Anand Kamalakar’s powerful Netflix documentary, Salam – The First ****** (Muslim) Nobel Laureate — a biographical account of mathematician and theoretical physicist, Abdus Salam — is a poignant tribute to the genius who once saw himself as the world’s first ‘Muslim and Pakistani’ Nobel laureate, but had to have the posthumous ignominy of having “Muslim” ‘erased’ from his own gravestone, and reduced to a second-class citizen in his home country.
New York-based director Kamalakar, whose documentary was released on Netflix on 1 October, has handled a delicate and even controversial theme with great finesse, and as a result, the documentary has received several international awards and has been screened in over 30 cities across the world. But the driving force behind the documentary were its producers Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver, who put in a decade’s effort to bring their project to fruition.
Why Ahmadis are ‘Non-Muslims’ in Pakistan
Not many in India are familiar with the sectional strife within Islam, except the knowledge that there are Shias and Sunnis. In reality, there are scores of fault lines based on tribal and sectarian identities. But the Ahmadi sect to which Dr Abdus Salam belonged, has had a chequered history in Pakistan. Founded in the 19th century in Qadian, now in Indian Punjab, the movement strongly supported the creation of Pakistan. But the Ahmadis have since faced intense persecution in Pakistan because they believe that their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is the promised Mahdi or Messiah awaited by the Muslims.
A central tenet of Islam is that Muhammad (PBUH) is the last prophet.
However, the Mahdi occupies a different and distinct position in Islamic history, but many Muslims believe that the Ahmadi belief is tantamount to heresy.
Since 1974, a constitutional amendment has officially declared them to be ‘non-Muslims’ and have given them the status of ‘apostates’, something dangerous in Islam.
Abdus Salam: Typical South Asian Story of Hardship & Achievement
Salam’s was a typical story of South Asian achievement. Born in 1926 in a village in the Jhang region to middle-class parents, he studied by candle-light and saw electricity when he went to Lahore for higher education. He was fortunately nurtured by his family, and studied mathematics and won a scholarship to St Johns College, Cambridge. Upon his return in 1951, he was appointed Chairman of the Mathematics Department at the Lahore College University, at the young age of 25. But frustrated by the lack of any research, and, more importantly, the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953, Dr Abdus Salam went back to the UK in 1954. In 1957, he accepted a chair at the Imperial College, a position he held for life.
This appointment, in turn, gave him a leg up in Pakistan, which then designated him as the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President, who was the military dictator Ayub Khan, and he worked for the government till 1974.
Salam was the founder of the Pakistani Space Agency SUPARCO, and led the Theoretical Physics Group in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. Indeed, as the documentary shows, he was instrumental in the establishment of Pakistan’s first nuclear power plant near Karachi.
Pakistani Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam’s Life Work
His role in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme has been ambiguously presented in the documentary. But it does say that Salam was one of those who attended the secret meeting convened by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Multan in 1972, where Pakistan decided to embark on a nuclear weapons programme.
But today, Pakistanis are unlikely to accept that an Ahmadi played a significant role in their nuclear weapons programme.
Two years after the Multan meeting, Salam resigned from his government positions after Bhutto moved the Second Constitutional Amendment that declared Ahmadis as ‘non-Muslims’ in 1974. Salam’s Islamic faith became deeper, and he then became an avowed campaigner against nuclear weapons. But he did not give up on Pakistan and his fierce loyalty to it.
The documentary dwells on the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) that he founded with the help of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) even before he won the Nobel.
The unique feature of this centre is to bring together physicists of the developing world with Western physicists, and carry on their research. In the era when there was no internet, this was a means of ending the kind of isolation Dr Abdus Salam had felt when he had returned to Pakistan from Cambridge.
People associated with Salam, his first wife Hafiza, his sons, associates and fellow physicists, his staff — all bring to life his work and personality. Indeed, some years ago, Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy summed him up as being “strong, assertive, enthusiastic, vibrant, bluntly authoritarian, and with a mind sharp as a razor’s edge”.
Role of Religion in Abdus Salam’s Life
Religion was a central driving force in Dr Abdus Salam’s life. Indeed, he said in an interview, that ‘Tauheed’ or the one-ness of God, played an important role in seeking unity among four forms of energy — strong nuclear, gravitational, electro-magnetic and weak nuclear forces. The achievement for which Salam got the Nobel, was to show the mathematical link between weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism. Salam came up with this around the same time that Steven Weinberg of MIT did, and the two, along with Sheldon Glashow, shared the Nobel for Physics in 1979. In addition to this, he had several other notable achievements in other fields of physics and mathematics.
An interesting facet of the documentary is the part which notes that the young Salam was actually onto the research on the laws of parity, which led to major discoveries in elementary particles.
But he was discouraged from proceeding because he was strongly discouraged by the celebrated physicist Wolfgang Pauli to publish his work. In 1956, Pauli publicly apologised to Salam for his role in discouraging him. The following year, two Chinese American physicists, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee got the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957 for their breakthrough paper in the area.
Like so many ironies that featured in his life, the timing of the award, too, came at a time when General Zia ul Haq — who had seized power in 1977 and hanged Bhutto — “supplemented” the Second Amendment to add further the disabilities against the Ahmadi community. Zia did meet him, somewhat reluctantly, but Dr Abdus Salam was feted elsewhere, including the AMU in India.
The Erasure of Identity
Actually, if anything, the director has been a bit too subtle in showing the boorish manner in which Pakistan treated Salam. When he died in Oxford at the age of 70 in 1996, his body was brought back to Pakistan for burial in Rabwah, the hometown of the Ahmadi community, whose name has been forcibly changed to Chenab Nagar to erase its association with the Ahmadis. The state refused to get involved in the burial of this hero, and no official functionary attended.
Some ‘good’ citizens of Jhang, near Rabwah, were present at the funeral to ensure that no rituals or prayers associated with Islam were conducted. The tombstone said ‘Abdus Salam, First Muslim Nobel Laureate’. Soon after, the police and a magistrate arrived to erase the world ‘Muslim’.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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