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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.

Recent Comments

  1. Moataz Attallah

    It is unfair to judge the contribution of Islam and Muslims to humanity by considering only 110 years of the history of mankind. During this period, the majority of the Muslim nations were first under occupation by the Western countries, and only became independent starting the 1940s. It is only later when the Muslims scientists started to travel to the West to live and work, where they proved themselves among other non-Muslim scientists. I suppose you have not watched the documentary that was on the BBC a week ago on Science in Islam, which showed that many of the great scientific discoveries were actually made by Muslim scientists.

    In all cases, Nobel prize is not an excellent criterion to judge the contribution of a certain race/religion/nationality to mankind. Otherwise, you could erroneously deny almost any contribution for China or India, based on the number of Nobel prizes they received to their population.

  2. Sara

    May one be so crass as to ask for author Fraser’s cultural/religious background? His article smacks of bias and of an attempt to belittle Muslims as a people. As a previous comment noted, it is unfair to judge Muslims’ contributions to mankind on the basis of only 110 years of history and on criteria established by the West. And one is compelled to ask: What is Mr. Fraser’s point? I think I know what it is, but I’d rather hear it from him.

  3. Sara

    I’d also like to note that only one Israeli has won the Nobel Prize, and that was for work he was able to do in the United States!

  4. Rebecca

    I don’t think Fraser is trying to belittle anyone but rather to look at the reaction and reception of someone who does win the Nobel Prize.

  5. Nadeem

    I can understand how Dr. Salam felt when he was refused to open an institute in Pakistan. I’m glad he didn’t open that institute in any Islamic country….you could imagine what these fundamentalists have done to that.

  6. PMHowell

    It would appear that the writers Sara and Attallah have misapprehended the editorial, and or the book by Gordon Fraser, taking a defensive aggressive view of any part of the commentary that touches upon Islam in other than a favourable way.

    The author Fraser does not denigrate the contributions ascribed to Muslim/Arabic culture, nor does he seek to demean Islam by the current paucity of Nobel prizes for Muslim ‘scientists’. Similarly, he does not glorify the overwhelming preponderance Judeo/Christian Nobel prize-winning scientists because that has no bearing on ethic of the awards.

    He tells the story of Adbul Salam, a scientist and a Muslim , who sought to promote scientific endeavour in the Islamic world and was ostracized by his countrymen for his troubles . Shame on the clerics.

    And, shame on the writers for being so narrow minded and parochial, a reflection of the mind set that reached out and desecrated Salam’s tombstone and grave.

    Perhaps Greece would like to complain as it is officially listed with only two Nobel prizes, though one suspects there are others in their Diaspora.

    Hungary too should seek reparations for being inadequately represented in the ‘national league tables’…

    The English barely ever complain about being second; just the weather, and in any event they seem to be disproportionately represented, obviously a secret pact with the Swiss.

    Perhaps the attribution of Nobel prizes to ethnicity, religion and or cultural backgrounds is a useful indicator, just because it does not favour your viewpoint does not make it an invalid statement.

    If the writers feel so strongly about their perceived bias or the irrelevance of the Nobel Prizes, why not write a reasoned, logical and provocative counterpoint. By all means describe the historic contribution of Islamic scholars since the seventh century AD, having regard for all that went before them and has since paralleled their achievements. Perhaps there is already such a book or two on the subject and a good read might calm them down.

    And, if you want to nitpick over ‘Israeli’ Nobel Prizes [actually there are 8 officially ascribed to Israel] then consider that Yasser Arafat’s half ’prize’ for Peace [sic] was based on ‘work’ he did exclusively outside Palestine, and Iran has one, of two prizes, attributed by Doris Lessing in deference to who knows what – not likely Sufism – and she is still British, I think.

  7. Sara

    I’m afraid Mr. Howell is the one who “misapprehended” the editorial. Mr. Fraser did not refer to “Judeo/Christian” Nobel Prize winners, whatever or whomever that may be. He in fact compared the number of Muslim winners to the number of Jewish winners. What is Mr. Fraser’s point in comparing the number of Nobel prizes won by Muslims to the number of prizes won by Jews??? One might more reasonably compare the number won by individuals from various countries, I would think. Would Mr. Fraser compare the number won by Christians versus Muslims? Or the number won by Christians versus Jews? No, of course not. His comments are racist at the core and are meant to demean Muslims. (By the way, I am a Western Christian, but I have seen this information put forth many times by Zionists who expect one to draw the conclusion that Jews are more worthy than Muslims, and ergo, are more entitled to the land of Palestine. Mr. Fraser is just one of many propagandists.) Perhaps Mr. Fraser, or Mr. Howell, would like to comment on the fact that individuals working in Germany have won over 100 Nobel Prizes compared to Israel’s “8”.

  8. David

    So we should keep our mouths shut about the achievements of one group compared to another just because the Muslims have an inferiority complex?

  9. JP

    Sara’s comment that the author’s “comments are racist at the core” does not really make sense. Islam is not a race, it’s a religion. And that religion happens to promote a culture that is apparently opposed to many of the values and accomplishments that the rest of the world acknowledges to be worthwhile and laudable. Some ideologies ARE inherently better than others, based on both their impact on the welfare of humankind and what they proclaim to be right and wrong. A quick internet search revealed that 163 Jews (not necessarily Israelis) have won a Nobel Prize. Therefore I also find Moataz Attallah’s comment irrelevant. He makes the excuse that the Muslim nations “only became independent starting in the 1940’s.” The Jews didn’t even have a nation until the late 1940’s, and yet they have won 163 Nobel Prizes, even though they currently make up less than 1% of the world’s population. This seems to indicate to me that one culture fosters more concern for human welfare than the other. And Sara, if you are a Christian, you should be able to appreciate Genesis 18:18 – …”Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him…” One ethnicity is not inherently better than another, but the ideologies they embrace profoundly impact their contributions to humankind.

  10. Moataz Attallah

    To David, the Muslims have inferiority complex? I think it’s really shameful and racist (even though Islam is not a race) to say that comment.
    To JP, the Jews did not have a state until 1947. So the Jews who earned the prize were actually citizens of the Western imperialistic countries which occupied the Muslim countries and consumed their resources, and they had every reason to excel in all fields of human knowledge, in the absence of occupation. I think if the Muslim world had had 1% of the support that the Western countries gave to Israel (e.g. building them a nuclear reactor, like what the French did by building the Israeli’s reactor, or giving an access to the latest military technologies as the Americans did), the Muslim world would have achieved a good number of Nobel prizes by now. Unfortunately, all what the Muslim world received from the West was destruction (Iraq), terror and oppression (by the French in Algeria and the Italians in Lybia), land mines (Egypt), sectarian tensions (India and Pakistan), and sometimes dictators.

    I still think that assessing the contributions of Islam to mankind by Nobel prize is not scientific. If the last 110 years of the contributions of certain races, religions, or nationalities are assessed this way, we might equally come up with many fallacies on the contribution of the Hindus, atheists, Africans, Chinese, or Indian to mankind. This article reminds me of the racist studies used to be performed during the previous century, which claimed that the white people had IQs higher than the black people. I expect that the author of this article shares a similar opinion regarding the IQs of the Muslims.

  11. JP

    To Moataz, I don’t see how help from the West would give an advantage in economics or literature, in which Jews have been awarded 24 and 12 Nobel prizes, respectively.I also rather doubt that access to nuclear power and military technology helped them win the 49 prizes they’ve been awarded in medicine. Also, there are many “Muslim” nations which have a vastly greater supply of natural resources than Israel. It’s not a matter of IQ, it’s a matter of what that intelligence is used for. The Jewish culture seems to focus on living life and being productive, while (at least to some extent) the Muslim culture focuses on hating Israel.

    “While Israel builds its future with Nobel laureates, the Arab world fills its future with suicide bombers. Ever since the inception of the State of Israel, Arabs have had this romantic notion that through wars and revenge we can return to our past glory…The Oslo Accords produced a willing Israel and exposed fraudulent Palestinians. Again, we watched as Arab leaders mounted a campaign of deceit to divert our attention away from our own oppression. We, the obedient Arab sheep, followed. We carried banners, objected, revolted and in the end, we created a new cadre of school children with strong arms to throw stones but without the education and discipline — no brains to produce Nobel prizes…Arab children that throw stones seem to feel an invisible power that is not available to the children of the State of Israel. That power to revolt consequently pre-disposes to a low self-esteem, which inevitably helps to build the mentality of a suicide bomber.

    Suicide bombers feel nothing, understand little, and cannot see the future. They go on automatic pilot with the brain functioning as a guiding tool to self-destruct literally, as a person and against the society that developed them. Suicide bombers represent the lowest of our self-esteem as people of Arab descent….Every time the Syrian Ba’athists call for armed resistance, secretly support groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and propagandize Arab unity, we fall further and further into oblivion. The funny thing is that very few Arabs care to understand why we do not have Nobel laureates.

    They blame it on Imperialism and Zionism. In their minds, absent these two forces, we could be raking in those Nobel prizes. So while Israel survives Intifadas, wars, hate, and oppressive Arab rulers, we, the Arab people, must wake-up…”

    These are excerpts from an article written by Farid Ghadry.

    I know some of you aren’t going to agree with me, but I don’t think the leaders of the Arab nations care at all about their fellow Arab refugees. The more the refugees suffer, the more it helps their (the leader’s) cause to wipe Israel off the map. If they really cared about the refugees, they would let them into their countries,like Israel welcomed the Jews coming out of Arab countries. If a tiny state like Israel could take in the more than 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab nations, one would certainly think that the many Arab nations could take in the Arab refugees. There is no logical explanation for why refugees from an area less than 1/600 of the Arab nations’ land mass cannot be absorbed by those nations.

  12. Moataz Attallah

    To JP, point by point:

    a. I see no problem in many Jews receiving Nobel prize; I admit that the Jews have done significant achievements in all fields of knowledge (Einstein, Feynman, Weinberg, etc.. are all great scientists), but this has nothing to with their religion but rather with them being citizens of countries that promote this kind of achievement, and by the way Israel only achieved 7 Nobel laureates (including 2 shared prizes in chemistry and peace).
    b. The century of the Muslim nations history has been unfortunately a period of weakness, with occupation or dictator rulers who do not promote education or science, for fear of losing their power.
    c. Why are you quoting Farid Ghadry? Is that because he’s a member of the AIPAC? I suggest that you read this article instead http://www.zewail.caltech.edu/independent1.pdf

    d. To take the refugees in other Arab countries means to destroy the Palestinian cause completely. We should never forget the true facts: Gaza, Golan and the West bank are occupied lands, occupied by brutal force and war crimes in 1967. This land should be returned in return for peace. This is even the official position of most Arab states (Arab initiative for peace since 2002). However, Israel’s response has always been terrorism against the poor Palestinians who have nothing to do with the suicide bombs of any Palestinian factions.

    You see JP, there’s an Arabic proverb which says “Continuing the same state is impossible”. If the Muslims are weak, ignorant, and useless today, and other non-Muslim countries are strong, some changes will happen, even if takes the Muslims another centuries to become powerful (again). I have strong faith this will happen.

  13. JP

    We should never forget the true facts? What you stated is not fact, it is propoganda. The “occupied” lands were a part of Israel that the invading Arab nations took from them soon after they became a nation. They were in FACT occupied lands until Israel regained the land in 1967. You can’t have it both ways. You’re trying to say that land that was taken from Israel by aggression rightfully became the property of the aggressors, but when the surrounding nations attacked again in 1967 and Israel regained the land, Israel became an “occupier?” And please clarify for me: what exactly is the Palestinian cause? The Arabs already control the majority of historical Palestine; it’s called Jordan today. And the land for peace idea will never work. Of course the Arab nations promote this idea, but their objective is not peace, it is to wipe Israel off the map. Having them give up land makes this easier to achieve.
    I do agree that the Muslims will become powerful again, because I believe they are the main power seen in the Christian end-time prophecies.

  14. JP

    Somehow we got off on a tangent. This really has little to do with the Nobel prizes. I am sure we can both agree that there has been wrongdoing on both sides; maybe we should just let it at that.

  15. Author

    As the author of ‘Cosmic Anger – Abdus Salam, the first Muslim Nobel Scientist’, I am pleased to see so much comment and feedback here. My original point was the shabby treatment which Salam (and many other Muslim Nobels) have suffered from their fellow Muslims, a humiliation which contrasts sharply with the glory accorded to other Nobel laureates.

    The book seeks to explain such seemingly unaccountable misfortune, not to highlight any dearth of prizes or perceived ability to win them. I am sorry if some people misinterpreted this objective and seized the wrong end of the stick. They should read again the final paragraph of my original piece.

    Salam himself was ashamed of the decline of science in the heritage of Islam, and struggled hard to restore it to its former glory, which had opened the door to the European Renaissance. These valiant efforts to revive Islamic science were undermined by excommunication and contempt.

  16. Joe C

    I would like to start by saying that I am not knowledgeable on all the history and facts regarding the Israel/ Palestine conflict, and nor do I think it has anything to do with what the author is trying to convey in his book. This is not about race. It has nothing to do with Jews from Israel, or elsewhere, versus Muslims from various nations, and how they compare as contributors to modern knowledge and human endeavor. The fact that that argument sprung up to dominate among all that the author mentioned goes to show how distracting and consuming that hate is to the people who feel attached to it, and I believe JP’s quote of Farid Ghadry’s on how this hateful distraction has dominated Islamic nations on many levels, is one of the reasons why they their people lack in Nobel prizes.

    Having the perspective of growing up in North America, I believe the main reason there is a disparity in Nobel awards between Muslims and other people of different nations has to do with the freedom that each nation is governed under. In the Muslim nations religion and state are one, so that anyone outside of the beliefs of Islam are shunned by the government and it’s majority population. I am not an expert on Muslim nations and their policies; however, knowing the freedoms allowed for people in the “western world”, in contrast to the conservatism of the Muslim nations, it is plain to see the relation between the freedom of an individual, and his or her ability to achieve new ideas in science, literature, and human relations.

    So instead of being defensive and insulted by these exchanges of thoughts and opinions, try to consider rational reasons for this Nobel disparity issue. The notion that the “western world” is plotting against the “Muslim World” in a conspiracy to belittle them is just stupid. My personal belief is that when the Muslim nations begin to be run by progressive people who see the importance of running democracies that promote freedom to it’s people on all fronts ( science, religion, free speech, woman’s rights etc.), its people’s intellectual freedoms will flourish and probably outnumber other nations in Nobel recognized achievements. I believe this is at the core of Gordon Fraser’s book. The fact that Abdus Salam’s great achievement was “scorned as a deliberate insult to Islam” ,simply because he had slightly different religious beliefs, shows how intolerant the populace is promoted to grow in nations that still can’t separate religion and state. I believe religion in all it’s hundreds of varied forms and interpretations is each human beings attempt to understand our creator. I don’t, however, believe that to be a part of the new global world, full of different religious beliefs, it is possible to take your biblical beliefs so literally that it makes liars and enemies out of others. If i could say one thing to an Islamic extremist I’d say, “Stop defending a religion that has no need for defense, and allow your people to think radical thoughts and reach for ideas outside of the norm, and you will find that not only will the Islamic religion stand on it’s own, and forever as one of humankind’s most fallowed interpretations of God, but the Muslim people will be able to contribute to more modern advancements”.

  17. YMénard

    Scientific facts are sooooo islamophobic (apparently, reading some comments).

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