DIED MONDAY 18th JULY 2022
On 18th July 2022, Dr Abdelhamid Bentchikou died in Paris. It is the time and the occasion to write a few words about our long and fruitful friendship of more than 50 years.
I met Abdelhamid Bentchikou, Hamdani for close acquaintances, for the first time in 1970. He was the founding Dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the university of Constantine in eastern Algeria. Newly created, the university was still in construction at that period. I myself was named Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics, brand new as well. The goal: create the first ever batch of graduates in physics. With its avant-garde architecture, the university was built according to the plans of the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer and was awaiting its vocation.
The first lot of graduates indeed saw the day in 1973, with brio in fact, but also with a lot of sweat and work on the part of those who were responsible. During this period of three years, I was closely associated with Abdelhamid, perhaps his closest collaborator. He had a great deal of ambition both for the Department of Physics and for the University in general and put in the effort necessary towards achieving these goals. The first batch of young graduates had its own marker, because they finished their degree course with audacity with the very first Summer School for them: the occasion was offered by the total eclipse of the sun in Tamanrasset, in South Algeria. The Physics Department succeeded in organising courses in solar and atmospheric physics during two weeks within this event, with the afternoons dedicated to observations and measurements. The School was a big success thanks to the unfailing commitment of Abdelhamid and thanks also to the National Centre for Scientific Research, France. There were numerous administrative hurdles in order to get a batch of fresh graduates to Tamanrasset for a period of two weeks. They were all overcome thanks to the unfailing support of Abdelhamid.
In autumn 1973 I returned for work in India, married in the meanwhile. In 1974, and for a period of eight years, my family settled in Burgundy, close to the city of Cluny. It was in effect occasion to renew contact with Abdelhamid. He came several times in order to visit us and, each time, there were long conversations between us concerning questions of society. I could see how concerned he was with these problems. He was predisposed towards social questions and those concerning spirituality and these topics were his favourite subjects. There was a kind of internal engine pushing him towards them. In a way, he blossomed in the peaceful atmosphere of Taizé.
From 1982 to 1985 our family returned to India. This last year, 1985, we decided to return permanently to France. I found work with the Regional Government of Midi-Pyrenees. The contact with Abdelhamid was fast reknit, the relatively short distance between Toulouse and Paris making things easier. This time he spoke to me about a problem close to his heart, and where my knowledge of astronomy could be useful. The problem concerned the thorny question of the Islamic calendar.
It is a well known fact that in this lunar calendar, the beginning of each month must be fixed through the physical observation of the new moon, keeping aside certain Islamic confessions that have adopted a permanent, fixed calendar. Now Abdelhamid asked himself the natural question why, in these days where astronomy is so developed, one could not use this tool to establish a scientific calendar. All the more that nothing in this approach was contradictory to the Law of Islam. This law – the Sharia – and science were in perfect concordance, and not in opposition.
We started the project towards 1987. One knows that an Islamic calendar must be grounded in three principles: the first which has its roots in the Sharia and the Fiqh, which means that it is supported by Koranic verses and the hadiths, the second, which follows an up to date scientific method, and, finally, a third, which rests on the acceptation of the calendar by the Islamic community. As far as the first principle is concerned, Abdelhamid could manage it brilliantly by himself thanks to his perfect knowledge of the Koran and the hadiths, and also other old Islamic texts. The second principle was also not too difficult, the scientific knowledge being already there, waiting to be gathered. As far as the third principle is concerned, it is essentially a political matter. It does not suffice that a calendar be quite valid, both from a religious and scientific point of view, it must also be adopted and accredited by the governments of the major Islamic countries: by North Africa, by Turkey and by Saudi Arabia, specially. The only way to circumvent this adoption is to gain the confidence of the visitors to the site, visitors who would speak out and make publicity on its behalf, propaganda more than just publicity, in order to sway the authorities in their countries.
After all these years, and in spite of the energy and the fighting spirit developed by Abdelhamid, we are obliged to admit that the third principle remained the weak link in the whole edifice. If we go by the frequentation statistics, it is not that the Internet site lacked visitors, or even admirers. The frequentation reached millions with hundreds of messages of admiration and congratulations. But not one person came forward to be head of a movement or to take up the leadership in order to push the Abdelhamid Calendar to the first ranks. Abdelhamid himself wrote to various Islamic authorities at all levels. Almost always he met with disregard or the lack of interest. Paradoxically, the desire for a unified calendar for the Muslim world was clearly admitted.
But let us dwell a while on the gigantic concentration and effort put in. In 1991, Abdelhamid wrote his first book in English, Arabic and French. It is called “The Time of Islam” and offers the first version of a reliable calendar to Muslims. Unfortunately, the scientific hypothesis at the basis of this calendar was false. This is a frequent occurrence in all scientific work. Fair enough. The mistake had to be put right and the work continued. Abdelhamid started on the second version of this book in 2020. But beforehand, he did not remain idle. After repairing the mistake in the first version, the new results were made available to the general public on the dedicated Internet site designed by the specialist Amit Patel, in Gujarat, India.
In the meanwhile, considerable progress had been realised in astronomy, especially in the mathematical method of predicting the probability of seeing the earliest new moon with the naked eye. Since we are dealing with probabilities, the results are in percentages: 0%, 10%, 20%, etc., until the full certainty of sighting the new moon, which means 100 % probability. This operation could be repeated at each new moon, at no matter what place on earth, by feeding in the latitude and longitude of the place. Furthermore, these probabilities could be grouped together, each value of the percentage from 0 to 100, and plotted on unique curves, called “visibility curves”. Conceived by a British astronomer, this mathematical method has revolutionised the method of calculating the visibility of the new moon at the beginning of each synodic month. Now visibility curves can be plotted month after month, covering the whole earth, and for each new moon.
Abdelhamid fully espoused this new method with his customary enthusiasm and energy. The dedicated Internet site was called islamtime.org, in replacement of the preceding site makkahcalendar.org. The work necessary for replacing one site with a new one was considerable. It is difficult to imagine the number of messages written and the answers received. Abdelhamid revealed himself quite apt to take up the challenge, the challenge being the centre of his life.
Faithful and pious, this great scholar and lover of Islam could never rest without fighting what he considered as heresies and misinformation about Islam. He spent a great deal of time in combating the misdeeds of Saudi Arabia and its ideologies of Wahhabism and Salafism. Here is the typical example of a country considered as a mere sect some decades ago, now put on a pedestal of Muslim countries and free to propagate its narrow, restricted version of Islam throughout the world. To get the right perspective, we should never forget that the Saudi interpretation of Islam was and will remain sectarian and partisan.
This importance of Saudi Arabia as a measure in all things pertaining to Islam is through the incommensurable richness of oil on its territory. A part of these riches are knowingly used to engulf the world with its ideology. The evils caused by the country is not just ideological propaganda, but its decision that the calendar it uses on its national territory is the only true Islamic calendar. The question is not even asked whether it conforms to astronomy or to the visibility curves. Abdelhamid initiated an independent inquiry during the Islamic years 1400 to 1431 (Gregorian years 1980 to 2010). For these 30 years, no less than 17 declarations out of 32 for the Aid festival were false, it being impossible to sight the new moon with the naked eye on the national territory on the given dates. Multiple warnings that we published on the site makkahcalendar.org remained without an answer. Islam is indeed under the total supervision of Saudi Arabia!
What makes this total control even worse: the day of the Holy Pilgrimage, in which every able-bodied Muslim has to participate at least once during his lifetime, is also left to the good will of Saudi Arabia, the Holy Places being situated on its territory. In this field too the country is guilty of false declarations of the due date, and not just once! Such a backhanded view of holy things touched and hurt Abdelhamid profoundly. We also have to keep in mind the same backhanded treatment of the Holy site in Mecca itself, and beyond this, of the whole city. We have constructions of luxury hotels, of rich commercial centres, of lavish apartments, and so on. All this activity must be called by its true name: raw real estate speculation, so much so that some newspapers have not hesitated to call the new city “Mecca-hattan”.
If we were to characterise the life of Abdelhamid during these last fifty years, the words that come before our spirit are: love of Islam and love of Truth. Very rarely has an individual deployed such energy, and let us say it, such honestly earned pecuniary means, without any calculation and in the service of a unique cause. He was persuaded that, in the end, only Truth can win.
Have also signed: Mrs Assia Bentchikou/Bellady ; Amit Patel