The first Pakistani Nobel laureate few have heard of
Scientist Abdus Salam largely ignored in Pakistan because he was an Ahmadi Muslim, but new film aims to restore legacy.
Until Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, there had only ever been one Pakistani Nobel laureate: the scientist Abdus Salam, who won the physics prize in 1979.
But despite being the first Pakistani to win a Nobel, his historic achievement was not celebrated in his home country. Instead, he was largely ignored due to his religious identity.
Even today, his pioneering contributions to physics are barely discussed in Pakistan.
A new documentary on Netflix, Salam, The First ****** Nobel Laureate seeks to restore Salam’s legacy.
Salam shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for his contribution to the electroweak unification theory.
His work paved the way for the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle, which gives all other particles mass, and he helped define theories still in use today, such as the theory of the neutrino.
Omar Vandal and Zakir Thaver, the co-producers of the Netflix film, were drawn to the story as young Pakistani scientists studying in the United States.
They first heard of Salam when they read his obituaries in 1996.
“We were both science students and the tragedy is that it was not until we left Pakistan that we truly discovered Salam and his story,” said Vandal.
“His story had been largely erased back home. He is not a part of the public dialogue at all.”
Most, if not all, scientific enterprise and infrastructure in Pakistan owes its origin to Salam.
The reason for this is that Salam belonged to the Ahmadi minority, a sect of Islam that has long been persecuted in Pakistan and around the Muslim world.
The Ahmadiyya movement was founded in 1889, by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908. His followers believe that he was a prophet. Most Muslims believe that the last prophet was Muhammad, who died in 632, and thus view the Ahmadis as heretics.
“His faith was a huge part of who he was. It was very deep, very enlightened and very personal,” his son, Umar Salam, told Al Jazeera. “For my father, religion and science are complementary – different types of belief system that together comprised a world view.”
Controversy over the position of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan continued throughout Salam’s life.
Born in 1926 in the city of Jhang, then part of British India, he went to university in Lahore before winning a scholarship to the University of Cambridge in the UK.
After completing his studies, he returned to become a professor of mathematics.
He decided to leave after a series of violent anti-Ahmadi riots swept across Lahore in 1953. He went back to the UK, first to Cambridge, and then to Imperial College London where he helped to set up the theoretical physics department.
Salam loved Pakistan. He found worldwide scientific respect, yet not in his own country.
Although he had left Pakistan, Salam remained closely involved with his country’s most significant scientific projects.
In 1961, he established Pakistan’s space programme, and in the 1970s, he was – more controversially – involved with efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
“Most, if not all, scientific enterprise and infrastructure in Pakistan owes its origin to Salam,” said Thaver.
In 1974, a law was passed declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim.
It was only at this point that Salam severed ties with the Pakistani government.
In later life, he spoke out against nuclear weapons.
When Salam won the Nobel Prize in 1979, he quoted verses from the Quran. The world saw him as the first Muslim to win a Nobel Physics prize, but his own country did not.
A repressive law further restricting the religious freedom of Ahmadis was passed in 1984.
He never criticised nor even mentioned any aspect of his treatment; nor did he ever express any resentment.
In addition to his research, Salam was passionate about encouraging scientists from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds.
In 1964 he founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, to support scientists from the developing world.
“He was warm, loving and often very funny,” said Umar Salam. “He was a tireless worker, rising at 4am each morning and constantly travelling. He was not necessarily a model parent – he was simply himself. He believed in things and in people, and he made you want to do the same.”
Salam’s dedication to Pakistan never wavered; although he was offered British and Italian citizenship, he always retained his Pakistani passport.
“He never criticised nor even mentioned any aspect of his treatment; nor did he ever express any resentment,” said Umar Salam.
When he died in 1996, Salam was buried in the Pakistani town of Rabwah, the centre of the Ahmadi community. His gravestone described him as the first Muslim Nobel laureate.
The word “Muslim” was soon scrubbed out by local authorities.
“Salam loved Pakistan. He found worldwide scientific respect, yet not in his own country,” said Basharat Nazir, press secretary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK. “Peace is something that has been denied Salam in life as in death.”
There are an estimated 10 million Ahmadis worldwide, based in 200 different countries, but the majority – around 4 million – remain in Pakistan.
They still face persecution, both at a state level and from vigilantes.
In 2010, a Taliban attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore killed 93 people; in 2012, more than 100 Ahmadi graves were desecrated in the city.
More than 200 Ahmadis are currently in prison on charges related to their faith – it is illegal for Ahmadis to describe themselves as Muslim or to perform Muslim rituals.
Next month, the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is expected to publish a report on human rights violations against Ahmadis in Pakistan.
“It reflects how a community that helped found the country has become persecuted, explicitly targeted by federal laws,” said Nazir.
This continued discrimination and controversy made it difficult for the documentary makers to obtain funding from within Pakistan.
“We were offered lots of funding provided we did not touch on the Ahmadi issue. That was a no-go for us,” said Thaver.
But now that the film has been made available on Netflix, it is being watched in Pakistan.
“As you would expect, there has been anger from some quarters, but overall the reaction has been positive and there are questions about what we have lost out on,” said Vandal. “People are convening in groups to watch the film, it is being screened at homes and in academic institutes. Salam is back in the imagination of the people.”