Islamic Heritage of South Asia

History, Science and Faith in Islamic Education

Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Note: This presentation was made at the Diaspora Forum in Washington, DC on April 2, 2022, and is available on Youtube at

We live in extraordinary times. These are times when human progress is limited only by the speed of light and the human capacity to absorb change. Humankind has conquered space and searches for life on other planets. Giant telescopes seek to unlock the very origin of the known universe. Terms such as Space Travel, the Theory of Relativity and the Big Bang have entered into common discourse. Machine learning and robotics drive cutting edge technologies and seek to replace human reasoning with artificial intelligence. Indeed, we are now headed into a post-human world in which the very essence of being human is challenged.

Yes, these are extraordinary times. Economic centration, driven by the inexorable forces of globalization produces billionaires by the day while millions go to bed with a hungry stomach. Within this global context, the story of India is a special case. While Indian rockets reach out to Mars, hundreds of millions cannot afford a meal a day. In this matrix of poverty, the Muslims in India are a marginalized minority hemmed in not only by the global forces of economic centration but also by the well-financed global Islamophobia industry and the incessant hammering from Hindutva forces. Similar is the case with the Dalits and other marginalized groups. It is with this background that we approach the topic under discussion today, namely, History, Science and Faith in Islamic Education. The subject is deep and the terrain is vast. All we can do in the next 40 minutes is to survey this vast terrain, whet our appetite, anchor our observations on historical benchmarks, connect the dots, ask questions and learn from them as we go.

The epistemology of knowledge

Knowledge is a gift from God. It is one and indivisible. It is not denied to anyone. Its ultimate purpose is to find the Truth. There is no such thing as Western knowledge, Eastern Knowledge, Christian Knowledge, Jewish Knowledge, Hindu Knowledge, Muslim Knowledge, Secular Knowledge and Religious Knowledge. These are all specific wavelengths in the composite spectrum that constitutes the totality of Knowledge. Each wavelength brings out a different color of the ultimate truth. As such, each one is valid within its own context and its own assumptions. A man of Truth is one who is open to the vistas that are offered at different wavelengths.
Education embraces the means, methods and processes for acquiring knowledge. What is knowledge? What is its purpose? How does the human learn? These are profound philosophical questions that have challenged the sages through the ages. They relate to the most basic question:

What makes us human?

This presentation focuses on Islamic education. As such it brings with it its own doctrinal, historical, philosophical and cultural assumptions. It is offered here only as a means to further intercultural understandings. I hope that in future forums we will have the privilege of learning about other faith-based or non-faith-based approaches to knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge.
In the Islamic paradigm, God is the source, the origin, the locus, and ultimate object of all knowledge. Its essence is embodied in the Divine Name, al Haq, which at once means the Truth, Justice, Balance, Rights and Responsibilities. As a Hadees e Qudsi declares: “I was a hidden treasure. I willed that I be known. Therefore, I created a creation that would know Me”. Incidentally, Justice is the first pillar in the preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of India.

How does one encompass this ocean of knowledge?

Some fifty years ago when I wrote my first book, What Makes Us Human? I constructed a possible approach to the epistemology of knowledge. It is illustrated in the diagram shown. The tree of knowledge has its roots in the heavens and its seed is Al Haqq, the Truth. The knowledge that is imparted to the Prophets and the sages is called Ilm al Ladduni. Its mode of transmission is infusion. It is involuntarily. It speaks the timeless, spaceless language of the spirit. It is light that illuminates the soul. It seeks to answer the basic questions that every human asks at one stage or the other: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence?
When heavenly knowledge is applied to the mundane world, it splits into two major branches. The first is knowledge that can be expressed and taught. In the Urdu language it is called Ilm ul Ibarat. Ibarat comes from the Arabic root word a-b-r, namely to wade from one shore of a stream to another. It includes the inductive, empirical knowledge of the sciences, and the deductive knowledge of reason and philosophy. It embraces the sciences, history, economics, medicine, engineering, mathematics, politics and governance. This is the knowledge that we send our children and grandchildren to Harvard and MIT, Stanford and Caltech, and yes, Aligarh and the IITs to acquire. It is knowledge that commands a price in the global marketplace.
The other branch Ilm ul Ishara is knowledge that can be alluded to but cannot be expressed through language. It includes the language of the heart and the language of the soul. Examples are: love, compassion, mercy, empathy, forgiveness, generosity. In all of God’s creation, there is nothing as sublime, as noble as the heart because it alone is the seat of unfettered love. Nay, it is wide enough to contain the very Name of God Almighty. It is not Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Jewish, Sikh or Zoroastrian, American or Russian. This is the knowledge taught by the saints and the Sufis of the past, the language of love, of unconditional service, of rapture and surrender. This is the language that is expressed by Amir Khusroe when he sings out in ecstasy:
Nameedanam che Manzil bood shab jaye ke man boodam…

The Seven epochs in Islamic History

Human history is like a mighty river that flows with discernible bends. Some bends are sharp ; others are slow, like a sine wave with a long wavelength.
Islamic history offers at least seven major discernible bends. Each of these bends marks the onset of a certain mode of learning and the emergence of a corresponding cultural archetype:

  1. The Age of the Prophet (622-632 CE)
  2. The Age of the Companions (632-760 CE)
  3. The Age of Reason (760-846 CE)
  4. The Age of the Scientists (846-1219 CE)
  5. The Age of the “Sufis” (1219-1683 CE)
  6. Colonialism and the Age of Discontinuity (1683-1870 CE)
  7. The Modern Technological Age (1870-Present)

One way to study each epoch is to examine the archetypes that personify the age. Summarily, the archetype at the time of the Prophet was the Prophet himself; during the age of the Companions it was the visionaries; in the age of reason it was the Mu’tazilites, in the age of the Scientists, it was the empiricists; in the age of the Sufis it was the Awliyah. Colonialism gave birth to revivalists while the modern technological age is shaping the post-human, post-scientific monad.

The Age of the Prophet.

Islam burst upon the global scene in the 7th century and transformed a nomadic people into prime movers of a world civilization. Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) was the architect of that transformation. Few are the personages in history who occupied a position in relation to their people as did Prophet Muhammed with respect to his. He was the focus for all social, spiritual, political, economic and juridical activities. He was the teacher, the exemplar, the Prophet and the Messenger of God.
Four attributes of the Prophet stand out when we seek to understand his legacy on education:
First the Qur’an. The Prophet was the personification of the Qur’an. If the Qur’an was the Book, he was the Light. The first word of the Qur’an was “Iqra” (read) and the Prophet was an embodiment of knowledge. After Badar, when a large number of prisoners were taken, he offered to set them free if each of them taught two people how to read and write. His saying, “Seek knowledge even onto China” is well known. China was a distant land, known for its learning but it was not Islamic. Alas, if only the ulema in later centuries had kept the Prophet’s example before them and not rejected learning from other traditions, be it Western or Eastern. I offer, as an example, the tribulations that Sir Syed had to face from the Mullahs when he founded the Anglo-Mohammedan college, later to become Aligarh University.
• The Hadith
• The Sunnah
• The Seerah
What the Prophet said became the Hadith. What he did became the Sunnah. The Seerah was his path, his methodology, his way which exuded the wisdom in his approach. Once again, examine how later Muslims, especially those in the subcontinent, took the broad highways of the Prophet’s approach to knowledge and turned them into narrow, sinewy alleys. The Ahle Hadith and the Ahle Sunnah are at each other’s throats while neither of them ponders over his Seerah or the wisdom of his approach in tackling contemporary issues. The tensions between the Deobandi and Barailwi schools are well known.

The Age of the Companions, Tabeyeen and Tabe Tabeyeen

Civilizations are tested with crises just as individuals are tried with adversity. It is these critical moments that bring out the character of a civilization. Great civilizations measure up to their challenges and grow more resilient with each crisis, turning adversity into opportunity. It is much the same way with individuals. Critical moments in history test the mettle of humans. Great men and women bend history to their will, whereas weaker ones are swallowed up in the convulsions of time.
The death of Prophet Muhammed (p) was the first historical crisis faced by the Islamic community. The Muslims met this challenge by establishing the institution of the Khilafat and affirming the continuity of historical Islam. The price paid for this process was the Shia-Sunni split that continues to rock the Islamic world even after 1400 years. There emerged the towering personalities of Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r), Omar ibn al Khattab (r), Uthman bin Affan (r) and Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). What these Companions did and did not do has influenced the course of Islamic history in the subsequent 1,400 years. We see in this period an increasing emphasis on documentation as it was with Sehaf e Siddiqui. Omar (r) in particular paid attention to education. He appointed teachers paid by the state treasury and established schools in the far flung corners of the Khilafat. There was an explosion of intellectual activity in the period that followed. Jurisprudence, philosophy and science flourished. The Halaqa, or a study circle centered around a Shaikh became the institutional framework for knowledge transmission. As the Khilafat expanded to include vast regions stretching from the Indus river to the Pyrenees mountains in France, it embraced Greeks and Turks, Iranians and Egyptians, Berbers and Spaniards, Africans and Europeans, Chinese and Indians. The new entrants brought with them not only their ancient heritage and culture but methods of looking at the sublime questions of life in ways fundamentally different from that of the Arabs. Fiqh was the doctrinal response of the Islamic civilization to these challenges. The codification of Fiqh solidified the foundation of Islamic civilization and was the cement for its stability through the turmoil of centuries. As long as the process of Fiqh was dynamic, creativity and ideas flowed from Islam to other civilizations. When this process became static and stagnant, historical Islam increasingly turned inwards and became marginalized in the global struggle of humankind, as is too obvious in India today. 

Some definitions of the terms Shariah and Fiqh are in order here as the two terms are sometimes erroneously interchanged. Shariah derives its legitimacy from Divine sovereignty. It defines not just the relationship of man to man but also the relationship of man to God and of man to nature. As such, it is all embracing and its dimensions are infinite. The sun rises from the East, that is Shariah. The galaxies rotate, that is Shariah. Fiqh is the application of the Shariah in space-time. As such it is dynamic and changing. Those who wish to understand the Hijab controversy in India today need to keep this in mind. We will offer the life and times of Imam Abu Haneefa as an archetype of the age. It is most appropriate to choose him as our model as his school of jurisprudence is the one that is most commonly used in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Turkey and Central Asia. Indeed, a great majority of the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world today (circa 2010 CE) follow the school of Fiqh named after him.   That Imam Abu Haneefa was one of the greatest of the jurists is well known. What is not commonly known is that he was also a mathematician of the first magnitude. He was aware of the concepts of specific density and specific volume and implemented them in practice. As a philosopher, his work anticipated the Hegelian dialectic by more than a thousand years. The Hegelian dialectic (named after Hegel the German philosopher of the 17th century) is one of the basic principles of Western philosophy. Its premise is that a higher collective truth emerges when multiple individual truths compete. Looked at it another way, it also means that the state is more important than the individual. To cap it all, Abu Haneefa was no hermit, or a pure academician, cloistering himself in a monastery or a mosque or a university. He was a rich man, a successful merchant, a wonderful human being who lived among common folk with the zest and enthusiasm of a believer; he contributed to the life of the community that he was a part of.
The story of Imam Abu Haneefa is the story of the famed city of Baghdad. With the Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE, the center of gravity of political power shifted from the Arab heartland to Persia, Khorasan and Central Asia. Acknowledging this shift in power, the Caliph al Mansur wished to relocate his capital from Damascus in Syria.
Imam Abu Haneefa was commissioned by the Caliph to locate and plan a site for the new capital. Abu Haneefa chose the current location, around a bend of the River Tigris, paying careful attention to defense and communications. There were no computers or computer aided design in those days. To obtain the concurrence of the Caliph, Abu Haneefa marked out the geometrical layout of the planned capital on the ground, showing in detail the location of the palace, the mosque, the marketplace, the residential areas and the fort. Then he sprinkled cotton seeds over the marked outlines. Selecting a moonless night when there was little background radiation, Imam Abu Haneefa set fire to the cotton seeds. One of the characteristics of cotton seeds is that they radiate a brilliant light when they are burned. Using the burning cotton seeds as his guide, Imam Abu Haneefa showed the outline of the planned city to the Caliph from a tower specially constructed for observation on the occasion. The Caliph was pleased and authorized the construction.
Imam Abu Haneefa studied in the Halaqa of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq and benefited from the spiritual knowledge transmitted through the Ahle Bait. The school of jurisprudence named after him offers the greatest latitude to a jurist to formulate legal opinions to meet the requirements of changing times. The usool ul fiqh or principles of the Hanafi fiqh include the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, the Ijma or collective opinion of some, not necessarily all the companions, Qiyas or analogy and Estehsan or creative juridical opinion based on sound principles. The principles of Qiyas and Estehsan are available to the large number of Muslims who live as minorities in India, China, Europe and America to apply the Shari’ah and deduce legal opinions that meet the requirements of their social, political and economic context.

The Mu’tazilites and the Age of Reason

Of all the sciences that the Muslims came in contact with, it was Greek rational thought that caught their fancy and they fell in love with its rigor and its precision. Aristotle became their hero and reason their guide. The Caliph al Mansur adopted and promoted Greek philosophy (the philosophy of the ancients as it was called) as court dogma. Muslim scholars set out to apply rational methods to physical phenomenon as well as social, cultural and religious issues with excitement and enthusiasm. These scholars were called the Mu’tazilites.

Al Mansur established an academy called Baitul Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) where scholarly books from around the world were translated into Arabic. From India came the Siddhanta of Aryabhatta, from Greece came the works of Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, from China came the technology for manufacturing porcelain and papermaking and from Iran the art of constructing windmills. Baitul Hikmah was a cosmopolitan academy. Among the scholars who worked there were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Zoroastrians.
The application of classical Greek rational thought in an Islamic paradigm was not without its challenge.  The Greeks assumed that time was “eternal”. A second issue was “cause and effect” in nature. There were other issues of disagreement as well, namely, human free will (ikhtiar) and man’s responsibility for his actions.  These assumptions when applied to theological issues presented profound and fundamental doctrinal challenges to Muslim scholars. Resistance set in and it was led by the usuli ulema, spearheaded by Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal. Faced with mounting public pressure, the later Abbasid Caliphs relented. In 846 CE, the Caliph al Mutawakkil disavowed the Mutazilites and banished them from his court.

The Scientists

The aftermath of the Mutazilite convulsions influenced the development of the natural sciences in the Islamic world in a profound way.
The classical Islamic civilization that emerged in the post-Mutazilite period was scientific-empirical. Indeed, the Muslims were arguably the originators of the empirical method. For more than five hundred years (700-1258 CE), Muslim scientists were the torchbearers of knowledge, advancing human civilization with their discoveries and inventions. It was this light that awakened Europe from its slumber in the Dark Ages (600-1200 CE). Some of the noted scientists of the era include al Khwarizmi (d. 840) after whom the word Algorithm is named; the physician al Razi who was the first to identify smallpox and communicable diseases; al Masudi the first empirical historian; al Baruni whose book Kitabul Hind was a masterpiece about medieval India; the physician ibn Sina whose book Cannons of Medicine was the standard textbook in Europe until the sixteenth century; the mathematician Omar Khayyam who compiled the precise Jalalian calendar; al Idrisi the geographer; Ibn Rushd the philosopher and the inventor al Jazari, one of whose inventions, the camshaft that converts linear motion into rotary motion, was one of the greatest inventions of humankind similar in its import to the plough and the stirrup.  This momentum towards a scientific culture was setback by the advent of Al Ghazzali towards the end of the twelfth century.  Basing his powerful dialectic on the earlier works of al Ash’ari, Al Gazzali argued that there was no cause and effect in nature, and that all natural events happen by the Will of God.
Al Ghazzali’s writings were carried far and wide through a chain of madrassas established by the powerful Seljuk dynasty and had a chilling effect on the pursuit of science in the Islamic world. His impact is to be felt in the thinking of the mullahs and the maulanas even to this day. ↓

The Sufis

The word Sufi literally means a practitioner of tasawwuf, a term that derives from the Arabic root s-w-f, meaning purity. In the context of tasawwuf, it means purity of the heart or purity of the soul.
Tasawwuf grew its roots and had solidified its position in the Islamic world when the Mongol cataclysm descended upon it in the thirteenth century. Genghiz Khan and his successors destroyed a civilization. Centers of learning and culture like Samarqand, Bukhara, Nishapur, Herat and Baghdad were obliterated.  India was a beneficiary of the Mongol invasions. This is where the story of Islam in northern India begins. As the centers of learning burned in Central Asia, many of the Sufi shaikhs and scholars found refuge with the Sultanate of Delhi.  If there is one word that captures the essence of how Islam captured the hearts of one third of South Asia, it is love. The key to the success of the Sufis lay in the spiritual bent of the Indian mind. Every culture produces an archetype that personifies the ethos of that culture. For instance, in contemporary America, it is the successful entrepreneur like Bill Gates. During the Dark Ages in Europe, it was the monk. In medieval Japan it was the Samurai. In the Muslim Middle East, it was the traditionalist. In India, it was the sadhu and the rishi. The Sufi could intuitively and immediately relate to the Indian culture in a manner that the learned doctors of law could not. Thus, it was that the great Sufis not only succeeded in introducing millions of Indians to Islam but also contributed to the evolution of a unique Hindustani language, culture, poetry and music which amalgamated the ancient inheritance of India with the vibrancy of Islam. If the center of gravity of the Muslim world today is closer to Kuala Lumpur, Lucknow and Lahore than to Cairo and Damascus, it is due not so much to the power of the Sultans or the preaching of the mullahs, but to the spiritual approach of the Sufi shaykhs.  Zawiyas, Tekkes and Khanqas spread out throughout the subcontinent offering the seekers of spiritual knowledge instruction not just in the Qur’an and the sunnah but also fiqh, tasawwuf, history, languages and mathematics. Well known zawiyas existed in Multan, Lahore, Delhi, Agra, Jaunpur, Patna, Murshidabad and Sylhet. The training was individualized and personal, from a shaikh to the mureed. The archetype of the age was a man of the spirit like Shaikh Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer, Baba Farid of Lahore, Shaikh Shamsuddin Yahya of Kashmir, Shaikh Jalal of Sylhet, and Gaysu Daraz of the Deccan. Together, these men transformed a continent, molded it in a spiritual crucible, lit the candle of faith in the hearts of millions and laid the spiritual foundation for one of the richest and most powerful dynasties the world has ever known, namely the great Moghuls of India.

The emergence of tasawwuf as a powerful force in the Indian milieu did not go unchallenged by competing ideas.  The historian Barani describes an interesting confrontation between the Sufis and kadis in the magnificent Tughlaq courts in old Delhi. The kadis and the ulema sought a ban on sama’a (music), declaring it to be against the injunctions of the Shariah. To sort out these controversies, Gayasuddin Tughlaq, Sultan of Delhi, convened a conference of the leading ulema, kadis and philosophers in Delhi at his court in 1320. Nizamuddin Awliya was also invited. What started as a conference turned into a court martial of the Chishtiya Sufis. Kadi Jalaluddin, chief kadi of Delhi and Shaykhzada Jam argued against sama’a. Nizamuddin Awliya defended the practice basing his arguments on certain Ahadith. The discussion became heated, so the Sultan turned to Shaykh Ilmuddin who was a philosopher (Mu’tazilite) and had traveled extensively through Persia, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Shaykh Ilmuddin answered that sama’a was halal for those who listened to it with their hearts and was haram for those who heard it with their nafs. The Emperor deliberated and, not to be drawn into a religious controversy, gave a split decision permitting sama’a gatherings for the Chishtiya Order but forbidding it to the followers of the Qalandariya and Haidari Orders.
Such antipathy towards music and other scientific disciplines persists in the religious circles of the subcontinent even to this day. As a result, the graduates of Islamic seminaries have no clue about electromagnetic theory, earthquakes, electron motion, Newtonian mechanics or windshear that brings down aircraft, all of which are based on harmonic or biharmonic equations.

The Rockets of Tipu Sultan

Science and Technology did not die out with the Mongol invasions; they shifted from the core Arab domains to the Indian, Turkish and Maghreb periphery. The Ottoman, Safavid and Mogul empires rose in Eurasia while Africa saw the advent of the great Songhay and Mali empires. Great center of learning spring up as far away as Timbuktu, Gao and Kano in Africa and Aceh in Indonesia. Isfahan, Istanbul, Delhi and Agra replaced Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as centers of art and culture. The world renowned Ibn Batuta, the historian Ibn Khaldun, astronomers such as Ulugh Bey, master-builders like Muammar Sinan of the Ottoman empire, and Ustad Ahmed, the architect of the Taj Mahal, were all products of this age. But perhaps the most convincing evidence of this position is offered by the rockets of Tipu Sultan.  It comes as a surprise to many people that the American National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, was inspired by the rockets invented by an Indian Muslim king, Tipu Sultan of Mysore.  It was the year 1814. The Anglo-American war which started in 1812 was in full swing. The British forces, after burning down Washington and conducting a raid on Alexandria, proceeded up the Chesapeake Bay to capture Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Caught in the cross fire were two American lawyers, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner, who had gone over to negotiate a truce and prisoner exchange with the British. Key and Skinner were allowed to board the British flagship HMS Tonant and present their proposals to Major General Robert Ross.
Since they had overheard the detailed war plans, Key and Skinner were held back by the British and were witness to the bombardment of Baltimore on September 13, 1814. Orange and red flashes of rocket fire illuminated the skies over Fort McHenry. The bombardment went on all night and it was not clear as to which side would prevail in this clash of arms. At daybreak, as the first rays of the sun hit the fort and the fog lifted over the Bay, the American flag was still aloft over Fort McHenry, fluttering in the morning breeze. This was the moving sight that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the Star Spangled Banner.  The rockets used in the War of 1812 were a takeoff on the rockets captured by the British from Tipu Sultan of Mysore after the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799.  

The late Dr. Abdul Kalam, the architect of India’s rocket programs, called Tipu Sultan the father of modern rocketry.  When Tipu Sultan was martyred during the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799, the British sent some of the captured Mysore rockets to the Royal Laboratory in England. A development team led by Colonel Congreve back-engineered Tipu Sultan’s rockets. The modified Mysore rockets, renamed the Congreve rockets, were used against Napoleon at the Battle of Boulogne in 1806 and against the Americans in the assault on Baltimore in 1814.  A solid propellant rocket is a system. It requires a host of technologies and a large number of subsystems. Tipu Sultan’s achievement was to create an advanced technological eco-system in the Kingdom of Mysore which was a match for any in Europe or America and in some respects was more advanced. This included metallurgy, iron smelting, fine grain casting, precision boring, solid propellant physics and chemistry, packing, loading, use of composite materials, standardization of materials, processes, manufacture, assembly, testing and deployment of rockets. Tipu Sultan not only established the karkhanas or factories for the production of rockets on a mass scale but backed it up by establishing research laboratories in several forts and advanced schools for the training of military engineers.
The advances made by the rocket engineers of Tipu Sultan show that as late as the eighteenth century, technological developments in Asia were not far behind those in Europe. It was only in the nineteenth century that Europe acquired a decisive technological edge over Asia.

What went wrong?

If the land empires of the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Great Moguls were so powerful and prosperous, what went wrong?
Most noticeable was the delay in the introduction of the printing press which was introduced in Germany in 1439 and spread throughout Europe by the end of the fifteenth century. In Italy alone, there were no less than 77 printing presses in the year 1500. The printing press made possible the spread of knowledge. It was one of the main engines for the Renaissance which produced the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. It was only in 1728 that the printing press was introduced into the Ottoman Empire. It was introduced into Mughal India much later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In both cases, what held back the introduction of this technology was the opposition of the ulema who held that the Word of God would be defiled by contact with wooden presses. Indeed, the ulema increasingly became hostile to the basic sciences which they did not understand. A case in point is the destruction of the Taqiuddin Observatory in Istanbul which was built in 1570 and destroyed in 1577 CE at the behest of the religious establishment, who suspected that the Ottoman defeat in the Battle of Lepanto (1571 CE) was somehow related to the ungodly pursuits of the astronomers.

The impact of colonialism

Europe used its technological and scientific advantage to colonize much of Asia and Africa. India was the first great Asian civilization to fall to the West (1757-1947).
The European powers dismantled the educational infrastructure of the colonized lands which had grown over many centuries, thereby injecting a discontinuity in the intellectual development of the colonized people. The zawiyas and madrassas which had provided the educational foundation of the Muslim world were either marginalized or disappeared. Their place was taken up by government schools run by the colonial authorities whose purpose was to educate the native population to man the lower echelons of the huge administrative bureaucracies in the colonized lands. Science and technology, which at best were flickering in the old institutions, died out.

The modern age

It was only in the latter half of the nineteenth century that the Islamic world woke up to the need to relearn the natural sciences from the west. In India, the Anglo-Mohammedan College, later to become Aligarh Muslim University was founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (d 1898). It was the genius of Sir Syed that he saw for the first time in history, the possibility of cooperation between the West and the ancient civilizations of the East based on science and rational thought. In the Ottoman Empire, a determined effort was made to cultivate science and technology through the Tanzeemat.
However, from a global perspective, the Islamic world continues to lag behind the west in science and technology. Less than one percent of the names that appear in the database of the United States Patents and Trademarks Office are Muslim and a similar trend is observable in the respectable scientific journals of the world. Literacy among Muslims is among the lowest in the world. What is more alarming is that the education gap between Muslim communities and the emerging economies such as those of China is increasing. War, occupation, physical dislocation and government neglect have all taken their toll. Meanwhile, Muslims continue to be bogged down with arguments over halal, haram, bida’, shirk, kufr, length of beards and halal meat. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, women and girls are attacked for going to school. In India girls are harassed for covering their heads. The term a’lim is reserved for one who has studied in a madrasa. Scholarship in the sciences is not valued. Knowledge has been compartmentalized into deeni and dunavi. The ignorant mullahs look down upon the natural sciences as secular, western and debasing. Clearly, a paradigm shift is needed.

The future

Poverty is a curse on humankind. Poverty breeds ignorance and ignorance breeds poverty. Education provides an exit door from this vicious cycle. What drives education today is technology. If the subcontinent is to emerge from the clutches of mass poverty, it must pay attention to its education system.
• Develop a framework to encourage the pursuit of the natural sciences. Instead of engaging in endless disputes about what divides us, would it not be more productive if India, Pakistan and Bangladesh evolved a common science curriculum for K-12 and reinforced each other by sharing the best practices through technological networks? Dhaka and Calcutta, Bangalore and Hyderabad, Mumbai and Karachi, Delhi and Lahore would become the nodes of such a network. Let this be the day when we proposed in this forum,the idea of a South Asian Primary and Secondary Education Network (Let us call it SAPASENET).
• Influence government policy. Primary education is one of first requisites of good governance. The governments of South Asia have washed their hands off of this responsibility. The privatization of primary education was one the worst developments in post-independent India. K-12 education should be free, universal, compulsory and of the highest quality.
• Establish institutions. Encourage bright students to compete and pursue higher education. There are 80 million Muslims in the Gangetic belt stretching from Delhi to Calcutta. While the rich use coaching and training to score high in competitive exams and get into good schools, the poor among the Muslims and the Dalits are left in the lurch. The admissions into IITs and IIMs speak for themselves.

• Introduce ethics into the school curriculum. Tarbiyet is as important as Ta’leem.
• Train the religious establishment, the a’lims and the mullahs, in the basics of science and technology.

Islam is a great civilization. Our hope is that it will once again rise up to the current challenges, renews itself and will march forward with the light of knowledge. The path to that renewal lies in universal, compulsory and free mass education of the highest quality driven by technology, nourished by compassion and love and governed by reason.