Friday, December 24, 2010

The battle of the books: The Bible v The Quran

The battle of the books: The Bible v the Koran
The business of marketing the Bible and the Koran says a lot about the state of modern Christianity and Islam
This article appeared in The Economist dated Dec. 22, 2007.
Christians and Muslims have one striking thing in common: they are both “people of the book”. And they both have an obligation to spread the Word—to get those Holy Books into the hands and hearts of as many people as they can. (The Jews, the third people of the book, do not feel quite the same obligation.)
Spreading the Word is hard. The Bible is almost 800,000 words long and littered with tedious passages about begetting. The Koran is a mere four-fifths of the length of the New Testament; but some Westerners find it an even more difficult read. Edward Gibbon complained about its “endless incoherent rhapsody of fable and precept”. Thomas Carlyle said that it was “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite”.
Yet over 100m copies of the Bible are sold or given away every year. Annual Bible sales in America are worth between $425m and $650m; Gideon's International gives away a Bible every second. The Bible is available all or in part in 2,426 languages, covering 95% of the world's population.
The Koran is not only the most widely read book in the Islamic world but also the most widely recited (“Koran” means “recitation”). There is no higher goal in Muslim life than to become a human repository of the Holy Book; there is no more common sound in the Muslim world than the sound of Koranic recitation.
Reciting the Koran is the backbone of Muslim education. One of the most prized honorifics in Islamic society is “hafiz” or “one who has the entire scripture off by heart”. Do so in Iran and you get an automatic university degree. The great recitors compete in tournaments that can attract audiences in the hundreds of thousands—the world cups of the Islamic world. The winners' CDs become instant bestsellers.
The Bible and the Koran have both gone global. In 1900, 80% of the world's Christians lived in Europe and the United States. Today 60% live in the developing world. More Presbyterians go to church in Ghana than in Scotland. In 1900 Islam was concentrated in the Arab world and South-East Asia. Today, there may be as many practising Muslims in England as there are practising Anglicans; though in the 20th century, at least, Islam's expansion has mostly come about through population growth and migration, rather than conversion. Muslim “missionary” activity is aimed more at reinvigorating the faithful, and encouraging them to greater zealotry, than at winning new souls.
This mountain of Holy Books is a giant refutation of the secularisation thesis—the idea that religion recedes as the world modernises. “The book lives on among its people,” Constance Padwick, a scholar of the Koran, has written. “For them these are not mere letters or mere words. They are the twigs of the burning bush, aflame with God.” The same can be said of the Bible.
It also poses a couple of intriguing questions. Why are today's Christians and Muslims proving so successful at getting the Word out? And who is winning the battle of the books? Is either of the world's two great missionary religions gaining an edge when it comes to getting their Holy Books into people's hands and hearts?

The straightforward answer to the first question is that Christians and Muslims are both proving remarkably adept at using the tools of modernity—globalisation, technology and growing wealth—to aid the distribution of their Holy Books. “Give me Scotland or I die,” John Knox once cried. Today's faithful aim for the world.
The combination of globalisation and rising wealth is proving to be a bonanza for both religions. The most prolific producer of Christian missionaries, on a per head basis, is now South Korea. The biggest Bible publishing houses are in Brazil and South Korea. An interlinked global network of 140 national or regional Bible Societies pools resources to reach its collective goal of putting a Bible in the hands of every man, woman and child on the planet. The American Bible Society, the biggest of the lot, has published more than 50m Bibles in atheist China.
Saudi oil wealth is supercharging the distribution of the Koran. The kingdom gives away some 30m Korans a year, under the auspices of either the Muslim World League or individual billionaires, distributing them through a vast network of mosques, Islamic societies and even embassies. Go to and you can have a free book in your hands in weeks.
Saudi-funded dissemination of the Koran, along with literature promoting the stern Saudi understanding of Islam, may not have much direct effect on Christians, or the unchurched. But it does increase the relative weight, within Islam, of teachings which tend to sharpen the Christian-Muslim divide. For example, traditional Muslim teaching stresses those passages in the Koran which affirm the Christian Gospel and the Hebrew Torah as valid revelations of God and paths to salvation. But there is a harsher, Saudi-influenced view which insists that since Muhammad delivered the final revelation, Christianity and Judaism have lost their power to save.
The Muslim diaspora and Muslim missionaries are bringing the faith to previously untouched areas. The Tablighi Jamaat (“the group that propagates the faith”) is a global network of part-time preachers who dress like the Prophet, in a white robe and leather sandals, and travel in small groups to spread the Word. Their annual gatherings in India and Pakistan attract hundreds of thousands.
Technology is proving to be a friend of the Holy Books. You can consult them on the internet. You can read them on your “Psalm pilot” or mobile phone. You can listen to them on MP3 players or iPods (“podcasting” has given rise to “Godcasting”). Want to “plug into God without unplugging from life”? Then simply buy a Go Bible MP3 player. Want to memorise the Koran? Then buy an MP3 player that displays the words as you listen. Want to network with like-minded people? Then the eBible allows you to discuss biblical passages with virtual friends.

Bible Society of India, Bangalore
Several television channels and radio stations do nothing but broadcast the Koran. At the other end of the technological spectrum, the American Bible Society produces an audio device, powered by a battery or hand crank and no bigger than a couple of cigar boxes, that can broadcast the Bible to a crowd of a hundred.
There is a difference, however, between getting and understanding a Holy Book. Here both Christianity and Islam suffer from serious problems. Americans buy more than 20m new Bibles every year to add to the four that the average American has at home. Yet the state of American biblical knowledge is abysmal. A Gallup survey found that less than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Billy Graham is a popular answer) and a quarter do not know what is celebrated at Easter (the resurrection, the foundational event of Christianity). Sixty per cent cannot name half the ten commandments; 12% think Noah was married to Joan of Arc. George Gallup, a leading Evangelical as well as a premier pollster, describes America as “a nation of biblical illiterates”.
Muslims greatly prefer to read the Koran in the original Arabic. Yet the archaic language and high-flown verse, while inspiring, can also be difficult to understand even for educated Arabic speakers. And only 20% of Muslims speak Arabic as their first language. Illiteracy rates are high across the Muslim world. Many students of the Holy Book do not understand much of what they are memorising.
This needs to be kept in mind when considering who is winning the battle of the books. For some, the question is an abomination. Can't both sides win by converting the heathen? And aren't Christianity and Islam fellow Abrahamic faiths—different versions of the Truth? Others worry that the question is impossible to answer, since there are no systematic figures on the distribution of the Koran, and the battle's front-line cuts through some of the darkest and most dangerous places on the planet. Muslims would argue that their struggle was aimed more at galvanising their own flock than at converting unbelievers. But Islam's relative introversion doesn't make for peaceful coexistence. In many parts of the world, Islamic authorities have reacted furiously to attempts by Christians to entice Muslims to “apostasise” or renounce their faith; in traditional Islamic law, the penalty for apostasy is death; and encouraging believers to apostasise is also treated as a crime.
In many parts of the world, battle seems to be in progress. The Saudis will not allow the Bible to be distributed on their soil. Many Evangelical Christians are fixated on what they call the 10/40 window—the vast swathe of the Islamic world in Africa and Asia that lies between latitudes 10 and 40 north of the equator. The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas has even created a masters degree to train missionaries in the art of converting Muslims. Some Evangelicals produce counterfeit Korans that are designed to plant doubt in Muslim minds.
And the battle of the books is certainly at the heart of the battle between the two religions. People who get hold of Bibles or Korans may not read them or understand them. Unless they are introduced to the books they will certainly remain heathens. Even an imperfect report on the state of the battle tells us a lot about the world's two great missionary religions.

Salaam Centre, Bangalore
The Christians entered the 21st century with a big head start. There are 2 billion of them in the world compared with 1.5 billion Muslims. But Islam had a better 20th century than Christianity. The world's Muslim population grew from 200m in 1900 to its current levels. Christianity has shrivelled in Christendom's European heart. Islam is resurgent across the Arab world. Many Christian scholars predict that Islam will overtake Christianity as the world's largest religion by 2050.
More recently, though, Muslims complain that the “war on terror” is making it much more difficult to spread the Koran. Contributions to Muslim charities have fallen since September 11th 2001. Several charities have had their funding disrupted. Missionary organisations such as the Tablighi Jamaat are under investigation by Western intelligence services, on the grounds that they may be way-stations to jihadism. And Muslims confront much bigger long-term problems in the battle of the books.
The first is Christianity's superior marketing skills. Its religious publishing houses are big businesses. Thomas Nelson, which was once owned by a former door-to-door Bible salesman, was bought in 2005 for $473m. And secular publishing houses have also got religion: Harper Collins bought Zondervan, a religious book publisher, in the late 1980s, and now most mainstream publishers are trying to produce their own Bibles. As a result, all the tricks of the publisher's trade are being applied to the Bible.
Consider product proliferation. Thomas Nelson publishes 60 different editions of the Bible every year. The Good Book now comes in all colours, including those of your college. There are Bibles for every sort of person, from “seekers” to cowboys, from brides to barmen. There is a waterproof outdoor Bible and a camouflage Bible for use in war zones. The “100 minute Bible” summarises the Good Book for the time-starved.
Consider user-friendliness. There are prayer books in everyday vernacular or even street slang (“And even though I walk through/The Hood of death/I don't back down/for you have my back”). Or consider innovation. In 2003 Thomas Nelson dreamt up the idea of Bible-zines—crosses between Bibles and teenage magazines. The pioneer was Revolve, which intercuts the New Testament with beauty tips and relationship advice (“are you dating a Godly guy?”). This was quickly followed by Refuel, for boys, and Blossom and Explore, for tweens.
There are toddler-friendly versions of the most famous Bible stories. The “Boy's Bible” promises “gross and gory Bible stuff”. The “Picture Bible” looks like a super-hero comic. “God's Little Princess Devotional Bible” is pink and sparkly.
There are about 900 English translations of the Bible, ranging from the grandiloquent to the colloquial. There are translations into languages, such as Inupiat and Gullah, that are spoken by only handfuls of people. Bob Hudson, of the American Bible Society, wants everybody on the planet to be able to claim that “God speaks my language”. A couple of eccentric geeks have even translated the Bible into Klingon, a language spoken only by scrofulous space aliens on “Star Trek”.

Publishers are producing sophisticated dramatisations of the Bible with famous actors and state-of-the-art sound effects. Zondervan's “The Bible Experience” features every black actor in Hollywood from Denzel Washington to Samuel L. Jackson. Other outfits are making films that dramatise Bible stories as faithfully as possible.
And then there are the spin-offs. A “fully posable” Jesus doll recites famous passages of the Good Book. There are Bible quiz books, stuffed with crosswords and other word puzzles, and Bible bingo games. There are Bible colouring books, sticker books and floor puzzles. There is even a Bible-based juke box that plays your favourite biblical passages.
Muslims have also gone into the Holy Book business, but nowhere near as enthusiastically as Christians. This is partly because their commercial publishing houses are smaller and less sophisticated, but also because Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God—dictated to Muhammad (who was himself illiterate) by the Angel Gabriel and then written down by Muhammad's followers. “The Koran does not document what is other than itself,” one scholar notes. “It is not about the truth. It is the truth.”
This makes Muslims uncomfortable with translations. The Holy Book says sternly that “we have sent no messenger save with the tongue of his people.” Today most Muslims tolerate translations—there are now more than 20 English translations—but do so reluctantly. Most translations are as literal as possible. Pious Muslims are expected to learn God's language.
The second advantage the Christians have is America. The world's richest and most powerful country contains some 80m Evangelicals. It supports more missionaries, more broadcasting organisations and more global publishers than any other country. Despite some countries' oil wealth, the Koran's heartland is relatively poor. The Arab world has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, with a fifth of men and two-fifths of women unable to read. It also has one of the lowest rates of internet usage.
The third big advantage is the West's belief in religious freedom—guaranteed in America by the constitution, and in Europe by an aversion to religious persecution caused by centuries of it. The heartland of Islam, by contrast, is theocratic. The Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Call and Guidance employs 120,000 people, including 72,000 imams. Saudi Arabia bans non-Islamic worship and regards attempts to convert Muslims to another faith as a criminal offence. Pakistan has witnessed the attacks on Christian missionaries. Sudan punishes “religious deviation” with imprisonment.
Christian Evangelists complain that this creates an uneven playing field: Muslims can build giant mosques in “Christian lands” while Christians are barred from distributing Bibles in Saudi Arabia and Iran. But uneven playing fields tend to weaken the home players. Open competition is a boon to religion: American Evangelism has flourished precisely because America has no official church. And theocracy is ultimately a source of sloth and conservatism. “The Book and the Koran”, by Muhammad Shahrur, which tried to reinterpret the Koran for modern readers, was widely banned in the Islamic world, despite its pious tone and huge popularity.
This state-of-the-battle report comes with a health warning. Predicting the fate of religions is unwise, for they can burn or gutter in unpredictable ways. But two things are certain in the battle of the books. The first is that the urge to spread the Word will spark some of the fiercest conflicts of the 21st century. The area that is being most heavily fought over—sub-Saharan Africa—is a tinder box of failed states and ethnic animosities. The second is that the Bible and the Koran will continue to exercise a dramatic influence over human events, for both good and ill. The twigs of the burning bush are still aflame with the fire of God.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Brief History of Christmas

A Brief History of Christmas
John Steele Gordon
By the time of the Council of Nicea, in A.D. 325, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in A.D. 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on Dec. 25. It was frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in, writes John Steele Gordon
This article was published in Wall Street Journal.
Christmas famously “comes but once a year.” In fact, however, it comes twice. The Christmas of the Nativity, the manger and Christ child, the wise men and the star of Bethlehem, “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one holiday. The Christmas of parties, Santa Claus, evergreens, presents, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells” is quite another. But because both celebrations fall on Dec. 25, the two are constantly confused.
A little history can clear things up. The Christmas of parties and presents is far older than the Nativity. Most ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb once more in the sky. In ancient Rome, this festival was called the Saturnalia and ran from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24. During that week, no work was done, and the time was spent in parties, games, gift giving and decorating the houses with evergreens. (Sound familiar?) It was, needless to say, a very popular holiday.
In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. So in A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. That’s why Easter and its associated days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are “moveable feasts,” moving about the calendar at the whim of the moon.
It is a mark of how late Christmas came to the Christian calendar that it is not a movable feast, but a fixed one, determined by the solar calendar established by Julius Caesar and still in use today (although slightly tweaked in the 16th century).
By the time of the Council of Nicea, in A.D. 325, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in A.D. 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on Dec. 25. It was frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in.
History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born, but according to the Gospel of St. Luke, “shepherds were abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flocks by night.” This would strongly imply a date in the spring or summer when the flocks were up in the hills and needed to be guarded. In winter they are kept safely in corrals and protected from the elements. To further the proposal that Jesus was not born in the winter, the Muslim book, the Qu’ran, gives reference to dates from date palm trees being ripe and ready for harvest at the time of birth of Jesus. This would dovetail with the idea that he indeed was born in the summer months, since dates do not ripen in the winter.

A Village during winter
So it seems Dec. 25 must have been chosen for other reasons. It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also Dec. 25 was the day of Sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system.
By the high Middle Ages, Christmas was rowdy, bawdy time, often inside the church as well as outside it. In France, many parishes celebrated the Feast of Ass, supposedly honoring the donkey that had brought Mary to Bethlehem. Donkeys were brought into church and the mass ended with priests and parishioners alike making donkey noises. In the so-called Feast of Fools, the lower clergy would elect a “bishop of fools” to temporarily run the diocese and make fun of church ceremonial and discipline. With this sort of thing going on inside the church to celebrate the Nativity, one can easily imagine the drunken and sexual revelries going on outside it to celebrate what was in all but name the Saturnalia.
With the Reformation, Protestants tried to rid the church of practices unknown in its earliest days and get back to Christian roots. Most Protestant sects abolished priestly celibacy (and often the priesthood itself), the cult of the Virgin Mary, relics, confession and....Christmas.
In the English-speaking world, Christmas was abolished in Scotland in 1563 and in England after the Puritans took power in the 1640s. It returned with the Restoration in 1660s, but the celebrations never regained their medieval and Elizabethan abandon.
There was still no Christmas in Puritan New England, where Dec. 25 was just another working day. In the South, where the Church of England predominated, Christmas was celebrated as in England. In the middle colonies, matters were mixed. In polyglot New York, the Dutch Reformed Church did not celebrate Christmas. The Anglicans and Catholics did.
It was New York and its early 19th century literary establishment that created the modern American form of old Saturnalia. It was a much more family - and especially child - centered holiday than the community-wide celebrations of earlier times.
St. Nicolas is the patron saint of New York (the first church built in the city was named for him), and Washington Irving wrote in his “Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York” how Sinterklaes, soon anglicized to Santa Claus, rode through the sky in a horse and wagon and went down chimneys to deliver presents to children.
The writer, George Pintard, added the idea that only good children got presents, and a book dating to 1821 changed the horse and wagon to reindeer and sleigh. Clement Clare Moore in 1823 made the number of reindeer eight and gave them their names. Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicolas,” is entirely secular. It is about “visions of sugar plums” with nary a wise man or a Christ child in sight. In 1828, the American Ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett, brought the poinsettia back from Mexico. It became associated with Christmas because that’s the time of year when it blooms.
In the 1840s, Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” which does not even mention the religious holiday (the word church appears in the story just twice, in passing, the word Nativity never). Prince Albert introduced the German custom of the Christmas tree to the English-speaking world.

In the 1860s, the great American cartoonist Thomas Nast set the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly, bearded fat man in a fur-trimmed cap. (The color red became standard only in the 20th century, thanks to Coca-Cola ads showing Santa Claus that way.) Merchants began to emphasize Christmas, decorating stores and pushing the idea of Christmas presents for reasons having nothing whatever to do with religion, except, perhaps, the worship of Mammon.
With the increased mobility provided by railroads and increasing immigration from Europe, people who celebrated Christmas began settling near those who did not. It was not long before the children of latter began putting pressure on their parents to celebrate Christmas as well. “The O’Reilly kids down the street are getting presents, why aren’t we?!” is not an argument parents have much defence against.
By the middle of the 19th century, most Protestants churches were, once again, celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday. The reason, again, had more to do with marketing than theology: They were afraid of losing congregants to other Christmas-celebrating denominations.

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill making the secular Christmas a civil holiday because its celebration had become universal in this country. It is now celebrated in countries all over the world, including many where Christians are few, such as Japan.
So for those worried about the First Amendment, there’s a very easy way to distinguish between the two Christmases. If it isn’t mentioned in Gospels of Luke and Mathew, then it is not part of the Christian holiday. Or we could just change the name of the secular holiday back to what it was 2000 years ago.
Merry Saturnalia, everyone!

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Human Delusion

Chapter One
Syed Iqbal Zaheer
“Chapter One” of “The God Delusion” touches upon the extra-ordinary respect that is accorded to religion in modern secular societies. Richard Dawkins thinks it is undeserved. Apart from pointing other instances, he discusses in some detail the Muslim agitation against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s twelve cartoons published in September 2005. He defends “the right of free speech” that the West upholds, and severely criticizes the Muslim reaction which he calls “hysterical” to encounter what he think was (i.e., the cartoons) merely “a few daubs of printing ink”, writes SYED IQBAL ZAHEER
This article was published as ‘Editorial’ in October 2008 issue of Young Muslim Digest, Bangalore.
Human beings are much more complicated than the immensely complicated computers they design. Computers are never contradictory, evasive, unpredictable, illogical, or dishonest. Humans are. They do not suffer delusion. Humans do. This is because a computer has a single mind, a single program. The program has to confirm to universally accepted scientific data and so, it cannot give contradictory answers, be evasive, dishonest or suffer delusion. But human beings have several minds within their single brain. They have minds upon minds, in layers, or different minds in different partitioned areas, or minds within minds: interconnected and interdependent, yet each independent.  A close example is the genetic system within the DNA. There are genes that are independent, others are controlled by others. There are master genes that control several genes; and grandmasters over masters. Individual nucleotide chains can be part of several genes, part of several combinations. Genes can shut themselves, go dormant for a holiday, come awake, and become malignant: if so they wish. Nucleotides can combine with distant nucleotides, miles away from them (in terms of the huge distances that separate them at the atomic level), to form a gene. It is something like: you pick a few leaves from a tree in a forest, then travel down several miles, choose a tree and pick a few more leaves from it, and then travel further into the thick forest a few miles away, choose to pluck a few more leaves from another tree. Next, place the leaves of the three trees in some kind of arrangement, and lo, the leaves (read: nucleotides) on the trees (read: DNA strand) become a gene containing the message that a particular hair on your bushy eyebrow (the 23rd from left, the 16th from top: if you want the complete address) will turn white when you are 58 years and three and half a months old! If this is any complication, human mind beats the complications involved in designing computers that allow a pilot who went blind (as it happened recently) to land his aircraft, or guide a spacecraft to the fringes of the Solar System without any human in it.

Decoding the human thought?
Human minds think in criss-cross fashion: the electrical waves travelling at the speed of light, within the few ounces of gray matter, visiting several sites, picking up data, combine with others, and finally, if one area decides to be honest, then an honest answer to a question, or dishonest, then dishonest answer to a question. There is no way you can predict what the answer will be. Most of the times the answers are pre-formulated by the mind, kept tucked somewhere, and out comes one of them: its nature depending upon the questioner, relationship with him, the situation in which the question is asked, and dozens of other details. Variation of any detail will vary the answer. There is no way you can precisely predict what the answer will be; because there is no one who knows how the mind works.
Take an example to understand how mind works in strange ways. The media is widely suspected of pouring out lies, or for blowing up a mole of truth into a mountain of untruth. You tell a Westerner: BBC or CNN say, “The economy will pull up in a couple of months,” or “Russian threat is real,” or, “drinking coffee reduces chances of heart attack.” His response is to shake his head, wince, and say, “Well, you know our media. It is more in the service of interest groups and political parties than in the service of truth. It’s a mafia.” The intelligent public in the West generally does not trust the media. If there is a news piece that concerns them, they would like to double check and find the truth through their own trusted sources instead of simply going by what the media conjures up.
But tell a Westerner, “The media reports that the Palestinians are a threat to US,” or, “Iran is building a nuclear bomb,” or, “The Qur’an promotes terrorism,” and the same Westerner turns into a resolute believer in his media. He does not shake his head, wince and say, “You know, our media is a source of lies.” He says, “There must be good grounds for the media to be reporting these things.” He doesn’t think there is any reason to check on the Qur’an to judge whether it promotes terrorism, or look into the rat holes in which the Palestinians are living in their 10,000-year old ancestral homeland to evaluate their threat to USA. Human mind’s behaviour is difficult to predict.
Famed personalities - scientists, learned men, intellectuals, all sorts of extraordinary people – have suffered the vagaries of the “mind” and have fallen victims to its whims and fancies. The hottest on the scene, “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (a Black Swan Publications, 2007), provides us with a few examples.
[A biologist, Richard Dawkins is the best-selling science writer of the contemporary world and his “The God Delusion” is the international bestseller. The secular press has heaped praises on it. He is a relentless defender and promoter of the theory of evolution and a champion of atheism. Some people liken him to Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin. Huxley was called “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. While Darwin spent the second half of his life quietly with his family, Huxley devoted his time to championing his cause and debating with those scientists who disagreed with the theory. Today, while Darwin rests in his grave, Dawkins tirelessly works to promote his cause.]
Chapter One” of “The God Delusion” touches upon the extra-ordinary respect that is accorded to religion in modern secular societies. Dawkins thinks it is undeserved. Apart from pointing other instances, he discusses in some detail the Muslim agitation against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s twelve cartoons published in September 2005. (The cartoonists were specifically invited - of course with carrots dangling before them – to design the [most provocative possible] cartoons). He defends “the right of free speech” that the West upholds, and severely criticizes the Muslim reaction which he calls “hysterical” to encounter what he think was (i.e., the cartoons) merely “a few daubs of printing ink”. He has no word of criticism for newspapers in Norway, Germany, France, and even the United States that reprinted the cartoons “in gestures of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten.” He does not approve of “the society’s exaggerated respect for religion, over and above ordinary human respect.” He also disapproves of the acknowledgement accorded to Muslims by a section of the press over the ‘offense’ and ‘hurt’ they felt: there was no need for the hurt, and no need for regrets.
But, while Dawkins wrote that stuff, it is obvious that his mind took full charge, relegating Dawkins’ learning and intellect to the inner chambers of the mind and conscience. His mind defends the “the right of free speech” (which includes drawing insulting cartoons, and reproducing them when people feel hurt), but does not approve of the demonstrations against it. His mind forgets that demonstrating against insulting cartoon is also one of the human rights: a kind of “the right of free speech” that the West upholds as holy. Yes, that some went to hysterical level is deplorable, but the demonstrations themselves cannot be criticized.  The Muslims were merely exercising their “right of expression” through those demonstrations. Surely, Dawkins will agree with this. But one can see how his mind deluded him! It allows for one kind of expression, but denies another kind of expression. That is the difference between computers and human minds. Unless allowed free will and given consciousness, computers will never behave like human minds. Yet, this is not our main point. Our point is, human minds can be contradictory, evasive, unpredictable, illogical, dishonest or even deluded.
Another example of the tricks that human minds can play upon its victims, viz., the humans, can be cited from the same “Chapter One” of the “The God Delusion”. When Einstein learnt of the Quantum Theory which asserts that both the position as well as momenta of a sub-atomic particle cannot be together determined at a given moment (the famous Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), he remarked: “God does not play dice”, If Einstein’s mind had not kept the concept of God, and belief in His existence, hidden at the sub-conscious level, the remark could not have slipped out of his mouth. This is another characteristic of human mind: it can betray man.

Chaotic Confusion
Einstein believed in a God who must necessarily be there revealing Himself through the “lawful harmony of the world,” but who is not concerned with the behaviour or destiny of man. He said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” (Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch-Jewish philosopher). Einstein also said, “My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.” He is reported to have said, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what, really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”
So, his opinion and about God is clear. He believes in one; and the concept is not a vague one. It is pretty clear. He defines what He should like: Now, everyone has his own definition of God; Einstein had his own. Fine. Whatever that definition was, what is important to note is that he believed in a God. Indeed, he was not merely a believer in God, he was a believer in a godly people: Israel. He was a proud Zionist. He approved the Balfour Declaration (a dishonest act of the British), and should have become a President of the Zionist State, Israel, if his deeper intelligence had not prevented him from saying no. Indeed, it is widely believed that the God of his definition was a “Judeo-Christian God.” That definition denied him what is collected as “a personal god.” He clarified, “I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.” But he remained stuck with God until the end of his life.
With the above in mind, a re-read of the first chapter of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” reveals the shadowy part of the mind. Dawkins is a staunch proponent of atheism - perhaps the most resolute and outspoken among biologists of the contemporary world. In the first chapter he deals with Einstein’s religion and takes great pains to prove that he did not believe in a God of common concept, but only in one of a special concept. He proves emphatically that Einstein’s God was neither of the Deists, nor of the Theists, but of the Pantheists. (To explain, deism is defined as, “The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.” On the other hand, theism is defined as, “Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.” Finally, pantheism is defined as, “A doctrine identifying the Deity with the universe and its phenomena” or, “Belief in and worship of all gods”).
But the “kind” and “quality” of God is, from an atheist’s point of view, of no consequence. For him, God does not exist. Einstein asserted that he was an “agnostic”. (An “agnostic” is, according to the dictionary definition, “One who believes that there can be no proof of the existence of God but does not deny the possibility that God exists;” whereas an “atheist” is, according to the dictionary definition, “One that disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods”). E.g., Einstein was an agnostic, Dawkins is an atheist.
But the impression one gets from the first chapter of “The God Delusion” is that Einstein was an atheist, which the author claims for himself, while Einstein asserted that he was not. He was merely an agnostic. He is reported to have said, “I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervour is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.” (This statement defines Dawkins’ attitude.) The author seems to deliberately leave the issue dubious. It would not suited him to enlist him, Hawking, Weinberg, Carl Sagan, (the lover of churches, synagogues and mosques) Ursula Goodenough, and (the Church-going) Martin Rees as supporters of his crusade against Religion.
Crusade he may against Religion. Our point here is that human mind is more complicated than computers. To the mind behind this usufruct, the means might not be important, so long as the ends are lofty. This mind can lead its owners into delusions. But computers cannot construct a lie and then hatch a long discussion to cover it, or cover it with robes of truth, or suffer delusion. So long as this characteristic of human mind remains, so long as the mind’s unpredictability remains, as long as belief/disbelief relationship with the media remains, so long as Chapter Ones of books like “The God Delusion” keep appearing, the need for Religion will remain. What scientific discipline can control human mind as successfully as religion can?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mighty Kings and Humble Flies

Mighty Kings and Humble Flies
Syed Iqbal Zaheer
There can be no biological laboratory anywhere in the world, of any worth, but which does not boast of flies entrapped in glass flasks abundantly supplied with fruit juice and carefully nurtured by the geneticists. When the proud scientists discovered the chromosomes, the humble fly entered into their labs. But, humble though it may be, it has remained serving the functions of a humbling agent for some although an elevating agent for others, writes SYED IQBAL ZAHEER
This article was published as ‘Editorial’ in August 2007 issue of Young Muslim Digest, Bangalore.
It is reported that a mighty king sat, surrounded by, as usual, officials in due submission, or rather, in abject humbleness, speaking out in all decorum when asked, but wishing not to speak, in fear that an inadvertent word, slipping out unintentionally, could receive disapproval of His Highness, and cause his head presented on a platter as a lesson for others to know how to choose their words. (Thus has ended Ibn Muqaffa’ d.756 AD). Those days of mighty kings, (when secret agencies did not do the kidnappings and killing), each flying head added a word to the list of disapproved vocabulary in the private dictionaries of the courtiers.
It were such days when a fly buzzed around His Majesty’s majestic head. These flies have the habit of perching upon the highest point, the peak and the apex of any landscape they chose to land on. Are human faces anything more for the flies than a landscape oozing a variety of juices through sweat and other glands? So, after teasingly buzzing around the head, with an occasional saunter covering a larger area of the glittering court, when the fly came back, it chose to sit on the face of the His Highness. A few waving of the mighty hand were not enough to convince the fly that it was so annoying to the Highness, and far from welcome especially on the nose. The repeated buzzing and perching did provoke the king. “Why did God create the fly?” he asked in arrogance. Someone, perhaps quite sure of his own standing, or ready maybe to risk his head for a truthful word, gave a reply that stunned the king and the courtiers: “To cure the arrogant of their arrogance.”
This creature of God, this humble, busy, buzzy, little thing, serves the same functions today when it flies around the heads of scientists, except that they are a bit in love with it, or, to be precise, one of its kind. There can be no biological laboratory anywhere in the world, of any worth, but which does not boast of flies entrapped in glass flasks abundantly supplied with fruit juice and carefully nurtured by the geneticists. When the proud scientists discovered the chromosomes, the humble fly entered into their labs. But, humble though it may be, it has remained serving the functions of a humbling agent for some although an elevating agent for others.

And, as if the fly itself is not enough of a little thing, the one most useful for research was found to be the littlest among thousands of species (some 90,000 of its various kinds live on the earth): the Drosophila. Strangely, while its sister-species can be as large as 2 cm long, the common house fly 1 cm long, the one which is essential to the scientists is a mere 2 mm-long thing. You might not have noticed the pore at one end of a fig fruit. The Drosophila variety can pass through the little pore to gather juice and pollinate the fruits. It is ubiquitous around garden fruits and hence its other name, the fruit fly.
It is a humbling thing because, out of the millions of animal species, including whales in the sea and elephants on the land, this 2 mm long insect has sperms that, when opened up, are, amazingly, 6 mm long. Its giant sized-sperm is the largest known compared with those of any other animal. (Its testes take up 50% of its abdominal cavity). The sperm is thus 1,200 times larger than that of the mighty His Highness who had belittled this little creation of God. This amazing characteristics, (along with ease of breed,  a new generation every 15 days, the possibility to breed a colony in a test tube), has made it an all-time “hit” with those interested in genetics. Being so large, its DNA strand (just 4 as against 23 of the human beings) is almost visible to the human eye. All that a geneticist needs is a standard lab microscope to conduct research in DNA and unravel the marvels of genetic code, the code of life.
The humble fly has remained the pet animal for the biologists for a hundred years, (for no substitute could be found in insects, reptiles or mammals), and takes the credit for the award of Nobel Prizes to several top notch scientists (e.g., Thomas Hunt Morgan, Edward B. Lewis, Eric F. Wieschaus, Christiane Nusslein-Volhard). It has also the honor of being the first creation of God, whose entire genome sequence was produced before it could be produced for any other animal, including man! What with thousands of scientists going hand in hand, with little fly, in search of the code of life, “More data have been collected,” says an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, (ref., Vinegar Fly), “concerning the genetics of the vinegar fly than have been obtained for any other animal. Drosophila chromosomes, especially the giant ones in the salivary glands of mature larvae, are used in studies involving heritable characteristics and are the basis for gene action.”

Drosophila on Arabidopsis flower
The flies helped Thomas Hunt Morgan to win the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his discovery of “hereditary transmission mechanisms in Drosophila;” while they helped others to share Nobel Prize in 1995 for research into the “genetic basis of embryonic development in the fruit fly.” There can be no serious book in biology but which takes pride in mentioning the tremendous advances made in genetic studies, while mentioning the little fly for the credit it deserves. They serve other functions too. For instance, apart from an essential unit in the ecosystem of the world, they are useful, as says the Grzimek’s Animal Encyclopaedia, “in forensic investigations to establish the time of death, whether the corpse has been moved after death, and the cause of death... E.g., several larvae of the flies feed on carrion and flesh in different degrees of decomposition, in different situations, and at different times of the year.” But, mainly they have been the prime agents for decoding the secrets of life.
Someone said that as a tourist in Morocco when he waved his hand against a fly seated on the forehead of a companion, hundreds flew away from the head. Their color merged with the color of the hair, they were invisible. In many parts of the world, these little creatures are, with due respect to them, and apology to the scientists, a nuisance. A single buzzing fly can take away the much needed siesta. In the open they can be in millions. Even in scorching hot deserts they can appear in thousands within minutes of camping.
Although ubiquitous, few know that every fly flies a challenge into the face of the humans. The challenge is from God. Since George Mendel’s times, it is more than two hundred years now that humans have been studying the code of life. Are they any nearer to creating life? Far from that, they are still light years away from understanding the nature of life, not to speak of creating it. (Scientists differ over how life should be defined). Alright, humans are complicated beings. How about creating a fly? It is the most studied animal. Its genetic code was unravelled before that of any other animal. It has chromosomes as large as almost visible to the eye. Do the scientists think it was mere co-incidence (like a dozen other coincidences) that the Qur’an challenged the humans to create a biological organism studied most by them: the enfeebling, ennobling, feeble fly?
O people! A similitude is struck, so listen to it carefully. Surely, those you call upon other than Allah shall never create a fly, even if they were to join forces to that end. Indeed, if the fly should snatch away something from them, they will never be able to retrieve it from it. Feeble indeed: the seeker and the sought (after).” (The Qur’an, 22:73)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Beyond the tilting point: The limits of Modern Science

Beyond the tilting point: The limits of Modern Science
Syed Iqbal Zaheer
Whether it is astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry, humankind seems to have arrived at a point which could be classified as the tilting point. At this point the Sun of knowledge and understanding seems to be setting into the dark zone, writes SYED IQBAL ZAHEER
This article was published as ‘Editorial’ in October 2010 issue of Young Muslim Digest, Bangalore.

In every branch of knowledge, a point arrives during human pursuit after which further knowledge leads to no further clarity, but indeed, to confusion. It can be called the tilting point. After this boundary line, the more the humans try, the more they feel muddled. If they persist, they enter into a chaotic world of ideas that begin to contradict each other.
“When pushed to its limits, every fundamental theory of physics runs foul of our poor understanding of information.
It may be no understatement to say that the biggest breakthrough in physics must come in information theory rather than quantum mechanics or relativity.” (
In that zone, there is more darkness than light. To cite an example from philosophy, when asked, Swiss philosopher Carl Jung (1875-1961) answered at the prime of his life, after having fried and stewed much philosophy in his earlier robust years, to the effect, “ I don’t know who I am.. cannot say much about myself.. except that I am a product of circumstances.”  He was at the tilting point.
This is the situation with frontier sciences and scientists now, in our times. Whether it is astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry, humankind seems to have arrived at a point which could be classified as the tilting point. At this point the Sun of knowledge and understanding seems to be setting into the dark zone: “Until, when he reached the point at which the Sun sets, he found it setting into a slimy lake” (the Quran, 18:86).
Some scientists believe that they are in a situation which can be considered as the “the end of science”, although the word goes in muted voices. Nonetheless, books dealing with this theme have already begun to appear.
Joachim of Floris, a 13th century ecclesiastical writer had divided religious history into three phases: the Age of the Father, the Age of the Son, and (his own times) the Age of the Holy Ghost (Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, p.19). Now, since nothing of the Holiness remains in the Western Technological Civilization, it can be renamed as the Age of the Ghosts. In fact, in keeping with the ghostly tendencies of the modern scientific findings, a certain class of sub-atomic particles are aptly named Ghost Particles.
Science is not dead. In every field of knowledge, immense numbers of men and women are active in research and experiments, and immense amount of data is being collected, classified, and stacked or stored. But, not of all of it is retrieved often because they are unable to make much from them. In quite a few instances the data is baffling. In some cases, it is absolutely incredible and illogical. It is inconsistent with the well-known laws of nature. But, repeated experiments yield the same results and confirm the conclusions. Perhaps this has led to the appearance of Fuzzy Logic and Chaos Theories.
Astronomy is one such cosmos of dark horizons. Some time back the Hubble Telescope discovered stars that seem to be older than the Universe. Either the age of our Universe as estimated by the astronomers was wrong, or the measurements were wrong. But neither seemed to be wrong. Yet here were a naughty bunch of stars teasing bright in the telescope, demanding explanation. After 200 years of research and experiments, theory-building and observation, some scientists were ready to revise the age of the universe, others the Cosmological constant, while some others were on the verge of joining forces with those who have always looked at the Big Bang theory with suspicious eyes.
“If we compare the two age determinations, there is a potential crisis. If the universe is flat, and dominated by ordinary or dark matter, the age of the universe as inferred from the Hubble constant would be about 9 billion years. The age of the universe would be shorter than the age of the oldest stars. This contradiction implies that either 1) our measurement of the Hubble constant is incorrect, 2) the Big Bang theory is incorrect or 3) that we need a form of matter like cosmological constant that implies an older age for a given observed expansion rate.”  (
Another example comes from the frontiers of Black Holes. Albert Einstein vigorously denied them for several decades and died on his belief. He thought they were a “mere mathematical curiosity.” But the invisible black holes have been becoming more and more visible. (Stephen Hawking is said to be a leading expert on Black Holes). What is a Black Hole anyway? Well, when a star of certain size has burnt all its fuel, it starts to shrink under the pressure of its own gravitational force which grows in intensity as the star shrinks. Ultimately, the star-body is shrunk to such small size and its gravitational power grows to such stupendous magnitude, that nothing can escape from it; not even light; and, therefore, it becomes invisible; hence its name Black Hole. It can be detected by indirect means alone. To put it in proper scientific jargon:
“Every star, however, must eventually exhaust its nuclear fuel. When it does so, its unbalanced self-gravitational attraction causes it to collapse. According to theory, if a burned-out star has a mass larger than about three times the mass of our sun, no amount of additional pressure can stave off total gravitational collapse. The star collapses to form a black hole. For a non-rotating collapsed star, the size of resulting black hole is proportional to the mass of the parent star; a black hole with a mass three times that of our sun would have a diameter of about 10 miles.” (
But latest observations have sent the telescope-peering scientists back to supercomputers. All along they said that a star of 25 and above solar masses should turn into a Black Hole after it had burnt out all its energy. But now it had been discovered from observation that a few neutron stars seemed to have formed from stars that were once of 40 solar masses. That is, these stars (known as “magnetar”) must have actually become Black Holes. How come they are neutron stars?
“By comparisons with these stars, they found that the star that became the magnetar must have been at least 40 times the mass of the Sun. This proves for the first time that magnetars can evolve from stars so massive we would normally expect them to form black holes. The previous assumption was that stars with initial masses between about 10 and 25 solar masses would form neutron stars and those above 25 solar masses would produce black holes.”  (
Confusions neither start here, nor end here; like space, they have no boundary. As you follow the findings, you also discover that none less than a Nobel Prize winning scientists would, in fact, obliterate the Black Holes with his thumb:
“Nobel prize-winning physicist says black holes and space-time singularities cannot exist in the latest model of universe.” (
The scientist concerned is Gerard ‘t Hooft. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1999. (He has a splendid Website that offers excellent guidelines to students pursuing science courses)
Age and size questions are major confusing issues in astronomy. How old is the Universe and how big? As soon as one raises the issue, the first question shot back at him is: “Which Universe?” If you are baffled, you will be explained that there are several universes. And, if you do not cease to be baffled, you are told they could be in billions! You could also be told (if you refer to enough number of books) that you bat an eye, and a new Universe comes into existence.
In fact, someone suggested that the stars older than “our universe” detected by the Hubble telescope could be from another universe. But scientists will accept no such nonsense because they will tell you that those other universes are beyond human visibility. Some of these universes might be crossing through our own universe, but going through clean and dry, without any clash, in a fashion similar to the jaw-dropping Japanese Precision Cross-March. So, we are told that we live in a world of multiverses. Except for our own, the others are invisible, and will remain so, because of dimensional problem. Ours has only 4, others 8, perhaps 11, perhaps more.
At all events, as you learn to properly word your question and ask, “What’s the size of our Universe,” you get a variety of answers. A straight jacket answer is: it is 13.7 billion years old; which implies that the Universe is of size 13.7 light years across. But you couldn’t be more in error.
Another scientist (they are careful not to answer all the questions in one book), would clarify that if the oldest photons reaching us are 13.7 billion years old, then, it must be kept in mind that the figure gives us the radius; which means the width of our Universe has to be twice that, i.e. roughly 28 billion light years.  In other words, light travelling at the speed of 300,000 km/second, will take 28 billion years to travel edge to edge. 28 billion years by the way is 28 followed by 9 zeros (28,000,000,000). Multiply that figure by 60, and then by 60, then by 24, and then by 365 to get the distance in km. Order a cup of tea before you reach out for your calculator.

A third scientist will tell you that you are far from truth. The universe could be 156 billion years old. When you come out of the shock, he will explain to you that this is because the Universe is expanding at almost the speed of light in every direction. That is, it becomes 600,000 km. bigger in diameter, every second. Therefore, while the light ray was tiresomely plodding through the distance to kiss your retina, the Universe was mercilessly expanding, and the poor photon took 78 billion years for touch down. Double it up and you get 156 billion years. That’s the size of the Universe; i.e. ‘our Universe.’
That was taking for granted that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old. But is it? Let us hear another authority:
“The new finding implies that the universe is instead about 15.8 billion years and about 180 billion light-years wide.” (
If you wish to give up the question of the size of this Universe out of frustration, you are still left with a piece of information that they tend to ignore but which ultimately lands to your door; viz. you will never know how big this Universe is. Whoa. Yes. And it is such a simple conclusion that you should have known it instantly. To explain; since the universe is expanding at almost the speed of light, light from the cosmic bodies at the extreme edge can never reach you because, by the time they travel “a distance”, the world stretches itself by twice that distance, and therefore, the photons will never have the pleasure of kissing your retina. Those cosmic bodies that sent you the gift of light rays, have gone out of vision, and you will never know how big this Universe is! The same authority as quoted above says:
“This (14 billion light years) would be the diameter of just the observable universe. The actual size of the total universe may be 10 - 1000 times larger.”
To proceed with our original issue of the “tilting point” in mind, questions about the shape of the Universe bring out the most amusing answers. For quite a while the scientists held - and still do - that the Universe had no edge and no boundary. Others say that they still do not know whether space is curved or flat. To the question, what lies beyond the edge, the answer was, and remains in many scientific circles, “there is no beyond.” Whoa again.
But, one need not be disheartened too soon. Ask others. They might say it is cone-shaped. Yet others are now speaking of a torus-shaped Universe, or to simplify, doughnut-shaped.
But what about the beginning? Do we have any clear evidence about how it begun? “Yes,” the scientist might jump in excitement, “it began with the Big Bang.” When you ask when it was, the answer is, “That was 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang.” You ask, “But what was it like at Zero time?” The answer is, “We do not know what happened before 10-43 seconds, because calculations begin to fall from the point backward. You cannot go any further than Planck’s constants. Further, there was a time after the Big Bang, when the infant Universe was in dark zone, about which nothing can ever be known because the Dark Body did not allow any radiation to leave its surface.”
So if there are boundaries at the end of the Universe, beyond which lies the unknowable world, there are boundaries too at the point it started which is also the unknowable world.
One can go on and on with dozens of more questions. The more the data sought, the fuzzier the situation it seems to sound. It is the same story in any other scientific field, be it physics, chemistry, biology, geology, or even economic theories or political philosophies. There is much data, but little understanding. Long back, Einstein had called the earliest Quantum findings as “the spooky world of physics.” It seems the entire sciences, as well as humanities, have acquired a spooky character.
This little preamble should prepare us to consider with considerable respect the claim of a leading scientist that this Universe of ours does not need a Creator. He can explain it without God.
Man is a little bit of a funny creature. He can press a humorous point when dealing with most profound subjects. He does not know the nature of his Universe, he does not know what it contains, he does not know what its shape is, he does not know how big it is, he does not know how many there are, he does not know how it begun, he does not know how it will end, but he knows that it can be explained without taking God into consideration!
He is perhaps in the zone beyond the tilting point.