Islam and the Nobel Prize
Physicist turned science writer, Gordon Fraser, most recent book Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Scientist, is a biography of Salam who despite wining the Nobel Prize was excommunicated and branded as a heretic in his own country. A staunch Muslim, he was ashamed of the decline of science in the heritage of Islam, and struggled doggedly to restore it to its former glory. Undermined by his excommunication, these valiant efforts were doomed. In the article below Fraser looks at the history of Muslim winners of the Nobel Prize.
Amid all the international reaction to Israel’s offensive in Gaza, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has stirred up more controversy in Iran. In December the Iranian authorities closed the Tehran office of Ms Ebadi’s Human Rights Defenders Centre, saying it had operated for eight years without permission. Whatever the context, the perception of a Nobel Prize in Islamic countries often appears to clash with the traditional veneration in which it is held elsewhere.
The Iranian lawyer’s Nobel acknowledged ‘her efforts for democracy and human rights. She has focused especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children.’ While people around the world applauded this recognition, others maintained that it was an insult to and part of a continuing conspiracy against Islam. In a statement carried by the Iranian Jomhuri Eslami newspaper, a group from a major seminary said ‘The decision by the Western oppressive societies to award the prize to Ebadi was done in order to ridicule Islam.’ How can what is supposed to be one of the world’s highest honours also be perceived as insult and ridicule?
Shirin Ebadi is one of the few Muslims to have been honoured by the Nobel authorities. The first was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who shared the Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978 for their unexpected Middle East peace overture. In 1981 Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian hard-liners who condemned his rapprochement with Israel. So much for Nobel honor.
One year after Sadat’s award, in 1979 the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam (1926-1996) became the first Muslim to win a Nobel Science Prize, and the first Pakistani to win any Nobel. The achievement was greeted in the West with the customary apotheosis. But the accolade in Salam’s home country was very different. Salam belonged to the fringe Ahmadi sect of Islam, which was formally excommunicated in 1977 for its belief in a 19th-century promised messiah. Salam, once the Pakistan President’s chief scientific adviser, was ostracized. Revivalist Muslim voices criticized his Nobel award as a desperate attempt to restore Ahmadi credibility. In a grotesque eructation of prejudice and hate, the award was scorned as a deliberate insult to Islam.
After his funeral in 1996, Salam’s tombstone in Rabwah, Pakistan was inscribed ‘Abdus Salam, the First Muslim Nobel Laureate’ (innocently ignoring Sadat’s 1978 award). Soon the grave was visited by contemptuous outsiders and the inscription edited – and the error magnified – by an imperious hammer and chisel to read ‘Abdus Salam, the First … Nobel Laureate’. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, and the now absurd epitaph was daubed with black paint.
After Salam’s award, the 1988 Nobel Literature Prize went to the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), whose initial literary success in the 1960s and 70s created a new hub of Arabic culture. This became overshadowed by his controversial Awlad Haratina (Children of the Alley) which was banned in much of the Arab world after reactionary Islamic scholars declared its portrayal of religious figures to be blasphemous. In the darkness of such bigotry, writers who can still write are deemed more dangerous than what they actually publish. In 1994 Mahfouz almost died after being knifed in the neck, and was left unable to work.
In 1994 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shared the Peace Prize with Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for their resolute but eventually futile efforts towards resolving the perennial Israel-Palestine conflict. Such a pairing of names which not that long before had been sworn enemies soon created a new conflict of its own, and in 1995 Rabin was assassinated in his own country, a macabre reflection of the Sadat episode.
(On a less controversial note, in 1999, the Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zewail was awarded the Nobel Chemistry Prize for his work in using laser beams to track chemical reactions, ‘freeze-framing’ their evolution. 2005, Mohamad ElBaradei, the Egyptian Director General of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), and the IAEA itself received the Peace Prize for their efforts in preventing nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and for promoting its safe use for peaceful aims. In 2006, Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh received the Peace Prize for his idea of ‘micro-credits’ – mini-loans to help disadvantaged people haul themselves out of poverty.)
The world’s 800 million Muslims make up about ten per cent of the world’s population, but have garnered just a handful of Nobel awards, many of them generating more controversy than honour. Jews make up a small fraction of one per cent of the world’s population, but have won hundreds of Nobel prizes. This track record alone is enough to convince ultraconservative Muslims that the Nobel dice are loaded. But why such disparity and dissent?
The West has grown to view the Orient from afar through a thick prism which distorts the transmitted image. For more than a thousand years, the membrane between Islam and the West, inflamed by lack of understanding, has been rubbed raw by mutual hypersensitivity, and the ulcerated wound periodically erupts. It appears to be especially sensitive to Nobel Prizes.