When Will The Muslim World Honor Its First Muslim Scientist Nobel Laureate?

On January 29th, the world celebrates Pakistani scientist Dr. Abdus Salam's 88th birthday. Sadly, much of the Muslim world, with Pakistan leading the way, will once again ignore him. Dr. Salam was the world's first Muslim scientist Nobel Laureate.
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15th October 1979: Joint Nobel Physics prize winner and Imperial College of London professor Abdus Salam, originally from Pakistan. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
15th October 1979: Joint Nobel Physics prize winner and Imperial College of London professor Abdus Salam, originally from Pakistan. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Muslims today boast, rightfully, about Islam's Golden Age and its unprecedented contributions to the sciences. Muslim leaders worldwide implore Muslims to rise up to that greatness once more. But in doing so, too many ignore the 20th century's most prominent Muslim scientist--one who once again rekindled the brilliance of the countless Muslim scientists who created the Golden Age of Islam.

On January 29th, the world celebrates Pakistani scientist Dr. Abdus Salam's 88th birthday. Sadly, much of the Muslim world, with Pakistan leading the way, will once again ignore him. Dr. Salam was the world's first Muslim scientist Nobel Laureate. He received the Nobel in Physics in 1979 for predicting the Higgs Boson decades before its discovery in 2012. Despite his unprecedented contribution to humanity, the Muslim world at large and Pakistan in particular has ignored and demonized him--even desecrating his grave after he died. Why this injustice? The following is an excerpt from my critically acclaimed book The Wrong Kind of Muslim, which tells the story of a national hero and international icon--ignored. Hopefully on Dr. Salam's 88th birthday, the Muslim world will honor this hero in a manner befitting of his unmatched service to humanity.

Remembering a Forgotten Hero

We finished crossing the street and walked towards the gate. Once close enough to read the sign out front, written in Urdu, I turned to my uncle, "We're at a cemetery?"

"Not just a cemetery, the cemetery. Come on."

Uncle Bashir visited this cemetery almost daily. The armed guard recognized him and waved us through the front gate. "Why do we need an armed guard at a cemetery? Are they stealing corpses nowadays in Pakistan?" I said half-jokingly.

"Yes," Uncle Bashir replied, wholly seriously, and kept walking.

I later discovered just how serious he was. This was known as the "Heavenly Graveyard," established for Ahmadi Muslims who dedicated at least 10 percent of their income to charity. It was under constant threat, and had been attacked several times before. Extremists throughout Pakistan's history found ways to desecrate Ahmadi graves -- simply because they were Ahmadi.

In less extreme cases, they'd write insults on the tombstone itself -- kafir, filthy, infidel, hell-bound. Likewise, they might throw trash and feces on the grave.

In more extreme cases, extremists break tombstones in half, or rip it out of the ground altogether. This is a bigger problem in more remote locations where graves aren't visited regularly. But even when police are present, they often enough assist, rather than reprimand those engaging in the grotesque acts. On December 3, 2012, extremists destroyed over 120 tombstones in a Lahore cemetery belonging to the Ahmadiyya Community. As usual, police did nothing.19

In the most extreme cases, however, they would exhume the corpse or forbid its burial at all. A mullah would file a blasphemy claim or engage in vigilante justice against an Ahmadi buried in a "Muslim" graveyard. On account of the deceased being an Ahmadi Muslim, the corpse allegedly violated the graveyard's sanctity, and needed to be removed. Extremists have been known to dig up the corpse days after burial and expel it from the graveyard.

Thus, grave desecration, destruction, and exhumation are realities every Ahmadi family in Pakistan must consider when deciding where to bury their loved ones who have passed on.

Suddenly, the armed guard at the Heavenly Graveyard seemed inadequate. Meanwhile, I marveled at the graveyard. It truly was beautiful, pristine, and serene -- befitting of the name "Heavenly." Well-kept trees lined the walkways. The tall walls blocked out blaring horns and traffic. And the majestic red mountain stood over, symbolically protecting the cemetery's residents.

We walked down the main pathway and veered right. A few more paces down, Uncle Bashir stopped and turned to me.

"You do know who Dr. Abdus Salam is, right?"

"Sure, he was an Ahmadi Muslim who won the Nobel Prize in Physics. He's buried here?"

"Of course, where else would he be buried? Also, he was the world's first Muslim scientist to win the Nobel, and the first Pakistani."

I got excited. Dr. Salam is a hero for many Ahmadi Muslim youth -- myself no exception. Some of his family and several grandchildren today live in the United States. I was thrilled and grateful to visit his tomb and pay my respects.

"Where? Where's his tomb?"
"Right there."
My uncle pointed to the tombstone literally next to me. I turned eagerly to see Dr. Salam's tombstone -- my hero's tombstone.

But, my joy was short-lived. My smile vanished. In an instant my enthusiasm transformed from excitement to confusion, then denial, then realization, and then anger. I never got to the acceptance stage. My mind couldn't accept what it saw. To this day it still hasn't.

There it was in bold letters:

29 JANUARY 1926 -- 21 NOVEMBER 1996

The word MUSLIM was wiped out. How was this possible? Dr. Salam was a national hero, an international icon. I tried to rationalize and could only conclude that extremists snuck in at night and defaced the tomb. But even that didn't make sense. If extremists had done this, then it would have been repaired by now. I turned to my uncle in disbelief.

"I don't understand. And why haven't we fixed it yet?"
"We can't fix it."
"The hell we can't, I'll fix it right now." I was angry and wasn't

exactly sure what I would do to actually fix it. But it seemed like the thing to say at the time.

"Qasim, this is the way things are."

Pushing past the denial, what he said finally clicked in my mind. The horrifying reality.

"The government did this?"
Uncle Bashir nodded in affirmation.
"They desecrated a dead man's grave -- a national hero's grave?" My uncle didn't respond.
When you get a chance, look up Dr. Abdus Salam. Dr. Salam won his Nobel for predicting -- over 30 years ago -- the recently discovered God Particle. His contribution to science, to mankind, to world history, is of Copernican standards. This is the man who predicted the missing link that explains what gave the universe mass and how it is physically possible for us to exist. His work helped lay the foundation for the current revolution in physics that literally affects everything we know about the creation of the universe. Yet Pakistan ignores all this on account of Dr. Salam's faith as an Ahmadi Muslim.

But in hindsight, this should not have been a surprise. This was just the latest act of bigotry in a line of bigoted actions against one of Pakistan's -- and the world's -- greatest citizens. Late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto refused to meet with him on account of his faith. And in 2012, upon the God Particle's discovery, Pakistani media refused to air any coverage that risked giving Dr. Abdus Salam credit -- on account of his faith. The government further refused to acknowledge Salam's existence -- on account of his faith.

As Americans, we celebrate Jewish Albert Einstein, Buddhist Steve Jobs, Christian Bill Gates, and atheist Stephen Hawking -- regardless of their faith, or lack thereof. We don't look at the precursor faith when appreciating and celebrating their contributions to mankind. Rather, we look at the contributions themselves and celebrate those contributions. This unbiased recognition of greatness is not just some American specialty, but certainly one of any nation with the slightest bit of common sense. This is what human nature drives us to do -- champion each other's greatest contributions to humanity to ultimately grow into a society of greatness. To deny such growth is repulsive to human nature and destructive to human progress.

Rather than celebrate their first -- and to date only -- Nobel Prize winner, or celebrate the fact that perhaps the single greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century was by a Muslim, or sponsor scholarships in Dr. Salam's name -- Pakistan has chosen instead to grab the nearest hammer and chisel and wipe "Muslim" off Dr. Salam's tombstone. After all, such a sacrifice is worth it to ensure no Pakistani is infected with Qadianism.

Yet, Dr. Abdus Salam was proud of his Pakistani heritage. Despite the open antagonism against him, he refused to forsake his Pakistani citizenship even though India and other nations gladly welcomed him. He wanted to give back to Pakistan even more and establish a university. After decades of painful attempts, however, Pakistan's bigotry won, and Dr. Salam returned to his Maker, unsuccessful. The Pakistani government refused to accommodate Dr. Salam's vision -- on account of his faith -- wasting the priceless opportunity to benefit countless youths through higher education. Countless Pakistani youth have no idea such a legendary hero emerged from their midst. More painfully, however, countless talented youth go to waste because inadequate opportunities exist. All this stemming from a nation's bigotry against a scientific genius -- on account of his faith.

Fortunately, Italy graciously invited Dr. Salam to establish such an institution on their soil -- and he did. And for the last forty-five years now, The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ASICTP) has been at the cutting edge of global scientific advancement, particularly in its efforts to advance scientific expertise in developing nations. Italy, a largely Roman Catholic nation, recognized the incredible contribution to humanity the Muslim scientist Dr. Salam offered -- even before he won the Nobel. Over one hundred thousand students from developing nations worldwide have studied at ASICTP. Pakistan, meanwhile, boasts a 50 percent literacy rate20 and a proud hammer and chisel.

I stared at the scratched-out word for what seemed like an hour. I was fixated. I simply couldn't fathom the level of bigotry I was dealing with. Finally my uncle put his hand on my shoulder to snap me out of my funk.

"Come on, standing here angry won't do anything."

Before moving on, we both offered a silent prayer for Dr. Salam. I recall my prayer distinctly -- that I may live to see the day when we can march back into the Heavenly Graveyard and restore Dr. Salam's tombstone to its former condition. Such an act would go beyond honoring Dr. Salam, but it would also honor Pakistan. But for now, such a day is but a dream. Pakistan chokes to death on its own bigotry, and Dr. Salam rests peacefully as the 'wrong' kind of Muslim.

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