By Shad Moarif
May 14, 2018
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
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
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
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.
Shad Moarif is an educational consultant.