Monday, January 30, 2012

What kind of spiritual person are you?

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

The French magazine Psychologies, not to be confused with its namesakes in the US and in the UK, while aiming for the general-public, tries to keep a reasonable standard of scientific accuracy. It also tries to remain “interesting”, that is to sell copies, so in its latest issue (February 2012), it has a cover story on why our (sexual) desire comes and goes and an interview with the captivating actress Juliette Binoche. But it also has a two-page article on the more than dubious “quantum therapies”.

But I was intrigued by the quiz it ran on the various types of spiritualities that people hold today, though they may or may not be fully aware of that aspect of their personalities/personhoods.

Now, before I give you an idea of the quiz, and even let you take a short version of it, I must point out that the concept of “spirituality” has been the object of various attempts to redefine it or at least expand its meanings. Indeed, “spirituality” comes from “spirit”, which in the “technical” sense refers to “the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person” (as the Webster dictionary puts it), or more simply that dimension of humans that religious people believe makes us able to connect to God and perhaps to others. But since “spirit” can also mean “temper or disposition of mind or outlook” (another definition given by Webster), and if you take this meaning and infer some “spirituality” from it, then it no longer needs to be related to religion. And that is why there is this increasing trend of people describing themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” (just Google up "spiritual, not religious").

The Psychologies quiz begins with an introduction titled “To each, their own spirituality”, where the different facets of the concept are first explained. The reader is told that spirituality can refer to: a) a state of “completeness”, when one has integrated various dualities (light and shadow, heaven and earth); b) a feeling of being in relation with something sacred, of being connected to a higher dimension of existence; c) a “life of the spirit”, representing a kind of “secular spirituality”, as has been defined by some thinkers (the magazine refers specifically to the popular French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville). It goes on to explain that these different types of spirituality then result in different responses in the person: giving meaning to one’s life, giving comfort, developing an ethic of living together, or solving personal problems and inner conflicts.

On this basis, the magazine produced a quiz: 48 statements are offered, and the reader is asked to the select the ones that s/he agrees more with (or represent his/her personhood); each statement is given a symbol, and the reader then counts which symbol appears most in his/her selected statements; on the next page, a description of the spiritual type represented by each symbol is given, thus describing the reader’s spiritual nature.

Since I can’t reproduce the whole quiz for you (first there are copyright limitations, and second I don’t have time to translate 48 statements), I’ve selected 16 from the four categories and labeled them A, B, C, D. Select the letter that appears more in your answers and refer to the description of each category at the end.

Here’s the mini-quiz. Have fun:
  • I often feel a need for protection. (A)
  • We are here on Earth to learn and to improve ourselves. (B)
  • As I matured, spirituality became more important for me. (B)
  • I feel connected to all that lives. (C)
  •  Solidarity and compassion are not a monopoly of spirituality. (D)
  • I cannot bear the idea of nothingness after death. (A)
  • I find meaning and values in humanistic philosophies. (D)
  • I believe in miraculous healings. (A)
  • I often get lightning and accurate intuitions. (C)
  • I meditate to calm my mind and to open up my heart. (B)
  • I ask heaven for help in difficult situations. (A)
  • Spirituality should never leave the personal sphere. (D)
  • To change the world, one must first change oneself. (B)
  • It’s in Man that I believe, first and foremost. (D)
  • Speaking to God is completely natural for me; I need no intermediary. (C)
  • I am fully convinced that hardships have a meaning, and we must accept that sometimes it escapes us. (C) 

The categories:
A describes a spirituality which seeks “refuse” in something or some being, a “parent God” who protects and heals the person. Supposedly (according to the magazine), this is closer to the traditional concept of God and spirituality.
B describes the spirituality of an evolving person, one who, through practices like yoga or zen, seeks higher and more connected ways of living. Here belief in a higher being (God) is not essential, even though there is often the belief/feeling that there is some higher intelligence that we may be part of or may be able to become part of.
C refers to the mystical type of spirituality, to seek to live in communion with the Divine/Spirit or with the Universe (in a pantheistic/panentheistic worldview).
D denotes an “atheistic ethic” (the magazine’s description), one which tries to uphold truth, goodness, and beauty without any reference to or need for God.

So, there you have them: the four types of spirituality as Psychologies sees them. Perhaps there are other types or definitions or hybrid forms…

Do you recognize yourself in any of these? Do you have a different description for your own or your parents’ spirituality?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday Video: Ehab Abouheif and Taner Edis on Evolution and Islam

by Salman Hameed

In October 2009, we had organized an international conference on Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World at Hampshire College. One of the public sessions included presentations by evolutionary biologist, Ehab Abouheif and physicist Taner Edis (he is also the author of An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam). They have different takes on Islam and evolution. Ehab is a practicing evolutionary biologist and believes that the two are compatible, while Taner believes that evolution poses serious challenges, at least to the traditional forms of religion, including Islam. If you are looking for name calling and mud-slinging, you won't find it here. This is a perfect example of people having disagreements about religion and having an intelligent conversation about it. It may also answer some questions you might have on the topic, or raise more. The good thing is the spectrum of opinions from people who agree on the basic principles of science.

Here is the main session followed by Q & A:

Ehab Abouheif & Taner Edis on Evolution and Islam from evolutionandislam on Vimeo.

Hampshire College | Night QA Panel Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On creationists...

Tip from Farid Alvie.

I have a whole collection of these 'ascent of man' cartoons. Of course, they also propagate the erroneous ladder view of evolution. But what can we do? They provide for some nice comic opportunities. Here is one of my favorites, from the New Yorker:

Gender issues in Pakistani schools

by Salman Hameed

Kamila Shamsie, the author several novels set in Karachi (for example, In the City by the Sea, Kartography), had an interesting article in Guernica about schools in Pakistan. The challenges are immense. It is not just a matter of creating more schools - after all, the Taliban are also "students". It is about the quality of education and its accessibility to all Pakistanis.

Here she talks about the infiltration of religion in textbooks (for example, on the encouragement of raising cattle, since it is a Sunnah of the Prophet), and a bit on ghost schools - schools that exist only on paper. But most of the article is about efforts to reform the existing educational system by an NGO led by couple if young Pakistanis, including Sana mentioned below. The efforts seems promising and I hope it works out, but then there have  been numerous efforts in the past that have fizzled out at the end.

But apart from a better curriculum, I was struck by the gender issues mentioned in the article - and it provides a glimpse of the challenges involved.

But problems didn’t just come from adults. Increasingly, the neighborhoods in Karachi are divided along ethnic lines with each group identifying with a political party. The relationships between some of these political parties are marked by violence and “target killing,” intimidation, and extortion to the perceived benefit of the party. By the time many boys are adolescents, they’ve already been pulled into some of the more thuggish aspects. “With the boys you have to get to them by the time they’re eleven or twelve. Any later is too late,” Sana said, recalling how a group of fourteen-year-olds told her, “What do we need education for? We’re in politics.” Even further, those boys were unwilling to listen to a female. Once, when Sana was trying to get them to be silent, one of the students said, “Get the bearded guy with a stick to come in if you want us to be quiet.” Not long after, she stopped teaching in the boys’ section of the school. 
“What about the girls?” I asked. 
The girls, she said, were an entirely different matter. “I can set any essay assignment, and without fail they’ll manage to work into it that their greatest wish is to just be allowed to stay in school and complete their education,” Sana told me. But all too often their parents pull them out of school by the time they’re twelve. Sometimes the parents want them to get married, other times they can’t afford the fees and feel it’s more important to pay for the education of their sons. 
The girls are as affectionate as the boys are macho, I heard from both Sana and Adnan. It was hard not to think that at home their brothers received all the attention. Damaging for both the boys and the girls, as well as for their relationships with each other. For Sana, it was particularly disheartening to realize how low the girls’ expectations for their lives were, how little they felt they could ask from the world.

This is a serious issue and the society as a whole has to work to find a solution. This is after all half of the student population of Pakistan! [and yes, I thought it was funny/sad that some of the boys thought they don't need education now that they are in politics]

Read the full article here.

Also see these earlier post:
The Enigma of Educated Pakistanis
Muslim Women Scientists Today

Monday, January 23, 2012

Arabia IMAX/3D: a fancy documercial for Saudi Arabia

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

Last February, when I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC (recall my “What makes us human?” post), I noticed that there was a documentary titled ‘Arabia’ playing in the IMAX theater. I made a mental note of it and went to the ‘human origins’ exhibit. The “documentary” later opened in theaters across the US in 3D and lush cinematography, though it didn’t play in my part of the world.

When I got a chance to watch it, on my small laptop screen, without the benefit of 3D and immersive effects, I understood why it wasn’t released here: this was made purely for western audiences, indeed quite specifically for Americans.
This fancy and clearly expensive 45-minute feature, which I’m describing as a “documercial” (hybrid between documentary and commercial), aims at presenting Arabia (read: Saudi Arabia) as a land with at least 2000 years of rich history and one which is now progressing in a balanced way between tradition and modernity. It wants to dispel stereotypes about Saudis being US haters, backward-thinkers, oppressors of women, etc.

I don’t know what the budget of this project was (several million dollars, I would guess, considering the lavish production, the under-water filming, the animations, and the special effects), but the feature was narrated by Helen Mirren, directed by Greg MacGillivray, with music by Steve Wood and some contribution by Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Cat Stevens, though I couldn’t find any references to two beautiful Arabic songs performed at various moments. On the other hand, the credits do tell us that the feature was produced in association with the Royal Geographical Society, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Quite a stellar group for a 45-minute documentary.

The picture revolves around Hamzah, a young Saudi who studies film at De Paul University in Chicago and who decides to produce a documentary about his culture, aiming to show how it is “progressing so quickly… trying to balance between the old and the new, tradition and progress”, and trying to explain that the (Saudi) Arabian ways of life are a result of attempting “to maintain the old values…”

Our narrators spend about half of his documentary telling us that Arabia has gone through two “golden ages”, and in the last part of the feature, we are told that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is now attempting to usher in “a third golden age” through education, specifically presenting KAUST (the King Abdallah University of Science and Technology) as “a first step” in this “golden age” that’s about to dawn and promising four research centers coming up soon…

Which golden ages are they talking about? The first one is the Nabatean civilization which flourished in the Arabian Peninsula some 2000 years ago, the most famous and stunning example of which is the town of Petra in Jordan. Hamza tells us that another Nabatean town, Madain Saleh, which was only discovered in 1876 in the northern region of Saudi Arabia, was part of that first “golden age”. Then, the Nabateans harvested and sold frankincense to the Romans, who used it to perfume the gods in their temples, thereby achieving great wealth. Their contacts with the Romans and the Greeks, as attested to by the coins found in the ruins, allowed them to learn architecture and masonry and thus build stunning stone edifices (the Petra treasury building, the Madain Saleh tombs, etc.). But when Romans adopted Christianity, frankincense was no longer needed for any gods, and the Nabatean “empire” collapsed, or so we are told.

The second golden age is the more well-known Arab-Islamic civilization’s golden era, when great knowledge, science, arts, and sophisticated urban life were produced. But here, the writers of the documentary first exaggerate the Arabian connection by over-emphasizing the role that the Qur’an and the Sunna played in igniting the knowledge production, stating that “the first seed of this golden age was sown in Arabian soil, then the new thinking spread to Persia, Spain, India, Indonesia…” The writers then overplay their hand even more by amplifying the accomplishments of the Arab-Muslim scientists, for instance by claiming that “Ibn al-Haytham’s theories of gravity and momentum preceded those of Newton by 700 years”, that “his pioneering work in Optics led to telescopes and cameras”, and that Ibn al-Haytham “conducted experiments to know how things really worked… he has been called the father of the scientific method…”

In fact, I was surprised to hear such an erroneous statement as “Prophet Muhammad spent much of his life in Medina” (he spent the last 10 years of his 63-year-long life there).

Then the documentary jumps to the twentieth century and turns into a commercial for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, presenting a short history of its emergence (through the unification of a large part of the Arabian Peninsula by King Abdelaziz ibn Saud). It also strongly emphasizes the special relationship between the KSA and the USA, first through the agreements made by Ibn Saud with Roosevelt as soon as huge oil reserves were discovered (by Americans) and then the long strategic alliance between the two countries in the last half century.

Finally, the documercial turns to education and insists that it is the first priority of the Saudi government and that such a great transformation is taking place that one can expect a new golden age!
Women too are presented as playing an important role in the Saudi society, through their family and teaching roles and even in “higher positions within the government”. At no moment are the constraints placed on women in the KSA ever mentioned; never do we see a face-covered woman; in fact all women are nicely dressed, always smiling and talking confidently, and in all scenes women are seen with men, never segregated.

So, to sum up, this was a pretty picture, nice to look at but not very satisfactory if you scratched the surface and asked about a few things or exercised some critical thinking about what was being claimed. I wonder how the American audiences, who were the target of this work, will have reacted to it and to what extent it will influence their views of “Arabia”.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Saturday Video: Appreciating religious values within Atheism

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent talk by Alain de Botton called Atheism 2.0. Instead of ridiculing religions, he looks at the positive virtues they have to offer and suggests ways in which they can be incorporates within atheism. He makes an interesting point that in the 19th century, with the decline of religion in Europe, many turned to literature to find lessons in life and morality.

By the way, I had to chance to give a TEDx talk at Amherst College yesterday as part of TEDx Pioneer Valley. It was a fantastic experience and the whole atmosphere was phenomenal. Plus all the talks were great I will post up the video when its available.

Here is Alain de Botton:

Friday, January 20, 2012

A novel about growing up Muslim in Wisconsin

by Salman Hameed

English writers of Pakistani descent are becoming more and more prominent. A recent issue of Granta, for example, was dedicated to these writers (see: Granta - and a flock of new Pakistani writers). Uzma Aslan Khan even mixed in the fossil riches of Pakistan with the debate over evolution in her novel The Geometry of God. Now we have another one about growing up Pakistani-Muslim in Wisconsin: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar. It brings up issues of identity in a different way. Ayad's own parents are both from Pakistan and also secular humanists. Ayad grew up fascinated by religion and he searched for his own path. In many ways, this is more a quintessential American story - but with a Pakistani flavor (and some Wisconsin cheese). It is these variations of the expression of religion (or non-religion) that I find fascinating. This looks like an interesting read.

In any case, here is a Fresh Air interview with Ayad Akhtar. Terry Gross seems to be flummoxed by the fact that his parents are from Pakistan and yet they are not religious. Does not compute. But then she talks more about his own religious practices and how it merges with his theater training (he is also and actor).

Here is also a review of American Dervish from NYT:

What a pleasure to encounter a first novel as self-assured and effortlessly told as Ayad Akhtar’s “American Dervish.” Mr. Akhtar, a first-generation Pakistani-American, has written an immensely entertaining coming-of-age story set during the early 1980s among the Pakistanis in the author’s hometown, Milwaukee. 
Hayat Shah, an impressionable adolescent and the only child of a well-to-do, secular family, finds his comfortable existence upended by the arrival of his mother’s childhood friend Mina Ali and her son Imran, who have fled a life of abuse and repression in Pakistan. Mina, a strikingly beautiful woman and a fan of Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, captivates Hayat by schooling him in her liberal interpretations of the Koran; she inspires the boy’s spiritual awakening at a time that coincides uneasily with his sexual awakening, particularly after Hayat observes Mina fall in love with a well-meaning but deeply naïve Jewish radiologist named Nathan Wolfsohn, who works alongside Hayat’s father. 
Mr. Akhtar’s astute observations of the clashes between old world and new, between secular and sacred, among immigrants might seem familiar to readers of both contemporary and classic literature. Strong thematic affinities and plot parallels exist between this work and more than a handful of others — “The Namesake,” by Jhumpa Lahiri; “Love Marriage,” by V. V. Ganeshananthan; and Pauls Toutonghi’s “Red Weather,” a 2006 comedy about Latvians in Milwaukee, spring to mind. At times Mr. Akhtar seems also to be putting a modern Muslim spin on earlier stories of Jewish assimilation; his yearning and conflicted young hero suggests a PG-13 version of a Philip Roth character or a more repressed version of Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s alter ego in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” 
But what distinguishes Mr. Akhtar’s novel is its generosity and its willingness to embrace the contradictions of its memorably idiosyncratic characters and the society they inhabit. The family patriarch, Naveed Shah, is an accomplished and street-smart doctor and a devoted father, despite his penchants for rage, alcohol and philandering. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, is a philo-Semitic Freudian psychologist who nevertheless warns her son against ever getting involved with a white woman. Mina, even though she loves Western literature and culture, particularly the TV show “Dallas” and its star Linda Gray, jettisons love in favor of faith. Like the “dervish” of Mr. Akhtar’s title — an ascetic who, according to Mina, “gives up everything for Allah” — she ultimately succumbs to an emotionally impoverished existence.
Read the full review here.      

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tebow, football miracles, and Islam in America

by Salman Hameed

I have to admit, up until recently I had no idea who Tim Tebow was and why he was so popular. And I do follow the NFL. But this season, the discussion of his Christian faith has become more and more prominent, and we've had to hear about miracles on the football field (though, I think God would most likely reserve the name football for the game that involves primarily kicking the ball).  It seems that God was helping him win sometimes with a number fourth quarter victories, but then testing his faith with some humiliating losses (And Bill Maher summarized this as well). When (positive) miracles happened, Tebow - Tebowed, unleashing a nationwide Tebowing frenzy (even a cat Tebowed). Ultimately, God decided to let natural forces (and Tom Brady) decide the game and the Patriots won by 35 points.

On the heels of all this, an article in Salon asks the question: What if Tim Tebow were a Muslim? (tip from Leyla Keough). This is a fascinating question, especially in light of protests against various Islamic centers in the US, the pulling of advertisements from All American Muslim, etc. The article brings up some interesting points and ultimately uses the case of Muhammad Ali to run this experiment. But we have to realize that that the case of Muhammad Ali (who by the way just turned 70!!) is loaded with more variables than just religion and religious identity. For example, he was a prominent African American at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and had interactions with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. That was also the beginnings of anti-war protests in the US. Plus, and I don't think the author of the Salon article makes the distinction, but Muhammad Ali at the time was a follower of National of Islam, which is very different from Islam.

However, the other example of Denver Nuggets basketball player, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is a better one. But then that too gets enmeshed with nationalism, since he refused to stand for the national anthem. For an apt comparison, we will have to ask Tebow to refuse to stand up for the national anthem. To be fair, when Hakim Olajuwon, in the mid-1990s, was fasting and playing for Houston Rockets during Ramadan, it was mentioned in a respectful/admiring manner by the television commentators. But then that was the 1990s. It will be interesting to see the reaction today.

In any case, here are some bits from the Salon article:
So I ask, what if Tim Tebow were Muslim? How would our society react if during every interview, Tebow said “Insha’Allah” or “Allāhu Akbar” rather than thank his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Or instead of falling to one knee and praying,  Tebow pulled out a prayer rug and faced Mecca? A recent study by the Pew Research Center suggests it would not be well received. While American Muslims in general tend be satisfied with their lives and communities in the United States, 55 percent report that being Muslim in the U.S. has become more difficult since Sept. 11. Twenty-eight percent report that people have viewed them with suspicion and 22 percent report having been called offensive names. The TLC show “All-American Muslim” has lost advertisers who were pressured by groups claiming that the show was Islamic propaganda. Yet Pat Robertson claims that the United States is a breeding ground for anti-Christian bigotry. 
I don’t have answers to these questions. We can’t know the answers until we are faced with a prominent Muslim athlete who is willing to be so visible with his faith. In a country that consistently prides itself on freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion – we can hope that Muslim athletes who are visible with their faith would find themselves just as revered as Tebow is for his.
But professional Muslim athletes are hard to find. Ahmad Rashād. Rashaan Salaam. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Hakeem Olajuwon. Rasheed Wallace. Most of these athletes are retired and went about their religious lives quietly. But it is to that list of retired professionals that we must look to find someone as outspoken about their faith as Tim Tebow – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Muhammad Ali, for example.
And here is the bit about Abdul-Rauf:
In 1990, Chris Jackson was drafted by the Denver Nuggets out of Louisiana State University. In 1991,  Jackson converted to Islam. In 1993, he changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In 1996,  Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem at an NBA game. A religious storm followed. 
Everyone had an opinion, from fans to sports writers to radio hosts. Sports Illustrated reported that some people suggested Abdul-Rauf be deported. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was born in Mississippi, however, and deportation from Colorado to Mississippi is rare. Two Denver-area radio hosts even walked into a mosque with a stereo playing the Star Spangled Banner. One was wearing a turban. And a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf T-shirt. While broadcasting live, on air. 
Abdul-Rauf claimed in a 2010 interview with that “[a]fter the national anthem fiasco, nobody really wanted to touch me.” He played only three more seasons in the NBA before going overseas to play professionally. In that same interview, he discusses how his home in Mississippi was burned down just a few months prior to Sept. 11. He eventually left the state. 
So Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stood up (or in this case, sat down) for his religious beliefs. He made his religion a visible aspect of his life and a visible aspect of his professional basketball career. Just like Tim Tebow. The difference of course being that Tim Tebow was satirized on “Saturday Night Live.” Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had his home burned down and felt blacklisted from the NBA.
Read the full article here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Yorker on God's schedule during the creation of the universe

by Salman Hameed

It is really hard to create a universe. Here is a hilarious take on God's daily schedule while He was working on creating the universe. From Simon Rich in the New Yorker - The Center of the Universe:
On the first day, God created the heavens and the earth.
“Let there be light,” He said, and there was light. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening—the first night.
On the second day, God separated the oceans from the sky. “Let there be a horizon,” He said. And lo: a horizon appeared and God saw that it was good. And there was evening—the second night.
On the third day, God’s girlfriend came over and said that He’d been acting distant lately.
“I’m sorry,” God said. “Things have been crazy this week at work.”
He smiled at her, but she did not smile back. And God saw that it was not good.
“I never see you,” she said.
“That’s not true,” God said. “We went to the movies just last week.”
And she said, “Lo. That was last month.”
And there was evening—a tense night.
On the fourth day, God created stars, to divide the light from the darkness. He was almost finished when He looked at His cell phone and realized that it was almost nine-thirty.
“Fuck,” He said. “Kate’s going to kill me.”
He finished the star He was working on and cabbed it back to the apartment.
“Sorry I’m late!” He said.
And lo: she did not even respond.
“Are you hungry?” He asked. “Let there be yogurt!” And there was that weird lo-cal yogurt that she liked.
“That’s not going to work this time,” she said.
“Look,” God said, “I know we’re going through a hard time right now. But this job is only temporary. As soon as I pay off my student loans, I’m going to switch to something with better hours.”
And she said unto Him, “I work a full-time job and I still make time for you.”
And He said unto her, “Yeah, but your job’s different.”
And lo: He knew immediately that He had made a terrible mistake.
“You think my job’s less important than yours?” she said.
“No!” God said. “Of course not! I know how difficult it is to work in retail—I’m totally impressed by what you do!”
“Today I had to talk to fourteen buyers, because it’s Fashion Week. And I didn’t even have time to eat lunch.”
“That’s so hard,” God said. “You work so hard.”
“How would you know? You never even ask about my day! You just talk about your work, for hours and hours, like you’re the center of the universe!”
“Let there be a back rub,” God said.
And He started giving her a back rub.
And she said unto Him, “Can you please take the day off tomorrow?”
And He said unto her, “Don’t you have to work tomorrow? I thought it was Fashion Week.”
“I can call in sick.”
And God felt like saying to her, “If your job is so important, how come you can just take days off whenever you feel like it?” But He knew that was a bad idea. So He said unto her, “I’m off Sunday. We can hang out Sunday.”
On the fifth day, God created fish and fowl to swim in the sea and fly through the air, each according to its kind. Then, to score some points, He closed the door to His office and called up Kate.
“I’m so happy to hear your voice,” she said. “I’m having the hardest day.”
“Tell me all about it,” God said.
“Caitlin is throwing this party next week for Jenny, but Jenny is, like, being so weird about it that I’m not even sure that it’s going to happen.”
“That’s crazy,” God said.
And she continued to tell Him about her friends, who had all said hurtful things to one another, each according to her kind. And while she was repeating something that Jenny had said to Caitlin God came up with an idea for creatures that roam the earth. He couldn’t get off the phone, though, because Kate was still talking. So He covered the receiver and whispered, “Let there be elephants.” And there were elephants and God saw that they were good.
But lo: she had heard Him create the elephants.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “You’re not even listening to me.”
“Kate . . .”
“It’s so obvious!” she said. “You care more about your stupid planet thing than you do about me!”
God wanted to correct her. It wasn’t just a planet He was creating; it was an entire universe. He knew, though, that it would be a bad idea to say something like that right now.
He said, “Listen. I’m really sorry, O.K.?”
But lo: she had already hung up on Him.
So how does it all end up? You can find the full article here. And if you like this, also check out God's Blog, also from the New Yorker.

Monday, January 16, 2012

My 100th Irtiqa Post + my own top-10 favorites

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

After almost two years of contributions to Irtiqa, I have hit the 100 milepost. Considering that numerous bloggers have reached the (for me) unimaginable 1,000 mark, my score is not too impressive. But since I never considered blogging, have never twitted, and have only been using Facebook for posting my articles (i.e. once every two weeks or so), this is something of an achievement…

I thus wanted to reflect, semi-seriously about this experience, and, as a fun exercise, list the 10 posts of mine that I think of as the “best” (under what criteria?); that may give a chance for some readers to discover or re-read those posts, as new readers join Irtiqa regularly. Likewise, Salman might sometime treat us to his own top-10 selection. That would be a much harder exercise, considering the fact that Salman has probably posted over 500 pieces by now…

My first remark concerns Salman (and other serious bloggers): I don’t know how you do it, coming up with interesting posts at least every other day! Really, for me just to come up with a topic and write it up once a week is a challenge that I have often struggled to overcome; I cannot imagine doing this more often than once a week.

My second remark concerns the interaction with Irtiqa readers: according to the stats, some 400 visitors check out the posts every day (on average), not counting the Facebook ‘friends’ and other ways of getting the posts (is Google Reader counted in the 400?); however, the average number of comments per post is less than 5! To be honest, that is frustrating, as one never knows whether silence is a sign of agreement, of boredom, of disinterest, or what… Frankly, this aspect of the experience, coupled with the periods when one struggles to find the time and a reasonably relevant topic to write about, has/have led me to contemplate giving it up. But on the other hand, I figure that there must be a number of readers, hopefully a large cohort, who silently appreciate these writings. But if you want to know why I do continue to write even when I get no feedback: it is because such writings force me to keep an eye on various issues, think about them, and sometimes research some topics further, something that is useful to me in general… So if someday I announce that I’m stopping, it will mainly be because I can no longer find the time.

Now, before the top-10 list, a few observations (for fun):
·  with my one-hundredth post, I will have matched the number of posts in the “education in the Muslim world” category; since I tend to think of many of Salman’s posts as (at least partly) educational, does this mean that many of mine are not? J
·  sometime ago, I “defeated” ‘Islamic creationism’ (in number of posts), and recently I “defeated” ‘creationism’ in all its forms; I’m that influential…
·  I am catching up on “Pakistan” – quite surprising, considering the popularity of the topic (judging by the number of comments that come on those posts);
·  I am also catching up on “Atheism”; we’ll see how that race goes, considering the various views on this among our audience J;
·  But I think I stand no chance with “film, theater, and television” (with 186 posts and counting), considering Salman’s expertise and productivity in this field;
·  And I don’t even think of catching up with “Evolution” (with 251 posts and counting – didn’t realize it was such a frequent topic!)…

Now for my (totally personal and subjective) top-10 list.

8. Islam and Astronomy: the tug-of-war continues

7. Euthanasia and Islam - Part 2

6. ET’s and their impact on us

5. What Makes Us Human? (has the largest number of comments on any post of mine on Irtiqa)

4. Statistical Analyses to Predict the Next Revolution(s) (in which my analysis, performed just after the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian autocratic regimes, pointed to Libya and Yemen as the next two Arab-Spring countries, before uprisings and protests started there…)

3. Plagiarism in Arab-Muslim Academia (still a very serious issue)

2. Critiquing I'jaz - the claim of "scientific miracles in the Qu'ran" (need I say anything?)

1. Muslim Inquisition Today: the plight of Usama Hasan (the post I most proud of, for having made a small but real impact with it).

And here’s a bonus one (I didn’t want to rank it among the others J): Muslim Women Scientists Today. 

As you can see, it’s a rather large spectrum of topics. I am really not sure which ones readers actually have liked or prefer in general. Some of these generated many comments, others none…
Let’s see if I make it to the 200th post. But before I go back to writing (and thinking), I have one question for Irtiqa readers: why do you read this stuff?
Best wishes to all!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Film Autopsy of the ambitious "The Tree of Life"

by Salman Hameed

There were a number of ambitious films this past year. But I think no one can beat Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life in this category. It aims to place the day-to-day details of a boy's summer in Texas in the 1950s in the context of the whole history of the universe - from the beginning to the end! Yes, yes. The beginning of the universe 13.7 billion years ago, the formation of the solar system, the beginning of life, the evolution of life, the extinction of dinosaurs etc. No - the movie is not a documentary, but it provides this context in a 20 minutes of spectacular interlude which includes astronomical simulations of first stars and images from the Hubble space telescope. It will definitely remind you of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oh - but the story is so much more. In a broader sense, it is also about the Book of Jobs, the way to make sense of the world in the wake of pain and loss. While the movie has a number of religious overtones, ultimately, this is a spiritual journey of the director Terrence Malick himself. This is a deeply personal film for Malick and a labor of love. If you don't believe me, just check out this New Yorker article about how he used an art installation called "Lumia" to show a shifting flame that represented some sort of cosmic beginning, and plays a constant theme in the film.

Here is out Film Autopsy (review) of The Tree of Life (you can find other film autopsies here):

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Scientists must speak up against assassinations of scientists

by Salman Hameed

Actually everyone must speak up against assassinations. But the news that another Iranian physicist has been assassinated is deeply troubling. I'm not in favor of nuclear weapons and there should every effort to eliminate them. But targeted killings of scientists associated with a nuclear program? How should we think about it?

First of all, this is illegal. This is extrajudicial killing and should have no place in a civilized world. While Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon, the killing is most likely associated with a country that already has one (Israel or the US). So a moral argument to preserve world peace in this case is already out the window.

Second, should scientists speak up against it? Yes. When scientists are persecuted anywhere in the country, journals like Nature and Science write editorials about it. The same is true when scientists have been fired from their jobs or, in the recent case of Turkey, when the Turkish government decided to exert undue influence on its Academy of Science. Shouldn't there be an outrage when a physicist is assassinated because of his association with a uranium enrichment program (which by in itself is not illegal)? We haven't seen it so far. This is not the first assassination of an Iranian scientist either:
The scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was a department supervisor at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, a participant in what Western leaders believe is Iran’s halting but determined progress toward a nuclear weapon. He was at least the fifth scientist with nuclear connections to be killed since 2007; a sixth scientist, Fereydoon Abbasi, survived a 2010 attack and was put in charge of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.
We have to stand-up and condemn these assassinations. The world is becoming a tricky place. I have written about ethical and legal problems with the drone program and the fact that these issues are not getting as much attention as they should. This assassination precedence directly affects scientists. I hope we will all speak up against it! 

Talk at The Tech Museum in San Jose on Jan 15th

by Salman Hameed

I 'm headed to the west coast (actually this post is from 30,000 feet above Salt Lake City). The Tech Museum in San Jose has an exhibition Ingenious Innovations: Islamic Science Rediscovered (the exhibition is there until Feb 26th). Along with the exhibition, the museum is also hosting a lecture series. I will be speaking this coming Sunday at 2pm (Jan 15th) and the title of the talk is How do Muslims view science and evolution? The format is actually quite interesting. I will speak for about 20 minutes and the rest will be a dialogue with the moderator, Angie Coiro, and with the audience. This should be fun and I'm looking forward to it.

If you are in the area and are interested in the topic, c'mon over.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hoodbhoy on Neutrinos and Angels

by Salman Hameed

This was published in Pakistan Tribune. This is familiar territory for Pervez. He has been calling out on the pseudoscience of finding science in the Qur'an for over two decades. The real problem is that some of the proponents have scientific degrees - and that is a scary thought. This business of I'jaz, I think, is one of the most damaging pseudoscience prevalent in the Muslim world. It is not that other cultures and religions don't have their own versions (just see the popularity of The Bible Code books in the US). But at least there already exists a large base of scientists in the US - and 99% of those don't subscribe to this nonsense (you can always find occasional oddballs: for example, see Tipler and his Pseudoscience). I hope budding scientists in Pakistan (or anywhere for that matter) don't fall for the pseudoscience of I'jaz. Nidhal and I have also written about it: You can read Nidhal's post Critiquing I'jaz - The Claim of Scientific Miracles in the Qur'an, and my post On the futility of finding science in the Qur'an and Other Scriptures

Here is Pervez on Neutrinos and Angels:

The news from CERN was stunning: the European nuclear science laboratory had just discovered (September 2011) that particles known as neutrinos — called so because they are neutral and carry no charge — habitually travel a little bit faster than light. This threatened to shake the very foundations of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which had laid the basis for the atomic bomb, nuclear energy, and most of modern day physics. Relativity theory starts from the postulate that the speed of light is the absolute maximum that anything can travel at. 
Pakistanis are generally unmoved by developments in the world of science. But this time the excitement was palpable. A TV channel called me up, requesting an interview. Fine, I said, specifying the time when I would be available. The producer was profoundly apologetic: this was exactly when they would be interviewing Dr Zakir Naik, an Islamic scholar who frequently pontificates on issues of science and religion. Would I therefore please give another time? Since the good doctor’s claim to fame is his understanding of religious texts rather than of physics, I declined and do not know what transpired subsequently.
Speed of light issues have often moved sections of religious people in rather strange ways. 
Way back in 1973, as a young physics lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University, I had been fascinated by the calculation done by the head of our department. Seeking the grand synthesis of science and faith, this pious gentleman — who left on his final journey last month — had published calculations that proved Heaven (jannat) was running away from Earth at one centimeter per second less than the speed of light. His reasoning centred around a particular verse of the Holy Quran that states worship on the night of Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Revelation) is equivalent to a thousand nights of ordinary worship. Indeed, if you input the factor of 1,000 into Einstein’s famous formula for time dilatation, this yields a number: one centimeter per second less than the speed of light! 
These days the internet groans under the weight of claims that the Holy Quran had specified the speed of light 1400 years ago. Dr Mansour Hassab El Naby, said to be a physicist from Egypt, announces that according to his Quranic calculations, this speed is 299,792.5 kilometres per second. He even gives error bars! Another video gives a still more precise figure of 299792.458 km/sec. Given the unrestrained leaps of logic made by the authors, it is not surprising that they all arrive at more or less the same numbers. 
Interested readers may also wish to visit an intricately-designed website that has clocked up over 750,000 visitors so far. Chockful of mathematical formulae, diagrams, and pictures, it starts from the premise that “angels are low density creatures” taking orders from a “Preserved Tablet” and says “the speed at which they commute to and from this Tablet turned out to be the known speed of light”. To enhance the visual impact, the website has a Java applet showing a white Caucasian scientist who moves his eyes up, down, and around in wondrous rapture. While doing so he sonorously pronounces — in what sounds like an Australian accent to me — that the extra space-time dimensions demanded by the physics of string theory are exactly those predicted in the Quran. The final conclusion: “Einstein’s theory of General Relativity proves the Quran right”. 
Well, there’s a huge problem here! No scientist is sure that General Relativity (GR) is absolutely correct. In fact, the phrase “absolutely correct” does not belong to the lexicon of any science, even one as well developed as physics. Excellent as GR is — with hundreds of careful tests — physicists are pretty sure that there are places, such as at the edge of a black hole, where GR simply has to fail. Placing the absolute correctness of Allah’s Word on the knife-edge of an imperfect theory is pretty dicey. 
Certainly, no working scientist takes seriously any of stuff on Islamic science websites. In spite of their wonderful graphics and scientific appearance, they are wholly unscientific. Science comes from persistently and patiently checking hypotheses, building upon earlier discoveries and knowledge, and systematically sifting out all which cannot pass stringent tests of logic and observation. For example, experiments at CERN consume the working lives of some of the most brilliant people on earth, require billions of dollars of equipment, and stretch human capacities and ingenuity to the limit. When real scientists eventually publish a result, it comes from solid evidence and not from uncontrolled spurts of imagination and strident assertions of faith. 
Returning to neutrinos: today we do not know if the results from CERN on faster-than-light neutrinos are actually correct. Like most other particle physicists, I am sceptical. Explanations will surely be forthcoming once similar experiments are done in other laboratories; time will tell. But right or wrong, this is just another interesting puzzle for physicists to mull over. With deep foundations, the edifice of science has survived bigger earthquakes. 
On the other hand, if the CERN results are right, “Islamic scientists” like Dr Naby would need to do much explaining. High above in the heavens, neutrinos would easily out-chase angels — the messengers of Allah — because, if Islamic websites are to be believed, angels are limited by the speed of light. So does that mean these naughty neutrinos are outside of God’s control? Using a holy text as a physics book makes little sense. But, sadly, it is all too common. 
Worried by the cancerous growth of claptrap masquerading as science, the late Carl Sagan, one of my heroes, spoke to Bible Belt Americans with matchless eloquence:
“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonise about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.” 
Pakistanis need to listen again, and yet again to this. Sagan is also speaking to us.
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