows how Zakir Naik’s style is unique since he (Naik) refers to science, logic, etc. while Khaled doesn’t.
10.   Methodology
a.       Primary sources: Naik’s lectures, books, articles; Muslims’ opinions of / responses to Naik
b.      Secondary sources
                                                               i.      Struggles for religious authority: Khaled Abou El-Fadl, Devin Stewart,  Vincent Cornell, Scott Kugle
                                                             ii.      Preachers: Richard Antoun and Jonathan Berkey
                                                            iii.      Islam and new media: Gary Bunt, Dale F. Eickelman & Jon W. Anderson (Islam and media), Mandaville Peter
11.   Why Naik appeals
a.       “Modern” = difficult to define. Some Muslims equate with un-Islamicness, while others with “educated,” or “living in the present.”  
b.      The modern style of these preachers adds prestige to their authority.
                                                               i.      They have the modern resources necessary for attracting a large number of audiences
                                                             ii.      After all, they, like their audiences, are participants of and in the modern world where modern tools and ideas make the transmission of knowledge more efficient. 
c.       Modern concepts
                                                               i.      First: gender equality and women’s rights (women and men are equal in Islam, Naik teaches, although he qualifies this statement by arguing that being equal does not mean having the same rights and roles)
                                                             ii.      Second: reliance on scientific knowledge to confirm the relevance of the Qur’an  
1.       Concludes that science and the Qur’an are congruent
                                                            iii.      Third: reliance on analyses based on statistical observations
1.       e.g. justifying polygamy
d.      Naik’s case is different, however, in that he is also a doctor, a man of the sciences
                                                               i.      His medical knowledge about the human body is used as verification for his views on women’s rights and roles
12.   Other reasons that contribute to Naik’s appeal:
a.       Technique: comportment, dressing style (beard, wearing pants above the ankles, wears a traditional hat). Importantly: His suit and a tie make him appear “modern” and therefore attracts “modern” people
b.      Memorization of the various religious scriptures of different religions (e.g, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity) – including hadiths (which volume, book, hadith number)
c.       Never saying “I don’t know.”
13.   Findings / Conclusions
a.       I set out to address questions on the construction of religious authority in the modern world
                                                               i.      Discovered that Muslim preachers have generally always been popular in societies, at least more popular than the ‘ulama with the masses
b.      The competition for authority has always existed, among different groups of the ‘ulama.
                                                               i.      Naik’s case is another participant in this competition
c.       Wanted to know how Naik was able to claim authority
                                                               i.      He’s unique due to his
1.       effective use of modern technological tools
2.       familiarity with contemporary science
3.       frequent references to modern concepts (women’s rights, etc.)
4.       use of logic and reason
14.   Limitations of the study
a.       No academic material on Zakir Naik. Only a couple of anthropological articles on why people follow him. None on his role as an authority
b.      I had to learn to distance myself from him on a personal level, having been a fan of his for a year and then questioning his grasp on the issues that he so easily discusses in public.
15.   Future direction
a.       A comparative study of Muslim and non-Muslim preachers.
                                                               i.      I briefly discuss the influence that Christian televangelists have had on Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat, but I do not make it a point to be emphasized because of lack of time and space.
b.      Naik’s impact on how people actually practice Islam. We see the people’s reactions and responses as they are shown on TV, but what happens after the lectures? 
c.       There are clearly some non-Muslims who attend his lectures. Why?
d.      How people attend his lectures – open to public? Fee?
e.   How much, if any, of his lectures are staged? How's he able to give answers to every single question the audience asks? Do people actually really convert after questioning/challenging/listening to him?


  1. You're well prepared! I'm sure you will do well!

  2. Thanks, Zuhura :D It actually went really well!!

  3. Serenity I am so happy for you and proud!! Did you defend your thesis? How did it go?!

  4. Thank you so much, Sarah! :) It went very, very well, much better than I'd expected it to. And I feel like I've actually accomplished something in my life right now, although there's always that question of, "What more could have I done? Was this really enough? Did I really deserve this?"

    Gosh, I've learned so much from all this! Am going to write about it soon and share some important tips for people who are interested in doing a thesis in the future. I wish someone had shared them with me before I started one.


Dare to opine :)

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