The Innocence of Fanatics

Last week, I watched a Bollywood film called PK, which, interestingly, touched the controversial topic of religion. Before proceeding ahead, I must warn the readers that there are spoilers about PK in this post, so do not read any further if you want to watch the movie for yourself. Having said that, let me begin.

 pk-poster

PK is the story of an alien, who lands on earth as part of some undefined research mission in Rajasthan, India. The alien is called PK in the film. The remote control of PK’s spaceship, in the form a shinning jewel locket, is stolen almost as soon as he lands. PK subsequently journeys through Rajasthan in search for this remote control and eventually ends up in the capital of India: New Delhi. Once in Delhi, PK becomes extremely bewildered when people tell him that only God can help him find his remote control. From that point onwards, PK tries to ‘connect to God’ through a myriad of religions in order to get hold of his remote. He is perplexed by the countless rites and rituals of various religions, which more than often, contradict each other. For example, he sees wine being offered to God in a church. He believes that God likes wine. He ends up taking bottles of wine to a mosque that he assumes to be the house of God and narrowly escapes beating.

Even though the film showcases various religions prevalent in India, the one religion it particularly focuses on is Hinduism. Hindu hardliners in India are quite similar to Muslim zealots in Pakistan. It isn’t surprising that Hindu groups such as Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have gone berserk, burned movie posters outside cinema halls and boycotted the film.

PK protest in New Delhi

Just as Muslims in Pakistan complain about how the film trailer called “Innocence of Muslims” hurt their feelings, so did the members of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) complain about PK. According to VHP, “the movie [PK] has been made to hurt and provoke Hindu religious sentiments“.

When the movie trailer called “Innocence of Muslims” was put on YouTube, angry protests had broken out in Pakistan. For this reason, YouTube was banned in Pakistan and is still banned in Pakistan. People were so emotionally charged about this matter that they even ended up accusing ‘a local businessman of blasphemy, forcing the police to open a case and driving his family into hiding… when he refused to join their protest.

The reaction of Hindus to PK and the reaction of Muslims to Innocence of Muslims highlights a very important point about religious fanaticism. Religious fanaticism does not tolerate the questioning of religious beliefs, let alone stand the derision of such beliefs.

The idea that religious beliefs, figures, places, rites and rituals are immune to questioning and mockery needs a philosophical evaluation. Unfortunately, religious fanatics – be it Hindu or Muslims – react so violently against all forms of expression (such as films, cartoons, books) that question and/or ridicule religion that it becomes nearly impossible to undertake such an analysis.

In fact, more than often, religious fanatics attack without understanding what they are attacking. As far as I see, there is nothing in the movie PK that appears to be particularly offensive to the Hindus or followers of any other faith. PK does not question the existence of God or the metaphysical basis of any religion. Rather, PK questions the significance of various rites and rituals of different religions. PK questions the institutionalization of religion that has converted it into a lucrative business.

Towards the climax of the film, PK confronts Tapasvi Maharaj, a Hindu guru who has the remote control to PK’s spaceship. During that confrontation, PK says that there are two Gods. One is the God that created all of us and the other is the one created by people like Tapasvi Maharaj. He says that he knows nothing about the God that created us all. But the one created by people is just like the people. That God is petty and makes false promises. The rich find him quickly whereas the poor have to wait in queues. That God feels happy when he is praised and makes us afraid every now and then. PK’s philosophy is simple: to trust the God that created us and get rid of the God that the people have created.

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This is about as close as PK got in proclaiming the inefficacy of the concept of God as created by human beings. This is still, in my opinion, a far cry from the atheistic jab taken at religion by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who consider religion to be ‘the root of all evil‘. India, like Pakistan, faces a similar problem. Questioning the fundamentals of religion is a taboo and those who dare to question face dire consequences. It is, nonetheless, great to see mainstream Indian cinema tackle a topic like this. I wish filmmakers in Pakistan also muster courage to question the growing fundamentalism in Pakistan and awaken people from their, as Kant would put it, ‘dogmatic slumber’.

Happy Birthday (Prophet Muhammad)!

Today is the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, according to the Hijri year (Islamic calendar), in my home country: Pakistan. The birthday of Prophet Muhammad is celebrated with great enthusiasm and fervor. The occasion is called Eid Milad-un-Nabi and is a public holiday.

540x450Muhammads-Birthday

The celebrations of Eid-e-Milād-un-Nabī (known as milad for short) are an important part of the Pakistani culture. While growing up, I had attended many such celebrations at my home, school, university, and at the homes of my neighbors, relatives and friends.

In fact, as a child, I remember that I had liked to recite naat (poetry in praise of the Prophet) at such occasions. Even though I liked the festivities (especially the sweets) that were part of the milad celebrations, I always found it hard, in my heart, to adulate Prophet Muhammad in the manner a Muslim is supposed to.

Now that I have openly declared my agnosticism, I further confess my lack of (spiritual) connection with Prophet Muhammad. I have always found it hard to love Prophet Muhammad.

I had, at one point in time, when I really considered myself a Muslim, sincerely tried to love and adore the Prophet. But, somehow, I was never able to develop any feelings for Prophet Muhammad. In retrospect, I think I failed to adore Prophet Muhammad due to a number of reasons:

1) Prophet Muhammad, as a personality, failed to intellectually and emotionally inspire me.

2) Prophet Muhammad had passed away more than 1400 years before my birth and belonged to a culture that was markedly different from the culture I was born and brought up in.

3) Prophet Muhammad made claims about the nature of Reality that I find very hard to believe in.

Honestly speaking, I found Bertrand Russell much more inspirational than Muhammad ibn Abd’Allah. I don’t mean to disrespect the Prophet in any way. It’s just that, to me, loving and admiring Prophet Muhammad doesn’t mean much. It is difficult to openly confess one’s indifference about the personality of Prophet Muhammad especially in Pakistan, where such confessions are likely to be called ‘blasphemous’. However, I think it is important for Muslims, all over the world, to increase their tolerance levels and allow free-thinkers like myself to express their views about Prophet Muhammad. Anyway, happy birthday, Prophet Muhammad! Cheers!