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A Philosophical Journey
September, 2001


Michael: The first question is, I did not know you could make a journey from Islam to Secular Humanism…are you a Muslim?

Sohail: I was born in a Muslim family and a Muslim country.

Michael: But do you claim to be a Muslim now?

Sohail: No.

Michael: How do other Muslims react to that?

Sohail: Those who are liberal and open-minded are curious. They ask me,

            Why did I make this change?

            When did I go through this metamorphosis?

            How did I have this transformation?

Those questions opened up a dialogue. Such questions had inspired me in the first place to write the book.  Whenever          people asked me such questions, I gave them brief answers. I was myself not satisfied with short answers to such profound questions, so I decided to share the highlights of my journey in the form of a book.

And then there are other Muslims, some of them my dear fiends, who are quite conservative and traditional. They are quite concerned about the social and political repercussions of my book.

But overall the response has been positive and encouraging. People have been inviting me for dinner to discuss religious and spiritual issues. People have told me that after reading my book they discovered new questions and new answers. And I find that quite rewarding. By writing this book, I wanted to open up a genuine and honest dialogue. You see, in the social and cultural environment in Pakistan where I grew up, there were a number of monologues but no dialogues. In that environment, I felt suffocated and restricted.

I experienced the first crisis when I became a student of science and medicine. There was a conflict between the rational and logical thinking of science and the blind faith of religion. When I asked my professors of science the religious questions, they did not want to discuss them; and when I asked the religious leaders the scientific questions about Darwin’s theory or miracles like the Immaculate Conception, I realized they were not well versed in the scientific tradition. So I went through a confused state of mind that I call an Intellectual Nightmare. All the answers I got were scripted answers. They did not satisfy me. So I decided to leave the highway of tradition and follow the trail of my heart. I had to find my own answers. It is interesting that what I learnt in the first fifteen years of my life, took me another twenty years to unlearn.

But even after going through that experience, it was not easy to articulate my journey in a way that others could comprehend easily. Experiencing something is one thing and articulating it is another. Now I am excited that those who read my book can get in touch with the essence of my journey. Honestly speaking, I am quite reassured with the response so far.

Michael: You talk about twin solitudes, between a world of science and a world of religion.

In Judaism and even in Christianity people have struggled with those two worlds. But many have tried to compromise or even assimilate science with faith. Did that not happen in the world of Islam? Do these two worlds never meet in Islam?

Sohail: In the first thousand years of Islamic history, there was an open dialogue between Science and Religion. Muslims did produce scientists and philosophers like Avicenna.

Michael: Who were far ahead of the Christian world.

Sohail: That is true. But in the last few hundred years the two worlds have grown apart. Some Muslim historians hold Ghazzali responsible for that big change. They believe that Ghazzali suggested that if there was a conflict between Science and Scriptures, Muslims should follow Scriptures. That is why there is a major difference between Christian and Muslim worlds. In the Christian world the philosopher Neitsche in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra stated God is Dead”. But in the Muslim world, God is still alive but Science and Philosophy are dead.

Michael: In reality God is alive and Neitsche is dead. We do not know much about Islam in the Western world. Even those people like me, who consider themselves enlightened, are not familiar with the Islamic tradition. You will meet many Catholics who do not practise their religion but still consider themselves Catholic. You will also meet many Jews who are secular humanists but still consider themselves Cultural Jews. You left Islam but do you consider yourself a Cultural Muslim or do you not use that term at all?

Sohail: No, I don’t. I think a term like Cultural Muslim creates confusion. I think religion is a matter of faith. If someone does not believe in God and Prophets and Scriptures and life after death, then he is not a Muslim. I know many non-believers, but they are reluctant to announce that they are atheists. They hide behind the term Cultural Muslim because they are afraid of the repercussions. I think such terms cause confusion. I think the time has come that we become honest and leave hypocrisy behind. In the Muslim world we need a secular attitude. I believe people should be free to practise their faith in their private life but in the social and the political realms, people should not suffer because of their faith. As a psychotherapist, I encourage people to practise their faith if that gives them emotional strength, but I do not agree with people imposing their values and beliefs on others socially and politically. I do not believe in a religious state. In Pakistan, I saw minorities and women suffering, as they never had equal rights and privileges. It is not dissimilar to many other Muslim countries in the world.

When I received my Canadian citizenship, the judge said, “Dr. Sohail, if you wish you can even become the Prime Minister of Canada”; but if I do not believe in God and Prophets and Scriptures, I cannot participate in Pakistani politics. One has to be a Muslim to become the head of the state and I disagree with that.

Michael: There is a plethora of books in the market. From Christianity to Buddhism to New Age to Jumping Up And Down. Most of them are not worth reading. But Dr. Sohail’s book is about a profound journey. Many people who leave Islam are quiet about it. And accepting Secular Humanism is taking still another step. Dr. Sohail! Why did you write the book? You know many people will be hurt reading your book. It will cause pain to many Muslims.

Sohail: I am very sensitive about this aspect. I even mentioned in my introduction that by writing this book, I had no intention to hurt or offend people. I want to share my own experiences in a respectful way. I am aware that there are many others like me, who are struggling with similar issues. I think time has come that we can be open and honest about our beliefs, values, lifestyles and philosophies. And for that to happen we have to live in a secular society. I know many people who are no longer believers but they are living in the spiritual closet. They cannot come out because of the fear of the repercussions.

Michael: Are they worried about being ostracized or there is something more?

Sohail; In Pakistan, religious minorities have suffered over the years. When I was in Pakistan, a group known as Ahmedies, who consider themselves Muslims, were declared Non-Muslims by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government, and they went through a very hard time.

Michael: Who are these Ahmedies?

Sohail: They are the followers of a religious leader named Mirza Ghulam Ahmed from Qadian. I never belonged to that group but I had close friends from that community. They were humiliated in Pakistan. People threw garbage on their doorsteps. We had two professors in our medical school who were Ahmedies. People went to their house, seized their books and clothes, and burnt them on the street. Many Ahmedies left the country. Canada gave many of them refugee status. I believe religious minorities in Pakistan do not enjoy equal rights. If someone says he is an atheist, he is worried about social reactions. There is no religious freedom, whether freedom of religion or freedom from religion.

Over the years, things have become worse rather than getting better. Recently Pakistan has enacted a blasphemy law, according to which people are put in jail if they express any criticism of religion. Such laws create fear in society. People cannot be free to express what they believe according to their conscience and there cannot be an open and honest debate in the country.

Michael: Let me ask you a question. In the Christian world we have pluralism. Do you or can you have that in the Muslim world?

Sohail: This is what I am suggesting. We need a social and political climate where people can practise their faith without any fear. The Christian world went through the process of separation of Church and State a few hundred years ago but the Muslim world has not gone through the experience of separation of the Mosque and the State. So the people in power have their own interpretation of the scriptures which they impose on others; and if others do not follow the orders, then they are penalized and persecuted. In a theocratic state the children, women and minorities suffer the most. I believe the time has come for Muslim countries to become secular so that all citizens of the country have equal rights and privileges.

Michael: Many Muslim leaders in those countries would say that if we opened the doors of Secular Humanism, many believers might leave. A decline of religious believers took place in North America and Europe. In Italy, in spite of the Vatican, many Italians left the Catholic Church.

Sohail: That is the reality of the Muslim world. But that is forcing people to become hypocrites.

They are afraid, so they are not honest to themselves, to their children, to their families and to their communities. The question is, do we need to encourage hypocrisy or honesty? I believe that a secular environment encourages people to be honest. As far as Pakistani laws and traditions are concerned, I remember reading Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speeches in which he hoped that the Pakistani constitution would be a secular one. He wanted to see a Pakistan in which a Muslim would not be a Muslim, a Hindu would not be a Hindu and a Christian would not be a Christian. They would be all Pakistani citizens with equal rights and privileges. Unfortunately, Jinnah’s dream never materialized. Pakistan became a theocratic rather than a secular state.

It is ironic that in the 1960s and 1970s, Pakistan was more tolerant than in the 1980s and 1990s. In the recent past, people have been more afraid to express their critical views. Religious control in Pakistani society has been increasing. Many women who did not wear veils were threatened. In some cases acid was thrown on their faces. In Pakistan, religious forces have been becoming stronger, and secular forces have been becoming weaker. Such a situation is of great concern for many. It has also been a source of inspiration for me to write this book.

Michael: But we cannot put much emphasis on secular forces, as those forces lead to Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China and Nazi Germany. If we follow secular forces, we would be walking on thin ice.

Sohail: That is why I have joined Secularism with Humanism. Many Christians might say, “Christianity has humanistic values”. Many Muslims say, “Islam has humanistic values”. I strongly believe that philosophy and ideology is one thing and the practice is another. In my lifetime, I did not see any Muslim country that practices humanistic values. All Muslim countries are patriarchal and theocratic, so that women and minorities do not have equal rights. If those values were practised, then I could accept a secular and liberal interpretation of Islam but unfortunately that is not the case. So rather than engaging in academic discussions, I focus on ways in which Muslim countries could change laws so that that all citizens could have equal rights and privileges.

Michael: [To a caller] Hello Sheila, welcome!

Sheila: Hello! In many other religions, dissent is allowed. We don’t see that in Islam. Dr. Sohail is the first one that I know who made the journey from Islam to Secular Humanism. He must be one of the few brave ones. I never heard of a Muslim not being a Muslim.

Michael: Historically speaking, there was a time when the Catholic Church was not very tolerant of alternate faiths. On the other hand, there was a time in the Muslim world in Spain, when Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed peacefully. But at this time in history, we see extremist views in Hinduism as well as in the Muslim world.

Sohail; As I mentioned earlier, separation between Church and the State took place in the Christian world a few hundred years ago but the separation of the Mosque and the State has not taken place in the Muslim world. So the non-believer is perceived as a traitor and there is no tradition of dissent. Atheists are worried about repercussions.

Michael: What kind of repercussions?

Sohail: Not only at a political and social level but also in the families. I have a friend who is an atheist. He is married to a conservative Muslim. When they had a son, there was a conflict. The mother wanted her son to be circumcised but the father did not. So the son was not circumcised. When her family came for a visit, they were shocked. They asked the mother, “Why is he not circumcised?”

She said, “My husband is an atheist.”

They said, “That means your nikah, the religious marriage is dissolved. Now you are living in sin.” So you see the repercussions in the family where Atheists are ostracized.

Michael: But it is interesting that although mother was a Muslim, the father won. Some might say she is living in a patriarchal society. [To a new caller] Jason! Hi!

Jason: Hi, First of all, I really appreciate Khalid opening up. He is very honest. Being a Pakistani Christian living in Canada, I know the political situation in Pakistan is going to get worse since the September 11th crisis. Churches and Christian houses will be burnt. That is what happened after the Gulf War when America had attacked Iraq.  Christians received threatening phone calls. Christians were punished according to the Blasphemy Law. Let us hope that Pervaiz Musharraf will abolish the Blasphemy Law so that all Pakistanis will have equal rights. I agree with what Khalid is saying.

Michael: The Blasphemy Law is awful. We should do a special show on it. Hi, Jack!

Jack: I am a converted Muslim. I was a Muslim before. I have travelled in Iraq, Syria and Malaysia. I have seen Christian minorities have protection in those countries.

Michael: What are you talking about? In many Muslim countries, Christians, Jews and other religious minorities are suffering.

Jack: But minorities suffer here too.

Michael: You did not hear what I was saying. If you do not listen carefully, we cannot have a dialogue.

Jack: Have you been to those countries.

Michael: Yes, I have.

Jack: Which ones?

Michael: That is not the point. You might be surprised how many. The idea that minorities have equal rights in Muslim countries is laughable. It is just not true. Dr. Sohail! Do you think Muslim countries are pluralistic?

Sohail: I wish they were. I would like Muslim countries to become secular and pluralistic. But unfortunately, they are not. Otherwise, there would not be thousands of refugees leaving Muslim countries and coming to the West. Those refugees prove to us that Muslim countries are not pluralistic.

Michael: Thank you for joining us today.

Sohail: You are quite welcome.

E-mail welcome@drsohail.com