Antara Murshed is a senior environmental science major.
I have always known I wanted to be a scientist. Ever since I was in grade school, I have been fascinated by the natural world. How do earthquakes happen? Why are some stars brighter than others? How do rainstorms form? I definitely walked around all of elementary school with a very dorky magnifying glass necklace. How else am I supposed to find more ladybugs than everyone else at recess? When I was nine years old, I had an extensive rock collection (from pumice to komatiite) that definitely, no one else in my family cared about. I always had a million questions, and if they were left unanswered long enough, I would only have more questions afterward.
Despite the fact that when I was young, most of my family perceived me as an overbearing nerd, they have always emphasized the importance of understanding and studying science. My father is an electrical engineer, as are four of his brothers (the fifth brother decided to become a doctor as if that’s going to get him anywhere) and I’ve only received endless encouragement from them to pursue my curiosity with the natural world as a scientist.
A parallel, and equally important factor in my understanding of the world is the fact that I grew up in a very large, Muslim Bengali family. My parents are always up before dawn to pray Fajr, I learned to read the Qur’an in Arabic when I was eight years old, and I always say Bismillah before I eat meals, take an exam or embark on a journey. My childhood also consisted of visits to the Muslim Community Association mosque in Santa Clara, California every Friday for Jummah prayer. As a young child, I remember being genuinely confused by my religion. When I was very young, being Muslim simply meant memorizing a lot of different prayers in Arabic (a language I still do not understand), and being on my best behavior when I was at the mosque. Be respectful to others and don’t be disruptive at the mosque, my mother would always tell me.
I remember receiving a book about creationism from a Sunday school teacher at the mosque when I was ten years old. I flipped through the book and thought there was no way any of this was true. My family is full of scientists who all happen to be very faithful Muslims. And for the longest time, I had difficulty understanding how they managed to be both. It was not until the midst of my time at USF when I realized that faith and science have a very beautiful, intertwined relationship. If we did not have a theology core at USF, I most likely would have never taken a theology class. And if I never did that, I would have never had the opportunity to understand the role of faith in a broader, more historical and academic context.
If I trace back the history of my people back to the 16th century, the height of the Mughal Empire was when Bengali Muslim identity emerged in South Asia. Life during the heyday of the Mughal Empire sounded absolutely beautiful to me. The convergence of Hindu computational methods and Islamic astronomy resulted in amazing advances in observational astronomy. Mughal alchemy created one of the world’s first variations of metal rocket canisters and the most fragrant shampoos. It was alongside these scientific discoveries that Sufism emerged. Sufism is a branch of Islam where the believer has a much more direct and mystical relationship with God. In premodern times, it seemed, people did not feel this forced separation between science and faith that I felt when I was younger. And I wondered why that was.
My father, his brothers, and all the other members of my family in the generation before me grew up in Bangladesh. They were not raised in the West like I was. The United States prides itself in having a government that separates the church and the state. I’m not here to argue if that is what is right or not for our country but to simply consider the idea that historically, that’s not how people operated. Faith is a deeply personal aspect of someone’s identity. What Islam means to me is not necessarily what it means to someone else. Often, I sense disparagement from members of the scientific community towards people who practice religion or choose to believe in God, because those assumptions lack empirical evidence. However, I would like to think that just because we, as human beings cannot see or understand something doesn’t mean it’s not there. The universe is currently expanding at an approximate rate of 46 miles per second per 3 million light years. The order of magnitude for that rate is so large, I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it. There will always be so much left to learn and faith and science are simply two different languages used to grasp the wondrous environment we live in.