Sometime in the late 1970s, tabloids in Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt carried a front-page news about Neil Armstrong — the famous American astronaut who, in 1969, became the first man to walk on the moon. The news claimed that Armstrong had converted to Islam. Supposedly he had done so after confessing that when he was on the moon, he had heard the sound of the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer.
J.R. Hensen, in his 2006 biography of Armstrong, First Man, writes that by 1980 the news had been repeatedly carried and reproduced by tabloids in a number of other Muslim-majority countries as well. So much so, that Armstrong began receiving invitations from Islamic organisations in many Muslim countries and from within the US.
The news continued to gather momentum in Muslim countries. Hensen writes that in 1983, on Armstrong’s request, the US State Department issued instructions to US embassies in Muslim countries asking them to ‘politely but firmly’ communicate that Armstrong had not converted to Islam and that “he had no current plans or desire to travel overseas to participate in Islamic activities.”
Sometimes we fabricate a conceptual reality in order to deal with the reality we interact with on a daily basis
Despite this, the belief that he had converted to Islam after hearing the azaan on the moon continued to do the rounds. In fact, this impression still pops up on YouTube channels and websites funded and run by various Islamic evangelical organisations.
Hensen suggests that the Muslims who had first initiated the ‘news’ of Armstrong’s alleged conversion might have been influenced by the claims of some American Christian organisations. A few days after Armstrong’s moon landing in 1969, these organisations had announced that “God had put Armstrong on the moon to show God’s greatness in a new light.” They nonchalantly assumed that the extremely private Armstrong was a practicing Christian.
The late pop sensation Michael Jackson, too, was said to have “converted to Islam” just before his death in 2009. What’s more, an MP3 recording of a naat, supposedly recited by Jackson, began to circulate on social media. Clearly the reciter was not Jackson, but this did not stop many across the Muslim world to believe otherwise.
So why does this happen? One rather convincing way of finding an answer to this question can be ascertained from historian Dr Markus Daechsel’s 2002 study of India and Pakistan’s urban middle class milieu. Even though a part of his study was focused on the history of fantastical claims of this nature, made by the Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent, the tools that he used to explain such behaviour can be applied universally.
According to Daechsel, people who are not happy by ‘empirical reality’ create a ‘conceptual reality’. Empirical realty is the reality which one interacts with on a daily basis. Conceptual realty, on the other hand, is created and fuelled by certain firmly-held ideological drivers or by what one thinks empirical reality should actually be. The latter is an imagined world but it is stuffed with claims and physical paraphernalia to make it seem like empirical reality.
Daechsel writes that such claims can include the projection of one’s religious and ideological beliefs on people that have little or nothing to do with them. Such projections which are often proliferated through populist media, try to concretise conceptual reality. In another interesting example, Daechsel writes that certain pre-Partition Muslim and Hindu outfits insisted that their members wear a uniform and hold parades. Daechsel writes that in the empirical reality, there was no war or revolution taking place. But in the minds of the members of the outfits, there was (or should have been). So they created a conceptual reality in which there was revolutionary turmoil and these outfits were an integral part of it.
Daechsel also gives the example in which Hindus and Muslims after feeling unable to challenge Western inventions and economics in the empirical reality, created a conceptual reality by claiming that whatever the West had achieved in the fields of science had already been achieved by ancient Hindus and/or is already present in Islam.
The projection bit in Daechsel’s study is most intriguing. In December 2018, Pakistan PM Imran Khan gleefully shared a 1988 video recording on Twitter of conservative Islamic scholar Dr Israr Ahmad. Ahmad is seen claiming that according to one of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s doctors, the founder of Pakistan during his last moments spoke about the importance of imposing Shariah laws and the caliphate system in Pakistan.
This was conceptual reality coming into play to counter the empirical reality in which Jinnah had done no such thing and was, in fact, a Westernised and pluralistic Muslim politician.
But most interesting thing is that this nature of projection of a conceptual reality actually goes further back. In the following example, one can also see what inspired this claim.
The day after the celebrated Turkish nationalist and founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kamal Ataturk, passed away in November 1939, one of the leading Urdu dailies in pre-Partition India, the Inqilab, reported that Ataturk, who had slipped into a coma before his death, “briefly woke up to convey a message to a servant of his.” Apparently, the staunch, life-long secularist who went the whole nine yards during his long rule to erase all cultural and political expressions associated with Turkey’s caliphate past, had briefly woken up from a coma to instruct his servant to tell the ‘millat-i-Islamiyya’ to follow on the footsteps of the Khulfa-i-Rashideen.
Inqilab was a respected Urdu daily catering to the urban Muslim middleclasses in pre-Partition India. In its November 11, 1939 issue, the paper went on to ‘report’ that Ataturk, after communicating his message to the servant, shouted “Allah is great!” and passed away. This time forever.
Quite clearly, unable to come to terms with Ataturk and Jinnah’s dispositions in the empirical reality, some created a conceptual reality in which, in death, both dramatically became caliphate enthusiasts.