Speech by Umar Nasser
I have found that the more I look into him, the more impressed I am by him, and the deeper my appreciation is for God’s blessings upon him. He is one of the foremost personalities of the Jama’at and insha’Allah a forerunner of many Abdus Salams to come.
Let’s first paint Abdus Salam by the numbers. He was born in Jhang in 1926. While in Jhang college, at the age of 14 he passed his matriculation exam, achieving the highest marks ever recorded. The matric was a huge deal, and the results were eagerly awaited by the entire country. His success here gave a glimpse of his future fame, with his celebrity spreading all over the local town within minutes.
In 1948 he went from Government College, Lahore to Cambridge University on a scholarship. Another student from India had pulled out, and, at the last minute, Abdus Salam’s scholarship application was accepted. As an undergraduate, he got a double firstclass honours in Mathematics and Physics, and received the Smiths Prize an exclusive Cambridge University prize for the best undergrad contribution to physics. Then, for his PhD thesis, he was given a year to solve a huge remaining problem in theoretical physics. He did it in six months, and eventually received another coveted prize for his work the Adams prize. Soon after, in 1951 he returned to Government College, Lahore, where he hoped to revitalise Pakistani science with his newfound knowledge. Sadly, the administration were not interested, leaving Salam with little support, and the job of coaching the football team. After the 1953 riots, Salam left with a heavy heart and came back to the UK to continue his work. In 1957 he came to Imperial College, and set up the Theoretical Physics group.
Salam’s work concerned the four fundamental forces of nature. These are four physical phenomema electromagnetism, weak forces, strong forces, and gravity which physicists
dream of unifying into one elegant solution with which we can more fully understand the universe around us. Salam’s most famous work is the electroweak theory, where he managed to
combine 2 of these forces, into 1, and it was for this reason that he was awarded the nobel prize in 1979. What most people don’t know is that in fact Abdus Salam deserved 2 Nobel prizes in 1956 he wrote a paper which he was discouraged to publish by a supervisor. It turned out his work was absolutely correct, and two american physicists got the nobel prize for it in 1958.
With a brief life outline in place, I want to focus on two aspects of Dr Salam’s life. The first is his unending passion for science. He once said of this:
“We are trying to discover what the Lord thought; of course we miserably fail most of the time, but sometimes there is great satisfaction in seeing a little bit of the truth.” For Salam, his work was deeply intertwined his spirituality, and he repeatedly exhorted Muslims to carry out work into science, saying that over 750 verses of the Holy Qur’an tell believers to study and ponder over nature. He was therefore, at a loss as to why the rest of the Muslim world was either apathetic or actively hostile against this scientific investigation. He then often quoted a verse of the Qur’an
saying that those who strive in the way of Allah, will be guided in his ways. His entire life of striving to understand God’s universe is a testimony to that.
You may be thinking that it’s useless to try and emulate Abdus Salam, as he was evidently a genius. To this I’d say, that whilst each of us can only work within our capacities, we can emulate aspects of his personality to maximise our own potential. One quality that sticks out is his endless curiosity of the world around him. Even at a young age, he wouldn’t waste his time, but would spend it learning and reading. His family record that was incredibly well read in his youth, and even wrote an article on the poet Ghalib when he was in his teens. This was well before he knew he wanted to be a mathematician and teaches the youth an important lesson. That if you don’t know what you want do in life yet try different things! Read around, and you will find something you like. And when you find that thing stick with it, because we all know that it’s so much easier to do well in something that you enjoy.
Another thing to copy was his hard work. The sheer volume of work that he produced shows to what extent he dedicated himself to his craft. I once had the honour of interviewing Professor Tom Kibble, a colleague of his at Imperial College. He told me that his work ethic was exemplary, and that he even continued working in planes and airports. There’s actually a funny story of when once he was in a Dars in Fazl Mosque with Imam Rafiq sb. Imam Sb noticed that he would occasionally write things down during his darses on a notepad. He asked if he liked his darses
so much that he wanted to keep a record of them. To this Salam said apologetically that he has ideas about his work so quickly that if he doesn’t write them down he forgets them. Now whilst I’m not encouraging you to be doing homework during jummah or something, it at least shows how into his work Dr Salam was.
In his Nobel Prize speech he quoted Suratul Mulk which states:
“No incongruity can you see in the creation of the Gracious God. Then look again do you see any flaw? Aye look again and again, your sight will only return to you frustrated and fatigued.”
He added this in effect is, the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze. I am saying this, not only to remind those here tonight of this, but also for those in the Third World, who feel they have lost out in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, for lack of opportunity and resource.
This leads me onto the second aspect of Salam’s life that I want to touch upon his work to help the Third World. Salam worked tirelessly to try and revitalise the sciences in Pakistan, and around the third world. He set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, which sponsors over the best and brightest in developing countries to pursue higher education in the west. But more than that, he wanted these countries to champion their own education to develop their own resources so that they didn’t have to always rely on the charity of the developed world.
This passion seems to have come in part out of his own life. Professor Kibble gave me great insight into this when he said the following to me:
He went back to Pakistan for a while after he did his PhD and so on, and he really found it impossible to carry on with his research there, and he eventually came back to this country. And he very much felt that he wanted to help other people in a similar situation from having to make that… very difficult choice. And I think it has been quite successful in doing that actually.
Indeed he was successful. Within his own lifetime alone I think he sponsored around 500 phd students over from the developing to plug into the cutting edge of science. He also leaves behind not one but several institutions that serve the developing world. By way of example, he won 19 awards throughout his career, and he gave most of his award money to institutions in Pakistan the very country that had rejected him and consistently treated him so badly.
I mention this because we here in the west have the utter privilege of having western educational facilities easily available to us. We do not have to fight like Salam had to fight, and travel across continents to get to the world’s best universities. Instead, they are in our backyard. Therefore, it’s only right that we should not waste what we have been given through indifference or laziness. Salam, through prayers and hard work came from a small village in India to the Nobel Prize City Hall of Stockholm. Imagine what then we can do with prayers and hard work?
Our beloved Huzur has instructed us:
“Excel others in hard work. Excel other is education. That should be the hallmark of an Ahmadi. Allah told the Promised Messiah (as) that the people of your Jama’at will progress in knowledge. Therefore I advise the youth: Immerse yourself in studies to the exclusion of everything else. Advance so much in every field of education that your minimum target is a Nobel Prize.”
It may be that many of us have of course not had the opportunities to ever really fulfill this. If this is the case, then perhaps we can pray that it is our next generation who can fulfill this, and we can work hard in our careers to give them the best opportunities available. I say this based on what Salam once said. He was asked once in an interview, what was running through his mind when his name was called out for in the Nobel Prize Hall. He answered:
There were two things on my mind. How Allah had bestowed His benevolences on me; who is a resident of a small unknown town, and this special favour of God. The main thought occupying my mind was one of thankfulness. I wished my parents were with me; their teeth were worn
out praying for me. I wished they were with me.
May we see many more Abdus Salams in our Jama’at, and contribute to their journeys in whatever way we can, insha’Allah.