Michael: The first question is, I did not know
you could make a journey from Islam to Secular Humanism…are you a Muslim?
I was born in a Muslim family and a Muslim country.
Michael: But do you claim to be a Muslim now?
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
When did I go
through this metamorphosis?
How did I have
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Michael: Thank you for joining us today.
Sohail: You are quite welcome.