Dr Usama Hasan is a British astronomer and former academic who is a senior researcher in Islamic Studies. He has written extensively on the compatibility of Islam and human evolution. Usama is a Fellow of the Muslim Institute.
Bismillah. So, RIP Prof. Stephen Hawking, often called “the greatest physicist since Einstein,” who returned to his source yesterday.
Here is a brief history, in time, of my encounters with him, intellectually & physically.
- An early copy of A Brief History of Time, 1988
Hawking’s famous bestseller was originally published by Bantam Press in 1988. That same year, by the grace of God, I achieved a silver medal in the British Physics Olympiad after being entered into it by my school, the City of London School for Boys (CLSB), aged around 17. (Dozens of students from around the country each won gold, silver or bronze medals, and the very best would be selected to represent Britain at the International Physics Olympiad.) My prize was a hardback copy of A Brief History of Time, and it is still a prized possession.
For some reason, they wrote my name in the presentation sticker as “V. Hasan” – perhaps they thought I was an Ancient Roman or something. A classmate, Keith Eyeions, won a gold medal – his prize was a large sum of cash, book tokens or possibly a microcomputer, but in hindsight, my prize was possibly more valuable. Keith also read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and took the History & Philosophy of Science course in the second year – he encouraged me to study it also; I was unable to, but at least he had introduced me to the subject, of which I had never heard before.
I started the book several times, but like the vast majority of people, couldn’t get very far with it. It would be several years before I was able to understand the book entirely, obviously whilst or after completing a physics degree.
Whilst at school, I did manage to read the excellent In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin and God & The New Physics by Paul Davies.
2. A Christian Union lecture critiquing Hawking at Cambridge University, 1990
During my second year at Cambridge, I attended, along with a fellow Islamic Society committee member, an eye-catching Christian Union lecture on religion and physics. The CU were largely evangelical, literalist, fundamentalist Christians, and quite a few academics had similar beliefs to them. The lecturer, whose name I don’t recall but was probably a colleague of David Wilkinson and a pupil of John Polkinghorne, gave a good, entertaining talk about the new physics, quoting the famous lines, “Whoever is not shocked by quantum theory, has not understood it!” (Niels Bohr) and, “God does not play dice with the universe!” (Albert Einstein). He ended by critiquing Hawking, whose ABHT was already a bestseller and many religious people were engaging with it. He quoted from Hawking’s penultimate paragraph, that seems to incline towards theism amidst a largely agnostic discussion, and concluded,
“Stephen Hawking holds the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge, a post once held by Isaac Newton. Hawking may not share Newton’s faith, but he points us in the same direction.”
This was to have a profound influence on me, and my argument in a 2010 article elsewhere on this blog, A Muslim Response to Stephen Hawking, is partly based on that 1990 lecture.
3. Hawking’s lecture on “Imaginary Time”, c. 1990/1
The Cambridge University Physics Society organised this, at a science lecture theatre that accommodated a few hundred people: Hawking rarely lectured publicly, so it was packed, although very few of us had any idea what the title meant. I arrived quite early, to guarantee a spot. An orthodox Jewish chap called Mark Israel had arrived before me, and was intensely reading what looked like a pocket Torah. As a fellow Abrahamic monotheist, he seemed to be preparing himself to take on someone who was becoming a star for atheist scientists. (Mark had been a year above me at CLSB, but we were now in the same year at university, since he had taken a gap year in Israel, working on a kibbutz or studying at a yeshiva or something. We barely knew each other.)
Hawking’s pre-loaded lecture, delivered via his computer and voice-synthesiser, began by explaining the difference between real and imaginary numbers: basic, A-level mathematics. He then accelerated up several gears and lost the vast majority of us in his details, talking about solving Einstein’s equations for General Relativity in imaginary or complex (real+imaginary) time, avoiding infinities and renormalisations, promoting his no-boundary proposal and his positivist philosophical position. Although he lost me and others in the details, I think I got the gist of his lecture, as above. His link between the mathematical physics and his philosophical position was interesting: he argued that we could not know to begin with (a priori)whether time was best represented by real, imaginary or complex numbers, if at all. But given that we could not solve the GR equations in real time, but could do so in imaginary/complex time, this was evidence or proof that imaginary time existed. (To my mind, time clearly has a real dimension as well, but no-one used the term, “complex time,” i.e. real+imaginary time, at the time!)
When the lecture ended, there was stunned silence: most of us were still trying to process the whirlwind of mathematics & physics ideas to which we had just been exposed. There were only one or two questions, and I think Mark Israel bravely asked the first question: an undergraduate natural scientist and devout Abrahamic monotheist trying to take on one of the world’s greatest scientists who was also agnostic/atheist. Mark asked (in paraphrase), beginning with a typically-British understatement,
“This is all very complicated. But this positivism of yours – isn’t it a cop-out from accepting the reality that we all experience?”
We waited with bated breath for many minutes for Hawking’s pithy answer: because he had to compose his answer, character by character, using only one finger to operate his computer, even a one-sentence answer could take quite a while to produce. But Hawking eventually answered (in paraphrase),
“Give me an experimental test for any ‘reality’ and I will accept its existence if it is empirically (experimentally) proved.”
I’ve remembered the entire exchange, but it was many years before I understood Hawking’s answer, and what on earth he was talking about.
These were of course some of the intensely salafi years: when I told JIMAS colleagues about attending Hawking’s lectures, Abu Muntasir remarked, “the Sheikh Albani of physics!”
4. Hawking’s lecture on “Predestination”, c. 1991/2
This was organised by the university’s Philosophical Society at, if I remember correctly, the Lady Margaret Hall on the Sidgwick Site. (Lady Margaret, whose name adorns several Cambridge roads and buildings, was the wife of Henry VI, mother of Henry VII and hence grandmother of Henry VIII, again if I remember correctly.)
This was a large hall, and again, it was standing-room only: I estimated that about 2,000 people attended.
The question being addressed in the lecture was:
“Is Everything Predestined?”
Hawking’s answer was one of pure determinism: he argued that the laws of physics determined absolutely everything, including our brain configurations and neuronal firing patterns. As a fellow-student once put it:
“If the laws of physics determine exactly how an object falls, why shouldn’t they determine exactly how our brain neurons fire?”
Those who knew Hawking well, often comment that he had an irresistible sense of humour. This was on display at this lecture when, to illustrate how the laws of physics have determined, according to his view, everything from the Big Bang to the most trivial details of human behaviour, Hawking mischievously put up a copy of a Page 3 of The Sun, featuring a famous female, topless model, declaring,
“The laws of physics even determine that Samantha Fox appears nude on Page 3!”
The audience roared with laughter – my, such goings-on at one of the world’s most prestigious learned societies and universities!
Hawking’s conclusion was very interesting:
“Is Everything Predestined? Yes, everything is predestined, but it might as well not be, since we can never know!”
His reasoning for this conclusion was that although the laws of physics did determine everything, we could not possibly predict the future since, to do so, we would need to solve zillions of non-linear equations simultaneously, and this is simply impossible.
Obviously, predestination is a major topic in Islam, and I grappled with Hawking’s conclusion for a long time. Many years later, I read in the famous book by Ali al-Hujwiri (Data Ganj Bakhsh, 1009-1077 CE, buried in Lahore), Kashf al-Mahjub (Unveiling of the Veiled, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson) that he had taught,
“Believe that everything is predestined, but act as though nothing is.”
In other Islamic texts, this is stated as follows:
“Believe like a jabari (determinist), but behave like a qadari (free-willer).”
It is also alluded to in the later Ash’ari text, Hashiyat al-Disuqi ‘ala Umm al-Barahin, when the commentator claims that,
“The People of the Sunna (Ahl al-Sunna), according to the Ash’ari school are rationally determinist (jabariyya ‘aqlan).”
The dispute between the determinists (jabariyya) and absolute free-willers (qadariyya) dates back to the Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, and be pleased with them) and will continue until the Day of Judgment, with a whole spectrum of views within Islam, amongst the Sunni, Shia, Mu’tazili, Ash’ari, Maturidi, Hanbali/Athari/Salafi, etc. As Imam ‘Ali said, and was echoed by Imam Tahawi in his Creed (Aqida),
“Predestination (qadar) is a secret/mystery (sirr) of God in His Creation.”
But here we have a leading Muslim Sufi saint, whose tomb is visited by lakhs of people every year, taking a compromise position between belief and action, between jabar and qadar, over nine centuries before a great mathematician and physicist who essentially comes to the same conclusion. From Hujwiri to Hawking – Glory be to God!
5. Hawking on Grange Rd, c. 1991/2
I was cycling along Grange Road, Cambridge, dressed in my usual dress at the time of a flowing Arab robe and turban, when I passed Hawking coming the other way in his motorised wheelchair. It was a powerful moment for me, and remains etched in my memory: this great scientist, silently and serenely passing by, with only the quiet hum of his wheelchair, like the force of nature (God’s creation) that he was. I wonder if he remembered a cyclist in Arab dress?
Relatedly, I read in the newspapers later that year, after leaving Cambridge, that Hawking had had another encounter with a Muslim using Grange Rd: a Pakistani taxi-driver (who else?) had crashed into Hawking, destroying his wheelchair although Hawking escaped unhurt. Thank God he was relatively unharmed – had he been seriously injured or killed, it might have been the biggest Pakistani influence on theoretical physics and cosmology since Prof Abdus-Salam’s Nobel Prize. (I am of Pakistani origin, so I’m allowed to poke fun at my own countrymen).
6. Quoting Hawking in MSc exam, 1993
For my MSc in Information Processing & Neural Networks at King’s College London, one of our modules was Advanced Neural Networks, taught by Prof. John Taylor, who had a previous career as a TV actor before returning to science. Taylor was an excellent lecturer. His exam paper included a question about whether our artificial (computerised) neural networks could ever emulate the human brain. In my answer, I argued that this might be possible in principle, but we were astronomically far away from achieving it in practice. As an analogy, I quoted Hawking’s famous passage in ABHT where he argued that, in principle, we could build a particle accelerator of enough size and energy to recreate the high energy of the early universe, but it was very unlikely that we would achieve this in practice. With more of his wry humour, he had written something like,
“Such an accelerator would need to be roughly the size of the solar system, and is unlikely to be funded in the current economic climate.” (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)
In the post-exam discussion with fellow students, I told a colleague that I had quoted Hawking. His reply was,
“Oops! Don’t you remember what Hawking wrote about Prof. John Taylor?”
I had no recollection of this, but he told me and I went home and was horrified to verify it via my copy of ABHT. The story may be summarised as follows:
Hawking gave his seminal lecture at a physics conference where he first announced his theory that “black holes ain’t so black”, i.e. the decay of black holes via Hawking radiation, a quantum effect. Hawking described one of the reactions as follows: “One man, John Taylor of King’s College London, stood up and said that this was all rubbish … (But my theory was later proved right, and he was proved wrong)” (summarised from Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)
This was not Taylor’s finest hour, but nor was it Hawking’s, when he wrote about it: academics, like sports players or generals, should be gracious in victory and defeat. But both of them taught me mathematics, physics & AI – we all know how awkward it is when your parents or teachers quarrel.
I hope Prof Taylor wasn’t offended by my quoting Hawking in the exam, a scientist who was arguably even more famous than Taylor, from a book in which Hawking had publicly avenged an academic insult from one or two decades earlier. I don’t think Taylor was offended, at least not too much, because he gave me an ‘A’ grade in the exam.
7. The Universe in A Nutshell
Towards the end of the 2000s, two decades after publishing ABHT, Hawking wrote another excellent book, The Universe in A Nutshell. He proposed his version of M-theory, a generalised string theory, that involved high-dimensional spaces called ‘branes.’ These are like 2- or 3-dimensional membranes, but in higher dimensions. But which letter should mathematicians use to denote the number of dimensions: x, n or d, etc.? With characteristic humour, Hawking decided to use p, hence cutting edge theoretical physics and cosmology now involved p-branes, a pun on “pea-brains.”
The title of this book derived from the fact that Hawking argued that our universe was enclosed by high-dimensional spaces (p-branes) that were shaped like a peanut shell.
Arguably, Hawking had taken an agnostic position regarding God in his ABHT. But based on his TUIAN, he now publicly announced an atheist position. I wrote my Muslim Response … to him in 2010, available elsewhere on this blog.
8. Meeting Hawking at Google Zeitgeist Europe, 2011
In 2011, by the grace of God, I got to finally meet Hawking after his lecture at Google’s Zeitgeist Europe conference near Watford in Greater London, attended by hundreds of people. It was a bi-annual conference at the time, with the alternate year having a Zeitgeist USA conference, I think. I was invited to this conference as part of Quilliam’s work with Google and YouTube, specifically with regard to the later, international Summit Against Violent Extremism in Dublin, June 2011.
Hawking lectured on M-theory, based on his TUIAN, and also attacked religion but especially philosophy: he argued that modern philosophy had lost all touch with (scientific) reality, and that philosophers were often speculating theoretically based on outdated, ancient philosophical ideas about the mind, life, etc. He argued that they were not taking into account modern knowledge about the workings of the brain, the laws of physics, the life sciences etc.
I got to meet Hawking as a fellow-speaker at the conference, and because of my physics background. Because of his limited communication technology, most people were simply taking a photo with him. I was advised that I needed to ask his permission to do this first, though: we were able to ask him brief questions, and he would respond with one twitch of his cheek muscle for yes, and two for no (or vice-versa, I don’t recall precisely – it had been 20 years since I had seen him in person, and he had lost the movement of the only working finger, and was restricted to one muscle with which to communicate).
This is roughly what I said to him:
“Professor Hawking, it is an honour to finally meet you. I attended two of your lectures whilst a Cambridge undergraduate about 20 years ago: one on ‘Imaginary Time’ and one on ‘Predestination’ at the Lady Margaret Hall. Do you remember those lectures? And may I have a photo with you?”
I remember thinking that my first question was very daft: I was asking a genius, scientist and professor with a very precise mind, whether he remembered two of his major public lectures at his beloved university, about his beloved subjects. Of course he remembered them! He replied in the affirmative to both my questions, hence the photo reproduced above.
9. Islamic reflections about Hawking
Hawking was a bit of a dilemma for theists, but his brilliance and humour endeared him to most. One of his students was Prof Brian Carr, later of QMUL, who is a devout Christian as well as a brilliant physicist. I’ve met him twice via the Scientific & Medical Network, and had brief discussions on religion and science. He loved his teacher, despite the difference in religious beliefs.
When I posted briefly on Facebook in 2011 about meeting Hawking, a young islamist woman kept posting nasty, rude comments about him, condemning him for his atheism. I deleted her comments, but when she continued, I blocked her. He was probably 2-3 times her age, and had inspired millions to love knowledge and God’s creation, even if he himself didn’t believe, yet she, with good intentions to defend theism, was despicably rude about someone with a crippling illness, and whom she had clearly never met. May Allah forgive me and her. On the other hand, a young, devout Muslim physicist friend praised Hawking in glowing terms when some were criticising him on our Islamic Astronomy yahoogroup that ran for many years in the 2000’s.
Thinking of theist/atheist scientist friends, I am reminded of Newton’s friendship with Hooke or Boyle, at least for a while. Whenever his atheist friend would try to preach atheism to him, Newton, a Unitarian Christian who wrote treatises refuting the Trinity, replied,
“Don’t go there. I have studied theology, whereas you haven’t.” (paraphrase)
Perhaps if Hawking had a friend who was a greater scientist than him and also a theist like Newton, he may have believed. But it is all God’s will.
Pope John Paul II told Hawking upon their meeting, not to investigate the first three minutes or first six seconds after the Big Bang, because these were “the moment of God’s creation.” Hawking was utterly put off religion by this, as he described in ABHT. Perhaps if, instead of this advice, Hawking had met a Muslim rationalist leader cut from the cloth of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun who might have wholeheartedly encouraged Hawking to pursue such research, he may not have turned against religion. But it is all God’s will.
So, Hawking did not believe in God for most of his life. But in the Islamic tradition: God is Truth. God is Beauty. God is Time (al-dahr, in a famous hadith qudsi – since the commentators explain al-dahr as “extended time,” some contemporary sheikhs have suggested that this means: God is Spacetime). God is Infinitely Wise and Forbearing.
Hawking certainly believed in Truth and the search for Truth. He certainly believed in Beauty, especially the beauty of nature and of its laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. He helped and inspired millions of people all around the world to study these subjects (I was excited to see an Arabic copy of ABHT on sale in Amman in 2017, & today’s media coverage shows crowds of Israelis and Arabs flocking to see him – he especially encouraged Palestinians to study physics). He inspired us to probe into the mysteries of space and time, that are sacred because of the above hadith qudsi and because of God’s taking an oath, swearing by the sacred token of Time, as in Surah al-‘Asr, one of two Qur’anic Chapters entitled: Time, referring to long-term and short-term respectively.
Living patiently with a crippling illness for over half a century: not just living, but working, leading the world in his subjects and inspiring generations with his intelligence, humanity and humour – he knew Forbearance, again a quality of the Divine.
So farewell, Professor Stephen Hawking: may you rest in God’s Peace (al-Salam): you understood more than most the mysteries of the infinite: may you be admitted into God’s Infinite Mercy. Amen.
This obituary was originally published on Usama Hasan's Unity website, which is devoted to the unity of God, the unity of knowledge and the unity of the peoples of the world.