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Science: unshared histories

May 14, 2018

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THE past sometimes throws up novel perspectives like a curveball. Pakistan’s crisis in education can be traced back to our history. It straddles science and secularism because of the peculiar interface of British colonialism and Muslim heritage.

For Muslims, science was essential for cognitive and spiritual advancement. Since the glory of divine creation was superior to the lesser triumph of worldly discoveries, Muslim scientists delved into mysteries of divine creation to unravel un-manifested aspects of reality.

This spirit of discovery contrasted starkly with mediaeval Europe where scientific inquiry was clawing out of the dark ages like a prisoner out of a sewerage pipe. It was an age that was associated with the superstitious beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. By the 17th century, the Church had grown despotic, corrupt and cruel. It took a century of struggle before some brilliant European thinkers emerged unshackled, feeling safe and free to think about the world without fear. This freedom of thought sparked a revolution that spurred new scientific thinking. Thus, European minds owed their liberation from superstitious-religious thinking to secular scientific inquiry.

The European struggle to unscramble the world’s hidden laws via discoveries began with rationalising around the question of ‘why?’. To this, they responded by constructing the Cartesian system of thinking: a linear and simplistic cause-effect principle of rational inquiry that grew sophisticated with application. It persuaded the Europeans to take a giant scientific leap into the unknown where they have been floating in a free-fall state of self-emancipation till today. Here, finally, was an invigorating intellectual space in which scientific inquiry and self-emancipation joined hands to work on self-betterment.

The Muslim journey of scientific inquiry inspired awe and humility; the European brand was its polar opposite.

Before long, Western science and its everyday life applications fostered an addiction for automative tools that eased laboriousness and helped forge a new sense of dignity. Europeans could now work without dirtying their hands or injuring their limbs, and kill without engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Notably though, their science supported the primitive European mindset that relied upon wars, conquest and rule for self-betterment and progress.

By contrast, the Muslims, in their pursuit of scientific inquiry, felt no need to break ranks with their religion. When they took to probing the celestial unknown and forces of divinity, they delved deep into the symbolism of numbers, patterns and spaces to unravel the mystery of a higher consciousness. The quest inspired awe and humility. The scientific harvest of the European brand was its polar opposite: it offered products and services to gain advantage over others. Its success provoked feelings of racial superiority.

Of the two contrasting histories and perspectives, only one shaped the architecture of the future. Sadly, following the demise of the Muslim empire, the ancestors of Pakistan’s Muslims had lost their historical anchor and found themselves drifting rudderless, like lonely pilgrims in search of a new home. Throughout the subcontinent, English-medium and Jesuit missionary schools were sprouting up everywhere, incubating cloned mindsets to think, feel and speak in English exclusively to serve the empire.

Despite that, the gaze of India’s Muslims kept returning to the post-Ottoman mist rising out of Turkey like smoke from glowing embers. The faint glow of a setting empire still flickered in their eyes, like hope. History confirms that the aspirants for Pakistan either misunderstood or were mistakenly, but un-intendedly, misled by thought-leaders of their time. The goals of Turkish secularism were, perhaps, not quite understood by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan or by the Khilafat Movement brothers.

By the end of the 19th century, the imperial reach of a global Muslim empire had shrunk to domestic nationalism: the Turkish Republic. Kemal Ataturk, its founder, moved swiftly to modernise Turkey in anticipation of a new future. He had foreseen that a largely illiterate Turkish population (below six per cent were literate in 1923) had to be educated to adopt a modern, secular outlook and assimilate Western advances in science and industrialisation.

To secularise education required the banning of Arabic and Persian in all primary and secondary schools while purging them from the Turkish language. Otherwise their linguistic presence (a painful reminder of lost Muslim glory) risked getting exploited by clerics. Further, invoking nationalism required restoring the former purity of the Turkish language. Lastly, by switching from Turkish to the European script, Ataturk initiated a powerful psychological thrust towards modernism.

However, he separated the mosque from the state for reasons closer to Jesus’s “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”. The potential for political mischief when conflating the two was endless.

But Ataturk’s secularism was not cloned out of Europe’s bitter experiences of the church or their mounting disrespect for religion. Quite the contrary: “A nation without religion cannot survive. Yet it is also very important to note that religion is a link between Allah and the individual believer. …Those who use religion for their own (political) benefit are detestable. We are against such a situation and will not allow it. …whatever conforms to reason, logic, and the advantages and needs of our people conforms equally to Islam. If our religion did not conform to reason and logic, it would not be the perfect religion, the final religion,” he stated.

Ataturk’s reforms paved the way for spreading universal literacy in pure Turkish. Moreover, it had to be done so as to produce congruency between Turkish secularism, nationalism and nation-building. The focus on the mother tongue reigned supreme. New words were coined for the sciences and technology, and Turkish, the national language, became the target of all language and education planning. Today, Turkey’s rate of literacy stands at 98.6pc (male) and 92.6pc (female), accomplished in 95 years.

In Pakistan, we should question where we went wrong for 70 years. We adopted English as a national language but it failed the role of a linguistic medium for meaning-making, communication and knowledge acquisition. Instead, we succeeded in grafting elitism as a portal for status and privilege.

The writer is an educational consultant.

Twitter: @ShadMoarif

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2018