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The science of farce

November 25, 2010

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.’

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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.

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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 Dawn.com.

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