Wars And Politics
11 October, 2004
the morning of the first Gulf War (1991), having just heard the news
of the US attack on Baghdad, I walked into my office in the physics
department in a state of numbness and depression. Mass death and devastation
would surely follow. I was dismayed, but not surprised, to discover
my PhD student, a militant activist of the Jamaat-i-Islami's student
wing in Islamabad, in a state of euphoria. Islam's victory, he said,
is inevitable because God is on our side and the Americans cannot survive
without alcohol and women. He reasoned that neither would be available
in Iraq, and happily concluded that the Americans were doomed. Then
he reverentially closed his eyes and thrice repeated "Inshallah"
(if Allah so wills). Two weeks later, after the rout of Saddam's army
and 70,000 dead Iraqis, I reminded him of his predictions. He stumbled
an explanation but soon gave up. Years later, soon after earning a reasonably
good doctorate in quantum field theory and elementary particles, he
quit academia and put his considerable physics skills to use in a very
different direction. Today he heads a department that deals with missile
guidance systems in a defense organization that makes nuclear weapons
and precision missiles.
Belief in miracles,
and that ones' prayers can persuade divine intervention in matters of
the physical world, is an integral part of most cultures and beliefs.
In Pakistan today - where the bulk of the population has been through
the Islamized education initiated by General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980's
- supernatural intervention is widely held responsible for natural calamities
and diseases, car accidents and plane crashes, acquiring or losing personal
wealth, success or failure in examinations, or determining matters of
love and matrimony. In Pakistan no aircraft - whether of Pakistan International
Airlines or a private carrier registered in Pakistan - can take off
until appropriate prayers are recited. Wars certainly cannot be won
without Allah's help, but He has also been given the task of winning
cricket matches for Pakistan.
The last mentioned
is serious business, lest anyone think otherwise. And it makes the Almighty's
job a particularly difficult one whenever there are Muslims playing
on the other sides' team. Hafizur Rahman, an astute observer of Pakistani
cricket, recalls that when the Pakistan team won a test match in South
Africa some years ago, to the amazement of the spectators, all team
members prostrated themselves on the cricket ground to thank Allah.
But this was a minor event compared to the national frenzy induced by
the World Cup in Australia; the erstwhile prime minister, Benazir Bhutto,
called upon the entire nation to pray for a final win. Even the clergy,
who normally condemn cricket as frivolous entertainment, joined in the
hysteria. When Pakistan lost the match, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who
became prime minister in 2004, had an interesting explanation. In his
view, "the PTV (Pakistan Television) song that boasted that we
would win, did not contain the word Inshallah. That is why we lost."
Drought may not
be as important a matter as cricket, but last week the government of
Pakistan issued a warning - the rivers are running dry, water reservoirs
are nearing the danger mark, and hydro-electricity production may soon
be discontinued. Even as I type this paragraph on a Friday afternoon,
millions of the faithful in mosques across Pakistan are obeying the
government's call for 'namaz-i-istisqa' (prayers for rain). Next year
- instead of building dams, lining canals, embarking on water conservancy
strategies, or doing something to control Pakistan's exploding population
- the government will presumably put the pressure on God again by summoning
Will It Rain If
The history of myths
and miracles in pre-Reformation Christianity, of their growth in earlier
phases, and their decline under Renaissance thinking, is an extremely
interesting and relevant subject for those who wish to understand the
state of science and society in Muslim countries today. The fundamental
question then was, and remains today, the following: does God suspend
the laws of physics in response to the actions of human beings (in which
case miracles can happen)? Or has God turned over the day-to-day matters
of running the universe to the laws of physics that he put into place
at the beginning (in this case miracles cannot happen)?
Following the lead
of European Renaissance thinkers, Muslim reformers of the 19th century,
particularly Syed Ahmad Khan, argued that miracles - as commonly understood
- cannot and do not happen. As a religious scholar who wrote a tafseer
(interpretation) of the Qur'an, Syed Ahmad Khan insisted that the miracles
mentioned in the Qur'an must be understood in broad allegorical terms
rather than literally. Following the Mutazillite tradition of early
Islam he, together with various 19th century Arab modernists, insisted
on an interpretation of the Qur'an that was in conformity with the observed
truths of science, thereby doing away with such commonly held beliefs
as the Noah's Great Flood and Adam's descent from heaven. It was a risky
proposition that brought them closer to modern scientific thought, on
the one hand, and severe condemnation from the orthodox of those times.
But those 19th century battles appear to be forgotten today. Looking
at these old writings, one wonders how those Muslim thinkers dared to
engage so boldly in such controversial matters. But they did, and today
we dare not. This is an indication of the profound philosophical and
intellectual regression of the Muslim world over the last two centuries.
My discussion in
a recent seminar in Lahore of the history of miracles, cause-and-effect
in ancient Islam (there was greater acceptance then than today!), and
description of rainfall as a physical process that cannot be influenced
by prayer, drew an angry reaction from a professor at an elite university.
Subsequently, an email was circulated to the entire student body and
beyond, an excerpt of which is reproduced below:
The fact that rainfall
sometimes is caused in response to prayers is a matter of human experience.
Although I cannot narrate an incident directly, I know [this] from the
observations of people who would not exaggerate.. . The problem is that
Dr Hoodbhoy has narrowed down his mind to be influenced by only those
facts that could be explained by the cause-and-effect relationship.
That's a classic example of academic prejudice.. Our world is not running
on the principle of a causal relationship. It is running the way it
is being run by its Master. Man has discovered that, generally speaking,
the physical phenomena of our world follow the principle of cause-and-effect.
However, that may not always happen, because the One who is running
it has never committed Himself to stick to that principle.
I responded with
the following points:
· Prof. X
admits that he has never personally witnessed rain fall in consequence
to prayers, but confidently states that this is 'a matter of human experience'
because he thinks some others have seen unusual things happen. Well,
there are people who are willing to swear on oath that they have seen
Elvis's ghost. Others claim that they have seen UFOs, horned beasts,
apparitions, the dead arise, etc. Without disputing that some of these
people might be sincere and honest, I must emphasise that science cannot
agree to this methodology. There is no limit to the power of people's
imagination. Unless these mysterious events are recorded on camera,
we cannot accept them as factual occurrences.
· Rain is
a physical process (evaporation, cloud formation, nucleation, condensation).
It is complicated, because the atmospheric motion of gases needs many
variables for a proper description. However, it obeys exactly the same
physical laws as deduced by looking at gases in a cylinder, falling
bodies, and so forth. Personally I would be most interested to know
whether prayers can also cause the reversal of much simpler kinds of
physical processes. For example, can a stone be made to fall upward
instead of downward? Or can heat be made to flow from a cold body to
a hot body by appropriate spiritual prompting? If prayers can cause
rain to fall from a blue sky, then all physics and all science deserves
to be trashed.
· I am afraid
that the track record for Prof. X's point of view on rain is not very
good. Saudi Arabia remains a desert in spite of its evident holiness,
and the poor peasants of Sind have a terrible time with drought in spite
of their simplicity and piety. Geography, not earnestness of prayer,
appears to be the determining factor.
in the cause-and-effect relationship is indeed the very foundation of
science and, as a scientist, I fully stand by it. Press the letter 'T'
on your keyboard and the same letter appears on the screen; step on
the accelerator and your car accelerates; jump out of a window and you
get hurt; put your hand on a stove and you get burnt. Those who doubt
cause-and-effect do so at great personal peril.
· Prof. X
is correct in saying that many different people (not just Muslims alone)
believe they can influence physical events through persuading a divine
authority. Indeed, in the specific context of rain-making, we have several
examples. Red Indians had their very elaborate dances to please the
Rain God; people of the African bush tribes beat drums and chant; and
orthodox Hindus plead with Ram through spectacular 'yagas' with hundreds
of thousands of the faithful. Their methods seem a little odd to me,
but I wonder if Prof. X wishes to accord them respect and legitimacy.
Why Science Does
beliefs, together with reliance on miracles and superstitions, have
acted as a brake on social progress and often rendered peoples vulnerable
to the depredations of science-based imperialism. Muslims have been
the worst sufferers.
Suffocated by Western
colonizers on the one hand, and the weight of tradition on the other,
19th century Muslim modernizers across the Muslim world sought new ways
to revive their societies. Reconciling Islamic theology with science
was an important challenge because, for these pioneering individuals,
science was the key instrument for promoting rational thinking on political
and social matters. Mohammed Abduh, Rashid Rida, Jamaluddin Afghani,
Syed Ameer Ali, Syed Ahmad Khan, and other intellectuals, sought to
deal with issues such as polygamy and purdah in Islam, the question
of slavery, the permissibility of interest, etc. Their success - limited
as it was - was important in eventually creating a large Muslim elite
that broke with traditional norms and forms of social behaviour.
But today Islam
is once again regressing into pre-scientific thinking and behaviour
- thousands of websites on science and Islam promote the most egregious
examples of scientific crackpotism. But Muslims are not alone. A similar
regression is evident on a global scale with anti-scientific thinking
neatly dovetailing with, and providing justification for, aggressive
forms of social and political behaviour.
is starkly evident in George Bush's America which promotes Creationism
and Christian notions of the human foetus. According to the National
Science Foundation's biennial report (April 2002) on the state of science
understanding: 30% of adult Americans believe that UFOs are space vehicles
from other civilizations; 60% believe in ESP; 40% think that astrology
is scientific; 32% believe in lucky numbers; 70% accept magnetic therapy
as scientific; and 88% accept alternative medicine. This vast base of
ignorance allows for the rise of American neoconservatism and the blueprint
for the New American Century; preparations for Armageddon; and for General
Boykin in Somalia to say "my God is bigger than theirs".
In India, superstitious
beliefs were actively cultivated by the BJP and its allies. These included
the creation of astrology departments, promotion of "Vedic"
mathematics and cosmology, and a revamping of the school curricula.
Mass hysteria - promoted by orthodox Hindus - accompanied the sighting
of the "Monkey Man", followed by Muhnochwa the "Face-Scratcher",
and then the elephant-like Lord Ganesh's alleged drinking of milk. Charged
with the notion of Hindu superiority, and of wild notions that Hindu
deities had been born under certain mosques, Hindutva forces organized
the razing of mosques and tombs, and massacred Muslims and Christians.
In Israel, orthodox
Jews have been the pillars of a state that is built on the notion of
religious exclusion. Israel's drive for total military superiority,
and a strong tradition of Jewish secularism, have so far kept the orthodox
at bay. But it is unclear whether this can persist indefinitely. For
example, certain American cattle tycoons have for years been working
with Israeli counterparts to try and breed a pure red heifer in Israel,
which, by their interpretation of chapter 19 of the Book of Numbers,
will signal the coming of the building of the Third Temple. If they
were to succeed, it could intensify the already strong movement within
Israel to rebuild the Temple, the event of which would ignite the Middle
East, as any new Temple must be built on the Temple Mount current home
of the Dome of The Rock, a Muslim holy site.
Zealots of all persuasions
- Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Jewish - welcome attacks on science
and reason. Social constructivists, postmodernists, and even some feminists,
have unwittingly given them yet more ammunition by inventing specious
arguments. Improvement of the human condition demands a return to critical
reasoning and scientific analysis, a rejection of cultural relativism,
and willingness to accept still-evolving universal norms of ethics and
is professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.
He may be contacted on email@example.com