On the Shoulders of Giants
Issue 56 May 2009
The Qur’an states, ‘Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for people of understanding’ (3:190). We are continuously invited to pursue knowledge, to think and use reason – these are an essential part of Muslim spirituality. It is a scientist’s profession to do exactly this and it is a privilege to profile six extraordinary Muslim scientists working at the forefront of science in the West, in the fields of geology, physics, astrophysics, philosophy of science, biotechnology and computer science.
The incredible achievements of past Muslim scientists like Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) and Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Sina (Avicenna) came and went with the golden era of Islamic civilisation itself. The great scientific achievements of the past remain a monument to Islamic values and thought. However, the past bears little resemblance to the state of science and technology in Muslim countries today, 67% of whom are developing and spend less than 1% of their overall wealth on research and development.
Although there are challenges ahead for much of the Muslim world, those seeking knowledge at the forefront of science in the West play a vital role in the development of knowledge for future generations. These scientists embody Qur’anic principles whilst bridging the gap between cultures, in a society that often sees Islam as anti-intellectual. The Muslim woman scientist has the added task of confronting prejudice concerning gender roles in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies, which makes her presence, determination and achievements in science all the more inspiring.
Muslim scholars differ regarding modern science and Islam; some seek scientific knowledge from the Qur’an, whilst others wish to keep science and religion entirely separate. Although the Qur’an does not contradict the discoveries of modern science, it is clear that science follows from the message to seek knowledge, rather than to seek scientific knowledge within the message. It is the lived reality of these scientists that demonstrates how science and faith practically relate, which by their accounts is complimentary.
It is true that although modern science is a marvel we are confronted by the serious ethical dilemmas and possible applications of its technology. Thus the values and worldview of faith are integral to the work of a Muslim scientist, informing ethical conduct towards nature and humanity, whilst entreating a sense of awe and humility at God’s creation.
In the same way that Muslim scientists’ research was absorbed and elaborated by Christian Europe, perhaps modern Muslim scientists will act as a bridge between West and East, transferring knowledge and technology to the ummah for reinterpretation within an Islamic worldview. It is certainly a creative and dynamic time to be a Modern Muslim Scientist.
Katie Turnbull is the External Communication Officer for the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmunds College, Cambridge. www.faraday-institute.org
Dr Farouk El-Baz
Dr Farouk El-Baz worked for NASA’s Apollo Program between 1967 and 1972. He was also Chairman of Astronaut Training for the Apollo Photographic Team. His great contributions to the program are immortalised in the film Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which a shuttle pod carried aboard the Starship Enterprise is called ‘El-Baz’. He serves as President of the Arab Society for Desert Research and is currently Research Professor and Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, USA.
“I worked as a geologist at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC to conduct systems engineering in support of the Apollo Program. I had never studied the Moon before, and had to teach myself to communicate with geologists six years more experienced with the program. This enabled me to become heavily involved in the selection of landing sites for the lunar missions.
Our success came down to teamwork and the desire for excellence (ihsan). We knew that our work had enormous historic significance; it was to achieve a long held dream of mankind: reaching the Moon,
our neighbour in the sky, and finding out what it was made of.
Faith was very much a part of my choice to be a scientist. My father was a scholar of Islam at Al Azhar University in Cairo and he instilled in all his nine children that faith provides strength of character and moral courage. I have been really inspired by Muslim astronomers and thinkers like Abulfeda and Al-Battani, but also leaders who encouraged investigation and knowledge. I read about a king called Necho in ancient Egypt who sent a General on a ship from the Red Sea and asked if he could circle the earth or not. The journey in 1750 BCE took three years and the ship returned to Egypt from the Mediterranean Sea. I recommended that Necho be used to name a lunar crater.
My current work at Boston University entails the analysis of satellite images of the Earth to study the geology of deserts, with emphasis placed on the location of potential sites of groundwater exploration.
In terms of my scientific contribution to humanity, the one thing that I have worked to emphasise in the last three decades is to better understand desert landforms. This allowed me to deduce a relationship between their mode of formation and their evolution, particularly as this may relate to the concentration of groundwater resources. I have pointed out potential water sites for poor populations in numerous
deserts. In some cases this resulted in saving lives.
My work does indeed inspire my faith. Whatever we see in nature can only increase our admiration of the order in the universe. There is nothing in science, not even the theory of evolution, that rules out the existence of a Master Creator. Nature has many secrets yet to be discovered and we should not believe that we know them all.”
Dr Hayat Sindi
Dr Hayat Sindi, is a Saudi biotechnologist from Makkah. She is the first woman from the Middle East to hold a PhD in Biotechnology. She was also head hunted to join George Whitesides’ famous laboratory. Together with Whitesides and mathematician Robert Carmichael she co-founded the project Diagnostics-For-All, which aims to bring ‘simple solutions’ technology to developing countries. She raised money for the project by winning the prestigious Harvard Enterprise Competition and the $100,000 MIT award, attracting a further $10m from Bill Gates.
“Since I was little I always admired certain stars, not Hollywood ones but real stars like Al-Kindi, Al-Bayruni, Ibn Sina, Einstein, Marie Curie – all these great characters who did so much for humanity. When I was six I asked my father if it was still possible to be like that in today’s world and he said, ‘With education you can get anything in life’. So I took my studying very seriously, and it was my goal to make a difference. I work in Harvard with George Whitesides, the best Chemist in the world.
As a scientist it is my duty to help people, and I want to customise inventions with infrastructure and improve people’s way of life.
Biotechnology inspires me because it touches every single aspect of our lives. It understands how nature works. God did everything in a magnificent way; the system exists in excellent form, so we can’t go wrong. The science of small things in nanotechnology is incredible – it is cheap and precise and has millions of applications.
I am proud that Islam laid down good values creating the basis for science, philosophy and maths. The first word in my religion is ‘Learn!’ I have always respected the power of the intellect, the heart and mind. This is the core of the human existence in nature.
When I came to Cambridge I was told by a famous scientist that I would fail because I am female and religion doesn’t go with science. I want to tell women scientists around the world – not just Muslims – that we should cross bridges and find the good in people. I want women to believe in themselves. I want to tell the whole world: do not let people belittle your dreams, if you believe in who you are, go for it.”
Professor Mehdi Golshani
Professor Mehdi Golshani is an Iranian Theoretical Physicist and Philosopher of Science. He studied Physics at the University of Tehran and undertook his PhD in Physics at the University of California. He was chairman of the Physics Department and vice-president of Sharif University, Iran. He is also the founder and chairman of the Philosophy of Science Faculty and Director of the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, a state research centre in Tehran. A member of countless professional bodies, a Templeton-prize winner, and fellow of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, he has published widely on philosophical matters relating to science and religion.
“The main impetus for my interest in science was the Holy Qur’an. Therein we are frequently reminded about creation and the need to study it. That was the only reason I participated in the entrance exam for my physics degree – in order to understand the universe.
My research interests include the philosophical interface between science and religion. I agree with the way science is done, theoretically and experimentally, but when it comes to the matter of interpretation I think a lot of philosophy enters into the subject. What I am concerned about is that many scientists are not aware of these two aspects: the practical and the philosophical. If these separate, there will be problems because as far as science is concerned you can claim certain things based on your sensations and experimental work, etc. but when you go to a higher level you are making extrapolations based on your psychological, philosophical and religious pre-conceptions.
My faith definitely inspires my work, and vice-versa. Studying the interaction between science and faith reinforces both, and a background in philosophy from an early period really helped me to do this.
We only know at most 5% of what the universe is made of; the rest is dark matter and dark energy. It is already said in our faith that this is the case: that you only know but a little. I am seeing what has been said to us, and at the same time we are seeing how magnificent the whole universe is.
In Newton’s time little in everyday life relied on science: there was no electricity, no television, no refrigerators, nothing of the sort. Life depended very little on practical science; experience passed from one generation to the next. Now everything is dependent on science, therefore we must learn it.
At the metaphysical level I see lots of similarities between the three monotheistic faiths. Science is a universal activity that brings people together. It has been misused, which is why it has brought this disparity and diffraction, but if it is used in a good sense, science will be unifying.”
Dr Rim Turkmani
Dr Rim Turkmani is a Syrian astrophysicist. She took her BSc in Electrical Engineering at the University of Damascus, and studied a Masters in Physics and a subsequent PhD in Astrophysics at Chalmers University, Sweden. Her current research is with the Space and Atmospheric Physics Group at the Physics Department of Imperial College, London.
Dr Turkmani works on the physics of the solar corona – the halo around the sun. Using computer simulation, observations and theoretical modelling, she tries to better understand and predict the dynamic of energy release solar surface explosions, known as solar flares.
“Physics explains the basis of everything around us. Previously, I researched on distant astronomical objects. Now I research on solar physics. We know more about the sun than the distant objects, yet there are so many mysteries surrounding it.
My work will benefit our understanding of solar and plasma physics. If we understand solar flares, then we are closer to being able to predict them. This is important because when the big ones explode they actually have a major affect on our life here on Earth. They can, for example, disrupt satellite communication and electricity-generating stations. Predicting such events is referred to as ‘space weather’.
Arab women scientists achieve a lot in their fields and have made it to very high positions. To progress in science, one has to get involved in research which means going abroad. There are indeed obstacles to being a Muslim woman in science, but I chose not to be daunted by them.
I was inspired by a woman called Hypatia of Alexandria, a great mathematician and astronomer. She lived during the Greek era and challenged her society by defying backward authorities and ended up paying with her life. I first heard of her when I was 17 years old, watching the documentary Cosmos by Carl Sagan. When I learned that fanatics killed her, I cried and cried. Since then she has been a figure in my life. Her story encouraged me to think critically, and one of her sayings was, ‘It is better to think wrongly than not to think at all’.
My faith is important to me and I was always taken by verses in the Qur’an which ask people to ponder the universe; scientists were given a special status with the verse ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ When I was a young woman studying the Qur’an I used to find such verses inspiring. I adore and respect whatever encourages me to think, and I definitely found that element in the Qur’an. Who would encourage thought and logic if it wasn’t to be found on the pathway of free thinking? Knowledge in general deepens my personal beliefs and knowledge of the natural world deepens my belief in what is behind this creation.”
Aisha Elsafty is an Egyptian Computer Scientist in her last year of PhD research at the University of Cambridge. She specialises in ‘AdHoc networking’ which involves the connecting of computers, mobile phones and other computational devices via wireless technology that are used to establish networks in dynamic and challenged environments, like disaster areas and developing countries.
“My faith inspires my work in many different ways. The Qur’an gives emphasis on putting our actions and beliefs into an analytical test, and to continuously challenge the views of our predecessors. This attitude is essential for all scientists and it is very clear in computer science where claims can be interpreted, understood and verified in mathematical and logical formats.
There are certain questions in computing that you can answer and some that you can’t, at least not yet. There is a sense of incompleteness; no system of logic can prove or refute all claims. There is always a notion that this is the truth that we know now, but in the future we will know more, have stronger machines and better systems. Just as in faith, you can reason your way through most of it, but there is a point where you choose to believe. In both cases you continue to work hard to verify your faith and gain both religious and scientific knowledge, but at no point can you ever say I know enough.
I think professionally there is no issue being a Muslim woman in science. Women are better represented in Cairo in my field than they are here in Cambridge. The Qur’an urges both men and women to learn, explore and discover. There are lots of problems to solve and we can’t afford for women not to be a part of this, especially if we are looking for a better world.”
Dr Kerim Suruliz
Dr Kerim Suruliz is a Bosnian physicist and Cambridge graduate, currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Abdus Salaam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Dr Suruliz’s research is in conjunction with the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN in Switzerland, which is scheduled to restart in September 2009.
“I am a High Energy physicist, which means that I look at the fundamental constituents of matter. Most of the time I spend working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project studying the ‘top quark’ - the heaviest known elementary particle, which was discovered in 1995.
We are currently preparing to receive data from the LHC at CERN. The primary aim of the LHC is to look for the particle called the ‘Higgs Boson’, and the outcome of my analysis will support this work. Roughly 2000 physicists form the experimental collaboration that I am a part of, and many countries have been involved, including developing countries like Pakistan. It is a complex and highly dynamic work environment.
I became a physicist because of my circumstances. Firstly, my parents are both physicists. Secondly, I spent my childhood in Bosnia during the 1992–1995 War and for extended periods of time there was no school, so my brother and I stayed at home and tried to read the books that were on the shelves. Most of them belonged to my parents and we ended up reading a lot of physics! I remember one particular moment when my father took us to an observatory very close to Sarajevo. We looked into the telescope and saw the closest galaxy, Andromeda. I was only nine or 10 at the time but that image is still in my mind to this day. The sight and beauty of such images are incredibly powerful and simply unforgettable.
Everyone who contemplates the concepts and equations of mathematics and physics sees the beauty in the universe, regardless of what they believe in. You see a certain ordering, a certain structure and amazing connections between things that a priori shouldn’t be connected at all, which you could see as immediate evidence for a Creator or somebody who ordered things to be this way.
Faith puts things in a certain context; it helps you understand that beauty appears at different levels. Beauty is just as present in our everyday experience as it is in the fundamental laws of physics. Experiencing the sunrise or sunset, or a solar eclipse helps you appreciate beauty in another way. And religion helps to explain where beauty itself comes from.
The nature of science is such that it is largely independent of who does it, and Muslim scientists can contribute just as much as anybody else. One of the mottos of the Institute I work at is that ‘scientific thought is the common heritage of mankind’. It is common to us all; however, it takes faith to transform what is fascinating in a worldly sense to powerful symbols pointing to a unique and majestic Creator.”