Root of Muslim backwardness: The role of Illiteracy

The article is written by Hifzur R Siddique, Assistant Professor at Dept. of Life Science in Aligarh Muslim University.

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I have spent many sleepless nights to crack a ‘riddle’, a riddle that has still shaken the peace of my mind. Here, I shall try to explain my dilemma and whatever little answer I found till date. The very famous ancient “Chicken or the egg first” conundrum also does not bother me so much as a bio-scientist than the ‘riddle’ related to Muslim society. We all know that ‘ignorance’, ‘poverty’ and ‘illiteracy’ are integral part of the present Muslim society and its cumulative effect is ‘backwardness’. Here, I have mentioned ‘riddle’ because I always ask myself, which came first. Are Muslims ‘poor’ because we are ‘ignorant’ and ‘illiterate’ or ‘ignorant’ because we are ‘poor’ and ‘illiterate’ or ‘illiterate’ because we are ‘ignorant’ and ‘poor’? This is a billion dollar question. The present scenario of the Muslim world is that almost 50 per cent population are illiterate and 35 per cent are jobless. In the economic sense, 30 per cent population are unproductive and hence are a burden to their respective family, society and nation. According to the International Labor Organization, unemployment in the oil rich Middle-East is 10.3 per cent compared to 6.2 per cent of global average. The data raised a further alarm for this region, where insurrection and protests with cries for “more bread, more work” in recent days have been witnessed. Jews are the most advanced society of the world with regard to education, health and economic wealth; whereas, we Muslims are the most backward in this respect. There is a common myth that Muslims residing in the western world are rich or/and educated. However, one recent survey shows that the unemployment rate among economically active Muslim men is 13 per cent in the United Kingdom (UK). This number was twice the rate of Sikh (7 per cent) or Hindu (5 per cent) men in UK. Further, it is astonishing to see that 69 per cent Muslim women of working age were economically inactive, a rate twice that of Hindu (31 percent) and Sikh (36 per cent). A similar condition is also observed in USA.4 Indian Muslims are not different when compared with their co-religious communities. There is a tremendous gap between the educational levels of the Indian Muslims and non-Muslims (2001 census of India).

Some bitter truth behind backwardness: There are numbers of social, political, scientific, and pseudo-religious reasons behind the backwardness of the Muslims. Due to limitation of space, I may not explain them in details. However, I am mentioning them in brief.

  1. Social reasons: The major social reasons within the communities are conservativeness, close mindedness, illiteracy especially among women, colonized psychological mind of educated section etc. The social set up is also one of the obstacles for our progress especially the middle and lower classes. This is evident from statistics of OICs (Organization of Islamic Countries), where below 60 percent students participate in primary education. Here I am citing one of my recent experiences in Guwahati. During my last visit, I was in Fancy Bazar on a festive day. I managed to find out a Pani Puri/ Gol Gappa shop and ordered a plate; in the meanwhile around 10 children (2-10 year old) along with their parents, who seemed very poor, came up to me and started asking for alms. I ordered the same along with few water bottles considering their hunger and thirst. Next, I was roaming around the place and within 10-15 minutes another 15-20 same aged, a group of children started following me. I was literally disturbed and went back to the former group and tried my best to make them aware that education could wipe out their sorrow. I tried to convince them that I would support them monetarily and in other aspects. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that we train signi􀏐icant number of poor students per year free of cost in our institute (North East Institute of Computer Technology, Guwahati). I will divert some of the money to these poor children. Unfortunately, I was unable to convince them. They prefer begging instead of education. This is not just a case with one family but same thing is observed in Muslim nations too. For example, every year 10,000 books are translated into Spanish from diff erent languages; a number exceeded those translated into Arabic – over the entire millennium.7 I feel that learning and inquiry was no more the motto of our society and as a result, today, they occupy the lowest position in the ladder of the world. I remember one saying of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and it is correct and applicable even after more than half a century. He once said while addressing Muslims at a seminar, “for God’s sake, get up now and see how much the sun has risen and how far your co-travellers (non-Muslims) have gone ahead of you”.
  2. Pseudo-religious: I termed pseudo-religious because these things are not at all present in our religion. In fact, they are present in current Islamic society due to lack of creative interpretation of Islam. Due to lack of creative interpretation, we see sectarian strife and fanaticism. It is noteworthy to mention, two movements started by Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Hasani (Ali Miyan Nadvi) and Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi in the form of Lucknow Nadwa and Tabligi Jamat to unite different Muslims sects under a common roof. In our region Maulana Abdul Jalil Choudhury, Maulana Luman Siddique and Maulana Jalal Uddin Choudhury did a tremendous work to remove ignorance and illiteracy. Maulana Jalil was the first person who elapsed that Madrassa education should not be dependent on public money if we want smooth functioning along with other factors. Further, inadequate cultural awareness, display of indecent forms of entertainment by visual and other media also create chaos in the society and that is also an indirect reason of incomplete knowledge of Islam. Another thing which disturbs me a lot is irrelevant Fatwa. I believe that issuing Fatwa from the learned Mufti is absolutely necessary with creative interpretation but should be issued only when asked for.
  3. Political: This includes lack of democratic attitude, selection of inefficient representative, dictatorship, political dependency on their rival groups and unscientific attitude towards present world. Rulers are highly ignorant towards scientific research and technology. Hardly, 16 per cent Muslim population are involved in industrial production, whereas for Christians, this figure is 60 per cent. OICs are highly dependent on western world starting from tooth brush to rocket. Interestingly, when they face hardship against any western country they remember Islam and we blindly support them. Due to the lack of education and creative attitude, the GDP in all Arab countries, combined, stood at $531.2 billion, which is less than that of Spain ($595.5 billion). According to the World Bank, the average annual income in the Muslim countries from Morocco to Bangladesh was only half the world average.8 Political discrimination is also a reason for backwardness. According to a survey by Indian Institute of Public Administrations, nearly, 20 per cent Indian Muslims experienced some kind of discrimination in their day-to-day life.9 Discrimination is more while competing for jobs than anything else.9 The findings of the survey also indicate that 62-70 per cent Indian Muslims believe that there is discrimination in politics, educational opportunities and even in religious matters.
  4. Scientific: Ignorance of present scientific world, lack of quality education, confidence, major research activities, and clashes between traditions and scientific observations come under this head. Presently, approximately 2,60,000 articles are published every year on different scientific research journals in the world, out of these, hardly 1.0 percent are published from Muslim countries. I review around 200 research articles/year submitted to different scientific journals around the world. It’s unfortunate that I receive only 1 or 2 articles from Muslim countries. Moreover, their quality is depressing. Muslim scientists active in the scientific world are mostly from non-Islamic countries (e.g. USA, Canada, Europe, or India). Other disturbing fact is that 57 OICs produced less than 500 science PhD’s /year, whereas, UK alone produces 3,000.10 Engineers and Scientists, the condition is at the worst. 1.30 billion Muslim produce less engineers and scientists than those in France alone (with 60 million population). It is unfortunate but true that Trinity College (UK) graduates have amassed 32 Nobel prizes and the entire Muslim world accounts for a mere 10 Nobel prizes.

Can we blame Islam? 

Answer is a big “NO”. Islam is the only religion where education is obligatory to every individual. Prophet (PBUH)directed his followers, “go to China and seek knowledge”. Throughout the Islamic history, education was a matter of pride and Muslims had always excelled. Muslims built great libraries and learning centers in places such as Baghdad, Cordoba, Bokhara, Cairo, etc. Today, due to Islam, we know ancient scientists and philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, etc. – just a few of the geniuses to mention amongst several others. It is well known fact that due to the conflict between different European rulers, most of the European libraries were under attack then. Fortunately, the rise of Islam then and Muslims’ hunger for knowledge led to the translation of these philosophers’ works into Arabic. A comprehensive work was also done by my favorite Ali Miyan Nadvi in his books “Islam and Civilization” and “The impact of Islam on Indian culture”. It is Muslims who started the concept of modern University. Some still present are Al-Azhar University in Cairo (founded in 970 A.D. by the Fatimid’s) and Al-Karaouine in Morocco (founded in 859 A.D. by Ms Fatima al-Fihri). In the 1100 A.D., there were University and college grade 75 Madrassas in Cairo, 51 in Damascus, 44 in Aleppo and so on. Women’s education has also been a top priority then. The best example is Aisha (r.a), who was one of the leading scholars of her time. Ibn Asakir (a prominent philosopher and writer in 12th century) studied under 80 different female teachers. During the Ayyubid period (1174-1260) different madrassas, mosques, and libraries were built by women.

Dr Hifzur R Siddique.

 He was born to Maulana Moyeen Uddin Siddique and Asthorun Nessa Choudhury in the village Basla of Karimganj District. His father was working at Garigaon Madrassa, Guwahati and mother was a housewife. At present, he has five siblings, wife, and a baby boy. He finished his matriculation from his village school. He obtained B Sc with Zoology Honours
from Karimganj College of Assam University and M Sc with specialisation in Genetics from Aligarh Muslim University (top ranker in both classes). Finally, he obtained PhD from the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow in the year 2008. He worked as a Scientist in the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA. He is specialised in the field of cancer biology, stem cells and cancer chemoprevention. At present he is an assistant professor in AMU.He has more than 50 scientific articles published in highly reputed international journals. He has eight awards to his credit including two Young Scientist award from USA, CSIR-UGC-NET-JRF/SRF, GATE etc. Further, he has filed three patents for discovering a novel serum biomarker for prognosis and diagnosis prostate
cancer, and inhibitors of some cancer causing molecules.He serves as a regular reviewer for different national/international journals. He is life member of Indian Society of Cell Biology, Environmental Mutagen Society of India, American Association for Cancer Research and Society of Basic Urologic Research, USA. His Scientific works were also featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Street and other US and Indian dailies. Based on his work and other works, one of his research molecules is now marketed by Adamis Pharmaceuticals Corporation (USA) as a prostate cancer drug, which they named as APC-300. His hobbies include reading, writing, experimenting with new ideas, gardening, fishing, sightseeing etc. He may be contacted at: [email protected]]

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