Indian Muslims and Education

Asghar Ali Engineer

Asghar Ali Engineer is a rights activist and heads two organisations, the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. He has authored or edited 44 books on such issues as Islam and communal and ethnic problems in India and South Asia in general.

For links to his other articles, please go to the top page of this site.

(Secular Perspective, July 1-15)

Indian Muslims constitute more than 12 per cent of Indian population which is quite sizeable by any account and they are more than 100 million in terms of absolute numbers. It is maintained and rightly so that they are next only to Muslim population in Indonesia. Their economic and educational progress is, therefore, very crucial for the progress of the country. No country can boast of development if its sizeable minority lags behind and if its large population remains illiterate and poor.

Before we throw more light on this issue it would be important to note that Indian Muslims are not and should not be treated as a homogeneous community. They have sectarian, regional, caste and cultural differences which are quite crucial to the understanding of the problem. Most academics, unfortunately, and the Muslim leaders themselves, like to treat Indian Muslims as a homogeneous mass. Even in matters like literacy, family planning and economic development, there are regional and caste differences. If we have to understand the Muslim reality as a whole we will have to keep these differences in mind.

There is, for example, higher rate of literacy among the Kerala Muslims than Muslims in other regions. Even the rate of family planning among the Kerala Muslims is higher than the Muslims, say in U.P. or Maharashtra. Similarly, the Ansari Muslims in Eastern U.P. are better off economically than other Muslims in the region. In general the artisans, Ansaris, Qureshis, Baghbans and others have made more progress economically than upper caste Muslims. In the same manner the Bohras, Khojas and Memons of Gujrat being trading communities, are much better off than Muslims in general. Thus it will be seen that regional and even sectarian and caste differences must be taken into account while trying to understand the situation of Indian Muslims.

But it does not mean that we cannot talk of Muslim backwardness in general because the large mass of Muslims on the whole is quite poor and illiterate. In many respects they are falling behind even the Scheduled Castes. Muslim women are particularly far more behind. For example among the Muslim women on All India level, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 66% are illiterate and in Haryana Muslim female illiteracy is universal (98%). It is interesting to note that in Haryana most of the Muslims are Meo Muslims and Meo Muslims are quite backward on the whole. Even in Assam with the highest percentage of Muslim population the female illiteracy among Muslims is 74 per cent. In the states of West Bengal, Karnataka, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, 60 to 65 per cent and in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujrat, 50 to 55 per cent of Muslim women are illiterate.

The position of Muslim men is somewhat better in terms of literacy. The percentage among the men is comparatively higher. But in the post-Babri demolition situation is changing favourably. Muslims are paying more attention to education and economic progress. They have also become quite conscious of female education and now more and more Muslim women are taking to education. According to one survey done by Shervani in U.P. the percentage of Muslim girls appearing for SSC examinations has increased. Not only that but the success rate of Muslim girls has jumped 19 times. That means Muslim girls are taking their studies much more seriously today than before 1990. This healthy trend seems to be persisting. Many Muslim girls are making it to the merit lists also. In Maharashtra three Muslim girls have made it to the merit list in the results declared a couple of days ago.

A large number of Muslims live in urban areas i.e. almost thirty per cent and a large number among the urban Muslims is that of artisans who come from lower castes. As pointed out above it is these lower castes who are more upwardly mobile compared to the mobility of the so called upper caste Muslims. It is because number of artisans are becoming small scale entrepreneurs and benefiting from their professional skills.

But what is regrettable is that these skills are by and large traditional skills and they happen to be primary producers and totally lack marketing skills. In today's globalised world people with traditional skills cannot survive longer, much less prosper. There is great need for Muslim artisans to upgrade their traditional skills and acquire new skills. Also, one can hardly overstress the significance of information technology or what is called the information highway.
But where there is lack of even primary literacy there is absolutely no question of being benefited by information technology and upgrading ones skill. And yet upgrading traditional skills is a must in today's highly competitive market. Thus it is absolutely necessary to acquire not only a measure of literacy but also higher education. But real problem today is not so much of lack of consciousness importance of education as of scarcity of economic resources. The educational backwardness reflects economic backwardness and economic backwardness perpetrates educational backwardness. Thus it has become a vicious circle.

The Muslims lack not only political leadership with proper vision but also socio-cultural leadership thoroughly committed to the cause of socio-economic progress of Muslims. Though many Muslims cannot afford for education because of poverty there are community resources available both internally and externally. Internally there is great need for proper management of wakf properties which run into billions of dollars. Unfortunately the wakfs properties have not only been mismanaged by incompetent officials but also sold away at throwaway prices by the corrupt politicians. The Bohra wakf properties run into millions of dollars but these properties are controlled by a single family of the Bohra high priest Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin. In several states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh etc. where there are huge Bohra wakf properties the Bohra priestly family has entered into illegal agreements with the corrupt wakf board officials on nominal annual fees and got exemption from inspection and control of the wakf boards. This results in huge losses to the wakf board.

Many wakf properties in Delhi have been sold at throw away prices to five star hotels in collusion with corrupt officials. If the wakf properties are scientifically and honestly managed they can generate great deal of revenue which in turn can be utilised for establishing educational institutions and professional colleges. An example of course has been set by Gulbarga Sharif in Karnataka where the Dargah authorities have established educational institutions from the revenue earned through the offerings at the mausoleum. The Ajmer Dargah of Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti has great potential in this respect. If the trustees of Tirupathi Temple can run a university why can't those of Ajmer Dargah Sharif if the funds are properly utilised. These are but only a few examples. The wakf properties in India are capable of generating massive internal resources for the benefit of the Muslim community.

As for external resources one can get lot of money from Islamic Development Bank (IDB) if proper projects for educational institutions and scholarships are submitted to the premier Muslim institution. But there is no such vision and no such attempts are made. Some Muslim countries are more interested in financing institutions of religious training and Islamic learning than those of modern secular education. Today many institutions of 'Islamic learning' have come up with the help of funding from these countries rather than those of modern professional education. Needless to say there is great need for the institutions belonging to the latter category. If more and more polytechniques are started for upgrading the traditional and marketing skills of artisans they can bring a measure of economic prosperity among the Muslim artisans which in turn can help spreading education among the Muslims.

The Muslim representation among the government jobs is much below their population percentage not only at the level of IAS cadre but also in the jobs at the lowest level like the category IV. There are several reasons for this, anti-Muslim prejudice being only one among them. The lack of education and training is another reason. The Muslim youth more often than not presume that they are not going to get jobs, 'so what is the use of applying' for them or preparing for competitive exams. Thus there is great need for proper motivation also. It is interesting to note that Kanshi Ram before entering into politics was conducting training camps for Dalits to boost their morale and competitive skills for higher echelon of government jobs. Syed Hamid, ex-vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University had taken similar initiative and started a training centre for IAS exams for Muslims in Aligarh Muslim University. However, others did not take up this work with great enthusiasm though there was great need for many such centres.

In this competitive world one will have to work much harder and with a sense of dedication. The Muslim leadership, particularly political one, keeps on complaining about lack of proper Muslim representation in government jobs but it is more of a political act than a genuine concern. Such routine complaints are made to make political capital out of them rather than do something concrete to spread educational skills and increase the competitive capabilities by making available such facilities.

The Muslim artisans and small scale traders lack availability of finances also. There are several schemes for minorities announced by the Central and State governments but there is no proper agency to disseminate such information. There is also great need to disseminate such information among the needy people. Also, there is highly useful institution of Zakat which is obligatory on all Muslims. If Zakat boards are formed in every state with persons of known integrity lot of resources can be made available to the weaker sections among the Muslims to meet their financial needs. Islam has prohibited interest to help weaker sections of society. Muslim intellectuals and theologians talk a lot about it but in practice do nothing to give concrete shape to these institutions. If interest free co-operative banks are established with the Zakat money to help small artisans and traders it can be of tremendous help to uplift the backward Muslims.

Thus what is needed by the Muslim leaders and intellectuals is genuine commitment, a social vision and dynamic approach. To give a concrete shape to this, think tanks should be established in every state by non-political, non-partisan Muslim intellectuals along with other secular elements genuinely sympathetic to upliftment of minorities. These think tanks can take into account the actual condition of Muslims in the respective states and devise measures to help solve their local problems. Mere breast-beating and culture of complaints would not take them very far. Hard work and establishment of proper institutions alone will help them. Earlier it is realised, better it is for the uplift of Muslims.

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
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