Janat-ul-Baqi, the grand cemetery in Medina, Saudi Arabia, is a sight to behold, not because of any ostentatious splendour that one might expect from the Saudis, but rather for the vast expanse of dusty mounds and nameless graves that stretch out before all visitors.
For centuries, kings and paupers alike have been buried here without any fanfare, as a testament to our common and very earthly origins and destiny. The Wahhabis are aptly notorious for their sinister fundamentalist traditions (which the Taliban emulate), but one must admit that there is a benign simplicity in their insistence that human remains be sent back to their elemental origins with minimalist zeal.
During my first visit to this stark and sombre place, usually teeming with thousands of visitors, I pondered the diversity of ways our species deals with death. Some human societies built elaborate tombs and even bury their dead with treasures for the after-life, like the Egyptians; others opted for the ultimate annihilation of the body through cremation.
The Zoroastrians, whom the German nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so admired, disposed of their dead on elevated structures known as the towers of silence. Here, vultures and other avian carnivores were allowed to feast on the carcasses, and then the bones were collected and buried. The Zoroastrians observed this practice as a mark of respect for natural cycles of life and death. Burying or burning fleshed corpses was considered a violation of earthly processes, whereas bones were a permanent earthly material and hence could be returned to the soil. In a section titled “On the Spirit of Gravity” from his famed book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: “For whatever is his own is well concealed from the owner, and of all the treasures, it is our own that we dig up last.”
Whatever the method of mortal disposal, the basic premise remains the same: our physical beings are recycled back into the earth’s crust from which we originally came. From birth to death, each human metabolises and releases matter and energy in various forms and to highly varying degrees, depending on where they are born and what they accomplish in that lifespan. The earliest human societies seem to have appreciated that there is no escaping this reality. We were at the time closer to our earthly roots and to the minerals that form the very basis of our existence.
Apart from their figurative importance, minerals were an essential substrate for life to evolve on Earth. Long before the first cellular organism inhabited the planet, our world cooled from its gaseous and molten origins to form minerals. The unique characteristics of elemental arrangements in minerals may have allowed for life to begin. Natural scientists explain the monumental mystery of how order arises out of a chaotic world by the principle of emergence. Through a system of inherent hierarchies within natural systems, seemingly random occurrences take an ordered form in synchrony over time. For example, waves that repeatedly move sand back and forth form a rippled pattern over years, or birds responding to certain meteorological cues to independently exhibit flocking behaviour.
The emergence of human ingenuity is itself a perplexing puzzle that should cause us to think. How have some societies been able to produce more scientists while others have not? In this case, perhaps it is easier to explain this by cultural attributes than by any recourse to genetic determinism or random emergence.
As the Nobel Prizes were announced this week, there was clearly a dominance of American scientists — even when several of the awardees were born in countries such as China, Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, they found their ultimate academic home in the United States.
The cause for this attraction of talent is the support of inquisitive impulses in America, which has more than 2000 institutions of higher learning — the highest number per capita anywhere in the world. In my visits to Pakistan, I have had an opportunity to lecture in various academic institutions and met many promising students of science. However, there has been a rather numbing absence of exploratory research. Our medical doctors and engineers are incredibly hard-working but few are inclined to evaluate some of the elemental questions of life or the search for basic chemical connections enshrined in our mineral origins.
Some are constrained by theology while others are simply preoccupied with earning a decent living to support their families. Still other academics are more concerned about running private schools (a noble endeavour for sure) but regrettably underplay the importance of universities. Education at all levels needs to spur creativity and critical thinking and needs simultaneous investment, no matter how difficult this may be. Even if Pakistan needs to increase our national debt to invest in science education, we should go forward with multiple level initiatives in schools and universities alike, since the payoff is most likely to be lasting and tangible.
For lasting development and an intellectually thriving and creative society which can counter the nihilism of the Taliban, we will need to become more inquisitive about the world around us and the fundamental elements of our material world. So dear readers, even when you visit a lifeless place like a graveyard, consider the processes that are underway beneath your feet and let there be no finality or fatalism in your quest to unravel the secrets of this marvellous planet.
Dr. Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont. This article is partially excerpted from his new book Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press, October, 2009).
Article published in Daily Times and reproduced by permission of DT.