One of the easiest means to gauge a nation’s reading habits is by its newspaper circulation. A leading Pakistani newspaper in the English language circulates approximately 50,000 copies in a month among a population of 160 million. Close to two hundred thousand copies are published of one of the prestigious Urdu dailies that claim the maximum readership in the country.
Today, subscribers of mobile phones, cable TV, and the Internet are setting unprecedented records, making investors in telecommunications very rich. It appears that Pakistan is a nation eager to jump into the age of technology without bothering to improve its intellect. Or is declined reading a worldwide phenomenon? Records state that China sells 82 million newspapers and thus is the country with the highest number of publications in the world. Japan follows with 70.8 million, then India with 57.84 million, and finally the United States with 55.18 million.
Readers can be divided into knowledge seekers and information acquirers. The above figures mainly reflect the information seekers. Today, most people get news from the headlines and are looking only for the icing on the cake. Knowledge has been replaced by information, which is quick and easy to get.
Considering the availability of countless audio and visual aids that match all needs, skeptics argue regarding the magnitude of reading today. Some schools have gone to the extent of replacing contemporary libraries with PCs rather than books. An educationist comments: “Reading print, blurs my eyes… I am so used to staring at my monitor!” Kids protest: “Books are boring and require patience. The gizmos provide us with information, entertainment, and lifestyle all in one go!”
Going back in time, the first of the Quran revealed was Al-Alaq, now the 96th in order. The Mighty words of Allah (swt) commanded the mankind: “Read in the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists). He has created man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood). Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous. Who has taught (writing) by the pen. He has taught man that which he knew not…” (Al-Alaq 96:1-5).
Try figuring this out: Why did Allah (swt) insist on reading and highlight the pen among the rest of creations? Following is my humble analysis of this divine instruction.
Criteria for Reading
Many people mistake Al-Alaq for an unchecked freedom granted by Allah (swt) to read anything one pleases, as long as he or she is acquiring knowledge. Some excited mothers babble: “Thanks to Harry Potter, my kids have started to read!” It is worth to stop for a moment and ask ourselves: “Would Allah (swt) be equally excited to see us read Harry Potter of all the literary treasures available, even if it means developing a reading habit and enhancing imagination? So what, if it is all about magic, which is strictly forbidden by Allah (swt).”
Should we just throw out all our prized classics that we grew up reading? Not necessarily. All we need to do is ascertain the criteria. Who sets criteria for reading? Allah (swt), the Wise, has done so. Read all that is in agreement with Allah’s (swt) Divine Laws. Devour books that facilitate you to think, reflect, grow, and act with a sense of responsibility, whether you are a student, mother, doctor, technocrat or businessman. Knowledge and Allah’s (swt) Pleasure must go hand in hand.
Source of Life and Salvation
Today’s challenge is not in the lack of information, since mankind has never been more sophisticated resource-wise. The problem is that we choose not to read in the name of Our Lord – secular societies market the concept of godless education, which questions: “What’s the point of writing Allah’s (swt) name in a book of anatomy or business law?” Well, the point is to remind us that we are owned and watched by a Creator, Who wants us to excel in this world only the way He has desired us to. This is the only way the mankind will achieve its zenith instead of turning into animals.
The gap and imbalance between sacred and secular societies has turned many people into monsters. Huma Hassan a teacher of religion, suggests a parable – our connection with Allah (swt) can be described as that of a child connected to his mother through the umbilical cord, which is the child’s source of life and salvation. If we deliberately separate Deen (religion) and Duniya (worldly) knowledge, we end up turning into a Frankenstein.
Door to Knowledge
Allah (swt) has exalted the humankind with the blessing of being able to read and write. This prestigious status among the rest of Allah’s (swt) creations has to be maintained by investing time and effort.
Malcom X once said: “I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read evoked in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”
Reading provides knowledge, which nurtures character. Despite reading being a dying habit, even now a well-read person commands respect and stands out in a crowd of countless. It is the power of knowledge that distinguishes him. Dr. Zakir Naik is my favourite role-model, who has never seized to amaze me with his extraordinary knowledge.
Provision of Employment
Not only did Allah (swt) teach us to read but also to write by using a pen, so as to provide further reading material. The goal was to empower. A popular saying goes: “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him forever.”
Reinforcing the same idea, a Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, an economist from Bangladesh, completely altered the way we look at the developmental economics. According to him, instead of providing funds to the developing countries, we should provide them with tools to make the money themselves. This is the concept of ‘agency’-the true empowerment of the people. The Quran advocated this concept 1400 years ago.
Knowledge Steering to Guidance
When Allah (swt) says that: “… It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah…” (Al-Fatir 35:28) it means that knowledgeable people are responsible and conscious beings. They are not heedless and impulsive. They fear the Creator’s Displeasure and make cautious decisions, accepting the responsibility of consequences.
Sadly, Pakistan today is a thoughtless nation that lives on whims and fancies. With no sense of direction or accountability, impulses drive us to the limits. Could it be so that we have shut our books and let our power of reason, reflection, and rationalization silently die out?
Means to Show Gratitude
Imagine your mind as a sponge that can absorb whatever you read. It then connects the words to your sense of understanding. This is an extremely complex process – people suffering from Dyslexia, a reading disorder, will vouch for that. Dyslexics struggle with words in spite of their average or above average intelligence.
In Mark Twain’s words: “The man, who does not read good books, has no advantage over the man, who can’t read them.” This is a blessing we should be thankful for and use it consistently to add value to our and other peoples’ lives.
Adding to Wonder, Beauty, and Focused Attention
Books, which spring from a writer’s imagination, set on fire the imagination of the reader and develop his sense of aesthetic. One can argue that all arts contribute to this sense; however, literature carries special significance.
Dana Gioia, NEA Chairman, can conclude this debate for me: “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading… reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity – and all the diverse benefits it fosters – impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”