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Our heroes are our heretics
The saga of 'missing' Nobel prizes within nations of Islam


May 18, 2005!

PARIS -- Muslims have not come out of emptiness; they incorporate values of spirit and civilisations of that of Pharaohs, Hellenistic and Zoroaster; it is a combination of all these that helped a great era of renaissance that was nipped in the bud. The spirit of Greek science, literature and philosophy fell into the hands of Muslims. With the conquest of Persia, the treasure chest of knowledge of old twin civilisations -- Byzantines and the Sassanids -- had fallen in the hands of the Arab armies. Instead of burning them, they made these treasures the mainstay of their governance.

In the spring of 633 CE, a grandson of Khosrau called Yezdegerd, ascended the throne, and in that same year the first Arab squadrons made their first raids into Persian territory. It is believed that Greco-Rome is the origin of civilization, but it was the Iranian civilization that was much older than that of Rome and was at par with Greece in its richness, and that Iran made no less contribution to the historical and cultural progress of the entire world.

It was the Arabs' integration of cradles of eastern civilisations that spewed elite luminaries responsible for the enlightenment of an era. This from Saadi could not have come from intellectual vacuum of minds; it was the embodiment of thousand of years of rich culture with rationalist and logical Hellenistic thoughts combined with the liberty to seek new frontiers of knowledge that led Saadi to say: "The sons of Adam are limbs of one another having been created of one essence. When the calamity of time afflicts one limb, the other limbs cannot remain at rest."

Islam's vanished golden era cannot be treated in an academic vacuum. In a patent symptom of dismissive generalization, noted clerics make sweeping statements like "Muslims could regain their lost place with the promotion of book reading culture, as distance from knowledge caused downfall of the Muslims in the world."  

Everyone seems to mourn the lost glory; however the real excruciating causes of decline are rarely argued. Rationalism was an essential inclination amid the Muslim thinkers during the Golden Age of Islam; it was toleration of ideas in which the so-called golden age of Islam flourished. Thinkers then were more led by their own conscience than any provincial dogma, a belief system they might have inherited from their ancestors.

Decreed by the Koran to seek knowledge and enthused by the riches of ancient Greek knowledge, Muslims created a civilization that in the Middle Ages was the scientific centre of the world. Jews, Christians and Muslims all contributed in this flowering of knowledge and thinking, which lasted for at least 500 years and covered the region from Spain to Persia.One needs to look at the reasons why the entrenched clergy from the very beginning of Islam to present day has always frowned at any attempt of 'enlightened moderation."

Those who meditated science and logic came up with a lot of questions and those questions are more often than not nipped in the bud. Decline of the Islamic golden age was due to supremacy and ascendancy of dogma over rationalism -- for example, the lack of separation between faith and reason -- that is why the Muslim Arab world fell into scientific slumber just as the Christian world woke up. Internecine wars, infighting and murder of rationalism were the main causes for the decline of Islam.  It is often disputed why Muslims being 19.6% of the world's population, i.e. 2 billion, only have three Nobel laureates in Science and literature, whereas Jews being only 0.2% of the world's population, i.e. 14.1 million, have received 122 Nobel prizes in science, economics, medicine and literature.  

Maybe enlightened and freed minds from dogma had a lot to do with discerning new frontiers of science and technology; a closed mind's progress is arrested; limitations of surroundings inundated by puritanical doctrine kills independent investigation. Undoubtedly if Nobel Prize had existed 1400 years ago, Muslims would have scored very highly in many fields. Islam did give to science (790-850) al-Khwarizmi, (800- 860) Al-Jawhari, (805-873) al-Kindi, (870-950) al-Farabi, (920-980) al-Uqlidisi, (953-1029) Al-Karaji, (965-1039) al-Haitam, (970-1036) Mansur, (980-1037) Avicenna, (973-1048) al-Biruni, (1048-1122) Khayyam. 

It is most heart rending to see that Muslim Arabs who took over the introductory effort done by the Greeks and Hindus in algebra produced the ultimate algebraist al-Khowarizmi (9th century - his name is commemorated in the word "algorithm;" his major work was entitled "Al-jabr wa'lmugabalah" (restoration and balancing) and from the first word in this title we now have the word "algebra"), Ibn-Rushd (Averros), Ibn-Hayan (Geber), Ibn-Haytham (Al Hazen), and others, have had no prizes in science or medicine. From 735 to 1300 the field of literature, sciences and philosophy was definitely dominated by the regions under the influence of Islam.

It was this broad assortment of philosophers and thinkers that served as the canvass of medieval Islamic conquerors. Customarily, Islam encouraged science and learning because nomads of the Arab peninsula as conquerors were not bogged down with dogma; their minds were like fresh slates, liberated from dogma of their systems, the conquered reared a new breed of thinkers; Al-Razi, poet Al-Ma'arri surfaced as new rationalists.

A vacuum of knowledge or lack of free thought could not have produced so many in the age of darkness. It was the marriage of civilisations that made populace culturally and knowledge wise so rich. All these philosophers owed their past to rich Hellenistic-Zoroastrian and affluence of three monolithic religions. It was later infusion of this crossbred multifaceted knowledge into Western Europe that stimulated the 'Renaissance" and the scientific revolution.

Recent world events belie the image cast on Islam's rich intellectual history; this rich intellectual history credits its origins to intercourse of ideas between three great civilisations -- the Hellenistic, the Zoroastrians and the civilisation of collective religions. The invading desert Arabs, free from intellectual fixations and unspoiled with predetermined ideas, incorporated essential truths of the three monolithic religions of God, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. 

Impacts of the Prophet's Armies emanating from a barren land to rekindle a new thought were enormous, not just for Islam, but for Europe and the world. The conquerors emerging form the barren heartland of Rub-ul-khali had to confront the riches of the knowledge of the twin civilisations of the Byzantine and Sassanids who, as conquered, laid open to new conquerors.

The largely illiterate Muslim conquerors turned to the local intelligentsia to help them govern, in the process, they absorbed Greek learning; the West in those times had a slim account of Greek knowledge. The knowledge was later translated into Latin by Arabs who immersed themselves in Greek.

Hellenistic culture had been spread eastward by the armies of Alexander the Great so, in effect, it was an 'education jihad" -- a campaign among all the Muslim countries to strive for excellence in literacy and education in modern science. Dr. Mahathir, truly a visionary leader, highlights that the early Muslims were great scholars who excelled in math and the sciences and that today they must inculcate toleration and rationalism required for the seed of knowledge.

The Arabic language was synonymous with learning and science for 500 hundred years, a golden age that can count among its credits the precursors to modern universities, algebra, and the names of the stars and even the notion of science as an empirical inquiry. Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because there was within Islam a strong rationalist tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the Mutazilites. This tradition stressed human free will, strongly opposing the predestinarians who taught that everything was foreordained and that humans have no option but to surrender everything to Allah.

Under the Mutazilites 'enlightened moderation,' knowledge grew. These rationalistic customs confronted its reverse when in the twelfth century,Muslim conventional Puritanism reawakened that was led by Al-Ghazali who championed revelation over reason, predestination over free will. The Imam described mathematics and medicine as Fard-E-Kefaya; he decisively placed those as secondary to religious-ilm. It's ironical that with the kind of Muslim thinkers we had in the past, many of today's Muslim orthodox model themselves on perhaps Al-Ghazali, and none on any of the great Muslim rationalists such as Al-Raazi, Al Ma'ari, Omar Khayyam.

The philosophical ideas that al-Ghazali was attacking were the ideas of Avicenna and al-Farabi, some of which came from Aristotle while the majority came from Plato and Plotinus. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037), is one of the foremost philosophers of the golden age of Islamic tradition that also includes al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd. He is also known as al-Sheikh al-Rais (Leader among the wise men), a title that was given to him by his students. His philosophical works were one of the main targets of al-Ghazali's attack on philosophical influences in Islam.

In the west, he is also known as the "Prince of Physicians" for his famous medical text al-Qanun "Canon". In Latin translations, his works influenced many Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas. The spread of Hellenistic philosophy in the Muslim world would be first expounded on by the first Arabic philosopher al-Kindi (800-865). He wrote many works on Greek science and philosophy. He laid the foundation for others to follow in studying philosophical works. His main contribution was the firm conviction that Greek heritage contained important truths that Muslims could not afford to overlook. As a mathematician he realized the importance of Aristotelian Logic.

Al-Farabi's ideal rulers would be chosen for their intelligence and carefully educated in science, philosophy and religion. According to Al-Farabi, the best ruler for this Muslim state would be a "philosopher-king", a concept described in Plato's Republic.

One of the most important contributions of Farabi, beyond his political views and scientific philosophies, was to make the study of logic easier by dividing it into two categories - Takhayyul (idea) and Thubut (proof). He wrote several sociological books, including his famous work - Ara Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila (The Model City). His books on psychology and metaphysics were largely based on his own work. His interests in philosophy, science and politics were greatly influenced by his teachers and travel.

Al-Farabi's father was of Persian origin and was an army commander in the Turkish court. Al-Razi was perhaps the greatest freethinker in the whole of Islam, and the greatest physician of the Islamic world and one of the great physicians of all time. Al-Razi was the native of Rayy (near Tehran), where he studied mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and literature, and, perhaps, alchemy. Later, he went to Baghdad where he studied medicine.

Modern Nobel laureates within the world of Islam refer to Abul-'Alaa', Al-Ma'ari, Avicenna or Al-Farabi, Khayyam or Razi in their Nobel addresses; these rationalists of Islam are nearly forgotten in the maddarassas. The history of the philosophical debate that was started by al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd would continue at the hands of authors in the Islamic East in general, and in the Ottoman lands after the eclipse of the Muslim rule of Andalusia.

In fact the famed sultan, Mehmet II (a.k.a. fatih [conqueror] r.(1451-1481), ordered two of the empires' scholars to compile books to summarize the debate between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. Both of these works have been published one of which in a critical edition. This part of history needs yet to be written, but there are no takers yet. Orthodoxy in Islam rarely allows the treatise of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037), al-Kindi (800-865 and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to become the syllabus of mainstream thought process.

A talib rarely knows about the real heroes of Islam; only in a selective reverence we refer to Avicenna and Averroes, but their thinking is not part of the Islamic milieu. We own them as success of Islam but we down their thoughts. If Avicenna and Averroes's thinking were to be the dialogue within Islam, the sun of the golden era would have never set. We cannot cite Khayyam as an example of a great poet and completely forget the message he gave. We may disagree with him, but introduction of his thinking will help us to determine what pluralism is all about.

These thinkers of the golden era need to be revived and their books should form an integral part of our academia. Khayyam is described as an atheist, philosopher, and naturalist. The constant themes of Khayyam's poetry are the certainty of death, the pointlessness of asking unanswerable questions, the mysteriousness of the universe, and the necessity of living for and enjoying the present. This is clearly reflected in the following verses taken from Rubaiyat: "How much more of the mosque, of prayer and fasting? Better go drunk and begging round the taverns. Khayyam, drink wine, for soon this clay of yours will make a cup, bowl, one day a jar."

Professor Ahmed H. Zewail, the only Arab to ever win a Nobel prize for science and, since the death of the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, the only one among the 1.2 billion Muslims with that honor, quoted Dr. Taha Hussein in his Nobel acceptance speech and said: "The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievements." Unfortunately the embryonic renaissance in the late 700's to 1300 of Islam was not extinguished by the satisfaction of its scientist's queries, rather it was killed on the altar of dogma.

Abdus Salam once wrote: "The Holy Quran enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah's created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart." Sad and tragic is the reality that this scion of Pakistan was not allowed to be buried in his homeland. His has been one of the most touching speeches; an orphaned son of a nation thanked the luminaries on behalf of a nation who had disowned him.

'... I thank the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Academy of Sciences for the great honor and the courtesies extended to us, including the courtesy to me of being addressed in my language Urdu. Pakistan is deeply indebted to you for this. The creation of Physics is the shared heritage of all mankind. East and West, North and South have equally participated in it. In the Holy Book of Islam, Allah says: 'Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure. Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, Comes back to thee dazzled, aweary.'"

On the global stage, it is these heretical scientists disowned by us who have earned the greatest respect for Islam and not the orthodox clergy. Historically, we have distorted our real heroes into heretics, and the witch-hunt still continues. Dr.Abdus Salam is not the only one treated as a heretic, we have the modern rationalist, Naguib Mahfouz -- Nobel laureate in literature. Citation of his work, 'Awlad Haratina,' in the Swedish Academy's declaration of award of the Nobel Prize to Mahfouz in 1988 greatly angered the Islamicists. His novel appeared in English under the title, 'The Children of Gebelawi."

Shortly after the eruption of the Rushdie affair, the leading fundamentalist, Omar Abd al-Rahman -- currently imprisoned in the US for his role in the attack on the World Trade Centre -- declared that if they had killed Mahfouz in 1959 for writing 'The Children of Our Alley,' Rushdie would never have dared write his novel. This was taken as a fresh fatwa to kill Mahfouz. In 1994 an attempt on his life failed, although the assassin plunged a dagger into his neck, leaving him paralysed in his right arm.

The crime of association of present day heroes of Islam with their past intellectual ancestors have marginalised them. It was same Mahfouz who presented the case of his twin civilisations so adequately in the august forum of 'Swedish academy of sciences' and quoted great Muslim rationalist poet Abul-'Alaa' Al-Ma'ari, who was a supreme rationalist and asserted everywhere 'the rights of reason against the claims of custom, tradition and authority."

Mahfouz said:

"Permit me, to present myself in as objective a manner as is humanly possible. I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one. One day the great Pyramid will disappear too. But Truth and Justice will remain for as long as Mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience.

I will, instead, introduce that civilization in a moving dramatic situation summarizing one of its most conspicuous traits: In one victorious battle against Byzantium it has given back its prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. This is a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge, even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded a fruit of a pagan civilization.

It was my fate, ladies and gentlemen, to be born in the lap of these two civilizations, and to absorb their milk, to feed on their literature and art. The truth of the matter is that Evil is a loud and boisterous debaucherer, and that Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases. Our great poet Abul-'Alaa' Al-Ma'ari was right when he said: "A grief at the hour of death is more than a hundred-fold Joy at the hour of birth."Nearly a century later after Al Ghazali, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) made desperate efforts to resist the trend by refuting al-Ghazali's Tahafut in his Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) and Fasl al-maqal (The Decisive Treatise), but he could not stop it. Islam choked in the vice-like grip of orthodoxy. No longer, as during the reign of the dynamic caliph al-Mamun and the great Haroon al-Rashid, would Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars gather and work together in the royal courts. It was the end of tolerance, intellect, and science in the Muslim world.

The last great Muslim thinker, Abd-al Rahman ibn Khaldun, belonged to the fourteenth century." The Ashariyya led by Ghazali and Rumi rejected the rationalists Mutazilis whom, in theirview, had forsaken religion and had detracted from God and His revelation. In absence of Ashariyya, our history might have evolved differently. When Ibn Khaldun in his 'Introduction in Absence' (Mogadameh) mentioned that Africans are black because of geographical and environmental conditions, it was the Ashariyya who ended such scientific observations by declaring people are black because God created them as such. When Physicians tried to find the connection between the brain and hand's movements, it was Ghazali who mocked scientific inquiry and stated 'hands move because God wants them to move" ("Alchemy of Happiness", Kimiyaya Saadat).

What is more important is to know what happened to the Muslim world, why did it set off into a self-destructive dichotomy leading to a coiled decline from 14th century onward that it was and is unable to resolve. From a genetic point of view, Muslim is no different from anyone else. Historically, of course, Arabs and Muslims in Spain and Arabia were at the peak of their civilization when so-called Christian Europe was in the Dark Ages. No doubt, without the Arab scholarly works and translations from Greek philosophy to their original work in astronomy, European development might not have taken place for another 500 years.

Later it was Arab translations of the Greek manuscripts into Latin interlaced with rich interpretations of 5,000-year-old civilisation that bred philosophers like the 10th and 11th centuries of great thinkers, who strode the East: Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen; (a physicist, b. 965, Iraq), Abu Rayham Muhammad al-Biruni; al-Biruni (astronomer, mathematician and geographer,b. 973), and Abu Ali al-Hussein Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna (also known as Avicenna, a physician and philosopher b. 981), Al-Razi, (865-925), Al-Haytham al-Sufi (astronomer, 903-986), poet Umar Khayyam (1048-1131), poet Al-Ma'arri (973-1058 C.E.)

When Prophet's Armies emerged from Arabian isthmus, seizing territory from Spain to Persia, they took possession of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes, and other Greek thinkers. One of the prime reasons attributed to Muslims' intellectual enhancement throughout the middle ages is the considerable contact of Greek rationalistic Philosophy on Muslim intellectuals. Scholars say science found such goodwill in medieval Islam for numerous reasons. Part of the charisma was based on experience of the unity of creation that was the essential meaning of Islam. Moreover as a result of the influence of Greek philosophy, the vast majority of the Muslim intellectuals of the middle Ages preferred reason over faith as a guiding philosophy. 

It is this interaction with our rich past, which makes our present day heroes associate themselves with the rationalists of the past. Shirin Ebadi in Iran is another Nobel laureate suffering at the hands of the radicals. Shirin Abadi, Islam's most famous daughter and a Nobel Prize winner in her speech to accept the prize referred to her rich cultural integration with Islam. She said,

"Allow me to say a little about my country, region, culture and faith. I am an Iranian. A descendent of Cyrus The Great. The Charter of Cyrus the Great is one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights. I am a Muslim. In the Koran the Prophet of Islam has been cited as saying: "Thou shalt believe in thine faith and I in my religion". That same divine book sees the mission of all prophets as that of inviting all human beings to uphold justice. Since the advent of Islam, too, Iran's civilization and culture has become imbued and infused with humanitarianism, respect for the life, belief and faith of others, propagation of tolerance and compromise and avoidance of violence, bloodshed and war. The luminaries of Iranian literature, in particular our Gnostic literature, from Hafiz, Mowlavi [better known in the West as Rumi] and Attar to Saadi, Sanaei, Naser Khosrow and Nezami, are emissaries of this humanitarian culture."Prof. Ahmad Zewail's use of the fast laser technique can be likened to Galilei's use of his telescope, which he directed towards everything that lit up the vault of heaven. Zewail tried his femtosecond laser on literally everything that moved in the world of molecules. He turned his telescope towards the frontiers of science. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because he was the first to conduct experiments that clearly show the decisive moments in the life of a molecule -- the breaking and formation of chemical bonds. He has been able to see the reality behind Arrhenius' theory. His acceptance speech like Ebadi's referred to his richness of twin civilisations that of Islam and Egyptian.

"Let me begin with a reflection on a personal story, that of a voyage through time. The medal I received from his Majesty this evening was designed by Erik Lindberg in 1902 to represent Nature in the form of the Goddess Isis - or eesis - the Egyptian Goddess of Motherhood. She emerges from the clouds, holding a cornucopia in her arms and the veil which covers her cold and austere face is held up by the Genius of Science. Indeed, it is the genius of science which pushed forward the race against time, from the beginning of astronomical calendars six millennia ago in the land of Isis to the femtosecond regime honoured tonight for the ultimate achievement in the microcosmos. I began life and education in the same Land of Isis, Egypt, made the scientific unveiling in America, and tonight, I receive this honor in Sweden, with a Nobel Medal which takes me right back to the beginning. This internationalization by the Genius of Science is precisely what Mr. Nobel wished for more than a century ago."

Our modern day laureates depict equally a sense of great connectivity to the rich past and that has to become a standard. Most likely the Islamic Renaissance that was about to be born 1000 years ago did not. We shall never know the extent of the harm that some celebrated religious zealots caused to mankind and civilization. We are once again at the crossroads; the only ways forward is to connect with the world and help make ours a true charitable society, the only way prosperity of mind can be ensured is through pluralism of ideas.

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