By Anwar Syed
Muslims seem to have been content with their existing station in life. Possessed of passivity, they have been wanting in ambition and drive to attain higher levels of productivity and prosperity. Advancement in the pursuit of knowledge requires hard work, which they have not been willing to undertake
There was a time when the ordinary individual’s right to know was not acknowledged. It is said of Naushirwan the Just that he was once out on a military campaign, the end of the month approached and the soldiers had to be paid their salaries, but the treasurer with bags of money had not yet arrived from the capital. He sent one of his ministers to a nearby town to see if someone would lend the king the money he needed for a few days. The minister found a wealthy blacksmith who manufactured weapons and made a lot of money. He was willing to lend the king the money in return for a consideration, which was that his son should be allowed to enrol in a school to get education. The king declined this condition, saying that learning had to remain the preserve of the ruling classes. That was a long time ago. Earlier this year a landlord’s employee in Multan beseeched a friend of mine to enrol his son in a school in Lahore because his employer did not want the children of his servants to get education. He would rather that they stayed ignorant and, like their fathers and grandfathers, worked on his farm as serfs. This landlord was not the only one of his kind. Countless large landowners in Pakistan think the same way. The great majority of the people of Pakistan are at best semi-literate.
It is true that during the medieval ages Muslims made great advances in the study of medicine, physical and biological sciences, history and sociology. Their works reached the Europeans through translations. They advanced the frontiers of knowledge that existed at that time. They questioned conventional wisdom, made new discoveries and got new answers. Then came the theologians, notably Imam Ghazali, who taught that no further questions needed to be raised because enough had been asked and answered. Knowledge in the Muslim lands froze rigid. Conformity (taqleed), instead of innovation, became the rule. This remained the case for several hundred years and became a habit of the Muslim mind and it continues to be the same way even today.
Dr Attaur Rehman, a renowned scientist and founder of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Pakistan, stated recently in a television interview that there were some 500 universities in the Muslim world whereas India alone had more than 7,000 of them. He added that Muslim scholars published about 500 research-based articles in professional journals in a year while Japan produced more than 10 times as many. Only seven Muslims have received the Nobel Prize in their respective fields of specialisation. There are less than 10 million Jews in the entire world and more than 100 of them have been awarded the same prize. Pakistan, he pointed out, allocated 4 percent of its GDP but actually spent less than 2 percent of it on education. Turkey is an exception to this general trend. It has made enormous progress in the areas of manufacturing and commerce. It operates a knowledge-based economy. It should be noted that while an Islamic party has been in power in this country for several years, its military, bureaucratic, and commercial elite have been secular-minded for the most part since Kemal Ataturk’s revolution in the 1920s. Malaysia is another exception whose government has been allocating 25 percent of its budget to education.
How may we then explain the Muslim people’s disinclination to pursue knowledge? Imam Ghazali’s halt to further investigation related only to scriptural knowledge. It is however possible that subsequent scholarship extended his scepticism to other disciplines, and knowledge in the Muslim world became stagnant. Another influence may be noted. The Ulema (Islamic scholars) have traditionally taught that all that is worth knowing has already been stated in the Quran and Sunnah, and whatever has not been covered in these sources is not worth knowing. Furthermore, Muslims seem to have been content with their existing station in life. Possessed of passivity, they have been wanting in ambition and drive to attain higher levels of productivity and prosperity. Advancement in the pursuit of knowledge requires hard work, which they have not been willing to undertake. Moreover, the mullah has been preaching that the existing state of affairs is what it is because God has so willed.
In Pakistan, absolutism in governance has declined to a degree but it has not disappeared entirely. A reasonably fair election was held in February 2008 and a parliament and a government of elected representatives are in place. That this government is not honest and competent enough to be relied upon is a different matter. The media is free and vocal as are the other organs of civil society. The higher judiciary is both honest and competent. Public order and tranquillity have broken down and terrorism has become pervasive. Beyond all these adversities there is the fact that education in Pakistan, as in the rest of the Muslim world, is in a very bad state. Standards of attainment in higher education have fallen precipitously, and the situation is not any better at the lower levels. Teacher salaries are low and dedication to duty is hard to find. The infrastructure is in ruins. It is not uncommon to find teachers and students sitting under trees or the open sky because they do not have a school building. Strangely enough, one may find places where there is a school building but no students because the local landed aristocrats are using the structure as a warehouse and as a barn for their cattle. The elected representatives of the people in parliament and the executive branch are not making any visible effort to clean up this mess.
I see no signs of a movement in the Muslim world, apart from the couple of exceptions already noted, to spread knowledge to the generality of its people, encourage them to be inquisitive and appropriately sceptical of conventional wisdom, take hold of modern science and technology, become innovative and inventive, and join the ranks of the developed world.
The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics.
Source: The Daily Times, Lahore