THE capacity for learning is one of the distinct gifts bestowed upon human beings. It is because of this capacity that humans have contributed to civilisation through continuous reflection, exploration and discovery.
This curiosity for learning and construction of knowledge has today led human beings to the concept of a ‘knowledge society’.
Historically, it is evident that the societies that valued knowledge and provided an encouraging environment to learners excelled in the construction and contribution of knowledge. Consequently, such a culture led those societies to progress in different aspects of life.
Islam has put significant emphasis on learning and seeking knowledge. For instance, in the Holy Quran seeking knowledge is considered khairan kathir (abundant good) and human beings are encouraged repeatedly to reflect on and understand the mysterious world.
Similarly, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) has termed seeking knowledge obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman and guided them to attain knowledge from the cradle to the grave. In short, there are abundant examples in the teachings of Islam that lay stress on learning and acquiring knowledge.
For Muslims, such teachings have been the major impetus for acquiring knowledge and for intellectual discourse. It was because of this motivation that in the formative period of Islam Muslim societies started to thrive due to the thirst for diverse knowledge.
In the 9th-10th centuries Muslim societies excelled in different fields of knowledge such as theology, philosophy, science, art and architecture etc. Those developments are viewed as a treasured contribution of Muslims towards human civilisation.
This conducive environment for learning helped Muslim societies in nurturing extremely dynamic individuals and establishing some highly vibrant centres of learning in cities such as Baghdad and Cairo.
In the early period of Islam Muslim societies were comparatively flexible in studying diverse perspectives. Society then was also considerably open to learning from other cultures. For example, at that period Greek philosophy and science were given substantial attention. The books of Greek scholars and intellectuals were translated into Arabic and conscious efforts were made to reconcile them with Islamic thought.
This tendency of attaining knowledge from diverse sources helped Muslims cultivate an atmosphere where knowledge was constructed and contributed to the larger society.
Today, many Muslim societies such as Pakistan are facing acute challenges in educating their citizens and contributing to knowledge. For example, in Pakistan the literacy rate is comparatively low if compared to neighbouring countries. According to a report around 25 million children are out of school, hence Pakistan will not be able to fulfil its commitment of providing primary education for all children by 2015.
Of the children who do go to school, most of them do not get the opportunity to actualise their potential and develop their competencies. As a result, poor performance can be observed in different spheres of life in the country.
Furthermore, universities are generally considered places from where knowledge is generated and contributed to society. However, it is discouraging to note that not a single university from the Muslim world comes in the top 100 universities of the world; very few are included in the leading 500. However, a few countries like Turkey and Malaysia are making conscious efforts to improve the quality of higher education.
Why does this situation prevail in the Muslim world? There can be many reasons for this disparity. First, it is evident that political will plays a vital role in enhancing the cause of education in any society. However, in many Muslim countries including Pakistan, education has never been the priority of successive governments. No political party or government has shown true commitment to the cause of education. Historically, various education policies have been developed but they have never been implemented properly.
Secondly, the collective mind/attitude also plays a very important role in learning and acquiring knowledge. In many Muslim societies memorisation and rote learning are considered effective methods of learning. Reflective and critical thinking have not been given due importance in the process of education. Such an attitude towards learning does not help society develop inquisitive minds.
Furthermore, dividing knowledge into different categories, such as religious and non-religious or ‘ours’ and ‘others’, limits the learners’ capacity for looking at diverse perspectives. At times religious knowledge is viewed as superior and other scientific knowledge is considered less important. Such an approach shapes an attitude of rigidness and an environment of stagnation.
Looking at this situation, Muslim societies today require serious reflection on the challenges they face regarding learning and education. They need to re-examine their beliefs and reconcile them with the Islamic values concerning learning.
They must learn from the formative period of Islam how Muslims of that era were able to be open to different perspectives and to generate and contribute to the human civilisation’s wealth of knowledge.
In short, no society can progress without education and seeking knowledge. Islam clearly stresses upon learning and, by making it obligatory, values the seeking of knowledge.
The writer is an educator.