By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed
December 23, 2012
In sharp contrast, modern science and the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry in particular, as well as secular philosophy, do not speak of a soul but of the human psyche
The contemporary centre of enlightened and frank discussion among Pakistanis on highly contentious subjects is most certainly Canada, where it is possible for community radio and television channels to invite experts to express their views freely. One such programme is PASSWORD with Dr Baland Iqbal. Recently Dr Iqbal invited Dr Khalid Sohail, a practising psychiatrist, an author of several books, an accomplished poet and short-story writer on a topic I believe many subscribing to a secular-rationalist worldview have been intrigued by, a mystifying experience of intense creativity and realisation, as if an inner voice is speaking to us. Such moments can be transformative and transcendental and become a new level of consciousness. The question is, is such experiences spiritual in the sense that religions talk about as connecting with divinity, or is there a rational, materialist basis for them?
This was a very challenging puzzle that the compare, Dr Iqbal, in a very skilful manner presented to Dr Sohail to solve. Dr Sohail expounded a very interesting thesis. He asserted that the two main religious traditions of the world — the Middle Eastern comprising Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the eastern tradition centred on the Indian subcontinent consisting of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — hold that body and soul are two distinct and separate entities.
Elaborating the Islamic theological standpoint specifically, Dr Sohail said that it was premised on the assumption that the soul/souls exists as a non-material entity in a heavenly domain. When a human being is born, one of the souls is placed in that body. After that human being dies his/her soul returns to the same heavenly domain. There the souls wait for the Day of Judgement when each soul would be held accountable for that person’s conduct on earth and then either rewarded with paradise or sent to hell to face punishment. On the other hand, the sub continental theory is that every human being is born with a soul. However, when that person dies, the soul does not return to some place to wait; rather it keeps returning to earth until it cleanses itself of all sin and then joins the Universal Spirit or God. The ontological distinction drawn by religions is therefore between body and soul as two different entities: one physical, the other spiritual.
In sharp contrast, modern science and the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry in particular, as well as secular philosophy, do not speak of a soul but of the human psyche. It is not separate from the mind or brain; it exists as long as the brain is functioning. It perishes once the brain ceases to function. More important, the human brain comprises two chambers that are interconnected. There is a left brain and a right brain. The left brain enables us to reason, calculate, plan and undertake detached thinking while the right brain is about feelings, ethics, morals and compassion. Normally, we use both but one can dominate the other. Dr Sohail mentioned that there was medical evidence that some people who suffered brain injury or have had epileptic experiences talked about being transported into a different world of fantastic images and voices, which suggested that their right brain had become extra-active.
According to this scientific approach, both religious and secular people experience spirituality as an extra dimension in their lives. While some religious spiritualists become recluses and indulge in excessive meditation, others translate their spiritualism into love of humankind: God, humankind, creation in general become one great, indivisible cosmological reality. With regard to the Islamic tradition, Dr Sohail observed that while the Ulema understand God as power and authority to whom submission is due all the time, the Sufi understands God as love. Consequently, some Sufis embrace all human beings without demanding adherence to any strict dogma. They exude such vibes that people around them experience great peace and comfort. He described Abdus Sattar Edhi and Mother Theresa as religious spiritualists. Equally, secular individuals who consider their lives as part of an undifferentiated humanity and are always at the forefront for the respect of human rights, women’s rights, minority rights and even nature rights, and take up cudgels on behalf of the oppressed, are secular spiritualists. Dr Sohail then spelt out the social and political implications, preconditions for both types of spirituality to co-exist and energise one another. He argued that only in a secular-democratic and pluralist social and political order could both exist in harmony.
From a social science perspective, Dr Khalid’s thesis is path breaking and needs to be discussed widely. In the interview, he mentions Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Marx, Jean Paul Sartre and a host of other thinkers and theorists and elaborates other aspects of these two types of spiritualism. He also proposed a radical new idea: the evolutionary process Charles Darwin discovered, and which was the most revolutionary, transformative theory since Copernicus and Galileo began to question the Biblical theory of the origin of the universe and earth, now needs to be supplemented by an evolutionary theory of thinking. Humankind has to choose between, on the one hand, fanaticism, tribalism, war and continued injustices and, on the other, a world order based on peace, accommodation, adjustment and justice. His two books that I consider essential reading are The Next Stage of Human Evolution and in Urdu, Insaani Shaoor ka Irtiqa. Both are displayed on his website. I warmly recommend that we listen to his interview:
Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011).