Da'wa and Other Religions

Indian Muslims and the Modern Resurgence of Global Islamic Activism

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Matthew J. Kuiper
Routledge Islamic Studies Series
  • New York, NY : 
    , August
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Arabic word da‘wa (calling or inviting) encompasses both proselytization, the effort to convert non-Muslims to Islam, and internal Muslim revival, the effort to make Muslims more pious and conscientious in their faith. Movements for da‘wa have been the subject of much academic work in recent years, with the Tablighi Jama‘at, the world’s largest Muslim revivalist movement, receiving the bulk of the attention. Until now, no scholar has attempted to examine the concept da‘wa itself from the classical period to the present. Matthew J. Kuiper’s Da‘wa and Other Religions: Indian Muslims and the Modern Resurgence of Global Islamic Activism attempts to do so, and succeeds in offering readers a wide-ranging overview of da‘wa. Though it focuses on modern South Asia, this book will be of interest to scholars of Islam in any region or period.

This book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion. The first two chapters explore the concept of da‘wa in the Qur’an, Hadith, and early Islamic history. The third is an overview of da‘wa in the modern era. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the origins and history of the Tablighi Jama‘at. Chapters 6 and 7 consider the career and teachings of Zakir Naik, a popular Muslim televangelist.

Two major themes weave this book together. First, Kuiper distinguishes between “top down” and “bottom up” da‘wa. Top-down da‘wa is principally associated with Islamist movements, which aim to use the apparatus of the state to propagate their message. Bottom-up da‘wa, by contrast, works to shape individual Muslim subjectivities and is typically quietist and apolitical. Kuiper usefully treats this typology as a heuristic; all da‘wa movements, he points out, combine the two approaches to some degree. Thus, whereas Abul A‘la Mawdudi (d. 1979) is perhaps the paramount example of a top-down Islamist, Kuiper notes how organizations like the United Kingdom’s Islamic Foundation advocate Mawdudi’s thought through bottom-up methods (82). Context is key here. In regions where Muslims are a minority, bottom-up da‘wa is far more common. It is therefore no accident, according to Kuiper, that South Asia has been the source of so much bottom-up revivalist activity.

Second, this book stresses the effects of modernity on da‘wa movements—especially in ways that lay Muslims without any formal religious education have increasingly been both the agents and the objects of da‘wa. Kuiper argues that modernity is necessary but not sufficient to explain these movements. They are rooted in classical discourses about da‘wa, and many of the debates about da‘wa today reflect ambiguities in the Qur’an and Hadith about who can conduct da‘wa and by what means. Should all believers conduct da‘wa or only certain groups? Is da‘wa best achieved through compulsion or persuasion? How does da‘wa relate to the Qur’anic injunction to “command good and forbid evil” (al-amr bi-l ma‘ruf wa-l nahy ‘an al-munkar)? Though these questions did not emerge in the modern era, modernity has undoubtedly amplified them, as lay Muslims have increasingly understood da‘wa on their own terms and engaged with Islamic scriptures directly, rather than through the mediation of traditionally educated religious scholars, known as the ‘ulama.

The most original contribution of Kuiper’s book is its chapters on Zakir Naik (b. 1965), who has received very little scholarly treatment, despite his global fame. Naik is an Indian Muslim televangelist and the founder of the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) and Peace TV, a satellite TV network. He is a prolific author of countless books and pamphlets and a dynamic speaker. His works attempt to demonstrate why Islam is the “best” religion, how the Qur’an anticipates modern science, and so on. The richest discussion here concerns Naik’s view of “comparative religion,” which Kuiper situates within the modern predilection to compare and contrast religions entirely through their scriptures. For Naik, one can learn little from “observing the followers of [a] religion;” rather, the best way to understand a religion is to study “the sacred scriptures of that religion” (220). This scripturalist approach meshes with Naik’s inclinations towards Salafism, according to Kuiper, but its most palpable effect is seen in how Naik construes the nature of da‘wa itself. Unlike the Tablighi Jama‘at, which emphasizes perfecting the minutiae of Islamic belief and practice with little attempt to “compare” Islam to any other religion, Naik believes da‘wa is best achieved through the comparative method. That is, he seeks to revitalize Islam by demonstrating why Islam is better than its competitors.

Naik’s entire understanding of religion is virtually unthinkable outside the context of the modern “world religions” discourse, a feature of Naik’s thought that Kuiper could have spent more time developing. Along the same lines, it is surprising that he does not consider modernity’s effects on the category of religion more explicitly than he does. The way that the Qur’an conceptualizes religion, for example, is surely quite different from the way that, say, Naik conceptualizes it. (Kuiper, to his credit, acknowledges that we cannot “impose on the Qur’an modern notions of what the word ‘religion’ means” (44, n32), but the implications of this fact remain unexplored.) These are minor quibbles with an otherwise rich and thought-provoking book. It would have been exceedingly difficult to do justice to these questions in a single monograph, let alone one that covers so much ground. In other words, the very thing that opens Kuiper up to such a critique—the book’s immense temporal reach—is also the thing that will ensure that the book has broad, trans-disciplinary appeal.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Brannon D. Ingram is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew J. Kuiper is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. His research and teaching interests include classical and modern Islam, inter-religious relations, and the history of the Indian subcontinent.


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