Literacy improving in Muslim-majority countries

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Mohammed Iqtedar Husain Farooqi – Lucknow, India / Wed, December 9, 2020


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

The grand imam of Cairo-based Al Azhar University, Muhammad Ahmad Al Thayyib, gives a speech during his visit to Indonesia’s prominent Gontor Islamic boarding school in Ponorogo, East Java, on Feb. 25. The visit to Gontor was part of his six-day trip to Indonesia to discuss cooperation in education and moderate Islamic teachings. (Antara/Siswowidodo)

Education is fundamental for the development of any nation, and higher education is a powerful tool for the eradication of poverty, boosting shared prosperity and making society strong enough to face challenging times. This basic fact was very well known to the ummah (Islamic community) in the Middle Ages, a golden period in Islamic history.

“Seek knowledge” was the known commandment of Islam for Muslims, and they followed it for almost 800 years. Edward G. Browne (1862-1926) rightly observed that, “when Caliphs of Baghdad and Cordova fostered education amongst their subject to the extent that every boy and girl of twelve could read and write, Barons, Lords and their ladies in Europe were scarcely able to write their names (A literary history of Persia, 1902).

This was the time when Muslims around the world excelled in all the forms of knowledge for almost 800 years and, therefore, Marquis of Dufferin and Ava rightly remarked, “It is to Mussalman Science, to Mussalman Art and to Mussalman Literature that Europe has been in a great measure indebted for its extraction from the darkness of the Middle Ages.” (Speech delivered in India, 1890).

Alas, what happened to Muslims that they distanced themselves from knowledge after the 15th century and therefore lost their dominance in world affairs? Literacy languished in all parts of the Islamic world. According to historian Donald Quataert, Muslim literacy rates were only 2 to 3 percent in the early 19th century.

Even during the mid-20th century the situation was not satisfactory. Only few countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey and Albania had an average literacy of more than 30 percent. Muslim areas under the Soviet Union, of course, had high literacy rates. This situation, the fall of literacy in the Muslim world, was described by George Sarton as “puzzling” and earlier extraordinary high literacy during early Islam “baffling” (History of Science).

Muslims around the world during the last four centuries showed great interest in every aspect of life except education. Poetry, music, painting, ceramics, architecture, metal work, etc. became important activities throughout the Islamic world. But very little interest was shown to the fast-developing modern education coming from Europe.

Probably the most harmful act was their refusal to allow the use of the printing press in the 15th century, a turning period for Europe. Through the printing press, the scientific revolution was made possible in all spheres of scientific and industrial activity in Europe.

After a long spell of slumber, Muslims all over the world have started to understand that, without modern knowledge and higher literacy, their exploitation by the West cannot be checked. Fortunately, education has been reemerging in the Islamic world during the recent past. Muslim countries are taking significant steps, largely because of the economic strength of oil, for the eradication of poverty and illiteracy.

According to a survey by John Miller, five Muslim countries, namely Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, find places among the 25 countries with the highest literacy rates of 100 percent. World Bank and UNSECO data for 2018 shows that 25 Muslim majority countries have achieved average literacy above 90 percent. These include Saudi Arabia (95 percent), Indonesia (94 percent), Malaysia (94 percent), Iran (90 percent), Jordan (96 percent), United Arab Emirates (94 percent) and Turkey (95 percent).

Compared to the literacy data of 1980 (average 30 percent), the 2018 data is highly satisfactory. The global literacy rate (2017) is 82 percent (men, 87 percent; women 77 percent). A redeeming feature is the fact that the gender difference in literacy in many Islamic countries has also fallen sharply. At least 21 countries have a difference of no more than 7 percent. Higher education in all the disciplines of knowledge in the Islamic world needs serious attention.

King Mohamed VI of Morocco stressed that “…the integrated development of the principles of Islam and of scientific knowledge (tertiary education) must be achieved irrespective of gender” (UNESCO Conference, 2000). Yes, it is true that scientific awakening is underway in the Muslim world. Research spending in many countries, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey, has surged. Tertiary education in Western countries is generally above 40 percent, whereas, barring a few countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, it is between 2 to 6 percent.

Research spending in Muslim countries also needs serious attention. Only countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar have substantially raised funds for this purpose. Qatar is reported to have proposed an increase in the science budget from 0.8 percent to 2.8 percent of its gross domestic product. Many Muslim countries have already established centers of higher learning (universities) with emphasis on the modern sciences.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018 (for 2016-2017), lists 96 universities from Muslim countries among the top 1102 universities of the world. This is definitely a positive sign toward the need of higher learning in the Islamic world. Of the 96 listed universities, 22 belong to Turkey, followed by Iran with 18, Pakistan with 10, Malaysia and Egypt with nine each, Saudi Arabia with 5, the UAE and Indonesia with four each, Jordan and Morocco with 3 each, Tunisia with 2 and Algeria, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Lebanon, Nigeria, Oman and Qatar with 1 each.

Women’s emancipation reflects in a report “that the United States falls behind thirteen Muslim countries in the percentage of women graduating in science to the total science graduate population. The countries whose ratio of women science graduates exceeds that of the United States include Bahrain, Brunei Darussalam, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Qatar and Turkey. Morocco exceeds the United States in the ratio of women engineering graduates as a percentage of the science graduate population,” according to Female enrolment in higher education is more than male enrolment in many Islamic countries, including Tunisia, Malaysia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Libya. A redeeming feature in the rankings is the fact that in 41 universities, female students outnumber male students.

Eleven universities have a female-to-male ratio of more than 65:35, with Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University (22,257 students) of Saudi Arabia having the highest ratio of 81:19, followed by United Arab Emirates University’s (7,492 students) 79:21, Qatar University’s (13,342 students) 73:27 and Kuwait University’s (37,752 students) ratio of 72:28.

It is unfortunate that, out of about 500 Noble awardees in Sciences from 1901 to 2013, only two are from the Muslim world, namely Ahmed Zewail (Egypt) who won the Noble Prize in 1999 for his chemistry research and Aziz Sancar from Turkey, also in chemistry, in 2015. There is no doubt that the Muslim world is taking necessary steps, largely because of the economic strength of oil-producing countries. To compete with the West for the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, a lot needs to be done. *** The writer is the former deputy director of the National Botanical Research Institute of India. The article is part of his book entitled Muslim Societies – Rise & Fall – Revival Efforts (2nd edition 2020).

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