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The religious scientist

The gap of learning between India and Pakistan is significant because it goes beyond the argument of population ratios.

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published:August 23, 2014 1:28 am
Muslim doctors in Pakistan and America are mostly found to be radical in their religious beliefs. Muslim doctors in Pakistan and America are mostly found to be radical in their religious beliefs.

These days I walk in a state of mental enslavement to Laurent Gayer, a member of the National Centre of Scientific Research in Paris, who has written the final book on Karachi. His Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (2014) will never be improved upon as an examination of the violent mind. Among many nuggets scattered in his work, one is about early student politics in the city: “[A] coalition of progressive groups formed an electoral alliance (the Progressive Students Alliance) and managed to defeat the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) at Karachi University’s students’ union elections in 1975-1976. However, the IJT managed to regain control over KU’s students’ union the following year. In this rise to power, the IJT relied upon the support of science students, a trend which is not specific to Pakistan (among students, most recruits of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian Islamist groups have come from science, engineering, law and medicine). Progressive and left organisations, for their part, found their strongest support in the Faculty of Arts.”

However, one Pakistani nuclear physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, recently dubbed “jahil (illiterate)” by a chief reporter on TV, has not succumbed to the trend. His book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (1991), tells us that the trend is new as in antiquity, when philosophy and mathematics went together, most Muslim scientists were apostatised and punished by their co-religionists.

Pervez, whom I admire shamelessly, is an educationist too, and got put off by a 1987 conference on “scientific miracles” under Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, where Pakistani scientists mixed religious miracle with scientific discovery. Encouraged by funding of Rs 66 lakh (half of which was provided by Saudi Arabia), our guys flew off the handle and talked rubbish about science and demeaned the divine writ of the Quran.

A scientist from Al-Azhar misinterpreted the Quran to claim that mountains were like nails holding the earth down. An Egyptian engineer found that the empty copper shells of armour-piercing ammunition used in the Arab-Israeli war were intended by Allah to destroy “djinns”. Another 1986 conference held by the Pakistan Association of Scientists and Scientific Professions was regaled with a formula by Arshad Ali Beg of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to arrive at the “munafiqat” (hypocrisy) ratio of a given society.

Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission chief Salim Mehmud tried to shine too, by making a hash of the theory of relativity by linking it with the “mairaj” (ascension) of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Another senior nuclear scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, proposed that all energy-related problems could be solved by taming the “djinns”, because they were made of fire. Many others, lured by the limelight, delivered gems of medieval gibberish in the name of Islamic science.

Pervez, a PhD from MIT, sat down and examined the roots of these ridiculous attitudes among Muslim scientists and came up with a well-researched book about the maltreatment of the scientific principle in Muslim societies. He got Nobel laureate Abdus Salam to write its preface because the professor had already made a plaintive appeal to the Muslim world to spend money on scientific advancement, instead of “conquering” science through dogma.

Salam agreed with Pervez’s diagnosis of the anti-scientism of Muslims, but added that a more direct cause lay in the Islamic practice of allowing its ill-educated clergy to issue “fatwas” of excommunication against discoverers of new scientific facts. What had happened to scientists like al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Haytham and Ibn Sina was still continuing. Al-Kindi was lashed 50 times in front of an illiterate approving crowd; al-Razi was hit on the head with his own book on rationalism till he lost his eyesight; Ibn Sina’s entire life was spent running away from one prince after another for fear of being killed for heresy; Ibn Khaldun, the great social scientist discovered by the West, was condemned by Taha Hussain in our times as “a non-believer pretending to be a Muslim”.

Pervez tells us that scientific facts are contingent. They are empirically proven but subject to change upon further discovery. In his view, it is wrong to link the eternal truth of Islam to this evolving understanding of the phenomena. In a way, science is based on the principle of “uncertainty”, whereas religion, after faith is converted into “certitude”, says goodbye to science. Certitude (yaqeen) commits one to judge others, whereas faith still has space for self-doubt and remains humane.

The gap of learning between India and Pakistan is significant because it goes beyond the argument of population ratios. One has to helplessly concede that where Muslims control their societies, the one branch of knowledge that becomes neglected are the sciences.

Pakistan’s father of the atom bomb, A.Q. Khan, wrote in the daily Jang that, in 1812, when Marathas and Rajputs attacked the state of Bhopal and the ruler could not fend off the invaders, the prime minister went to a majzub (religious person in trance) who pointed to a place where miraculously, a lot of weapons were discovered. Khan rates ghairat (honour) as a high virtue of the state. It is an unscientific concept, but he uses it to communicate with the nation. He wrote in Jang that many admired him for discussing the great national habit of ghairat (honour).

Sultan Bashiruddin, our top nuclear expert, believed he could draw electricity from a captured djinn. (For Pakistan’s needs, just one djinn would suffice.) Pakistan’s current top nuclear scientist, Samar Mubarak Mand, has revealed the same “miracle” symptom.

According to the late journalist Abbas Athar of the Daily Express, Mand told an audience that when he was in Kharan, Balochistan, in 1998, organising the nuclear test, he found that Allah had put a miracle murga (chicken) in the pot from where everyone was eating. After feeding 183 people, the murga was still crowding the pot. He had bought only five chickens. Athar Abbas thought Pakistan should have more degchis (pots) from Mand to produce endless chicken.

Muslim doctors in Pakistan and America are mostly found to be radical in their religious beliefs; so are the lawyers, in a rebuke to Jinnah, who was a secular man. Among the first to contact Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan were Pakistani doctors and nuclear scientists. Gayer includes “engineering, law and medicine” as the branches of knowledge that make the Muslim mind toxic, more than the contrived narrative embedded these days in the arts syllabi.

In Europe, Bacon in the 17th century delinked reason from the principle of deduction fundamental to religion. Somehow, the continent learned to link civic virtue to the principle of induction or observation, and the states decided that the only “goodness” was the avoidance of crimes, spelt out in the penal codes. There is no reward for piety; avoidance of crime makes one a good citizen. Up in the Khyber tribal agency, warlord Mangal Bagh punishes people for not being pious — he burns the houses of those who don’t come to the mosque five times a day — and the Constitution of Pakistan has Articles 62 and 63 to back him.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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