A Cinematic Ode To Dr Abdus Salam

It is rare when a film and an event, although occurring far apart, coincide to reinforce one another’s message. When a documentary on Dr. Abdus Salam, considered the first Muslim Nobel laureate, was being screened at a film festival in Washington, in his home country Pakistan where he stands rejected, the government was annulling its own order to appoint an economist who belongs to the same faith that Salam did.

The coincidence could not have been planned. The biopic “Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Prize Winner” played at the DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) on the same day that the newly-elected government of Pakistan asked distinguished Princeton University economist Atif Mian to step down from the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. Opposition parties, by sheer opportunism, and Islamist groups to reinforce their political platform, had protested against appointing an Ahmadi.

The denouement had come after a strong defence of Mian’s appointment by ministers in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. Indeed, Khan himself, while in opposition, had publicly extolled Mian and had declared that if elected to form a government, he would hand-over running of the country’s economy to Mian. Subsequent reports indicated that Khan was not aware then of Mian’s Ahmedi faith. Himself a conservative with known sympathies for militants, he gave in to the pressures.

Like Mian is today, Salam was among the more famous Ahmedis, perhaps the most famous to date. Before him was Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister who spoke on the Kashmir dispute at the United Nations.

With its followers called Ahmediyya, the Ahmedi movement has its origins in British India’s Punjab region. Mirza Ghulam Ahmed established it in 1889. The city of Qadian, now in Gurdaspur in India, was its principal hub. Following the 1947 Partition, it was shifted to Rubwah in Pakistan. After this country declared the Ahmedi sect or tradition non-Muslim in 1974, the headquarters moved to London.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), claimed to have been divinely appointed as both the promised Mahdi (Guided One) and Messiah expected by Muslims to appear towards the end times and bring about, by peaceful means, the final triumph of Islam.

Ahmedi claims to be an Islamic revivalist movement. Its members follow six articles of Islamic Faith and the Five Pillars of Islam constitute the basis of Ahmadi belief and practice. They also accept the Quran as their holy text, face the Kaaba during prayer, follow the sunnah (normative practice of Muhammad) and the authority of the Hadith (reported sayings of and narrations about Prophet Muhammad). In the derivation of Ahmadi doctrine and practice, the Quran has supreme authority followed by the Sunnah.

Ahmadis view themselves as leading the propagation and renaissance of Islam, and this has brought them into conflict with the mainstream Islam wherever they are that remains unresolved.

Estimated at 20 million worldwide, there is no real estimate of their numbers in Pakistan that remains the principal hub. Their population is thought to be between 0.2 to two percent of the total Pakistani population. Many have left the country following anti-Ahmedi violence in 1953, 1974 and 1984, besides frequent attacks on their shrines and homes.

Of its members, Salam’s perhaps the most poignant story. Besides teaching Physics to a generation of students, his contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear quest has been tremendous, particularly in establishing and nurturing institutions. Although in later years, he advocated the nuclear pursuit for energy generation and medicine, these institutions prepared the country’s weaponization programme.

Yet, his Ahmedi faith led to his quitting Pakistan where the hero is Abdul Qadir Khan, who decamped with Dutch nuclear technology and the West has accused him of illegal proliferation o North Korea, Iran and Osama bin Laden.

His Nobel in Physics in 1979 divided the Muslim world. He longed to be buried in the country of his birth, but was denied that.  The word “Muslim” is blurred on his grave in France because his community, Ahmedi, was declared non-Muslim in 1974.

This came in 1974 amidst widespread agitation and then Prime Minister Z A Bhutto succumbed to pressures for his own survival. The Second Amendment to Pakistan’s nascent Constitution was introduced. In the 1980s, during Ziaul Haq era, an ordinance was issued to bar the Ahmedis from calling themselves Muslims. A three-year imprisonment was prescribed for offenders.

Ironically, the Ahmedis have suffered despite being part of the movement for Pakistan. Indeed, one of the leading lights of the movement was instrumental in persuading Mohammed Ali Jinnah who was practicing as barrister in London to return and lead the movement afresh. The Ahmedis supported the Pakistan Resolution and had supported the All India Muslim League in the 1946 elections across the undivided India.

Recent developments show continued ostracization of the Ahmedis. An intended amendment in law earlier this year caused an agitation by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a hardline party of Sunni Muslims of Barelvi denomination led by Khadim Husain Rizvi. The army declined a ‘request’ from Prime Minister Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi’s government to deploy soldiers and instead, asked it to negotiate.  The agitation ended after the law minister resigned.

Outside of Pakistan, in the West, Salam remains a respected figure. An earlier attempt at making a film in 2011 led to “Abdus Salam-The Dream of Symmetry.”

The 75-minute film premiered last month in Washington took 14 years to make based on some original research and documentation. At the behest of Salam’s family, two American Pakistanis approached an Indian origin filmmaker American based in Brooklyn, Anand Kamlakar.

Zainab Imam writes in Dawn newspaper that the film is educative for the present generation of Pakistanis at home or abroad: “The documentary begins with Farsi-language commentary accompanying the now well-known footage of Dr Salam accepting his Nobel Prize in a sherwani, pagg, and Saleem Shahi khussay. Borrowing from one of his colleagues, who is interviewed in the film, he looked like a Mughal prince among other men dressed like “penguins” in their tuxedos.”

“We see the jarring image of his tombstone, with the rather illogical phrase “The First Nobel Laureate” on it. There’s some white space between First and Nobel; as if something has been erased. What’s missing is the word we can’t utter in relation with Ahmadis for the Constitution of Pakistan decided they can’t be called Muslim in 1974.

“In a later part of the film, we see how glorious a funeral he had received in 1996. It is hard to imagine any two shots other than these that can better illustrate Pakistan’s descent into religious extremism.”

“The film is very clear in showing why it was exceedingly important to Salam to be recognized as a “Muslim” scientist from the “third world”, perhaps even more than the knowledge that he could have won the prize 20 years earlier than he actually did. It provides important context into why his diary entry from September 7, 1974 – the day Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani state – reads “declared non-Muslim, cannot cope.”

Yet, the film is a ‘happy’ one for that was what Salam’s family wanted. Zainab Imam says: It is a happy film – “if you do not have a conscience.”

(The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com)


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