I first saw Sheikh Ahmed Deedat, who died at his home in Durban, South Africa, on August 8, 2005, when I attended a lecture he delivered at Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation in 1986. It was one of the first of what would later make him a fabled globe-trotting promoter of interfaith dialogue, a brilliant debater and the most persuasive preacher that the Islamic world had produced in modern times. Ever since I have made a habit of following up all his lectures and reading all his works.
A man blessed with an affable personality, a humble disposition, an imposing figure and a great sense of humour, Deedat had a firm belief in the magic of words, not just because he was aware of his skill in debating, but because he was a man who understood that Islam had won hearts over the centuries through the soft and peaceful strength of its spoken word and not through the hoofs of its horses. Hence he never failed to settle the emotions of his audience by starting his debates with his conviction of the common bond between all great religions as prescribed in the Holy Koran:
Say: O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but God; That we associate no partners with Him; That we erect not from among ourselves, lords and patrons other than God ... (Koran 3:64).
As an erudite scholar who made himself an authority on all versions of the Holy Bible by reading and researching extensively, Deedat used debates not only as forums to enlighten and convince but also as means to promote dialogue and understanding between the two great religions of Islam and Christianity. He was prompt in announcing his intention from the start of every debate that he was not out there to convert but rather to advance and share his side of the truth with the audience on the foundations laid down by the Koran:
Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. Whoever rejects Evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things. (Koran 2: 256).
Although using debate and sound reasoning to reach out to people of other faiths is a formula inherent in Islam, it was Deedat who salvaged those techniques from oblivion and brought them to the age of modern media. Like a suave emissary or skillful salesman, he paved his way to the hearts of his Christian and Muslim audiences by always resorting to the best words the Koran can offer in order to appeal to all humankind.
Thus, Deedat always used the following universal truth of the Koran as his traditional curtain raiser:
Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knoweth best who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance. (Koran 16:125)
Unshackled by the traditional, elitist language of Islamic academia and untainted by the jihadist rhetoric of the radical ideologues such as Mawlana Abu A'la Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutub, Deedat adopted the simple and peaceful approach of the medieval Muslim traders who spread Islam, through their character and their trading acumen, to most of South-East Asia, Africa and elsewhere. It was the cultured and modest character of his Gujarati upbringing that gave him the stylistic simplicity that allowed him to enter people's hearts in the same way his Gujarati predecessor Mahatma Gandhi did.
Attaining fame at a time when the radical brand of Islam was at its peak and was gaining legitimacy and power due to Muslim and Western rage against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Deedat managed to somehow mitigate the growing radicalisation of Muslim youth by diverting their attention to the clash of ideas rather than the clash of swords.
His famous debates in 1985 and 1988 with the Palestinian-born Christian American scholar, Dr Annis Shorrosh, a member of Oxford Society of Scholars, on "Is Jesus God?" and "The Koran or the Bible: Which is God's Word?" attracted 5,000 and 11,000 attendees respectively. While his debate with the eminent evangelist the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart in 1986 at Louisiana State University on "Is the Bible God's Word?" caught the attention of Muslims and Christians alike and demonstrated Deedat's Bible scholarship and his skill as a master debater.
His sharp humour in challenging his rivals, his softly spoken and convincing voice, his ever-present and radiant smile, his white trimmed beard, his white and simple skull cap, his accessible style of clothing and his amusing facial and hand gestures, all enabled him to exude such an aura of friendship that even his fiercest adversaries couldn't help but trust and respect him.
The article was first published in the Khaleej Times on August 18, 2005 under the title “Champion of interfaith dialogue”.
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