We must address the Knowledge Deficit by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam (August 9, 2018)


Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam

The Quranic revelation began with Iqra, or Read. By the way, I have a clear preference for Read as the meaning of Iqra over Recite and Proclaim. I have a simple reason for believing that, because when the Archangel Gabriel delivered Allah’s command to our holy Prophet (PBUH): “Iqra”, our Prophet said, “I cannot read”. He did not say, “I cannot recite, or I cannot proclaim”. Hence, the first Quranic revelation and injunction should be understood as a command to read, not recite or proclaim, as is so clear from the Prophet’s (PBUH) response. In all cases, our understanding has to reflect our belief. Reading also is at the foundation of knowledge, education and research, unlike reciting and proclamation.

The first Muslim community, established by the holy Prophet (PBUH), was a “learning community”. Sadly, the Muslim world is described today as a knowledge-deficit area. There are some bright spots like Turkey, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia where the label does not always stick easily. Saudis happen to spend the most on education, but the Turks are far ahead of any Muslim country in spending on research.

This is so despite the fact that Islam intends to establish an enlightened society, the clear preference being for knowledge as epitomised in the Quranic self-explanatory rhetorical question: Can those who see and those who can’t, be equal? Certainly, those who have knowledge, in which light they see, and those who are ignorant and thus blind, cannot be equated.

Despite this, Muslim societies remain educationally backward, politically disempowered and, in most cases, economically poor. Putting aside detailed statistics, just look at any of the major global ratings of universities. You would not find a single university in a Muslim country among the top 100. In most ratings, you cannot find any Muslim-country university among top 200 either. You will be lucky to find a few Muslim universities (counted on fingers of one hand) in the list of 500 universities, all of them in lower orders. This is the stark reality of knowledge deficit in Muslim societies. However, this is a reckoning of quality. In quantity, too, the situation is no better.

Elaborating on quality, let us look at the major innovations across sciences, technologies and businesses, published in Western media every year. Look at the great discoveries in sciences, inventions in technologies and the long lists of major international awards. You will not find a single Muslim name there. You will find everyone, except us. The search for excellence has gone out of our lives, and we are happy with the lollipops of slogans, clichés and senseless disputations about nomenclature.

I remember a few lines of Persian poetry from my childhood days that described the landing of Muslim armada at the shore of Spain. It says, when Tariq (bin Ziyad) anchored his boats at the shore of Spain, he ordered his forces to burn their boats to make their return to their homeland impossible. At that a wise soldier advised Admiral Tariq not to do that “because we have come too far from our land”, and in case of reverses, a return would become impossible. Then Tariq corrected him: Har mulk, mulk-e-ma’ast ke mulk-e-khuda-i-ma’ast (every country is ours, because it is the country of our God).

We have been falling behind in pursuit of knowledge, in reorganising society to cope with the pressures of the times, in expanding freedoms so that all of us feel equal (as declared by Islam) and get engaged in building our societies and countries, and be able to feed, clothe and house ourselves, educate our generations and defend ourselves. The decline has continued for at least four centuries.

Today, we are trapped in futile disputations on nomenclature and harmful anxieties about the spread of what we love to call “Western” knowledge. Parts of our society have gone out to the extent of declaring “Boko Haram” which, we are told, means “Western education is haram.” To prove their point the Boko Haramis have massacred thousands of Muslim men, raped and impregnated as many Muslim women and sold the victims to sex slave traders. Is all that halal?

Coming back to Tariq bin Ziyad, all countries belong to our God. Likewise, the Islamic belief is that all knowledge belongs to God, the One and Only God, Allah. It does not belong to the East or West, North or South. What some of us insist on calling “Western” knowledge, went to them via Islam, which studied, preserved and expanded classical Greek knowledge (which happens to be the foundation of Western civilisation) for nearly six centuries during Europe’s Dark Ages. Islam also brought to its fold Chinese, Indian and Persian knowledge and developed them further.

Only after the advent of European Renaissance in the 14th century, this huge body of knowledge accumulated and developed by Muslims was gradually transferred to Europe over decades and centuries. Hence, there is no Boko and there is no Harami, and no need of killing thousands of Muslim men and raping as many Muslim women. And all this is happening at the hands of Muslims, while the fact remains that the foundations on which “Western” knowledge stands are Islamic. This much is freely admitted by Western historians. All knowledge belongs to Allah, wherever it is, in whatever language it is found. Hence, it is ours.

Our beloved Prophet (PBUH) said, “Knowledge is the lost treasure of Muslims. Get it wherever you find it.” If we have ignored any of our Prophet’s traditions the most, it is this.

I will also venture to say here that we have been caught in a mental warp, mesmerised by empty clichés, misleading slogans and semantic hair-splitting for several decades. We must come out of these traps and shed our anxieties about scientific nomenclature and the supposed incompatibility of “Western” knowledge with our religious beliefs. We learnt a lot from the Greek knowledge tradition over our early centuries. However, we did not learn to believe in their gods, goddesses and their stories. Likewise, we have to learn modern sciences, humanities, technologies, business processes and economic activities from the West. Out of millions of things there would be one or two (like ancient Greek mythology) that go against our religious belief. We are not bound to take them. Mostly, such things are mere postulates, and postulates are not beliefs.

We don’t have to be paranoid about science, which is based on a cause-effect episteme. Islam too, takes this world as aalam-e-asbaab (world of cause and effect).

We have development deficit also. We are 20 percent of the world population, but have only a six percent share in its income. Most of our countries do not have basic infrastructure for development, little education and scant public health facilities. Such countries can’t sustain themselves.

There is freedom deficit also. However, much of these stems from knowledge deficit. Let us address it first.

Let us come back to university rankings for a while. In a “2012 Times Higher Education ranking of universities, not a single university from 49 Muslim-majority countries with a population of 1.2 billion, or 17 percent of world’s population, found a place in the top 200 universities in the world”, writes Prof. Muqtedar Khan of the University of Delaware.

Between 1996 and 2003 the average annual research and development spending for OIC countries was 0.34 per cent of GDP, much lower than the global average of 2.36 per cent. The US spends 2.9 per cent and Israel 4.4 per cent.

To address the knowledge deficit our governments must increase the education and research budget. There is very little private participation in education in Muslim countries. Foreign investment in this sector is almost non-existent in much of the Muslim world.

More schools, colleges, universities, research institutions, medical and engineering colleges have to be built on a priority basis. For institutions of higher learning like universities the best faculty from all over the world must be hired at least by the richer Muslim countries, because a university is known by the brilliance of its faculty. Then only there is some chance for some Muslim universities to figure among the 100 or 200 top universities.

Do whatever can be done, but we must address the knowledge deficit at any cost.

(Note: I am advisedly leaving aside our religious educational institutions and courses like Islamic Studies in universities, because our deficit is not in that area.)


Go Back