India has made school education free and compulsory for all and even provided additional privileges to minority and traditionally disadvantaged communities. However, the spread of education among the Muslim communities still lags behind the mainstream for a variety of reasons, mostly economic, regressive social practices, and an inadequately enlightened clergy.
The first word of the Holy Quran is IQRA, which literally means "read!", Notably, it appears to advise the faithful Muslims and all others who read the holy text, not to read just the Holy Quran but all texts that will help them in knowledge acquisition. Thus it is a spiritual directive to make knowledge acquisition central to one's life by reading. In short, it demands that all Muslims must be educated, not just in the scriptures, but in all forms of knowledge available to them.
Interpreted in this broad sense by the Muslims in the 7th century and beyond, it created a whole new world of Islamic scholarship, research, invention and discovery and the acquisition and flow of knowledge all the way from India to Cairo, Baghdad. Istanbul and al Andalus in Spain. Muslim scholars learned subjects from India, ranging from Mathematics to Chemistry, Architecture to Astronomy, navigation and discovery, giving the Western world the current numerals, place values, engineering and other skills.
However, the European subjugation of al Andalus and the decline of the Baghdadi and Ottoman empires, resulting in the colonisation of the Muslim lands and the culmination of Ottoman rule in 1918, resulted in the turning inward of Islamic intellectualism and the decline of the original research and scholarship. The great centres of learning disappeared one by one until only Cairo and Damascus remained - until the recent revitalization of West Asia, a work still in progress. This gave a greater influence to the Muslim clerics to insist that the command "IQRA" applied only to the study of the Holy Quran, within which all necessary knowledge was contained, and the application of its tenets to Muslim life and society.
Decline in Muslim education
The last century has therefore witnessed a precipitate decline in education and scholarship among the Muslim communities in India, despite the efforts of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and even British scholars who founded the Aliyah madrasas. India has made school education free and compulsory for all and even provided additional privileges to minority and traditionally disadvantaged communities. However, the spread of education among the Muslim communities still lags behind the mainstream for a variety of reasons, mostly economic, regressive social practices, and an inadequately enlightened clergy.
Since education is the vehicle that will not only lift India's - and South Asia's - masses out of poverty but also help their nation to optimise the demographic dividend to increase growth and income fast enough for India to become a developed country by 2047, all need to make the extra effort and any necessary sacrifices to ensure full literacy and numeracy in the nation within the shortest possible time.
Special efforts need to be made to achieve the much-lauded "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" (Save the Girl Child; Educate the Girl Child) objective in India so that one can use the intelligence and capability of half the country to add to the workforce and give impetus to the nation's growth and prosperity. As the subcontinent's great Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote " I sing of equality... woman is responsible for half the good achieved in this world. "
India must make a special effort to fully educate its minorities, especially Muslim womenfolk, to pay greater attention to health and knowledge acquisition, which in turn will lead to prosperity.
We must all take to heart - whether we are Muslims or not - the exhortation of "IQRA!" in its broadest sense of the acquisition and understanding of all knowledge wherever it is found. For only then can one continue to thrive in the increasingly knowledge-based economy the world is becoming and preserve the planet through sustainable practices.
(The author is a retired Indian diplomat. Views are personal)