By Pervez Hoodbhoy
The sudden appearance of Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) alleged footprint in the sleepy village of Dharabi near Chakwal has sent a wave of religious excitement across Pakistan. At a three-hour drive from Islamabad, Dharabi is now attracting tens of thousands of visitors from Swat to Karachi. They seek blessings,
spiritual enlightenment, miracle-cures, and relief from life’s other stresses. A road that is sparsely traveled in normal times is now clogged with traffic, vendors of food and drink are having a field day, new businesses selling pictures and holy paraphernalia have sprouted, and a permanent shrine is under construction. The village could not have hoped for better.
My encounter in mid-March with this phenomenon was accidental and preceded the heavy rush that came in subsequent weeks. While on the way to Chakwal, I became curious about the heavy police presence. Upon inquiring, I was told of a recent momentous event – a giant footprint was said to have suddenly appeared, which the local ulema promptly declared as belonging to the Holy Prophet. But this had ignited a fierce war of words between various religious factions in the larger Chakwal area. Some believers insist that the Prophet had left the earthly world once and forever, while others contend that he revisits it periodically to remind followers of his presence. The police had been called to prevent physical violence.
Conversations over tea with the Dharabi’s inhabitants gave me some facts. However, the entire story soon receded to the back of my mind. It was revived several weeks later when it hit the national press and television. To augment my understanding I made phone calls to several villagers I had met, but discovered that new embellishments and inventions are being added by the day to the original narration of events. Village skeptics, on the other hand, are being silenced and speak only on the condition that their identities not be revealed.
The story begins on 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal, the Prophet’s birthday, when celebrations were held as per village custom. This involves cooking sooji ka halwa in large flat iron dishes called karahis. Since there are no stoves large enough for the purpose, shallow holes are dug and then filled with twigs, charcoal, or other flammable material. After the cooking is done and the fires had dimmed, the holes are filled with loose earth. On that particular evening, I learned that there was a heavy rain shower.
And now the story goes like this: that evening a woman looked out into her backyard and saw a glow that appeared to move. In her excitement, she summoned her mother-in-law who says she also saw the glow. It appeared very briefly and was not seen subsequently (although a six-week later version is that it lasted for three days and was so bright that the house did not need electric lights!). The women also claimed that the glow was accompanied by a sweet smell. In the morning, the cooking area was discovered to have a mysterious ground impression. The rest is history.
What scientific explanation exists for this phenomenon? As a starter, readers of this article are invited to Google the “Dharabi miracle” where they will see countless uploads of photographs and hastily made celebratory videos. By straining one’s imagination, some may be able to see a footprint. But its enormous size – between 3-4 feet long – would indicate that it belongs to the long-sought mythical Himalayan Yeti rather than any human. The shape of the impression can be more plausibly explained as that of loose earth, brought together by rainwater, from two adjacent irregularly rounded cooking holes. It could also be the water-distorted image of two heavy round karhai’s of different sizes placed on the soft earth. Or it could simply be deliberate fraud.
Assuming that the women had their wits about them, and had not been overpowered by the devotional intensity of the day’s celebrations, the softly glowing ephemeral light could have multiple explanations. First, it is possible that a swarm of phosphorescent insects was somehow attracted to the cooking area. Bioluminescence in insects is a well known phenomenon. As in the common firefly known as jugnoo, “cold light” is produced via chemiluminescence.
It could also be that the organic matter buried in the holes, assisted by the heat of imperfectly quenched coals or twigs, could have converted into methane and phosphine gases. The latter is known to oxidize spontaneously upon coming into contact with air and can burn at a low temperature causing glowing light. Appearances of apparitions in western folklore, such as Jack-o'-the-Lantern or Will-o'-the-Wisp, have been traced by scientists to various flammable gases and insects.
A detailed investigation would involve looking at the soil composition, local entomology, and recorded statements of different witnesses. It seems, however, that the Dharabi event will be ignored by Pakistan’s scientific institutions, of which there are well over two dozen. With exorbitant budgets but zero or little scientific output, some are housed in shiny new buildings on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. These include the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, Committee on Science and Technology in the Islamic World (COMSTECH), COMSATS, Pakistan Science Foundation, Pakistan Council on Science and Technology, etc.
Unfortunately not one of the above or, for that matter, any other Pakistani scientific institute, has ever debunked the unreasonable and anti-scientific attitudes that one sees all around. For example, after the October 2005 earthquake that killed nearly 100,000, none challenged the view in the public media that this tragedy was a consequence of our bad deeds such as, for example, watching television or allowing unveiled women to go out of the house.
To be sure, superstitious beliefs exist in other countries as well. One recalls the hysteria in 1995 following the discovery that Lord Ganesh, the Elephant God, would “drink” milk if a spoon of milk was held up to his trunk. Even minor temples in India overflowed with superstitious devotees. So great was the rush of devotees that a traffic gridlock resulted in New Delhi and sales of milk jumped up by 30%.
Fortunately for India, an independent body, the Indian Rationalists Association, was quick to show that Ganesh’s milk drinking had a simple physical explanation. It was shown to be simple capillary action – what everyone learns about in school science books. The surface tension of the milk was pulling the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity caused it to run down the front of the statue. To its credit, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology confirmed the explanation and the country’s religious craziness slowly abated. With such precedents, surely it is time for Pakistan’s Ministry of Science and Technology to investigate the so-called Chakwal miracle, as well as the many similar superstitions that delude our people and keep them in a state of stupor and backwardness.
POSTSCRIPT: After this article was published in Dawn on 18 May 2010, the police authorities in Chakwal telephoned me to say that my version of events was accurate. Moreover, the authorities had poured cement upon the alleged footprint but “miraculously” it had been removed by some divine agency the very next morning. Mr. Tanvir’s house, which houses the phenomenon, had a market value of Rs 250,000 a few months earlier but has just been sold at Rs. 2,000,000. He, and those of his family members who claim to have witnessed the light, have become pirs andpirnis with people queuing up for days to receive blessings. The family has hit the jackpot.