International Literacy Day, translated in some parts of the world as International Illiteracy Eradication Day, was observed on September 8. According to UNESCO and Arab League Education Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) statistics, close to 100 million illiterates live in the Arab world. Two-thirds of these are female. These are people unable to read at all; the number who can sign their names but are functionally illiterate and unable to make it through a book, newspaper, or magazine is even higher. Of a total Arab population of less than 350 million including children, that is a staggering number of people.
Al Jazeera broadcaster Khadijah Qinni recently hosted two Arab education experts, Hanan Al Amri from Jordan and Mustafa Boushouk from Morocco, on her TV show to discuss the problem. Hanan believed the solution for illiteracy was developing new educational strategies for the Middle East. Mustafa thought the problem could be solved by increasing Arab awareness of the benefits of literacy.
I've been around the block a few times. Over 40 years have passed since I went to India for a 5 year sojourn, and it's 25 years since I went to live in North Africa. Hanan and Mustafa said nothing I did not hear decades ago, and the rate of illiteracy, particularly among Muslim girls, is increasing by the year.
It is ironic, but I believe the main reason Arab girls are illiterate is the one reason Muslims refuse to even consider. Muslim women are uneducated for the simple reason that Muhammad placed no priority on the education of Muslim women.
Muslims love to quote selected Hadiths to prove the Prophet's perspective on any particular subject. Ask your Muslim coworker about Jihad, and he'll tell you a story about the Prophet saying the greater jihad was purity of heart. Ask a Muslim friend about women in Islam, and she will quote the Messenger saying that Paradise is at the feet of Mothers. Inquire about Islam's attitude toward the Jews, and listen to a story of Muhammad's kindness to the Jewish neighbor who threw garbage in the Prophet's yard. Ask about education, and hear that Muhammad said Muslims should search for knowledge even if they have to go all the way to China.
Unfortunately, that is not the way to discern what Muhammad really felt about any given matter. To do that, you have to follow his actions during the 10 years in Medina when he was in control. Not only was the education of women non-existent on his list of priorities, he even took steps to ensure that the educational opportunities that could have been available for them were removed.
One of Muhammad's first steps in Medina was to draft what Muslims proudly call Islam's first constitution, the Concordia of Medina. The entire document makes only one reference to women: "A woman shall only be given protection with the consent of her family." The message is clear. A woman cannot be protected from abuse or domestic servitude (or illiteracy) unless the men who control her life agree.
Medina was a Jewish city when Muhammad first moved there. The Jews who lived there were educated and literate. Muhammad's own grandfather, Abdel Mutalib, had spent his youth in Medina being educated by the Rabbis. Muhammad could have given his own wives, as well as the illiterate Arab tribespeople who were his converts, the same opportunity to learn from the Jews that his grandfather had. Instead, he kept his wives behind closed doors and expelled the Jews from the city.
If not education for Muslim women, what was Muhammad's priority? In one word, warfare. He created scenarios of the sensual paradise awaiting those who died in battle, and then sent his followers off to die in battles he initiated to build his empire. The Mujahid (the fighter), not the Muallim (the teacher), is guaranteed heaven in Muhammad's Quran.
Has anything changed today? Read what Indian Educator Sam Singh says here about the priority Muslim families place on the education of their daughters in the school he founded in India. Drive through Heliopolis and Nasr City in Cairo, and compare the grandeur of the military complexes and the villas of the generals with the dilapidated government elementary schools in any city or village throughout Egypt. Go out into the desert and see the rows of sparkling new military tanks (built with US taxpayer money) that will rust where they sit as Egypt fantasizes being invaded by Israel, an enemy that exists only in its imagination.
Hanan Al Amri and Mustafa Boushouk were half right. The Arab World does need a new educational strategy, as well as an increased awareness of the benefits of educating Arab women. They just don't realize this will only come to the extent they are prepared to leave Muhammad behind.