I was fortunate to be born in a secular country like India. I was born in an economically backward Muslim family in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh in 1947. No one in my family had gone to school. My father was a farmer and I was the only male child who survived, with three sisters, out of eight issues.
My school going was an accident; my grandfather had sent me to school as a punishment because I refused to eat nontasty food in the house. After a month of this forcible practice of going to school it became a regular activity for me. My first standard teacher advised my grandfather not to discontinue my schooling, as I was showing much interest in studies. It happened to be a Telugu-language primary school.
By the time I reached third standard I was top of the class. One fine day the Urdu school administration realized that the standard in Urdu schools was dropping. It was a practice that only Muslim boys came to study in Urdu schools. The Urdu school administration decided that all Muslim children studying in Telugu schools should come back to the Urdu school. The Urdu school did not have a good reputation and none of its students had completed primary education and had gone on to high school. My Telugu schoolteachers advised my parents not to discontinue my Telugu school.
My father refused to obey the fatwa given by the Urdu school headmaster. The matter was put to the village court. The village head summoned my father and me for a hearing. The village head tried to convince my father that the Urdu school was meant for the Muslim community. My father insisted that I was doing well in the Telugu school and there was no future for Urdu studies. The village head asked me a mathematical question to test my intelligence. The answer from me was instantaneous and it inspired the village head to support my father's decision. He gave a ruling that apart from this boy (me) all other Muslim children should go to the Urdu school. He offered to help my father by sending tutors to provide extra coaching for me, but this proved unnecessary.
After this incident the whole Muslim community boycotted our family, including our close relatives. My father was rigid in his decision; he did not yield to their pressure and continued my schooling in Telugu, where I was the top in every class till my high school education was completed. After that, knowing my father's financial position, I stopped my further studies and I was looking for job opportunities. Even in those days (1964) getting employment without a recommendation was difficult. After the schooling I was told to learn Arabic so that I could read the Koran and pray like other Muslim boys. I was able to read the Koran but without knowing or understanding the contents other than "Allah is the only God, Muhammad is His Prophet." After this I used to go to the mosque every Friday and listen to the imam's preaching.
After one year of my schooling I got a first call from the district employment exchange to attend an interview for Indian Air Force selection for airmen category. Selection was purely on merit basis; hence, I got through the tests and was selected for technical trades. That was a turning point in my life. I was exposed to the greater world meeting people from different communities and cultures. Initially I was belittled by the Muslim boys, who had come from Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir, as I did not know how to read and write Urdu. Even my Hyderabadi Urdu accent was fun for them. Then I decided that I would have to overcome this inferiority. I started learning Urdu and was eventually able to read the magazines and write to some extent.
A Muslim colleague from Northern India felt that I should know more about Islam, like praying five times and fasting during Ramadan. I followed him in all these activities with utmost dedication. One day I found a flaw in him: he was following a girl to tease her. I knew he was a married man. I questioned him about this improper activity, and he covered it up saying it is permitted according to the holy text provided the girl gives her consent. In Indian terms it is adultery; how could it be permitted in Islam? I could not digest it and I could not argue with him, as he knew more about religion than I.
I used to visit my native place once a year and I got news from my friends about the local Muslim heads' atrocities against other women, such as the case where a lady teacher from the Urdu school was raped by a Muslim cleric, whom I used to respect a lot for his knowledge of religion. Since the cleric was a close relative of the husband, the rape brought shame on the family, so the lady was forced to commit suicide for having such an affair! I used to also closely watch the activities of Muslim elders, but I had no answer for their evil deeds. They would say one thing in the mosque and do the opposite outside.
I was also astonished to hear about the communal riots in Meerut and Hyderabad. Why were these people fighting in the name of religion, saying that God is one? I used to also read a lot of Telugu literature, where modern Telugu writers expressed their radical views. I started doubting the existence of God. I started reading the Koran in Telugu, in a translation dating from the 1940s. The latest translators were skipping some of the objectionable sentences or giving them polished and softer meanings. To my surprise I found many objectionable and contradictory sentences in that so-called holy book. The only good sentence I found in that holy book was "When you go to some one's house knock the door and wait till it is opened." All the preaching in the Koran is against humanity, and there is no word in it like "humanity" or its equivalent. My belief against Islam became stronger. I started using the objectionable sentences of the Koran against those people who questioned my atheism. I have also read the Bible and the Hindu holy books; they are all the same. I understood these books were written by people who did not posses scientific knowledge.
Prophet Muhammad's preaching clearly indicates that he was selfish and a dictator, who kept his army (followers) intact by giving them booty of cash and women, which they collectively fought for and won. He also lured them by promising a place in heaven after death. Any dissident was mercilessly killed. Islam is not a religion of peace, but terror. For that matter, all religions and castes (in India) have a similar history of hate of others.
But I did not know what the alternative to religion and God was. As no one had expressed similar views to me, I unwillingly used to go to Idgah (the Muslim holy festivals, literally: place of 7d) twice a year, for lid al fitr' and 'id al-adha (Baqra lid) (the festival of the breaking of the fast of Ramadan, and the feast of sacrifice, respectively: the two principal Muslim festivals). My parents were also not so religious minded, hence they did not oppose my will.
In such circumstances I came across a periodical called the Atheist. I was surprised to learn that people like me existed. I rushed to the Atheist Centre to congratulate them and to know more about atheism. We Become Atheists by the late Mr. Gora' cleared all my doubts. Then I was about thirty years old. I openly denounced religion and told my Muslim friends I would only come to the mosque if God's existence could be proven by science. I was considered the wisest boy in my village, so they could not question my decision about religion. After that I never looked back. I started reading more and more intellectual articles, and listening to the lectures of learned humanists.
A critical situation arose in my life, that is, conducting the marriages of my children. I have one son and one daughter. When I was convinced about my beliefs and explained them to my wife, she, too, was convinced without much effort from me and we brought up our children in a nonreligious, scientific, and humanistic way. I took the opinions of my children as to which way they would like to live. They preferred the way I taught them. Then we (my wife and I) wanted to conduct their marriages in a nonreligious way, irrespective of the other family's religion (provided they had similar rationalistic views). There was some resistance from my close relatives who insisted that at least Nikah (the Muslim marriage ceremony) should be conducted. I was able to convince them that it was not necessary. Both my children's marriages have now taken place and they are living happily without "mental slavery."
Hence the need of the hour is "universal humanism," which can only be achieved by education for all and by getting rid of superstitions.
1. Gora (1902-1975) was a well-known Indian atheist and social reformer. He founded the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada, India, in 1947. He was a prolific writer, in English and Telegu, of atheist tracts and books such as An Atheist with Gandhi; Partyless Democracy; We Become Atheists; and Atheism, Questions and Answers.