By Ziauddin Sardar
August 25, 2008
Andrew pins down exactly the great conundrum of Muslim society today - the appalling literacy rates in so many Muslim countries, which are even worse when you examine the literacy rates for women.
How on earth did we, the believers, get ourselves into such a dreadful mess? There can be no excuses. If you look at Muslim history, free education, public institutions such as libraries and centres for scientific inquiry existed alongside the effort to translate and make available in written form as much of the learning of the world as could be accumulated.
There are, however, reasons. The home grown reasons include the veneration we have maintained for the oral form of the Qur'an: that we love to hear it recited is and should never be a reason for not making sure everyone is literate. When so many Muslims around the world are not native Arabic speakers, being able to recite the Qur'an is no qualification for fulfilling the Qur'an's emphasis on reading and writing in one's own language. Then there is the veneration for rote learning and memorisation which began with the Qur'an and has remained the basis of religious education up to and including today. These techniques may have been valid once upon a time, but today they block the entire realm of critical consciousness, which the Qur'an itself insists is what reading is for.
"Read" was the first word to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The revelation that is the Qur'an began on the night of 27 Ramadan 611, when Muhammad was meditating in the cave of Hira near Mecca. We know that he was unlettered. Tradition tells us that he replied, "I am not of those who read". But the revelation insisted that he reads. "What shall I read?", the prophet asked eventually. "Read", came the reply, "in the name of your Lord who created: he created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the most bountiful one who taught by means of the pen, who taught man what he did not know" (96:1-5)
These first verses make it clear that reading has a special place in the Qur'an. But reading requires something to read. So it is closely followed by writing, the use of the pen, the instrument through which we come to know what we "did not know". Reading and writing are thus exercises in discovery, a path that leads humanity to glory and perfection. Reading and writing are essential not just for the reflective society the Qur'an seeks to build but also for generating culture, producing new knowledge and hence building a dynamic, thriving civilisation. They are the basic tools that God has taught us in order to facilitate communication (55:4) and instil critical thought in human beings.
The Prophet Muhammad himself gave a great deal of emphasis to writing things down. In this, he was simply following the advice given in 2:282: "have a scribe write it down justly between you". One of his first acts after arriving in Medina was to write aconstitution for the city that guaranteed security and religious freedom, established a system of taxes and mechanisms for resolving conflicts. When the prophet returned to his birthplace, after the conquest of Mecca, he forgave all those who had persecuted and driven him out of the city, but gave some of them an important responsibility: to teach 10 Muslims how to read and write. Reading and writing are thus at the very core of Islam.
But the pen can be used both for promulgating good as well as promoting evil. The opening verses of chapter 68, which is called "The Pen", illustrate the point. "By the pen! By all they write!", it begins, "Your Lord's grace does not make you [prophet] a madman" (68:1-3). One of the first allegations of the people of Mecca against the prophet was that he was mad. Such assertions do not become true simply because they have been written down. But "By what they write" has a double meaning. It is, of course, a general reference to what people write. But it also refers to the Qur'an itself which was being written down by a coterie of scribes as it was being revealed. The allegation of madness was directed as much at the prophet as at what was being revealed to him - the Qur'an. While refuting the allegations against the prophet, the Qur'an asks of the accusers: "Do they have [access to] the unseen? Could they write it down?" (52:41). In other words, could you justify your allegations by writing something enduring and eternal like the Qur'an, the "noble reading"?
The good words cannot be read in any way. We need to read and evaluate what we read: without critical awareness we cannot attain the best possible meaning: "listen to what is said and follow what is best" (39:39). There are numerous and different ways of reading. Something written with good intentions can be read in a bad way. Reading, the Qur'an tell us, is always an exercise in interpretation. And the choices we make in reading a sacred text like the Qur'an itself are always ethical choices.
The Value of Literacy
By Andrew Brown
August 25, 2008
These verses put a very high value on literacy. It has its practical uses (2:282): agreements, presumably between merchants, are to be regulated by written and uncorrupted contracts. It's not expected that the parties themselves will be able to read or write, but by using a scribe they are able to establish a record which can, at least in principle, be checked by others; and, clearly, a society in which writing is so important is one in which the habit will spread.
Beyond that, there is a picture of writing as the guarantor of truth: when the prophet is being reassured by the angel that he is not mad, just because he hears the voice of the angel and it is those who deny his acoustic virtuosity who are mad, as everyone will shortly see (68:1-13), the truth of this is attested "By the pen and what the angels write". The writing of angles is even more absolute and truthful than their speech.
In Sura 96, reading itself is exhorted for the faithful. If this is translated sometimes as "Proclamation" that may catch the sense that what you have read is something so compelling that it must be passed on immediately. I think that every passionate reader has had this sense that sometimes the act is only complete when you are reading out loud, and passing on the delight you share.
So there is a massive scriptural charge towards literacy. It's almost a holy duty. Where, then, is the corresponding popular hunger? Why are literacy rates so low in many Muslim countries? Is it partly a matter of technology? I know that the typesetting of Arabic is a very complicated matter. None the less, I am puzzled that this divinely enjoined respect does not seem to have spread very widely. Or are we simply looking in the wrong places?