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Unification of Forces: The Muslim, the Atheist, and the Higgs

Circumnavigations

Austin Dacey

July 20, 2012

The first Muslim Nobel Laureate scientist was shunned by his native Pakistan.

Abdus Salam (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)Abdus Salam (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In the excitement following the discovery of a Higgs-like boson at the Large Hadron Collider, a few observers have paused to remember one physicist who was scorned in his home country. The new discovery could mean the completion—or the beginning of the end, depending on whom you ask—of the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, the prevailing explanation for the known particles and the forces that act on them. One of the theoretical architects of the Standard Model was Muhammad Abdus Salam. He shared the 1979 Nobel Prize along with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow for their converging work on the electroweak theory that unifies two of the four fundamental forces.

There is one reason the name Abdus Salam is not known to every Pakistani schoolchild of the present generation: he was a member of the banned Ahmadiyya sect, specifically the Qadiani group, whose members consider themselves Muslims but are officially deemed apostates because they deny that Muhammad was the last prophet.

Salam was born to a lower-middle-class family in a small town in the Punjab region of what is now Pakistan. A gifted youth, he earned scholarships to attend Government College and later Cambridge University, where he took his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1951. Returning home with the aim of pursuing basic research in Pakistan, he soon found this to be “impossible.” “With anguish in my heart,” he later said, “I made myself an exile—and it was this anguish which led me to propose the creation of an International Centre for Theoretical Physics [ICTP].” The center was created in Trieste, Italy, in 1964. ICTP researchers were among those analyzing debris of particle collisions in the ATLAS experiment, an indispensible part of the Higgs hunt.

Salam served as a key adviser to the Pakistani government on its nuclear weapons program until 1974, when he resigned in protest of the parliament’s adoption of a constitutional provision declaring the Ahmadiyya to be non-Muslim.

Physics and Metaphysics

In addition to his research, Salam was a lifelong advocate for science in developing countries. While it could be said that he sometimes idealized the scientific past of “the Islamic world,” Salam did not shrink from diagnosing the dismal state of contemporary science. When the distinguished Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodhboy, well-known for his staunchly secularist views, asked Salam to write the preface for his book Islam and Science: Coexistence and Conflict, he expected his more devout colleague to decline. Salam stunned Hoodhboy by agreeing and beginning his preface by stating, “I completely agree with him that religious orthodoxy and the spirit of intolerance are two of the major factors responsible for killing the once flourishing enterprise of Science in Islam.”

The preface goes on with Salam joining Hoodhboy in opposing the “Islamic Science” movement: “I agree with the statement that there is only one universal Science; that its problems and modalities are international and that there is no such thing as ‘Islamic Science’ just as there is no ‘Hindu Science,’ no ‘Jewish Science,’ no ‘Confucian Science,’ nor ‘Christian Science.’”

Salam had no trouble seeing himself as united in a shared quest with “an avowed atheist,” Weinberg, who famously has said that the more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless: “We were both ‘geographically and ideologically remote from each other’ when we conceived the same theory . . . .” Weinberg once recalled in an interview that in Salam’s practice, Islam was also compatible with keeping a ready supply of scotch in one’s desk drawer. And yet, far from being separate from his scientific life, Salam’s religious worldview was a kind of moral-spiritual Higgs field surrounding it.

In Abdus Salam’s understanding of his tradition, the practice of science was a part of a spiritual practice: “As a scientist, the Holy Quran speaks to me in that it emphasizes reflection on the Laws of Nature” and exhorts believers “to study Nature, to reflect, to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate and to make acquiring of knowledge and scientific comprehension part of the community’s life.” Most interesting, he suggested that Islam contributed to his intellectual attraction to work on the unification of forces: “If there was any bias towards the unification paradigm in my thinking, it was unconsciously motivated from my background as a Muslim.”

The absolute oneness and unity of God, the principle of tawhid, is foundational to Islamic theology. For many Ahmadiyya in particular, tawhid—the verbal noun of wahhada, “to make one”—is the preeminent principle of Islam. No doubt, the principle generates no end of metaphysical imponderables. What is God’s relation to the Creation? Can God be distinct from the world while at the same time everywhere present in it? Or is God everywhere present in the world because the world is one with God? For many Sufis, the latter thought is elevated to the ultimate aim of religious life—personal union with God as the realization of tawhid. Salam, however, may have embraced a conception of tawhid less metaphysical than ethical. In a 1986 interview he characterized Islamic morality as a set of “universal” concerns: “care for the environment, lack of specialization, care for wholeness.”

A Final Indignity

The tragic irony of Abdus Salam’s life was that the unity and unification he sought both in religion and science was denied him in his homeland. His vision of multiethnic cosmopolitan centers where “concourses of scholars” could congregate in common pursuit of basic research, to which he tirelessly tried to rally Islamic countries with their oil reserves overflowing with Allah’s bounty, was to be realized—not in Lahore but in Trieste, at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics that bears his name. Pervez Hoodhboy’s remembrance ends with this lament:

Salam’s epoch-making achievements as a scientist stand in stark contrast with his dismal failure to bring science back to Islam. It was not for lack of trying, but nothing ever really worked. The Islamic Science Foundation, a grand scheme for scientific advancement with an endowment of $1 billion collected from oil-rich countries, came to naught after Salam was banned from ever setting foot in Saudi Arabia. . . . Salam’s efforts did contribute towards creating at least some of the score or so organizations whose raison d’etre is to accelerate science and technology in Muslim countries. But these organizations provide nothing but cushy jobs for those who sit at their helms, and they are no more than litter on the landscape today.

Abdus Salam was buried in Pakistan after his death in 1996. In a final indignity, his headstone, which originally read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate” was changed so as to remove “Muslim,” leaving the absurd appellation “First Nobel Laureate” separated by an ugly gap.

The grave of Abdus Salam. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)The grave of Abdus Salam. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey's photo

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.