(Dr. Mohammed Amin Sofi, 59, was born in Handwara. He received his early education from the Higher Secondary School in Handwara, and his B.Sc. from the Government Degree College in Baramulla. He subsequently received a Master's degree in Mathematics from the Aligarh Muslim University, and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur which was followed by a 2-year post doctoral fellowship in Mathematics at Kiel University, Germany. Prof. Sofi teaches and conducts research in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Kashmir. In his leisure time, he enjoys reading books, listening to classical western music, Urdu ghazals and Bollywood music (pre-1980's), and reading newspapers and news magazines.)
AN ENLIGHTENING ENCOUNTER WITH OLD FRIENDS
As part of my engagements during the period of sabbatical leave from the university of Kashmir that included visits to certain centres of excellence in different parts of the country and abroad, the one to my almamatar at IIT Kanpur was particularly special, considering that it was here that I had spent the most memorable, fruitful and eventful years of my academic life as a Ph.D student in the early eighties. During this recent visit to the institute in early February this year where, apart from my professional engagements there that included invited talks at the department of mathematics, I caught up with my old friends at the campus and reminisced about our good old days there which was, and continues to be, full of life academically, and even otherwise.
During this interaction, what started off as an innocuous exchange of notes regarding our personal lives and how things have unfolded in our small individual worlds over the years, slowly led to an animated discussion about maths and science education in the country which soon gave way to an exchange on political, and later to a high decibel debate on such pesky issues as those involving religion and epistemology. It was at this stage that we began to court controversy, but which in the ultimate analysis, turned out to be a feast of sorts, at least in terms of the plurality of perspectives that were on offer on these issues.
Here what is important to note is that such a frank assessment of things would not have been possible had this discussion played itself out amongst a group of likeminded people, rather than in the midst of a motley group of individuals consisting mostly of agnostics, some of them atheists but very few of them of religious persuasion. As it happened, for whatever reasons- which in any case are not difficult to fathom-most of the questions regarding these issues were directed at me which I tried to answer to the best of my understanding, if not necessarily to the best of my knowledge that I frankly do not pretend to possess. The point I wish to emphasise is that it is possible to take a view that is ‘minimally unacceptable’ even amongst its diehard critics, if it is allowed to be based on an open and unbiased appraisal of things as opposed to that which is dictated by preconceived notions and congealed positions determined by accident(s) of birth, pedigree and social conditioning involving issues of religion, faith and other such things. This is achieved by presenting a picture that is not necessarily a run of the mill type, but is informed by a view that is humane, accommodating and more importantly, not out of sync with the basic spirit of Islam. Here is a sample of these questions and a brief outline of my responses based on how I look at these issues in the light of whatever little understanding I may claim to have of these things.
1. (From the agnostic): What is the philosophy behind ‘your’ islam making allowance for polygamy even when it is universally accepted as manifestly misogynist inasmuch as it is rarely the case that concurrence can be extracted from a married woman before her husband marries another woman. In any case, given her psychological makeup and the sentimentality she is hardwired to attach to relationships, it is unreasonable to expect her to say ‘yes’ to the suggestion that her husband would want to take another woman in the wedlock.
My answer: To the extent I understand, polygamy has been allowed in these very ‘rarest of rare circumstances’ that you have spelt out where, besides other conditions, concurrence from the first wife as an absolutely necessary condition has been obtained before her husband goes for a second marriage. A polygamy protagonist would see red in this suggestion and dismiss it as wishful, considering that in such a scenario a polygamous relationship would become as good as impractical. My take on this criticism is: so be it! In other words, the possibility of polygamy has to be accepted as probable or as rare as the likelihood or otherwise of a woman consenting to share a conjugal relationship with her husband who has no qualms in marrying another woman. A perceived preponderance of polygamous relationships amongst Muslims is not because, but in spite of a reluctance to stick to this basic principle governing polygamy, requiring consent from the first wife as a first condition. After all, how is it that in God’s scheme of things, something has been allowed as permissible for the ultimate good of someone ‘without taking care’ as it were, that this same permissible act is likely to cause untold pain and agony to someone else, which in the instant case, will surely be the fate of the first wife. In Islam, there is no sanctity attached to such acts that ignore this basic divine principle.
2. (From the atheist): Where is the need for God when, as scientists, we know of a symbiotic relationship between cause and effect which tells us, for instance, that the death of a human being is caused exclusively in view of some vital organs in the human body going dysfunctional for one reason or the other, rather than as an act of God.
My answer: Let me begin by saying that much though one doesn’t need to invoke religion or God in one’s quest for truth- scientific or otherwise as Stephen Hawking would have us believe- the fact is that faith in God does not in any way come in the way of an effort to understand nature and the world around us which reveals a cosmic design of everything in the universe that wouldn’t have come about in the absence of a grand designer at work. At a more mundane level, we know that individual action is determined by individual thought and a good thought is essentially shaped by a certain amount of faith in a reality that is absolute and unmistakably ubiquitous that one can choose to ignore, but only at the risk of one’s own ignorance - and arrogance. This motivates the next question which I shall pose and try to answer.
3. How does one explain the Quranic view of an earthquake as being caused as a divine punishment to people who have ‘gone astray from the path of virtue and righteousness’ rather than as a physical event occasioned by well established scientific principles involving movement of plates under the earth’s crest besides, of course, many other reasons based on science and observation.
To put this issue into perspective, it is necessary to digress a bit about the idea of resurrection. As I see it, the view that the dead will be resurrected (on the day of judgement) is in conformity with the idea of justice considering that as we all know it, it is rarely the case, for example, that justice gets dispensed according to one’s deeds in this world. A willingness to accept the possibility of an all-powerful individual riding roughshod over a weak fellow-being purely on the strength of his physical prowess and social/political clout without having to account for such misdeeds clearly militates against the sense of proportion that underlies the grand design marked by a breathtaking order that a perceptive observer gets to witness in the cosmos. On the other hand, the divine injunctions involving the occurrence of earthquakes as mentioned above are by no means outside the pale of scientific reasoning as we shall see. The fact is that the sins committed by man on earth are not necessarily limited to those which have been explicitly proscribed in the scriptures as such like, for example, the killing of fellow human beings, partaking of that which has been labelled as ‘haram’, fornication or theft and many other sins of that genre. How about those acts of man which are not explicitly mentioned as sinful in the holy scriptures, but are nevertheless harmful to man and the society: indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources leading to ecological imbalance, excessive use of commodities such as plastic and other non-biodegradable toxic substances in our daily lives or wastage of natural resources like food and water. These are some of the factors which are known to accelerate and even trigger the onset of natural disasters like floods, famine or even a Tsunami or an earthquake with devastating consequences for human life on earth. Rather than view the scientific reasons and the religious perspective on such occurrences as an earthquake at variance with each other, the two points of view can be seen to supplement each other as soon as one begins to interpret the above mentioned acts as sinful and hence to be shunned for a peaceful life on earth and reward in the hereafter.
4. (From all those present there): Why is it that the Muslim world lags behind the rest of the world in science and technology, even when they command such immense resources?
My answer: Again, I must begin with a disclaimer that there is nothing new about the perspective that I have to offer on this issue. To my mind, the slow development of science in Muslim countries is mostly on account of attitudinal rather than of material reasons. That clearly explains the poor state of education, especially of science education in large parts of the Muslim world? What is needed for progress are the behavioural changes that seek to put a huge premium on the acquisition and creation of knowledge, as opposed to espousing a worldview- mostly prevalent in the Muslim world- where the singular meaning attached to the idea of a ‘decent life’ is solely in terms of material well being, rather than in the quintessential spirit of Islam that seeks excellence both of the human mind and soul. This mindset is reminiscent of the Dark Ages, which preceded Renaissance, where scholasticism was ruling the roost, deriving its sustenance from dogmatism, blind faith and indifference to fact. We are still trapped in the school of scholasticism which believed in order to understand as opposed to modern science which seeks to understand in order to believe. Science cannot flourish in a milieu where things are taken for granted as has been the case with the way islam has been presented over the centuries where one is taught to accept things as they are, without the need for asking questions. It is precisely in the espousal of the Cartesian dictum of putting everything to doubt that modern science has progressed, bringing in its wake immense technological benefits to humanity. Apart from this, we must understand that science is essentially secular whereas the religion of islam-at least in the form in which it is largely practiced – has been presented as a monolith with an exclusive emphasis on the otherworldliness that is strangely- and, of course wrongly- eked out as the be-all-and-end-all of Quran.
5. Among other issues which were broached during this discussion, the one pertaining to the question involving the existence of God took the centre stage. What I said about this issue is part of folklore and it is not my case to pretend that my views on this count are meant to provide fresh insights into this complex issue. I maintained that God’s signs are visible only to the prepared mind and that these signs have to be sought as much in the diversity as in the disparity of things that are at display all around. What I was obviously referring to was the diversity of life forms, of peoples inhabiting this planet, of the myriad languages spoken all over, of the variety of individual talent of human beings, of the limitless cosmos of which our planet is but a negligibly tiny part, and most importantly of the plurality of faiths as an act of God who couldn’t have chosen to perch a segment of his creation on a higher pedestal than the other. On the other hand, there is this ubiquitous disparity that exists between sections of society, that which is witnessed in the fortunes of people in terms of their access or otherwise to the good things of life. How else does one explain the commonplace but the frequently encountered phenomenon involving, say two siblings brought up in exactly the same conditions and environment at home and in the society, but one of them growing up as a robust and healthy young individual and living happily all the way into his eighties, whereas the other being beset with a host of deadly diseases and losing his life in his early youth. There certainly is no reasonable scientific explanation of this phenomenon, and in this and in the diversity and disparity we see all around, there are unmistakable signs of God, if only one cares to reflect and ponder in order to make the right selection from the maze of alternatives God has made available to man to choose from.