Re-emergence of education in Muslim World

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By Dr. M.I.H. Farooqi,

Education is fundamental for development of any nation and higher education is a powerful tool for the eradication of poverty, boosting shared prosperity and making the society strong enough to face challenges of times. This basic fact was very well known to Muslim Ummah during Middle Ages, a Golden Period in Islamic History. “Seek Knowledge” was the known Commandment of Islam for Muslims and they followed it for almost eight hundred 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 eight hundred 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 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 nineteenth century. Unbelievable indeed. George Sarton observed that the Fall of Muslim Society is “Puzzling” (History of Science). Reason for the decadence of knowledge in Islamic Society may be many and varied.

One of the reason for the Fall: Muslims during Ottoman Empire (Turkish Caliphate) made great progress in every aspect of life except education. They encouraged poetry, music, painting, ceramics, architecture, metalwork and all that attracted the attention of common man. But very little interest was shown to the fast developing modern sciences coming from Europe. Probably the most harmful act was their refusal to allow the use of Printing Press in 15th Century, a turning period for Europe. Through the Printing Presses, scientific revolution was made possible in all the sphere of scientific and industrial activity in Europe. These Presses were not allowed to print in Turkish or in Arabic characters, owing to objections of the religious authorities. The first Turkish printing press in the Ottoman Empire was not established until 1729.  It was too late. This delay was an advantage to Europe over Islamic World in commerce, science and trade.  Ummate Muslima was pushed behind.

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. literacy and knowledge is re-emerging in the Islamic World. Muslim countries are taking strong steps, largely because of economic strength of Oil Producing Muslim countries, for the eradication of poverty and illiteracy. During the last one decade, literacy in all the Muslim countries has risen sharply.

World Bank and UNSECO data for 2015 shows that  24 Muslim Majority countries have the average literacy above 90 per cent including Saudi Arabia (94.7%), Indonesia (93.9%), Malaysia (94.6), Azerbaijan (99.4%), Jordan (96.7), U.A.E. (93.8%) and Turkey (95.0%).  Ten countries,  between 70 to 89% including Iran (86.8%), Tunisia (81.8%), Algeria (82.2%), Egypt (75.2%) and Morocco (72.4%).   Unfortunately fifteen countries still lag behind inspite of their efforts for literacy drive like Bangladesh (61.3 %,) Pakistan (58.7%) and Nigeria (59.6). However, the literacy average of all the Muslim Majority countries is above 70 percent. Compared to the literacy Data of 1980 (Av. 30%), 2015 data is highly satisfactory.

A redeeming feature is the fact that the Gender Difference (Men and Women) in literacy in many Islamic countries has also fallen sharply.  At least 21 countries have the difference 0 to 7% only. UAE has the negative percentage of 2.6 i.e. women are more literate than men. World average is 7.3%.

Tertiary Education (Higher education in all the disciplines of knowledge) in 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). Many Muslim countries have already established centers of higher learning with emphasis on the modern sciences.  Amongst the Top 500 Universities of the world(Prepared by Shanghai University for 2014) ten belong to Islamic world. These are:  King Abdulaziz University,Saudi Arabia,  King Saud University,Saudi Arabia,  King Abdullah University of Science and Technology,Saudi Arabia, King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, Saudi Arabia, University of Tehran, Iran;  Cairo University, Egypt,  Amirkabir University of Technology, Iran. Istanbul University, Turkey, National University of Science, Malaysia,University of Malaya, Malaysia.

Saudi Arabia tops (22%) amongst the Muslim countries for Tertiary Education followed by Turkey (19%) and Indonesia (11%).  With higher literacy, Muslim countries need higher tertiary education for development and growth.

Women emancipation can also be felt by 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.” (missionislam.com). Women enrollment for Higher education is more than men in many Islamic countries including Tunisia, Malaysia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and Libya.

The following table gives an idea of Re-emergence of Education in the Islamic World.

Literacy in Muslim Majority Countries –UNESCO/World Bank Reports.

Literacy %—1980/2015/Gender Difference


Afghanistan–12/32.2/27.9 

Albania–NA/97.6/1.5            

Algeria–37/82.2/14.0           

Azerbaijan–NA/99.8/0.1              

Bahrain–73/95.7/0.5              

Bangladesh–26/61.5/6.1              

Bosnia–NA/98.5/2.1               

Brunei–63.2/96.4/2.6                

Burkina Faso–12/36.0/13.7              

Chad–15/46/40.2/16.6              

Comoros–NA/77.8/8.1                

Djibouti–32/67.1/20.0                

Egypt–44/75.2/16.0              

Gambia–16/55.5/16.3              

Guinea–25/30.4/15.3               

Guinea Bissau –NA/59.9/23.5          

Indonesia–62/93.9/4.7             

Iran–50/86.8/8.7              

Iraq–50/79.7/11.9            

Jordan–80/96.7/3.0              

Kazakhstan–NA/99.8/0.0                          

Kosovo–na/91.9/9.1                

Kuwait–60/78/96.2/1.9               

Kyrgyzstan–NA/99.5/0.2                

Lebanon–74/93.9/4.1                

Libya–50/91.0/11.1               

Malaysia–60/94.6/3.0                 

Maldives–NA//99.3/2.0                 

Mali–10/38.7/19.0                

Mauritania–17/52.1/21.0                

Morocco–28/72.4/20.2                 

Niger–8/19.1/16.3                 

Nigeria–NA/59.6/19.5                  

Oman–na/94.8/6.9             

Pakistan–31/58.7/26.2            

Palestine–NA/96.7/ 3.7

Qatar–76/97.8/0.6            

  1. Arabia–50/94.7/5.9

Senegal–l10/55.7/24.6                 

Sierra lone–15/48.1/21.1            

Somalia–20/37.8/ 24.4

Sudan–20/75.9/14.6           

Syria–53/86.4/10.7           

Tajikistan–NA/99.8/0.1              

Tunisia–55/81.8/15.4             

Turkey–60/95.0/6.06              

Turkmenistan–NA/99.7/0.2               

U.A.E–65/93.8/-2.6               

Uzbekistan–NA/99.6/0.3                 

Yemen–27/70.1/30.1


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