Religious science: Riding the chariots

Published January 18, 2015
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

‘Pilots in ancient India were flying aircraft not only around the world, but from planet to planet as well …’

This was claimed by some speakers during a session titled ‘Ancient Indian Aviation Technology’ at the Indian Science Conference in Mumbai early this month.

Many Indian scientists have flinched after hearing such claims made during what was supposedly meant to be a serious conference on scientific research in India — especially after the country was successful in launching a probe to Mars recently.

The irritated scientists lamented the attempt of some of their contemporaries to ‘mix mythology with science’ and at the ‘infiltration of pseudo-science in science curricula with backing of influential (right-wing) political parties …’

Sounds familiar? It should. We saw and heard similar claptrap being peddled as ‘science’ in Pakistan in the 1980s, decades before the Indians began to explain the mythical flying chariots of the deities of ancient Hinduism as nuclear-powered flying machines that zipped to and fro and around the world at great speeds.

When science is divided into secular and religious, it is progress that suffers

In the ‘rational West’ such fantastical and anachronistic ideas are usually associated with conspiracy nuts (some best-selling ones, mind you); or they are usually used to mould some intriguing plots of various sci-fi films, TV shows and novels. But one never expects them to appear in the more serious scientific journals and conferences.

Nevertheless, decades before some Indian ‘scientists’ decided to turn their ancestors into jet plane pilots and ancient astronauts, we were trying to work out mathematical equations that would help us extract electricity from the djinns and pin-point the exact location of heaven in space.

In his 1991 book, Islam & Science: Religious Orthodoxy & The Battle for Rationality, well-known Pakistani physicist and intellectual, Dr Parvez Hoodbhoy, tells us how in the mid-1980s millions of rupees were dished out by certain oil-rich Arab countries and the Gen Zia dictatorship in Pakistan to hold lavish seminars in Islamabad dedicated to celebrate the validity of ‘Islamic science’.

In such seminars scientists of dubious qualifications were invited from around the Muslim world to spend dozens of hours and thousands of rupees (and riyals) by discussing theories and equations about entirely mythical notions and allegorical allusions. The idea was to construct an ‘Islamic science.’

Such a notion also perturbed men like the prolific author of Muslim cultural history and scientists, Ziauddin Sardar. He is of the view that such an exercise only manages to discourage Muslims from seeking the authentic sciences that can improve their communities.

Before the late 1970s. Islamic science usually meant the pioneering works produced in the fields of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, chemistry and philosophy by a number of noted Muslim academics and scholars between the 8th and 14th century CE. In other words, it was about science pioneered, practiced and taught by men who also happened to be Muslims.

In his book, Desperately Seeking Paradise, Sardar explains how from the late 1970s onwards, the whole idea about Islamic science began to be turned on its head thanks to a brain wave emitting from the oil-rich Saudi monarchy.

The Saudi government began pumping in ‘Petro-Dollars’ in projects designed to supposedly bring contemporary Islamic thought at par with ‘Western science’.

But this seemingly noble sounding idea wasn’t set into motion by investing 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’ was inferior to ‘Islamic science.’

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 Muslim holy scriptures. However, one would have sat up and taken a bit more notice of the claims made by Bucaille had he actually 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.

His critics suggested that the Muslim holy book was primarily a moral guide that also persuaded people to understand God’s world around them in a rational manner. They explained that religious scriptures are moralistic in nature, not political or scientific. They thus went on to insist that the entirely objective nature of science is such that it cannot be called Western, Eastern, religious or secular.

But the damage was done and the popular imagination of the Muslims captured - ironically through the flimsy claims of a Christian French physician who remained to be Christian till his death!

So, it was only natural that Pakistan’s reactionary dictator, Gen Zia, 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’. Seminars in which 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’, etcetera, etcetera …

Yes, such was the babble many Muslim governments in the 1980s were investing their money and efforts in while continuing to struggle to up the dismal literacy rates in their respective countries.

This practice actually sanctified an unscientific bend of mind in the Muslim world. Such fanciful gabble did not produce skilful scientists, but rather, a populace fed on pulpy pseudo-scientific twaddle shaped by overpaid groups of cranks calling themselves scientists.

However, more interesting is the fact that those who tried to convolute such notions were actually mimicking a fanciful idea that had already emerged from the fringes of Christian and Hindu societies.

Certain Hindu and Christian theologians had already laid an entitlement to the practice of claiming that their respective holy books held divinations 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.

Muslim critics of this trend accuse such theorists in the Muslim world of discouraging Muslims to gain empirical knowledge by going out in the field or testing out their theories in the labs. They suggest that God encourages his followers to understand the natural world through (authentic) scientific inquiry.

They lament that not only is the said trend doing a great disservice to science, but to the ‘rational nature of the Muslim faith’ as well.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 18th, 2015

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