Abdus Salam (1926--1996)

Abdus Salam was born in 1926 in a small town, Jhang, in what is now Pakistan. His father was an official in the Department of Education in a poor farming district. Abdus Salam was a brilliant student. At 14, he obtained the highest ever recorded marks for the Matriculation Examination at the University of the Punjab, and won a scholarship to join the Government College, University of the Punjab, from where he obtained his Master’s degree in 1946. This was just a year before the Partition of the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan and Bharat (India). In the same year, Abdus Salam was awarded a scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he took a BA (Honours) with a double first in mathematics and physics in 1949. In 1950 he received the Smith’s Prize from Cambridge University for the most outstanding pre-doctoral contribution to physics. He then proceeded to complete his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Cambridge. His doctoral thesis on quantum electrodynamics (1951) contained won him an international reputation.

By the time Salam finished his Ph.D. the state of Pakistan had emerged. Salam returned to Pakistan in 1951 and joined Government College, Lahore where he taught mathematics. The next year, he became the head of the Mathematics Department of the Punjab University.

In 1954 Salam left Pakistan for a lectureship at Cambridge. He only returned to his native Pakistan for occasional consultancy services. In this capacity, he was a member of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and a member of the Scientific Commission of Pakistan and was Chief Scientific Adviser to the President from 1961 to 1974. In 1957, he became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College, London, and in 1964 he joined the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste, as its Director.

During his long career he did engineering work in theoretical elementary particle physics. In addition to his research, he consistently advocated efforts to increase opportunities for young scientists from less developed countries. He has served on a number of United Nations committees concerned with the advancement of science and technology in developing countries. For his contributions towards peace and promotion of international science collaboration, he received the Atoms for Peace Medal and Award. He shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg. This international recognition made him a forceful voice in the promotion of science in less developed countries. He was awarded honorary doctorates by 36 universities around the world. Abdul Salam died at his residence in Oxford on Thursday, November 21, 1996 at 8:15 am (Pakistan Standard Time) after protracted illness. He was 70. He was suffering from Parkinson's disease. He is survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters.

Abdus Salam championed the cause of promotion of science in less developed countries and especially in Muslim countries. He has not left behind any critique of western science, nor any philosophical work dealing with the intricacies of the Islamic perspectives on science but as a working scientist, he passionately advocated promotion of science. Like many reformers of the nineteenth century, he used the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition to justify acquisition of science. The following excerpt from a paper intended for the Islamic Summit held in Kuwait in January 1987 is representative of his views.

The Future of Science in Islamic Countries
“In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute; the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed ... Today we maintain ourselves, tomorrow science will have moved over yet one more step and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will be pronounced ... on the uneducated.” Alfred North Whitehead

First and foremost, it is important to re-emphasize that the Muslim Ummah constitutes 1/5th of mankind, larger in population than the USA, Western Europe and Japan combined, and only exceeded by China as a unit. In income terms, it represents 1/15th of global GNP - three times as large as that of the Chinese.

So far as the sciences are concerned, the Muslim Ummah has a proud past. For 350 years, from 750 CE to 1100 CE, the Ummah had an absolute world ascendancy in sciences. From 1100 CE for another 250 years, we shared this ascendancy with the emerging West. From the 15th century onwards - this period paradoxically coinciding with the great Empires of Islam (Osmnali in Turkey, Safvi in Iran, Mughal in India) - we progressively lost out. There is no question, but today, of all civilizations on this planet, science is the weakest in the lands of Islam. The dangers of this weakness cannot be over-emphasized since honourable survival of a society depends directly on strength in science and technology in the conditions of the present age.

Why were the Muslims ascendent in sciences? Three reasons: first, the early Muslims were following the injunctions of the Holy Book and the Holy Prophet. According to Dr. Muhammad Aijazul Khatib of Damascus University, nothing could emphasize the importance of sciences more than the remark that “in contrast to 250 verses which are legislative, some 750 verses of the Holy Qur’an - almost one-eight of it - exhort the believers to study Nature to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of Community's life.” The Prophet of Islam - Peace be upon him - said that it was the “bounden duty of every Muslim - man and woman - to acquire knowledge”.

From these injunctions, followed the second reason for our ascendency. Notwithstanding the customary opposition of traditionalists, up to the fifteenth century the scientific enterprise and the scientists in early Islam were supported magnificently by the Muslims principalities and by the Islamic society. Thus, to paraphrase what H.A.R Gibb has written in the context of literature: “To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditional... on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. So long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in patronizing the sciences, the torch was kept burning.” And some princes - like Ulugh Beg at Samarkand - themselves joined in the scientific quest.

The third reason for our ascendency was connected with the cohesion of the Ummah - the Islamic nations, notwithstanding their political differences, acted as a unified Commonwealth, so far as sciences were concerned.

The importance of science for the Muslim nations
Why am I so passionately advocating our engaging in the enterprise of science and of creating scientific knowledge? This is not just because Allah has endowed us with the urge to know, this is not just because in the conditions of today this knowledge is power and science in application, the major instrument of material progress and meaningful defence; it is also that as self-respecting members of the international world community, we must discharge our responsibility towards and pay back our debt for the benefits we derive from the research stock of contempt for us - unspoken, but certainly there - of those who create knowledge.

I can still recall a Nobel Prize Winner in Physics from a European country say this to me some years ago: “Salam, do you really think we have an obligation to succour, aid, feed and keep alive those nations who have never created or added an iota to man's stock of knowledge?” And even if he had not said this, my own self-respect suffers a shattering hurt whenever I enter a hospital and reflect that almost every potent life-saving medicament of today, from penicillin upwards, has been created without our share of input from any of us from the Muslim world.

As I have emphasized, science is important because of the underlying understanding it provides of the world around us, of the immutable laws and of Allah's design; it is important because of the material benefits and strength in defense and its discoveries can give us; it is important because of its universality. It could be a vehicle of co-operation for all mankind and in particular for the Islamic nations. We owe a debt to international science, which, in all self-respect, we must discharge.

As Allah has promised, He does not let the efforts of those who strive, go to waste.

Let me end with the following prayer:

Let no future historian record that in the fifteenth century of the Hijra, “Muslim scientific talent was there but there was a dearth of statesmen to marshal and nurture it.”