July 7, 2010 Special Dispatch No. 3084

Mock Funeral at Saudi High School Sparks Widespread Condemnation in the Country

July 7, 2010
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 3084

On June 3, 2010, the Saudi daily 'Okaz published a photo (below) of a mock funeral that took place at a high school in 'Asir province in Saudi Arabia. Pupils stood at attention while one of their schoolmates, playing the role of the deceased, was wrapped in shrouds and carried in front of them on a bier. The ceremony was apparently meant to instill the pupils with the fear of death as part of their religious education.

The photo evoked widespread condemnation from Saudi officials, educators, and the press. The governor of 'Asir province ordered an investigation into the incident, and promised that measures would be taken against those responsible. 'Okaz published a special investigative article about the preoccupation with death in Saudi schools, which included responses by senior educators and clerics. Educators argued that the ceremony contravened the Islamic shari'a and reflected the culture of death promoted in Saudi schools. Some columnists called to stop using education methods based on fear and intimidation, and to dismiss teachers who espouse them.[1]

Following are details about the affair, and excerpts from responses in the Saudi press:

Mock funeral at Saudi high school. Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 3, 2010

'Asir Province Governor Orders an Investigation

Following the publication of the photo, the governor of 'Asir province, Prince Faisal bin Khaled bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, ordered the security apparatuses to investigate the incident, and said that the holding of this ceremony "contravened [the principles] of the educational environment and was a blatant deviation from the [Saudi] education policy." He instructed that the findings be submitted to him as soon as possible, "so that appropriate measures could be taken" against those responsible. According to reports, the investigative committee assigned to this task has questioned the school principal and the teacher who organized the ceremony, as well as 35 pupils who participated, including the pupil who played the role of the deceased in front of 700 of his schoolmates.[2]

Preoccupation with Death – A Prevalent Phenomenon in Saudi Schools

Approximately two weeks after the publication of the photo, 'Okaz published a special investigative article about the preoccupation with death in Saudi schools. The article begins with a story about a pupil named Muhammad, who, as part of his school education, "was taken to a dark place where a scary voice was heard." His classmates explained to him that this was a common method of preaching meant to "raise pupils' Islamic awareness" and impress upon them that they must always be prepared to face death. Muhammad relates that even today, ten years later, he is still traumatized by this lesson and his life is dominated by the fear of death that can come at any moment. The article stresses that Muhammad is one of many who suffer from the effects of the intimidation tactics used in Saudi schools, and presents responses by educators, clerics, and columnists, and also by parents, who express their opposition to teaching methods based on fear.[3]

Senior Education Officials: Preachers Should Emphasize Life, Not Death

Educators who responded to the incident said it contravenes the principles of the Islamic faith and represents an erroneous approach to preaching Islam. Education Ministry Spokesman Dr. Fahd Al-Tayyash said that the ministry holds the education administrations in each province responsible for everything that goes on in their schools, including deviations from the regular school activities and curricula. Senior da'wa teachers stated that the funeral had been a bad idea and violated the Islamic shari'a, which emphasizes life and growth rather than death.

Dr. Khaled Al-Quraishi, board chairman of the Saudi Society for Da'wa Studies, called on preachers to be mindful of the character of their audience. He said that mentioning death is not always necessary, and that the religious texts stress construction and development rather than death. He added that staged funerals are forbidden and represent a wrong way of preaching, pointing out that the Prophet and his Companions never used such practices.

Dr. Khaled bin 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Shai', a faculty member at a teacher training college, said in a similar vein: "It is wrong to take a dark perspective on life; [we] must look to the future with optimism. Preaching should suit the particular circumstances, and preachers should be qualified [for their job]... We have no information that the Prophet Muhammad ever mentioned the grave in public. [He spoke of death] only at the cemetery..."

Hadija Al-Rashid, a principal of a girls' school, said: "As an educator, I am against any idea or style [of teaching] that makes use of verbal violence, especially in this day and age. This style was used in the past, [but] today it is completely forbidden. Every act has consequences, and nothing can succeed unless it is [based upon] dialogue, persuasion and love. That is the only way to achieve the goal... If one of the teachers [at my school employs verbal violence], I will immediately take the appropriate steps [to stop her]..."

Former Shura Council Member: Our Schools Are Still Influenced by the Sahwa Movement, Which Encourages Terrorism

According to former Shura Council member Dr. Muhammad bin 'Abdallah Aal Zalafa,[4] the funeral ceremony indicates that the Saudi school system still bears traces of Sahwa influence.[5] "Reading the responses to the reports [about the mock funeral], I realized that this was one of methods used by the Sahwa movement to influence the minds of the youth – [methods that] make them hate life and this world, and seek the shortest route to the next world and to the virgins of Paradise, even if this means leaving their families and carrying out terror operations."

As an example, Aal Zalafa mentioned Hila Al-Qasir, a young woman who was recently arrested by the Saudi authorities on charges of membership in Al-Qaeda and of assisting this organization. Al-Qasir, he said, is indicative of what is happening in Saudi girls' schools: "[She] was one of the teenagers whose minds were filled with notions of despising life. [These notions prompt young people] to seek death, and to hate and leave their families, who [try to] prevent them from doing so. Some of the families are [themselves] influenced by the Sahwa [movement], so much so that they are glad to hear that one of their children has become a religious ascetic and fanatic."

Aal Zalafa called to fire educators who espouse the Sahwa ideology: "Some teachers still endorse this ideology. [For example], that principal who instructed [his] pupils to wrap one of their schoolmates in shrouds told them that death was the only deliverance from this deceptive world... Teachers who espouse this ideology – of which there are many in our schools, universities, colleges and institutes – must be dismissed."

Saudi Columnists: This Education Policy Must Be Stopped Immediately

Saudi columnists wrote that the policy of teaching by intimidation must be stopped, and that teachers who use these methods should be fired. Liberal columnist Halima Muzaffar wrote in the daily Al-Watan: "This [ceremony surely] had a severe psychological impact on the pupils, if they started their day by watching one of their living schoolmates being wrapped in shrouds and carried by his friends on a bier, while they stood at attention. What is the purpose of this?! To scare them against [committing] sins and offenses? Is this the way to encourage these youngsters – who are [just] beginning their lives, and are full of aspirations and dreams for the future – to believe [the principles of] their faith and to worship Allah?! Can this still be happening despite [all the efforts] to combat terrorism and extremism?! I thought that these methods, which we [all] suffered for many years, ended when the education ministry announced [its intention to] reform the schools and education administrations.

"I myself was a victim [of these methods] in junior high. I remember the day when our principal and several teachers prepared the materials for religion [class]... [including] a basin for washing the dead, as part of a lesson about the tortures of the grave... At the end of this frightening lecture, [the principal] taught us young girls how to wrap up our mothers and sisters in shrouds, should they die suddenly. How sad, cruel, and unforgettable that day was. Many girls fainted, while others cried in fear. I found myself having nightmares about death night after night... The tragic fact is that these activities recurred throughout most of our school years.

"What material and lessons can [pupils possibly] absorb after [witnessing] such a 'death charade'? Who said that piety [must be] instilled by undermining the culture of life? Must we frighten people [with lessons about] death and the grave in order to prompt them to pray, believe, and avoid forbidden acts?!... The Education Ministry must supervise the girls' and boys' schools, and defend [the pupils] from anti-educational practices of this sort. Parents, and anyone else who witnesses this sort of conduct, must report it. The important thing now is that the investigation of the incident... result in severe punishment [for those responsible], and that nobody accept any excuses, [such as a claim] that it was all done with good intentions... [The punishment must be sufficiently severe to] deter those who wish to terrorize our children with the culture of death and graves."[6]

Columnist 'Abdallah bin Bjad Al-'Otaibi wrote in 'Okaz: "...We must take a firm stance against this conduct, by removing the [teachers] who terrorize [our] young people, and by punishing teachers and principals who take part [in such activities], in order to deter the others and purge the education environment of these negative influences. [Those guilty of these tendencies] must be transferred to administrative jobs where they have no contact with the youngsters and cannot influence them... The platforms of religious preaching – [namely] schools, after-school activities, summer camps, and mosques – are [contaminated by those] who try to frighten their audience [with talk of] tortures, bitter fate, and [various] punishments... This is a travesty of the principles of our religion and faith... These [people] must be removed, because [even mere] intimidation is a step towards terrorism."[7]


[1] The issue of preoccupation with death in Saudi education has come under criticism in the country before. For example, in January 2008, liberal columnist Halima Muzaffar penned an article titled "What's Happening in the Girls' Schools?", in which she described the morbid lectures to which Saudi pupils are often subjected. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1831, "Saudi Columnist Criticizes Preoccupation with Death in Saudi Girls’ Schools," January 31, 2008, Saudi Columnist Criticizes Preoccupation With Death in Saudi Girls’ Schools.

[2] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 7, 2010.

[3] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 17, 2010.

[4] In 2005, Aal Zalafa was the first Shura Council member to call for lifting the Saudi ban against women driving. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 403, " The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving," November 6, 2007, The Public Debate in Saudi Arabia on Women Driving.

[5] The Sahwa is an extremist Islamic movement in Saudi Arabia, led by Sheikh Sa'd Al-Breik. Sheikhs Salman Al-'Odah and Aaidh Al-Qarni were also among its members, but in the recent years they have moderated their views.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 18, 2010.

[7] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 10, 2010.

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