Silencing Science: The Inquisition Of Professor Sher Ali

The inquisition of Professor Sher Ali is proof that in Pakistan, one of the significant obstacles to scientific progress and development of human knowledge is the reluctance to engage in open discourse and maintain an open-minded approach.

Silencing Science: The Inquisition Of Professor Sher Ali

“I have been judged vehemently by suspected heresy, particularly of having held and believed that the sun is the center of the world and motionless and the earth is not the center and moves. With a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned. I, Galileo Galilei, have abjured as above, by my own hand.” 

The inquisition of Sher Ali, a professor of biology has again reminded us of the perpetual ignorance in our society. It was not an issue of big scientific discourse, but a reflection of our societal thinking where only authority can rule, not reason. 

Professor Sher Ali has been teaching in the higher education department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for many years. His lectures are available on YouTube with purely serious content and are academic. A visual surfaced on social media where the professor recanted his views in front of local religious clerics at the office of the Deputy Commissioner Bannu. His admittance encompasses the acceptance of the Deoband Maslak that women are inferior to men, women cannot meet men, support of Shari’a over Darwin's theory of evolution, and an admission that contradiction to the above statements will be liable to criminal offenses. He was made to renounce all previous statements that contradict the above, and even signed on to a clause stating that if something were to happen to Sher Ali, the ulema will not be responsible for that.

These types of state supported inquisitions have far reaching consequences on the development of our society. In the atmosphere of hatred and fear, scientific development has little chance to grow; reason is unpopular in times of danger. This is however, not new. There is a list of inquisitions; Copernicus's exile, Galileo's silence, and the burning of Bruno. Time and again, the clergy has stood in the way of free-thinking, the advancement of knowledge, and the emancipation of the human mind. No apologies for those people; they are the last trench in the defense of ignorance. The inquisition is a result of objectivity; it is a temporary panic of fear and self-protection. Authority is the alternative to chaos.

History has witnessed an array of defeated denouncements from science. In 1633, Galileo, an Italian astronomer and physicist, was brought before the Roman Catholic inquisition for his support of heliocentrism (the idea that Earth orbits the Sun), which declared him "vehemently suspect of heresy,” and sentenced him to house arrest until his death in 1642. The ignorance doomed, direct evidence ultimately confirmed Galileo's observations, with the emergence of Newtonian mechanics in the late seventeenth century, followed by the accurate measurement of the stellar parallax in the 19th century.

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes also known as the Monkey Trial of 1925, charged John T. Scopes, a high school teacher with violating the state law by teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. These trial proceedings bring the debate in the public sphere over the veracity of evolution that continues to the present day. Darwin natural selection’s theory is considered to be the foundation of modern evolutionary biology. The debate between creationists and evolutionists is beyond the scope of this piece. 

Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet biologist, promoted odd scientific ideas contradicting established scientific and genetic principles. Under political pressure, his pseudo-ideas were enforced, resulting in a serious loss in genetic research and causing harm to Soviet agriculture and science. This was an enforcement of biases, not reasons, that were finally redeemed by science in its own way. Thus, these claims couldn't stop the way of science, but ultimately became a stimulant of its advancement. In 1600, Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher was tried by the Roman Catholic Church’s inquisition for his beliefs in heliocentrism and the concept of an infinite universe. He was burned. 

Modern nations have progressed in science by welcoming new ideas, but in the majority of the underdeveloped nations, the situation is grim. They have not been able to embrace religion along with worldly progress. Generally, in the Muslim world and particularly in Pakistan, one of the significant obstacles to scientific progress and development of human knowledge is the reluctance to engage in open discourse and maintain an open-minded approach. In contrast, other societies have recognized the need for free thought and the quality of education at an early stage, harnessing the potential of human intellect. 

Science is considered to be a strategic asset. Recently, the disproportionate response by Israel in Gaza, which affected civilians and even targeted hospitals under the guise of self-defense, serves as a stark reminder of how power governs the world with immunity. Within the Muslim world, there is no strong and influential voice from Muslim countries that could potentially influence the global order. This sense of disillusionment and frustration is, in part, a consequence of lagging behind in terms of scientific advancement and integration into the modern global economies. 

If we wish to come out of the downfall of the Muslims, this can neither be achieved by silencing Professor Sher Ali, nor by resistance movements. The past two hundred years of their history from, Sarangapattam to Afghanistan, reflects adequate evidence of this. If the Muslim world want to have a say in international affairs, the religious clergy will have to take remedial measures to circumvent the major causes that have become the reason for their downfall; otherwise, humiliation, disgrace, and observance will remain their fate. Instead of chasing mirages on a murky receding horizon, Pakistanis will be better served if the people are allowed to delve into deep thinking with open-mindedness.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Atta-ur-Rahman School of Applied Biosciences, National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad