Editor’s Note: We take a moment to express, on behalf of all the readers, our very deep appreciation to Dr. Babul for taking the time to do this interview and for giving insights into so many interesting areas in the realm of his specialized knowledge in astrophysics. He was equally comfortable foraying into areas that are not directly related to the (physical) discoveries about the universe.
At the conclusion of his interview, Prof. Babul emphasized that his life path is as much a product of perseverance as of fortuitous turn of events (“blessings, really”) and the enriching influences provided by many individuals – family, friends, high-school teachers, and undergraduate and post-graduate mentors etc., the most important of these being his best friend and high-school sweetheart, Naznin.
Simerg: What are your aspirations for the future? What challenges do you see ahead of you?
Dr. Babul: [laughing] Now, that’s a tough question! Where to start? Seriously though, every new phase of life brings with it new challenges. At the moment, there are two that stand out.
First, as a father, I worry about the world that my daughters will grow in and whether we – as parents – have equipped them sufficiently well so that they will thrive and enjoy a successful life. I noted earlier that I am who I am because of my parents, so we worry about whether we are doing enough, whether we are doing the right things.
One of the issues that we have always worried about is their sense of identity. We would like our daughters to be completely comfortable in their own skins. We would like them to be proud of their national identity as Canadians; we would like them to celebrate their ethnic identity as South Asians; we would like them to be firmly anchored to the concept of an Ismaili Muslim and all that this entails; and from these foundations, we hope they will feel at complete ease identifying themselves as citizens of the world, comfortable with the rich tapestry of cultures and histories around the world and able to draw from all these legacies at different times in their lives.
One way we have tried to achieve this is by taking them travelling. From the time the girls were three years old, we have taken them to different countries and regions. For example, four years ago, we spent four weeks travelling between Pune and Bangalore (in India). We spent three to four weeks there, and we learnt about the culture and the history, enjoyed the food and enjoyed the company of the people we met along the way. It was amazing how much at home our daughters felt there. They just belonged and fell right into the local rhythm.
Simerg: How do they get into the local rythm so quickly?
Dr. Babul: Six years ago, we visited Egypt and also spent a month there. Now, since the girls were very young, Naznin and I have set aside some time each week to talk to the girls about the Ismaili tariqah and practices, a sort of supplementary Bait-ul-Ilm (BUI) if you will, where we have the luxury to explore some of the key ideas and their contexts in some detail.
And if we are planning to travel to a certain part of the world that has a connection to Ismaili history, we use these sessions to draw out those connections. Before we went to Egypt, we spent six months learning about the Fatimid period; we read Nasir Khushraw’s Safar-nameh, where he gives an eyewitness description of Cairo; we compared old maps of Fatimid Cairo with today’s maps to figure out where various buildings – Dar al Ilm, tomb of the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs – would have been.
In parallel, we also gave the girls a crash course on Pharaohic Egypt. In fact, at one point, they could read hieroglyphics – not understand it, mind you, but certainly read it.
…We would like our daughters to be completely comfortable in their own skins. We would like them to be proud of their national identity as Canadians; we would like them to celebrate their ethnic identity as South Asians; we would like them to be firmly anchored to the concept of an Ismaili Muslim and all that this entails…
Our eldest even managed to read a bit of Naguib Mahfouz’s first book of the Palace Walk trilogy and discovered that there is a neighbourhood/square in old Cairo that today goes by the name “Bayn al-Qasrayn”. It means “between two palaces”, where the palaces refer to the Eastern and Western Fatimid palaces. The palaces don’t exist today but the square still does. So we find that this type of pre-planning enabled the kids – actually all of us – to look past crumbling buildings in Cairo, for example, and actually touch history, walk in the footsteps of the Fatimid Imams, and see much more than the eye beholds.
Simerg: Are your travels mainly to countries where there is a Muslim or Ismaili connection?
Dr. Babul: No, we don’t just restrict ourselves to Asia or the Middle East. Their first trip was to Italy and they got introduced to da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bernini and my eldest daughter’s favourite, Sandro Botticelli. Last summer we went to Australia and they learnt a little about the Aborigine cultural traditions, about the geography of Australia and how that has impacted its flora and fauna before we went.
And the year before we went to France and Czechoslovakia. We read to them some of Kafka’s short stories. So when we went to Prague, they were very excited to go see Kafka’s house. In Paris, they went to see the art galleries and to Monet’s house, and they’d read about Monet and the Impressionist movement. So we try to instill some cultural background and appreciation so the traveling is not just visiting a place and moving on to the next, it’s a part of a mind-broadening experience for them. Naznin and I are very fortunate. Our work often requires us to travel to different parts of the world – and sometimes we use these opportunities as jumping off point for family excursions.
Simerg: Where would you like to take them next?
Dr. Babul: I would love to go to Syria. In fact we were hoping to go this summer, but because of constraints on my time, we had to put our plans on hold. I would also love to go to Iran.
Simerg: Is there any specific reason why you’d like to visit Syria and Iran?
Dr. Babul: Both have very rich history dating back to ancient times. They belong to that region of the world known as the “cradle of human civilization.” In addition, the Silk Route passed through these lands and so they have long been bubbling cauldrons of innovation where exchanges between communities and civilizations sparked new ways of thinking, new ideas.
I think it would be fun to learn about all this while sitting on ancient stone bricks that bore witness to all that. We caught a glimpse of this in Jordan, where one of the earliest Christian communities flourished. In Jordan, you can see traces of the mosaics of the early Christian Churches and follow the trail of how those mosaics played a role in influencing Islamic art. So you learn about how different cultures influenced each other. In addition, both the regions of the world hold a special place in Ismaili history.
When we weaved our way through the different periods of Ismaili history in the “supplementary BUI” that I mentioned earlier, the girls were really taken – almost to the point of romanticising – by two epochs in particular. One was the first dawr al-satr (the Ismaili period of concealment to protect themselves from the Abbasids) and the “I am Wafi Ahmed” story about individuals who would “stand in” for the Imam to distract the Abbasid soldiers when they came looking for him, and while this was going on, the Imam would be spirited away via underground tunnels in Salamiyeh (Syria) to avoid capture. They have since learnt that the entrance to these tunnels still exists.
“(In Dubai) There were Syrians, Iranians, Indians, Afghanis, Americans, Europeans all working side by side. And what was particularly amazing was that you could be standing beside someone who didn’t speak a word of English, but we understood each other, and we got things done. And there was this sense of family and a sense of belonging. This feeling of brotherhood was touching and overwhelming – I felt it and my family felt it, and I was particularly happy my children experienced it.”
The second was the Alamut period. They wrote a story – in the spirit of the famous “Magic Treehouse” series – describing the adventures of two children (themselves) who went back in time to rescue a set of manuscripts from the library of Alamut just before the Mongols burnt the books – both my daughters are bibliophiles and the thought of libraries being burnt really disturbed them. Towards the end of their story, they couldn’t bring the books back so they hid them in a cavern.
Simerg: It is wonderful that you found the story in your PC archives. This is a truly enchanting and creative story by your children and we are certainly going to share it with our readers sometime soon*.
Dr. Babul: We all think it would be kinda neat to visit the site of the Alamut and “pretend” search for this treasure. Who knows what we will discover?
And of course, Syria and Iran are home to two Jamats with very different traditions from those of the Khojas. My hope is that during the visits, our girls will have the opportunity to experience this diversity and still understand that underneath it all, we are all bound in unified “frontierless brotherhood.”
We got a taste of this when we went to Dubai for Hazar Imam’s Golden Jubilee Darbar there. It was very special and a truly historic moment because it coincided with the opening of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre there – in my mind this represented the first formal Ismaili footstep in the Arabian Peninsula since the Fatimid period.
The Dubai Jamat was remarkably hospitable, and they had welcomed Ismailis from all over the world. Here was a Jamat of twelve hundred playing host to a Jamat of eighteen thousand Ismailis from fifty different countries. We all recognized that this was a huge challenge, and the Middle Eastern jamat had done a fantastic job of meeting that challenge, and because of that everyone we encountered was in a jubiliant, generous mood. Everyone was willing to pitch in and help out. There were Syrians, Iranians, Indians, Afghans, Americans, Europeans all working side by side.
And what was particularly amazing was that you could be standing beside someone who didn’t speak a word of English, but we understood each other, and we got things done. And there was this sense of family and a sense of belonging. This feeling of brotherhood was touching and overwhelming – I felt it and my family felt it, and I was particularly happy my children experienced it.
Simerg: What are your hopes and aspiration for the Jamat in Canada, with the talent that we have?
Babul: Apart from my concerns as a father, I also see the present time as time of opportunity for the Ismaili community in the West. We have been in Canada nearly 40 years now. And during this time, I think that members of the Jamat have done extremely well in terms of achieving professional and entrepreneurial successes. By and large, this has been an individual effort and I think now is the time to convert these individual successes into collective assets for the community.
Focusing on Ismailis in academia, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Ismaili professors in nearly every area of study. I personally know Ismaili Professors of Art History, Ismaili Professors of Mathematics, Ismaili Professors of Engineering, of Law, of Islamic Studies, of Physics. We have researchers pursuing careers in molecular biology, in neuroscience…the list just goes on and on.
And these individuals are at the forefront in their own fields – truly stellar individuals. And what gives me great optimism is that there is cadre of brilliant graduate students moving in the same direction, and probably many more interested undergraduate and high school students.
With this in mind, two years ago, I started toying with the idea of setting up something that I like to call the “Ismaili Academy”, a “tent structure” that would bring together all the Ismaili academics from around the world.
Academics possess skills which transcend their own specific area of expertise; they bring unique ways of thinking about and formulating responses to critical challenges facing the Jamat. It is not a coincidence that government think tanks often include academics that have no direct expertise or relationship to the issue that the think tank is meant to consider. And so the Academy would be a resource for the leadership to draw on. It would offer the leadership an up-to-date snapshot of the expertise and talent that is available.
Second, the Ismaili Academy would provide a forum whereby junior members of the academia can seek guidance and advice from more senior members, and where senior members can pass down their insights and experiences to the next generation so that the latter can avoid pitfalls. I see no reason why we, as a community, cannot be proactive in giving the next generation a career boost. It is one of many ways of ensuring that the impact of the community continues to grow in the years to come.
Academics possess skills which transcend their own specific area of expertise; they bring unique ways of thinking about and formulating responses to critical challenges facing the Jamat. It is not a coincidence that government think tanks often include academics that have no direct expertise or relationship to the issue that the think tank is meant to consider. And so the Academy would be a resource for the leadership to draw on.
Even high school and university students could benefit from such an infrastructure. Consider, for example, students wishing to pursue a career in science. There are summer research positions, scholarships and fellowships they should be applying for to enhance their profiles. Many of these are not widely announced, but those of us who have been in the system often come across these and can bring them to the attention of interested students.
I think the real difficulty here is figuring out how get this Academy idea going, and how to get enough momentum behind that idea so that it could actually come to fruition. It definitely requires institutional assistance; you can’t do something that involves the community without the direct support from the institutions, so that’s where I am.
I’m at the stage of working with different members of the leadership trying to see how we could bring this about. It is, after all, very much in keeping with the idea of cooperatives and associations that Hazar Imam mentioned over the Golden Jubilee Year.
Simerg: Most of your life has been dedicated toward trying to understand the mechanisms and complexities of this incredible Universe of ours, through Allah’s greatest gift to mankind – the intellect. His Highness the Aga Khan once said and I quote: “The Divine intellect both transcends and informs the human intellect.” What does this statement hold for you – say when you are totally engrossed in your field of study, and you come across discoveries that you make, or formulae that you develop. How do you relate this to the Divine Intellect? Is the discovery something that you attribute to Allah’s blessing?
Dr. Babul: I definitely see it as a blessing.
A few of my colleagues have written about these experiences, when you’re struggling with problems and then out of the blue something just hits you. In those kinds of moments, you often literally lose yourself and are transported into a different time and space, if you will.
I feel that those moments are as spiritual as any other moments that are traditionally associated with religious experiences. And it goes back to what I was saying earlier: I don’t divide up my world. I don’t become an Ismaili Muslim only during prayer time. I am an Ismaili Muslim 24/7, and my relationship to the world around me is informed by this notion of an all-pervasive “Divine” or “Mystery.”
I exist in this Mystery, I try and guide my actions by an ethical system that is informed by it – [laughing] can’t say I am altogether successful in this – and so I’m fortunate that once in a while the door will open and I’ll get the sense of it through my work. I really see it as one of a variety of spiritual experience.
The phrase I would prefer to use is “a glimpse of Mystery.” When we think of the Divine, we tend to narrow it and compartmentalize it, but that’s not the case. Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah, again, said, “you live in it, you breathe in it, you are immersed in it.” So every aspect of your life is directly related to and informed by this.
I don’t divide up my world. I don’t become an Ismaili Muslim only during prayer time. I am an Ismaili Muslim 24/7, and my relationship to the world around me is informed by this notion of an all-pervasive “Divine” or “Mystery.”
And I don’t think you have to be a scientist to experience those precious moments, those “glimpses of Mystery.” It could happen while reading poetry, or during the act of creating sculpture or a painting. It could even happen during an everyday moment. Imagine spending every evening on a beach, watching the sunset. Most of the days, you don’t pay much attention to this, or it doesn’t strike you as particular moving. Then one day, as the sun sinks below the horizon, you are struck by the brilliant colours, you are mesmerized, and you forget where and who you are. You’re just caught. I would say that you’ve just had a spiritual experience.
And this is when you’d say, “Masha’Allah.”
Simerg: Thank you Professor Babul. It has been immensely rewarding talking with you.
Please click the following links to read the previous instalments of this interview:
Part I: Voices: Brilliant Astrophysicist, Arif Babul, in Conversation with Simerg
Part II: Voices: Babul on the Bootes Void, Galaxies, Benefits of Studying Science, Creation, God and Intellect
Part III: Voices: Babul on Science Funding, Muslim Scientists, Intelligent Design
* To view slideshow of story prepared by Aliya-Nur and Shazia ‘Ayn please click: Voices: Sunrise Over the Alamut
1. Babul Excerpt – Knowing the Universe (PDF File)
Note: This PDF document is strictly copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed without the prior written consent of the publisher, www.tsarbooks.com. We thank the publisher for sending the PDF file for inclusion in this final instalment of the interview. The details of the book, Belonging and Basnishment, in which Professor Babul’s essay appears in full, along with essays by other authors, are shown at the bottom of this page*.
2. Arif Babul: Summary of Research Interest
3. Arif Babul’s Homepage
4. The Ismaili: Seeking knowledge to the ends of the universe
5. The Art of Physics…Seeing the Unseen and ON LINE EXHIBITION: The Art of Physics
6. The Ring: October 2007 – Astrophysicist awarded UVic’s highest …
7. [PDF] Computers Model the …
8. THE FORMATION AND EVOLUTION
9. The Ring: Sept. 20, 2001 – Viewpoint
10. Iraq Crisis and its Global Implications for Muslims
11. University of Victoria – Communications – Media Expert
Other Recommended sites (submitted by reader, Mohib Ebrahim)
*Publication (containing Professor Arif Babul’s full essay)
Belonging and Banishment
Being Muslim in Canada
edited by Natasha Bakht
A variety of Canadian voices come together here to explore some of the vital issues facing Muslims in Canada. Who, indeed, is a Canadian Muslim? This is only one of the fundamental questions addressed in this volume. The authors are from diverse ethnic backgrounds, hail from coast to coast, and profess varying degrees of practice and belief. In their thoughtful contributions, they explore matters of faith, identity, sectarianism, human rights, and women’s rights.
The contributors to this important and timely volume include: Anar Ali, Arif Babul, Anver Emon, Karim H. Karim, Ausma Khan, Rukhsana Khan, Sheema Khan, Amin Malak, Syed Mohamed Mehdi, Haroon Siddiqui.
ISBN 9781894770484 $25.95 120 pp. paper
A PDF version of the all the four parts will be posted shortly.
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