Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Zakir Naik’s Impact on Malaysia: Religion and Politics

Doctoral Candidate, University of Edinburgh
Zakir Naiks. (Flickr)
Zakir Naiks. (Flickr)

In recent years, Malaysia has developed an indigenous community of Muslim preachers that have set themselves apart from traditional preaching in that they have commercialized aspects of religion and inspired cult followings, thereby becoming celebrity imams. This local community has vigorously interacted with preachers from across the world due to the government offering financial support for preachers coming to the nation. This study looks at one such preacher named Zakir Naik who settled in Malaysia in 2016. 

Naik’s influence has been far-reaching, and the preacher has managed to cause religious and political waves across the nation. While many have lauded his presence as positive for the Muslim community in Malaysia, others have argued that his presence has fed into the Malay-Muslim supremacy complex of the country. 

This essay will act as a primer on major opinions of Zakir Naik. Zakir Naik’s reception in Malaysia has been documented in scattered newspaper articles and op-eds. However, there is no in-depth study of his impact and how he is perceived in the nation. This study aims to fill that gap. 

This essay relies on interviews conducted in Kuala Lumpur and through telephone calls from May to September 2022. In total, ten interviews were conducted with high-level members of various political, religious, and racial groups. These included people working in the field of proselytization, academics, clerics, and members of the public belonging to the Malay, Indian, and Chinese races. Those interviewed included Muslims, Hindus, liberals, and atheists. The author also relied on various open-source audio and video material uploaded to YouTube. In addition, comments on various videos and posts on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram were scanned to provide a comprehensive view of the preacher. 

This study shows that Naik has had a two-pronged impact on Malaysian society. On the political front, Naik had been a rallying force for Malay-centric political parties to delineate their own boundaries and equate political opponents of Naik as opponents of Islam. As the essay argues, this has had a significant impact on Malaysian politics and parties, including The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP). 

On the religious front, Naik is responsible for inspiring many other preachers and proselytizers within Malaysia, including figures such as Firdaus Wong, a Chinese convert to Islam who uses some of Naik’s techniques to spread Islam. 

This essay first provides a brief background on Zakir Naik’s trajectory from India to Malaysia and discusses the major racial and political dynamics within Malaysia to help contextualize reactions to Zakir Naik. These reactions, both positive and negative, are divided along religious, political, geographic, and racial lines. The essay then explores Naik’s influence on the religious landscape of Malaysia by examining his protégé, Firdaus Wong, a well-known Malaysian preacher who made famous the idea of “street da’wah,”1 a form of preaching on the street. The essay further contextualizes the Malaysian religious landscape by explaining the culture of “the celebrity preacher.” Finally, the paper reflects on the concept of “Islamism” to assess whether it is a useful tool to analyze Zakir Naik. 

This paper is an important contribution to the literature on the intersection of religious and political dynamics in Malaysia and contributes significantly to the literature on proselytization among Muslims. 

Zakir Naik: From India to Malaysia 

Often dubbed one of the world’s most popular Muslim preachers, Zakir Naik is a medical doctor by profession who grew up in the financial city of Mumbai. Naik was a disciple of Ahmed Deedat, a South African preacher of Indian origin who was known for his aggressive responses to Christian missionaries’ accusations against Islam. Naik began giving lectures in English (and occasionally in Urdu/Hindi as well) in the early- to mid-1990s.2

He became popular after the September 11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent “War on Terror,” which led to a significant rise in Islamophobia globally. Muslims responded by seeking to defend their religion’s reputation to save it from being seen as a cause of terrorism. Herein lay Naik’s strength and claim to fame: By vocally speaking against neo-colonial and Islamophobic narratives about Islam, he managed to help many Muslims globally to engage with such narratives.3

Given his ability to fluently deliver sermons in English, defend Islam, and go on the offensive by questioning other religions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, his discourse was welcomed across many segments of the Muslim world.4 This also informed part of his appeal in Malaysia, which he frequented to give talks, organize conferences, and conduct trainings. Among his most famous collaborators in the 2000s was the Chinese Malaysian convert to Islam, Hussain Yee, who often spoke on Zakir Naik’s media channel called Peace TV.5

Over time, however, Naik also accrued a fair share of detractors among Muslim and non-Muslim audiences alike. Non-Muslims disliked his aggressive style and attacks on their scriptures as well as his practice of publicly showcasing converts to Islam.6 Muslims who practiced traditional forms of Islam in India and abroad criticized him for being a Salafist (referring to an exclusivist strain who practice Islam according to the understanding of the first three generations of Muslims only).7

In India, this became a political matter, especially after the 2014 ascension of Narendra Modi and his right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Indian government alleged that Naik was an instigator of intercommunal tensions. These claims were ostensibly buttressed further after an attack by terrorists in Dhaka, Bangladesh in July 2016 in which a few of the perpetrators were later found to have been in possession of Naik’s videos.8

The Indian government subsequently issued an arrest warrant against Naik, leading him to seek safety in Malaysia, where he had established a major support base over the previous two decades.9 Naik cited several reasons for settling in Malaysia in 2016, including its stability, low cost of living, strong passport, good people, and beauty.10 However, over time, Naik’s popularity and style began to create tensions within the nation, resulting in a polarized debate about his presence. 

The Intersection of Racial and Political Dynamics 

In Malaysia, racial dynamics are reflected in the country's political landscape. Malaysia is a diverse nation with a population comprising various ethnic groups, including Malays (approximately 70% of the population), Chinese (23%), and Indians (approximately 7%), as well as several smaller minority groups.11 The country's politics have long been influenced by ethnic considerations, leading to the development of a system known as Ketuanan Melayu (Malay sovereignty), which prioritizes the political and economic interests of the Malay majority.12 This has created a power imbalance in political representation and policymaking.

The political landscape in Malaysia is largely defined by ethno-nationalist parties that represent specific ethnic communities. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has historically been the dominant political party, advocating for Malay interests and championing policies that promote Malay supremacy. This has led to a system in which political power is concentrated in the hands of the Malay elite, with policies such as affirmative action programs that favor Malays in areas such as education, employment, and business.13 The national political discourse often revolves around issues related to race, religion, and identity, as different ethnic communities seek to protect their rights and interests within the political arena. These discourses were also energized by The Malaysian Islamic Party, also known as the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party or its Jawi-based acronym, PAS. Formed in the early 1950s, the party’s Islamic focus has further added layers of complexity to Malaysian politics.14

The intersection of racial and political dynamics in Malaysia has also given rise to fears of marginalization and discrimination against non-Malay communities. Ethnic tensions and inequalities persist, with Chinese15 and Indian Malaysians16 often feeling marginalized in terms of political representation, economic opportunities, and social inclusion. There have been instances of communal clashes and political mobilization along racial lines, further exacerbating divisions and hindering the development of a more cohesive society. Efforts to address these challenges include calls for greater representation and participation of minority communities in the political sphere, as well as initiatives to promote interethnic understanding and dialogue.

Overall, racial and political dynamics in Malaysia are deeply intertwined and have far-reaching implications for the country's social cohesion and democratic governance. It is against this backdrop that this essay examines the various reactions of the Malaysian public to Zakir Naik. 

The Malaysian Reaction to Zakir Naik

Like in India, Zakir Naik’s views have been polarizing in Malaysia, with some people supporting the preacher and others opposing him. People’s reasons for supporting or opposing him can vary quite significantly based on which segment of society they come from. 

Religious support base 

The biggest support base for Zakir Naik is found among the ordinary Malay Muslims who comprise most of the Malaysian population. Reasons for liking him are multifold. Firstly, his predecessor, Ahmed Deedat, was famous and well liked in Malaysia, and Naik having been hailed as a natural successor to Deedat gave him a secure base of supporters. Secondly, Naik’s strong refutations of the allegations of terrorism that have been levelled at Islam and his refutations of Orientalist views of Muslims won him significant applause.17 Lastly, that people publicly convert to Islam during his public speeches impressed many Malay Muslims.18

Most of the news about Zakir Naik is spread through various print and social media platforms in both Malay and English. The translation of Naik’s works into Malay has helped his popularity, since many Malays do not speak English.19

Apart from Malay Muslims, the Tamilian- and Malayalam-speaking Muslim communities (both with origins in South India) also largely support Naik. For example, as one interviewee noted, the Malayalam-speaking Muslim community has often funded different events for Zakir Naik. One Tamil Muslim interviewee, however, noted that while Malaysia’s Tamil Muslim community has a generally favorable view of Zakir Naik, the community is more aloof and focused on generating capital and tends not to be as focused on religious issues as other communities. This interviewee, who has worked with various Muslim activist and charity organizations, also liked Naik because he has never been accused of corruption, which is unusual in a country that is otherwise riddled with various charges of corruption in almost every realm of society (including among Muslim clerics).20

Political and geographic support base

Politically, Naik has found acceptance among political parties like UMNO and PAS, the two main parties of Malaysia, which have supported him strongly and helped him obtain permanent residency in the country. The reason for these parties’ support is twofold: First, supporting Naik is a surefire method to ensure that they get votes given his popularity among Malay Muslims; and second, it is a way of provoking other political parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP)—a party focused on racial equality.21 Naik’s rousing speeches on issues of race often draw the criticism of parties like the DAP, which then allows UMNO and PAS to criticize them for not accepting Malay superiority.22 Naik’s ideological proximity to the government is reflected in the fact that he lives in Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur—the seat of power in Malaysia where most government offices are located. 23

Naik is generally accepted across most states of Malaysia, but special mention needs to be given to the states of Kelantan and Perlis. The latter is known to be the state most accommodative of Salafism in Malaysia and Naik comes from a Salafist background himself. Naik has given several lectures in universities and other institutions in these states.24

Importantly, the Indian government’s requests to extradite Naik have further bolstered his support among Malay Muslims, who have a negative view of Prime Minister Modi and the BJP. Modi and his party are widely viewed by Malaysian Muslims as Hindu supremacists that discriminate against minorities, especially Muslims.25


Naik’s detractors can be divided into racial, religious, and political groups. Racially speaking, most Tamil Hindus and Chinese Malaysians are often opposed to Naik. Chinese Malaysians (Buddhists, Taoists, and also Christians) are often indignant about the fact that members of other religions do not have a right to propagate their religion while Naik is given a free hand even though he is an outsider. Their criticism of Naik also intensified after the preacher made a comment stating that Chinese Malaysians are old “guests” of Malaysia since their ancestors were not born in the nation and that they should return to China.26

Tamil Hindus are opposed to Naik due to his provocative comments on Hindu gods and his comments on the racial situation in the nation. As mentioned by one interviewee, while she was initially impressed by Naik’s brilliance, she was later put off by his speeches that seemed to deepen social divides.27

Naik’s comments that the Malaysian Hindu community are more loyal to Modi than to the Malaysian prime minister did not go down well with this community. Naik was not entirely incorrect, as many in the older generation of Tamilian Hindus support the Modi administration, according to two Tamil Hindu interviewees.28 Two other Hindu Indians residing in Malaysia considered Naik a radicalizing figure and a first step in the long conveyor belt of radicalization.29

It is not only non-Muslims, however, who have a problem with the preacher. Liberal Malay Muslims who advocate for a more inclusive and non-Malay/non-Islamic vision of Malaysia disagree with Naik’s portrayal of Islam as superior to other religions, since it disrupts relations with members of other communities.30 Muslims who belong to traditional schools of jurisprudence or to Sufi communities also have a problem with Naik’s Salafist ideals. As an Indian citizen based in Malaysia noted, many of Naik’s jurisprudential views are too literalist and not sufficiently nuanced. Finally, one interviewee noted that some Chinese Muslim preachers engaged in da'wah (proselytization) were not happy with Naik due to his disruptive style and the fact that Naik encouraged a more confrontational atmosphere, making it difficult to call non-Muslims to Islam.31

Politically speaking, parties such as the DAP that strive to reduce differences between Malay and other races have been vocal critics of the preacher. Specifically, P. Ramasamy, the chief minister of Penang and member of the DAP, has called out Naik in many statements. Naik eventually responded by suing him for defamation in Malaysian courts.32

Geographically, some of the most vocal criticisms of Naik come from the southern state of Johor Bahru, where Sufi and Shafi’i organizations are quite active.33 These groups often publish rebuttals to Naik’s speeches in Malay and English. This has contributed to a more oppositional view to Naik in the state, a view that is also reflected in Singapore among the Muslim population in the country.34

Politically speaking, Naik has achieved significant momentum that is quite unheard of for any international personality in the country. There are many controversial aspects of Naik’s presence in the country due to his remarks on race and religion. This has, however, allowed political parties like UMNO and PAS to use his popularity as a means to secure more votes from the Malay majority. 

Zakir Naik and Malaysia’s Preachers 

Notably, Zakir Naik’s religious influence spread out to the “street da’wah” (“Street Dakwah” in Malay) movement in Malaysia. Street da’wah is a style of proselytization whereby Muslims set up stalls to distribute copies of the Qur’an to non-Muslims (and sometimes Muslims) while also answering questions about Islam and Muslim life. It is a preaching style that was popularized over the last decade by western movements like the Islamic Education Research Association (IERA) based in London (which was set up by an associate of Zakir Naik, Abdur Raheem Green). Records reveal that street da’wah has been active in Malaysia since 2010.35

A key figure in this movement was the Chinese Malaysian convert to Islam Firdaus Wong Hai Hung (born 1986). Wong came from a marketing background and was involved in setting up the Multi-Racial Muslim Reverts of Malaysia organization (MRM) to further the idea of proselytization in Malaysia. He started his street da’wah sessions in 2011 with his first program focused on dissuading people from celebrating Valentine’s Day. He also collaborated with the above-mentioned IERA team. In 2014, the MRM conducted a massive da’wah program involving about 2,000 volunteers spread over several cities in Malaysia. The MRM team has also have travelled to other countries to conduct its activities, including Uganda, the United Kingdom, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Indonesia, China, and Singapore. 

Wong and Zakir Naik 

Wong’s relationship with Zakir Naik is well documented. Wong was one of 19 people who travelled to Mumbai to attend Naik’s International Da’wah Training Programme (IDTP) in 2016. The course lasted over 45 days and was later published on YouTube. Wong’s interactions with Naik were so well recorded that he was given a prize for being one of the top three participants in the program, earing him the moniker of Zakir Naik’s protégé. This title was used by Wong to advertise his classes and establish credibility when he returned to Malaysia. 

It is evident that Zakir Naik has had a significant influence on Wong, as reflected in the titles and content of the street da'wah events organized by Wong. Many of the event titles, such as “What is Islam?” “Does God Exist?” and “In Search of God,” mirror Naik's own lectures. Wong's rhetorical questions in his speeches align closely with those posed by Naik. For instance, Wong often explores the question of who created human beings, drawing a parallel between the invention of smartphones and the existence of an inventor for humans, emphasizing that humans, being far more intelligent, must also have an originator. Such rhetorical strategies, among others, are directly borrowed from Naik's speeches.36

In addition, Wong has also incorporated localized discussions into his presentations, addressing issues specific, for example, to the Mooncake Festival celebrated by the Chinese community. During interviews, individuals actively involved in the street da'wah community noted the striking similarities between Wong's responses to questions on Islam and those given by Zakir Naik.

Firdaus Wong’s following and popularity have increased significantly over the years. A few factors have helped him grow his following in Malaysia. Firstly, Zakir Naik’s massive popularity in Malaysia helped Wong establish credibility as well. Secondly, Wong is able to speak in multiple languages, including Malay, English, and Chinese dialects such as Cantonese and Mandarin, which helped him reach out to the Chinese minority in the nation (most of whom are non-Muslim). Thirdly, Wong has made a point to incorporate the teachings and references of local preachers into his own sermons, thereby establishing his pedagogy to local figures, including the famous Salafist Mohammed Asiri Zainul Abideen.

Although the street da’wah network that exists in Malaysia was not started by Firdaus Wong, he has become the face of the movement in the country. Much of his training was obtained under Zakir Naik, which is reflected in the ways he presents Islam to non-Muslims and the topics he preaches about. However, Wong also incorporates his own local nuances, such as discussing issues pertaining to the Chinese community in Malaysia. 

Firdaus Wong is but one of Naik’s proteges. To better understand Zakir Naik’s impact on the religious sphere in Malaysia as a whole, it is important to contextualize the da’wah industry in Malaysia and understand the rise of commercialized celebrity preachers. 

Understanding the Da’wah Industry in Malaysia: The Rise of the Celebrity Preachers 

There has been a commodification of religion in Malaysia, with Islam being the dominant force that political parties instrumentalize to accrue electoral gains. According to many of those interviewed for this study as well as written records accessible online, da’wah has become an industry of sorts with various preachers gaining huge followings. Eloquent imams now hold sway over the masses through their savvy use of social media and TV channels, even if their training is not as deep or extensive as that of the Grand Muftis who were once considered the most influential clerics.37

This influence entails significant material benefits as well, including the ability to raise funds and live a more lavish lifestyle. While some preachers ensure that the funds they raise are funneled into serious charitable activities alone, many others are also comfortable using some portions of the funds for their own purposes such as business investments or lifestyle upgrades. Wealthy Malaysians will often patronize organizations or preachers who have established credibility in the country, spending 100,000s of Ringgits (upwards of $20,000) on such individuals. This motivates many young Malaysians to try entering the “da’wah industry.”38

This aspiration for material wealth was seen most clearly in the 2010 reality TV show, Imam Muda (New Imam). The show brought together 1,000 Malaysian contestants to vie for the spot of the best Imam in the country. Imams were selected based on their recitation of the Qur’an, knowledge of Islam, ability to carry out Islamic responsibilities, and related qualifications. They were assigned tasks such as washing dead bodies (according to Islamic tradition), counseling perpetrators of misdemeanors (such as rash drivers), and other such challenges that tested their mettle. The winner of the show was awarded a scholarship to study in Medina University (one of the most prestigious schools for Islamic studies), a car, a job as an Imam of a mosque, a pilgrimage to Mecca, and 20,000 Ringgits (approximately $6,700). 

The show became an instant hit, garnering millions of viewers, leading to multiple seasons as well as many spinoff programs with similar formats. The winners of the show went on to become celebrities in their hometowns who could start their own Islamic organizations.39

This phenomenon of celebrity clerics gaining cult followings is not unique to Malaysia alone. Simultaneously, in the 2010s, many English-speaking Imams from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom also attained global popularity based on their eloquence and knowledge. Figures like Yasir Qadhi, Nouman Ali Khan, and Omar Solaiman (all based in the United States) were among such figures who captured the imaginations of Muslims all over the world.40

More than in the political landscape, Naik’s influence in Malaysia is seen most heavily in the country’s religious landscape, with many of his proteges and peers dominating the news cycles and da’wah industry. This includes peers like Hussain Yee, who has featured on his channel Peace TV, as well as mentees like Firdaus Wong and Vinoth Zamri, who have gone on to become mini-celebrity imams in their own rights.41

Islamism as a Frame of Reference

Media and commentary pieces often refer to Zakir Naik as an Islamist. Islamism is often understood as the ideology that Islam should guide every aspect of life including the social and the political.42 However, the term itself is quite broad and has been critiqued by various scholars and Muslim groups. For example, because of the wide-ranging nature of Islamism, it can refer both to non-violent groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as violent, designated terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.43 Some organizations such as the Tunisian political party Ennahda distance themselves from the term due to the extremist connotations attached to it. Others still argue that Islam is a comprehensive term and that there is no need to use a separate term to describe Muslims’ efforts to secure political power. 

This last point regarding the separation of religion from politics bears examining. As some scholars have pointed out, the terminology of “religion” itself is a modern Western one that denotes a liturgical movement that is focused on spiritual piety divorced from the political conditions that surround the adherents of the religion.44 For that reason, some Muslim scholars have contested the term Islamist. 

Given all these complications, another useful category that can be used to identify Zakir Naik’s leanings can be that of “da’wah.” Derived from the Arabic noun da’a (call), whose variants appear more than 200 times in the Qur’an, da’wah refers to the idea of calling people to Islam.45 According to scholars such as Matthew Kuiper, da’wah can be divided into a bottom-up vs top-down approach. A bottom-up approach refers to the idea of reforming Muslims at a societal level to Islamize the population of Muslims, which will eventually contribute to Muslims gaining political power. In contrast, a top-down approach involves Muslim groups searching to acquire political power in order to enforce Islam on the masses from a seat of authority. This second group is what many scholars now refer to as Islamist, although the category is not so neat.46

Kuiper argues that while much scholarly attention has been paid to the top-down approach, it is the bottom-up approach that is far more pervasive. This is because most Muslims that do not want to deal with the negative connotations attached to Islamism and the explicit goal of bringing about a caliphate prefer to work on this aspect of reform from a societal level. Thus, groups like the Tablighi Jamaat (a typically apolitical organization aimed at reforming Muslim practices) as well as certain strains of Salafists fall under this category. Importantly, a bottom-up approach of da’wah is not always apolitical. Some groups prefer to use this to gradually gain political power, whereas other such efforts indirectly affect politics even if the activists in question do not explicitly seek to acquire political power.47

Zakir Naik seems to be an example of a bottom-up da’ee (active participle of da’wah). On a few occasions at least, Zakir Naik has noted that only a caliphate would be a true representation of an Islamic government.48 However, at the same time, he has also spoken about the practical difficulties of setting up such a political system and has thus advocated for Muslims to engage in more societal da’wah.49 This has been a consistent view of his since even after he moved to Malaysia. While Malaysia is an Islamic country, he has not in any way brought up the idea of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state to the public.50 This is presumably to avoid ruffling any political feathers, especially given his past controversies. Hence, Naik promotes the idea of reforming society instead. 


Naik was largely silent during the COVID-19 pandemic between early 2020 and 2022, choosing not to release any new lectures in that time. Indeed, his silence was so conspicuous that several of the interviewees I spoke to assumed that he had left Malaysia.51 Many interviewees stated that his silence was likely tied to an incident in 2019 in which he commented on Tamil and Chinese Malaysians, creating a significant stir in Malaysian political and social establishments. Thus, as one interviewee mused, politicians would most likely have asked Naik to remain silent since another such incident would have drawn widespread attention to him and compelled his political supporters to ask him to leave the country.52

Since 2022, however, Zakir Naik has again been in the news, and not only in Malaysia. Ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it was reported that Naik had been invited by the government of Qatar to conduct da’wah for the various tourists who would be visiting the nation. These reports were heavily criticized by the Indian government, after which Qatari officials released a statement that he had not been invited by the government but was instead visiting the nation unofficially.53

Later, in April 2023, Naik also visited Oman to deliver lectures throughout the month of Ramadan. Although there was some speculation at the time that he would be deported and sent back to India, he was not, and he returned to Malaysia safely thereafter. A cursory look at Naik’s YouTube page reveals that he is still uploading several videos a week and was most recently invited by the chief minister of the Malaysian state of Terengganu, Ahmed Samsuri Mokhtar, to the state in May 2023. Videos uploaded by Naik show him arriving via a private jet and being given an official police escort upon landing, demonstrating that Naik still commands significant power and popularity in the nation. Presumably, Naik has refrained from making any more racial or political comments to avoid controversies that might put his political backers in an awkward position. 

This paper adds to the existing literature on the intersection of religious and political dynamics in Malaysia and analyzes emerging forms of proselytization among Muslims by using the example of Zakir Naik, a celebrity preacher. It also considers the ways in which Islamism can be understood not only as a top-down, explicitly political project—which is how most of the existing literature has treated the concept—but also as a bottom-up project to change Muslim societies, with even popular celebrity preachers and “street da'wah” being important elements of these efforts.