Nobel Prizes are somehow among the very few annual events that I anxiously wait for. In days leading up the Nobel prizes I read about the nominations, and then follow diligently as the prizes are announced. In some ways it is a habit I picked up while in school, but in other ways, it has become a way for me to find some encouragement that despite all the problems that plague the world today (such as oppression, terrorism, extremism, war, etc), sincere efforts of a few are indeed leading to progress, growth and positive development. developments in humanity’s evolution. I find worldwide recognition of glorious advances made in physical, natural or social sciences as evidence that humanity is finding ways to improve itself and become a better collective self.
My thesis advisor for the Ph.D. was a Nobel laureate (Mario Molina, 1995), and if I had not spent 5+ years day and night working right by his side, I would have continued to think of Nobel laureates as some super-humans that ordinary people like myself would never get to know, understand or meet. But now that is not the case. While I have utmost respect for Nobel laureates, and remain in awe of their inspiring and amazing achievements, I am also able to see them as mere human beings who have been able to make a difference in their fields by applying their intelligence, determination and creativity. They are ordinary human beings whose work has made the world a better place.
Muslims, unfortunately, have not been recipients of many Nobel prizes. Is it because our greatest academic achievements were made before Alfred Nobel decided to donate his money for the international awards? Ibn Khaldoum, Al-Khwarizmi, Ibn-Sina, Al-Biruni etc are all ancient names, sometimes only remembered fondly because the names sound mysterious, and sometimes only when their names are seen on history walls in museums. Despite the achievements by these great people, it is often surprising ad embarrassing how few Muslim students have any idea what they accomplished. That ignorance speaks volumes for how our societies have come to value advances in academia (and sciences in particular).
But that trend of Muslims not winning Nobel prizes may be changing. Among Muslims, the name that stands out for me is of course that of Abdus-Salam (also see my post here). He was a Pakistani muslim, who won the Nobel prize in Physics in 1979. However, how sad that internal squabbles within Islam in Pakistan prevented him from ever really getting the recognition he deserved in the Muslim world.
Arabs have had some success in getting to the Nobel Prize pedestal. As a chemist, I am of-course reminded of fellow physical chemist Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel laureate in chemistry (1997). Another name that I have been recently introduced to is of Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel laureate in literature from Egypt (1988). Eteraz correectly state son his blog that perhaps Muhammad Iqbal was the only other person who came very close to receiving this price (back in the 1940s).
This year has brought a second Nobel prize in literature to the Muslim world. This year’s prize went to Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish novelist who has often been criticized in his home country for highlighting the genocide of the Armenians in the 1st world war period (under the Ottoman empire).
Muslims have received the Nobel Peace prize as well. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist, won the Nobel Peace prize in 2003. She was the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel prize. And today Muslims scored one more. Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh and his Grameen Bank received the Nobel peace prize for creating microfinance institutions and for economic empowerment & development of the very poor in rural communities. One more person, waiting in line, is Abdus Sattar Edhi, the Mother Teresa of Pakistan. Us Pakistanis keep waiting.