Issues in Upliftment of Muslims
Development deficit among Muslims owes itself to total negligence towards promotion, diffusion, dissemination and production of knowledge.
By Ibrahim B. Syed & Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
Muslims, as a community, are the most backward people across the world. The fact is as painful to us as it is distressful to every single individual in the ummah. We see a lot of bright spots here and there in the Muslim world, but very few collective efforts at promoting excellence and encouraging innovative spirit. Why has the situation come to such a passé? Was it not the same community that produced great scientists such as Ibne Sina, Ibne Rushd, Farabi, and scores of such people whose Latinised names have made it impossible for us to even know their Islamic origin and identity?
Having travelled all across the globe and interacted with hundreds of intellectuals, we have come to the conclusion that the Muslim community and the Islamic nations have totally given up encouragement to critical thinking during the last few centuries. Rather those who engage in such exercises are derided, ridiculed at best and excommunicated at worst. The fountains of thought within the community have dried up and clergy and dogmatism have come to rule us. We refuse to engage in reasoned discourse with clarity of thought and analytical skills. Critical thinking is a fundamental value of Islam and subject of Quranic refrain. The Quran encourages the readers: Afalaa yatadabbarun al-Quran (4: 82) or ‘Do they not contemplate / ponder over the Quran?’ Tadabbur refers to highly concentrated, goal-oriented, critical thinking like the one undertaken by scientists in order to go behind their hypothesis through empirical studies. The Quran repeatedly exhorts the believers to engage themselves in thinking, pondering, and reflecting, and to look at the phenomena of Nature. Tafakkur or contemplation is a process and not an outcome. But in Muslim homes, hardly ever parents encourage children to raise questions and engage in critical thinking. Generally, there is an atmosphere of conformism and expectation of everyone falling in line with the conventional thinking. Over and above this, the ulema (the so called scholars), have dinned into the ears of everyone that this Duniya (life on earth) is for the non believers who have been left to excel in the worldly affairs while the Muslims would have their place in the Jannah (Heaven) to reside there forever.
Muslim Contributed to Renaissance
It is an irony of history that Muslims were colonized by the European powers whose renaissance was the result of the knowledge of art and sciences borrowed from the Muslims. Muslims established schools, laboratories, observatories and libraries as learning centres which imparted knowledge in all sciences. The centres of Islamic civilization had hospitals and libraries attached to them. The world’s oldest university was set up in Qarawiyin in Morocco in 859 CE. Al-Azhar of Cairo came up in the next century and continues to impart instructions till this day, although its halcyon days lasted only for a few centuries. Library cataloguing developed into a science in these universities where knowledge was grouped into various categories.
Medieval Islam produced a galaxy of Muslim scientists such as Al-Biruni, Al-Jahiz, Al-Razi, Ibne Sina, Al-Idrissi, Al-Syuthi, Geber, Al-Khwarizmi, Firnas Ibne Abbas, Ibne Khaldun, Al-Kindi, and several others. Abu-Rayhan al-Biruni (Died 1048) was a Persian anthropologist, astronomer and historian, who was also a specialist in chemistry, comparative sociology, geodesy, geology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, pharmacology, physics, psychology and other science. Al-Masudi gave the world its first geographical map which to a larger extent synchronized with the current map.
Europe’s Rise after Muslim Decline
Europe began to rise after the fall of Islam in Andalusia, modern Spain. This also signaled the stagnation and still later regression of Muslims. By the 13th century, the Muslim ulama had become self appointed interpreters and guardians of religious knowledge. Learning got confined to the transmission of traditions and dogma and was hostile to research and scientific inquiry. The mentality of taqlīd reigned supreme in all matters, and religious scholars condemned all other forms of inquiry and research. Exemplifying the taqlīd mentality, Burhän al-Din al-Zarnüji wrote during the 13th century, “Stick to ancient things while avoiding new things” and “Beware of becoming engrossed in those disputes which come about after one has cut loose from the ancient authorities”.
Much of what was written after the 13th century lacked originality, and it consisted mostly of commentaries on existing canonical works without adding any substantive new ideas. The tendency to cage the spirit of inquiry continues to this day. Muslims rigidly suffer from religious taboos which date back to the end of the first millennium after Christ. The Prophet’s advice of learning for oneself and teaching others as a religious obligation was forgotten. During the Prophet’s days women were not in purdah as they are today. They attended congregations in mosques, raised questions and were appointed in public positions. The Muslim clerics succeeded, with the help of the Muslim rulers, to confine learning to only old religious sayings. In general, Muslims don’t believe that man went to the moon. More Arabs are illiterate than Muslims in India. Almost two-thirds of Muslims in the world are illiterate and among them three-fourths of women are illiterate. The Arab Human Development Report 2002 identified three major deficits in the Arab world today: knowledge, freedom and women’s rights. Despite huge oil deposits and the huge money, there is almost total absence of even preliminary research there.
Under the thumbs of Autocrats and Despots
Most Muslim countries are under the thumbs of autocrats and despots. Political and civil rights are absent. Media has no freedom. Oil revenues are considered personal wealth of monarchs and are spent at will by the leviathan princely families. The princelings go about shopping for ranches, malls, casinos, resorts and jets in the Western capital but never think of investing in industries, media, libraries, universities and schools within their own countries. They order for such armaments from the West which they cannot deploy, let alone using them. All this is justified by the mullahs, imams and a clergy which plays handmaiden to the powers that be. The new forces which rose in revolt against the suppression in their own countries also espouse the cause of dictatorship and suppression of women.
Once upon a time, madrassas (theological schools) imparted instructions in all secular sciences. But gradually they were turned into bastions of conservatism where nothing other than theology could be taught. A common frustration of modern educators in the Islamic world is that while their students can memorize copious volumes of notes and textbook pages, they often lack competence in critical analysis and independent thinking.
Recitation and Memorisation are Irrelevant
Education in Islam revolves round twin objectives of acquisition of intellectual knowledge (through the application of reason and logic) and developing spiritual knowledge (derived from divine revelation and spiritual experience). But the clergy in Islam makes a livelihood out of theological education against Quranic injunctions (ref. 2:14,174, 175, 6: 90, and 12: 104). They have successfully deviated the Muslims from the right path. They conceal the projection of Quranic directives. Quranic tilawath (recitation) and hifz (memorization) are highlighted and held as most virtuous objective of learning of the Quran while its relevance today has diminished due to advent of new technology which can preserve the Quran (so there is not much use of producing so many Hafiz) and learning tajweed (intonation with accurate accent) which can be recorded in audio-visual devices and learnt by one and all. We still see Quran memorization and Qiraat contests being held across the Muslim world even though they have run out of relevance. What is more important is comprehension, internalization of the message and application in one’s life.
The clergy is ever at the game of dividing the Muslims into sects and sub-sects. In the Indian subcontinent, this has been their pet pastime for the last 150 years. They come up with bizarre interpretations of Quranic verses and create a divisive fiqh and insist upon this being followed by the Muslims. The Muslims ruled over India close to 650 years (from 1191 AD till 1857 AD), but did not care to introduce modern sciences in the madrassa curriculum. Consequently, Muslims lost power to the incoming traders who came with the intention of colonizing the subcontinent.
Mindless Opposition to English
While Mutiny of 1857 which is billed as the First War of Independence in the history of modern India, Muslims lost power, their refusal to study English in post-1857 era, kept them backward. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the pioneer among the modernizers of Muslims, staunchly advocated introduction of modern education. His movement backfired in the Indo-Gangetic plain and led to the growth of a thousand of theological madrassas, chief among them is Darul Uloom Deoband which was set up in Saharanpur district in around 1876. The opposition to English which was a token of boycott of the British in its earliest phase, later continued as the Ulema unfortunately perceived in English and the modern syllabi, an effort to modernize and thereby ‘De-Islamize’ mindset. This mindset could not be rubbed off completely and lurks at the bottom of opposition to all ideas that are modern and all appliances that are new. When the British set up the first medical college in Calcutta in 1835, no Muslim came forward to enroll himself. The first Muslim graduate from this college came out in 1856, twenty one years after it was established.
Knowledge is superpower and knowledge is wealth. Haven’t we heard of ‘Knowledge Economy’ where only resource is knowledge, not the material resources? Wipro chief Azim Hashim Premji and Muslim cinestars gathered their wealth by acquiring knowledge. But since, our clergy is not aware of this modern aspect of wealth creation, it blindly opposes the acquisition of modern knowledge. It is therefore essential that madrassas introduce science, mathematics and modern languages in their curriculum. Muslim boys and girls should learn technology and manufacturing in order not merely to earn livelihood but also for creation of wealth for the welfare of the community. Unless there is a change in mindset, no Sachar committee would be able to lift them up from the morass they are in.
Starved of Knowledge
A look at the state of diffusion and dissemination of knowledge in the Muslim countries would reveal that Muslim countries are at the bottom of the pile of most backward nations. There are 57 member-states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). All of them put together have only 500 universities. The US alone has 5,758 universities while India has over 700 universities. There are less than 14 million Jews in the entire world, yet they have received 195 Nobel Prizes out of 875 given away during 1901 and 2013. Muslims today number around 1.7 billion, 120 times bigger in size than Jews. Given the yardstick of Jewish excellence, Muslims should have won 23,400 Nobel Prizes. Only a single Muslim has won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a single in the field of Physics.
Among the 2004 ‘Academic Ranking of the World Universities’, of the top 500 universities around the world, not one university from the Muslim majority nation figured in the list. The UNDP data reveals that 90 per cent of the people in the Christian world are literate while it peaks to 100 per cent in the top 15 Christian-majority countries. The average literacy hovers around 40 per cent in the Muslim majority countries. There is no Muslim country with a cent per cent literacy. Some 98 per cent of the literates in the Christian world had completed primary school while less than 50 per cent of the literates in the Muslim world did the same. More pathetic is the apex of the education graph. While 40% of those in the Christian world had attended a university, this was miserable two per cent in the Muslim world. It is useful to be reminded that while education upto secondary level is essential to be part of the civilized society (it is part of social development), the higher education is necessary for economic growth and intellectual leadership.
Muslim majority countries have 230 scientists per one million Muslims. The US has 4,000 scientists per million people and Japan goes still further with around 5,000 per million. Arabs inhabit 22 countries of the Middle East. Entire Arab world has only 35,000 full-time researchers and there are merely 50 technicians per one million Arabs. In contrast, the Christian world has up to 1,000 technicians for every one million people. The Muslim world spends 0.2% of its GDP on research and development while the Christian world spends around 5% of its GDP.
On an average, among 1,000 Pakistanis, only 23 daily newspapers are bought while the ratio is as high as 360 in Singapore. In the United Kingdom, the number of book titles per million stands at 2,000, whereas in Egypt, it is merely 20. These statistics indicate the diffusion of knowledge and capacity to produce more knowledge.
Exports of high technology products such as machines, software, ships, tools, cars and automotive spares etc as percentage of total exports is one way of looking at the application of knowledge by a country. Pakistan’s exports of high technology products as a proportion of total exports stands at 1%. The same for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco and Algeria is 0.3 while Singapore records 58% as the high technology exports.
Future Belongs to Knowledge-Driven Nations
Future belongs to those nations that are knowledge-driven and knowledge based. While concluding this essay it will be useful to take a look at the GDP of developed countries as well as the OIC nations. The entire GDP of the OIC countries is under $2 trillion. The United States of America, just by herself, produces goods and services worth $12 trillion; China $8 trillion; Japan $3 trillion and Germany $2.4 trillion (purchasing power parity basis). Oil rich Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar collectively produce goods and services (mostly oil) worth $500 billion. Spain alone produces goods and services worth over $1 trillion, Catholic Poland $489 billion and Buddhist Thailand $545 billion.
In conclusion, it could be said that the Muslim world and Muslims as a whole lack diffusion, application and dissemination of knowledge. Any nation that fails to be active on this front has to pay a price in terms of its progress, development, image and influence. It is time we gave up blaming others and started contributing to knowledge, its generation, diffusion, dissemination and application.
(Ibrahim B. Syed is an expert in nuclear medicine and teaches at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, US. Maqbool Ahmed Siraj is a journalist based in Bangalore.)