It was an unusual
Saturday morning. Upon waking, I had an urge to drive to the small town of
Beaverton and have lunch in a little restaurant that I had visited a couple of
years ago. There was nothing extra-ordinary about the restaurant which I had
discovered by chance. As I did not want to drive for more than an hour by
myself, I called Anne. Usually she is busy with her hundred and one social and
family commitments, but unexpectedly, that morning she was free.
“Can we go to
Beaverton to have lunch?” I suggested.
“Why Beaverton?” She
“I don’t know. I
just have this urge to go there. Something is attracting me there.”
“Sure, why not?” She
was a good sport.
An hour later, we
were on our way to Beaverton. Anne was surprised that I would follow my heart to
such an extent. I am always aware that life is full of mysteries and I follow
those mysteries with passion. Maybe that is why my life has never been boring.
When we entered the
small restaurant with half a dozen tables, we could see only two couples, who
were chatting over a leisurely lunch. We sat down at the table next to them.
While we were eating we started to overhear the older gentleman with a beard
talking about China and India and the Baha’i faith. Anne and I became fascinated
and started eavesdropping. I was especially intrigued to hear him mention Chief
Seattle’s speech. That speech had impressed me so much that a few months
previously, I had translated it into Urdu for publication in a Pakistani
magazine. In my mind, Chief Seattle’s speech was one of the masterpieces of
wisdom literature. I had a lot of adoration for that great man.
“I would like to go
and talk to him,” I said to Anne.
“Why are you going
to bother him?” Anne has always been shy in social circumstances and reluctant
to initiate meeting a stranger.
“I am not going to
bother him. I will tell him how impressed I am by his talk.”
I approached the
older gentleman and introduced myself. “I am Dr. Sohail and this is my friend
Anne. We were fascinated by your talk. I recently translated Chief Seattle’s
speech into Urdu.”
As we talked we got
to know each other. The older gentleman was Omar Walmsley, who lived in
Haliburton with his wife Liz. They had come down to Beaverton to have lunch with
friends. What a coincidence, I thought. Omar and I had traveled for more than an
hour to meet in Beaverton in an unknown restaurant.
It seemed a
mysterious and mystical meeting. Omar was a Baha’i scholar who was living a
retired life. When I shared with him that I had just finished a book
From Islam To
Secular Humanism…A Philosophical Journey,
he expressed a keen desire to read it.
A few weeks later,
we met in Toronto for dinner and I gave him my manuscript. After Omar read it,
he sent me an affectionate letter, which I showed it to my publisher Bill
Belfontaine. We thought it should be included in the book as an introduction.
When I mentioned the idea to Omar he was delighted. That letter connected us in
a special way and we became co-travelers on the same spiritual journey that
leads to global peace. Omar had written,
How wonderfully you
have shared your spiritual journey with youthful readers and particularly with
your nephew Zeeshan --- and hopefully with many older readers. You shared the
importance of “the trail of the heart” and the family tradition of choosing “the
non-traditional path”. This has personal meaning to me, for in my life I have
also made the searching my primary aim.
When I was a youth
in China, about age 16, the famous British Sinologist Joseph Needham was invited
to speak at the university in Chengdu on the 400th anniversary of the
birth of Copernicus. It’s interesting as I look back, to realize how deeply I
was influenced by his words. He started off similarly to your journey, although
in his case his orientation was High Anglicanism. As he delved into science and
particularly the physics of matter and energy, his belief in God dissolved, and
became quite meaningless and irrelevant. But within the formation and structure
of matter he began to perceive a continuous pattern or process, which saw parts
forming ever more complex structures. I cannot convey the details but he traced
the formation of matter from the big bang through all the stages up to
molecules, living cells, more and more complex like forms, right up to the 70 to
100 trillion celled human being. Detecting something enormously fascinating
about this creative tendency in matter, Needham rediscovered faith on an
entirely new level. If for billions of years more and more complex harmonies of
parts were verifiable to the eyes of science, faith for Needham was reborn. At
that point Needham coincided almost exactly with your conclusions. “I hope that
…we decide to discover new ways of living harmoniously with ourselves, other
human beings and Mother Nature.” This had enormous meaning for Needham—he
believed that the process of harmonization of parts into larger wholes had
proceeded inevitably until humans, with as you term it, the ability “to know
that we know” and to make choices, arrived. For the first time the unfolding of
creation contained a self-conscious element with choice and Needham at this
point regained his faith. He believed that whatever lay behind this unfolding
possibility for parts to become subsumed into larger wholes was God and that the
process of assisting this process was “the will of God’.
I have to share the
above, for in my journey I find meaning in assisting this process in whatever
way I can. My favorite analogy is with the evolution of an orchestra. The
soloist first masters self-expression. Later in the mystery of the orchestra,
the soloist asks, “Can I play what I wish, when I wish, and the way I wish…the
free way I’m used to playing as a soloist?”…and the conductor kindly but firmly
says, “No, the rules of playing in an orchestra are that you take your lead from
the conductor. In this way you become part of a larger whole. You may continue
to be a soloist with total freedom of self-expression and at the same time
experience what it is to be a part of a larger whole, a whole larger that the
sum of all the parts.” This analogy has some bearing for us in a world crammed
with soloists. And in the nineteenth century, before an international agreement
made A 440 the universally accepted tuning standard for all pianos and musical
instruments, orchestras from different countries would have been unable to play
together without a total distortion of the composer’s music. It was this that
led me to the Baha’i faith, which is much more like the composition of a human
orchestra playing the highest ideals and values of all past religious
manifestations. We have no churches, preachers or conscience pressures imposed
on us from above.
Sohail, these are
personal reflections of my own which in no way detract from your manuscript. I
began to read it the night we met and after some delays, which I regret, I
finished reading it recently. I started making notes but later read rather
avidly, wanting to follow all the many facets of your spiritual journey. You
write sincerely, gently and eloquently from the heart and like all pioneers who
have extracted truth from experience, your focus is on what unfolds…not on the
reactions of those rigidly committed to the “gods” of past human fabrications.
Grateful for your sharing.
A few months after
the publication of the book, I introduced Omar to Bill. They were quite excited
to meet each other. At Omar’s invitation, Bill and I drove one weekend to
Haliburton to spend a day with him. I was trying to encourage Omar to write his
biography which I thought would be a great gift to humanity as it would include
his life experiences, knowledge and wisdom. As Omar had never thought of writing
his life story, I thought that interviewing him might give him a boost and
provide inspiration. He was planning to visit his son in Pickering in January
2002, so I invited him to my office and we recorded our dialogue. During our
conversation I asked him numerous questions and he shared with me his life
experiences openly, honestly and truthfully. Interviewing Omar reminded me of my
uncle Arif Abdul Mateen, who also had a philosophical approach to life. Omar was
also affectionate towards me like my uncle. I told Omar that since my uncle had
passed away a few years ago, maybe life was offering me another philosophical
gift in the form of Omar. Omar had also read my uncle’s interview and thought
they both belonged to the same tribe, the tribe of peace -loving people.
We started the
dialogue with Omar’s experiences as a child in China and the significance of his
unusual name. Omar shared that it was his grandfather’s name and his mother had
given him the name hoping that he would walk in his grandfather’s footsteps. The
grandfather had died five years before Omar’s birth but he remembered his
grandfather’s wonderful portrait in the big hall of his house. It was painted in
such a way that wherever he was in the room, he could see his grandfather’s eyes
looking at him. Omar was quite intimidated by the stature of his grandfather’s
scholarship, to the extent that he could not even bring himself to read the
books the great man had written. His grandfather was a missionary doctor who in
the wave of Christian missionary fervour of the nineteenth century, had left
Canada for a life in China to help the sick and the poor and also spread
Christianity. At one time he got into serious political trouble and narrowly
Omar’s father was a
scholar in Chinese language and literature and had become a professor in the
Chinese Department at the University of Toronto. Omar remembered being afraid of
his father who was always reluctant to be affectionate with him. Years later,
Omar found out that his father was bi-sexual and he wondered whether that sexual
orientation was a hurdle that prevented him from becoming an affectionate
father. Omar’s father had written hundreds of pages about his life but the
family was embarrassed about his sexuality and thus very reluctant to publish
I was impressed by
Omar’s attitude towards his father’s bisexuality. He was very accepting of it,
noting that a lot of brilliant people are bisexual. At one stage of his life,
Omar’s father was in awe of a young man, Tom Freeman, who was a wonderful
athlete. Unfortunately, while preparing for the Olympic hundred-metre sprint,
Tom Freeman was struck in the head by a discus, which ended his athletic career.
The two men had met when Tom Freeman went to China, and because of the
conservative culture, the nature of the relationship between Omar’s father and
Tom Freeman remained a secret.
Omar had fond
memories of his schooling in China. It was amazing that his father had arranged
the transfer of curriculum and books from Canada, so that the children could
have the same level of education as they would have received if they had lived
Omar regretted that
he did not know his father as well as he would have liked. He was pleased
though, that later in his life, in 1979, he and his father took a long journey
together by car through the United States, during which they talked at length.
Omar’s father shared a lot about his life but still was not fully open about his
Although Omar is
accepting of people’s homosexual lifestyle, he still finds it a mystery. He
feels that men and women have masculine and feminine sides to their
personalities. He wonders why rather than choosing a lover of the same gender,
masculine women do not chose feminine men and vise versa. Omar is mystified by
people’s choices of their lovers.
As a teenager Omar
was quite athletic himself and also quite popular. He had a number of close
friends. Alongside his athletic activities he also had a keen interest in
philosophy and religion. As a child he used to listen to the serious discussions
of his elders and had absorbed idealism from his family. As a teenager, he used
to fantasize a perfect world, and for some mysterious reason that perfect world
was on an island.
Omar has vivid
memories of growing up in China and remembers the sounds and colors of the
streets and bazaars of Chinese towns. He enjoyed the beauty of the landscape as
well as the people. Omar was always fascinated with beautiful women and was
friends with many. Over the years, many women were smitten by his charm.
As he grew older, he
moved to Canada and studied at the University of Toronto. He was quite active in
student politics and the world peace movement. He traveled all over the world to
attend international conferences. He studied theology and worked as a minister
for a few years. During his studies he met his first wife and got married in
1953. He had a stable married life for a number of years and had children,
before the marriage fell apart in the 1970s.
Omar had divergent
philosophical interests. On one hand he was fascinated with Christianity, and on
the other hand with Communism. He took a long time to resolve the conflicts of
those ideologies. At one stage of his life he was fascinated with Tom Wesley, a
Methodist who traveled throughout North America and then Europe to discuss his
philosophy of bringing Christianity and Socialism together. Tom got involved
with the workers and miners in England and offered them a dream of a better
life. He became a threat when people saw him as importing the French Revolution
to England. Omar feels that after Tom Wesley fell in love with a woman of ill
repute, his movement lost credibility.
In Russia, Omar met
a woman who had a great impact on his philosophy. When Omar asked her views on
God and human evolution, she shared that she believed in the progressive
elimination of the contradictions between man and man and man and Nature.
and his first wife had marital problems, his wife went to see a therapist in
Toronto. That therapist was a part of a cult. Omar wanted to attend a session to
share his side of the story, but he was not allowed. The therapist gradually
isolated Omar from his wife, and ultimately she informed him that she was
leaving him to marry her therapist. Omar was devastated. He lost his wife, and
then his money and his job. He was at a crossroads.
Omar was in not only
a marital crisis but also in a financial and a spiritual crisis. He withdrew
into his spiritual cave for two years, trying to resolve the contradictions
between his faith in Christianity and the principles of Communism. Finally he
concluded that we as human beings deserve paradise on earth and not “a pie in
the sky”. That is when he discovered a humanistic philosophy that later took on
for him the concrete form of the Baha’i faith.
to Baha’i faith was through a writer friend who was a scholar of English
Literature. She invited him to a Baha’i conference, where he was struck that
people from different cultures and races and religions were mixing with each
other producing a visual image of a human family. Omar was used to people
congregating according to color groups. He was fascinated by the philosophy that
had brought them together, so he studied the texts of the Baha’i faith, and over
the years found himself drawn to that tradition and philosophy.
After Omar recovered
from the loss of his first marriage, he asked a friend to introduce him to women
as he was ready to have another life partner. That friend introduced him to Liz
and they found each other to be on the same wavelength. The attraction and
adoration was mutual and they have been friends and lovers and soul-mates since
then. When I asked Omar about his philosophy of long term committed
relationships, he shared that the initial attraction, the lust, lasts only for a
few months or years; but after that only those relationships last in which both
parties are committed to an endeavour that transcends basic self-interest, for
example a humanistic lifestyle or humanitarian works. Omar and Liz have similar
views of life. Liz is a very well respected therapist in their community. When I
visited them I felt at peace and at home in their home. They were wonderful
Whether it is
friendship, a loving relationship between individuals, or harmony communities or
nations, Omar believes in living in loving metabolism. It is the relationship in
which people balance their similarities and differences. He imagines a world in
which people live in harmony like an orchestra, his favorite metaphor.
Since our first
meeting, I am trying to encourage Omar to write his biography. I believe it
would be a great gift to humanity. He is a living lighthouse, a guide to those
traveling through the stormy waters of life towards the shores of individual and
collective peace. I feel very fortunate to have met this great soul.
Dr. K. Sohail