The science of farce
By Nadeem F. Paracha
I still remember a conversation I once overheard between two cops standing just outside my grandfather’s office as a teenager in the early 1980s.
The conversation was in Punjabi and went something like this:
First cop: “Pakistan is about to make an atom bomb.”
Second cop: “No, I think we already have one.”
First cop: “Not yet, because I have heard we still do not have the atoms required to make the bomb.”
Second cop: “We do not have atoms?”
First cop: “No, they are on their way from China.”
Second cop: “Yes, China has a lot of atoms, that’s why America is against Pak-China friendship.”
First cop: “Yes, they do not want China to export atoms to Pakistan.”
These were simple police constables trying to talk nuclear physics.
God knows what they thought atoms looked like, but in all probability to them, atoms might have been steely ball bearings that are fitted in a big metallic shell which when dropped from a plane, explodes.
Nevertheless, even though their chatter conformed to the distinct political paranoia of the Cold War era, they remained simple, half-literate men, somewhat endearingly trying to make sense about what the whole ‘atom bum’ hoopla was all about.
However, what was funnier in this respect did not have to do with simple people, but so-called scientists.
The following episode might have dissolved into history had not Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy reminded us about it in his excellent first book, ‘Islam & Science: Religious orthodoxy and the battle for rationality’ (1990).
In one of the chapters of this lamenting commentary on the fall of ‘universal science’ and rational thought in the annals of scholarship in Muslim countries, Dr. Hoodbhoy tells us how in the mid-1980s millions of rupees were dished out by certain oil-rich Arab countries and the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in Pakistan, to hold lavish seminars in Islamabad dedicated to celebrate the validity of ‘Islamic science.’
Before the late 1970s, Islamic science usually meant the exemplary work produced in the fields of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, chemistry and philosophy by a number of noted Muslim academics and scholars between the eighth and 14th century CE. In other words, it was about universal science practiced by objective men who also happened to be Muslims.
By the late 1970s, however, the whole idea about Islamic science began to disintegrate into utter farce.
It largely began with a brain wave emitting from the oil-rich Saudi monarchy. Suspicious that Western education systems and models were producing free thinkers and secularists (or ideas that could threaten the theocratic basis of the monarchy’s power and hold); and repulsed and alarmed by the growth of revolutionary nationalism and socialism in the Muslim world (in the ’60s and ’70s), the Saudi government began pumping in ‘Petro-Dollars’ in projects designed to supposedly bring contemporary Islamic thought at par with western science.
The idea had a noble ring to it. But alas, it wasn’t put into motion by putting money into schools, colleges and universities in Muslim countries in an attempt to upgrade and modernise their curriculum and teaching standards.
Instead, the big Petro Dollars went into hiring ‘scientists’ whose job it was to generate evidence that ‘secular science and thought’ was inferior to ‘Islamic science.’
As a stream of handpicked Western, Pakistani and Arab scientists and doctors, lured by the promise of big bucks and perks, began making their way into the new-found institutions of ‘Islamic science’ in Saudi Arabia, nobody was quite sure exactly what ‘Islamic science’ really was or meant.
Renowned author and scientist, Ziauddin Sardar, was one of them. In his book ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise,’ Sardar writes he soon bailed out (from Saudi Arabia) after realising that all the Saudis really wanted were ‘cranks masquerading as scientists.’
The 1976 publication of Maurice Bucaille’s ‘The Bible, Quran and Science’ finally laid out exactly what the new concept of Islamic science would mean.
The book became a sensation in the Muslim world but at the same time left a number of Muslim scientists baffled by what Bucaille was suggesting.
The book is a fascinating read. It claims that various scientific phenomenon discovered by modern Western scientists had already been predicted and explained in the Quran. However, one would sit up and take a little more notice of the claims made by Bucaille had he been a scientist, but he wasn’t.
Maurice Bucaille was a French medical doctor, who in 1973 was appointed as the personal physician of Saudi monarch, King Faisal.
Bucaille’s claims were based not on empirical observation, but rather on his uncritical acceptance of certain musings of some of the most conservative and inflexible ancient Muslim jurists.
Bucaille faced stern criticism from both Western and Muslim scientists, especially Muslim scientists who accused him of misleading Muslim youth and encouraging them to shun the conventional study of modern sciences just because everything that they needed to know about physics, chemistry, astronomy and biology was supposedly in the Quran.
His critics also suggested that the Quran was primarily a moral guide that actually persuades people to understand God’s world around them, and this can only be done by studying the sciences and philosophy.
Though Bucaille’s book is shaky and on soft ground if and when put against the rigors of conventional empirical science, it set off a somewhat mind-altering change in the thinking of a majority of Muslims.
Impressed by the fantastical claims made by a French Christian doctor, very few Muslims were bothered by the fact that he was on the payroll of the Saudi monarchy, a regime trying to ward off the threat it had faced from various nationalist movements in the Muslim world, and the growing influence of secularism and socialism among the Muslims (between the 1950s and the 1970s).
The idea was that if politics could be ‘Islamised’ (Mauddudi, Qutab, and later, Khomeini), then so could science and (later), economics (banking).
Grudgingly recognising the economic and political advances made by the Jews after World War-II through education and economic initiatives, the Arab world tried to come up with their own notion of advancement.
But this advancement was not really about producing large numbers of highly educated and skilled Muslims, but rather, a populace fed on pulpy feel-good ‘scientific’ twaddle produced by overpaid groups of men calling themselves scientists and economists. And anyway, the new post-Bucaille Muslim mind-set also began labelling the universal sciences as ‘secular science’ invented by Jews to subjugate the Muslims.
Bucaille enthusiasts were also not bothered (rather not aware) about the entirely unoriginal make-up of his theory. Many still believe that proving scientific truths from Holy Books has been the exclusive domain of Muslims.
Before Muslims, certain Hindu and Christian theologians had already laid claim to the practice of claiming that their respective Holy Books held metaphoric prophecies of scientifically proven phenomenon.
They began doing so between the 18th and 19th centuries, whereas Muslims got into the act only in the 20th century.
Johannes Heinrich’s ‘Scientific vindication of Christianity (1887)’ is one example, while Mohan Roy’s ‘Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism’ is another way of observing how this thought has actually evolved from the fantastical claims of the followers of other faiths.
As quasi-secular/progressive ideas in Muslim countries began to wither in the event of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979), and the eruption of jihad in Afghanistan, the idea behind Islamic science being the celebration of the achievements of ancient and modern Muslim scientists was gradually replaced by unsubstantiated and fancy convolutions being defined as science.
So, it was only natural that Pakistan’s military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, heavily influenced and financed by the Saudis, would be the man to green light a seminar of Muslim ‘scientists’ who met in Islamabad in 1986 to unveil the wonders of Islamic science where so-called learned men actually set about discussing things like how to generate energy and electricity from djinns, how to calculate the ‘speed of heaven’, etc.
The seminars may as well have been Star Trek conventions, but were actually promoted as a ‘giant step in the advent of Islamic science.’
The message seemed to be, why read books of science, or enter a lab to understand the many workings of God’s creations – just read the Holy Book. Forget about all those great Muslim scientists of yore, or Abdus Salam, Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
Just get in touch with your friendly neighbourhood djinn for all your energy needs.
Such was the babble many Muslim governments in the 1980s were ‘investing’ their money and efforts in while continuing to struggle to up their literacy rates.
This practice sanctified myopia and an unscientific bend of mind in the Muslim world.
Rationalist Islamic scholars have been insisting throughout the 20th century that the Quran is less a book of laws or science, and more an elaborate moral guide for Muslims, in which God has given individuals the freewill to decide for him or herself through exerting their mental faculties and striving to gain more empirical knowledge.
Iranian writer, Vali Reza Nasr, is right to mourn the trend today in which most Muslims are quick to adopt the fruits of universal sciences but simply refuse to assume the rational scientific mind-set that is behind these sciences.
No wonder then, for example, most Pakistanis still don’t have a clue about what the country’s only Nobel Prize winning scientist, Dr Abdus Salam, got the award for, but many are quick to quote from books written by Harun Yahya and some others, explaining how things like the Big Bang and others are endorsed in the Holy Book.
Though such bosh is thankfully no more a part of the state’s agenda (at least not in Pakistan), one still does come across absurdities in which oddballs manage to use mainstream media and forums to define sheer drivel as science.
But not always are such folk mere cranks. Some ‘respected scientists’ have also been known to take the Bucailleian tradition and fuse it with some post-9/11 conspiratorial claptrap.
Apart from some TV channels actually running shows in which grown-up men go around with meters in their hands to record ‘energy signatures’ of djinns, more disconcerting is the fact that men placed in positions of authority in the higher echelons of the scientific and education community in the country have gone on record to furnish and endorse some bizarre theories in this context.
Critics in this respect suggest that such men actually make a mockery of faith with their claims because scientific truths are not doctrinal and fixed. They are highly evolutionary, mutable and prone to change.
For example, had some Muslim scientists of yore claimed that Newton’s Law of Gravity was already present in the scriptures; they’d have to change their stance after Einstein proved that Newton’s law was flawed.
Would that mean the scriptures were flawed as well?
Recently when a Vice Chancellor of a college in Lahore claimed that the Big Bang Theory was already mentioned in the Holy Book, he conveniently forgot that like most scientific theories, this theory too is not fixed and doctrinal and has been under the microscope of even those who do not reject it.
As scientists continue to dig deeper, the theory may as well collapse and be replaced with another one. What would the Vice Chancellor say then?
Muslim critics of this trend accuse those who claim scientific truths in the scriptures of discouraging Muslims to gain empirical knowledge by going out in the field or testing out their theories in the labs.
They lament that not only is the said trend doing a great disservice to science in the Muslim world, but to the faith as well.
By Nadeem F. Paracha, published in DAWN.com, January 30th 2014.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com