Phil Gasper wrote:
> ZNet | Race
> *Miracles, Wars, and Politics*
> by Pervez Hoodbhoy; September 16, 2004
> On 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
> 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 the masses.
> Will It Rain If You Pray?
> 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
> · 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.
> · Confidence 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 Matter
> Specious theological 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.
> This primitivism 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
> human behaviour.
> The author is professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad