Sunday, October 31, 2010

Life: extraterrestrial, artificial, synthetic...

Here is a 10 min segment of conversation about life between Dawkins and Matt Ridley:

For the sake of sanity...

Yes, I'm still at the SSSR conference in Baltimore. However, a few of us had to sneak out today to restore some sanity. It was absolutely amazing - people, people, everywhere! May be really a lot of people (though this looks a bit on the high-end).

And we definitely boosted this number with our presence - if only for a brief period of time (we had to come back for an afternoon session at the conference). You can see me on the left hand-side of the picture below:


And here is how it looked like from where we were standing - far, far, far, away from the stage:

And here are some Iranian-Americans for sanity:

Pakistan and Iran are so far away that for most Americans it probably doesn't matter who's who. So...I guess, you can count me in as an Iranian-American also... (close-enough):

How can you not like this rally?

Below here is Hans Henrik Hjermitslev (I'm so glad I only have to write his last name here, and not actually pronounce it) restoring sanity. When he is not attending rallies, he is usually working on understanding various creationist movements in Denmark. And yes, the crazy guy on the left is correct: "You are all mad":


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Separating the Taliban from Al Qaeeda

I'm in Baltimore to attend the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR). I will try to post about some of the talks at the meeting. Our panel is tomorrow (Friday) - on Creationism in Europe. I will update soon.

In the mean time, here is a reliably interesting article by our friend, Scott Atran, How to turn the Taliban against Al-Qaeeda from yesterday's NYT. (Also see Scott Atran's Science & Religion lecture video: For Friends and Faith) Perhaps, the most interesting part of the article suggests that, because of the recent troops surge, many of the traditional Taliban leaders have been killed and replaced by very young, and far-more unpredictable commanders. In fact, this has even disrupted the traditional tribal code that binds many of the Taliban groups:

The United States claims to have killed thousands of Taliban in recent months, mostly foot soldiers and midlevel commanders. But those 25-year-old foot soldiers are being replaced by teenage fighters, and the 35-year-old midlevel commanders by 20-something students straight out of the religious schools called madrasas, which are the only form of education available in many rural areas.
These younger commanders and their fiercely loyal fighters are increasingly removed from the dense networks of tribal kinship and patronage, or qawm, and especially of friendship born of common experiences, or andiwali, that bind together the top figures in the established insurgent groups like the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network. Indeed, it is primarily through andiwali — overlapping bonds of family, schooling, years together in camps, combat service, business partnership — that talks between the adversaries, including representatives of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, and Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s ultimate leader, have continued over the years.
These new Taliban warriors, however, are increasingly independent, ruthless and unwilling to compromise with foreign infidels and their associates. They yearn to fight, and describe battle as going on vacation from the long, boring interludes of training and waiting between engagements. They claim they will fight to the death as long as any foreign soldiers remain, even if only in military bases.
AS with the older Taliban, their ideology — a peculiar blend of pan-Islamic Shariah law and Pashtun customs — is “not for sale,” as one leader told a Times reporter. But the new cohort increasingly decides how these beliefs are imposed on the ground: recently the Quetta Shura sent a Muslim scholar to chastise a group of youthful commanders in Paktia Province who were not following Mullah Omar’s directives; they promptly killed him.
It is hard to imagine that things can be worse for Afghanistan than the civil war that ensued after the Soviet forces withdrew from the region. To a certain degree it is almost surreal that we are talking about the old order of the Taliban as the more stable one and are dreading the new fragmented Taliban (please note that the term Taliban already denotes multiple groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border). So Atran's main message is to hold talks and drive a wedge between the traditional Taliban factions (Mullah Omar, the Haqqani group) and Al Qaeeda. This is actually quite possible - partly because the number of Al Qaeeda operatives has decreased significantly and the fact that Mullah Omar was never happy with Bin Laden (this has been actually documented by several people). Here is Atran addressing the latter part:

So why hold talks at all? Because there is a good chance that the Taliban can be persuaded to cut ties with Al Qaeda and offer some sort of guarantee that President Karzai won’t be left hanging from a lamppost when the Americans leave (as President Muhammad Najibullah, the puppet Afghan leader of the 1980s, was after the Soviets fled). The veteran correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave recently told me that when he met with Mullah Omar shortly before 9/11, he was “stunned by the hostility” the mullah expressed for Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, there is strong evidence that in the late 1990s Mullah Omar tried to crack down on Mr. bin Laden’s activities — confiscating his cellphone, putting him under house arrest and forbidding him to talk to the press or issue fatwas. But then, as the Taliban were deliberating about how to “disinvite” their troublesome guest after 9/11, the United States invaded, bombing them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda.
Likewise, it should be possible to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and the Haqqanis. The group’s leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was once called “goodness personified” by Representative Charlie Wilson, the great patron of the Afghan mujahedeen. During the Soviet occupation, he was a principal conduit of funds between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the Islamic rebels, and remains a key link between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
But instead of waiting, Atran believes that the time for negotiations is right now:
The smarter move would be to turn the current shadow-play about talks into serious negotiations right now. The older Taliban leaders might well drop their support for Osama bin Laden if Western troops were no longer there to unite them. The Haqqanis, too, are exclusively interested in their homeland, not global jihad, and will discard anyone who interferes in their lives. No Haqqanis joined Al Qaeda before 9/11, because they couldn’t stand Arabs telling them how to pray and fight.
The problem now, for the Taliban leaders, the Afghan government, its Western backers and Pakistan, is that the main “success” of the recent surge — killing thousands of Taliban foot soldiers and midlevel commanders — may create a whirlwind that no one will be able to control.
Read the full article here. Also, read this earlier post, Atran on Afghanistan-Pakistan Problem.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies at Hampshire College

Hampshire College has launched a Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS). I will, of course, keep you informed about any events associated with the center. Here is the press-release:
Hampshire College Announces Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies 

AMHERST, Mass., Oct. 27 (AScribe Newswire) -- A center for academic research and scholarship related to science in Muslim societies has been established at Hampshire College.
         While research centers and academic programs for general study of Islam and Muslim societies exist at other colleges and universities, the Hampshire center is unique in its approach and focus on science, says Salman Hameed.
         Professor Hameed, who teaches integrated sciences and humanities and has been working on understanding the reception of biological evolution in the Muslim world, has been named director of the new Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College.
         "There is an increasingly urgent need for understanding and education about Islam and Muslim societies," said Hameed. "This is perhaps the only center focused on examination of intersections and interactions between science and Muslim societies, (both in Muslim-majority countries and in Muslim diasporas in the West). It will bring together scholars working across disciplines on a significant set of questions and issues."
         At a time when science is becoming increasingly important in everyday life and for economic development, it is important to understand how it is understood and taught, and the role it plays in various Muslim societies, where religion plays a significant cultural role, Hameed said. "This relationship with science is complex, and increasingly so, as science is freighted with issues of colonialism, modernity and progress, as well as moral and religious implications."
         SSiMS builds on and extends work already being completed at the college, which is a member of Massachusetts' distinguished Five College consortium (Hampshire, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst).
         Hampshire College hosted an international conference on Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World in fall 2009. A separate research project, funded by the National Science Foundation and being conducted by professors at Hampshire, Northeastern, and McGill University, is studying the acceptance of biological evolution and perspectives on science and religion among Muslim physicians and medical students in eight different countries. An ongoing Science and Religion lecture series at Hampshire brings top scholars to campus to speak on a wide variety of issues, with some of the lectures related to Islam and science.
         SSiMS research will be interdisciplinary, with a mission of building knowledge and understanding of how social, political, historical, and religious factors influence- and are influenced by - the methodologies and findings of science. Perspectives from science, the humanities, and social science will be integrated, with scholars working across fields.
         One goal of SSiMS is expanded course offerings in collaboration with faculty across the consortium, which offers a Five College Certificate Program in Middle Eastern studies. Another goal is to host young research fellows in a variety of fields who are interested in the study of science in muslim societies.
         "The center will build on Hampshire's existing strengths in science education and our interdisciplinary approach to research and pedagogy," said Hameed.  
For contact information, check out the press-release.

More on Turkey: Religion, commerce and the teaching of evolution

I'm back in the States, but Turkey is still on my mind. So first, here is an oped in yesterday's NYT: Turkey Steps Out. As usual, this is a calm and measured piece by Roger Cohen, looking at Turkey's foreign policy as pragmatic and perhaps very successful:
 Zero problems with neighbors lay at the core of Davutoglu’s influential book “Strategic Depth,” published in 2001. Annual trade with Russia has since soared to $40 billion. Syrian-Turkish relations have never been better. Turkey’s commercial sway over northern Iraq is overwhelming. It has signed a free trade agreement with Jordan. And now Turkey says it aims — United Nations sanctions notwithstanding — to triple trade with Iran over the next five years.
All this makes the anemic West edgy: The policy has produced 7 percent growth this year. There’s also something deeper at work: The idea of economic interdependence as a basis for regional peace and stability sounds awfully familiar. Wasn’t that the genius of the European Union idea?
Which prompts another question: Can it only work for Westerners? I don’t think so. And, having shortsightedly kept Turkey out of the European Union, the West is scarcely qualified to complain. As British Prime Minister David Cameron, Turkey’s strongest European supporter, said recently, “It is just wrong to say that Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit in the tent.”
Wrong indeed, and stupid, but that’s where Turkey is, with at least a foot outside the Western tent, and increasingly proud of what it has achieved in a transformed world. Nations have increasing options. They don’t depend as much on the United States. Congress can rail about that and it won’t change a thing. Turkish foreign policy, Davutoglu said, “is based on a realistic, rational analysis of the strategic picture.” Yep.
Read the full article here.

And then here is Hurriyet's article on the call for autonomy for the Turkey's top religious authority:
Turkey’s highest religious authority requires autonomy in order to continue to exist within an officially secular state government, its top official has said.
“The solution is to allow the religious institution to be autonomous. Turkey is ready for that,” Professor Ali Bardakoğlu, the head of the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, told daily Radikal’s Ahmet İnsel, an atheist, in an interview published in the paper’s Saturday and Sunday editions.
As far as  I understand it, this is a bold move within the Turkish political system. Now there is a discussion of the toleration of other religious sects within Turkey, but then the teaching of evolution shows up in the interview. This again shows that, unlike other places in the Muslim world, the teaching of evolution has become a political/ideological battleground. The response from Bardakoğlu, unfortunately, is a bit wishy-washy. He could have just said that look, evolution is a scientific idea - like thermodynamics or plate-tectonics, and lets not mix science with religion. End of story. Instead, here is his response:
On the subject on evolution, Bardakoğlu said it could be taught in schools, but as a theory rather than scientific fact. Classes should deal with evolutionary theory and Darwinism not as an ideology but as a way that some people think.
Okay - so in the larger scheme of things, this is a relatively more reasonable statement than many of the Republican candidates in the US are making about evolution. Nevertheless, by bringing up the classic creationist trope, "evolution is just a theory", he leaves the political aspects of the debate alive. Look at the following statements:
“Evolutionary theory [and religion] should never be pitted against each other,” he said.
According to Bardakoğlu, a religious person always prefers religious knowledge over scientific knowledge when they are in conflict, but Islam has never blocked the path of science and progress.
“The purpose of religious knowledge is not making sure you produce more electricity or get better [medical] treatment,” he said. “It is to make a wide and metaphysical explanation of what goes on in this limited area of ours.”
Right - so just say that Islam and evolution should never be pitted against each other - and stop there. Yes, leave scientific matters to science - and I hope next time, Bardakoğlu focuses more on his last two sentences above. May be there is hope...

Read the full article here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

German Imams


This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
After 9/11, and especially after 7/7 (the London subway bombings) and other such striking terrorist acts, European governments came to the conclusion that Islam is now a reality in the west that cannot be ignored (millions of Muslims – each – in France, Germany, UK, etc.); moreover, while “integration” of Muslims into the western culture is a process that may not have succeeded much, one important factor that drew the attention of everyone was that the religious leaders for Muslims in Europe overwhelmingly come from the countries of the “immigrants”. Furthermore, indigenous European Muslims, though a small minority among the Muslim communities of Europe (for instance, in the UK there are only about 60,000 converts among the millions of Muslims), find themselves having to live a new socio-cultural life, in an environment that is characterized par a different language (Arabic, Urdu, Turkish) and different social norms.
The European governments thus moved to create a “European Islam”, by forming supervising bodies, task forces, institutes of Islam, etc., in the aim of developing a home-grown Islamic culture that would be more consistent with the (western) values of modernity, secularism, etc.
The French government created the CFCM (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) and has recently set up the Institut des Cultures d’Islam, among other such ventures. Tony Blair in 2005 formed a governmental taskforce to examine the roots of Islamic extremism in the UK (with the now-famous and undeservedly controversial Tariq Ramadan invited to be a member). And now the German government (the Education Ministry) has announced that imams will be formed in theology departments of German universities.
One should note right away, that this is a significant development, not just at the socio-political level, but at the religious and academic levels too. Germany has long had a tradition of theological studies (as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us – in a very unfortunate way – a few years ago with his lecture at the University of Regensburg). Germany’s secularism is much softer than France’s, where it would be unimaginable for the government to set up (and pay for) a curriculum of education of imams, or any religious program. As the German president himself put it, “if Islam is (now) part of Germany, so it is part of German universities…” Indeed, Osnabrueck University has just opened a course for imams, with 30 students. The universities of Tuebingen and Muenster plan to launch training centers for imams a year from now; they both currently offer courses on Islam, but only as academic subjects, not as part of a training curriculum.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this may be for the religious culture of Islam. Indeed, imams have almost invariably been trained in special “seminaries”, not at universities, certainly not universities where free inquiry and debate are the prime rule. For instance, I wonder whether the “historical, critical” studies of the Qur’an (such as the Corpus Coranicum project, which was started in 2007 by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities) will be part of any such curriculum. I also wonder how much modern science will be part of the curriculum and how much of an effect it will have on the theological paradigm the imams will be carrying and preaching.
How imams fully imbued with the western academic culture will view their religious tradition and their roles in their communities will be extremely interesting to watch. Already we can witness “culture wars” in Europe between Muslim scholars who want to uphold the traditional ideas and social norms and the new religious thinkers who have digested the western approach and the necessity to adapt to the multi-cultural and open landscape, not to mention the minority status of their community.
In addition to this, in some European countries (including Germany), the state’s curriculum includes religious education to all pupils who desire it, divided into parallel classes for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and – in principle – Muslims. For the latter, however, not only does the state not have even a fraction of the teachers needed for such a task, but the community has rarely, if ever, requested it, preferring to provide its own religious education to its children, one that would be devised by the local religious leaders, who almost invariably come from “back home”; in the case of Germany they are, surprisingly enough, most often appointed and paid by the Turkish government.
The religious scholar Rauf Ceylan, whose Kurdish parents came from Anatolia, recently published a book in Germany examining the role of imams in the country (The Preachers of Islam: Imams -- Who They Are and What They Really Want). He stresses that "ultimately, they [the imams] will determine whether young Muslims will endorse a liberal, conservative, or extremist Islam [in Germany/Europe]."



UFOs in the headlines: A parting gift from Istanbul

I'm at the Istanbul airport - reading about UFO sightings as the front-page story of Hurriyet - Daily News (a mainstream newspaper). No - don't worry, there is nothing new. A retired Turkish General was recalling an event from 1983. Too bad, they again left without a trace.

By the way, I also missed an opportunity to visit The International UFO Museum in Istanbul. I've been to the museum in Roswell, so I wanted to get this international flavor. Next time.

In the mean time, here is the UFO story from Hurriyet:

Calling up a live television show Saturday during a heated debate about UFOs, Retired Gen. Erdoğan Karakuş said he and seven other pilots experienced a UFO encounter over the western province of Balıkesir in May 1983.
The UFOs were levitating using an unknown technique, Karakuş said, explaining that he was part of a group of eight pilots flying four Turkish jets to the southern city of Adana for a drill when one of the men spotted something in the air.
“[He] said, ‘I saw some objects, what I should do?’ and I said, ‘It may be a plane signaling for help; I am connecting to the Balıkesir frequency,’” the retired general said. “The flight-control tower in Balıkesir said it did not have any flights [listed]. I thought it might have been a civilian plane.”
The objects accompanied the pilots for 15 minutes as they passed from Balıkesir to the Aegean city of Denizli, Karakuş said, adding that he warned another pilot who wanted to fly toward them not to do so after deciding the objects did not look like planes.
“One of my friends meanwhile turned his [plane’s] lights off. This time [the UFOs] got close to the third plane. They moved on to the second one when the third one also turned its lights off,” Karakuş said, adding that when he looked to his left at that moment, he could not see anything other than a yellow beam of light.
“They moved to my left side when I also turned my [plane’s] lights off, the retired general said, adding that shortly afterwards, four to five lights resembling plane lights appeared. “Then they disappeared with a sudden [maneuver].”
Karakuş said the control towers at airports in Ankara, Istanbul and Konya also detected the UFOs that night. “We reported [the incident] and it was probably sent to NASA.”
By the way, I don't want to simply dismiss this whole experience. It is entirely possible that these pilots saw lights or something else. But again, the fallacy is jumping from unexplained experience to the claim of physical alien spacecrafts. For the latter claim to be credible, such an anecdotal evidence is simply not enough.

P.S. This is a note to those aliens who read this blog: Please quit playing with us. If you are visiting us, please, please, send us a credible signal to those searching for ET signals - may be close to the 1420MHz  hydrogen line. You are also welcome to make an exclusive announcement of your presence/existence on this blog. After all, your existence may lead to some theological reworkings in some of the world religions. Thanks.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Morals and animals

At a recent talk, I had a slide that basic said that humans are a story-telling animal. This was just an aside as I was discussing humanity's attempts to answer questions about our origins - from earlier mythologies to modern science. During the Q&A, one person took exception to this and didn't like the fact that I had degraded humans to the level of animals. But I don't think this is a degradation as I see this as a wonderful connection with other species. Heck - our bodies are made up of similar elements and the same molecule drives life in all species on Earth - which I think is pretty cool! We all love it when it is pointed out that that we are all made of star-stuff. Well, guess what? All other animals are also made of the same star stuff - so we are all equally cool! 

I'm about to leave Istanbul, and I thought I'll leave you with an excellent and thoughtful recent article by Frans de Waal that emphasizes this connection and talks about the good in animals. I will only highlight one aspect of the article, but if you have time, you should read the whole article, Morals Without God? (also also check out the lecture by Barbara J. King, Gorillas and God):
Five centuries later, we remain embroiled in debates about the role of religion in society. As in Bosch’s days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.
Echoing this view, Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.
...
If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain.[2] No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.
And here is the bit about animal empathy:
Even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated. Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals. For example, animals engage in sex without knowing its reproductive consequences, and even humans had to develop the morning-after pill. This is because sexual motivation is unconcerned with the reason why sex exists. The same is true for the altruistic impulse, which is unconcerned with evolutionary consequences. It is this disconnect between evolution and motivation that befuddled the Veneer Theorists, and made them reduce everything to selfishness. The most quoted line of their bleak literature says it all: “Scratch an ‘altruist,’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”[3]
It is not only humans who are capable of genuine altruism; other animals are, too. I see it every day. An old female, Peony, spends her days outdoors with other chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center’s Field Station. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has  trouble walking and climbing, but other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, placing both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.
We have also seen Peony getting up and slowly move towards the water spigot, which is at quite a distance. Younger females sometimes run ahead of her, take in some water, then return to Peony and give it to her. At first, we had no idea what was going on, since all we saw was one female placing her mouth close to Peony’s, but after a while the pattern became clear: Peony would open her mouth wide, and the younger female would spit a jet of water into it.
Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.
And here is the religion connection, and he is referring to several studies that suggest a sense of fairness in other animals: 
Such findings have implications for human morality. According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.
At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no  evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.
At this point, religion comes in. Think of the narrative support for compassion, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the challenge to fairness, such as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with its famous conclusion “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Add to this an almost Skinnerian fondness of reward and punishment — from the virgins to be met in heaven to the hell fire that awaits sinners — and the exploitation of our desire to be “praiseworthy,” as Adam Smith called it. Humans are so sensitive to public opinion that we only need to see a picture of two eyes glued to the wall to respond with good behavior, which explains the image in some religions of an all-seeing eye to symbolize an omniscient God.
...
Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blogging from Turkey: Headscarves, headscarves, and smoking

A few quick observations from Istanbul.

Smoking is unbelievably rampant here. I feel like I'm in a Mad Men episode (by the way, I haven't seen the season finale - so don't say anything about it).

The traffic is insane and the city is huge (but spectacularly beautiful).

There are several big banners posted across the city asking for help for Pakistan flood-victims.

Facebook may also face a ban and may end up the way of Youtube in Turkey. Though the issue of money may be the big reason behind the Youtube ban (see here for the relevant article - tip from Rainer Bromer)

The issue of headscarves is all the rage in the newspapers. I find this issue a bit strange. I can't see how can a reasonably secular society justify banning a religious symbol any more than imposing a dress-code (religious or non-religious). But this is a big issue here as headscarves are banned at university campuses. The ruling party here is trying to overturn this ban - but then, as expected, they are also playing politics with this issue. Here is Erdogan first reasonably defending headscarves within a secular context:
“No one has the right to exclude ethnic groups. Those who think they own the public, and use their authority for different purposes have damaged the Republic more than anything else. We came to this day by living with prohibitions.”
Erdoğan went on to defend secularism, stating that it also protected those who wear headscarves, because secularism cannot flourish in an environment without freedom of religion.
“We have been ruling the country for eight years. Who have we interfered with? People can wear what they want and do what they want in my country,” said Erdoğan, adding that everyone should have the same freedoms and rights.
But then he also talks about gender inequality (huh?!):
Erdoğan defended recent comments that men and women were actually not equal.
“It baffles me that they say “gender equality” on television. They are right when it comes to rights, but men and women are different by nature,” he said, adding that women who defend gender rights do not support equal rights within their own gender, referring to the headscarf issue.
Read the full article here. So while the case for headscarves looks quite clear-cut, some of the fears regarding Erdogan's intentions also seem justified. But read more about the headscarf debate here, including a statement against the headscarves by University Councils' Association, signed by over 500 professors. Another question to ponder is if such a ban becomes the difference between some women getting educated versus staying at home - and what is the cost of it to the country. Also, see this opinion piece about Turkey's headscarf issue in today's issue of Pakistan's Dawn: Headscarves and Secularism on the Bosporus by Irfan Hussain.

But of course, then you also have the whole issue of Burqa/niqaab ban in several European countries. Again, I think it is hard to justify such a ban in societies that value freedom of expression and religion. Yes, there are fears that there are cases that men are forces women to wear a burqa. Yes, crack-down on those individuals - as it should also be the absolute right of every woman not to wear a burqa/niqaab/hijaab (yes, Saudi Arabia's is a case of imposition - but then hardly anyone looks up to Saudi Arabia for a just society). For a more serious exploration of the topic, check out this article by philosopher, Martha Nussbaum: Veiled Threats? (also see her follow-up article: Beyond the Veil - A response).

Pakistanis like to straddle the line with most issues - so the burqa debate is no exception. No there is are no restrictions one way or the other - at least in major cities like Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad. Peshawar and Quetta may be a different case. Nevertheless, we do have a sense of humor about it. Check out this video of Pakistan's burqa drama, Burqavaganza.

And while we are on the subject, also check out the video of this very heated Doha-Debate on French ban on face veiling. Apart from everything else, it is quite fascinating as this debate took place in Qatar and in front of a Arab and non-Arab audience, hosted by the BBC, and the participants were from England, France and Canada (oh and the French participant is very French :) ). One argument against face veils that I simply fail to understand is that "I feel uncomfortable when I see someone with a veil" or that somehow "women with a veil look-down upon non-veiled women" and hence it should be banned. Now I'm not a fan of burqa/niqab/hijaab - but this is completely nuts. Some people feel uncomfortable with tattoos or nose piercings. Should we ban those also? And one doesn't have to wear a veil to look down upon others - or feel morally superior. How can we draw a line at veiling (or for that matter on headscarves in Turkey)?

In any case, check out the video of Doha-debate here. Also see this oped about the French ban from last July in the NYT: Veiled arguments.

Also see earlier posts:
Blogging from Malaysia: Hijabs, mini-skirts, and some robotics
Face-Veiling, National Identity and Higher Education - Part 1
Face-Veiling, National Identity and Higher Education - Part 2

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Goldilocks planet and a vampire

Okay so the two are not necessarily linked - unless we do find an alien race of vampires on Gliese 581g, and I'm not ruling out that possibility. Hey - since the planet is tidally locked (see an earlier post: Gliese 581g: An extrasolar planet sitting in a "habitable zone"), these vampires can be quite happy on the side of the planet that is constantly dark.

So first I wanted to point to a short segment about Gliese 581g - the Golidlocks planet - on our fantastic local (Northampton) radio station, 93.9 - The River. And Monte Belmonte - our morning host/DJ - did a very nice job of adding the appropriate soundtrack to our conversation about the new extrasolar planet. Check out the podcast here (this link download an mp3 of the podcast)

On a (really) different note, Kevin Anderson and I recently wrote an article questioning the rationale behind the very good American remake (Let Me In) of the fantastic Swedish vampire film, Let The Right One In. You can read the full article on 3QuarksDaily:

With the recent release of Let Me In – an English-language remake of the Swedish film, Let the Right One In – we essentially have a carbon-copy of the Scandinavian film.  On the one hand we were relieved – surprised even – that the American incarnation remained true to both the style and content of the original film. On the other hand, as the lights came up, we were compelled to ask, “So why’d they redo it”?
If the remake was done simply to make more money, then one could have imagined the American filmmakers possibly selling out and sacrificing the bleak, contemplative tone of the Swedish version for either the teen romance of the Twilight films or the gorefest of remade foreign horror films. But admirably, the filmmakers resisted the temptation.
There are indeed some minor structural and other changes between the original and the remake.  The bleak, snowy landscape and the featureless and unimaginative architecture of “somewheresville” Sweden is relocated to the equally nondescript outskirts of Los Alamos, New Mexico, circa the cold war era of the early 1980s. However, the rhythm and pacing of both the editing and dialogue match the original so exactly that you half expect the actors to deliver their lines in Swedish while ankle deep in snowdrifts. Yes, there is more explicit mention of religion (and evil) in the American remake, but ultimately, these changes are quite minor for the plot of the film. What we end up with is a vampire romance for an American audience (without the Twilight simplicity), but one with a European sensibility for time, place, character development and dramatic conflict.
Read the full article here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Halal Makeup


This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
Readers of this blog probably will all know that “halal” means “lawful” or “permitted” in Islam, and that it’s a very general term; its opposite is “haram” (religiously forbidden or unlawful). But if you ask people who live in the west, including some Muslims perhaps, they will say “it means meat from slaughtered animals”. So now we have “halal” restaurants from China to the US, including non-Muslim fast-food chains that have opened “halal” branches. (In a previous piece, I had discussed the “religion, science, and politics” of “halal”.)
Many readers, including probably many non-Muslims, will also be familiar with “Sharia-compliant products”, an expression which entered our cultural landscape in the past decade or two regarding financial transactions and other related matters, e.g. loans, sales of certain kinds, real estate markets, capitalization, etc. Many western banks (including Citibank, HSBC, and others) now propose “Sharia-compliant” money schemes for Muslims who have various transactions and needs.
But the idea of “Sharia-compliance” has now become so attractive (think of the purchasing power of Muslims in the west, in the Gulf, and in other places) that every company of every kind is now looking to take advantage of the “Muslim market”.
And so now we have at least two companies proposing “halal makeup”. What, you may ask (as I did when I came across this), makes a makeup product halal or haram? In the article titled “Redefining beauty care products for Muslims”, one learns that the company OnePure now offers “a range of beauty cosmetics and skin care products that are certified Halal”, which is defined as “using no haram products or alcohol”. When I read that, I jumped, talking to the article: “you mean the cologne I put on in the morning (or evenings) is haram??” After all, it’s loaded with alcohol! But I thought that alcohol was haram only for drinking… And I know for certain that even when it’s part of a medicine, it is not considered haram to swallow it! The article, however, goes on to explain that even the fluids used to clean the equipment in the manufacturing process must not contain alcohol or pork or animal bi-products! Indeed, the article further explains that this is important for Muslims, who “must be clean and pure before [praying]…” If “haram ingredients are in your body”, we are told, “your prayers will not be accepted”! Ooh, I better go check all the shampoos, conditioners, and whatever my wife puts in the bathroom (and I don’t even want to get to the products she buys for herself) and make sure they are “clean and pure”…

The creator of OnePure (a woman) tells us that her company’s products are not just halal; they are “third-party certified halal”! She is “proud for setting a new standard in Halal certified beauty”, with thirteen products, and “many more to come, focusing on whitening and anti-aging…” These products are now sold not just on Saudi Airlines, which one would expect, but in the famous Parisian chic megastore Galleries Lafayette! We are thus warned that “the consumer now has a choice whether or not they want to risk using Haram ingredients on their bodies.”
Now, if this were a lone case, I wouldn’t worry too much, although once something like this reaches the Galleries Lafayette, it is certainly an international social phenomenon. Unfortunately, this kind of “pure, halal beauty” commerce is fast multiplying: the brand “Pure Make up” has now appeared in the UK, certified by the Halal Certification Authority in Australia. We are told that its products “are not only popular with Muslim women [not men??] but also with vegans and vegetarians belonging to other faiths.”
And if this halal business trend doesn’t disturb you too much, perhaps I should mention (just briefly) that there are now “Shariah-approved sex aids” for Muslims, a website based in Holland…

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Blogging from Turkey: Food and friends

The food experience in Istanbul so far has been terrific. Part of the reason is that I'm getting good intelligence about where to go and what to eat. But there are some concerns. Look this is what ate for lunch yesterday (Tevuk Sis or Chicken Shish):

This was at Haci Baaba (pronounced Haji Baaba). I would be in serious trouble if I was eating this much at every meal. However, I have been having some great variety of fish as well. I've had it grilled, fried, and in a vegetable curry. In fact, at one of the restaurants, Haci Abdullah, the owner/manager overruled my choice of mixed grills and insisted that I taste the chef's special - fish in vegetable curry. Though I didn't have a choice in this matter, it was still amazing and really full of taste (more similar to fish-curry we have in Pakistan).

Then last night I met philsopher/historian Rainer Bromer and some of his friends (and his nephew) at a fantastic Greek restaurant (Pano Sarapevi) near Taksim. Here is a post-dinner picture (yup - no flash, so the picture is a bit grainy). Rainer is third from the front on the right - or the one with the beard.


And finally, I found a movie theater here that is playing films in english. So everything is all set - and I'm planning on catching Stone some time next week. In addition (or as a bonus) there is an english-speaking psychic/tarot-reader right next to the sinema. Sigh! Some pseudosciences/con-acts have a truly global appeal...


More later...

Blogging from Turkey: At Bogazici University

It has stopped raining in Istanbul! Finally.


On Friday I had the opportunity give a seminar talk at the Department of Education at Boğaziçi University (Bosphorus University). First I must say that the university has absolutely stunning views of the Bosphorus! It was raining while I was there, but it was still hard to dampen the spectacular views from the campus (the picture above was not taken by me, but it should give you an idea of what you see from the university). The main campus itself is also very beautiful, and is designed like a traditional US east-coast campuses. This is not surprising as the university was called Robert College and was built with the help of an American philanthropist, Christopher Robert,  in 1860s (its name changed in 1971 to Bogazici University).

I also had a great time both during and after the talk (thanks so much to Devrim Guven for organizing it). I addressed some of the work we have been doing in understanding the reception of biological evolution in the Muslim world, as well as thinking about ways to handle various concerns that students bring to science/biology classrooms. There was some very good discussion about the place of religion in science classes as well as cultural and social factors that may affect studies like ours. The Q&A went on for 45 minutes after an hour-long talk - so as you can imagine, it was very useful and constructive, as well as some genuine disagreements about different approaches. Oh - and this was followed by a nice and relaxing lunch at the beautiful Kennedy Lodge, where some of these discussions continued. An absolutely wonderful experience.

I think the only misadventure there was with the taxi I took from the hotel. I was warned to be careful and get the taxi that goes by the meter. I even had the idea of roughly how will it cost to get there - about 20 TL. I got the cab and the driver promised me to go by the meter - and yet he got me there 40TL. But it didn't take us twice as long to get there. So perhaps we went through an inverse Wormhole - where it took us slightly longer to get there for twice the money. So I was ready to file it under unexplained problems, such as dark energy and dark matter, when I found out that it is possible that he was using the night-time meter (with higher rates) at 9:30am! Hmm...another mystery bites the dust - oh but I did end up being a sucker. Oh well. By the way, the taxi back cost me 15 TL. Ah...the way back is always shorter (and cheaper)... :)

More from Istanbul coming up...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Oman, Baluchistan, and Pakistan

Nicholas Kristoff has an article about Oman - and how it has changed drastically in the last 40 years. The change has been positive and he credits a lot to education - and especially to women's education. By the way, I have an especially soft spot for Oman as I remember a particular fad in Karachi in the early 1980s to improvise television antennas (and I mean improvise - even aluminum plates could sometimes be seen hanging from the antennas) to catch Omani television station. Not that it was any good and plus it was in Arabic and only ran from 5pm to 10 or 11pm. But just the mere fact that we could detect it, increased the number of available channels by 100%. Even the static signal in the off-hours was exciting - there was a signal! My brother made an antenna at the time and it was actually quite efficient without the help of any plates. Okay - back to Oman:

Oman was historically similar to its neighbor, Yemen, which now has become an incubator for Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. But, in 1970, Oman left that fundamentalist track: the sultan’s son deposed his father and started a stunning modernization built around education for boys and girls alike.
Visit Oman today, and it is a contemporary country with highways, sleek new airports, satellite TV dishes and a range of public and private universities. Children start studying English and computers in the first grade. Boys and girls alike are expected to finish high school at least.
...
In short, one of the lessons of Oman is that one of the best and most cost-effective ways to tame extremism is to promote education for all.
Many researchers have found links between rising education and reduced conflict. One study published in 2006, for example, suggested that a doubling of primary school enrollment in a poor country was associated with halving the risk of civil war. Another found that raising the average educational attainment in a country by a single grade could significantly reduce the risk of conflict.     

Probably (actually, most certainly) there are other factors at play as well. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue against the call for wider education levels. Read the full article here.

Now talking about ignoring basic education, NPR has a short piece on Baluchistan. There has been a low-level insurgency going on there for the past six decades. But this also the most neglected province of Pakistan and education rates are dismal. Often, the blame is affixed on the opposition to education from Baluch tribal leaders. But that must be the only place where the central government is acceding to their demands. In any case, the NPR piece is about the new "Great Game" being played out in Baluchistan between China and the US. This is actually a pretty good piece - and it addresses some of the Chinese interests there. However, it does not mention that the US has an airbase there - and I think think this is where the drones are launches for north and south Waziristan. To make things more interesting, the Mullah Omar and his "Quetta Shura" are also supposed to be in hiding in Quetta - the capital of Baluchistan. If this is not enough, Iran is also worried about Baluchistan (Baluch live on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border - just like Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan). In fact, there have been couple of bombings targeting Iranian National Guards near this border area, and Iran has accused US and Pakistan of supporting Iranian rebels there. Phew!!

So here is the NPR story on Baluchistan: Modern Day "Great Game" Plays Out in Baluchistan.

Well, if you have read this far, then you must be interested in the complicated situation in that part of the world. Here are two very sane articles about the Pakistan-US alliance(?) against/for the Taliban:
Allies in War, but the Goals Clash from last week's NYT. It correctly observes that one cannot find the solution to Afghanistan without some concessions from India to placate Pakistan's fears of post-US Afghanistan.

And the second piece is from NPR: Strong Anti-American Sentiment Persists in Pakistan. Just like the NYT piece, it also clearly lays out different goals of Pakistan and the US in Afghanistan (US is talking about the "end-game" in Afghanistan, whereas Pakistan has to live in the neighborhood). But I think Musharraf Zaidi, the guest in the story, does a fine job in laying out the causes of anti-American sentiment despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that the US has given to Pakistan after the floods:

And, Mosharraf Zaidi, this row over the flag logo seems to capture the American conundrum in Pakistan. Here you have the U.S. giving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to help the flood victims and, still, the U.S. brand is so toxic that aid agencies there don't want to touch it.
Mr. MOSHARRAF ZAIDI (Columnist, The News): Yeah, it's a terrible sort of conundrum. I think that it's difficult to want to be popular in a classroom where, occasionally, you have machines dropping things from the sky that are killing people. And I know that there are some pretty compelling reasons for why the U.S. uses drones. But the point is that the image that that leaves in the eyes and the minds of Pakistanis is one which is difficult to overcome.
You can't use aid to sort of brush over or hide under the carpet the fact that there are aggressive military sort of actions that are being taken by the United States on Pakistani territory and against Pakistani citizens.
KELLY: Here in Washington, what you hear from officials is this insistence that Pakistan needs to do more to crack down on terrorism and needs to recognize that terrorists inside Pakistan pose an existential threat to Pakistan, not just to the U.S.
Do most Pakistanis buy that?
Mr. ZAIDI: I think most Pakistanis are deathly opposed to terrorism. And the reason for that is quite simple. It isn't an ideological sort of a case that anybody made to them. It's that the Pakistani people have suffered in blood. Pakistanis feel tired and exhausted and bloodied by this fight. And so this idea that we need to own the fight, well, the fight is ours. You know, we're the ones that are getting crushed here. We're the ones that are getting blown up at mosques, at the tombs of saints, at universities, you know, in the marketplace.
This is happening. This is already happening in Pakistan. And so that's part A. And part B, of course, is that there's a generic national pride issue. And that is that, you know, when NATO helicopters breach Pakistani airspace and kill Pakistani soldiers - soldiers who've already put their lives on the line to fight the Taliban, as it is - when they get taken out by NATO helicopters, I think that's when everybody here begins to get really worked up about the U.S.
What a complicated mess. Listen to the full story here. While at it, you can look at this editorial from today's Dawn: American Pressure.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Blogging from Turkey: Clouds, rain, but no piano-playing cats

I'm in Istanbul - and it is cloudy, dreary and rainy. C'mon - I can easily have this weather back in Massachusetts.

Couple of quick things:
Travel from the airport to the hotel was very reasonable. I took a shuttle called Havas and it brought me to Taksim in 40 minutes for 10 Turkish Lira (about $7). The shuttle was comfortable and did not make any other stops. Fantastic!

There is no Youtube access here!! What? Where am I now going to see cat-yodeling videos and people doing randomly idiotic things? Well I did hear about it some time ago, but I didn't realize that Turkey's ban on Youtube (yes, all of it) is still going on. Yeay - for censorship! Hey - a couple of years ago Pakistan had blocked numerous sites, including blogspot (I had a hard time posting on Irtiqa on my visit there) - but I think most sites have now been unblocked. So what caused Turkey to block Youtube (and also some Google sites):
Under court order, Turkey's telecommunications authority banned access to YouTube, the video-sharing site, in May 2008, after users complained that some videos insulted Ataturk. Earlier this month, Turkey expanded the ban to include some Google pages that use the same Internet Protocol addresses as YouTube, to prevent users from circumventing the ban. The search giant Google Inc. is YouTube's parent company.
Hmmm...but those cats were just yodeling :)

Okay - I'm sure it is related to just Youtube - and not to any intellectual things. Oh - but you cannot reach the website of Richard Dawkins either. In fact, if you try to do that, one gets this message:

Bu siteye erişim mahkeme kararıyla engellenmiştir.


Translation: "access to this site has been suspended in accordance with a court decision".Yes, it does show up in this beautiful reddish color - perhaps to balance out the act of blocking. Or may be it is the color of blood (well - a little lighter blood here) and it is trying to scare you, like in Hitchcock's Marnie. (here is a clip from the movie - oh but wait - I can't access Youtube from here, so no clip for you!). Okay - so why is Dawkins' website banned in Turkey? Well - because he made fun of and pointed straight-forward mistakes in creationist Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation.  No seriously - it is like an astronomer pointing out issues of astrology. It is as straight-faced as you can get with such creationist material. Though to be fair, Harun Yahya may not accept evolution, but his Atlas has shown a remarkable ability to evolve after Dawkins' criticism - and I had a post about it here: The Evolution of Harun Yahya's Atlas of Creation.

More from Istanbul later - as long as blogspot avoids the ire of the censors and the courts.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lecture Video: Barbara J. King - Gorillas and God


I'm at Logan to leave for Istanbul -but I just found out that the video for our latest lecture is now ready (thanks to Thomas Ciaburri). So here it is.

Dr. Barbara J. King was our Science & Religion Lecture Series speaker at Hampshire College on September 22nd. She gave a fantastic talk on the roots of our religious (or proto-religious) beliefs. Here is the video of her talk, Gorillas and God: The Evolutionary Roots of Religion (video of Q&A and the abstract for her talk below) Enjoy!


Gorillas and God: Evolutionary Roots of Religion by Dr. Barbara J King from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

And here is the Q&A session:


Q&A with Dr. Barbra King from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

Abstract

Anthropologists routinely seek evidence for the primate origins of human technology, language, and culture. In this illustrated talk, anthropologist Barbara J. King reviews the findings to date from the search for an aspect of our primate past even more elusive: the deepest roots of human religiosity. Using modern African apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees as a guide, she reflects upon the earliest evolutionary manifestations of compassion, imagination, thinking beyond the here-and-now, and ritual. She traces the first evidence for spirituality in human material culture by consideration of archaeological sites such as the Chauvet and Lascaux Caves in France, and Gobekli Tepe and Catalhoyuk in Turkey. King reflects as well on how we may, via a focus on the plasticity and contingency of our becoming-human trajectory (instead of on a heavily biologized account of our past), come to grasp more fully when it means to be human.

Dr. Barbara King is a biological anthropologist and Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at The College of William & Mary. Professor King’s research interests include primate behavior, especially ape communication, culture, and cognition; hominid evolution, especially evolution of language, culture, and religion; religion and science; dynamic systems theory;. She has studied ape and monkey behavior in Gabon, Kenya, and at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University. The recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, her books include The Information Continuum: Social Information Transfer in Monkeys, Apes, and HominidsThe Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great ApesEvolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion, and Being with Animals.


---------------

Please check out videos of earlier lectures at our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion website.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Arabic in the Sky

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
Saudi Aramco World is a beautiful bi-monthly magazine, produced and distributed for free by the giant Saudi Arab-American oil company (hence Aramco). It has existed for half a century now, and its lavishly illustrated stories, which tend to focus on the Arab and Muslim worlds (with some emphasis on Saudi Arabia), can be accessed for free through its website, which in 2004 received a “Best Magazine Website” award by the Web Marketing Association. Though shorter, it has the look and tone of the National Geographic magazine.
I received my copy of the September/October issue some 10 days ago, and you can imagine the look on my face when I opened the package and saw the cover photograph and story title: Arabic in the Sky.
The story, written by Robert W. Lebling, a writer based in Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) and a longtime contributor to Saudi Aramco World, essentially reports on the astronomical history work of Paul Kunitzsch (University of Munich), a world expert on Arabic star names who has done extensive research on their transmission into modern usage.
First, Lebling tells us that about 210 stars in the sky (out of the 6,000 or so that can be seen by naked eyes from both hemispheres), have Arabic, or at least Arabicized names. Many of these stars are among the brightest, including Aldebaran (the follower), Algol (the ghoul), Arrakis (the dancer), Betelgeuse (a deformation of yad al jawza’, the hand of the giant), Folmalhaut (the fish’s mouth), Rigel (foot), Thuban (snake), and the (very bright) Summer Triangle: Altair (the flier), Deneb (tail), and Vega (plunging [eagle]). Moreover, all seven stars in the Big Dipper (Ursa Major for astronomers) have Arabian names!
Kunitzsch’s research has shown that about 52 % of those names came from what Bedouins saw (imagined) in the sky; others (about 40 %) were from Arabic translations of the names used by Ptolemy, and several are deformations or shortenings of long Arabic names, often done to fit on medieval astrolabes; and finally, many names reflect errors, often gross, in reading and copying manuscripts.
The transmission of Arabic star names to modern astronomical literature, we learn, occurred in three waves. First and foremost, the translation of the major work of Abd Arrahman al-Sufi (903 – 986), a Persian astronomer and one of the most important in the history of Islamic Astronomy, who produced a star catalogue, “the Book of [Constellations of] Fixed Stars” in 964, which not only presented detailed, corrected information on all 48 constellations then recognized as such, but gave superb drawings of each one, some of the most fabulous astronomical illustrations in history. (See below his representations of Orion and of Gemini, the twins; note that as-Sufi’s depiction of Orion ‘the Hunter’ is very similar to the Greek one, which you can see here or here; see below another, unidentified, very interesting – female – version of Orion!) Other works, up to and particularly those of Ulugh Beg (1394 – 1449) at the Samarkand Observatory, are part of the “first wave”.



The second wave was carried through by the medieval European translators, particularly Johann Bayer (1572 – 1625), who produced translations of the Arabic version of Ptolemy’s Almagest as well as works from the Islamic Astronomy era (the works of the great Andalusian astronomer az-Zarqali, Ulugh Beg’s star tables, etc.).
The third wave of transmission of Arabic star names into modern astronomical literature took place in Europe in the early 19th century, when some 140 names (two thirds of the 210 ones) entered European star charts (particularly through the catalogue of Giuseppe Piazzi, 1746-1826, the discoverer of the first and largest asteroid, Ceres).
In a nice concluding note, Lebling describes this process of transmission in waves like “the periodic pulsations of brightness of the star Algol in Perseus, sometimes referred to as ‘The Winking Demon’—a star that, as you know by now, was named for us by the Arabs.”