Islam and education (long-ish OP)

Some of my buddies and I were having a little discussion, and it kinda devolved into a rant from one of them about how much he hates Iraq and the Iraqis/Arabs/Muslims, but he claimed that (go ahead and assume when I mention a religion that I’m referring to the adherents of that religion) Islam is *by far *the least educated religion as a whole.
I challenged this statement, and he quickly and unambiguously declared that I am a moron, at which point I mostly stopped bothering, but it got me wondering, and y’all are the only people I’d consider asking for the straight dope. I have an issue with two parts of his assertion:

  1. He didn’t qualify it with anything like “of the Abrahamic religions” or “of the major religions,” but I would assume that, at the very least, the religions of some indigenous peoples would qualify as less educated than Islam. This may be nitpicky, but, when I pressed him on it a little, I discovered that his observation was based solely on his time in Iraq. Meaning that if he had spent some time volunteering for the Peace Corps, his assertion might have been that the Chinese religions are the least educated. In short, he had zero evidence to back up his claim here.
  2. Say he had said, instead, “Islam is by far the least educated of the major religions,” which in my mind includes Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. By far? Really? Is this sort of thing even quantifiable, and, if so, how? Can any Dopers find any evidence that this is true? I suspect that, even if Islam is the least educated major religion, it’s not by much. I understand that there may be inherent vagaries in the way religious adherents are tallied, but I’m just looking for some kind of statistic here.
    He went on to claim that Islam endears itself specifically to poorer, less educated people and purposefully insinuates itself into places where Christianity has yet to reach. I didn’t really bother disputing these claims, mostly because I’m kind of ignorant about Islam myself, but are either of them true?
    As for the first part, I thought that Islam in its purest sense offered basically the same thing as the other Abrahamic religions (an eternity in paradise, let’s call it heaven, granted by God in exchange for certain behaviors and attitudes… that may not be the best way to describe it, but that’s what I’m going with), which I suppose might be attractive to any group of people down on their luck, but no more so than Judaism or Christianity’s version of the afterlife. Is Islam’s heaven easier to get into than the other two?
    As for the second part, my cynical view is that there’s no place left on Earth where Christian missionaries haven’t tried to convert the local populace for whatever reason, but do well-to-do Muslim missionaries find the poorest people in the world who don’t call themselves Muslims and go there to spread the word? I guess I find it hard to believe that they do this any more than Christians do.
    I guess that’s all I want to ask… hopefully I’ve at least got the basic facts straight here, but I’m trying to educate myself more than I’m doing this for the guy with whom I was arguing.

Some join the Army, see the world, and develop a wiser and more nuanced take on things. Other soldiers can’t transcend the circumstances of their upbringing and react hatefully. You’re one of the former, your friend, regrettably, is one of the latter. That’s basically all you can say about the matter.

Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims, has a literacy rate in between that of Mexico and Brazil. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia have relatively low literacy rates as do Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it has more to do with poverty than religion (though not sure how you explain Saudi Arabia). Many Muslim countries are poor.

ETA: Indonesia’s literacy rate is about 92%. which is good by world standards. I think the original post may have implied something else.

Here’s a list of world literacy rates by country, from the 2009 UN Development Programme Report via Wikipedia.

Most of the world’s least literate countries are majority-Muslim, but their proportion of Muslim citizens varies widely: for instance, Mali with a 90% Muslim population has a higher literacy rate than Burkina Faso with a 60% Muslim population.

Islamic countries also feature prominently on the high end of the literacy scale, with 98%-Muslim Tajikistan having a 99.6% literacy rate (higher than the US’s 99.0%, ahem). The figure for 65%-Muslim Kazakhstan and 89%-Muslim Turkmenistan is about the same.

I’d have an awful hard time linking modern literacy rates to religion in my head. It has far more to do with relative levels of poverty and development as far as I’m concerned. Especially insomuch as Islam has historically embraced literacy ( reading the Qur’an kinda demands it ) and scientific pursuits. I really don’t think any of the Abrahamic religions fall down in this particular regard - all three have emphasized learning at different times and places.

Yes, except that it’s probably fair to say that practitioners of traditional religions in traditionally non-literate societies generally have lower than average literacy rates. Again, though, that’s still arguably more about culture in general than religion in particular.

Well the three “stans” you listed were all former Soviet states, and the literacy rates would be higher there (Soviets states typically vauled a literate population) than many majority Muslim countries that were not under Soviet control…

It certainly isn’t anything inherent to Islam, since during the “dark ages” the Islamic world was much better educated than the Christian. There’s a reason why we use Arabic words for “algebra” and “algorithm”.

If you count Islamic education, Islam is probably the most educated. I believe it’s pretty standard for Muslim kids to spend quite a lot of time at Koranic schools. Even the poorest African villages often have street-corner Islamic schools.

I’ll back up that culture is a bigger factor. In Cameroon, Muslims were considered less educated. This mostly because Muslims were prominent in the poorer Sahel regions to the North (thanks to organized conquests a few hundred years ago- not anything inherent in Islam). But in Guinea (Conakry), Muslims are considered better educated because they at least attend Koranic school and can usually read.

The least educated religion is probably some tiny local religion practiced by nomadic tribes. Maybe something like Bakka (Pygmy) beliefs- though of course there are plenty of Bakka who do attend school and enter larger society.

As for Islam endearing itself to poorer, less educated people…well, it’s just not true. In North Cameroon, Islam is the “prestige” religion. Muslims are considered more refined and sophisticated because they do not drink alcohol and do not consume certain foods, whereas the poorest are likely to be Christian in part because of historical association (the poorest ethnic groups are the ones who fled to the hills to escape the Fulbe conquests) and in part because Christians can eat anything and poor people have to eat what they have. I believe in parts of India, Christianity is gaining popularity with extremely poor women, since it’s perceived as having better beliefs about women. It all depends on context.

Actually, it’s reciting the Koran. Muslims are expected to memorize much (or all) of it; that doesn’t actually require being able to read it, just listen as it’s read to you & memorize it.

And that’s not uncommon. In Medieval times, most Christians couldn’t read, and were not expected to, but memorizing parts of the Bible was common. The Church & governments were quite upset at Gutenbergs’ printing press, because it encouraged people to read the Bible on their own, and eventually to start questioning the authority of the people in charge.

I’d say that it is more accurate to say that “all three have emphasized learning” for certain people, primarily their authorities (priests, rabbis, imams, etc.). And all three have found it expedient at times to oppose learning for the masses of people.

Make that Muslim boys.
Islam is still one of the more sexist religions, with little education for girls and pretty sexist treatment of women in general.

Given the lack of education for Muslim women (50%+ of their population), there could be some accuracy in considering Ismal the “least educated” religion.

Ummm…girls are sent to Koranic school, too. One of the more endearing sights in my North Cameroonian village were the little girls in their tiny hijab laughing and joking on their way to Koran school. While it’s true that young women often did not get the chance to attend high school, primary schools (the highest level most anyone would expect to get to) were generally pretty even. I won’t deny that many Islamic societies give women the short end of the stick in a variety of ways, but it’s not like Muslim women never ever get educated.

This thread looks like a good place to ask: did Jesus ever say anything about seeking knowledge? Anything like, “Seek knowledge wherever it takes you, even to China?”

Very true, but we were just considering the correlation between literacy rates and religion on its own. If you factor in political context, you definitely get a more complicated answer. (In particular, there is indeed a pretty strong correlation between Communist government and high literacy rates; maybe the OP should point that out to his friend.)

Hey, everybody, thanks for the input so far. What I’m getting out of this so far is that literacy rate is the best indicator of the overall level of education for a group of people, and that makes sense to me. That being said, though, there’s really no way to definitively say that one religion, especially ones as big as the “major religions,” is much less educated than another as a whole. It’s certainly true in some places, and just as clearly false in others. I think I was honestly expecting to learn about some statistic relating to education that I’d never even considered, but I appreciate the input on literacy rates. I don’t think I’m going to revisit this argument with the individual I mentioned in my OP, but it is nice to educate myself (and prove myself correct, of course; I think I did that :)), and I certainly welcome more discussion here.
FWIW, here in Iraq, during my first tour, the road that led into one of the bases I worked at was called Girls’ School Road because, well, it had a girls’ school on it. Most of the girls that we saw walking to or from school were younger, more like elementary school age (grades 1-5 or 1-6 in the US… starting around age 6 or 7), but some of them looked as old as mid-teens. So even in Iraq’s mostly rural areas, the females are getting some structured education. And kids of all ages here love, love, LOVE notebooks and pencils and backpacks, that sort of thing. I assume, or I guess I hope, that the parents are teaching them at home if they’re not using the schools supplies at an actual school.

Errr, I should have to agree with even sven, you are operating under a huge stereotype. In Africa I have seen plenty of girls sent to quranic school. And generally the pulling girls out seems to be associated with poverty, not the religion (since the animists and catholics do it too).

My impression from South Asians as well is education, yes for girls, is valued. They’re not all Saudis.

The thing about Iraq is, it entirely depends on the neighborhood you’re in. Baghdad is pretty advanced. Hit, for example, is not. There are a ton of universities in the bigger cities, but it’s the backwater villages that seem to be so backwards and belong in the stone age. So it’s pretty tough to say that Islam is correlated with education level even within the context of one Middle Eastern country.

In Saudi Arabia, the wealth is closely held by the royal family. I have not been to Saudi Arabia but have heard from people who have that the poverty there would be surprising to many westerners who have seen only the opulence of the royal family.

Much of the perceived sexism in Islam is more of an ancient cultural problem than a problem with the religion per se. Quranic texts are often interpreted so as to support whatever cultural mores are desired, rather than to drive them. That’s why you have the religious police in Saudi Arabia whacking women for showing an ankle, but in Egypt many Muslim women reject even covering their head with a scarf. Just different interpretations of the same stuff.

Only foreign guest workers live in real poverty. Saudi citizens recieve an annual stipend which is enough to live on in moderate comfort by itself.

It’s not a hugely unreasonable assertion to make; the Muslim world is entirely in the eastern hemisphere, and the eastern hemisphere is on the whole poorer than the west.

Moreover, much of the Arab world switched from agrarian to petroleum-based economies during the last 100 years. It takes time for national economies to catch up with the global economy, and it takes more time for literacy to catch up to the economy.

At first, most of the Arab states didn’t think much about the future; they received huge economic boosts from Western oil companies and for the most part spent their newfound lucre poorly. Six-lane blacktop highways are not hugely useful when ~5% of your populace owns a car.

Obviously, they caught on pretty soon. Education is now of paramount importance, because to sustain themselves the oil states will have to train their own people to do the jobs currently done by expatriates. That means building lots of schools and universities.

In any case, I would guess - and no answer to this question could be anything more than a guess - that Hindus are equally likely to be poor and uneducated as Muslims. Modern India is a country of two halves - one college-educated, literate not only in their own local language, but probably Hindi and English as well - and the other made up of rural farmers, unlikely to be able to read anything more complicated than a street sign, or to do anything beyond basic arithmetic.

why in the hell would the people who were organizing a religion go ahead and tell you to seek knowledge?