Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What really makes the airplanes fly?

If you fly on Pakistan's national carrier (Pakistan International Airlines), you will hear a recording of the recitation of a Qur'anic verse before every take off (its the same verse each time). Furthermore, usually no urdu or english translation is provided - thus, for most people, it becomes a formula to be recited without the necessity of knowing its meaning. So I found this short piece in the recent New Yorker quite amusing: Mysteries of Flight.

Here, the author is talking about his uncle, who was also the mudir (headmaster) of his madrassa in Kumsai, Ghana. This segment also highlights the love-hate relationship of Muslims with the West, especially when it comes to modern science:
He often expressed admiration for Western achievements in science and technology, but he was also fond of insisting that none of the advances made by the West had ever outsmarted death. One day, I heard my uncle tell the assistant mudir that his lack of faith in the West arose from the simple fact that the white man couldn’t make electricity shock-free. In my uncle’s view, something that gives light, energy, and even life should not also harm or kill. This perceived failure alone was enough to cast doubt in Uncle’s mind over the entirety of Western civilization.

My uncle’s skepticism, as irrational as it was logical and theological, was founded on the belief that Western science could never attain perfection; perfection could be achieved solely by the one and only Allah. And yet Uncle Ustaz did believe that the West had come close to perfection in the field of aviation. He marvelled at the fact that something as heavy as a jet plane, with all its cargo, could stay in the air for such a long time. When I was about eleven, Uncle started disseminating a theory that went like this: airplanes are able to take off from the ground and remain in the firmament only because aviation engineers worldwide recite a special prayer verse from the Koran before each plane departs. In 1982, Uncle Ustaz took a trip to Nigeria, and, when he returned, he claimed to have seen something that proved his theory: an aviation engineer, “a white man he was,” placed a hand on one of the plane’s tires and read aloud from a small Koran just as the plane was preparing for takeoff. Soon, the story of the Koran-reciting aviation engineer became an article of faith in my city’s Muslim community; it had finally been shown that the white man was powerless without the aid of Almighty Allah.

Read the full article here.

5 comments:

Nizam said...

Nice insight into the dynamics of faith and superstition.

It's also funny that the uncle in the article is named "Ustaz Salman" (Professor Salman) -- a little coincidence?

It's been a while since I flew on PIA, but if I recall correctly, the words they recite before the flight are a prayer associated with boarding a means of transportation, which translates, "Glory be to Him who has placed this (mode of transportation) at our service, for we could never have accomplished this (by ourselves). And to our Lord, surely must we return."

I believe its earliest uses were in the context of horses or camels, not mechanical inventions.

Nizam said...

I am also reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's third law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Salman Hameed said...

I am also reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's third law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Ah! excellent point. Of course, a more extreme example of this would be the cargo cults

apashiol said...

Seeing that the Uncle's lack of faith in the West is due to the failure to develop shock-free electricity, does this mean Muslims have fire that gives heat and light but doesn't burn them?

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