When the Prophet (SAW) received his first revelation in the cave of Hirra, one of the first words that Angel Gabriel said to Prophet was “Iqra”. The Arabic word “iqra” can be translated to mean “read” or “recite”. In telling the Prophet to read, God put emphasis on seeking out knowledge by way of literacy. Historically speaking, Muslims have made significant contributions to science, medicine, literature, and the arts among other things. Cities like Baghdad were once hubs of intellectual activity and centers of thought. Sadly, among the list of countries with low literacy rates, it is not difficult to find a Muslim nation.
I am shocked by the lack of discussion regarding the connection between literacy and extremism. I remember watching a TV show on an Islamic television network and the sheikh explained that while people in other countries invested more time reading, in the Arab world, people spent on average ten to fifteen minutes a day reading. There is a two-pronged effect literacy has in creating violent and unstable environments. First, illiteracy, and thereby lack of education, inhibits one’s ability to better his/her situation. Multiply this on a national scale and you get the stagnation of development. From this lack of opportunity, comes out haram taken out of desperation: corruption in government, smuggling drugs, stealing, joining a violent militant group, etc. Second of all, it seriously limits our ability to understand Islam. Learning about Islam is the responsibility of all Muslims; it does not just rest in the hands of the sheikh. If one does not know how to read, obtaining Islamic knowledge becomes an incredibly difficult task. This difficulty may lead to disadvantaged rural dwellers trying to seek knowledge through less conventional means – through militant religious groups and other such misguided paths.
The fact that development and literacy is connected to violence also poses a threat to the imperialist narrative showcased by Islamophobes. By their account, Islam is a backwards religion stuck in the 8th century and this societal stagnation is the cause of the violence that has gripped the Islamic world. However a review of history calls this logic into question. For a while, when Europe was in the dark ages, the Islamic world was rich with peace and development. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, thousands of Jews fled Spain for the safety of the Ottoman Empire.
So what can we do about this? We can start by heeding the commandment of the first revelation: read. A reminder to myself before anyone else, we must seek out knowledge and pursue both our post-secondary and Islamic education. Once we obtain this, we can use our knowledge as saddaqah (charity) and pass on what we know to our brothers and sisters and humanity in general. Remember, knowledge is the key to improving our situation, we just have to choose whether or not we want to use it.