November 8, 2011 Special Dispatch No. 4263

Pakistani Cricketer-Turned-Politician Imran Khan Explains His Islamic Beliefs: "It Was Not Until Salman Rushdie [Published His] 'Satanic Verses' That My Understanding of Islam Began to Develop"

November 8, 2011
Pakistan | Special Dispatch No. 4263

Imran Khan (in black jacket in inset) at the Lahore rally (Image courtesy: Roznama Express)

On October 30, 2011, Pakistani-cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan held a massive political rally in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. Given that his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is a very small party with no mass support base, the Lahore rally attracted huge crowds, due largely to Khan's public campaign against the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan. His ability to draw huge crowds has been noticed this year, but the success of Lahore rally seriously threatens rival politicians such as former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab, whose Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party has traditionally enjoyed support in Punjab and nationally.

After the success of the rally, a website re-published an article by Imran Khan, who has been internationally acclaimed for his role as the captain of Pakistani cricket team. The article, as the title "Selective Islam" indicates, is about how only selective parts of Islamic teachings are implemented in Pakistan and other Islamic nations. In the article, Imran Khan talks about his early Westernized upbringing and how he began to embrace Islam following the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the subsequent controversy.

He adds: "Since this is a transitory world where we prepare for the eternal one, I broke out of the self-imposed prisons, such as growing old (such a curse in the Western world, as a result of which plastic surgeons are having a field day), materialism, ego, what people say, and so on. It is important to note that one does not eliminate the earthly desires, simply that instead of being controlled by them, one controls them."

Following are excerpts from his article:[1]

"[In My Youth] I Considered… Islam an Outdated Religion; Philosophers [Honored in the West were] Like Darwin Who... Supposedly Disproved the Creation of Men and Hence Religion"

"My generation grew up at a time when colonial hang-up was at its peak. Our older generation had been slaves and had a huge inferiority complex vis-à-vis the British. The school I went to was similar to all elite schools in Pakistan; despite becoming independent, they were, and still are, producing replicas of [English] public school boys rather than Pakistanis. I read Shakespeare, which was fine, but no Allama Iqbal [the Islamist national poet of Pakistan].

"The Islamic class was not considered to be serious; when I left school, I was considered amongst the elite of the country because I could speak English and wore Western clothes. Despite periodically shouting 'Pakistan Zindabad' ['Long Live Pakistan'] at school functions, I considered my own culture backward and Islam an outdated religion. Amongst our group, if any one talked about religion, prayed or kept a beard he was immediately branded a Mullah [cleric]. Because of the power of the Western media, all our heroes were Western movie or pop stars.

"When I went to [the University of] Oxford, already burdened with this hang-up from my school days, things were no easier. At the university, not just Islam but all religions were considered anachronisms. Science had replaced religion, and if something couldn't be logically proved it did not exist. All supernatural stuff was confined to the movies. Philosophers [honored in the West were] like Darwin, who with his half-baked theory of evolution supposedly disproved the creation of men and hence religion.

"Moreover, European history had an awful experience with religion. The horrors committed by the Christian clergy in the name of God during the Inquisition had left a powerful impact on the Western mind.

"To understand why the West is so keen on secularism, one should go to places like Cordoba in Spain and see the torture apparatuses used during the Spanish Inquisition. Also, the persecution of scientists as heretics by the clergy… convinced the Europeans that all religions are regressive."

"It Was a Miracle I Did Not Become An Atheist; The Only Reason I Did Not Was the Powerful Religious Influence Wielded By My Mother"

"However, the biggest factor that drove people like me away from religion [during our youth] was the selective Islam practiced by most of its preachers. In other words, there was a huge difference between what they practiced and what they preached. Also, rather than explaining the philosophy behind the religion, there was an overemphasis on ritual.

"I feel that humans are different to animals; whereas the latter can be drilled, humans need to be intellectually convinced. That is why the Quran constantly appeals to reason.

"The worst, of course, was the exploitation of Islam for political gains by various individuals or groups. Hence, it was a miracle I did not become an atheist.

"The only reason I did not [become an atheist] was the powerful religious influence wielded by my mother on me since my childhood. It was not so much out of conviction but out of love for her that I remained a Muslim. However, my Islam was selective, that is, I accepted only parts of the religion that suited me. Prayers were restricted to Eid[2] days and occasionally on Fridays, when my father insisted on taking me with him. If there was a God I was not sure about it, and certainly felt that He did not interfere with my life."

"The Inferiority Complex That My Generation Had Inherited Gradually Disappeared As I Developed into a World-Class Athlete"

"All in all, I was smoothly moving to becoming a Pukka Brown [Pakistani] Sahib [i.e. like a colonial-era British officials in taste and clothing]. After all I had the right credentials in terms of the right school, university and above all, acceptability in the English aristocracy, something that our brown [Pakistani] sahibs would give their lives for. So what led me to lota [i.e. repudiating the West] on the Brown Sahib culture and instead becoming a desi [indigenous/Islamic]? Well, it did not just happen overnight.

"Firstly, the inferiority complex that my generation had inherited gradually disappeared, as I developed into a world class athlete [as a cricketer]. Secondly, I had the unique position of living between two cultures. I began to see the advantages and the disadvantages of both the societies. In Western societies, institutions were strong while in our country they were collapsing.

"However, there was an area where we were and still are superior, and that is our family life. I used to notice the loneliness of the old-age pensioners at Hove Cricket ground (during my Sussex years). Imagine sending your parents to old peoples' homes! Even the children there never had the sort of love and warmth that we grew up with here. They completely miss out on the security blanket that a joint family system provides."

"While Science Can Answer a Lot of Questions… Two Questions It Will Never Be Able to Answer: One, What is the Purpose of Existence; and Two, What Happens to Us When We Die?"

"However, [I] began to realize that the biggest loss to the Western society and that in trying to free itself from the oppression of the clergy, they had removed both God and religion from their lives. While science can answer a lot of questions, no matter how much it progresses, two questions it will never be able to answer: One, what is the purpose of the existence; and two, what happens to us when we die?

"It is this vacuum that I felt created materialistic and hedonistic culture. If this is the only life then one must make hay while the sun shines and in order to do so one needs money. Such a culture is bound to cause psychological problems in a human being, as there is going to be an imbalance between the body and the soul.

"Consequently, in the U.S., which has shown the greatest materialistic progress and also gives its citizens the greatest human rights, almost 60 percent of the population consults psychiatrists. Yet, amazingly in modern psychology, there is no study of the human soul. Sweden and Switzerland, which provide the most welfare to their citizens, also have the highest suicide rates; hence, man is not necessarily content with material wellbeing; he needs something more. Since all morality has its roots in religion, once religion was removed, immorality has progressively escalated since the 70s. The direct impact of it is on the family life.

"In the UK, the divorce rate is 60 percent, while it is estimated that over 35 percent of mothers are single mothers. The crime rate is rising in almost all Western societies, but the most disturbing fact is the alarming increase in racism. While science always tries to prove the inequality of man (recent survey showing the American black to be genetically less intelligent than whites) it is only religion which preaches the equality of man. Between '91 and '97, it was estimated that total immigration into Europe was around 520,000, and there were racially motivated attacks all over, especially in Britain, France and Germany."

"The More I Understood the Game [Of Cricket], the More I Began to Realize That What I Considered to Be Chance Was, In Fact, the Will of Allah"

"In Pakistan during the Afghan war [of the 1980s], we had over four million [Afghan] refugees, and despite the people being so much poorer here and in the NWFP [North West Frontier Province, now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa], they suffered aconsidera ble loss in their standard of living as a result of the refugees; yet there was no racial tension. It is no wonder that last year in Britain religious education was reintroduced into schools.

"There was a sequence of events in the 80s that moved me towards God. As the Quran says: 'There are signs for people of understanding.' One of them was cricket. As I was a student of the game, the more I understood the game, the more I began to realize that what I considered to be chance was, in fact, the will of Allah, the pattern which became clearer with time. But it was not until [the publication of] Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses that my understanding of Islam began to develop.

"People like me who were living in the Western world bore the brunt of anti-Islam prejudice that followed the Muslim reaction to the book. We were left with two choices: fight or flight. Since I felt strongly that the attacks on Islam were unfair, I decided to fight.

"It was then I realized that I was not equipped to do so as my knowledge of Islam was inadequate. Hence I started my research and for me a period of my greatest enlightenment. I read scholars like Ali Shariati, Mohammad Asad, Iqbal, Gai Eaton, plus of course, a study of the Holy Quran."

"Since This is a Transitory World Where We Prepare for the Eternal One, I Broke Out Of the Self-Imposed Prisons"

"I will try to explain as concisely as is possible, what 'discovering the truth' meant for me. When the believers are addressed in the Quran, it always says, 'Those who believe and do good deeds.'

"In other words, a Muslim has dual function, one towards God and the other towards fellow human beings. The greatest impact of believing in God for me meant that I lost all fear of human beings. The Quran liberates man from man when it says that life and death and respect and humiliation are God's jurisdiction, so we do not have to bow before other human beings. As [Pakistan's national poet] Iqbal puts it:

Wo aik Sajda jisay tu giran samajhta hai,

Hazaar sajdon say deta hai aadmi ko nijaat.

["The bowing before Allah that you so despise;

"Frees you from bowing down before man millions of times"]

"Moreover, since this is a transitory world where we prepare for the eternal one, I broke out of the self-imposed prisons, such as growing old (such a curse in the Western world, as a result of which plastic surgeons are having a field day), materialism, ego, what people say, and so on. It is important to note that one does not eliminate the earthly desires, simply that instead of being controlled by them, one controls them.

"By following the second part of believing in Islam, I have become a better human being. Rather than being self-centered and living for the self, I feel that because the Almighty gave so much to me, in turn I must use that blessing to help the less privileged. By following the fundamentals of Islam rather than becoming a Kalashnikov-wielding fanatic I have become a tolerant and a giving human being who feels compassion for the underprivileged."

"Only Now Do I Understand the True Meaning of Islam: If You Submit to the Will of Allah, You Have Inner Peace... In Pakistan We Have Selective Islam"

"Instead of attributing success to myself, I know it is because of God's will; hence [I prefer] humility instead of arrogance. Also, instead of the snobbish Brown Sahib attitude towards our masses, I believe in egalitarianism and strongly feel against the injustice done to the weak in our society; according to the Quran, 'Oppression is worse than killing.'

"In fact only now do I understand the true meaning of Islam, if you submit to the will of Allah, you have inner peace. Through my faith, I have discovered strength within me that I never knew existed and that has released my potential in life: My education program that I intend to announce… is far more ambitious than the cancer hospital project.

"I feel that in Pakistan we have selective Islam. Just believing in God and going through the rituals is not enough; one also has to be a good human being. I feel there are certain Western countries with far more Islamic traits than us, especially in the way they protect the rights of their citizens, or for that matter their justice system. In fact some of the finest individuals I know live there.

"What I dislike about them [the Western nations] is their double standard in the way they protect the rights of their citizens yet consider citizens of other countries as being somehow inferior to them as human being, e.g. dumping toxic waste in the Third World, advertising cigarettes that are not allowed in the West, and selling drugs that are banned in the West."

"The [Westernized] Group on Whom the Greatest Proportion[s] of Our Educational Resources Are Spent In… [Pakistan] Must Study Islam Properly"

"One of the problems facing Pakistan is the polarization of two reactionary groups. On the one side is the Westernized group that looks upon Islam through Western eyes and has inadequate knowledge about the subject. It reacts to anyone trying to impose Islam in the society and wants only a selective part of the religion. On the other extreme is the group that reacts to this Westernized elite and, in trying to become a defender of the faith, takes up such intolerant and self-righteous attitudes that are repugnant to the spirit of Islam.

"What needs to be done is to somehow start a dialogue between the two extremes. In order for this to happen, the group on whom the greatest proportion of our educational resources are spent in this country must study Islam properly. Whether they become practicing Muslims or believe in God is entirely a personal choice, as the Quran tells us that there is 'no compulsion in religion.'

"However, they must arm themselves with knowledge as a weapon to fight extremism. Turning up their noses at extremism is not going to solve the problem."

"At the Moment, the Worst Advertisement[s] for Islam Are the Muslim Countries With Their Selective Islam – Especially Where the Religion is Used To Deprive People of Their Rights"

"The Quran calls Muslims 'the middle nation,' i.e. not of extremes. The Holy Prophet [Muhammad] (PBUH) was told to simply give the message and not worry whether people converted or not; therefore, there is no question in Islam of forcing your opinions on anyone else. Moreover, we are told to respect other religions, their places of worship and their prophets. It should be noted that… Muslim missionaries or armies never went to Malaysia or Indonesia. The people converted to Islam due to the high principles and impeccable character of the Muslim traders.

"At the moment, the worst advertisement[s] for Islam are the Muslim countries with their selective Islam, especially where the religion is used to deprive people of their rights. In fact, a society that obeys fundamentals of Islam has to be a liberal one.

"If our Westernized class started to study Islam, not only would it be able to help our society fight sectarianism and extremism, but it will also make them realize what a progressive religion Islam is. They will also be able to help the Western world by articulating Islamic concepts….

"Prince Charles [stated that he] accepted that the Western world can learn from Islam in his speech at the Oxford Union. But how can this happen if the group that is in to best position to project Islam gets its attitudes from the West and considers Islam backward? Islam is a universal religion and that is why our Prophet (PBUH) was called a mercy for all mankind."


[1], November 1, 2011. The text of the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

[2] Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

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