He was born in Pakistan as the son of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at missionary Maulana Ali Haidar Upal Shaheed. He grew up in Rabwah, Pakistan back then the headquarters of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at- a Messianic movement committed to bringing the world into the fold of its version of Islam through preaching. He eagerly participated in religious education classes learning traditional Islamic disciplines of Quran, Hadith, and rhetoric as well as Ahmadiyya history and doctrine. He also enthusiastically took part in and won top positions in various religious competitions including the first prize in speech and religious knowledge competitions held at (what turned out to be the last) international Khuddam-ul-Ahmadiyya (i.e., Ahmadiyya men 15-40 years of age) Convention held in Rabwah in 1989 (Since no international competition has been held since, he claims to be the reigning champion!).
An exceptionally bright student, he won top positions in school and college. He won:
the first position in the Government Primary School Standard Exam,
the second position (with 692 marks) in Talim-ul-Islam High School Rabwah in the Middle School Standard Exam,
the third position (682 marks) in Talim-ul-Islam High School Rabwah in the Matriculation Exam,
the second position (751 marks) in Talim-ul-Islam College Rabwah in the Faculty of Sciende (FSc) Exam,
the second position (602 marks) in Talim-ul-Islam College Rabwah in the B.Sc. Exam (double Math & Physics).
He was a member of the debate and Iqbaliat Clubs at his school and college and represented the college at various regional competitions. In 1989, he won first position at the Annual All-Pakistan English Speech Competitions held at Government College Sargodha defeating the incumbent team from Government College Lahore.
He ran for Students' Union Elections in 1989 and won the office of General Secretary at TI College Rabwah on a People's Students' Federation (PSF, the student wing of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party) ticket. One of the few Pakistani Ahmadis to hold elected office in Pakistan after 1974 when Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim causing them to withdraw from elections.
In 1990, Dr. Upal's family moved to Saskatoon, Canada and he enrolled in the computer science program at the University of Saskatchewan). He was elected as the Vice President External of the U of S Graduate Students Association for the 1994-95 academic year. Continuing his affiliation with Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at, he was twice elected as the Qaid (head) of the Saskatoon Chapter of Khuddam-ul-Ahmadiyya. He founded the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students' Association at the U of S in 1993 and served as its first President from 1993 to 1995. He spoke to hundreds of Ahmadis gathered from across Western Canada for the Annual Western Canada Convention of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at in 1993 about his experiences as one of the first Ahmadi students at the University of Saskatchewan. He also created the world wide web's first Punjab Home Page in 1994 to provide people around the world information about Punjabi culture and history.
After completing his masters in Computer Science at the U of S, Afzal moved to Edmonton to enroll in the PhD (Computer Science) program at the University of Alberta. He was elected Vice President External of the University of Alberta Graduate Students' Association. He also served as Chair of the Campus Food Bank Board, member of University of Alberta Senate, and Senate Executive Committee. He also became disillusioned with traditional Islamic beliefs of gender segregation and became an active feminist. He founded and led the internet's first Muslim feminist activist group called PACAWOM (پاک عوام) from 1996-1999.
After completing his PhD he worked in software industry (at Information Extraction & Transport Inc. in Arlington, VA), academia (Faculty of Computer Science at Dalhousie University; Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Department at the University of Toledo; Occidental College; and Oxford University, UK), and government (US Air Force Research Lab; and Defence Research & Development Canada).
Dr. Upal's novel findings in the areas of cognitive science of religion and machine learning have been widely covered by national and international newspapers, radio stations, and television networks. He has also been interviewed for his research and activism by various media outlets. He is frequently called upon by community organizations, professional practitioners and public policy officials to provide expert advice on issues of countering violent extremism & radicalization, machine learning, and cyber security.