My grandfather was the beginning of my unraveling. It was summer in Karachi, and I was about 16. I was covered in sweat, as one always is in summer in Karachi, and reading a book.
Without any particular preface, my grandfather asked me, “Why are you a Muslim?”
I responded slowly, reciting something about Islam being the unvarnished word of God. It was not compelling; I had never been asked the question before — religion is generally considered hereditary. I felt I was drawing from some half-empty reservoir of memory. I said something I thought I should say to someone asking that question of a Muslim.
He nodded, and then asked, “Why are you not Hindu?”
I again responded with something uninteresting, relying on the self-justifying verse of any major organized religion. It went roughly along these lines: Islam is the greatest religion in the world because it is the greatest religion in the world.
He nodded. He asked then, “Why are you not a Jew? A Christian? A Buddhist?”
At this point it’s too embarrassing to attempt to recall the desperation of my reasoning, so suffice it to say that the hollowness of my talking points was now thoroughly apparent to both of us.
He asked me, “Have you studied any of these religions and texts that you reject, considered them seriously as worldviews?”
I said no.
“So how do you call yourself a Muslim?”
I didn’t know.
He walked slowly out of the room, then walked slowly back with a laminated card which he gently placed in my hand. It said, “The improver of natural knowledge refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith, the one unpardonable sin.” The quote was attributed to Thomas Huxley, the 19th century English biologist.
I have had the fortune in my life of being buffeted by the agony and ecstasy of epiphany on many occasions, but I am almost certain that nothing compares to that summer day.
My grandfather released me from perpetual guilt about not understanding why I couldn’t feel close to god. Why, despite different experiments with prayer and attempts to grasp the Arabic that sounded even worse than my Urdu, there was no response as I prostrated myself before something I didn’t understand. Why, as I quested for the celestial, I only felt an abyss.
Shortly thereafter, I became agnostic, and within about a year, I identified as an atheist.
The idea that there was virtue in skepticism and that authority was trivial was a torpedo. It was the beginning of my education, which I was soon convinced that high school was an interference with, more often than not. It made me feel righteous when skipping class and debating with my friends about what I found at the time to be more important intellectual and political issues. It made me feel a certain degree of pride for being disciplined in school so often. It often made me view teachers as equals. It made me laugh at and disdain people who strived to mold themselves in the image of ideas they had never once interrogated. It made me grapple with the vices modern capitalism, and forced me to reckon over and over again with the limitations of representative democracy. It was not only about dislodging god, but also about rejecting masters. The sentiment made it into my senior project with my best friend in high school, which was about revolutionary pedagogy. When I graduated, the quote my grandfather handed me was featured on my senior year book page.
What does it mean to be a man who can deliver a lightning bolt with the hands of a pianist?
My grandfather, who in my understanding identified as agnostic on the matter of religion, was content to allow his irreverence emanate from the content of his beliefs rather than through his style of debate. In my presence, he was a rare breed of public intellectual in his aspiration to remove ego from idea. By far the most compelling trait of his habits of thought was his comfort with uncertainty, his celebration of the unknowable.
He once sent my sister and me a note about his personal utopia. I cannot remember all the details of it without digging up the note, but the heart of it was about living in a place with great green gardens where people peacefully debate the day away to build a better society. He passed away this weekend, but I can imagine him walking and running though its lush forests. I cannot imagine anything more sublime.