Legacy of a polymath

Print edition : July 19, 2019

Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Albert Einstein.

Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman (1886-1941) was not only an eminent jurist, educationist and litterateur but also a keen scholar of physics who questioned Einstein’s theory of relativity.

How little we know of our own distinguished men and women. How frequently we eulogise false gods, especially in the fields of politics and entertainment. How indifferent we are to the real makers of our nation.

Of the many eminent persons associated with the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman (1886-1941) is hardly remembered these days. Whatever little is known about him relates to his reputation as an eminent jurist and educationist; his foray into science in the 1930s has virtually been forgotten.

On this centenary year of the proof of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the noted historian of science Dr Rajinder Singh brings to light this lesser known but remarkable aspect of Sir Shah Sulaiman’s life. In his book Einstein Rediscovered: Interactions with Indian Academics (Shaker Verlag, 2019) with a foreword by Professor Suprakash C. Roy, Sulaiman’s contribution has been detailed with all the seriousness it deserves. While all the other Indians—the triumvirate of C.V. Raman-Meghnad Saha-Satyendra Nath Bose, Ganesh Prasad, Nikhil Ranjan Sen, V.V. Narlikar, Jyotirmay Ghosh and Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri—have been distinguished academics engaged in teaching and research, Sulaiman is the only exception. He was from the profession of law and a strong critic of Einstein’s theory.

In “Sir Shah Sulaiman, brilliant judge, educationist and scientist” (Business Recorder, March 13, 2006), Justice M.B. Ahmad portrays his life and substantial accomplishments. Born into an educated family of scientists and lawyers, Sulaiman stood first in the B.A. examination of Allahabad University in 1906 and won a scholarship to study in Cambridge, where he “obtained the Mathematical Tripos in 1909, the Law Tripos in 1910 and was awarded LLD by the University of Dublin...”. He was not successful at the ICS examination in 1909 and thereafter decided to study law. His outstanding performance as a barrister ensured him a judgeship at Allahabad High Court at the age of 34. In 1932, he became the first Indian Chief Justice and was elevated to the Federal Court a few years later (1937-41). Some of his judgments, such as the one in the Meerut conspiracy case, made their mark in the evolution of jurisprudence in India.

He served as honorary Vice Chancellor of AMU in two spells, in an officiating capacity during 1929-30, and later between 1938-41, and his contribution was significant. Urdu was made an independent subject at the B.A. level, the technological institute was conceived and the scope of education for women was expanded. Sulaiman’s progressive ideas as an educationist found their expression in making AMU an important centre in India, especially for scientific and historical research. Besides, he was also known as a litterateur.

What ignited his sudden passion for physics amidst his preoccupations as a jurist, educationist and administrator? Was his scientific interest inspired by Meghnad Saha, who won global renown because of his theory of “thermal ionisation” and moved to Allahabad University as the professor and head of the Department of Physics in 1923? During his 15 years at the helm, Saha made the department a leading centre of research while teaching and inspiring several students to pursue science. According to the Biographical Memoirs of INSA Fellows by D.S. Kothari, Sulaiman had approached Saha to put him in touch with some young man with whom he could discuss at length fundamentals of the theory of relativity and atomic theory. That is how Dr Kothari, returning from Cambridge, met Sulaiman in mid 1933.

Saha consistently encouraged Sulaiman, provided the platform of Science and Culture (the journal he had founded in 1935 and edited) for the publication of Sulaiman’s works from 1936-40. Saha was also instrumental in establishing the National Academy of Sciences, India, and nominated Sulaiman for its fellowship. Sulaiman was later elected its president.

As Rajinder Singh remarks: “Some of the Indian authors in Current Science attacked Sulaiman for his ‘too simple’ theory, which did not contain mathematical tensor. He tried to refute his opponents.” C.V. Raman, in an obituary note on Sulaiman for Nature (September 20, 1941), records his eminent public service in different spheres but adds that his published papers “largely consist of attempts to explain the facts of the newer physics on the basis of classical or semi-classical ideas aided by special hypotheses. It could scarcely be hoped that work on such lines would find general acceptance.” Saha, however, appreciated Sulaiman’s theory. Even allowing for the Raman-Saha differences on many issues, Sulaiman’s questioning of Einstein’s theory (special and general) evidently elicited considerable interest at that time.

This was no mean feat. Einstein’s theory was so revolutionary and counter-intuitive that its acceptance even amongst renowned physicists had taken considerable time. Deflection of light from a distant star by the sun, as measured by physicists and astronomers (May 1919), was considered as proof for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Sulaiman had suggested some corrections to Newton’s classical mechanics in order to explain the results of certain observations, and noted: “Similarly, in view of the great uncertainty as to the values for the perihelion [of Mercury] and the spectral shift and in view of the proved excess in the value of the deflection of light, it can no longer be asserted that the general relativity has been verified. And therefore, there is no necessity to accept its extraordinary postulates.”

Criticism of Einstein

According to Rajinder Singh, Sulaiman criticised Einstein for “(1) denying the absoluteness of space, time and motion, (2) making the velocity of light absolute, independent of the motion of observers, (3) giving to space curvature and other properties, (4) making space finite and yet making its finite limit incapable of being attained, (5) denying reality to force and making it a property of space, (6) for introducing a cosmological force of repulsion with the consequent expansion of the universe.”

Saha supported the view that Sulaiman “has formulated an intensely original theory of relativity” that attracted international attention. The renowned journal Science, November 30, 1934, termed this as one “which may overthrow the world famous theories of Professor Albert Einstein”. According to Saha, “Sir Sulaiman’s theory predicted that the shift for the light from the edge should really be about double of Einstein’s value...” and that Dr Thomas Royd’s observation at Kodaikanal observatory in 1936 remarkably confirmed Sulaiman’s prediction.

Many issues can be raised in this connection, especially about the climate of scientific inquiry in colonial times and what may be learnt from it. Even in the great days of Indian science of the 1920s and 1930s, groupism and parochialism even among noted scientists were not unknown. While Rajinder Singh praises Saha’s broad-minded approach in having allowed Sulaiman’s disputed ideas in his journal, he also compares it with the attitude exhibited by Current Science from Bangalore. Revisiting Sulaiman’s work today may provide interesting insights into his line of inquiry as also into the state of scientific culture in India of that time.

Over the last century, Einstein’s theories have been confirmed many times and are globally acclaimed as having revolutionised physics, greatly altering our perception of nature and the universe. What Sulaiman had proposed may not be of much scientific value now and may appear to be of historical importance only, but his spirit of inquiry and the courage to question the dominant scientific thinking of his time should not be lost sight of.

Raman was saved by Sir Asutosh Mookerjee from the clutches of the Financial Civil Service. Saha was not permitted by the government to appear for that competitive examination either. In the process, science gained enormously. Sulaiman had a piercing intellect and an inquisitive mind, but Providence did not allow his steadfast devotion to science. He is commemorated today by a hall of residence in AMU and a road in Karachi. Does his legacy not deserve to be rescued from oblivion?

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a retired IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP.

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