AAMER RAFI, NJ

"SECULAR HUMANISM"

 

AAMER RAFI

Our friend Mohammad Gill recently wrote an article at Chowk.com regarding Mixed Unions i.e. unions of people who have different ideological positions. Since I can relate to that topic in many ways, I wrote to him giving him my take on the issue and to make my point, I sent him a few pages out of my personal life. I also sent the same to Dr. Khalid Sohail since his case studies formed the basis of Mr. Gill’s article. Both gentlemen asked me to share the story with a larger audience. Personally, I am not a big fan of personal accounts and I hesitated a bit. I discussed my hesitation with our friend Amra Ahmed who kindly shared with me a couple of things from the life-story of her own grandmother who recently passed away. I was really moved by her account and convinced that there is definite value in sharing the experiences. Since the brief description of the great woman was the catalyst for sharing this with all of you, I would like to dedicate the following, for whatever it’s worth, to the memory of Amra’s late grandmother.
 
 
My father was a closet agnostic. I never realized it when he was alive. He died when I was just 19 years old. He never asked me to read Arabic Quran, offer prayers or any such thing. My mother was a traditional Muslim. I don’t recall seeing either of my parents offering prayer except for special occasions like Eid or funerals. I am not even sure we owned a prayer mat. My dad belonged to an Ahmedi family. The entire family had a consensus about my father that they still maintain; that he was fun to be with, persuasive in his arguments but some felt that there was something wrong about his ideology. He had a rebellious thread in his thinking. When Ahmedies, en masse, were categorically against ZA Bhutto for engineering the move to declare them non-Muslims, my father used to praise Bhutto’s politics unabashedly. I used to watch him argue with his brothers, friends and their children with a lot of interest. At almost every family gathering, those arguments used to be one of the main events. Usually these arguments were about the prophet hood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a concept that my father was vociferously against.
 
As I said, I never realized in his life that he was an agnostic. He never told me that he was skeptical about the existence of a God. He used to have long discussions with me on various topics, including religion, but never did we talk about the existence of a deity.  Some years after his death, I realized that he had been dropping clues all over the place and silently but methodically guiding me towards skepticism. One of the things that led me to realize that was the fact that he had never given me any gift other than books on my birthdays and when I tried to recall every book that he had given me, it was almost impossible to mistake the message he was sending me. The first ever book that I can recall that he bought me was a small 50 pages book called “kya, kaisay, kyun” (“What, how and why”) printed by Ferozsons in Lahore. The book described why rain falls, how earthquakes happen etc. The other books that I can recall getting as birthday gifts were “Origin of Species” and  “Descent of Man” by Darwin, “Out of my later days” by Einstein, “Ten days that shook the world” by John Reed, “Why I’m not a Christian” and “Science and Religion” by Russell and some more books on the same line.  
Within his lifetime, I had shown my disinterest in Ahmadiyyat. I joined Tolu-e-Islam, the organization mentored by late Ghulam Ahmad Parvez and at a very young age, I was writing articles on Quran for Tolu-e-Islam. My father always showed my articles to his friends proudly but never discussed their contents with me. I took it as his agreement. He had never read the books by GA Parvez (at least he never told me that he had. One of my cousins recently informed me that my father used to quote Parvez quite frequently in his discussions). I made him read some of the books because I desperately wanted him to go to Tolu-e-Islam gatherings with me. He never cared for that. One day while discussing something with him I referred to the book “Insaan ne kya socha” (“What have humans thought”) by Parvez as the best work Parvez had done. In this book, Parvez had attempted to deconstruct materialism, democracy, Marxism etc. and dismissing them as futile attempts by human intellect to solve human problems driving at his belief that only God can provide the ultimate solutions. My father listened to me and said that when he read the book in question, he thought that it was the weakest work by Parvez. I remember him saying, “Parvez knows Quran and he should stick to it. In this book, he is exploring territories that he doesn’t know anything about”. At age 16 or 17, it was inconceivable and unacceptable to me that GA Parvez could be wrong about anything. To me, at that time, he was the ultimate thinker of his time. My father’s assertion ignited the only argument that I ever had with him (well, only in the sense of ideological arguments. We had numerous when it came to cricket). During the argument, he told me patiently that no scholar, however great he/she might be, was worth following blindly. He asked me to take any one thing in the book in question and study it independently. His claim was that I would soon see that things were not as simple as Pervez made them out to be. When I refused to budge, he asked how convinced I was on the thoughts of Parvez on Ahadees. I told him that Parvez had made a slam-dunk case and I was convinced that most of the collections of Ahadees were fabrications. He said, “but I have never seen you reading Sahih Bukhari. How do you know what Parvez is saying is really in Sahih Bukhari or he is not quoting it out of context?” I couldn’t answer that. He then bought me Maududi’s “Tafheemaat” and I began to see that the arguments presented by Parvez were not as rock solid as I always thought they were. That was an important lesson in skepticism and later in my life I started reading every book with a fair amount of skepticism.
Anyway, fast-forward to my own married life. I am much more out of closet than my father as an agnostic. Many people among my family and friends know that I am a skeptic to the core and those who don’t know for sure, suspect it. My wife is a believer. Unlike my mother, she occasionally offers prayers. We own two prayer-mats.  I voice my opinions about religion openly and my wife knows full well that I have doubts about the existence of God but, strangely, she has never pushed me to state it in black and white terms. My own assessment is that she wants me to be a believer. I think she suspects what the answer would be if she pops the question and I think she wants to live in a comfortable state of uncertainty. Respecting her wishes, I have never been “in her face” with my views. I have a 10 years old son and a 7 years old daughter.  I do not tell them what to believe and what not to believe. I encourage skepticism in them. I have always answered their questions with rational reasons without resorting to God. When my son asked me why was it bad to steal, I didn’t tell him, “Because God doesn’t like it”. My wife does teach them as much religion as she knows like reciting “Bismillah” before eating something. I have never objected to that. As for myself, I tell my kids all the time to approach everything with an open mind. Because of this approach, we have no friction at home regarding children’s upbringing. My wife once asked me if we should teach them how to read Quran and I told her that nobody had done that to me and I know Quran much more than an average Muslim. She has seen me reading and quoting Quran frequently so she was convinced and dropped the issue.
The most interesting episode in this regard occurred in 2004. We have an Islamic organization here in NJ that runs a summer Islamic school. All my friends enrolled their kids in the year 2004. My wife wanted our kids to join too. I thought about it for a long time and then agreed with my wife. One day my son came home from the Islamic school and he had a visibly confused expression. When I asked him what was the matter, he said, “our teacher in the Islamic school said that the humanity began with one man named Adam and one woman named Hava. Is that really true?” I kept talking to him about this for a couple of days, encouraging him to ask the teacher whatever questions he had in mind. His conclusion few days later was that he was not convinced that there was enough proof to believe that account. He kept up having similar discussions through out that summer. My wife wanted me to give him traditional answers to his questions. I refused and asked her to do it herself. Eventually, she saw that my son was getting more and more confused just because he has a tendency to doubt and I was not clamping down on his doubts with iron boots. In fact, I was encouraging him to think about things on his own. There were other such episodes as well. I guess my wife decided that this wasn’t going anywhere and that is why she didn’t ask me to send our kids to the Islamic school next year.
So, when it comes to mixed unions, I don’t see much of a problem there if the partners in the union learn to respect each other’s spheres. Of course, there are reasons for a friction in such a union but there are always reasons for a friction when two people are married to each other. If it’s not ideological, it can be something else. I haven’t seen any friction-less union in my life. That doesn’t mean that the possibility of co-existence should be ruled out. As for the children of mixed unions, I consider them luckier than the other kids since they have options and can see both perspectives and make up their minds about their ideology.

Rafi Aamer

 

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