CRUCIBLE: Mathematics and Hijab

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/29 August) – “When it rains,” the saying goes, “it pours.” There is validity into this statement, although rain comes also in trickles as raindrops. I refer to good news about the award received by Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford University. She is the first woman to ever win the Fields Awards also known as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics. She finished her PhD from Harvard. She is originally from Iran.

Fields Awards

Accordingly, Prof. Mirzakhani “studied hyperbolic surfaces, creating a formula to estimate the number of lines from a surface of a given length.” The news said: “She also solved two other problems on the volume of the so-called “moduli” space about a long debated mystery around topological measurements, moduli spaces and string theory.” A professor of University of Illinois remarked: “Even without a Fields Awards, Maryam is one of the great mathematicians of our time.”

This story is supposedly good news, but it has been shrouded by criticisms from both western and Iran’s media. The criticisms appear asymmetrical, although they intersect at certain point, highlighting a conundrum or enigma in the Muslim world not only in relation to science and mathematics, but also as perceived in the West in general.

Such good news comes in trickle as the Muslim world has been plagued with crisis after crisis. News like this is fresh raindrops and should have elicited praises and congratulations especially from the Muslim community. Yet, the sub-issue or angle highlighted is off tangent into the subject of mathematics, the field that Prof. Mirzakhani has been known for.

On the contrary, there is much to learn on this good news cum controversy. The Fields Awards has been established many years ago. It has been dominated by male awardees. Thus, a woman and an Iranian at that who got the said prize should indeed be a cause of celebration the world over. But the controversy comes when news from western media including those in Iran carried an angle where Professor Mirzakhani has already removed her veil or hijab. Some western media networks bannered with their headlines: “an Iranian mathematician without veil.” In Iran, the same negative criticism has been raised, some of which are even below the belt. The negative media criticism in Iran only subsided when Iran President Hassan Rouhani congratulated Prof. Mirzakhani.

Orientalist and Salafist

What we would like to raise are two contrasting perspectives on women and hijab (veiling) that had dominated the discourse these past several years creating stereotypes from both sides. Perhaps coming as a surprise that a Muslim woman from Iran would be able to get an equivalent of a Nobel Prize in Mathematics could be given an angle of controversy. Some reformist Iranian media even posted pictures of Mirzakhani before and after she used to wear a veil. This is a seemingly small subject, but we felt the implication is immense. It strikes the core of Orientalist tradition in the West with respect to its dominant view on Muslim woman, and contrapuntally and more critically as well, an increasing fundamentalist or Salafist perspective on Muslim woman. It raises a question thus: what really is the standard or position that a Muslim woman should carry with respect to preserving her tradition as she struggles to relate and develop mastery with the demand of modernity and education?

The tension has dual sources with varying assumptions. On one side, the Orientalist critique is fairly known given its connection to power and domination and how the discourse on Muslim woman has become even pejorative in western media where hijab is generally interpreted as Muslim woman’s symbol of oppression and servitude. On the other side, some views of Salafist and Islamic fundamentalist are, in most cases, devoid with proper context as they hardly handle a wasatiyyah or “balance” perspective on Muslim woman as they patently fail to give justice to Muslim woman’s legitimate issue of this sort.

In separate but analogous experience, I remember having a breakfast together with someone in a hotel in Madinah two years ago. While eating, he criticized me for not using properly my right hand, without him knowing that I am not used to eating with spoon and fork where I interchangeably hold them unlike when I used my hands in eating at home. He said: “you have to stick with the tradition of the Prophet (SAW).” I thanked him for that brotherly comment. But when I shifted the topic and asked him if he was aware of the arrest of three alleged Islamic radicals in Saudi Arabia before we arrived in Madinah, he stared at me and stopped the conversation. He knows well that such a subject is a no-no even as a private conversation in Saudi Arabia. My feeling is that he was not comfortable in talking on such a subject on radicalism given the sensitivity of the issue.

What I am saying is, Muslim ummah these days could hardly even differentiate issues that matter and issues that they should address singly or collectively. The case of a Muslim woman mathematician from Iran who has reaped controversy instead of receiving praises and congratulations is reflective of the tension.

Mathematics and the Ummah

The subject at hand is actually the state of mathematics in the Muslim world. For quite a long time, the ummah has been at the forefront of this field. The contribution of Muslim mathematicians has been well established and recognized the world over. The Arabic numerals and their manifold mathematical formulation like Algebra, Geometry, and so on, are products of Islamic ingenuity honed and processed through varying influences of Babylonian, Egyptian, Hellenistic, Indian civilizations and many others.

Prominent personalities in the annals of mathematics history are well established like: al-Kwarizmi, the father of Algebra; his student, al-Karaji, who “frees algebra from geometrical operations and replace them with arithmetical type” that is used until today; Umar Khayyam, who “gave a complete classification of cubic equation, with geometric solution;” Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi, who “wrote a treatise on cubic equation…inaugurating the field of algebraic geometry;” Thabbit bin Qura, who contributed in number theory particularly on “the pair on amicable numbers;” al-Farisi, who develops bin Qura’s theorem about “factorization and combinatorial methods” that influenced 18th century Swiss mathematician; Muhammad Baqir Yazadi, who advanced “the pair of amicable numbers” in the 17th century;” Ibn al-Haytam, the “first to attempt to classify all even perfect numbers (numbers equal to the sum of their proper divisors), such as those of the form 2k-1 (2k-1) where 2k-1 is prime,” as he was the first mathematician “to state Wilson’s theorem that was eventually discovered by John Wilson, a Cambridge mathematician in 1770;” Abu al-Wafa, an “expert on Arabic numerals and finger reckoning arithmetic in the 10th century,” and many others.

They are intellectual giants in varying areas of mathematics in different periods of history. The Muslim contribution started prominently when the Bayta l-hikma (House of Wisdom) in Iraq flourished particularly with the Banu Musa Brothers as early as the 8th century.

We say, this historic line of famous mathematicians continued even until our time, although the intensity of their contribution varied in certain period including these days. In fact, it is fair to hypothesize that the hijab controversy on Professor Maryam Mirzakhani is due to the fact that for a very long time there has been a wide gap or lull of Muslims receiving international awards on science and mathematics from prestigious body like the Fields Awards. If our memory serves us right, the last Muslim Nobel Prize recipient in the field of Physics was Abdus Salam of Pakistan. It was in the 70s. Since then, there had been absence of Muslim physicists and other scientists in the roster of Nobel Prize awardees. It is even more so in the field of Mathematics. Thus, when Prof. Mirzakhani got the award there was almost a shock both in the West and in certain quarters in the Muslim world how such a woman and an Iranian at that could receive international recognition.

Tawhidi paradigm

It is well established that there is no bifurcation of knowledge in Islam, where channels of knowledge are conceived as springing from the same source. The imperative of knowledge also cuts across gender. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “Seeking knowledge is obligatory on both Muslim male and female.” Incidentally, there are verses in the Qur’an that look like description of natural wonders like seas, oceans, and so on. On deeper thought, they reflect actually domains of knowledge. For instance, the concept “bahrain” is defined as “two bodies of flowing water.” It could be found in Suratu l-khaf, Furqan, and Rahman. In Suratu l-kahf, the Qur’an reads:

“Behold Moses said to his attendant, “I will not give up until the I reach the junction of the two seas or (until) I spend years and years in travel (60).”

It refers to the encounter of Nabi Allah Musa with Khidr – a meeting that elicits immense spiritual insight and understanding highlighting the unity and hierarchy of truth and the comprehensiveness of knowledge. The same concept can be found in Suratu l-furqan. It reads:

“It is He who has let free the two bodies of flowing water: one palatable and sweet, and the other salt and bitter; yet He has made a barrier between them, a partition that is forbidden to be passed (53).”

In Suratu l-rahman, the Qur’an says:

“He has let free the two bodies of flowing water, meeting together between them is a barrier which they do not transgress (20).”

All of the above-mentioned verses speak of the comprehensiveness of knowledge. The notion of “bahrain” has been emphasized in the Holy Qur’an where ulama (scholars) of tafsir (exegesis) especially those with deep or high spiritual insight expounded it as referring to the comprehensiveness of knowledge embracing both domain of “ulumu l-naqliyyah” or “revealed knowledge” and the domain of “ulumu l-aqliyyah” or “intellectual knowledge.” These are framed in Tawhidi (Oneness) paradigm wherein while they are conceived distinct, yet they are embraced in the One as they spring from the same source of Truth. Hence, the ulama in early time were thus specialists not only in the field of religious subjects but in other fields of sciences as well. It is the reason why the names and their contributions we mentioned are known in various fields of sciences and mathematics, while some of them were also known at the same time as Islamic scholars, philosophers, jurists, doctors, and so on.

In fact, in some classic works like al-Farabi’s “Ihsa al-ulum” or the “Enumeration of the Sciences,” sciences are classified into at least five areas, namely: (1) Sciences of language; (2) Logic; (3) Propaedeutic Sciences and their branches; (4) Natural and Metaphysical Sciences; (5) and, Sciences of Society and their branches. Said classification informs us that there is indeed no bifurcation of knowledge into either, say, this is important; this is not important, and so on. For instance, Arithmetic, Geometry, Optics, Astronomy, Music, Science of weight, Mechanical devices are part of Ihsa al-ulum’s “Propaedeutic Sciences and their branches.” And incidentally, Jurisprudence, Theology, Kalam (scholasticism), and other fields which we are quite familiar in Islamic thought today are just aspects of what al-Farabi referred to as “Sciences of society and their branches.” It is the same when we go to other classification – that of Shamsuddin al-Amuli in his “Nafais al-funun fi araisa l-uyun” (Precious Elements of Sciences). Mathematics, Science and Natural Philosophy form part of the domain or field in Islamic science as conceived in those times.

Imbalance and filling the gap

By twist of history, due to increasing dominance of Islamic orthodoxy with strong accentuation of fundamentalist strand started in the early 9th and 10th century, the rich fields of sciences and mathematics have been substantially reduced and eventually isolated in many madaris (schools) and Islamic universities; so that, those works that Muslims contributed in sciences and mathematics have been fossilized for a long time as fewer and fewer students continued to engage in the same intensity of mathematical pursuit, scientific theorizing, experimenting, and so on, even as mastery in sciences and mathematics was slowly taken over by scholars, scientists and mathematicians in the west in subsequent centuries.

According to “1001 Invention: Muslim Heritage in Our World” the works of Muslim mathematicians had been translated and studied in Europe that contributed to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It can be said, thus, that their contribution played a great role in the flourishing of sciences and mathematics in the West during the medieval period. So, as centuries passed, there developed serious problems in the Muslim world as fundamental an issue like the conception of knowledge and the place of science and mathematics in the whole domain of Islamic thought. She lost the balance. She isolated certain aspects of knowledge and only highlighted certain aspects, leading other communities to fill-in the gap. The “1001 Inventions” states further:

Arabic numerals came into Europe by three sources: Gerbert (Pope Sylvester I) in the late 10 century, who studied in Cordova and then returned to Rome; Robert Chester in the 12th century, who translated the second book of al-Kwarizmi (which contained the second ghubari Arabic numerals). This route of Arabic numerals into Europe is mentioned by contemporary historian Karl Menniger in “Number Words and Number Symbols;” and Fibonacci (originally known as Leonardo from Pisa in the 13th century, who inherited and delivered them to the mass of population of Europe. Fibonacci learned of them when he was sent by his father to the city of Bougie, in Algeria, to learn mathematics from a teacher called Sidi Omar, who taught the mathematics of the Schools of Baghdad and Mosul (which included algebraic and simultaneous equation) (67).”

As we said, there is not only a line of scientists and mathematicians in the Muslim world. There was even a time when they were the ones who tutored mathematicians in the West. What we are saying is, the debate on the case of Prof. Mirzakhani highlights the tension in both camps of Orientalist and Islamic fundamentalist schools highlighting even more their failure to read properly the issue at hand. Instead of looking at critical or important subjects like the state of mathematics in the Muslim world and why the decline and the bright prospect as shown by Prof. Mirzakhani, both camps are more concerned with eliciting controversy and trivializing the issue.

Hijab and Raiment

This is not to minimize however the subject on hijab or veil. If we may say, if Maryam removes her veil after she has been quite used to in Iran, why not also highlight the fact that there are many Europeans and Americans who had accepted Islam and tried to use hijab even if they were not used to it in the first place? Where are the Orientalist and fundamentalist critiques on this trend? Why do we only hear cacophony of Muslim apologia on this? It thus shows that we cannot generalize and judge on the choice of people while they do or not wear their hijab. Even then, this issue has plagued and affected many of us in the Muslim community as we succumbed to the prodding in both camps as we could hardly even prioritize issues that matter these days. In the media we observed, none even dared to ask what actually the contribution of Prof. Maryam Mirzakhani is. No one has asked: what are hyperbolic surfaces? How did she get the formula to measure the number of lines in a given length? What are moduli spaces? What is string theory? Yet, they pressed her on hijab!

Whereas if we go into the hijab issue, both camps would probably have to know that the tradition or requirement of hijab is actually attached to broader and higher purpose of raiment or covering. As the covering is imperative for the children of Adam, the Qur’an equally emphasized that there is another form of covering that is best. The Qur’an says:

O ye children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame as well as to be an adornment to you, but the raiment of righteousness that is the best. Such are among the Signs of God that they may receive admonition (A’raf: 26)!

The concept of raiment or “libaas” which is even more comprehensive than the concept of hijab (veil) should not be divorced from the idea of raiment of righteousness or “labaasu t-taqwa.” There are times, the two types of covering could appear distinct as some persons could be covered but they are not necessarily covered with the raiment of taqwa or righteousness. In fact, it would be hypocritical if the issue of raiment or covering and hijab is not translated to the real raiment or covering of righteousness. It could be just a superficial appreciation if it is not translated into spiritual raiment or “libaasu t-taqwa.” Although, we said, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive: if one exists, the other should automatically exist too.

It suggests that righteousness should be comprehensive. It is not just a matter covering ourselves physically; it should also be something that should develop us spiritually. By the way, understanding science and engaging in mathematics and so on, is part of the comprehensive system of taqwa; so that, it would be best if those who cover themselves are also those with raiment of righteousness and who are also experts in different fields of sciences and mathematics. This way, there could be no room for controversy and criticism from varying camps. By then, we reflect the real din (system) of Islam, which is, we said, a total way of life. It is something that will make us not only experts in one area but also in other areas particularly in different fields of knowledge including the various branches of sciences and mathematics.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A revised khutbah delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 23 August 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].