The Education of Ali Al-Timimi

Describing him as a “rock star” of Islamic fundamentalism in the United States, the government sent an American Muslim scientist to prison for life. But has justice been served?

Back in the United States, Ali enrolled for a second bachelor’s, this one in computer science at the University of Maryland, while doing parallel studies in software programming at George Washington University, where his father and mother had obtained degrees. Within a few years his level of skills permitted him to hold a sequence of jobs with high-tech computer firms based in the Washington area. One of them was SRA International, a highly regarded company where Ali worked as a “bioinformatics software architect,” providing information technology to the government. Some of the jobs required that Ali obtain a high-level security clearance; one assignment was in response to a call from the White House, which provided him with a letter of commendation after his work was done. He later enrolled as a doctoral candidate at George Mason University, in northern Virginia, near where he then lived. The specialty he chose was computational biology, a new field that contained the promise of breaking fresh ground in medicine through the advanced use of computers.

Ali also lived a rich personal life. His renown as an Islamic scholar was growing, earning him invitations to lecture to Muslim groups in the United States and abroad. In 1991 he married Ziyana al-Rawahi, a slim, attractive Omani who had come to Washington five years earlier for university studies. She had been introduced to him by her brother, also a student, whom Ali had met at a local mosque. Twenty at the time, Ziyana was a devout Muslim who recited prayers daily and wore a traditional head scarf. But she was also a modern woman who dressed fashionably and shared Ali’s dual commitment to faith and the intellect.

Ali and Ziyana eventually moved to a comfortable duplex in Fairfax, Virginia. His library, overflowing with books both in Arabic and in English, occupied the ground floor. Over coffee Ziyana told me, “Ali and I didn’t have much time together. He was always so busy. He loved being a good Muslim and felt a duty to teach people about Islam. But he was also a scientist, who didn’t buy the idea that all wisdom came from the Koran. Some people say Ali had two identities: one in faith, the other in science. I don’t believe that. His life was very open. He didn’t hide anything. I believe he was a man whose parts, religious and scientific, fit together.”

Ziyana volunteered that Ali was committed to ijtihad, the reinterpretation of Islamic doctrine, particularly sharia, or Islamic law. The word has the same root as jihad, which means “to struggle” or “to strive”—and, by extension, “holy war.” Muslims agree on a duty to perform jihad, in the sense of striving to deepen their faith; the duty that some see to wage holy war is more controversial. Ijtihad, different from both, is an intellectual struggle that the principal Islamic sages, in adopting the controlling body of doctrine a thousand years ago, declared permanently closed. Since then, Muslims have debated—with Shiites more open to change than Sunnis—whether religious reinterpretation was permissible at all. Ali, within the framework of Sunni orthodoxy, was on the side of those who chose to go beyond acceptance and to grapple with religious ideas.

“He and I would talk sometimes of living in a Muslim country,” Ziyana went on, “but we never did anything about it. Though Ali was often upset with American policies in the Middle East, he never doubted that he was American. He was used to American ways. He said the openness of America shaped his work as a scientist. Ali liked being American.”

Curtis Jamison, Ali’s dissertation director at George Mason, told me that Ali’s innovations in computational biology were at the threshold of a significant breakthrough in cancer research. The school even hired Ali—though it let him go after he came under suspicion by the FBI—to design a computer program that coordinated the research of several universities. While he was at George Mason, Ali published or co-published a half-dozen scientific papers.

“I knew Ali was religious, even spiritual,” Jamison said. He recalled that he and Ali attended several academic conferences together, where they talked through the night about science and the philosophy of science. Jamison said Ali loved to discuss ideas, and at no point revealed a strong Islamic influence in his views, much less a religious extremism. “He excused himself several times a day to pray,” Jamison said. “But he did not proselytize among his colleagues, or allow religion into his work. He was a total professional.”

In the introduction to “Chaos and Complexity in Cancer,” his doctoral dissertation, Ali made an observation about the transformation of science in the Christian West that surprised me in its sharp departure from conventional religious dogma. “Following the Christianization of the Hellenic world,” he wrote,

medieval Europe understood God to be the ultimate source of life with all its diversity. This combination of an unwavering belief in a Divine ultimate cause, with the traditional emphasis on a purely descriptive approach to biology, led to a type of rigidity of thought … It was only … the drifting away and then final divorce of Western intellectual thought from the Church that led to a sharp break from philosophical and theological notions of life. [Italics mine.] Emancipated from philosophy and theology, and coupled with the foundational discoveries of embryology … cell theory … and genetics … biology set on a new direction with the appearance of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The main task of post-Darwinian biology now shifted from cataloguing the diversity of life to understanding the mechanics … that led to that diversity.

Ali, in conversation, argued vigorously that Muslim scientists, throughout history, were at the same time religious scholars. Ziyana told me he believed improving the well-being of mankind through science was in accord with Salafiya. In one of his lectures Ali raised eyebrows in the audience by asserting that contemporary Salafi thinkers, through doctrinal rigidity, risked making themselves into a “country club” of believers. Until Ali is available to explain them himself, it seems fair to say his doctoral comments proceeded from a conviction that Islamic science would remain inferior to the West’s until it freed itself of the intellectual shackles imposed on it by religious orthodoxy.

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Milton Viorst has written six books on the Middle East. His most recent book is Storm From the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West (2006).

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