Illiteracy in Contemporary Muslim Worlds

It is hard to define what prosperity is. The word ‘prosperity’ is often confused with ‘wealth’. But in fact, ‘prosperity’ means more than wealth, but also happiness and life hope. Therefore to measure any nation’s prosperity some standards must be set.

Economic and security stabilities are undisputed foundations of prosperity. Both are the most essential issues that need to be addressed in the very beginning of establishing a nation or empire. In spite of that, to take any nation further towards prosperity, ‘knowledge factor’ must be taken into account. It explains how to improve the use of military means or to regulate economy or to elaborate the nations’ philosophy and idealism to bring it into reality.

But it doesn’t mean that knowledge is secondary needs. In its most simple form, human can’t hinder themselves from thinking. Therefore, the progression of knowledge is needed along the process of economic and security building.

Nowadays, in the globalization era, information is flooding throughout internet, satellite channel, newspapers, or any other mass media. World has become smaller. Geographical borders are no longer relevant. In order to keep up with the world’s rapid progression, one must be able to gain the information, and because of most of them are written, one must be able to read.

If we look into Islamic teachings, we’ll find out that Islam encourages education. Even the very first revelation is a command to read. Islam complemented oral tradition that existed among Arabs at the meantime with literary culture.

The practiced teaching bore its fruits two centuries later. In its golden ages, when Islam covered nearly one-third of known world, Baghdad led the world in terms of literary tradition. Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom), which was established by Abu Ja’far al-Manshur and flourished at al-Ma’mun era, contained million books. It was opened to anyone whose will to copy, read or study the books. Hundreds of bookshops and stationeries were opened at Baghdad. Not to mention knowledge development at Iberian Peninsula under Umayyad Dinasty until the fall of the Mohads. Therefore, it’s not strange when we find that many leading muslim scholars were living around this era.

Meanwhile in Europe, the access to knowledge and science as a whole was restricted to the Church as the only educational institute. The interpretation of Gospel and the philosophers’ works were delivered by Latin, a complex and difficult language which was odd among common peoples.

Sadly, today the world has flipped over. History goes another way. About 20% muslims from muslim-majority countries are illiterate. Indonesia as the largest muslim-majority countries has excellent rate of literacy (92%) based on UNESCO report at 2011. Meanwhile, 41.8% of Pakistan populations are illiterate. Bangladesh isn’t any better, 44.1% of its total population are illiterate. Egypt and Nigeria have respectively 33.6% and 28% illiterate person of their population.

If we to draw a conclusion, among top ten major muslim countries, only Turkey, Indonesia and Iran have low illiteracy rate, about 7.4-9%. The problem is, due to its vast population, even with 8% illiteracy rate, Indonesia is still the sixth muslim-majority country that has highest number of illiterate muslims, right after Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria and Afghanistan, while Morocco, Sudan, Yemen and Algeria sit behind Indonesia.

Some studies try to seek an explanation for literacy problem in those countries. Bangladesh is well behind in terms of the quality of education and its means, while the high rate of drop-out student in elementary school remains major concern. Pakistan as its counterparts is reported of lack of political will. The literate one doesn’t lead the illiterate to learn. Being literate itself doesn’t guarantee the right act, as if it is related to the right course of education.

Unsurprisingly, half of those ten countries are classified by World Bank (based on Gross National Income per Capita) as lower-middle-income countries, one as low-income countries (Afghanistan), the rest as upper-middle-income countries, and none as high-income countries. The question is then raised at Egypt, whereas its GNI per capita is relatively very high—compared to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and even Indonesia—but more than one-third of its population are illiterate.

The same question is also asked to Algeria, which has the highest GNI per capita among those ten countries, but quarter of its population is illiterate. There is good chance that the wealth is possessed by only few numbers of rich peoples, and therefore highlights the gap between the rich and poor in Egypt and Algeria. Whatever the real reason is, these phenomenon need deep and distinctive study.

The numbers written above truly reflect one of major concerns of education in muslim world. Illiteracy is a problem which yet to be solved, whereas solving it doesn’t necessarily raise the prosperity level of muslim world. Because there are many key factors that affect education’s quality as a whole, such as educational means, methods, aim, ease of access, etc.

However, the war against illiteracy is among the ultimate priorities for muslim world in order to revive. The top ten muslim-majority countries that record illiteracy percentage above 50% are classified as low-income countries. Thus the facts above justify Ibn Khaldun's (an early muslim sociologist) statement that the advancement of knowledge will occurs in well-developed countries. “Allah will exalt in degress those who believe among you and have knowledge” (al-Mujadalah:11). Wallahu a’lam bisshawab.

Table 1 : List of top ten muslim-majority countries.

Table 2 : List of top ten muslim majority countries based on number of illiterate person and its relationship to the wealth of its citizen (measured by the amount of income or GNI per capita).

Table 3 : List of top ten muslim-majority countries based on percentage of illiteracy and its relationship to the wealth of its citizen (measured by the amount of income or GNI per capita).


  • The number of population and percentage of muslim are largely derived from CIA factbook, while the percentage of illiteracy is deduced from UNESCO report on 2011. (
  • The numbers of GNI per capita are derived from World Bank report.
  • The numbers of illiterate muslim per country doesn’t exactly reflect the true number.

* This article was published by La Tansa Magazine, IKPM Cairo Branch.