Professor Sher Ali reads a statement denouncing the theory of evolution in the presence of clerics at the DC office in Bannu | Screenshot from Facebook
Professor Sher Ali reads a statement denouncing the theory of evolution in the presence of clerics at the DC office in Bannu | Screenshot from Facebook

It is early morning in Rome. The date is February 17, 1600. The day is after Ash Wednesday, which is a significant day of penance for Christians, and the weather is chillingly cold. The public mood in the town is tense and gloomy as a brutal spectacle is about to take place in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori — a major square in Italy’s capital city.

A well-known scientist, philosopher and professor of the time has been stripped naked, his mouth shut with leather clamps and he is forced to ride a mule to the public square. Arrangements had already been made for his exemplary execution.

First, he is tied to a pole, then, a pile of wood, charcoal, kindling and pitch beneath him is set on fire, and the flames quickly engulf him. Spectators chant and cheer, some ask him to repent but the scientist’s face shows only anger, annoyance and defiance.

While he was tied to the pole and waiting for the flames to be kindled, he was not allowed to say his last words. The leather gags in his mouth stopped him from uttering a single word — symbolising the tight control of the clergy over the expression of scientific ideas and philosophical inquiry. Meanwhile, someone held a crucifix in front of him, but he turned his head away in anger.

The recent ‘trial’ of Professor Sher Ali in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a continuation of the never-ending conflict between reason and inquiry on the one hand and ignorance and dogma on the other

The man was Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) — a philosopher, poet and cosmologist. Eight years before he was arrested and burnt at the stake, he was excommunicated due to his scientific views, like the belief that “the universe is infinite and contains an infinite number of worlds, each potentially inhabited by intelligent beings.” This was considered heretical by the Catholic Church at the time.

Almost three centuries later, a statue of the Renaissance-era scientist was unveiled in 1889 at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori — the same place he was burnt at the stake. He has also been honoured with statues in Madrid, Spain, and Wittenberg, Germany. They pay tribute to the scientist’s resistance to dogma and symbolise his sacrifice for exploring the scientific truth and philosophical explanations.

Four centuries later, in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for Bruno’s death during a speech at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City. He acknowledged that the Church’s condemnation of Bruno’s ideas was wrong, stating that “the theologians of the time committed a theological error, failing to distinguish between the church’s teaching on the immutability of God and the theological status of scientific theories.”

The theologian who “committed the error” in Bruno’s trial, later found another heretic, again in Italy in 1633, whom he not only forced to recant his views but also put him under house arrest for the remainder of his life, until he died in 1642. This “heretic” was known as Galileo Galilei.

Galileo had, a year earlier in 1632, published a book called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which presented arguments for the heliocentric model — the belief the earth orbits the sun, whereas the Catholic Church at the time believed in the geocentric model, which considers the earth as the centre of the universe.

John Scopes, left, heads to the courthouse with his lawyers
John Scopes, left, heads to the courthouse with his lawyers

Perhaps reflecting on the silencing of his voice and that of his predecessor who was burnt at the stake three decades ago, Galileo proclaimed “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

More than 300 years later, the Church realised the theologians were mistaken and the scientist was correct. So in 1992, Pope John Paul II officially apologised for the Church’s handling of the Galileo affair. “To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today,” wrote the American writer and professor of biochemistry, Isaac Asimov.

The theologian who committed “the errors” during the trial of the two Italian scientists — Bruno and Galileo — was a man called Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) who declared the heliocentric model as “formally heretical” in 1616. In 1930, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was canonised as a saint by Pope Pius XI. He is still recognised as Saint Robert Bellarmine and is renowned for his contributions to Catholic theology and his defence of the faith.

THE MONKEY TRIAL

In 1925, John Scopes, a science teacher at a government school in the US state of Tennessee was accused of violating the Butler Act — a law that prohibited the teaching of evolution to American children in public schools.

The trial became a landmark event in the history of American jurisprudence and was dubbed “the trial of the century” by many. The trial was also sensationalised by some media outlets and was popularised as “the monkey trial” due to the widespread belief about Darwin’s theory’s proposition that humans have evolved from “the lower order animal — the monkeys.”

One of the reasons for the popularity of the trial was that it featured two of America’s “legal Goliaths” as opposing attorneys: Clarence Darrow — the most famous trial attorney in America, a persuasive speaker who earned up to a quarter million dollars a case — was defending the teacher, John Scopes, arguing for the teaching of evolution. The prosecutor was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate and staunch opponent of evolution.

In the end, John Scopes, the science teacher, was found guilty and fined $100, though the trial was later overturned based on a technicality. No matter the result of the trial, the case became a cultural touchstone in US history, symbolising the tension between religious orthodoxy and the teaching of modern scientific theories in schools.

A painting depicts the burning of scientist Giordano Bruno at the stake
A painting depicts the burning of scientist Giordano Bruno at the stake

THE MONKEY TRIAL II, IN BANNU

“Call it a calamity or a heart-wrenching incident,” says a cleric while addressing a conference at Madrassa Minhajul Uloom in Domail, Bannu.

“Initially I was reluctant to say his name because these people feel glad when we popularise them by mentioning their names but now, the “fitna” [discord] that he has sown, has come out of its seed… This person’s name is Sher Ali, he is a professor of zoology and he resides in our neighbourhood,” says the cleric while introducing the accused.

“We have been aware of his beliefs for the past five years…this person has been teaching private tuitions to Matric and Intermediate level school kids. His students have informed us about his ideas and we have, by the grace of God, refuted his ideas in our Friday sermons.”

“Respected (audience)!” the middle-aged cleric whose audience consists mostly of children below age 10, looks at his audience and says: “The stories we have received about this man …through his students, the most crucial among them is the [teaching of the] theory of evolution. Do you believe that you are the offspring of monkeys?’ asks the cleric.

“No!” shouts the crowd of children. “But Sher Ali says so,” responds the cleric.

Professor Sher Ali is then made to read a recantation written on a legal stamp paper, on October 20, in Bannu city.

The difference between the two monkey trials —Tennessee and Bannu — is that the one in Bannu did not take place in a courtroom but in the office of the Deputy Commissioner, and the prosecutors were not lawyers but local clerics. Also, the law of the land does not forbid teachers from teaching evolution in educational institutions in Pakistan. The similarity is that both men were teachers whose job required them to teach the theory of evolution to his students.

Professor Sher Ali was also “accused” of talking about women’s rights at a seminar he had helped organise a few days earlier in his area called Domail. More crimes in his dossier were his social media posts that challenged local norms of patriarchy and religious orthodoxy.

Before renouncing his “scientific beliefs and social media posts” on a stamp paper read aloud in front of the camera and the clerics, he was already made to pay a price for his ideas — he lost one leg in a car blast, around six months earlier.

Since renouncing Darwinism, Professor Sher Ali has been silent on social media — like Bruno in 1600 whose mouth was shut with leather gags. Two days after the ‘trial’, Sher Ali posted on his Facebook page: “I apologetically request (both) national and international TV channels to not contact me repeatedly for coming on your screen(s). I will talk when I deem it right.”

Just recently, he posted this verse in the Urdu language: “Raah ke bal ko maut aa jaaye/ Meri mushkil ko maut aa jaaye / Janam ab ruk jaaye la ilmon ka/ Umme Jahal ko maut aa jaaye [May the bends of my path be removed/ May my difficulties be removed/ May the birth of the ignorant now cease/ May the mother of ignorance die].”

While Professor Sher Ali complains about ignorance, the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking had warned how “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”

The writer has a background in English literature, history and politics.
X @Nadeemkwrites

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 19th, 2023

Opinion

Editorial

Price bombs
Updated 18 Jun, 2024

Price bombs

It just wants to take the easy route and enjoy the ride for however long it is in power.
Palestine’s plight
Updated 17 Jun, 2024

Palestine’s plight

While the faithful across the world are celebrating with their families, thousands of Palestinian children have either been orphaned, or themselves been killed by the Israeli aggressors.
Profiting off denied visas
Updated 19 Jun, 2024

Profiting off denied visas

The staggering rejection rates underscore systemic biases in the largely non-transparent visa approval process.
After the deluge
Updated 16 Jun, 2024

After the deluge

There was a lack of mental fortitude in the loss against India while against US, the team lost all control and displayed a lack of cohesion and synergy.
Fugue state
16 Jun, 2024

Fugue state

WITH its founder in jail these days, it seems nearly impossible to figure out what the PTI actually wants. On one...
Sindh budget
16 Jun, 2024

Sindh budget

SINDH’S Rs3.06tr budget for the upcoming financial year is a combination of populist interventions, attempts to...