Tuesday, April 27, 2010

view: Religious and scientific truths -Ishtiaq Ahmed 

 What we are confronting in Pakistan and the Muslim world in general is a clash 
between scientific knowledge and religious quackery. The Christian West has had 
its share of scientists who were ostracised, banished or even executed for 
challenging the Creation theory

An Iranian cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, has proclaimed a fatwa (ruling) 
that earthquakes are caused by women dressing immodestly. Why the earth should 
feel so excited and out of control by such provocation instead of men such as 
the high-level Shia cleric is a question that comes to mind rather immediately. 
However, Kazem Sedighi informs us that it is because God Almighty is very angry 
and hence the earthquake. Not very long ago, a terrible earthquake hit Iran. It 
claimed thousands of lives. As far as I know, the chador covering the whole 
body is a mandatory dress in the paradise of the ayatollahs, so why were pious 
Iranian men and women and indeed thousands of children annihilated in that 

I remember when a devastating earthquake hit northern Pakistan, especially Azad 
Kashmir, similar fatwas were issued by some Pakistani clerics, though on that 
occasion it was more a general list of crimes rather than just women dressing 
immodestly. It was the general decline of moral standards of Muslims. The 
argument was that since Pakistanis do not adhere to true Islam, God has 
expressed His displeasure by ordering an earthquake to remind misguided Muslims 
that He is the Sovereign of the whole universe and His will must be obeyed.

On that occasion, I wrote an op-ed in which I pointed out that among the 
thousands who perished under falling debris were several hundred children of 
very tender age who were attending a Quran school. Just when the earthquake 
struck their school, they were reciting the sacred scriptures. So, how could 
one make sense of such indiscriminate punishment when both those who follow the 
Almighty's will and those who did not became targets of divine wrath? Similar 
articles were written by other colleagues. 

Science's failure to advance knowledge about earthquakes, volcanic outbursts 
and other natural calamities is, of course, partly the result of the fact that 
funding for research on trips to the Moon, Mars and beyond are easier to get 
than for examining things down below unless it is oil that brings great 
profits. While the conquest of space is undoubtedly very exciting and 
exploration in outer space is part of the prestige building endeavours of 
modern states - China and India being the most recent to take to it - what goes 
on inside the belly of the earth does not provide the same excitement. So, 
earthquakes will be able to wreck lives for quite some time, but I am sure one 
day it would be possible to predict them in good time so that the damage to 
humankind can be reduced to the minimum. 

I have a feeling that once the scientists do acquire greater predictive ability 
about earthquakes, the clerics will shift their focus on some other issue. 
Mullahs and priests of other religions do not any longer open their mouth on 
plague, smallpox and other such epidemics, which once ravaged millions of lives 
because either these 'divine curses' have been eradicated, for example 
smallpox, or their ability to harm has been severely limited, as in the case of 
plague. The last time one heard of plague was somewhere in Surat, India, and 
that too in areas where the poorest of the people live - usually Dalits and 

What we are confronting in Pakistan and the Muslim world in general is a clash 
between scientific knowledge and religious quackery. The Christian West has had 
its share of scientists who were ostracised, banished or even executed for 
challenging with different theories and discoveries the Creation theory of the 
origins and structure of the universe. In our wonderful neighbour, India, the 
BJP government's minister for science and technology, Shri Murli Manohar Joshi, 
wanted to introduce astrology and related pseudo-sciences such as numerology 
and palmistry as subjects that could be read at the university level. I am not 
sure if such a syllabus ever got approved and implemented. 

In Pakistan, we have been busy distorting history with such intensity that 
Pakistan's premier historian, the late KK Aziz, had to write a book carrying a 
bloody true title, The Murder of History. That explains why the scope and 
leisure to attack other subjects with equal vigour has been suspended thus far. 
As far as I know, the teaching of chemistry has been the casualty of a rather 
novel rhetorical formula. I am told that students are supposed to say that 
Allah has ordained that two particles of hydrogen and one particle of oxygen 
will miraculously become water.

In short, the problem is more serious than some ayatollah propounding a crazy 
theory about earthquakes. Creationism is upheld as true knowledge in some parts 
of the US and Darwin's explanation of the origin of species is condemned as 
heresy, but as far as I know, all the Nobel prizes for physics and chemistry 
have thus far gone to people who in their public life do not mix their 
religious beliefs with their professional responsibilities.

Professor Abdus Salam was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for his 
outstanding erudition in mathematics and not because he was a highly religious 
person in his private life. In Pakistan, his Ahmedi faith was considered more 
significant than his achievements as a scientist. Therefore, he never received 
the respect and admiration he deserved. In our scheme of things, true knowledge 
comes only through true faith. That fundamental fallacy has wreaked havoc upon 
the intellectual milieu of our society. 

In ontological and epistemological terms, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi's 
explanation of why earthquakes take place falls into the category of claims 
that are an insult to the contemporary standards and methods of scientific 
inquiry, whether the study object belongs to the natural sciences or social 
sciences and history.

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian 
Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University 
of Singapore. He is also Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm 
University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he 
is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached 

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