Digging The Past Is Forbidden

By Sufiyan Chaudhry

A large number of people view the ancient history through the prism of sacred texts. Tales, mostly transmitted through oral tradition, used to be main source of history. It wasn’t until 18th century when excavations of Stonehenge in England and Pompeii eruptions in Italy kick started a new scientific study of human history — Archeology; a history that relies on evidence, instead of tales and myths. Modern science has provided even more tools like radiocarbon dating and satellite-guided geophysical surveying  at our disposal to delineate our own history. Our planet earth was considered to be merely 6000 years old by a vast majority of people not a long time ago, however, study of fossils and radiometric dating have enabled us to accurately find the age of the earth and the solar system to be 4.6 billion years.

Middle East was cradle of all Abrahamic religions and one of the sites of  ancient human civilizations. Naturally this should attract archeologists and historians to excavate and study the evolution of human society especially the traditional tales of religions that have shaped modern world. Unfortunately, due to “religious sensitivities” and political controversies such scientific endeavors are discouraged.

Israel, on one hand, has proactively allowed archeological inquiries and major excavations dating back to the Judaism era. Archeologists have unearthed a large number of structures and artifacts from these areas with connection to Judaism from era long before the Christ. Some may use these discoveries to justify their claims to the holy lands where all three major religions converge.

On the other hand, where Muslim majority countries in middle east are technologically challenged, there has been deep resentment to any archeological inquiry. Few years ago I was intrigued to read about “manuscripts of Sana’a”. In 1972, bags of old parchments carrying Quranic text were  found in the Great Mosque of Sana’a, Yemen. These were at some point locked away by construction workers when found scattered in an old part of the mosque. Supervisor of local museum realized these parchment are not only old but Arabic script was different and related to older Hijazi script (Arab area of Muslim holy sites). He sought help from Gerd Puin, a German scholar of Oriental studies . Puin published a preliminary study of these texts in his paper “Observations on early Quran manuscripts in Sana” as they appeared to date even before the oldest Quran available (the one in University of Birmingham). Once this scholarly information was published, that was in conflict with some of the Islamic religious tradition, the access to these artifacts was completely denied and no one has been allowed to study them further.

Saudi Arabia is home to the most holiest sites of Islam and in turn cradle of Islamic history yet  archeological studies are absolutely forbidden by the clerical hierarchy. Recently a report was published about the number of possible ancient tombs and buildings in Saudi Arabia observed from satellite imagery and google earth. Though in last few years a slow paced exploration of Najran has been done and remains of a Nabatean empire, that predates Islam, was unearthed. Some of the pictures and information can be seen here. This effort has been spearheaded by Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Saudi/Muslim astronaut.

Muslim majority countries have lagged far behind in research, modern science and technology as they have failed to separate religion or faith from other spheres of life. When science text books in Pakistan start with a chapter on religious text, you can forget quest for inquiry or research.  Fundamental principle of science is to remain skeptic and question everything, which is antithesis of religion and considered a blasphemy!

The author is a physician by training and a skeptic by nature.

Sufiyan Chaudhry

The author is a physician by training and a skeptic by nature.

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