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Lessons from the Galileo affair by S Iftikhar Murshed

 “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”...  Galileo

Galileo was already an old man when he was condemned as a heretic for supporting the Copernican world system. He was confined for the rest of his life to his house in Arcetri where he soon became completely blind. During those dreadful years of darkness and solitude he was visited in 1638 by a young English poet, John Milton, who, in one of history’s strange coincidences, was also to become blind 14 years later.

It was from his sanctuary of sorrow in the final year of his life that Galileo lamented: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Preserved in the archives of the Vatican is the famous Codex 1181 titled, “Proceedings against Galileo Galilei.” It begins with the pronouncement: “Propositions to be forbidden: that the sun is immovable at the centre of heaven; that the earth is not the centre of heaven, and is not immovable...” From the trove of available documents it transpires that the first of several reports against Galileo was filed in 1611, though his trial took place in 1633. Thus, for 22 years he had been under the surveillance of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

Before his trial, Galileo was threatened with torture and ordered to renounce all that he had ever published in support of the Copernican system. Broken in spirit, he complied: “I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy” and “...with sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies.” The humiliation of the man, who Albert Einstein once described as “the father of modern science,” was thus complete.

The Europe of the 16th and 17thcenturies was shaken by traumatic events. The success of the Lutheran Reformation triggered the Counter-Reformation, which was as reactionary as it was fierce. New ideas and scientific concepts at variance with Church doctrines were viciously crushed. Galileo was only placed under house arrest because of his “repentance,” but others such as Michael Servetus (1511-1553) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) were burnt at the stake.

But in the four centuries since then there has been a stunningly bold reappraisal of Church teachings. As early as 1718 the Inquisition’s ban on Galileo’s writings was rescinded and in 1741 Pope Benedict XIV authorised the publication of his complete scientific works. Two centuries later, in 1939, Pope Pius XII described Galileo as the “most audacious hero of research...not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way.”

In 1983 Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years and one of the most outstanding men of his times, unhesitatingly said: “The Church’s experience during the Galileo affair, and after it, has led to a more mature attitude...It is through research that man attains to truth...This is why the Church is convinced that there is no contradiction between science and faith...”

On May 6, 2001, John Paul II became the first pontiff to pray in a mosque. As he entered the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a former Christian Church dedicated to John the Baptist, he respectfully took off his shoes and kissed the Holy Quran. He went even further in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which has a special reference to Muslims: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst who are the Muslims, these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one merciful God, mankind’s judge on the Last Day.”

It was through learning and research that the Christian West, encouraged by the Church, was able to propel humankind to dazzling heights of intellectual ascent. The same emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge has inspired those who profess Judaism. A mere 14 million Jews have produced 167 Nobel laureates compared to only nine from among 1.5 billion Muslims.

When Muslims abided by the true teachings of their religion, they too were able to move away from “deep darkness into light” (The Quran 2:257). At the time when Rome had burnt the great Giordano Bruno and Michael Servetus at the stake and had placed Galileo under permanent house arrest for supporting the Copernican model of the universe, Muslim universities in Spain were using a revolving terrestrial globe as an educational tool.

The Fatimids of Africa could boast of a royal library that had more than 100,000 manuscripts which were freely lent to the students of Cairo. Even this appears modest compared to the main library of the Umayyads of Spain which consisted of six hundred thousand volumes all of which were elegantly bound and transcribed. Andalusia had more than seventy libraries which were perpetually thronged by scholars and students.

Modern science is essentially a Greco-Islamic legacy. Although Muslim scholars had immense respect for the writers of ancient Greece, they did not blindly follow the philosophers and scientists of Athens without contributing anything of their own. In his 1919 masterpiece, The Making of Humanity, Robert Stephen Briffault (1876-1948) observed: “The Greeks systematised, generalised and theorised, but the patient ways of detailed prolonged observation and experimental enquiry were altogether alien to the Greek temperament...modern science is the most momentous contribution of the Islamic civilisation.”

But all this was many centuries back. Muslims have regressed into the Dark Ages. The rest of the world has left them far behind. The fault has been entirely their own. There are less than 600 universities among 57 Muslim-majority countries compared to 8,407 in India and 5,758 in the US. Spain alone translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has translated in the thousand years since the time of Caliph Mamoun.

In Pakistan the situation is particularly grim. The Annual Status of Education Report, 2011, which was based on a survey involving 146,874 children in 2,505 villages and 97 urban centres, showed that only 41.8 percent of children between five and 16 years of age could read a sentence in Urdu or their own language. Barely 25.8 percent were able to read a sentence in English and 62.7 percent could not do three-digit division. The government is least concerned and seems to believe that ignorance is a virtue as is evident from the paltry 2.9 percent of the GDP spent on education as of 2008.

A recent US AID-supported study shows that an increase in the literacy rate by 20 to 30 percent is associated with a national income growth of between eight to 16 percent. According to the World Bank, 60 to 90 percent of the growth achieved by Japan and other East Asian countries was because of human capital rather than financial or natural resources.

Europe may have condemned men of science such as Galileo as heretics four centuries ago, but Pakistan excommunicated its only Nobel laureate from Islam barely four decades back. Last month a former member of the National Assembly and a cleric from Kohistan, Maulana Abdul Haleem, declared during a Friday sermon that formal education for women was un-Islamic and parents who did not withdraw their daughters from school were “doomed.”

If “the fate of empires depends on the education of youth,” as Aristotle believed, then the future for Pakistan is bleak unless it wakes up from its slumber. But time is measured here from crisis to crisis. Even the ongoing speculative tsunami involving corruption allegations against the chief justice’s son will eventually subside. What will remain is an impoverished country till it rediscovers that lost secret for progress called education. But in Pakistan, as in the rest of the Islamic world, the search for knowledge has not even begun.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: [email protected]

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