Salam: We need more than just eulogies

NO INDIVIDUAL has had a greater impact on science in Pakistan than Abdus Salam. The only Pakistani winner of the physics Nobel Prize, he placed our country on the scientific map of the world, inspired countless young people to opt for scientific careers, and helped establish many of the countrys largest scientific institutions. This, of course, is in addition to his many important contributions in physics as well as the establishment of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, which now bears his name.

Abdus Salams humble origins make this yet more extraordinary. “There was no electricity in the town of Jhang in those days, so I would fill the oil in the lantern as bhaijan (elder brother) studied for his matriculation exams”, mused his brother Chaudhry Abdul Hamid, now also dead. The studious young Salam saw an electric light for the first time when he left to study in Lahore. It goes to the credit of his high school teachers who, though outpaced by him, chose not the path of jealous reaction but, instead, recognised and respected the young boys talent for physics and mathematics. Winning a scholarship enabled him to proceed to England.

In 1949 Salam earned a first-class degree in physics from Cambridge University in just one year. Then in 1950 he solved an important problem in renormalisation theory, becoming a minor celebrity. In 1951 he returned to Government College, Lahore, but found to his disappointment that research was not encouraged. Without a library or colleagues to talk to, he reluctantly went back to Britain in 1954.

By the early 1960s, Salam was already among the worlds top authorities in particle physics. At 31, he was the youngest ever professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London. Salam soon pushed Imperial towards the very forefront of research. Under his prodding, group theory was applied for the first time to classify existing particles and predict new ones. One of his students, Yuval Neeman, was the co-discoverer of “the eight-fold way” of classifying baryons, with Murray Gell-Mann. Another, Ronald Shaw, discovered the non-Abelian gauge theory independently of C. N. Yang and Robert Mills. Salams own research ranged far and wide – electroweak unification, proton decay, supersymmetry, and beyond.

Until a neurological motor disease put an end to his life in 1996, Salam was relentlessly driven by three passions: an urge to excel in physics, the desire to put Pakistan on the high road to prosperity through science, and a missionary zeal to revive the sciences in Islam.

Salam certainly achieved the first – his prizes and awards are many. Apart from the 1979 Nobel Prize, he holds, among others, the Adams Prize (1958) from Cambridge University, Atoms for Peace Prize (1968), the Einstein Medal (1979) and the Peace Medal (1981). Salam received honorary degrees from over 40 universities worldwide and a Knighthood in 1989 for his services to British science. There is little doubt that Salam belongs to the pantheon of the all-time greats: Al-Khwarizmi, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Ibn-al-Haytham (who he particularly admired), and other Arab and Persian scholars.

But Pakistan, his own country, came to see him differently. In earlier years, Salam had been hugely influential in the political establishment. Seen as a kind of cultural amphibian equally at home in Pakistan and in scientific circles of the West, Salam became the chief scientific adviser to the President. He labored hard to set Pakistan on the road of high science. But 1974 marked the turning point when, by a decision of Pakistans national assembly, the Ahmediyyas were declared heretical. Salam, a strong believer, resigned his official position.

Salam failed to bring science back to Islam. But it was not for lack of trying. The Islamic Science Foundation, a grand scheme for scientific advancement with an endowment of $1 billion collected from oil-rich countries, came to nought after Salam was banned from ever setting foot in Saudi Arabia. Kuwait and Iran did give some money for supporting their scientists at the ICTP, but the amounts were niggardly. Promises by kings, princes, and emirs remained promises. Salams efforts contributed towards creating some of the score or so organisations whose raison detre was to accelerate science and technology in Muslim countries. But these organisations actually provide nothing but cushy jobs for those who sit at their helms; they are nothing on the todays scientific landscape.

Why has science vanished from Muslim lands today? Salam concluded that “Science only prospers provided there are sufficient practitioners to constitute a community which can work with serenity, with fullest support in terms of the necessary experimental and library infrastructure, and with the ability to criticize openly each others work. These conditions are not satisfied in contemporary Islam.”

Many are intrigued by the fact that a strong believer was also a very good scientist, something that is highly unusual today. So did Salam perceive faith and religion to be inextricably intertwined? Or did he see science as a secular activity which could comfortably go about its own merry way? Considerable confusion exists on this matter among his admirers and co-religionists. They wishfully look towards Salams writings and speeches, reading into them their own beliefs, prejudices, and desires. Also confusing is the fact that Salam, who was a believer not just by birth but also by conviction, often quoted profusely from the Holy Book in addressing lay audiences and sometimes used religious symbolism in his descriptions of scientific concepts and discoveries.

Sometime in 1988 or 1989, during a conversation, I picked up the courage to discuss this issue with him. I said his frequent allusions during public lectures to mystical experiences had left a widespread impression that he favored a fusion of religion with science. Was that what he actually believed? No, he said. I urged him to clarify his position, and suggested an opportunity.

Over the General Zia-ul-Haq years, I had written a book Islam and Science -Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality which emphasised the wholly secular character of modern science. It detailed absurdities of the so-called new “Islamic Science”, and made the case that the long and glorious period of Muslim science was ultimately terminated by the rise of an inflexible religious orthodoxy. Would Professor Salam write a preface to this book and comment upon a viewpoint that was apparently so different from his? What was the relevance of his belief in wahdat-ul-wajood (which he claimed had inspired him towards unification) given that Steven Weinberg was the co-discoverer of the same Electroweak Unification theory? Weinberg, although born a Jew, had rejected the notion of God from the time he was 10 years old.

I presumed that Prof. Salam would react against many parts of my book, although perhaps not the whole but his response left me pleasantly shocked. “I do not disagree with anything that Dr. Hoodbhoy has written in this book”, he wrote in the preface, and then went on to state in the clearest and most unequivocal terms the irrelevance of religious beliefs to scientific discovery: ” Dr. Hoodbhoy quotes Steven Weinbergs and my research and says that it made no basic difference to our work whether I was an “avowed believer and Weinberg an avowed atheist”. I can confirm that he is right. We were both “geographically and ideologically remote from each other” when we conceived the same theory of physics for unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces. If there was any bias towards the unification paradigm in my thinking, it was unconsciously motivated by my background as a Muslim.”

Certainly, Salams integrity and intelligence did not permit his beliefs, or matters of personal preference and his ego, to determine the outcome of his scientific work. As a co-creator of Electroweak Unification he never claimed that this theory was the last word; he spent much of his years after 1968 seeking routes for a more complete vision of physics. On the other hand, his religious beliefs and cultural background deeply influenced the course of his life. These became more important as he grew older. Sometime in the 80s he began signing himself as “Mohammed Abdus Salam”. At the one level he sought peace, tranquillity, and inspiration, in contemplation and prayer. He became persuaded that the Holy Quran demands man to seek scientific truth, and that man has been uniquely empowered to solve the deep mysteries of the universe. At another level, he became an intrepid fighter for causes held even by those individuals who would have nothing to do with him.

Intensely proud of the Muslim contributions to science and civilisation, and upset at how they are usually forgotten or side-lined, Salam would gently but eloquently admonish Western audiences for their ignorance. Significantly, he began his Nobel Prize speech about the travel of the Michael the Scot to Muslim Spain in the search for knowledge, emphasizing that in those days the lands of Islam were the sole repositories of learning. Before Muslim audiences he would make passionate exhortations that Muslims should re-enter the world of science and technology before they became utterly marginalized. Nothing hurt him more than the stony barrenness of the intellect in Islamic countries today. He was deeply mortified, he recalled, when a Nobel Prize winner in physics said to him: “Salam, do you really think we have an obligation to succour, aid, and keep alive those nations who have never created or added an iota to mans stock of knowledge?”

Salam died on the 20th of November 1996. He was buried, according to his request, in Pakistan. No minister or high government official attended his funeral. For the Islamic world, deep in medieval slumber, it was a non-event. By court order the word “Muslim” was scratched off his gravestone.

Eulogizing Abdus Salam from time to time is, of course, better than forgetting him. But it is not enough. Instead, what we need is a cultural attitude that appreciates the scientific ability and accomplishment of even those individuals whose religious or political beliefs are different from that of the rest. As a reading of history shows, the period of Muslim greatness in science between the 9th and 13th centuries owed precisely to this attitude. Conversely, when earlier attitudes were replaced by closed-mindedness, science disappeared from Muslim lands.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, Zohra and Z.Z.Ahmed are Distinguished Professors of Physics and Mathematics, Forman Christian College-University, Lahore.

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