Dr Elias Zerhouni’s story was not so different from many Arab youths, growing up as he did in 1960s Algeria at a time in which his country was struggling for independence from French colonialists. In 1975, at the age of 24, he made his way to the United States where he joined Johns Hopkins University as a resident trainee and worked his way up to the executive vice presidency of the university.
Last week I sat listening to his numerous achievements and scientific breakthroughs in the Ramadan Majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
It was a rectangular tent, measuring approximately 100 by 50 metres. Six giant screens brought the speaker closer to the public along with details about the scientific terms he was using. The spacious room was decorated with pictures of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, and other forefathers from whom Sheikh Mohammed draws inspiration.
Dr Zerhouni’s tale was no different from the many thousands of Arabs who left the region during the times of turbulent revolutions, emigrating to the West and attaining recognition and success. But they have not found a forum that embraces them and the wisdom they hold until now.
Every Ramadan, Sheikh Mohammed gathers intellectuals from across the Arab world to personally listen to their success stories and to benefit from their wisdom. Last week he also hosted Al Allamah al Sayed Ali al Amin, a respected Shia professor of religious and philosophical science at universities in Iraq, Qom and Lebanon.
I sat in awe at the energy that reverberated in the tent. Three hundred men and women sat listening to a presentation on the potential that science holds to cure diseases such as obesity and cancer. Present were ministers, dignitaries and government personnel, but possibly the most important attending guests were students, young men and women who will shape the future of this country.
About a minute into the introduction of the visiting guest of honour, a couple of high-level Abu Dhabi government personalities entered the tent, and quietly sat among members of the public even though their front row seats were guaranteed. They were humble but you could also tell how importantly Sheikh Mohammed views these lectures: no interruption please.
It was a perfect marriage of new and old. The sheikhs and guests arrived after performing the Ramadan Taraweeh prayers. Young Emiratis of both genders working in the royal diwan welcomed guests and escorted them to their seats. “Keep your phones on silent please” and “The lecture will be in English, would you require a translation device?” they said to guests with a smile.
Sheikh Mohammed’s seat was just like the others, not higher, not closer to the front, not even a different colour. He and the guests listened attentively as Dr Zerhouni spoke about concepts that would be considered taboo any time of year and by some especially during Ramadan.
Dr Zerhouni started by saying, “The creation of human intelligence 150,000 years ago”. I looked around in surprise. He repeated references to the Big Bang theory several times, and then added that there were not one but three separate Big Bangs. I cringed. Later he showed a slide from the Economist magazine showing a theory of the evolution of man. I was gobsmacked.
Then it dawned on me, Islam need not fear science; science must be seen as complementary rather than supplementary to religion. As Dr Zerhouni showed a short video of a 50-year-old patient struggling to walk due to Parkinson’s and then explained how an implanted microchip he helped design allowed this gentleman to run around with his sons in a park, Sheikh Mohammed smiled. That smile was all I needed to know about our host.
The gathering made me think of the Golden Age of Islam from the 7th to 13th centuries and how Muslim scientists excelled across three continents and were embraced rather than discouraged. Where they were honoured rather than chased out of their countries. And where their freedom to think and create was not tied down to any one person’s understanding. In fact Dr Zerhouni noted that the oldest book in the US National Library of Medicine, the largest medical library in the world, was the Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al Razi’s The Comprehensive Book on Medicine, dating from 1094, right in the middle of the Golden Age of Islam.
Dr Zerhouni said one thing that resonated most in my mind: “Medical science is an interdisciplinary art. You can’t be a good doctor without learning about other fields of life.” That is precisely Sheikh Mohammed’s philosophy; after all, leading is also an interdisciplinary art, you can’t be a good leader without learning about other fields of life. Seeking knowledge is why Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed holds his Majlis.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 30 August 2009