What Indian Muslims can learn from Jews

Story by  Saquib Salim | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 25-04-2023
Jews studying Torah (Courtesy: Encyclopedia Britannica)
Jews studying Torah (Courtesy: Encyclopedia Britannica)


Saquib Salim

It’s a common perception that being a member of a religious, or ethnic minority is a handicap. In India, politicians and thinkers argue that backwardness among Muslims is due to their large population in comparison with other religious groups like Christians, Jains, Sikhs, and Parsis. The social and economic indices of Muslims in comparison with others are pretty abysmal.

Why do Indian Muslims lag? Looking at history, Jews are one of the worst persecuted religious groups in human history. However, the community dominates the world of commerce, technology, science, and innovation. For several centuries, their persecution at the hands of different European dynasties did not stop them from being a dominating force in trade and banking.

What can Jews teach Indian Muslims? Jews lived as a religious minority in Christian Europe and Islamic Middle East empires but never ceased to be a power. The sole secret of their dominance is education.

Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein in their study The Chosen Few How Education Shaped Jewish History, (1470–1492) have shown that since 70 AD, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman Empire, Jews abolished the supremacy of religious orthodoxy and made it obligatory for every Jew to learn reading. They write, “After 70 CE, Judaism no longer centered on temple service and ritual sacrifices. Instead, it demanded that all of its members read and study the Torah, educate their male children, and invest in literacy and instruction. No other religion required fathers to educate their sons.” This transformed Jews into a literate community in a world where there were hardly any people knew how to read and write.

Laws were so stringent that people not sending their children to school would be ex-communicated. This led to a decline in the population of Jews during the first half of the first millennia. However, now only the educated were left. To put it in perspective, less than 10% of people in West Europe were literate in 1500 AD while for a Jew men, it was mandatory for learn reading.

With the advent of the Islamic revolution of the 7th century, urban centres started developing and Jews were the only literate people in the world. No wonder they started filling places where education was an advantage. Botticini and Eckstein point out, “by 900 the overwhelming majority of the Jews in Mesopotamia and Persia were engaged in a wide variety of crafts, trade, moneylending, and medicine. Once set in motion, this transition never reverted. The words “urban,” “highly educated,” “merchant,” “trader,” “broker,” “banker,” “physician,” and “scholar” became permanently associated with the Jews up to today.”

Jews knew how to read, write and do mathematics. For craftsmen, traders, and moneylenders these were key assets. Thus Jews held an advantage over others. A community that was expelled from England and several other European countries between the 13th and 20th centuries never stopped thriving in trade activities. They translated books from Greek, Latin, and Hebrew to Arabic during the ‘golden days’ of Arab empires. They financed Europe during the Industrial Revolution.

A minority group that was expelled from England in 1290 had to be welcomed back in 1656 with promises of complete religious and economic freedoms. The government believed that with their commercial networks Jews could help in the economic development of London. At present, no society can overlook the Jewish community in the USA and Israel.

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What the Indian Muslims can learn from the Jews is that by introducing schooling as a religious obligation, even if it leads to millions of people leaving the faith, the Jewish leaders provided “the lever of the Jewish economic success and intellectual prominence in the subsequent centuries up to today”.