Interview: Mohammed Aslam Parvaiz

Mohammed Aslam Parvaiz: ‘A scientific approach is needed to discover God’

Print edition : May 07, 2021

MOHAMMED ASLAM Parvaiz speaking at the first Urdu Science Congress in New Delhi in March 2015. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Interview with Mohammed Aslam Parvaiz, author and former vice chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University.

FOR almost three decades, Mohammed Aslam Parvaiz, science commentator and noted plant physiologist, has been ploughing a lonely furrow in bringing out the Urdu journal Science. He has endeavoured to introduce science to those whose preferred medium of reading is Urdu, often erroneously regarded as the language of romantic poetry only.

A few years ago, he started hosting the annual Quran conference, which has evolved into a gathering so unlike any seen in the Muslim world. He invites scholars from across the world to participate in it and asks them to deliberate on the holy book and initiate a dialogue around it. Significantly, in a patriarchal society, he has made bold to introduce women scholars to speak about Islam on stage. This is a far cry from the world of Indian ulemma where it is often ordained that men decide, women follow. Amid all this, he carried on his duties as vice chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University. He retired in late 2019. He had earlier been the principal of Delhi University’s Zakir Husain College. By itself, it was a significant milestone for a person who had spent his childhood in the lanes of Old Delhi near the college.

Parvaiz’s book, The Scientific Muslim: Understanding Islam in a New Light, published by Konark, is making waves for its attempt to arrive at the truth of Muslim backwardness and busts many a myth about religion and science. It also talks about how the community has fallen into an endless cycle of rituals and traditions, quite opposed to what the Quran dictates.

Excerpts from an interview Parvaiz gave Frontline:

As the editor of a science journal for almost three decades, how do you react to the common perception that science begins where religion ends, and vice-versa? Are the two mutually exclusive?

Science is a methodology which helps us to know about the unknown. It is based on keen observations, analysis of available data, framing of questions, search for logical explanations and experimentation wherever possible. It knows no boundaries and restrictions. Religion, on the other hand, is usually a set of rituals which are done as told, no one questions it, and the blind following continues generation after generation. Usually, these rituals are named as worship or prayer and are meant to ‘please’ God and to get His bounties. But if one is out to ‘discover’ God, a different approach is needed, a scientific approach. We believe that God created everything. If we study any of his creations we will be able to see this mastery, creativity and a distinct style of maximum utilisation and minimum wastage. For an in-depth study of everything, we use scientific tools and methodology, and once we understand the creation, we appreciate the creator.

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Secondly, the ritualistic prayers that are passed on to us are said to be from religion’s texts, hence they should be followed as such. But who verifies the authenticity. A scientific approach would be to read the text directly from original sources and see what it says about different aspects of life. This almost always gives us a better holistic approach of doing good, emphasising more on ‘karma’, or deeds, than ‘japa’, or recitation of mantras. This is a scientific approach towards religion and is very much needed today.

You are a science commentator with a doctorate in plant physiology. How did you get down to writing “The Scientific Muslim”?

As a student of science, I always question and look for reason and evidence behind every statement, lesson or sermon given to us. As a Muslim, I am supposed to practice Islam, and right from my childhood, I was taught a few practices and ‘prayers’ to be done according to a schedule. There seemed to be no Islam beyond it. In search of answers I turned to the Quran, which we keep at a safe place out of ‘reverence’. It is in Arabic and most of us do not know Arabic. It is ‘read’ without understanding any of its verses. To me it is the most unscientific approach and tantamount to belittling a divine book, which is sent to us for guidance and addresses all human beings, not just Muslims. To raise my voice against this unscientific approach we have adopted for this book of guidance, I penned down The Scientific Muslim, one who questions everything and looks for evidence.

In your book you make a spirited pitch against reducing faith to a set of rituals. You even criticise many of the prevalent practices. When and how did the Muslim community fall into the abyss of rituals whereby people read the sacred text without understanding or perform acts of prayers without being aware of the meaning?

Though the Quran is not a book of science [called ‘Ilm’ in Arabic], in hundreds of places it asks the readers to observe and explore nature and the natural phenomenon. It asks them to use their intellect, reasoning and logic in everything they do; it assures them each one—male or female, white or black—has the potential to master any field of knowledge. In fact, it makes it mandatory on all believers to acquire knowledge, discover nature, harness its bounties and put them at the service of not only humanity but all inhabitants of this planet. For a couple of centuries, after the revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad, Muslims literally understood and followed its every command but as Islam spread to newer lands, interacted with different cultures and their rituals and practices; and as these people came into the folds of Islam they brought along their customs, practices and festivities to it. People gradually moved away from the book and adopted some selected practices and acts of worship. The people who introduced these practices, assured people that these were sufficient for ‘salvation’ and for pleasing God. Hence emerged the concept of ‘worship’ and ‘prayers’ and all intellectual pursuits and Nature exploration were thrown out of this new religious system. This blind following of ritualism and ‘shelving’ of the Quran brought the community to the lowest level of educational and economic development, where we find it today.

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Is it not true of all religions that even well-educated men and women perform rituals almost by rote? And that the clerics never encourage any debate or dialogue. Does it not become a self-consuming circle by itself?

Yes, of course. Anything done without knowing the reason and logic behind it and without analysing its logical outputs conditions our mind to become ‘illogical’ and unscientific.

You say in the book that God asks us to explore, to reason and ask questions. Is it not an anomaly considering that religion is supposed to be all about blind faith?

The anomaly is in the religion and the ritualistic system it doles out. If one cares to read the Quran, it clearly says use reason and intellect and refuses to accept and practice anything contrary to reason.

You write in the book that the word Quran itself means ‘to read’. And the first word of the Quran, ‘Iqra’ also means to ‘read’. Yet Muslims are among the most educationally backward communities in India. While there could be socio-economic reasons for it, why has the community failed to heed even the message of the divine book? Surely, no government has stopped the community from pursuing education.

The first verse that was revealed to the Prophet asked him and all subsequent readers of the book to 'read’ with the attributes of God who ‘created'. This is the first order given to us to read. That we [Muslims] are educationally most backward today, speaks volumes about the state of our disconnect with the Quran and how we have literally ignored it.

You rightly state in the chapter, “A New Educational System”, that the purpose of education today is to provide skills to help in the job market rather than enhance human qualities for a better life. How do we restore the moral tenor and bridge the gap between secular and religious knowledge?

Moral education must be made an integral part of our education system. In a country like ours where most of the people are religious and desirous of teaching it to youngsters, I see no harm in incorporating moral education teachings from all religions in early childhood education. ‘Secular’ teaching can be enriched by moral instructions from every religious text. This will help introduce a vital component of spirituality in the young generation, which can be built up gradually in later classes so that they are able to work out a balance between spirituality and materialism. Besides, parents should groom their children in such a way that they become good human beings.

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In Muslim households, the Quran is ‘taught’ to every child, but if it is taught with meaning children will realise that good practices are a part of the ‘religion’ they practice. They will understand that speaking nicely, doing good to all, serving everyone, respecting all people and their religions, doing justice, and sharing what they have is a duty that is mandatory if we claim to be a Muslim. This will bring about a sea change in the social and personal behaviour of the youths.

In 2020, the Tablighi Jamaat congregation took place during the pandemic. Leaving aside the politics, do you think a congregation of this nature could have been avoided had the participants understood the meaning of the Quran instead of repeating the verses by rote?

Fully agree. When we understand Quranic messages, we know how important it is to take care of others, not to harm others advertently or inadvertently and to help all those who are working for a good cause. It is expected of people who appear and claim to be the torch-bearers of Islam to put their best foot forward and cooperate in every good work that is being undertaken, considering it a religious obligation.

Former Vice President Hamid Ansari, in his words of praise for the book, says, “Science, like all knowledge, is one of the purposes of God’s creations. The world today beckons Muslims to resume and reiterate it.” It is a long haul. What is the first step towards this?

The first step would be to liberate oneself from the mental slavery imposed in the name of religion. God hates it. As it is a tough job and quite challenging, we will have to use the ‘right kind of religion’ to cast away the wrong one. So, Muslims must be motivated to ‘return to the Quran’, to understand it thoroughly and practice accordingly. At every step and for everything, we should bring the Quran to the centre stage and seek guidance from it. To me, this seems to be the only way.

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