Educate. Or, Perish. by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam March 08, 2019

Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
The Muslim world’s educational status has been declining for centuries in relation to the others. Muslim minorities in India, China, Russia, European Union, the US, Canada or South America, too, are rarely among the best. What has gone wrong with an Ummah that in the early centuries of its existence was known as “a learning community”?

The situation is so bad that a sizeable section of the Muslim world has been declared “knowledge-deficit areas”. I was invited to present a paper on this crucial issue last year to Turkey. I presented the paper without mincing words. Thankfully, the audience agreed that the situation was grave and needed remedial action early. To reiterate my point, I may take certain parts from that paper.

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?

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. There is little education and scant public health facilities. Such countries can’t sustain themselves.

There is freedom deficit also. However, much of these stem 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.

I believe in this column I have mentioned earlier that the first Quranic revelation was an exhortation to acquire knowledge. This Divine order to “read” was later supported by the Muslim ethos to go out in search of knowledge even to China. So was the Prophet’s injunction on all Muslims (men and women) to acquire knowledge as a mandatory obligation.

However, we have not honoured this commitment as is quite evident from the figures. Sadly, there is no reversal in the trend–only further backslide. Knowledge is growing so fast in advanced societies that people are forced to adopt continuous upgradation of knowledge and skills throughout life. In short, life-long learning.

On the contrary, we do not have sufficient number of young people with even the lowest standard degrees like arts and science graduates, engineering and medicine graduates, business management graduates, law graduates and environmental sciences graduates required for opening-level jobs. This is not the case with one or two Muslim countries, or societies, but nearly with all of them.

Non-Muslim societies, even with their doctorates and post-doctorates are constantly upgrading their knowledge and skills, undergoing further education and skill development programmes well into their middle age and beyond. All great universities of the world, major institutions of learning and training are offering life-long programmes at different stages of career.

Even despite such rigorous effort, many people are going to be rendered jobless as artificial intelligence (AI) takes over jobs done by people. Already, AI is doing endless jobs. The time is not far when they will replace people, a lot of people, in the work place. The West, which is in the forefront, will sustain all the early causality, is relentlessly preparing to meet the challenge.

Others like Japan and China, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are preparing for it. But how many Muslim societies and countries have got even the basic education, training and technological infrastructure for it? Think over it coolly. Complete your undergraduate programme in your chosen field and see how well you are prepared for advanced education in a proper university.

In India, people who cannot afford a regular education should try to join some distant learning programme offered by Indira Gandhi National Open University, or some such other programme offered by others, including some of the best universities of the world, taught by the world’s best professors in their subject via the internet.

If you are facing difficulty with the hardcore sciences like chemistry, physics, bio-sciences at some undergraduate level, visit the Salman Khan Academy at the Net and either the US-based Mr Khan himself or one of his associates will explain to you the toughest concepts in the simplest, even humorous, way within minutes. The Academy is backed by Bill Gates, President George W. Bush, President Barrack Hussein Obama and the Who is Who of America. So far as I remember, Mr Salman Khan does not charge anything. There are many options. Illiteracy or, educational backwardness, is not one of them.

(Also, Pl. see: “We must address the knowledge deficit”)

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