Archive for April, 2017

Direct and indirect responsibility for violence in the name of religion

April 26, 2017

Nasir Khan, April 26, 2017

Some much-needed words of wisdom, especially for Pakistani Muslims:

Not all Muslims become involved in acts of violence. Yet all might be held culpable. This is because that section of Muslim–in fact, the majority–who are not personally involved, neither disown those members of their community who are engaged in violence, nor even condemn them. In such a case, according to the Islamic Shariah itself, if the involved Muslims are directly responsible, the uninvolved Muslims are also indirectly responsible. (p. 91)

― Famous Indian Islamic scholar and peace activist Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (b: 1925), The True Jihad: The Concept of Peace, Tolerance and Non Violence in Islam

Even thought Maulana Wahiduddin Khan addresses only Muslims, but what he says can also be applied to Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, etc. Just like Muslims, when some people from other religious community or denomination commit violent crimes for their religion, their religious dogmas and victimise the followers of any other faith under some flimsy pretext, the vast majority of the people of that religious community remains neutral and indifferent as if nothing had happened. This state of affairs dehumanises all.

As a result, a phoney nationalist or religious fanatic may feel proud for his violent crime or even a violent murder for the sake of his community or co-religionists! The lack of response to condemn and stand against such crimes and criminals by the vast majority only encourages such people.

Let’s keep in mind that, in 2003, former US president George W Bush attacked Iraq without any just cause or excuse. But he tried to justify his genocidal war of aggression by claiming to have sought God’s guidance. He received the message from God; God told him to go ahead and invade Iraq!

G W Bush was and is a Christian. His criminal war of aggression led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the destruction of Iraq. But he did all that to comply with the commands of God! And many people believe him.


Religious minorities under constant threat in Pakistan

April 23, 2017

 Nasir Khan, April 23, 2017

The Pakistani state, its educational and judicial institutions that are deeply influenced by a flimsy religiosity and phoney piety present some ghoulish contradictions for any modern democratic state. How can we combine theocracy with democracy and call it the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? This spectacle continues to defy any clear understanding of the underlying assumptions for a modern democratic state.

The way the new ruling elites of Pakistan brought in Islam arbitrarily as a sectarian force in a multi-religious country has bedevilled the social fabric of Pakistan. It all happened after the death of its strong secularist leader Mr. Jinnah in 1948 in the newly-established state of Pakistan that had come into existence as a result of the partition of India in 1947. When he was no longer there to guide the policies or the future direction the country was to take, some rigid orthodox Muslim leaders and manipulators of Islam came to the fore for political power and became major political actors. Had Mr. Jinnah lived a few years more, then he would have laid the foundations of a modern democratic state, where every religious community was free to practise its faith without the intervention of state or any coercive policies to advance the interests of any one section of Muslims.

After Mr. Jinnah’s death, the gradual process of exploitation of Islam became a standard practice. Political and religious leaders played with the sensitivities of a gullible and largely illiterate population in the name of Islam. The big drive to misuse Islam was helped by indoctrination in religious schools, called madrassas, and mosques as well as in ordinary schools and institutions of education where the teaching of Islamic dogmas has been part of official policy. The syllabuses for the younger generation starting from the elementary schools to the universities are made with a view to bringing in religion in every possible way. We see that happening even in books on physics, biology and botany, etc. that start with some quotation from the Qur’an or a saying of the Prophet.

As a result, such formal instilling of dogmas became quite common and the country became a centre of religious intolerance, sectarianism and vicious victimisation of religious minorities and sects. For the militant Islamists and fanatic fundamentalists the field was open to resort to violence, coercion and intimidation on socially and politically marginalsed religious minorities.

The lynching of Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student in Pakistan on 13 April 2017 shows the problem ordinary people of Pakistan face at the hands of Islamists, who are willing do anything to stop any voice they consider goes against their ideologies and sectarian theologies. In Pakistan, Muslim extremists have killed innocent people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, over the years. The murders of innocent people on concocted charges of blasphemy and sectarian violence continue to cause much insecurity and fear among all sections of the population.

The misguided killers of innocent people also think that what they do is to safeguard the sanctity of God and the honour of the Prophet. However, it is a total prevarication because in Pakistan where there are 97% people Muslims, God and the Prophet have never been under any threat. They are safe, secure and beyond any threat to their power or status. Any false accusations against innocent people and then killing them or targeting them cannot be justified merely because some ignorant and muddle-headed people thought what they were doing was some good work on behalf of God or the Prophet. In fact, such people are not operating in a vacuum. The blasphemy laws of Pakistan are a fertile ground for such killers and other violent criminals to use as tools to advance their reign of terror. Consequently, both the State and Islamists are upholders of the blasphemy stick for destructive purposes. Religious minorities have to bear the brunt of the violence and terror because of such unjust and primitive laws that are fully exploited by the Islamists and other sections of the Muslim population whimsically, very often to settle some private conflicts or petty quarrels.

There are numerous cases when ordinary people from the Muslim community have falsely accused the members of a religious minority for blasphemy. A few years ago, two Christian labourers, a married couple, were thrown in a burning brick kiln after they were falsely accused to have insulted the Holy Qur’an. A local mullah and his congregation appeared on the scene and helped the kiln workers to break the bones of the man before throwing him and his wife in the kiln, where they died in the most frightening way. Similarly, there is he case of Asia Bibi, a married Christian woman who was falsely accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. She is still languishing in jail. When the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer spoke against the unjust imprisonment of Asia Bibi and opposed the blasphemy laws, he was gunned down in 2011 by his bodyguard, an fanatic Islamist. Another person, who spoke on behalf of Asia Bibi was Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, who was minorities minister in the central government. He was killed in 2010.

Religious minorities in Pakistan are at the mercy of the majority and extremely vulnerable because of the Muslim extremists. In an atmosphere of rampant religious discrimination and bigotry, it is quite common for ordinary Muslims to view non-Muslims as infidels (kafirs). The mullahs, preachers and Islamists have instilled such beliefs in the people. The next step in this innate assertion of the superiority of Islam as the only true religion is to bring non-Muslims to Islam. As a result every ignorant Muslim feels qualified to assert the uniqueness of Islam and its fundamentals. What sort of Islam the people indoctrinated in religious schools (madrassas) and other educational insitution can preach is not difficult to imagine for an impartial, educated person.

In Pakistan it is so easy for anyone to accuse another person of having insulted God, the Prophet or Islam and thus entangle any innocent person in the blasphemy laws where the punishments is death. These situations of framing the innocent people in cases that lead to the most cruel penalties brings to mind the tortures inflicted on the witches in the Middle Ages in Europe. For the outside world, the so-called blasphemy laws of Pakistan may appear ridiculous, absurd and insane for the present age, but those who are at the receiving end of such barbaric laws are not some imaginary creatures but ordinary human beings who become victims of institutionalised injustice in the name of Islam. No wonder, Pakistan has jailed more people on spurious allegations for blasphemy than any other country in this century.

We should pay attention to the fact that most brainwashed and indoctrinated people genuinely believe that the true voice of Islam comes from the mullahs and that the blasphemy laws of Pakistan are to protect Islam. During the countrywide demonstrations that followed the assassination of governor Salman Taseer, most people supported the blasphemy laws. Among these people were thousands of lawyers and university teachers!

In reality, Pakistani rulers had used the Islam card for their political objectives and in doing so had given a free-hand to the clerics to unleash their toxic sectarian and anti-democratic propaganda against all democratic forces and rational ideas. What this leads to is before our eyes. Any Muslim can take the law into his hands and accuse anyone of insulting God or the Prophet and feel free to kill any such falsely accused person. This is what happened in the recent case of Mashal Khan at the hands of a large crowd of Pakistani university students and others. Such misguided Pakistanis feel they are doing something worthy and noble when they kill anyone in the name of Islam. Thus Islam was transformed into a caricature by the mullahs, fanatic Islamic parties and organizations, and by the Pakistani rulers. Now, ordinary people are falling victims to the barbarity in the name of a religion.

Pakistani law is not able to defend the legal and civil rights of its citizens because it vitiates the basic norms of the freedom of conscience where people are allowed to follow and practise any religion or cult as long as any such religion or sect does not violate the laws of the land or violate the rights of other citizens. Moreover, there is no restraint upon anyone in a democratic country to convert to some other religion voluntarily or reject all religions and follow some alternative world outlooks such as atheism, agnosticism, scepticism or humanism, etc. These things happen in all democratic and civilised countries where the respect for people’s freedom of conscience is a norm.

Modern states do not force people to follow any religion or reject any religion. That’s a matter left to the individual’s choice, in which the state or public authorities do not interfere. Such ideas may seem strange to the vast majority of Pakistani Muslims, because they have experienced only discriminatory laws against some sects like the Ahmadis, who were classified as non-Muslim community in 1974. Since then, the Ahmadis have been subject to all sorts of atrocities and oppression. From the state authorities to the common man in the street, and from the from the Muslim theologians to the village mullahs, the Ahmadis are kafirs (non-believers) and they can be reviled, abused and molested with impunity by any Muslim! It was in such a milieu of intolerance, hostility and vile oppression that some right-wing Islamist students spread the false rumours about Mashal Khan to be an Ahmadi and then gathered a large crowd to lynch him in the most barbaric way.

If a solution is to be found to the uncontrolled disease that is afflicting Pakistan, then the solution lies in diagnosing the cause of the disease. It is no secret that the people of Pakistan have widespread institutions throughout the country where young people are drilled into religious fanaticism that has a big social impact on all sections of the population. Even the so-called ‘educated’ people who have gone or go to universities or professional institutions are not immune to the pervasive indoctrination and religious fanaticism. What the students of Mardan University did with a fellow student Mashal Khan is the latest instance of the bitter fruit that an unrestrained exploitation of Islam is producing.

April 8, 2017

The relationship of body and soul

April 3, 2017

Nasir Khan,  April 3, 2017

The question of the body and the soul relationship has a long history in the evolution of human thought in such matters. In most religious traditions and old speculative thought, the intricate relationship between the two is resolved by holding the body mortal while the soul being eternal and indestructible. As a result, the death of a person is seen only as the death of a body, but not of the soul that had temporarily lived in that body as long that body was alive.

In many religious and cultural traditions the soul is said to travel to, or is transported to, an eternal abode hereafter, while some believe that the soul of the dead returns in another living being, ranging from a human form to some animal form. Here the central idea continues to be the immortality of the soul.

Praying for the souls of the dead is common in many cultures and civilisations. Many believe this helps the souls of the deceased people to have peace and some better conditions around in the unknown world.

In the following article, Dr Dr Stephen Cave, a philosopher, offers his views that run counter to the mainstream ideas on the question of the soul.

What Science Really Says About the Soul

by Stephen Cave

Nathalie was hemorrhaging badly. She felt weak, cold, and the pain in her abdomen was excruciating. A nurse ran out to fetch the doctor, but by the time they arrived she knew she was slipping away. The doctor was shouting instructions when quite suddenly the pain stopped. She felt free—and found herself floating above the drama, looking down at the bustle of activity around her now still body.

“We’ve lost her,” she heard the doctor say, but Nathalie was already moving on and upwards, into a tunnel of light. She first felt a pang of anxiety at leaving her husband and children, but it was soon overwhelmed by a feeling of profound peace; a feeling that it would all be okay. At the end of the tunnel, a figure of pure radiance was waiting with arms wide open.

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This, or something like it, is how millions imagine what it will be like to die. In 2009, over 70 percent of Americans said they believe that they, like Nathalie, have a soul that will survive the end of their body.1 That figure may well now be higher after the phenomenal success of two recent books describing vivid near death experiences: one from an innocent—the four year old Todd Burpo—the other from the opposite: a Harvard scientist and former skeptic, neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander.2 Both argue that when their brains stopped working, their souls floated off to experience a better place.

This is an attractive view and a great consolation to those who have lost loved ones or who are contemplating their own mortality. Many also believe this view to be beyond the realm of science, to concern a different dimension into which no microscope can peer. Dr. Alexander, for example, said in an interview with the New York Times, “Our spirit is not dependent on the brain or body; it is eternal, and no one has one sentence worth of hard evidence that it isn’t.”3

But he is wrong. The evidence of science, when brought together with an ancient argument, provides a very powerful case against the existence of a soul that can carry forward your essence once your body fails. The case runs like this: with modern brain-imaging technology, we can now see how specific, localized brain injuries damage or even destroy aspects of a person’s mental life. These are the sorts of dysfunctions that Oliver Sacks brought to the world in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.4 The man of the title story was a lucid, intelligent music teacher, who had lost the ability to recognize faces and other familiar objects due to damage to his visual cortex.

Since then, countless examples of such dysfunction have been documented—to the point that every part of the mind can now be seen to fail when some part of the brain fails. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has studied many such cases.5 He records a stroke victim, for example, who had lost any capacity for emotion; patients who lost all creativity following brain surgery; and others who lost the ability to make decisions. One man with a brain tumor lost what we might call his moral character, becoming irresponsible and disregarding of social norms. I saw something similar in my own father, who also had a brain tumor: it caused profound changes in his personality and capacities before it eventually killed him.

The crux of the challenge then is this: those who believe they have a soul that survives bodily death typically believe that this soul will enable them, like Nathalie in the story above, to see, think, feel, love, reason and do many other things fitting for a happy afterlife. But if we each have a soul that enables us to see, think and feel after the total destruction of the body, why, in the cases of dysfunction documented by neuroscientists, do these souls not enable us to see, think and feel when only a small portion of the brain is destroyed?

To make the argument clear, we can take the example of sight. If either your eyes or the optic nerves in your brain are sufficiently badly damaged, you will go blind. This tells us very clearly that the faculty of sight is dependent upon functioning eyes and optic nerves.

Yet curiously, when many people imagine their soul leaving their body, they imagine being able to see—like Nathalie, looking down on her own corpse surrounded by frantic doctors.6 They believe, therefore, that their soul can see. But if the soul can see when the entire brain and body have stopped working, why, in the case of people with damaged optic nerves, can’t it see when only part of the brain and body have stopped working? In other words, if blind people have a soul that can see, why are they blind?

So eminent a theologian as Saint Thomas Aquinas, writing 750 years ago, believed this question had no satisfactory answer.7 Without its body—without eyes, ears and nose—he thought the soul would be deprived of all senses, waiting blindly for the resurrection of the flesh to make it whole again. Aquinas concluded that the body-less soul would have only those powers that (in his view) were not dependent upon bodily organs: faculties such as reason and understanding.

But now we can see that these faculties are just as dependent upon a bodily organ—the brain—as sight is upon the eyes. Unlike in Aquinas’s day, we can now keep many people with brain damage alive and use neuroimaging to observe the correlations between that damage and their behavior. And what we observe is that the destruction of certain parts of the brain can destroy those cognitive faculties once thought to belong to the soul. So if he had had the evidence of neuroscience in front of him, we can only imagine that Aquinas himself would have concluded that these faculties also stop when the brain stops.

In fact, evidence now shows that everything the soul is supposed to be able to do—think, remember, love—fails when some relevant part of the brain fails. Even consciousness itself—otherwise there would be no general anesthetics. A syringe full of chemicals is sufficient to extinguish all awareness. For anyone who believes something like the Nathalie story—that consciousness can survive bodily death—this is an embarrassing fact. If the soul can sustain our consciousness after death, when the brain has shut down permanently, why can it not do so when the brain has shut down temporarily?

Some defenders of the soul have, of course, attempted to answer this question. They argue, for example, that the soul needs a functioning body in this world, but not in the next. One view is that the soul is like a broadcaster and the body like a receiver—something akin to a television station and a TV set. (Though as our body is also the source of our sensory input, we have to imagine the TV set also has a camera on top feeding images to the distant station.)

We know that if we damage our TV set, we get a distorted picture. And if we break the set, we get no picture at all. The naive observer would believe the program was therefore gone. But we know that it is really still being transmitted; that the real broadcaster is actually elsewhere. Similarly, the soul could still be sending its signal even though the body is no longer able to receive it.

This response sounds seductive, but helps little. First, it does not really address the main argument at all: Most believers expect their soul to be able to carry forward their mental life with or without the body; this is like saying that the TV signal sometimes needs a TV set to transform it into the picture, but once the set is kaput, can make the picture all by itself. But if it can make the picture all by itself, why does it sometimes act through an unreliable set?

Second, changes to our bodies impact on our minds in ways not at all analogous to how damage to a TV set changes its output, even if we take into account damage to the camera too. The TV analogy claims there is something that remains untouched by such damage, some independent broadcaster preserving the real program even if it is distorted by bad reception. But this is precisely what the evidence of neuroscience undermines. Whereas damage to the TV set or camera might make the signal distorted or fuzzy, damage to our brains much more profoundly alters our minds. As we noted above, such damage can even change our moral views, emotional attachments, and the way we reason.

Which suggests we are nothing like a television; but much more like, for example, a music box: the music is not coming from elsewhere, but from the workings within the box itself. When the box is damaged, the music is impaired; and if the box is entirely destroyed, then the music stops for good.

There is much about consciousness that we still do not understand. We are only beginning to decipher its mysteries, and may never fully succeed. But all the evidence we have suggests that the wonders of the mind—even near-death and out of body experiences—are the effect of neurons firing. Contrary to the beliefs of the vast majority of people on Earth, from Hindus to New Age spiritualists, consciousness depends upon the brain and shares its fate to the end. END

  1. What People Do and Do Not Believe In, The Harris Poll, December 15, 2009
  2. Burpo, T and Vincent, L. 2010. Heaven is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Thomas Nelson Publishers; Alexander, Eben. 2012. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Simon & Schuster.
  3. Kaufman, L. 2012. “Readers Join Doctor’s Journey to the Afterworld’s Gates.” The New York Times, November 25, page C1.
  4. Sacks, Oliver. 1985. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  5. Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam Publishing.
  6. Descriptions of heaven also involve being able to see, from Dante to Heaven is For Real, cited above.
  7. Aquinas’s views on the soul can be found in his Summa Theologica and elsewhere. Particularly relevant to the question of the soul’s limited faculties are Part 1, question 77, article 8 (“Whether all the powers remain in the soul when separated from the body?”) and supplement to the Third Part, question 70, article 1 (“Whether the sensitive powers remain in the separated soul?”), in which he writes: “Now it is evident that certain operations, whereof the soul’s powers are the principles, do not belong to the soul properly speaking but to the soul as united to the body, because they are not performed except through the medium of the body—such as to see, to hear, and so forth. Hence it follows that such like powers belong to the united soul and body as their subject, but to the soul as their quickening principle, just as the form is the principle of the properties of a composite being. Some operations, however, are performed by the soul without a bodily organ—for instance to understand, to consider, to will: wherefore, since these actions are proper to the soul, the powers that are the principles thereof belong to the soul not only as their principle but also as their subject. Therefore, since so long as the proper subject remains its proper passions must also remain, and when it is corrupted they also must be corrupted, it follows that these powers which use no bodily organ for their actions must needs remain in the separated body, while those which use a bodily organ must needs be corrupted when the body is corrupted: and such are all the powers belonging to the sensitive and the vegetative soul.”

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