(inspired by Asra Nomani’s interview by Shimaila Matri Dawood of Newsline Pakistan) 

by Dr. Khalid Sohail

“Who are Muslims?”

“ What do they believe in?”

‘What kind of lifestyle do they have?”

“Can some Muslims declare other Muslims as non-Muslims?”

These simple but profound questions have been a source of endless debates over the centuries. Those debates have extended from the living rooms to the parliaments and have caused not only heartbreaks but also bloodsheds. Nobody can deny the historical reality that over the centuries millions of people have been declared non-Muslims by other Muslims, individually and collectively, religiously and politically, and have been persecuted and penalized even executed. There are thousands of Muslims who have been living in exile as refugees taking political asylum in non-Muslim countries because they are afraid for their lives if they go back to their Muslim motherlands. Violent confrontations between different Muslim sects have been a constant threat to peace in Muslim communities and countries. Being a student of human psychology and a practicing psychotherapist I have been studying the psychology of Muslims with a keen interest.

Before I discuss this subject from a psychological point of view, I would like to share my own philosophical and political views so that there is no confusion about the motives of writing this essay. It is my humble attempt to share my impressions about Muslims that I have encountered in my life. Being a Humanist I am of the opinion that all human beings have a right to adopt a religious identity they prefer and that identity needs to be accepted and respected by other people in their communities and countries. Being a supporter of human rights I believe that human beings, individually and collectively, should not be persecuted or penalized because of their religious identity. Being a secular person I not only believe in freedom of religion but also in freedom from religion. I believe that non-believers should have the same rights and privileges as the believers in any community and country. The discussion of the psychology of Muslims to some extent also applies to the psychology of other religious groups as they have many similarities. I am primarily focusing on Muslims as I grew up in a Muslim family and community and have interacted with thousands of them in my social and professional lives. My impressions are based on my series of informal interviews, serious discussions and passionate dialogues with a wide range of Muslims from different religious and cultural backgrounds. In my personal life I accept anyone as a Muslim who introduces himself or herself as a Muslim. For me it is a matter of subjective identity and does not have to be judged on some objective religious standards. All those human beings who like to be called Muslims are Muslims for me. It is similar to all human beings who like to be called Christians or Jews or Hindus or Sikhs or Buddhists or Atheists. I accept them all at their face value. As far as Muslims are concerned I accept their personal understanding of scriptures and subjective interpretation of religious tradition. As a student of human psychology I believe that there are as many psychological truths as there are human beings and there are as many Islams as there are Muslims in the world..


From a psychological perspective the first issue I encountered was that of identity. Of all the people I met who considered themselves Muslims, some had a cultural identity while others had a religious identity. Some believed that since they were born in a Muslim family, country and culture they were Muslims even if they did not believe in the religion. They considered themselves as Cultural Muslims. Interestingly some of them were even agnostics, atheists and Communists. On the other hand many had a religious identity. They focused on their faith and lifestyle rather than the cultural heritage. I also met some people who were born in a Muslim family but since they had left the religion, they did not consider themselves as Muslims. They were rather surprised that even after their declaration that they were atheists, others still insisted on considering them as Muslims because of their Muslim names and cultural heritage. It was also interesting for me to see that for some Muslims religious identity was the primary identity while for others religious identity was secondary to their ethnic and national identity.


Most Muslims who had a religious identity highlighted the issue of faith. They believed that they were Muslims because they believed in God, Prophet Mohammad and the religion Islam. They seemed to be the minimalists. They did not want to discuss the scriptures or traditions, rituals or practices. They just focused on beliefs and considered them to be a source of spiritual peace. They had no time to discuss the differences of opinion of different sects, as they believed that such discussions erected walls rather than building bridges. They did not think human beings should judge other human beings when it came to the issue of faith. They thought religion was a private matter and need not be discussed publicly. One Urdu poet said that his spiritual relationship with his God was private like his intimate relationship with his wife. He did not wish to talk about it publicly. All those people who publicly discussed their private relationship with God shocked him.


I met a number of Muslims who thought that belief was necessary but not enough. They wanted to study Quran and different religious traditions. Their emphasis was not only on faith but also on understanding. They had adopted a rational approach towards religion. The more they read, the more they got involved in religious debates. They were quite perturbed to read contradictory interpretations of the same verses of Quran. Some found that phenomenon stimulating and inspiring while others found it frustrating and disappointing. Some were disillusioned that they could not find any two Muslim scholars who totally agreed with each other. They were also frustrated that there was no way to develop a consensus. Some found that state of affairs quite disturbing emotionally. The psychological stress became more upsetting for those Muslims who were not Arabs as Arabic was not their mother tongue and they were taught their holy scriptures without ever understanding them. They had no knowledge or appreciation of the text and the context. I was quite impressed by those Muslims who had spent years, even decades, studying Quran and Islamic literature very intensely and thoroughly and had become Muslim scholars. Some of them were very humble while others were quite arrogant and conceited. Some used their knowledge to serve others while some used it to control the families and communities. They knew that most Muslims had not studied Quran seriously so they could not challenge their interpretations. I was fascinated to read that some scholars interpreted Quranic verses and stories literally while others interpreted them metaphorically.


There were many Muslims I met who believed that faith and the knowledge were not enough. They had a need to express their faith in their day-to-day life but that expression was more in the form of rituals rather than their lifestyle. They were more particular about praying five times a day and fasting for the whole month of Ramadan that being honest and truthful in their day-to-day lives. Their practice was more focused on adopting religious rituals rather than developing an honest character. It was interesting to see that some of them even felt strongly that they had to preach their faith, which sometimes became a source of conflict with their families and friends.


Some Muslims felt that faith, knowledge and rituals were not enough to be good Muslims. They had to show it in their personalities and lifestyles. They worked hard to understand and then adopt Muslim values and then practiced them. They were quite dedicated to their religion. In their practice some followed the letter of the law while others focused on the spirit of the law. Some Muslims tried to follow their faith and practice their religious lifestyle from childhood to old age.


I met a number of Muslims who believed that practicing Islam in their private lives was not enough. It had to be accepted in their social lives as well. Such people became part of public debates and passionately discussed the issue of making laws according the religious tradition. There were as many who wanted to keep the mosque and the state apart while others felt as strongly about creating the laws according to the religious traditions. Some wanted to keep Islam alive as a political force while others said NO to political Islam. Being a humanist I was amused that each side strongly believed that their interpretation of Islam and Quran was the right one. It was also amazing that such a debate was not between Muslims and non-Muslims and believers and non-believers, it was between different sects and schools of thought of Muslims. They accused non-Muslims of being prejudiced against Muslims, not realizing that they themselves did not respect each other’s point of view. The traditional Muslims criticized the liberal Muslims and vice versa. Both groups believed that they were the true representatives of the faith and the Muslim community. To me they all seemed self-appointed representatives. To me their need to represent the Muslim community seemed as much psychological as social or theological.


I met a number of Muslims who held spiritual tradition closer to their hearts. They had many saints as their role models. But among Muslim saints there have also been different traditions. Some were accepting of all faiths and practiced their religion quietly while others were quite critical of the fundamentalist traditions and were subsequently penalized, even persecuted. In history we find many stories like the one of Mansoor Hallaj who were executed by fellow Muslims. It is interesting for me to note that when those Muslims who follow a liberal or spiritual tradition of Islam criticizing the orthodox traditions, they are perceived as agents of enemies of Muslims. They state that there is a need of revival, not reform, in the Muslim community.


One of the significant issues in understanding the psychology of Muslims is the theme of morality. Muslims like other believers have a faith in scriptures and would like to follow divine principles. I find it interesting that many Muslims I met followed only certain morals selectively and then found justification in Quran for their behaviours and actions.. They seemed expert in the phenomenon of rationalization. They had numerous reasons that ranged from scientific to religious to political.

One group justified polygamy the other denounced it.

One group supported homosexuality the other found it repulsive

One group supported the punishment of cutting hands for theft and stoning to death for adultery, the other disagreed with it.

One group strongly supported equal rights for Muslim women while the other group vehemently opposed it.

The issue of morality gets complicated when people feel guilty about those morals that they do not follow and see themselves as sinners. It is amazing that the same morals that they cannot follow themselves they want others to follow by making them laws and then penalizing those who cannot follow. The sins of religion transform into crimes of the state in a theocratic society.

The fascinating point is that each person and group has valid and convincing arguments in favour of their verdict and conclusion. Furthermore they also feel strong enough to impose their values on others and penalize those who disagree with their opinion and interpretation.


When I asked different people about their concept of Jihad, some believed in defensive war against non-Muslims while others also believed in offensive war to spread Islam all over the world. Some believed that times had changed and in the contemporary world we need to do Jihad only by pen. There were some who said the real Jihad is not in the battlefield but rather against our own instincts by adopting a religious and spiritual lifestyle. Some were willing to make sacrifices even their lives for the future of their community, culture and religion.


Being a Secular Humanist I believe that all human beings have a right to follow their hearts and minds and that all social and political institutions should be secular so that people following all faiths or no faith are equally respected. I think there are as many points of view as there are pairs of eyes. I never met any two Muslims who had the same ideology, philosophy, personality and lifestyle. Psychologically speaking I believe there are as many psychological truths as human beings and as many Islams as Muslims. I also feel that the story of Muslims, individually and collectively is not that different than followers of other religious traditions all over the world. Different religious traditions have more similarities than differences. I feel the time has come to analyze why we still have a need to belong to any religious tradition. I wonder why all those Muslim women and men who want to fight for human rights have a need to justify their struggle as religious people rather than as secular people. Why do they not want to fight for rights as human beings rather than Muslims? I feel the emotional need to belong to a religious tradition is far stronger than rational thinking. The number of non-believers all over the world has increased only to 20 per cent. It appears that four out of five men and women al over the world still feel the need to belong to a religion and have a religious identity rather than having the primary identity of being a human being. I hope we reach a stage in our human evolution where religious and spiritual beliefs remain private, while we conduct our social and political lives on secular and humanistic grounds and keep mosque and state separate like some Christian communities keep the church and state separate. 




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