Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 November 2005
Issue No. 769
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Zaghloul El-Naggar

Zaghloul El-Naggar: Scientific being

The dominant theme of Zaghloul El-Naggar's lectures, books and articles has been the scientific import of the Holy Quran. Understanding the significance of natural phenomena and the symbolism nature denotes in the Quran has become a hot topic of conversation in the Muslim world. El-Naggar earned his graduate degree from Cairo University, but he is also a "prison graduate". He was imprisoned because of his political activism and beliefs. He helped instigate a new vitality in Islam, and was considered a threat to the secular political establishment of the time. He paid dearly for his cause. El-Naggar left the country in the early 1960s only to return in 1970 immediately after the death of the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. His father died in December 1961, and mother in 1968. He could not bury either of his parents. He was in exile. The faculty, he says wryly, were glad to see the back of him. Today, he is back in his homeland, after a brilliant academic career in the Gulf Arab countries. He has inspired millions of readers and viewers with his wit and wonderful revelations about natural science and the Quran.

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At the heart of Zaghloul El-Naggar's philosophy, science is inextricably intertwined with religion. He is perhaps the leading Islamic authority on scientific facts as revealed in the Holy Quran. El-Naggar is considered something of a television celebrity as he appears regularly on Egyptian national television as well as frequently on pan- Arab satellite channels.

Indeed, viewers who tune in to primetime television on many nights or on Friday afternoons are most likely to encounter El-Naggar elucidating the relationship between the Quran and a particular natural phenomenon or wonder. "We do live in a wondrous, indescribable world," he says. The universe, the heavens, space, the seas and oceans are replete with signs and wonders -- pointers to the Almighty's wisdom and power.

Natural disasters -- in Islam they are collectively called Al-Nawazel ; things that are hurled from above -- are reminders of God's wrath, of his omnipotence and omniscience. In the final analysis, however, Allah is compassionate and merciful. This, El-Naggar quips, is the essence of Islam.

However, in a "sinful age", it is sometimes difficult to apprehend and correctly interpret an act of God. Natural disasters, which often occur suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, could be interpreted as divine retribution. Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes have a devastating impact. Recently, tens of thousands of people perished and were rendered homeless in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States and the earthquake that struck South Asia.

How does he explain, from a religious perspective, such calamities? "I cannot find a better description of an earthquake than that mentioned in the Quran. The Quranic explanation is scientific. The word Earth is mentioned 461 times in the Holy Quran to describe the planet, its outer rocky cover or the soil section on top of that cover. There are 110 verses of geological interest," El-Naggar explains.

These days El-Naggar's views are the stuff of public debate. Although many accept his arguments, many remain contumaciously sceptical. God is omnipotent and omniscient. God is. He had come to that conclusion when he was 17 or 18. His faith has never wavered since, not even after the death of his children in an accident. He would not elaborate, but suffice it to say that the personal tragedy strengthened his faith in God's grace and mercy.

"God giveth, and God takes away," El-Naggar fixes me with a pointed, all-encompassing gaze. His wife Arwa, a Palestinian and just as devoutly religious as he is, was a tremendous support in the dark days that followed.

Given his forthright views on the subject, some might be surprised to learn that El-Naggar, now 72, is open-minded and free in thinking. "I do believe that no one should adopt a religion simply because it is the religion of their parents and forefathers."

For a man with such a strong faith, steeped in a resolute religious background, it is perhaps surprising that his impeccable academic credentials as a scientist, more precisely a geologist, do not interfere with his beliefs. Indeed, science serves to strengthen his faith in God.

There are clear steps that each individual could take to nurture a stronger faith. First and foremost, is scrupulously observing the five obligatory pillars, or arkan, of Islam -- including praying five times a day and performing the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, which incidentally he has performed more than 40 times.

As a devout Muslim, El-Naggar has a clear sense of the demands of God upon mortals both physically and spiritually.

Asked why horrific natural disasters occur, he replies, in level headed, matter-of-fact tone, describing the intricacies of the lithospheric plate in as simple a language as possible for a layman to understand. He drops a number of scientific facts and figures to back up his arguments and explanations.

In the past few decades, science has brought to light with great rapidity many useful wonders, particularly in the medical, agricultural and technological spheres. The inventions of modern science have prolonged the lives of people, improved living conditions and generally made life more manageable and meaningful.

Human nature is fragile and irresolute. Humans have a tendency towards weakness and therefore a natural yearning to petition; to call for help from a Being infinitely higher than their mortal selves. Their beliefs are often based on finite premises.

People try to believe without understanding God. The right apprehension of God is a prerequisite to pure, solid faith, and the only guarantee of obedience to Allah's commands. El-Naggar stresses the vital importance of the spritualisation of thought and the Islamicisation of daily life. "People must look critically into their beliefs and search for rational answers to their faith."

Superstition is far removed from faith and spiritual understanding. As far as El-Naggar is concerned, astrology, for example, is superstitious nonsense, utter gobbledygook. Astronomy, on the other hand, is scientific and coincides and corroborates with true religion.

El-Naggar hails from a family of devout religious scholars. Education was highly valued; there was a well-stocked library at home. His father, and grandfather before him, had books galore -- mostly religious in orientation, but also literary.

El-Naggar was greatly influenced by his father Ragheb El-Naggar, grandfather Sheikh Mohamed El-Naggar, the imam of Basyoun, just north of Tanta in Al-Gharbiya Governorate -- both Azharite scholars. He remembers Ramadan as a time of great excitement and inspiration. His father used to invite prominent religious scholars and visiting dignitaries from Muslim countries to his nightly Sohour gatherings. The children assembled excitedly to see the visiting luminaries. "We were curious to know what the scholars had to say."

His father, who was an educationalist, moved to Cairo in the mid-1940s. There the family witnessed the brutality of the British occupation. "On weekends we saw the drunken British troops drag and punch innocent civilians, molest women and foment trouble."

The spirit of anti-colonialism was early inculcated in El-Naggar and his siblings. It was at this time that the war in Palestine erupted and during a Ramadan Sohour that Al-Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the prominent scholar and celebrated mufti of Jerusalem, visited Cairo. "He was a guest of my father's. We were delighted as teenagers to meet such an Arab nationalist and upright Muslim figure. From him we learnt about the Jewish question and settler colonialism in Palestine."

It was at that time also that he met two "remarkable men" who were to profoundly influence his political thinking -- Hassan Al-Banna and Sayed Qutb. These men had a grand social vision. They were his political mentors and he was determined to help them realise their dream of a new social order dominated by pristine Islam.

El-Naggar took part in anti-British demonstrations. Two of his fellow activists were martyred: the Muslim Brothers Omar Shahin and Ahmed Al-Mineisi.

Many Egyptian officers affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood resigned from the army to fight Jewish settlers in Palestine. "That was a big step in those days." The spirit of Islamic Jihad was in full swing.

El-Naggar enrolled at Cairo University in 1951, at a time when the institutions of higher learning were hotbeds of revolution. Lecturers and professors were at the head of funerals, holding up shoulder-high the biers of the martyrs. The July Revolution simply channelled a radical wave already in full force. "At first we supported the revolution, but we later saw how repressive it turned out to be."

El-Naggar was imprisoned soon after graduation in 1955. He was first in his class, graduating with distinction. He spent nine months in prison, confined for three months to a tiny cell bereft of everything, even of a copy of his beloved Quran. "It was a great learning experience, though. The Prophet Mohamed appeared to me in a dream, consoling me and urging me to propagate Islam and fight for the Muslim cause."

"We try to judge God by our own standards. God is above all doctrines and theories. God is not restricted by the limitations of matter, energy, space and time. We cannot judge God by our own limited knowledge and biased judgement," he says.

"In Surat Al-Kahf, the Quran narrates how Moses felt he was the wisest man of his time. God decided to teach Moses a lesson and sent a wise man to him. 'You'll never bear what I'll say or do, so don't ask questions. Don't ask why if I do anything, even if it seems cruel or ridiculous.'" The moral of the story is that one must not interrogate God or question Allah's scheme of things. "Never judge divine judgement by our own standards."

After graduation, El-Naggar secured a high-paying job with Sahara Petroleum. He joined the photogrametry department, but because of his prison stint, the government hounded him out and he joined the National Research Centre in Doqqi, where he "learnt a great deal" from Mohamed Abdel-Moneim Abul-Azm.

In desperation, he accepted a teaching position at King Saud University. In 1961, El-Naggar travelled to England for higher education. Three years later El-Naggar earned his PhD from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, his mentor, the late Professor Allen Wood, a distinguished geologist. After he obtained his PhD, he was awarded a post-doctoral research fellowship for three years. But, it was at this particular juncture in his academic career that he was called upon by the King Saud University to help start a geology department. The university arranged for him to travel to Britain every summer for the following seven years to conduct post-doctoral research.

"I thought there was nothing more noble than to be involved in training the next generation of minds," he explains.

"As Muslims we believe that Allah sent 120,000 prophets to propagate the religion of God. He also sent 317 messengers. Every messenger is a prophet, but not every prophet is a messenger."

"The Holy Quran is the only written form of divine guidance in the hands of man," he says nonchalantly. He pauses and then says in hushed tones: "The exact language of revelation -- word for word, letter for letter."

"The divine promise is to preserve it for eternity," he quickly added.

But, I ventured, the divine message was delivered in the Arabic language. What about the millions of people around the world who cannot speak Arabic? How are they expected to turn to God in prayer and supplication? Christian missionaries in Africa and other parts of the world translated the Bible into the local languages. Indeed, the Bible itself -- the King James edition, for example -- was translated from the original Hebrew and Greek. Isn't it more convenient for people to pray in their own mother tongue, in a language they can relate to and comprehend?

"I was in Mecca recently. I usually spend Ramadan in Mecca," El-Naggar says. "I am one of the judges in the annual international Quranic recital competitions. There are two competitions actually -- one in Dubai and the other in Jeddah. There are several young boys and girls aged six or seven who cannot utter a word of Arabic but nonetheless memorise the Quran in its entirety, by heart. Is not this a miracle in itself? These children hail from non-Arab backgrounds and recite the Quran in the proper Arabic pronunciation exactly like a native Arabic speaker, and often far better. They are Africans, South Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and from Southeast Asia -- Indonesians, Malaysians, Thais and Filipinos. It is a most inspiring sight and sound," he sighs.

El-Naggar stresses that in Islam the concept of the unity of the human race is fundamental. "The Quran states that God created people from a single soul. Muslims believe in a single human race regardless of colour, tongue and creed. We also believe in the innate goodness that God creates in human beings."

But, El-Naggar warned against relying too much on the "innate goodness inherent in man". He says that intrinsic goodness can often lead one astray. Indeed, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

"That is why the divine message of the Quran is vitally important. The Quran is God's own words in undiluted form. The divine message was often distorted and so in the Quran we have the unadulterated, revealed message. The People of the Book have often deviated from the true message." As the Quran states in Surat Ala Imran : "If anyone desires a religion other than Islam [submission to Allah], never will it be accepted of him; and in the hereafter he will be in the ranks of the losers [those lost spiritually]." Human wisdom is fallible and erroneous. Divine guidance is the only sure guarantee to salvation.

"I encourage non-Muslims who are curious about Islam to explore the message of the religion of the Prophet Mohamed, to read the Quran objectively, and to judge for themselves if it is not the truth, the true revelation."

And to these non-Muslims, El-Naggar offers practical advice. "One always loses something in translation. Translation never conveys the full meaning of the original text," he says. "That is why when I deliver a lecture in English, I always use more than one translation of the Quran. I never rely on one particular translation," he says.

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