Education for Muslims needs a little self-help

Dear Asaduddin Owaisi,

Recently you bemoaned the growing literacy and school attendance gaps between Muslims and other communities. You cited the NSSO’s 75th round report showing that 22% of Muslim girls aged 3 to 35 have never enrolled in a formal educational course. The attendance gap for Muslims, especially girls, is low at the primary level but rises sharply for higher levels.

You define the problem as “successive governments have refused to invest in education for Muslims.” Your solution is government scholarships for all. I am glad you highlight the importance of education in improving the economic and social backwardness of Muslims highlighted in the Sachar Committee Report. But a lack of scholarships affects all communities. Christians, another Indian minority, fare very well educationally compared with all communities, including Hindus, and not because of more government scholarships.

Instead of depending on the state, Christians have long created their own educational institutions of excellence (eg St Stephen’s College and St Columba’s School in Delhi). So good are top Christian schools and colleges that Hindus and Muslims pull all possible strings to get into them. This is not because Christians have more money. Muslim Wakf Boards have thousands of crores of assets. The Muslim practice of zakat provides vast sums annually from well-off Muslims for charitable purposes, including education. The Muslim community has the means to create world class schools and colleges.

It has created a few universities of reasonable quality like Aligarh Muslim University, Osmania and Jamia Milia Islamia. Southern Muslim institutions like Kerala’s Muslim Education Society have done good work. Yet these are exceptions, so Muslims remain educationally backward. Overall, Muslim institutions do not remotely match the reputation or cachet of Christian institutions. That is why thousands of new private schools give themselves “convent” names like Holy Mother or Saint Peter’s, because convent schools are associated with high quality education. Muslim schools are not, nor even Hindu ones.

Christian missionaries came not just to educate Indians, they had a religious agenda too: good schools helped make Christianity attractive to potential converts. Yet the missionary schools never focused on religious studies. They aimed at excellence in every aspect of education.

During early centuries of Muslim rule, India was known as a great centre of learning and visitors like Ibn Batuta reaffirmed it. Some Muslim rulers aimed to improve and extend education. But the sad overall story is that India slipped educationally far below the West, in both Muslim and Hindu kingdoms. Nothing like Oxford, Cambridge or the Royal Society came up. Literacy was just 3.2% in the 1870s. It rose under British rule but was still a pathetic 14.1% in 1941. Madrassas ceased to be great centres of learning and wakfs used them mainly to teach kids the Quran.

Many critics say Muslims are backward because they rely on low-quality madrassa education, so the solution lies in reforming and modernising madrassa curriculums. Sorry, but the Sachar Committee showed that only 4% of Muslims attend madrassas. This is not the root of their educational backwardness. One reason could be Muslim elite traditions for centuries emphasising military training over education. Prominent Muslims like M J Akbar have grieved that Muslim reluctance to educate girls will tend to keep half the community backward.

But this cannot be the whole story. Muslims were once world leaders in science and medicine. I learned while visiting Uzbekistan that the medieval madrassas of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were great universities with some of the best scientists and mathematicians in the world. Ulugh Beg, grandson of Tamerlane, was the greatest astronomer of his time. Khiva was the birthplace of Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, who pioneered algebra, algorithms and the decimal point. Ibn Sina (called Avicenna in the West), foremost medical expert of his time, taught at Bukhara and Khiva. No scientists of remotely comparable greatness arose in Indian madrassas.

Mr Owaisi, the quality of government schools in India is so poor that giving more government scholarships will do little for Muslims or any other community. The Wakf Boards and well-off Indian Muslims have ample financial capacity to create a string of world-class educational institutions. Why not start by creating 200 top-class schools good enough to attract foreign students, and gradually expand that to 2,000? Next, aim for at least three world-class universities. Recalling ancient Bukhara and Samarkand, why not call them madrassas? You could even name them after Ulugh Beg, al-Khwarizmi and Ibn Sina. Today thousands of Hindus boast that they studied in St Stephen’s College. Please aim for an India where thousands of Hindus one day boast of studying at Ulugh Beg Madrassa.

What do you think?