Lunar confusion

Published June 1, 2019

THE development of an app that would tell us about the lunar positions for working out the dates of important Islamic events might signal Pakistan’s entry into the 21st century.

Except that numerous astronomical websites have been providing this information for years. And before the internet came along, scientific almanacs could be consulted for this data.

But even now, our clerics are dragging their feet over accepting projections of the moon’s position in their determination to drag Pakistan back to the mediaeval ages. Never mind that the Aztecs, Egyptians and other ancient civilisations had worked out this data thousands of years ago. Even Saudi Arabia, hardly a pioneer in science, relies on forecasts to determine the dates of various religious holidays.

Ever since I can remember, there has always been a controversy over the day Eid is to be celebrated. Often, the clerics of the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee (once dubbed ‘moon-men’ by an irreverent journalist) claimed to have spotted the new moon from the top of Habib Bank Plaza in Karachi. But some village maulvi in KP would proclaim that there had been no sighting, and hence Eid could not be celebrated the following day.

The moon controversy continues to rage.

The resulting confusion thus resulted in the country divided over when Islam’s most important holiday is observed. One reason our clerics refuse to follow the Saudi example is that the whole exercise gives them a brief moment in the media spotlight. Give up even a tiny bit of relevance, they probably reason, and soon the state will usurp other powers. And then where would we be? Hopefully in the 21st century….

But this isn’t just about Eid. Ever since Pakistan came into being, reason and rational thought have struggled against the forces of darkness and ignorance. Gen Zia won this battle during his decade in power when he ‘Islamised’ education, and cleansed it of virtually all modern content.

In a recent podcast, Junaid Akram spotlighted the issue by asking where the Pakistani CEOs were when Indians were running some of America’s tech giants like Microsoft and Google. He answers the question by showing us a copy of a textbook on computers issued by the Sindh Textbook Board that is still part of the curriculum.

Akram had been taught from the same book back in 1998, and observes that 20 years later, it was still teaching students of Class 9 Windows 98 and DOS, the prehistoric operating system that ran the early desktop computers. But as he points out, kids in Class 9 are very tech-savvy, and dated information is irrelevant and boring for them.

And clearly, young men and women equipped with this kind of information can hardly compete with graduates educated in the latest developments in computer science. The very fact that the Sindh government has continued to approve and print the same textbook for over 20 years is a scandal in itself.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, among others, has highlighted the textbook scam over the years. It is an open secret that so-called ‘professors’ are favoured with contracts to write textbooks, and shady publishers get lucrative deals to print millions of copies. Kickbacks to senior officials in the education department would appear to underpin this corrupt system. Apart from the fact that mostly, these books are cut-and-paste jobs, they are poorly printed on cheap paper. Students have no option but to buy them.

According to reports, the Punjab government under Shahbaz Sharif did a lot to change this system and modernise it. Unfortunately, the importance of this reform has escaped the PPP government in Sindh.

The PTI government has expressed its ambition to unify the curricula of state educational institutions across the country. But given the fact that secondary education is a provincial subject, the­­­­­re will be considerable resistance from po­l­itic­ians and burea­u­crats who benefit fr­om the pre­sent system. Now, with the 18th Amend­ment, it is even more difficult to centralise the school curriculum.

Then, of course, there is the fierce pushback from the entire spectrum of our clergy to consider. Our clerics are well aware of the consequences of a population educated in modern ideas. How many would follow the teachings of those who preach little of Islam’s true values, sticking instead to a list of do’s and don’ts?

So for our clergy, reason and rational thought are existential threats to their power and prestige. Never mind that by controlling the curricula in schools and madressahs, they are holding back the whole country. By conflating intellectual backwardness with religious imperative, they have rationalised the widespread ignorance that now defines our educational system.

Given the problems it faces in its first year in power, it would be surprising if the PTI government would be willing to invest much political capital in pushing educational reforms.

But until this happens, the only meaningful education will be provided at our few good private schools. Despite the lunar confusion, Eid Mubarak to everybody.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2019


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