Our Beacon Forum

God's anger
Date: Tuesday, 27 April 2010, 8:04 pm

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 earthquake?

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 others.

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 at isasia@nus.edu.sg