We’ve all heard of Dr. Zakir Naik—the India-born Muslim preacher or Da’i, currently in exile in Malaysia due to India’s Hindu nationalist government. He has contributed, through his Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) and Peace TV, towards the conversions of thousands of people to Islam.
Jay Smith, a veteran American-Christian apologist who strives to distort the faith of Muslims, himself admits that Dr. Zakir Naik has brought “hundreds of thousands” to Islam:
But without Ahmed Deedat there’d be no Dr. Zakir Naik.
One could easily conclude that the very dynamic contemporary Da’wah that we witness today is basically a fruit of Deedat’s efforts, and the fact that he passed away 17 years ago (on August 8, 2005) makes it fitting for us to reflect upon his legacy.
Ahmed Deedat and the Renewal of Inter-Religious Polemics
Ahmed Deedat was born during 1918 in Surat, a city in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Surat was one of the world’s busiest seaports under the Mughals, thus attracting traders from all over the Islamic world; something which is manifested in the genetic diversity of the locals.
Even among Gujarati-Muslims, the cosmopolitan Indian-Muslim group par excellence, the “Surti-Muslims” subgroup has a cultural ethos of their own due to their even more expansive “multicultural” nature.
Surat later lost its trading prominence to Bombay (now Mumbai) with the emergence of European colonialism.
It is important that we detail these facts regarding Deedat’s early life because they actually play a part in his later Da’wah. Through their “civilizing mission,” the Europeans not only aimed for physical domination (loss of economic activity, like in Surat) but also spiritual domination. They desired to spread Christianity among the natives.
Deedat said that he himself became interested in inter-religious polemics by reading Rahmatullah al-Kayranawi al-Hindi, who passed away in 1891—a scholar renowned for challenging the European attempts at the Christianization of India.
Rahmatullah al-Hindi belonged to an illustrious scholarly family descending from caliph ‘Uthman (radiyAllahu ‘anhu). He became famous for his decisive victory in a well-publicized 1854 public debate against Karl Gottlieb Pfander, a German missionary who could be considered the David Wood of his day due to the venomous zeal with which he aimed to corrupt the faith of Muslims.
Many Christians still refuse to admit that Pfander lost. This is for the simple reason that Pfander is often described as the “best ever” Christian debater against Islam.
In fact, Jay Smith (who we mentioned earlier) named his organization PfanderFilms after Karl Gottlieb Pfander.
However, not all Christians are this dishonest.
Albert Hourani writes in his book, Islam in European Thought, on p. 18:
It is clear from the reports that he [Pfander] did not get the better of the exchanges; Rahmatullah had some knowledge of the new German science of biblical criticism, which he had derived from an Indian Muslim doctor who knew English well, and he used this to put the question of the authenticity and authority of the Bible in a new light.
Anyway, this humiliating loss made Rahmatullah al-Hindi a greatly acclaimed personality; to the extent that Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire had personally asked him to transcribe the public debate into book form. Rahmatullah al-Hindi complied, writing the book in Arabic and naming it Izhar-ul-Haqq, which translates into English as “The Manifestation of Truth.” He later retired to the Hijaz, building influential seminaries which are still running today.
As a teenager Deedat read this book, which still remains the best in Islamic apologetics against Christianity—the reason it is celebrated and widely read even now. Deedat was thus inspired to debate Christians, whereas prior to this he remained passive against the endeavors of missionaries.
During these early decades Deedat’s activities were mainly concentrated within South Africa—where his father moved for work (we thus return to the cosmopolitanism of Gujarati-Muslims)—even if he had lived in Pakistan for a few years.
It was only in the late ’80s that he received international recognition. This is when he shared the 1986 King Faisal Award in Saudi Arabia for “Service to Islam” with former French Communist philosopher Roger Garaudy.
Thereafter he toured all over the world doing his unique Da’wah work, often in the form of public debates with famous Christian missionaries such as Jimmy Swaggart (now known for his prostitution scandals) and Anis Shorrosh (known for being arrested for arson).
Deedat, like his inspiration Rahmatullah, also transcribed his public lectures and debates in the form of books and booklets, and these are still very popular.
And this is his legacy. Dr. Zakir Naik encapsulates it well: It’s a new form of unapologetic Da’wah geared towards inter-religious polemics, a field that was left dormant for decades before Deedat’s public appearances.
Literally millions of Muslims, myself included, have benefited from this renewal of inter-religious debates.
Such a legacy becomes even more important in our time when sinister agendas such as the “Abrahamic Religion” aim to blur the differences between religions. This in turn heavily downplays the need for having “polemics” about how and why Islam is indeed superior.
Deedat was the polar opposite of the “Compassionate Imams.”
May Allah (subhanaHu wa ta’ala) accept his good deeds and may He allow us to follow his path in making Islam triumphant.