Family of the Heart Seminar - September 10, 2004


By Dr. Khalid Sohail, Whitby, ON

Abdus Salam, the only Nobel Laureate of Pakistan, had the mind of a scientist, the heart of a

Dr. Khalid Sohail

 poet and the personality of a saint. His fellow Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow shared his regard for Abdus Salam by stating that he was “one of the kindest, gentlest and most gracious people I have ever met.” (Ref 1 p 411) Abdus Salam was a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multi-talented human being. Some aspects of his character became a blessing while others turned into a curse and caused him a lot of suffering in his life. He had to face a number of tragedies. In my opinion his biggest tragedy was that he loved Pakistan but Pakistan never reciprocated his love and he loved Muslims but many orthodox Muslims hated him with passion.

In the last few years of his life, when he was weak, fragile and vulnerable and because of a rare neurological disorder PSP, Progressive Supra-nuclear Palsy, had to spend most of his time in his wheelchair, he used to cry bitterly talking about his motherland Pakistan. He was like a lover whose beloved had repeatedly rejected him. He was like a woman who lived with a man she did not love and loved a man she could not live with. Finally Abdus Salam, like that sad and tragic woman, left this world feeling rejected and brokenhearted.

When we review Abdus Salam’s love affair with Pakistan, we realize that he encountered a number of emotional traumas and political crises in that relationship. And like many turbulent and dysfunctional relationships, the more he tried to make it better, the worse it became.

He experienced his first crisis in 1951 when he came back from England after completing his postgraduate studies to serve his country and people as a scientist and “repay his debt to Pakistan.” (Ref 1 p 407). He believed in education and research and wanted Pakistani universities and governments to support his passion, love and dream of promoting scientific knowledge. When his repeated requests for support were ignored and he did not find an atmosphere conducive to critical thinking and research, he felt so frustrated that after three years of struggle he returned to England.

He experienced his second crisis when the Pakistani Government declared Ahmedis as non-Muslims in 1974. He had never thought in his wildest imagination that his motherland would disown his religious community and deprive them of their human rights as Pakistani citizens. He was so broken hearted that he resigned from his job as Chief Scientific Adviser. The political crisis also precipitated an emotional crisis and intensified his religious identity. When Khalid Hassan, who worked at the Pakistani Embassy in Canada in 1974, met Salam in Ottawa he was surprised to see him wearing a beard. On his inquiry Salam shared that the day he was declared a non-Muslim by the Pakistani National Assembly, he grew a beard. (Ref 3) From a psychological point of view, I find it significant that Salam’s decision to grow a beard was connected with a political crisis rather than spiritual enlightenment.

His third tragedy took place when he was invited to give lectures in Pakistan after receiving his Nobel Prize in 1979. He was shocked to see the violent response of those students that he loved so much. Dr. Durranni, the Vice Chancellor, shared with Zakaria Virk, the author and founder of Abdus Salam Science Academy, that in Multan the conservative, traditional and fundamentalist students protested so angrily that Dr. Salam’s lecture had to be cancelled. His hosts were afraid for his life.(Ref 1 p 334)

It was ironic that the more Salam tried to be part of the scientific activities in Pakistani

"Salam had to face all those painful experiences because he belonged to a “Ahmadiyya religious faith, whose adherents are subject to much discrimination and persecution in Pakistan.” (Ref 1 p 389)" 


 universities to inspire students, the more university students reacted negatively to such an offer. Pervez Hoodbhoy shared his experience in these words, “ Salam has never even visited Quaid-e-Azam University, where I have been teaching since 1973. I would like to make it clear that this has not been by choice on the part of the faculty. After Salam received the Nobel Prize in 1979, several of the physics faculty wanted to invite him to symposiums at the university. But when… the student wing of a fundamentalist political party threatened to disrupt the meeting violently if he was invited, the invitation was withdrawn. This group and his parent party consider Salam to be a heretic because he belongs to the Ahmadiya sect.” (Ref 2 p 55)

Salam faced his fourth heartbreak when he got into the bad books of Ministry of Education in Punjab and out of the books for high school students in Pakistan. Zakaria Virk narrates the incident when a group of religious fundamentalists forced the Minister of Education to remove Salam’s name from science syllabus books or highlight that he was a non-Muslim. Tragically the Minister of Education felt so scared by the threat that he obliged. (Ref 1 p 329) I found it quite disturbing to read that the religious intolerance in Pakistan had reached a stage where the fundamentalist forces could dictate changes in the textbooks by threatening and harassing the Minister of Education.

Salam had to face all those painful experiences because he belonged to a “Ahmadiyya religious faith, whose adherents are subject to much discrimination and persecution in Pakistan.” (Ref 1 p 389)

Salam got into deep trouble with the Pakistani Government and Pakistani Muslims when he became part of the scandalous controversy about the nuclear bomb. One group accused him of being the father of the atomic bomb program (Ref 1 p 307) in Pakistan and selling the secrets to other countries while others defended him, by presenting him as a peace activist who did not support Pakistani Government in becoming an atomic power. Ehsan Masood stated that Salam “fell out with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Prime Minister from 1971-1977, over the latter’s plans to turn Pakistan into a nuclear weapons state, which Salam, a staunch anti-nuclear campaigner, bitterly opposed. As a result, ordinary Pakistani citizens are full of praise for a man called Abdul Qadeer Khan, who gave Pakistan the capability to build a nuclear bomb, and not Salam, who refused.” (Ref 1 p 386)

Salam was also heartbroken when he wanted to establish a centre for higher scientific research in Lahore but the Pakistani Government did not offer him financial and moral support. Finally he discussed the project with representatives of Western Governments who promoted education and scientific research in the third world and initiated his program in Italy. One such country was Canada. Khalid Hassan shared his encounter with Abdus Salam in Canada in these words, “He had come to confer with the Canadian Government on matters relating to the International Centre for Theoretical Physics he had almost single-handedly established at Trieste, Italy. He had wanted it to be set up in Lahore and would have done so had the Pakistani Government showed serious interest.” (Ref 3)

Salam’s second love was Muslims. He wanted the Muslim communities in the East to be highly educated and catch up to the West. He believed they had left the international race of scientific development a few centuries ago. Salam felt deeply concerned that Pakistan, like many other Muslim countries had one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. It is also ironic that the literacy rate, rather than increasing, has decreased in Pakistan since she gained independence in 1947. Salam was proud of his Muslim heritage and believed that there was a time in history when Muslim scholars and intellectuals were leading in the world of science and medicine. Salam was utterly disappointed when traditional Muslims and narrow-minded governments not only ignored him but also made sure that he was penalized, punished and persecuted. Pervez Hoodbhoy stated, “Salam was banned from ever setting foot in Saudi Arabia.” (Ref 1 p 393)

Salam was not only hurt by the religious prejudices of the Muslims but also disappointed when he saw Muslims not showing any special interest in scientific education. Hoodbhoy stated, “ Nothing hurt him more than a stony barrenness of the intellect in Islamic countries today.” (Ref 1 p 393) Once Salam wrote a letter to Muslim clerics in more than fifty countries highlighting that in Quran there are hundreds of verses that encouraged Muslims to discover the mysteries of life and universe. He requested the clerics, the maulanas, to focus on those verses of Quran once a month in their Friday sermons. Ironically he received only one response. And that response was also a letter of regret. The maulana confessed that after doing a lot of research he could not find much literature about those verses of Quran. Salam was broken hearted one more time. (Ref 1 p 323)

In spite of the rejections Salam experienced from Pakistan and Muslims he still felt dedicated to Pakistan and committed to Muslims. A number of other countries welcomed him with open arms and hearts and offered him citizenship but he turned their offers down.

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Salam once to accept Indian citizenship. Nehru was willing to spend millions of rupees to establish Abdus Salam University in Srinagar but Salam turned his offer down. (Ref 1 p 312) Nehru did not realize that although born in 1926 when there was no Pakistan on the world map, Salam, being a Muslim, identified with Pakistan rather than India.

At one stage of his life, Salam’s good friend Zafarullah Khan asked him to accept British citizenship as Salam had been living, working and teaching there for decades, but Salam did not accept his suggestion. (Ref 1 p 297) A few years later, the Government of Italy offered him an honorary citizenship but Salam turned that offer down.

When people asked him why he would not accept citizenship of India, where he was born, of England where he did most of his research or of Italy where he established his scientific centre, Salam confessed that he did not want his Nobel Prize to be shared with any other country other than Pakistan. It reflects how strongly he identified with Pakistan, the country that never welcomed him and whose citizens were willing to kill him in the name of religion and God.

Salam felt sad to see that his traditional, conservative and fundamentalist countrymen were not appreciative of his efforts. He used to console himself by identifying with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who worked all his life to educate Muslims in India. In one of his speeches Salam stated that when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wanted to establish an educational institution in Aligarh for Muslims, he faced a lot of resistance from his own community. He was even called a kaffir, a heretic because he promoted secular scientific education in Muslim students. Salam felt he was walking on the footsteps of Sir Syed. (Ref 1 p 291)

When we review the history of Asian Muslims, we realize that it was not only Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, it was also Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Saadat Hasan Minto, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and many other Muslim poets, writers and intellectuals who were persecuted by Muslims and their contributions were never fully appreciated. They, like Salam, were prophets who were never recognized in their own land. Most Pakistani Muslims are not aware that there are streets in Canada and Europe that carry Salam’s name but none in Pakistan.

And when we study the history of Muslims all over the world we discover that over the centuries all those intellectuals and philosophers, that Salam identified with, shared his fate and suffered. They became martyrs after their death but during their lives they were persecuted. Zahida Hina, a well-respected short story writer and intellectual from Pakistan, highlighted the tragic stories of Muslim saints and scholars in her speech on Salam’s seventieth birthday in Karachi. She narrated how Ibn-e-Teema’s books were burnt and Ibn-e-Rushd was put in prison. When he used to get an urge to create he used to write on the prison walls with his fingernails. (Ref 1 p 135) We are all aware how many mystics like Mansoor Hallaj were crucified for sharing their truths and challenging the fundamentalist tradition of Muslims.

Alongside having the mind of a scientist, Salam also had a heart of a poet. He remembered hundreds of couplets of famous Urdu and Persian poets by heart. He loved beautiful things in life and had a special appreciation for aesthetics. It is only a scientist with an artist’s sensitivity that can write, “ Whenever faced with two rival theories for the same set of phenomena one has always found that a theory more aesthetically satisfying is also the correct one.” (Ref 1 p 325) Salam had broken many conventions and traditions in science and life and that is why I was not surprised to read that his favourite English writer was Oscar Wilde who suffered a lot in his life like Salam.

Salam had developed a personality of a saint. He had the generosity of heart and spirit of mystics. There are numerous examples in his life of helping the poor and the needy. One major example is that when he received his Nobel Prize, rather than distributing thousands of dollars amongst his two beloved wives and six children, who proudly accompanied him to Sweden for the ceremony, he donated all the money to poor students. ( Ref 1 p 409) He was a socialist at heart, who once stated, “ There is nothing more destructive of morale than economic inequality.” (Ref 1 p 299) All his life he struggled against social prejudices, moral injustices and poverty.

In 1996, when Salam’s friends, relatives, students and disciples were celebrating his 70th birthday in Pakistan, he sent a message in the form of a letter to his dear ones, not knowing that it would be his last message. In that letter he stated, “ I miss my home country and would dearly love to see my family and friends. I would not be with you today but please know you are in my heart and shall be thinking of you today…I leave you with one final thought and a request, it is that now you must turn your minds to building a better Pakistan.” (Ref 1 p 367)

If Salam’s dream of a better Pakistan came true then we would have better education for the poor, increased tolerance for minorities, and more respect for human rights.

The final tragedy of Salam’s life took place when his dead body was brought back to Pakistan to be buried and the Government did not give him the honour he deserved. Ehsan Masood wrote, “No senior government official was present at his funeral.” (Ref 1 p 386)

Salam’s story is a tragic story. It is a story of a patriotic scientist who was in love with Pakistan not realizing that Pakistan is a country

…where religion is loved more than science

…where blind faith is respected more than rational thinking

…where army generals are more powerful than political leaders


…where democratically elected Prime Ministers can be exiled or hanged by army dictators.

It is a story of a dedicated believer who was in love with Muslims, not realizing that Muslims are very sentimental people. They can hate their heroes with the same passion, as they can love them. When they admire their heroes they put shaheed[martyr] and rehmatullah alaih[peace be upon you] next to their names and sculpt their taller than life statues in the four corners of their cities but when they despise their leaders they transform them into villains, consider them evil, call them kaffir and make their lives hell. In spite of their claim that they are the followers of a religion of peace, they have a history of

…crucifying their own saints and scholars

… assassinating their own Caliphs


…killing mercilessly the friends and family members of their own Prophet. Abdus Salam’s love for Pakistan and Muslims brought him more pains than pleasures and he spent most of his adult life in exile afraid of going back to his own home and homeland. No wonder wise people say that love is blind.

*A Special Note: I would like to clarify that I am a Humanist and do not belong to any religious organization or institution. I believe in human rights for all religious, ethnic, racial, gender and linguistic minorities in Pakistan and around the world. I have so much respect for Dr. Abdus Salam and his contributions to the world of science, education and human rights that in February 2004, when I went to Pakistan, I traveled to Rabwa and asked my friends Rasheed Nadeem and Naseer Habib to take me to Abdus Salam’s grave so that I could pay my respects. Being a non-believer I did not pray but I did observe silence for two minutes in his memory. I believe the world would be a better place to live if we had more Abdus Salams amongst us. I hope one day Pakistanis and Muslims feel proud of that noble man and appreciate his contributions, his sacrifices and most of all his love for them.

**Special thanks for Zakaria Virk for providing me with his books and becoming a source of inspiration for this essay.



  • Virk Zakaria…Doctor Abdus Salam…Musalmanon ka Newton [Newton of Muslims] Abdus Salam Science Academy Kingston Canada…2003

  • Virk Zakaria…Ramooz-e-fitrat [Mysteries of Nature] Abdus Salam Science Academy Kingston Canada…1996

  • Hassan Khalid…Book Review…Dr. Abdus Salam The Friday Times Lahore Pakistan October 24, 2004 


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