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Thinking for Oneself

Faisal Muhammad (Pakistan)

I was horn in 1947 in Lahore. Being a reflective child from the very beginning, I always wanted to find out for myself the truth about human existence. Although my father was a religious person, he was not devout. My parents were divorced and my mother made the wise decision to let me stay with my father. She believed that in Pakistani middle-class society a divorced woman with few economic resources could not provide the protection and support required for a child to get proper education. With a heavy heart she made the decision to let me live with my father and stepmother.

My father had developed a fancy for a woman barely eighteen years old when he himself was forty. He pronounced the talak (divorce) quickly to get rid of my mother and bring in his new wife. I was only three at that time. I grew up denied love and affection, but my father saw to it that I went to the best school in town. I could never accept the narrow interpretations of Islam that were offered to my various questions. For a while I became interested in Sufism but soon found out that my sufi master was a liar and a bigot, notwithstanding his pretensions of being a scholar and teacher of mysticism. Whenever he talked about the Hindus who had lived in Lahore before 1947, he forgot his message of human love and the fanatic in him would take over. During unguarded moments he would acknowledge that many Hindus and Sikhs were good people, but whenever I directly probed the sub ject he would give the standard version of all Hindus being kafirs and therefore killing them or turning them out of Lahore was all right.

Sometimes I would go around Lahore on my bike and, without any particular plan or objective, go through different parts of the city. This would include Krishan Nagar and Sant Nagar, which were not far from where I lived. These were middle- and lower-middle-class Hindu localities before partition. Here one could still read Hindu and Sikh names inscribed in stone at the entrance. Sometimes the house was named "Sunder Nivas" or "Bharat Nivas." I often wondered who were the people who lived there and why were they driven out at partition. By chance I got hold of novels and short stories written by Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto, and other writers. Their great works on partition opened new vistas before me. I began to see the pernicious role played by religion and fanaticism in society. I think at about that time I became skeptical about religious beliefs. In 1968 I began studying at the Punjab University. It was the year when the student movement in Pakistan was radicalized. Many of my new friends were leftists and some of teachers were Marxists. Thus began a long association with Marxist politics and I read all the great works on Marxism.

By that time I had realized that Islam, like many other religions, was a primitive moral code that had outlived its usefulness in the present time. Muslim societies all around were corrupt, repressive, oppressive of non-Muslims, and eminently amenable to male chauvinism and domination. The ruling class could always invoke the most reactionary edict from the Koran to oppose progress and reform.

I read a great deal of original Islamic literature and studied the life of Muhammad and his various successors in depth. It was quite clear that he had established a totalitarian system in which there was no scope for innovation and freethought. Nothing impressed me, but I have never been able to grasp how so many millions of people continue to follow his teachings blindly and fanatically. Perhaps a lack of modern education and fear of death combine to render them victims to threats about punishment and hellfires. Although the Islamic god is presented as the most merciful, the Koran is replete with references to severe punishments.

The totalitarian system of Marxism and the undemocratic practices of the communist groups and parties in Pakistan also proved a disappointment. I have subsequently become a humanist and a rationalist. I think only a secular democracy can provide freedom of choice and belief. I think that Islam is currently the most backward-looking ideology in the world. It is indeed a threat to world peace but most crucially its venom is directed at freethinkers of Muslim origin.

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