Early in my tenure as Director of the University of Colorado Museum I became involved in a ‘religious affair.’ First, you need to know that the offices of the Geological Society of America are located in Boulder, Colorado, not far from the University. One of my former colleagues at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Mike Wahl, was Executive Director of the Society, and another old friend Allison R. ‘Pete’ Palmer was in charge of public relations.
In 1983 two Saudi’s approached the Geological Society of America to ask it to identify experts on aspects of geology which might relate to the Koran. They were in Boulder, and I was just down the street, so both my and Pete Palmer’s names were suggested
By way of background I should mention that at that time there had been news stories that the Saudis wanted to make it possible for science to flourish in the Arab countries as it once had, but the religious authorities stood in the way. The Saudi Royal Family was sponsoring a ‘holy man’, Sheikh Abdul Majeed Zindani for this project.
Mustafa Ahmed and Mohammed Monsour visited me in my office and explained their project. It seemed that there were certain verses in the Koran that were very difficult to understand, and Sheik Zindani wanted to discuss the matter with scientists. When they found out that I had been Dean of an oceanographic institution they were even more insistent. They wanted me to go to Jedda, Saudi Arabia, to confer with the Sheik.
I was not enthusiastic and non committal. I had a very busy schedule. They argued that it was a very important project to Muslims. I said I would consider it.
After the meeting I called Cesare Emiliani, and Cesare seemed to be well informed on the Saudi’s proposed project to reinvigorate science in the Islamic world. He strongly encouraged me to make the trip.
Accordingly, I was flown to Jedda, and met with the Sheik for the better part of a week. It was indeed an interesting experience. The Sheik is a charming gentle man, apparently sincerely seeking advice from knowledgeable scientists. He lived in a small, very neat house, had a neatly trimmed beard and was dressed in a white robe—the very picture of a ‘holy man.’
Sheik Zindani’s thesis was that some passages contain information that could not have been known at the time, and must be divine revelation. I was not an expert on classical Greek and Roman and medieval science, so I was at a disadvantage, being ignorant of what was and what was not known at the time of Mohammed in the 7th century.
For me one of the questions concerned a passage in the Koran that seems to refer to internal waves in the ocean, and the idea was that these had been discovered only recently. The Sheik was thinking of the internal waves that occur on the density interface between water masses having two different densities. A few years later a wholly different interpretation of the meaning of the passage would occur to me.
I had seen internal waves while diving in strip mines in Illinois, so I knew that if conditions were right a person in the water might see them. I suggested that perhaps Mohammed was highly intelligent, and a good observer, and had been on a sea voyage. In case you are not aware of it proper Islamists believe that Mohammed was uneducated, illiterate, and to attribute a high level of intelligence to him is heresy. Of course that makes little sense in view of his accomplishments.
Also, the Sheik and his colleagues insisted that Mohammed never saw the sea; this in spite of the fact that Mecca and Medina are almost in sight of the Red Sea. I suggested that perhaps Mohammed had friends who were observant sailors. Again this was considered heresy. So after one long afternoon on a boat in the hot sun, with all of my caveats about observations having been rejected you come to divine inspiration! So none of my skepticism was reflected.
A more geological topic was a passage the Sheik interpreted as stating that ‘mountains have roots.’ He interpreted this as a revelation of what was discovered in the 19th century that mountain ranges are thick isostatically adjusted blocks that have their base well below that of the adjacent continental block. But there is another obvious interpretation if one has been in the field in the deserts of the Middle East. The mountains look as though they rest on the surrounding alluvium, but in a wadi one sees that the solid rocks of the mountain extend below the loose alluvial sands. We dropped that topic.
On the same trip I gave a geological lecture at the university in Jedda and talking with faculty there I got the impression that the assumption that the goal was to make the pursuit of science safe was essentially correct. However, even today there is a problem about studying geology in Saudi Arabia, since nothing of importance is thought to have happened before the birth of Mohammed. This is why there are no archeological investigations there, and why ARAMCO (the Arabian-American Oil Company) still has few arab geologists.
When I got back to the US I started to look into how old information about internal waves was, and discovered that the Vikings certainly knew about the effects of the phenomenon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Greeks/Romans knew about it, and almost certainly the Arabs, who were the best sailors of the 7th century, would have had some experience with this phenomenon. In practical terms where there is a shallow sharp interface within the water, the waves on this interface control the motion of the boat so that it does not correspond to the surface waves or currents.
A couple of years later a conference was organized by Sheik Zindani in Islamabad bringing together almost all of the non-Islamic scientists he had conferred with. We were asked to prepare papers to be published in the Conference Proceedings, and mine included what I had been able to learn about possible ancient knowledge of internal waves in the ocean. Needless to say it did not get included in the published proceedings. Since then a much simpler explanation of the “internal waves” occurred to me. When you look down in clear, shallow water on a sunny day, you see the effect of diffraction of light passing through the water on the bottom as narrow bright bands separated by broad dark bands. The bright, irregular, rapidly moving stripes are called ‘glitter.’ They often seem to have little if anything to do with the surface waves that actually produce them. Those might be the “internal waves.”
I do not read arabic, and hence had only the translation provided by Sheik Zindani to go on. I know that Islamic scholars believe the words of the Koran have been preserved exactly, but I would question whether the meaning of the words has remained unchanged. The meanings of words drift with time so that for example, the BBC Productions of Shakespeare have modern English subtitles so one can understand the nuances of meaning. In some cases the meaning of words has changed completely. I have a facsimile copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio and also one of the original King James version of the Bible. Both have archaic language and constructions.
An example of the changing meaning of words is well known but cryptic statement “The meek shall inherit the Earth”from the Bible. It has been the topic of innumerable sermons, but there is a small problem. When the King James translation of the original biblical text was made, the word ‘meek’ had nothing to do with its modern meaning; at the time it meant ‘charitable.’ I suspect that this may have happened with arabic texts as well. If this is the case, it makes the modern interpretation of obscure passages of the Koran an exercise in futility. The meeting in Islamabad was an extraordinary experience. I later realized that many of the clerics must have been Taliban. One night at dinner we asked those who were at our table why there were no women present, and were told that it would be inappropriate, since women were like animals, they have no souls. I know from other experience that it is a view held only by the most radical Islamists. Sheik Zindani, as I understand it, is now in Yemen, and was a major supporter of Osama Bin Laden.
As use of the Internet became more widespread over the past couple of decades, some highly edited TV clips of me (and others) have appeared on Islamic websites, Arab TV and even on Youtube. Usually they are confined to my non-committal statement that “I find it interesting that these statements would be in the Koran” and in one instance I am credited with suggesting that they are inspired by a ‘divine being.’ The latter is taken out of context. We were discussing what would be required to show that a passage implied divine inspiration.
Dan Golden, staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal, did some research and found that Zindani’s goal was simply to be able to claim that western scientists believed there were miraculous statements in the Koran. The whole affair was a scam. We were tricked by the charming Sheik and fooled by the Saudi cover story. Dan’s article is available on the Internet at many sites, but here is one that is free:http://www.weatheranswer.com/public/wstjournal%20012302.txt .
In 2011 I was interviewed on this topic by a British computer specialist who has taken it upon himself to contact and interview scientists that had participated in Sheik Zindani’s project. His internet name is The Rationalizer. In the interview I give a more thorough discussion of my experience. It can be seen on Youtube at:http://tinyurl.com/BillHayInterview, orhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bygb30gAqOsLinks to the other interviews can be found here:http://www.YouTube.com/user/ThisIsTheTruthUncut
It is interesting that Islamic clerics try to use science as a recruiting tool. In contrast Christian Fundamentalists regard science as hostile to their faith. In Chap. 3 I recounted how in 1997 I found myself standing on Charles Darwin’s grave in Westminster Abbey. The Church of England holds him in the highest regard. In fact, many famous scientists have their final resting place in the Abbey. But a few years later I attended ‘Creationist School’ at one of our churches in the town where I live. Darwin was considered a tool of the devil, along with Carl Sagan. I must say that the ‘teacher’ had the most bizarre ideas about evolution I have ever heard. He somehow thought that Darwin had said that an ape had suddenly had a human child. Exactly the opposite of the slow gradual evolution Darwin proposed. After several sessions someone finally asked if anyone had ever read The Origin of Species. No one had; no great surprise. I checked and found we do not even have a copy in our local library.
It distresses me that almost half of Americans believe that the Earth is at most 10,000 years old, and about one quarter believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. Why Babylonian mythology, the origin of those beliefs, is more acceptable than modern science to Americans is a mystery. However the myths provide a convenient excuse for denying the fact that the outcome of our great uncontrolled experiments on planet Earth may not be beneficial to mankind.