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Volume 51, Number 5September/October 2000

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Rays of Light and Brightness

The King Faisal International Prize

Written by Peter Harrigan
Photographs courtesy of King Faisal Foundation

"I entered science to find understanding and perhaps change the world in some small way," said J. Craig Venter. He spoke in Riyadh, where on May 5 he was co-laureate of the 2000 King Faisal International Prize (KFIP) for biology.

Less than two months after leaving Riyadh with a gold medal and a certificate engrossed in elegant Arabic calligraphy, Venter stood at a White House podium in Washington, D.C., where he and researchers from the Human Genome Project announced their near-final mapping of the human genetic code. Venter says that he learned how tenuous the hold on life can be when he served as a medic in the Vietnam War. "There my interest was piqued to learn how the trillions of cells in our bodies work and interact, and how life is created and sustained. I wondered why some people live through devastating trauma, and others die from seemingly small wounds."

Venter went on to become founder, president and chief scientific officer of Celera Genomics in Rockville, Maryland. In parallel with—and occasionally ahead of—government researchers of the Human Genome Project, he has pioneered the discovery of what his KFIP citation described as "the complete genetic make-up of more complex organisms, including the entire sequence of the human genome."

Before leaving Riyadh, Venter announced he would "strive to uphold the standards of the [KFIP] as I continue my work in understanding life." He began by donating $100,000—his half of the prize's cash award—to help fund the sequencing of the genome of the tick-borne parasite Theileria parva, which causes a leukemia-like disease in livestock throughout Africa and the Middle East. His gesture will help speed vaccine development.

Historically, Muslim societies have devoted considerable resources to support science. The eighth-century Umayyad caliph 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, known as pious, frugal and peaceful, in the early eighth century established cash prizes of between 100 and 300 dirhams for "scholarly works." The eighth to 10th centuries were times of intense achievement in science, astronomy and medicine in the Islamic world (see Aramco World, May/June 1997), and translations into Arabic of scholarly works from other cultures were supported by patrons who included royalty, ranking civil servants and members of the political and religious elite.

"Until the rise of modern science, no other civilization engaged as many scientists, produced as many scientific books, or provided as varied and sustained support for scientific activity," wrote Ahmad Dallal in The Oxford History of Islam. In distinction from religious knowledge, he notes, the exact sciences were often called al-'ulum musbtarakatun bayna al-'umam ("the sciences shared among all the nations").

The arts also received encouragement: "Islamic rulers and influential patrons throughout the Arab world gave awards for scholars and poets based on Islamic tradition," says 'Abd Allah al-Uthaimin, secretary general of the KFIP, whose own two-volume history of Saudi Arabia is a standard reference. "The KFIP thus continues in the Islamic tradition of philanthropic support and encouragement of arts and science."

Founded in 1977, the KFIP is the first multidisciplinary, international prize sponsored from the Arab world in modern times. Having now recognized 139 laureates from 35 countries in five award categories—science, medicine, Islamic studies, Arabic literature and service to Islam—the KFIP is globally recognized. It is administered by the King Faisal Foundation, a legacy of the third king of Saudi Arabia. (See page 37.)

The prize, says al-Uthaimin, "rewards men and women who exceptionally contribute to the preservation and promotion of Islamic heritage. It also recognizes excellence in academic and scientific research. The KFIP is meant to let the winner feel that his or her work is appreciated. Quite simply, it says, 'Thank you very much.'"

The cornerstones of the KFIP are its prizes for service to Islam, Islamic studies and Arabic literature, which were first awarded in 1979. Yet it was the prizes for science, begun in 1982, and for medicine (1984) that brought the KFIP to world attention by generous recognition of advances that benefit humanity as a whole. These categories are assigned a theme each year: The science prize rotates through the disciplines of chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics in a four-year cycle; the medicine prize is awarded for diverse, topical themes—for 2000, the theme was the aging process.

Al-Uthaimin says that today the science and medicine prizes receive "by far" the most nominees. "We send out 5000 invitations to nominate for the science prize alone," he says. The criteria are broad but exigent: Work nominated must be published, must represent a "contribution of the highest distinction, and benefit mankind, and advance scientific knowledge."

Once nominations are received each April, peer reviewers examine the nominees' works to ensure compliance with KFIP standards. Successful nominations are then sent to three to five independent, anonymous referees worldwide, each a recognized expert, who scrutinize the work and achievements of nominees in two elimination rounds. The following January, a selection committee for each prize, similarly composed of independent experts, convenes in Riyadh. Over four days, the committees select the laureates from the referees' final pool of candidates.

"Sometimes their work appears straightforward and it's over in a day," says al-Uthaimin. "Other times it's not so easy, and they remain locked in discussion for the whole period."

Selection of the winner for service to Islam, however, follows a different path. Instead of referees, the prize has a standing selection committee headed by Prince Sultan ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, who chairs Saudi Arabia's governmental Higher Council for the Propagation of Islam. Other members include officials of Islamic universities and major religious organizations as well as individual scholars.

Since the KFIP's inception, five of the 26 science-prize winners have gone on to win Nobel prizes—four of them in physics. Günter Blobel of Rockefeller University in New York and the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences won the KFIP in biology in 1996 for deciphering the chemical signals that proteins use to navigate in living cells. Last year he received the Nobel Prize in the "physiology or medicine" category. According to Scientific American, Blobel's cell-research findings are "paving the way to a better understanding of the causes of and the potential treatments for disorders such as cystic fibrosis and familial hypercholes-terolemia, a genetic disorder that leads to very high blood cholesterol levels."

The research of Ahmed Zewail, winner of the 1989 KFIP in science (physics), also deals with chemical reactions, but Zewail captured how they occur. His challenge was the astonishing speed of molecular interactions: Benzene and iodine molecules, for example, can form and break chemical bonds more than 300 billion times in less than a second. Two decades ago, Zewail began shining lasers on molecules and atoms to find a way of studying these reactions in real time. The method he developed, known as femtosecond spectroscopy, allows image-capture of reactions at a "shutter speed" of approximately one-thousandth of a trillionth, or one quadrillionth, of a second. As a result, scientists are not only gaining new insight into how chemical bonds break and reform, and what fleeting transition states may exist, but are finding new ways of controlling the reactions for industrial use.

"KFIP has a unique character," says Zewail, who holds a professorship in physics and an endowed professorship in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It rewards signal advances of benefit to humanity, and it does so with warmth and style. The scientific impact is clear—KFIP was the first major award to recognize our contribution. It opened the door!" That opened door is helping revolutionize chemistry, and it promises major developments in several fields, including the manufacture of drugs. Last year the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Zewail the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Zewail also has a uniquely personal reason to regard the KFIP's "warmth and style" fondly—as well as the doors it opens. "I met my wife-to-be during the awards in Riyadh," he explains. Herself a specialist in medicine and public health, Dema al-Faham had accompanied her father, Shaker al-Faham, to the award ceremonies: He won the prize for Arabic literature the same year Zewail won for science.

Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi heads Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which this year became the first institution—as opposed to individual—to receive the prize for service to Islam. "By annually recognizing outstanding intellectuals and scientists who have served humanity through knowledge and research," Tantawi says, "the King Faisal Foundation revitalizes an important Islamic tradition. Recognition of excellence and appreciation of knowledge are inherent principles of Islam," and KFIP has set its award criteria in conformity with those principles, awarding the prize in each of its five categories...regardless of the recipient's creed, color or lineage."

On behalf of his university, the largest and one of the oldest in the Islamic world for both religious and secular studies, Tantawi accepted the prize "in recognition of [Al-Azhar's] outstanding services to the Islamic world, particularly its role over the centuries in disseminating knowledge, promulgating Islam and conserving Islamic and Arabic culture." The KFIP selection committee further noted that "Al-Azhar is a center of culture and learning that continues to enrich our lives with knowledge."

Founded in 1971 as part of the new Fatimid city of Cairo, Al-Azhar al-Sharif ("The Noble, The Most Radiant"), as it is known, has been a focal point for Muslim scholars and students for more than a millennium. Today, with its numerous branch campuses, it enrolls more than 150,000 students from 80 countries; it incorporates more than 50 modern faculties as well as the Academy for Islamic Research and the Al-Azhar library, and sponsors scholarly and religious work throughout the Islamic world.

One of the students is 23-year-old Suhardi Abdul Hanan from the Indonesian island of Lombok. In his third year of Islamic and Arabic studies, he is one of 4000 Indonesians who make up Al-Azhar's largest non-Arab demographic group. "Muslims in Indonesia dream of learning Arabic and studying Islam at Al-Azhar," he says. "We were all brought up to respect this center of learning. A returned hajji [or pilgrim] gains recognition in our community, but to return as a hajji with an Al-Azhar certificate is the ultimate honor. At home my father proudly says that his son 'is learning in the sky.'"

Much as the international scholarly community has long recognized such centers as Harvard or Oxford, Al-Azhar is recognized and deeply respected as a cradle of Islamic culture by many of the world's one billion Muslims. They make up the 'umma—the faith-based community that transcends secular culture—and it is them that Al-Azhar serves.

One scholar in and of this community is Muhammed Mohar Ali, who studies the flow of ideas and the intellectual history of Islam. Born in Khulna, Bangladesh, he taught at Riyadh's Imam Muhammad ibn Sa'ud University and at Madinah's Islamic University for two decades. Now he lives with his family in Essex, England where he pursues independent studies of a caliber that earned him the 2000 KFIP for Islamic studies, awarded this year for work on the spread and impact of Islam outside the Arab world.

"I was helping my wife in the kitchen when there was a telephone call. She answered and the caller told her it was a fax. When she saw the fax creep out of the machine she called out the good news to me," Mohar Ali recalls. When the news reached the local press, he says, "our neighbors were just as surprised as we were." His son Ma'aruf explains that "my dad was always laying brick and doing carpentry around the house. [The neighbors] thought he was a craftsman, and some had even asked him to do work for them.

The unassuming, articulate handyman-professor had authored a four-volume work titled A History of the Muslims of Bengal, published in English in 1985 and 1988. It is regarded as one of the most reliable sources on Islam's effects on the political and cultural life of the region, which encompasses today's Bangladesh and West Bengal in India.

Mohar Ali plans to use his KFIP cash award to help him realize his latest ambition: producing the first-ever word-for-word literal translation of the Qur'an from Arabic into English. Uniquely, he explains, his translation will put each Arabic word or phrase in one column and its English meanings in another, enabling the reader to arrive at the fullest possible understanding of the text, which has proved impossible to translate satisfactorily.

This is a work, he believes, very much in the spirit of the KFIP, which he describes as "a bridge-building award between intellectuals of West and East. I am an optimist," he adds, "and I believe that science, technology and scholarship lead to understanding."

Sociobiologist Edward Wilson counts himself a beneficiary of just such a bridge-building effect. Professor and honorary curator of entomology at Harvard University, Wilson is known as the founder of the discipline of sociobiology and the modern biodiversity movement. His research ranges across ecology, behavioral biology, biogeography and ethical philosophy, and he has worked to bring knowledge from the natural sciences through the social sciences to the humanities and the arts. With Venter, Wilson was this year's co-winner of the KFIP for science in biology, the latest of some 70 other awards that include the (US) National Medal of Science and two Pulitzer Prizes, for On Human Nature and The Ants, two of the 18 books he has written or co-authored.

"Even though I have traveled widely, and my research covers several major fields of scientific and other intellectual inquiry, I had never before experienced an Islamic culture directly or talked about science or other scholarly subjects with Islamic colleagues in their own country," says Wilson. "At first I thought it rather curious that the King Faisal prizes in medicine and science, which are internationally recognized in the scientific community, are given at the same time as the prizes in Islamic culture. Now I see the juxtaposition as bridge-building of a valuable and urgently needed kind, not just among scientists in different countries, but among intellectuals of two great cultures."

Seven time zones east of Harvard, professor Hamdi al-Sakkout sits in his faculty office at the American University in Cairo. He looks both tired and relieved, having just delivered the final volume of his study of the modern Arabic novel to the printers. Al-Sakkout received the KFIP for Arabic literature in 1995 for his study of 'Abbas Mahmud al-'Akkad, a leading innovator in the forms of 20th-century Arabic poetry and criticism.

Al-'Akkad, who was born in 1889 in Aswan, Egypt and died in 1964 in Cairo, was among the 20th century's most prolific and challenging writers. Al-Sakkout's book includes a biography, a critical assessment and a full bibliography that covers al-'Akkad's more than 6000 articles and 100 books as well as 3000 pieces of writing about him. "He was a living university," says al-Sakkout.

Five years after winning the KFIP, al-Sakkout reflects on the impact of the prize: "[It] gave me a strong indication that I was on the right track and that my work was appreciated and recognized," he says. "It helped me work with more enthusiasm.... I was at the time thinking of retiring, but winning the KFIP encouraged me to start work on a bibliography covering the whole of the Arab world. So I applied the methodology I had used on al-'Akkad to literary genres. In effect I continued my work on an enlarged scale and with a broadened horizon." The resulting five-volume work promises to help the modern Arabic novel receive the international critical attention that al-Sakkout believes it deserves. "I have discovered numerous gems and hope to introduce great but hitherto unknown novelists to readers throughout the Arab world."

Antique Arabic poetry was the subject that intrigued 'Abd Allah al-Tayyib as a young man, and he spent almost half a century analyzing its composition, meter, rhythm, unity and other aspects. For him the 2000 KFIP for Arabic literature represented not so much a spur as the crowning of a life of scholarship. One of the KFIP referees called his four-volume Guide to the Understanding of Arabic Poetry, which is widely regarded as a classic and a major work of reference in Arabic, "a kind of writing unmatched by any other contemporary writing on Arabic literature and literary criticism.... The book seems to belong to another age—that of the classics." Still, al-Tayyib's award citation made it clear that his prize was given not just for this work, but also for his more than 40 other books, which it called "outstanding contributions to the study of Arabic literature and literary criticism" in Arabic and English, as well as for a life of teaching throughout the Arab world and broadcasting in his native Sudan.

Al-Tayyib notes that his career also began with a prize, but of a very different kind. He recalls he worked for three years producing the book on poetry that examined the complex relationship between poetic meter and subject matter. "I was in Cairo, and I decided to take the manuscript to [the prominent writer and literary critic] Taha Husayn at his house," recalls al-Tayyib. A week later Husayn called and offered to write an introduction to the book, and the two writers began a friendship that was to last nearly two decades. "Husayn's introduction was a great prize. He helped pave my literary, academic and teaching career," says al-Tayyib.

Some 45 years later, al-Tayyib remarks that "the KFIP draws attention to Saudi Arabia and makes friends. It promotes learning and scholarship and literature and encourages scientists, literati and intellectuals from all parts of the world."

For Shaykh Hamad bin Muhammad al-Jasir, it was embarrassment rather than encouragement that set him on his path as a geographical scholar some 60 years ago. He was in his first day as a teacher at a school in Yanbu', then a small port on the Red Sea coast, he explained. He was talking to his pupils about a classical Arabic poem when, he said, "halfway through it, I came across the name of Mount Radwa. I remembered reading about that mountain in some book, and I told the class that it was a low mountain near Madinah and that camels climbed it to find grazing." To his surprise, the boys started to grumble and murmur. '"Impossible, sir,' one finally said. 'Look out the window and you will see Mount Radwa in front of your eyes. No camel can climb up that!'"

It was "a turning point in my life," said al-Jasir. "I realized that I had missed a great deal, and I blamed myself for failing to seek knowledge when I could have done so." He went on to become a world authority on the history, geography and cultures of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1952, he began to publish Al-Yamama, the first newspaper in Riyadh; he also founded the city's first printing press.

In 1996 he became the first Saudi to receive the KFIP for Arabic literature, in recognition of his analysis of the writings of early Arab travelers. "Early Muslim scholars showed great interest in geography," wrote al-Jasir, "first in order to understand the verses of the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith [the accounts of what the Prophet Muhammad said and did] and the artfulness of the Arabic language, but also to appreciate the vastness of the universe and the multiplicity of the creatures that God Almighty has created."

Al-Jasir, who was more than 90 years old when he died on September 14, was well-known also for his regular Thursday-morning majlis, or salon, at his home in Riyadh, where he received a steady stream of guests from all walks of life. "The King Faisal International Prize," he said, "is a strong incentive to increase one's knowledge. Such incentives are very important in our country."

One early Arab traveler whose works al-Jasir studied in his lifelong striving toward learning is 'Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, a 13th-century legal and medical scholar and historian. As the KFlP's five selection committees consider the work of the nominees for the 2001 prizes, al-Baghdadi's words resound across the centuries to encourage their deliberations: "Know that learning leaves a trail and a scent proclaiming its possessor, a ray of light and brightness shining on him, pointing him out."

Peter Harrigan works with Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jiddah, where he is also a contributing editor and columnist for Diwaniya, the weekly cultural supplement of the Saudi Gazette. He thanks Ray Tyson of Riyadh for additional research for this article.

The King Faisal Foundation
Written by Peter Harrigan

The KFIP is one of several projects of the King Faisal Foundation, the Middle East's largest philanthropic organization. It was established in 1976 by the sons of Faisal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, the third king of Saudi Arabia, to perpetuate their father's humanitarian legacy.

Yusuf al-Hamdan, assistant secretary general of the KFF, sums up its broad mission: "The Foundation dedicates itself to preserving and promoting Islamic culture. It furthers education and rewards excellence in academic and scientific research through the King Faisal International Prize, and it provides assistance and develops self-sufficiency in less fortunate communities around the globe."

Its major vehicle for cultural preservation is the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. (See Saudi Aramco World, July/August 2000.) With a library of nearly a million books covering Islamic culture, history and faith and nearly 25,000 Arabic manuscripts, the center is the largest literary collection in the Arabian Gulf and one of the largest in the Arab world. It also operates mobile and on-location manuscript conservation laboratories, a printing press and the recently opened Islamic Heritage Museum.

In education, the KFF supports the King Faisal School in Riyadh and, for women, Effat National College in Jiddah. It offers three types of scholarships, including two annually for the postdoctoral study of Islam and the West.

The foundation also offers relief and development aid at more than 30 sites worldwide in such countries as Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Yemen. It supports self-sufficiency projects such as the reclamation of arable land in Mali; fishing-boat production in Nigeria; the drilling of water wells in several countries and the restoration of numerous mosques.

KFF's financing strategy, using a combination of public donations and investments in commercial enterprises, has made it a model organization in the region. Aid projects in East Africa, for example, are partly supported by revenues from a KFF-funded commercial complex in Mombasa. Other KFF investments include hotels, shopping centers, apartment buildings, offices and partnerships in tourism and public relations—and, its latest and largest, the Al-Faisaliah Center in Riyadh, which occupies a whole city block and is now the capital's tallest building.

This article appeared on pages 32-39 of the September/October 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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