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The science of farce


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As a teenager in the early 1980s, I still remember a conversation I overheard between two cops posted just outside my grandfather’s office. It 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 it.”

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.”

Whenever I think about this conversation, I smile. These were simple police constables trying to talk nuclear physics. Lord knows what they thought atoms looked liked; in all probability to them atoms might be steely ball bearings that are fitted in a big metallic shell which then 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’.

In one of the chapters of this engrossing 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 Machiavellian Ziaul Haq dictatorship in Pakistan, to hold lavish seminars in Islamabad dedicated to celebrate (or worse, ‘prove’) 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 fourteenth 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 and puritanical Saudi monarchy. Suspicious that western education systems and models were producing free thinkers and secularists (or ideas that can 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 oil dollars in programmes designed to bring Islamic thought at par with western science.

This wasn’t done by putting money into schools, colleges and universities in an attempt to upgrade and modernise their curriculum and teaching standards – instead, the big 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 in by the promise of big bucks and perks, began making their way into new-found institutions of ‘Islamic science’ in Saudi Arabia, nobody was quite sure as to what ‘Islamic science’ really was.

Renowned cultural critic, author and scientist, Ziauddin Sardar, was one of them, but he soon bailed out after realising that all the Saudis really wanted were ‘cranks’ masquerading as ‘scientists.’


The 1977 publication of Maurice Bucaille’s ‘The Bible, Qu’ran and Science’ finally laid out exactly what the new concept of Islamic science meant. The book became a sensational hit 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 western scientists in the nineteenth and twentieth century had already been predicted and explained in the Quran. One would sit up and take a little more notice of the claims made by Bucaille had he been a bonafied 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. Unlike an objective scientist, Bucaille’s claims were based not on empirical observation, but rather on his uncritical acceptance of certain Muslim beliefs based on ahadith and theology compiled by one of the most conservative and inflexible ancient Muslim jurists, Imam Ahmed Hanibal and his disciples.

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 science just because everything that they needed to know about physics, chemistry, astronomy and biology was in the Quran.

They also suggested that the Quran was primarily a moral guide that actually persuades people to understand God’s world around them, and that this can only be done by studying the sciences and philosophy.

Though Bucaille’s book is shaky and on a soft and uneven ground if and when put against the rigors of conventional empirical science, it set off a mind altering change in the thinking of a majority of Muslims, as well as laying the foundations for a lucrative publishing and video market and industry in the Muslim world.

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 left-leaning nationalist movements in the Muslim world, and the growing influence of western secularism and Soviet communism among the Muslims.

The idea was, that if politics could be ‘Islamised’ (Mauddudi, Qutab, Khomeini), then so could science and (later), economics (banking). Grudgingly recognizing the economic and political advances made by the Jews after World War-II through education, the Arab world, defeated by Israel in 1967 and 1973, tried to come up with their own notion of advancement.

But as mentioned before, this advancement was not really about producing large numbers of highly educated Muslims but rather, a populace fed on empty, feel-good ‘scientific’ claptrap produced by overpaid groups of crackpots calling themselves scientists and economists. And anyway, the new post-Bucaille Muslim mindset had already begun labeling the ‘secular sciences’ as ‘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.

Very few seemed to know that before Muslims, certain Hindu and Christian theologians had already laid claim to the practice of defining their respective holy books as metaphoric prophecies of scientifically proven phenomenon. They began doing so between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whereas Muslims got into the act only in the twentieth century.

Johannes Heinrich’s ‘Scientific vindication of Christianity (1887)’ is one example, while Mohan Roy’s ‘Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism’ is a good way of observing how this thought has actually evolved from the fantastical claims of the followers of other faiths.


As hybrid secular ideas in Muslim countries such as ‘Arab socialism,’ ‘Islamic socialism’ and democracy began to wither in the event of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979), and the eruption of ‘Islamic 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 jinns, or how to calculate the speed of heaven, etc.

The message seemed to be, why read books of science, or enter a lab to understand the many workings of God’s nature and creatures – 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 neighborhood jinn for all your energy needs.

Such was the nonsense Muslim governments in the 1980s were ‘investing’ their money and efforts in when a majority of Muslim countries were continuing to struggle to up their literacy rates.

This practice sanctified myopia and an unscientific bent of mind in the Muslim world.

Rationalist Islamic scholars have been insisting throughout the twentieth century that the Qur’an is less a book of laws or science, and more an elaborate moral guide for Muslims in which God has given the individual 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 that though most Muslims are quick to adopt western science, they simply refuse to assume a rational scientific mindset.

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 rubbish is thankfully no more a part of the state’s educating agenda (at least not in Pakistan), one still does come across idiocy in which cranks manage to use mainstream media and forums to crank it out, defining 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 hogwash, as proven recently by Dr. Attur Rehman.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

* Photo courtesy: Creative Commons

Author Image

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and He is also the author of two books on the social history of Pakistan, End of the Past and The Pakistan Anti-Hero.

He tweets @NadeemfParacha

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (51) Closed

Mustafa Nov 26, 2010 04:23am
bluemountain Nov 30, 2010 07:41am
U mean like the evidence, or lack thereof, Mr. Paracha presented??
IZ Nov 25, 2010 09:14am
I had a major arguement with a friend about their assertion that the big bang is written about in the Quran. I said that its dangerous to mix scientific theories that you dont understand with religion. Why do we need to look for scientific theories in the Quran? Its based on a misunderstanding of what science is and how science works. Science offers the best theories about the natural world based on rational thought and observation. Theories can turn out to be false, or in need of adjustment. They are continually tested and challenged and updated. By looking for science in religion we link that theory to our religion. If later on that theory is shown to be wrong or in need of adjustment, then what does that mean for the religion?
yawar Nov 25, 2010 12:08pm
NFP's given the link to Rheman's episode.
Sheikh Nov 26, 2010 09:45pm
It is true that divine knowledge is beyond all material /meta physical sciences (unless somebody wishes to believe otherwise). With this faith in place, it is all important that we continue to extend our knowledge of science. I am yet to read a single Islamic writer who has suggested the readers to stop scientific research as it is already available in the Holy book. Hence, the article is misleading on this aspect or else should quote the exact writers who are stopping the readers from scientific research. Research be it on the holy book or stem cells, is always a source of knowledge extension and should not be discouraged. I find it important to note that reflecting on the writings of the holy book is nothing but research. Needless to mention that in no way, does it stop us from following empirical science.
Haris Ghole Nov 27, 2010 07:00am
I agree with you... Two opposite extremes we have with us...
AAmmar Shaikh Nov 27, 2010 06:42am
Every principle of science is based on nature. Holy quran has aspects regarding science as well as the way of life.
Faiz Nov 25, 2010 11:51am
@ yawar Can you please let all know what Dr. Attaur Rehman had said?Being away from Pakistan I can't follow all that is reported in local print and elctronic media..
Tahir Rizvi Nov 27, 2010 12:58am
I fully endorse and support Mr. Mustafa's comments stated above.
math Nov 27, 2010 06:01am
Its interesting to read your article about how religious beliefs have tried to have an effect on the development of science in the muslim world. That same thing has happened in christian religion. It parallels your story so well. It seems people of very strong faith regardless of their belief system seem to want to bend truths discovered through scientific effort to fit into their religious texts rather than admit the possibility that there might be inaccuracies in the written texts of their faith.
Umesh Nov 26, 2010 06:45am
One needs to separate core religious philosophy that remains constant from practices that can (and sometimes should) change with time. For example, muslims didn't wear shirts and pants in 7th century but they do now. Or they travelled only by foot or rode animals in the past but now they ride automobiles and fly in planes!
Khalid Irteza Hasan Nov 25, 2010 08:08pm
Quran elaborates what is right path and what is wrong. It further exemplifies the outcome of adopting a wrong path. It gives a free will but describes that staying within the perimeter specified by Allah would help build a true welfare society. Science has an empirical temperament, whereas religion is its foundations established on faith. So, comparing them is like comparing the mangoes and oranges. Many of the universities in the Europe have Biblical research departments, especially in the field of archeology. Unfortunately, most of the Muslim scholars consume their energies in proving a mere supremacy of Quran over the scientific research, instead of understanding its true meaning.
rajasekhar Nov 25, 2010 07:19pm
Science is an outcome of human curiosity which gradually developed into an empirical science. When the whole western world was in dark ages, Islamic world preserved and enhanced human knowledge for which rest of the world is so ever grateful. Ironically the same Islamic world wants to drive us back into new dark age. It is heartening to see some enlightened souls like your won't let that happen. Raj
UJK Nov 25, 2010 06:30pm
Do agree with some parts but NFP being an extremist always tend to generalize and include everything and everybody in his theories. But what can we do. Pak is a country of extremists (on both sides). Do not call myself a scientist but as a graduate student of Physics, I am especially thrilled by comparing what my religion tells about Meraj and Einstein
Rahul Uppal Nov 25, 2010 11:28am
Religion and Science are two totally different things. I have seen such enthusiasm among Christians and Hindus too to prove the "scientific facts" in their religious books although to a lesser extent than muslims.
Ursilla Nov 25, 2010 11:13am
Well said, IZ.
Adeel Nov 26, 2010 10:04pm
I didn't get what Mr. Fareed is alluding to Dr. Ata ur Rehman. In any case, nice summary of what went wrong in our pursuit of science. Many scientist, even Newton, perhaps secretly wanted to justify Bible. But he didn't sacrifice the scientific spirit on his wishes. This is what we called scientific attitude which by large missing in our society.
Ursilla Nov 25, 2010 11:12am
Excellant article, Paracha. You are doing a great service by helping a lot of us seperate the chal from the cheese regarding religion, culture and politics.
k.kishor Nov 26, 2010 02:11pm
good read.thanks nadeem sir. i am great fan of u.
Zahir Nov 26, 2010 11:54pm
We have so many scriptures today and all of them have statements that do not conform to the present day knowledge (Scientific Facts), and the Quran simply happens to be one exception. There are no claims that the Quran is a book of Science. Being the single scripture with no contradiction makes the Quran a book with signs, not science, gives it a special place among scriptures, and provides the proof that it is the only holy book present in its original form.
Ahsan Ali Nov 27, 2010 04:53pm
Excellent, brilliantly written
Abdul Rahman Nov 26, 2010 03:01am
Long before the advent of Islam the greatest scientific knowledge ever known to man was discovered in Pakistan. Remember the indus valley civilization ? Present day quantum mechanics is just about scratching the surface of this ancient wisdom from Pakistan. Quantum entanglement has been proven experimentally to be real. The underlying cause of entanglement is not known to present day science. It was known in Pakistan about 2000 years BC.
Zaheer Nov 27, 2010 12:51pm
Thought provoking article NFP, You are doing a great service by helping a lot of us!
Johar Nov 27, 2010 03:07pm
A well written article on a unique and much needed topic. Thank you for touching on the subject in such nice way. For the rest of us, I would say it is time for all of us, Muslims or non Muslims, to gain the knowledge out there and be able to compare and rationally go forward by exploring and researching. Logical inferences is the way to go. Accept all ideas around you for the sake of analysis will make us successful. One more and very important factor is getting rid of corruption and negative political forces will all make it possible to retain good brain and allow them to prosper and conduct quality research. Honesty is the best policy.
Ahmed Azmi Nov 30, 2010 01:23pm
Right, science is the process to verify, test and understand the world created by Allah. Science is entitled to test the creator himself, how He appeared from nowhere. Science is the light which takes out darkness blinding us.
Qasim Nov 26, 2010 03:53pm
>> These scholars took their guidance DIRECTLY from the Qur
SAK,IRT Nov 30, 2010 01:55pm
Truthfully, I am a very harsh critic of NFP when he tries to show his analysis on Islamic thoughts. However, this time I am somewhat impressed. I agree to NFP's central theme that the Muslims have done away with the rational thought process and rather try to blindly follow Islam. Even the ones pursuing science as a subject have the same trend. However, I strongly disagree with the notion of 'Secular Science'. There is no such a thing as secular science. Any piece of knowledge that one can use to understand the environments around oneself is Islamic. After all, Islam is a way of life. Quran may not be a book of the conventional science, but it does mention some processes (Like the evolution of embryo) which nowadays qualify as a subject of 'Biological Science'. The idea is to make clear the universality of Quran and urge the Muslims to observe the nature to understand it (i.e., to find Allah). I also agree that somewhere down the line certain so-called Islamic measures were taken which actually caused the downfall of the Muslims, like the rejection of rational thought (which is contrary to the Islamic teachings). We are still suffering from it...
yawar Nov 25, 2010 10:28am
Good one again, NFP. Can't believe what Dr. Attaur Rheman said.
Zeeshan Dogar Nov 25, 2010 03:57pm
Your eagerness to disassociate Islam from scientific discovery is worrisome, but free will allows you the right to an opinion. I refute your statement below: "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 fourteenth century CE. In other words, it was about universal science practiced by objective men who also happened to be Muslims." These scholars took their guidance DIRECTLY from the Qur'an. Islamic science is in fact rooted in observations made in the Qur'an, about the creation of the universe, big bang theory, planetary orbits, alien life, cycles of birth.
Abdullah Saud Nov 26, 2010 06:16am
Dear Nadeem, Hope your article reaches Zakir Naik the great doctor and Scientist of the Ummah!! Thanks for calling a spade a spade. Regards, AS
Nusrat Kamal Nov 26, 2010 12:46pm
Thanks for sharing some potent thoughts on the subject, nadeem
bluemountain Nov 30, 2010 07:29am
While indeed the article is thought provoking, and largely true, It's always a good thing to do one's own research before buying into anything u read.
Saleem Nov 25, 2010 12:36pm
very thought provoking... all the best,
crayoz Nov 30, 2010 02:18pm
Analogies and metaphors are not science. Science has its methodology to understand an observed phenomena and religion has its methodology. These two methodologies are enough different to differenciate both and cant prove or disprove both for the same reason. Anyone who try haven't got a clue about both.
Ismail Nov 26, 2010 04:45am
Very well written and thought provoking. I too have wondered when these programs made on Haroon Yahya's books were aired on TV. I always thought why could not we discover something beforehand and why did the justifications that everything was written and predicted in the Book, always came after someone else from west discovered the same phenomenons. Seemed absurd!
bluemountain Nov 30, 2010 07:36am
Good post....
Kashan Dec 02, 2010 05:34pm
I think the problem starts with the scientists acting up like anti-god and start using science to prove that there is no God and this and that - why can't they stick in their labs and keep churning their results out, after all we are not living in times when scientists were executed for coming up with discoveries - we all know that nothing is absolute in science so nobody needs to take it seriously anyways but they always have to stir up emotions by linking their findings to religion. As a response the extremist (may ALLAH save Islam from most of them) come forward with their theories of how Islam can be proved by Science. This is ridiculous, we didn't accept Islam because Science proved it, we accepted Islam because Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said so and he was Sadiq and Ameen. Period
Qasim Dec 01, 2010 03:55pm
I am not sure what you mean. Mr. Paracha said: "In other words, it was about universal science practiced by objective men who also happened to be Muslims.
A M Dec 07, 2010 05:28am
Quran guides to be honest,these Muslim scientists used this and other ethical teaching in conducting their research. This is(should be) a very important difference between a Quran-guided Muslim scientist and others.
Seedoo Dec 08, 2010 03:45pm
Mr/Ms UJK, With respect to making comparisons of Meraj with Einstein's theory of relativity, what are your thoughts about mass of an object becoming infinite as its speed approaches that of light? In this case, you have a load which poor Burraq is unable to carry!
Syed Dec 09, 2010 10:52pm
Dear Nadeem Bhai, It is just wise to stay away naming someone, Instead we should introduce their hidden characterstics so that we can recognize any one them as well. Naming someone can open a pandora box of support and denials and thus might lead us away from the objective of identifying the cause of problems.
Abhinav Rai Dec 03, 2010 06:59pm
Religion and Science are on the same page as long as one stops paying heed to the tempting fairy tales and start interpreting things in the context it has been mentioned instead of pulling off a literal translation of the scriptures. As far as the word "enthusiasm" is concerned I am sure you would be enthusiastic to know that Hindus and Christians weren't trying to prove anything. It was all there in black and white. You just have to be slightly above par to understand it. Albert Einstein did and the father of the atomic bomb, J.R.Oppenheimer too related the atomic explosion with the philosophies of The Bhagwat Gita. Issac Newton too equated the laws of "Karma" with his third law "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction". Charles Darwin clearly related the theory of human evolution with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu as mentioned in the Puranas. Its not a chest thumping misinformation but a reality above facts and mystical revelations. You can try the links and the related ones. For e.g., Try reading Rig Ved, I am sure you must not have read it so far. All the concepts of Quantum Physics and the Big Bang to the evolution of human being to the concept of One God is there in Rig Ved. You can try this link as well.
A. Shiraz Dec 03, 2010 09:38pm
A good book on this subject is Pervez Hoodhbhoy's : "Islam and science : religious orthodoxy and the battle for rationality". What is most tragic is not only losing the likes of Abdus Salam but also losing Hoodhbhoy who is not appreciated enough in Pakistan one feels. But that has been the case with Ibn -e-Sina and Ibn-e-Rushd as well. They were both mistreated. It is the unfortunate trait of some religions to persecute their intellectuals and scientific minds.
Javed Dec 08, 2010 12:34am
True. However the thinking of Ibne Sina and Razi was not acceptable even to Imam Ghazali.
Anujrj Dec 09, 2010 08:36am
Abhinav, I love your comments ! Where did you get educated in scientific thought? You would probably have been the bosom pal of the crank scientists that came in during the Zia era. You missed them- they were your brotherhood. Anyway, we all need a laugh, so thanks for adding these lines today.
Durdana Bint-e-Ghazi Dec 13, 2010 09:15am
Very right, agreed.
Junaid Dec 09, 2010 05:18am
wow nadeem great write , you know i used to hate your writings. by the way policeman's talk was a real gem, and this is how many amongst us are and we have some similar symptoms as well...
S. Nasir Mehdi Dec 06, 2010 09:43pm
In the Holy Book only hints are given and we are asked to think about what it means. It can be achieved by education as said " learn even if you have to go China". God was not there to write books and present theories on science, physics, chemistry, biology and and .... It is so said that we are struggling like Bedouins prior to Islam. We have indulged in a war against Islamic teachings of learning. We are blasting schools and colleges, killing doctors and scientists. We are not owning our scientists like Abdus Salam, A.Q.Khan, Ibne sina etc The uneducated Mulla is guiding us. We should mourn
apatel Dec 16, 2010 07:34pm
Nice try! But it was not Pakistan then!
KS Dec 23, 2010 02:50pm
Mr Pracha, another profound piece from you! Hats off !! Science is factual. All religions are based on Faith i.e. not factual. Most people will recognise the quote: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation."
Qasim Dec 17, 2010 10:40pm
A M said: >> these Muslim scientists used this and other ethical teaching in conducting their research I agree that this would be a big difference . . . but only if we can show that it indeed happened that way. Let me repeat my original question: "Did these scholars mention in any of their works that they took their guidance directly from Quran"?