Muslims In Modernity: A Look At Some Hard Facts

Muslims In Modernity: A Look At Some Hard Facts
Where do Muslims place themselves in the modern world? Looking at the general state of Muslims in the modern era, one may draw the conclusion that it is a state of disconnectedness and despondency.

On one hand, right-wing conservatives around the world view followers of Islam as uncultured, uneducated, people from the Stone Age with nothing to contribute to the modern world except terrorism. Conversely, Muslims are targeted by left-wing liberals as being too conservative, admonishing the LGBTQ+ community and supporting antisemitism.

Any culture or society’s worth is gauged by its contribution towards the betterment of that society and the world in general. What were the last major developments that the Islamic world contributed to the advancement of humankind in the past 100 years? The past 500 years? Not many spring to mind.

Today more than half of the world's Muslim countries are listed as low-income food-deficit countries by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, and almost half of them rank in the low category in the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI).

Large swathes of the global Muslim populace have been at war with their own inhabitants for decades. Why do so many regimes kill their own citizens mercilessly? Consider the current situation in Iran. Hundreds were killed and thousands jailed fighting for the right of women to be free of state-imposed subjugations. Religious and ethnic minorities continue to be murdered in many Muslim states. The Shia/Sunni divide in the Muslim world has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths through the ages and continues to this day. Consider the Taliban in Afghanistan, a regime that disempowered women and denied them the basic right to education and work.

Think of the word ‘terrorist’ and a picture of a young twenty-something, brown, bearded Muslim immediately comes to mind. Western constructs? Muslims may have been portrayed in a negative vein, particularly since 9/11, but there is no denying that acts carried out by Al-Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS have revolted Muslims and non-Muslims alike. There is also no denying that Muslim communities have lacked the will to prevent the brandishing of the “terrorist” label themselves.

Muslims of a bygone era practiced Islam in its true essence: a religion of peace, of purity of heart, mind, body and soul, of scientific discovery and modernity. A religion upholding core family values and protecting all its minorities. A religion of spiritual evolution.

But can any modern Muslim society claim to uphold these fundamental Islamic tenets? On the contrary, existing Muslim societies have tarnished the true essence of Islam beyond recognition.

Why has the shining light of the Middle Ages become the darkest shadow of the 21st century? What has led to the crumbling demise of a once noble civilisation?

Let’s examine the main factors:


Muslim countries have some of the lowest standards of education in the entire world

Muslim countries have been caught in the grip of illiteracy for many years. According to Pew Research only 4 in 10 Muslims around the world have had any form of education. Out of those that do, most study for only 5.6 years on average. Compare this to 13.4 average years of study for Jews, the world’s most educated religious ethnicity. 231 Nobel laureates are Jews. How many did the entire Muslim world produce? 13. Most of these awards were for Peace and Literature. Nobel prizes for Muslims in the sciences? 3. Two laureates having joint American nationalities and Mohammad Abdus Salam from Pakistan and educated in Cambridge, won the Nobel prize for physics in 1961. But wait, he doesn’t really count. The Pakistani government declared him a non-Muslim as he belonged to the Ahmadiyya community. He left Pakistan for the UK in 1974 despite having served as the science minister for over a decade, making tremendous strides in this field for his nation.

So circa 14 million Jews with 231 Nobel prizes and 1.5 billion Muslims with 13. The equation confounds the mind.

An interesting fact is that the number of years studied an average of Muslims improves tremendously in countries where Muslims are in a minority. This suggests that Muslims benefit vastly from the educational system of their adopted countries. If one intends to send their children for higher education from Islamic countries, the destinations of choice are seldom their own.

While rich Arab countries have vastly benefitted from the oil extracted from their lands, they have squandered the opportunity to establish houses of learning. Instead, billions have been squandered constructing gargantuan palaces, soaring towers, and lavish mosques while millions languish without food, shelter or education.
Such is the tragedy of the modern Muslim era, in an increasingly polarised world where balance is needed. In fact, it is a balance that the true essence of Islam could bring, but Muslims have no part in the larger narrative shaping society in the 21st century

One can go on with an unending stream of statistics illustrating the abysmal state of education in the Muslim world. But it is more important to understand the reasons behind these numbers. Why are Muslim countries dominating the lowest ranks of education? Why are Muslims the least educated religious community?

After the “holden period” of Muslim emergence from 700-1400 AD shaping all aspects of modern scientific discovery, the decline began and continues till this day. Some credit the demise towards darkness with the banning of the printing press by the Ottoman Empire Sultan Bayezid II in 1484. But the decline had already started when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 and wiped out its great learning institutions. In the centuries that followed, Muslim Modernists pleaded with their brethren to elevate the standards of education, but the advice fell mostly on deaf ears.

Some would argue that Islam itself is to blame, that the religion dictates its followers to stay away from education. Upon understanding the Quran, there should be no doubt in any Muslim mind as to whether Islam prohibited education.

Every Muslim is instructed by God to understand the divine messages of the Quran and in doing so must be able to read. It is often mentioned in the Quran that believers are those who can think for themselves and who can use reason. It talks extensively about exploring the world, observing other cultures and races, understanding flora and fauna, insects and animals, among so many other creations of God. Muslims are instructed to be role models for the greater good of societies with their humility, honesty and devotion to the betterment of mankind. Science and Islam are wholly compatible. Islam does not shy away from science, but it fiercely encourages it.

Turkish reformer Musa Kazim Efendi wrote in his article "Islam and Progress" published in 1904: "the religion of Islam is not an obstacle to progress. On the contrary, it is that which commands and encourages progress; it is the very reason for progress itself."

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, a leading Muslim thinker and educationist from India said: “When a nation becomes devoid of arts and learning, it invites poverty. And when poverty comes, it brings in its wake thousands of crimes.”

If the Quran and the Islamic religion do not compel Muslims to remain illiterate, what other factors lie behind their lack of education?

One glaring factor is the leaders governing Muslim countries and the long-enduring feudals who have actively prevented their citizens' access to education. An ignorant population is simply so much easier to rule. This aspect is particularly magnified in the case of women. The Taliban, the Iranian regime, and many more have subjugated women to incalculable suffering by applying their archaic version of Islamic jurisprudence. But their backward narrative has nothing to do with Islamic tradition. Across Muslim history, there are numerous examples of women equal to men in work, learning and cultural enlightenment. They can continue to impose their misogynistic will upon them by denying women education. It is simply another form of control, a way to elevate the male self-worth as not much else helps to elevate it by way of worthy achievement. Knowing they cannot compete in a world that has left them far behind, it seems the only ego-boost Muslim men get is derived from the domination of women.


The belief that all Muslims will ultimately attain Paradise

One of the most virulent beliefs held by many Muslims is that each one of them will go to heaven, no matter what their actions have been in this life. This mindset enables the conviction that paradise is guaranteed, negating the need for Muslims to make any effort to progress in education, learning, and cultural development. Why bother with self-development in this life when they already promised Utopia in the life to come? This dangerous philosophy eliminates the need to create their own place in this world through enlightenment and education, to relinquish the life of this world and merely focus on the that will come.

This is the thinking that has permeated amongst many Muslims looking for an escape from the hard toil that needs to be done to succeed in the modern world. There are no quick fixes - work hard or remain left behind. This mantra bodes ever pertinent in the 20th and 21st centuries, where technology has made miraculous strides owing to the tremendous focus on scientific research of the West in the past 500 years. They had fortitude and determination and reaped the fruits of their creative endeavours. No doubt these accomplishments had elements of profit-taking and attaining hegemony over the world but the discovery of the automobile, the aeroplane, penicillin, the transistor to name a few had the initial ambition to create and foster a better world. These magnificent inventors did not dwell upon their ultimate abode before changing history. They did it for the sake of science, for the sake of uplifting mankind and for the simple joy of discovery. The same was true for Muslims a thousand years ago. This a far cry from the present Muslim world, where self-serving efforts to focus only on the hereafter negate any possibilities for Muslims to compete. It’s as if they have given up. They cannot get ahead in this world, might as well try their chances in the next one. They would eagerly await the apocalypse and resurrection to face their creator, incapable of meeting the demands of 21st-century life.

Such is the tragedy of the modern Muslim era, in an increasingly polarised world where balance is needed. In fact, it is a balance that the true essence of Islam could bring, but Muslims have no part in the larger narrative shaping society in the 21st century.

What is the solution? What can take the Muslim world to one of progress and illumination?

The term Jihad has taken a hugely negative connotation since 9/11, however its essence implies a war against any evil existing in the world. Muslims need to declare a Jihad against illiteracy and the erosion of culture and values. Using modern technological tools such as e-learning and apps, governments and educational institutions/NGOs should develop free online classes particularly targeted to their female populations.

Women in Islamic cultures have a pivotal role to play in inculcating the correct values and traditions in both women and men. In many cases, women are victims of abuse, early marriage and no formal education. Add to that the high birth rate existing in many Muslim countries and you have illiterate mothers having to deal with several children, supporting in many instances the whole family. Without education or cultural development, the children born to these mothers have little hope for any advancement in the modern world. It is well-established that the biggest predictor of any developing nation’s economic prosperity is their ability to educate women. Democratically run Muslim countries with a high rate of women’s education such as Malaysia and Indonesia are placed in the higher ranks of overall development indexes worldwide. The education of girls and women should be ranked as the highest priority of Muslim governments and NGOs if they are to rise and compete in the modern world. But in a predominantly patriarchal system, this is easier said than done.