June 1, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 224

The Public Debate on Kuwait's School Curricula: To Teach or Not to Teach Jihad

June 1, 2005 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Kuwait | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 224


The terror attacks that occurred in Kuwait this year have intensified the public debate in the country on the extremist nature of the school curricula and on the need for curricular reform. Kuwaiti educators and intellectuals claim that Kuwait's curricula include extremist messages encouraging terrorism, and that members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement who emigrated from Egypt to Kuwait played a central role in devising the country's Islamic education curricula.

Other educators, who occupy positions in the Kuwaiti Education Ministry, argued that blaming the Kuwaiti curricula for extremism and terrorism is not only false but is part of an overall attack on Islam.

At the center of this debate is the question whether the subject of Jihad should be part of the state Islamic education curricula, and the extent to which teaching it contributes to extremist ideology.

The Kuwaiti government has not taken a clear stand on the matter. While Kuwaiti Education Minister Dr. Rashid Al-Hamad has stated many times that the school curricula include no message of extremism, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sabah Al-Ahmad and the Kuwaiti cabinet have called for reexamining the curricula, acknowledging that they do include extremist content that they consider contradictory to the nature of the Kuwaiti state. The following report reviews the public debate currently underway in Kuwait.

A Kuwaiti MP's Study: The Kuwaiti Curricula Include Extremist Ideas

One of the more prominent Kuwaitis to demand curricular reform was the Shiite MP and former lecturer at Kuwait University Dr. Yousef Al-Zalzala. He called for "quickly changing the curricula" after researching them and finding that they encouraged extremism and sectarianism. [1]

Al-Zalzala, who presented his findings to senior Kuwaiti Education Ministry officials, told the London Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "I wanted to point out the existence of defective curricula that need to be reexamined because they call for a distortion of inter-Muslim relations. Similarly, [I wanted] to clarify to senior Education Ministry officials that most of the [curriculum] authors have well-known inclinations towards takfir [accusing other Muslims of apostasy], and that this exists in the Islamic education curricula and in the Arabic-language and social sciences curricula."

Al-Zalzala's findings showed that "11 of the Islamic education textbooks preach in some places to takfir and extremism" and that in certain materials there is " takfir to some individuals," and that "a large segment of Muslims is presented as polytheist." He says, "Because there are jurisprudent schools of thought that differ in their interpretations, Education Ministry officials must reexamine some of the curricula."

Al-Zalzala presented several examples of the extremist messages found in the textbooks: "The Koran study material for the 11th grade includes great confusion regarding the term 'infidels.' Anyone reading it is likely to think that most of the people in the world are infidels… Similarly, Booklet No. 74 of the text Studies in Islamic Law for High School calls for a one-ruler [system] and one caliph now. Kuwait is but one of many Islamic states- and there is not one but many Islamic states, [but] the book nevertheless calls for the establishment of a single caliphate and a single Islamic state and demands that every Muslim bear arms [in order to achieve this goal]. On page 63 the book says: 'This weakness will not exist on the day when all the Muslims are in a single country under a single ruler'… Then it quotes the Koran, praising 'a group from my nation [which] is still fighting for the truth, until Judgment Day' – that is, all the Muslims are required to fight for the establishment of a single Islamic state." [2]

Kuwaiti Intellectuals: The Curricula Encourage Violence and Extremism

Other intellectuals and educators argued for change in the curricula because, they said, these curricula include extremist messages encouraging terrorism and violence. Dr. Shamlan Yousef Al-'Issa, a political science lecturer at Kuwait University, wrote: "The official government institutions- that is, the elementary, middle, and high schools, and even the vocational institutes and the universities- are spreading religious thought by means of children's books full of lessons about Jihad in Islam, and of repeated calls to expel foreigners from the lands of the Arab Gulf countries… The Jihad -waging youth in the Gulf… attended the state schools in Riyadh and Kuwait, and also the public universities… Most of the Kuwaiti Jihad fighters in Falluja are either young students who attended school in Kuwait or [former Kuwaiti] Security Ministry or Interior Ministry clerks. What does the Kuwaiti government expect when its students' textbooks are full of calls to Jihad ?…" [3]

Kuwaiti women's rights activist Lulwa Al-Mulla said at a symposium organized by the National Democratic Alliance of Kuwait: "Following the liberation of [Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation] we hoped to be rid of the mistakes of the past. But unfortunately we did not learn our lesson from this stage, and we repeated the same mistakes. The greatest mistake of all was that the streams and parties opposed to the liberation of Kuwait – arguing that it was being liberated by infidels – continued to empty the curricula of their content in the sciences and humanities, [and to transform them] into religion lessons. Thus, for example, religious [content] was introduced into Arabic-language study. Likewise, physical education classes were cancelled because they were considered forbidden [by religion], and their place was taken by religion education…

"The religious parties even interfered in the foreign schools, in order to force Koran reading lessons as a basic lesson, at the expense of the other, scientific curricula… Those who say that the terrorism in Kuwait is imported are deceiving themselves, or covering up their helplessness. Had the terrorism been imported, Taliban spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith would not have come out [of Kuwait]. And how come Khaled Al-Sheikh, the mastermind behind the September 11 attack, learned [in Kuwait]?... The terrorist danger facing Kuwait is that the education that created these criminal terrorists – who have spilled the blood of our sons, the security personnel – is not imported, and that it is plausible that it will create many [more] terrorists." [4]

Progressive Kuwaiti author and lecturer Ahmad Al-Baghdadi who teaches political science at Kuwait University, said in an interview with the Kuwaiti weekly Al-Tali'a that the Kuwaiti curricula "focus on the Jihad verses and the war verses [of the Koran], and teach that "the infidel must be cursed, and that anyone who does not pay [the Islamic] charity levy is murtadd [apostate in Islam] to whom the punishment for ridda [capital punishment] must be applied." According to Al-Baghdadi, in certain schools "[studying] music is banned, and the [Education] Ministry does nothing. There are schools that [even] object to the music of the national anthem. All this leads to what? If not to terror operations, then to religious extremism… If only the curricula [could be] purely civil – and not raise controversial issues in ridda, Jihad, and other matters, but focus only on moral affairs – it would be possible to solve this problem." [5]

Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa columnist Dhiya Dhiya Al-Din wrote that extremism was encouraged by religious education in Kuwait in general, and by the Faculty of Shari'a at Kuwait University in particular. In his article, "Close Down the Faculty of Shari'a," he wrote: "Close down the Faculty of Shari'a, or reform it. The criminal operations carried out by the [terrorist] gang in Kuwait are the product of the religious studies, which seem to be the reason for this minority's deviation from the path… For half a century now, a certain religious and political trend has prevailed in religious education, and at the Kuwait University's Faculty of Shari'a and in religious departments of the Kuwaiti government. [This trend] acted to sow takfir thought in the curricula, chose teachers belonging to this trend, and prevented ideological and [Islamic] religious pluralism. Thus, inevitably, the consequences are not compatible with the needs and aspirations of the tolerant Kuwaiti society. As a result, many deviant phenomena have inevitably been created, drawing [inspiration] from the takfkir ideology." [6]

Education System Officials: There is No Extremism in the Curricula, the Accusations Are Part of the Attack on Islam

Education system officials rejected the claim that the curricula encouraged extremism. Dr. Fahd Al-Dhafiri, a lecturer in Islamic curricula and education at the Elementary Education College, said: "I reviewed all the Islamic curricula, from the first grade through high school, and I found no expression calling for violence or the rejection of the other… Similarly, I found no call to hatred of the other, or of rejecting him. Rather, I found [messages of] tolerance and encouragement of peaceful relations with non-Muslims."

Al-Dhafiri interpreted demands to change the curricula as part of an attack on Islam: "There are external pressures to change the curriculum… The demand to change them, with the claim that they encourage extremism and terrorism, is not an honest demand. This is because we, the Islamic education curriculum experts, found in them no call to terrorism or extremism. I think that this [accusation is being raised] in the framework of the blatant attack on Islam from all sides…

"The growth of extremism is not connected to the curricula. Extremism is human behavior… It would be unjust to lay the causes of extremism on the curricula or on the teachers themselves; these causes stem from man himself and from the problems he encounters." [7]

Further rejection of the accusations came from Kuwaiti Teachers Union Chairman Abdallah Al-Kandari: "Our curricula do not call for hatred of the other, or hostility or war with them. We all grew up on these curricula... So did the members of the present government, and all the country's leaders and senior officials. If the curricula lead to violence and terrorism, why haven't these leaders become terrorists?" [8]

Senior Education Ministry official Khawla Al-'Atiqialso rejected the accusations as "false accusations by a few corrupt people… who are not interested in society being religious, and who, after the events that took place in America and in other places, found fertile [ground] to attack the religion and the curricula in hopes that all the Islamic education material would be abolished." [9]

Former Deputy Education Minister and education expert Dr. Mansour Ghaloum, who was once in charge of curricula, explained that the extremism was not the fault of the curricula but of the teachers: "We must focus on the teacher. The religious curricula must be taught by teachers who believe in Islam as it should be – a tolerant, peace-seeking religion whose motto is peace. Islam requires us as Muslims to be brothers and to cooperate with one another. Likewise, Islam instructs us to act with grace towards the other religions. Therefore, I say that the curricula as such contain no call to violence. But perhaps some of the teachers have adopted violence… I demand that the Education Ministry supervise who is teaching these curricula." [10]

The Debate on Teaching Jihad

At the center of this debate was the question of studying the topic of Jihad in the schools. This discussion arose following a news item in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Ra'i Al-'Aam about the mention of Jihad in fourth-grade curricula. On p. 61 of Islamic Education – Part I, pupils were asked:

"In their war against the enemies of Islam, the Jihad warriors need:

A) Aid in lives, money, and weapons.

B) Submission of complaints to the superpowers.

C) Spreading the news about them in newspapers, radio, and magazines."

According to the textbook, the correct answer is A.

The newspaper quoted an educator who said the question was aimed at "brainwashing" the pupils, explaining that: "The problem here is that this question was directed at eight- and nine-year-old children in a country that owes its very survival to the superpowers." [11]

Former senior Education Ministry official Dr. Hamoud Al-Hattab, who participated in drawing up the Kuwaiti curricula, harshly criticized this question's inclusion in the curricula: "They are demanding that fourth-grade pupils have Jihad ist sentiments, in the sense of sacrificing life and giving money and weapons to the Jihad warriors. This type of education is brainwashing... No one can ignore the fact that there is Jihad in Islam. But is this the kind of Jihad that should be taught in the fourth grade?"

Al-Hattab, whose name is on the list of those who revised this textbook, said: "I am opposed to this book, on which my name appears. I drew up an amendment to this book, and wanted to revise it entirely, but I was not given a chance – because influential [people] applied pressure... The [Education] Ministry has always imposed its opinion so that I cannot revise the textbook. That is why my name only appears in the list of those who made revisions, not in the list of authors." [12]

Other educators, however, were opposed to removing the topic of Jihad from the curricula, saying that those who think that the inclusion of Jihad in the curricula means encouragement of violence are misinterpreting the term " Jihad." Education Ministry official Khawla Al-'Atiqi said: "When a question about Jihad [appears in the textbook], it does not mean that boys or girls are being called to wage Jihad. Rather, it is clarified to the pupils that Jihad is one of the foundations of the religion and of the faith. It is explained to them in a simple way, not as to a high-school or university student… I do not think that any Muslim would order the removal of the word ' Jihad ' from the Koran or the Hadith. Do they want us to distort our religion? Or must we let the children discover the word ' Jihad ' for themselves, and act in a mistaken way because they did not learn the true meaning of Jihad from childhood?..."

"[The meaning] of the word ' Jihad ' is broad, and does not mean that we should brandish swords and go to fight. If [the word] ' Jihad ' is in the sense of protecting the religion, this is obvious. Every religion wages a Jihad war for the sake of its survival – why deny it?... If there is a minority that has misunderstood ' Jihad,' it is because he learned it by [reading] books of jurisprudence, the books of the Sira [namely, the history of the Prophet] [and other Islamic] sources, but not from the Islamic textbooks published by the Education Ministry... Whoever is interested in waging a Jihad war and in finding justification in the Jihad verses for war against anybody can find these verses in many books not included in the curriculum of these pupils – but commonly found in libraries and on the Internet." [13]

Former Deputy Education Minister Dr. Yaakoub Al-Sharrah said: "If we study Jihad in a different sense from its [sense] in the religion, a great problem will be created. ' Jihad ' does not mean fighting against people's beliefs, or fighting anyone who disagrees with me or believes another religion. Jihad does not call to participate in defending any country subject to any [danger]... But unfortunately there are those who exploit Islam and force on it all the mistaken senses of Jihad, and therefore meanings of Jihad that do not exist in Islam are mistakenly learned." [14]

Kuwaiti Teachers Union Chairman Abdallah Al-Kandari said: " Jihad must continue to be taught, as long as it is taught in its proper sense – and not in its distorted sense, inspiring the attackers of innocent civilians here and there… Those who hold mistaken views on Jihad did not learn these in school, but got this extremist ideology elsewhere. Accordingly, the curricula must not be blamed for things that do not exist in them…

"We in the Kuwaiti Teachers Union call for [curricular] development in general… [but] are opposed to this development taking the form of the removal of verses from the religious curricula." [15]

Dr. Mansour Ghaloum said: "We must not neglect, marginalize, abolish, or ignore what appears in the Koran… Jihad is indeed in the curricula, but… the Koran limits Jihad in terms of time. Islam has commanded us to wage Jihad if our land is attacked. Then, we must wage Jihad for the homeland… Islam does not tell us to wage a Jihad war without reason… Jihad is not aimed at killing people, but is for the sake of humanity, and in order to defend the land. Is it logical for us to abolish the word ' Jihad ' because some people misinterpret it?" [16]

Muslim Brotherhood Involvement in Devising the Kuwaiti Curricula

The Kuwaiti intellectuals who criticized the Islamic education curricula attributed its extremism to the presence of Muslim Brotherhood members in the Kuwaiti Education Ministry. At the National Democratic Alliance symposium, former Kuwaiti Oil Minister Dr. Abd Al-Mohsin Al-Mud'ij said: "Until 1976, the Kuwaiti curricula were moderate and professional… After the parliament was disbanded the curricula were changed because they fell into the hands of the Islamic trend. Those who got [control of] education in general are the leaders of this trend… Matters of takfir were added, encouraging divisiveness..." [17]

Dr. Hamoud Al-Hattab made a similar argument: "Kuwait's Islamic education was combined with Arabic language education, and they constituted a single [study] material. Then we wanted there to be special religious study material. The late Muhammad Abd Al-Halim Al-Sheikh led this demand. Most of those supervising Islamic education in the Ministry at that time were old people, fanatical supporters of Islamic education… Muhammad Abd Al-Halim Al-Sheikh was from the Muslim Brotherhood, who left Egypt [for Kuwait] when pressure was exerted on the movement in the days of Gamal Abd Al-Nasser.

"Al-Sheikh had the ideology of Jihad, like Sayyed Qutb, Hassan Al-Bana, and Abd Al-Qader 'Odah. For them, Jihad was not limited, and they called for internal and external Jihad … When [the Muslim Brotherhood] devised the Islamic education curricula, they wanted to paralyze the pupils' minds with it, and were against the pupils conducting any discussion on religious matters. They focused on [making the study of] Islam a process of rote learning, not of comprehension…" [18]

Others rejected this argument. Dr. Salwa Al-Jassar, former director of the Education Ministry Department of Curricula and lecturer on curricula at Kuwait University, said that Al-Hattab's claim "that the Muslim Brotherhood had taken over the curricula is false. As the director of the Department of Curricula and an expert on this subject, I say that I have never felt there to be any control on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood. On the contrary, they have cooperated with us and acted according to the national interest." [19]

Further, senior Education Ministry official Khawla Al-'Atiqi said: "I say to whoever claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is controlling the Education Ministry: 'Give us their names.' I am familiar with the curricula personnel from start to finish, and there is no Muslim Brotherhood member in it." [20]

Kuwaiti Government Denies Extremist Content but Sets up Investigative Committee

Based on the conclusions of a ministerial committee, Education Ministry officials rejected statements that the curricula contain messages encouraging extremism.

Education Minister Dr. Rashid Al-Hamad said:"The ministry conducted a comprehensive examination of the curricula after the September 11 events, so as to be certain that the curricula do not contain a call to extremism. It was proven to the ministry that the curricula have no connection with the phenomenon of extremism, and that it does not contain a call to the terrorism which [Kuwaiti] society has recently witnessed." [21]

Al-Hamad pointed out that the ministry would be introducing "new curricula such as democracy and human rights… It is incorrect to accuse the ministry of terrorism. If this were true, we would all have turned out to be terrorists." [22]

Nevertheless, other senior government officials called for a reexamination of the curricula. PM Sabah Al-Ahmad said that he had given Education Minister Al-Hamad "several comments [on subjects] existing in the curricula that should be examined, particularly those calling for divisiveness and for rejecting the other." [23]

Al-Siyassa also reported that the cabinet had submitted a 25-page document to Education Minister Al-Hamad, which included comments on and criticism of curricula that "called for extremism and for fighting other religions." According to a senior education official, this report placed the ministry in an embarrassing position, because only a short time earlier, senior ministry officials had denied that the curricula encouraged extremism and terrorism. [24]

In the wake of this report, Minister Al-Hamad decided to form an additional committee to reexamine the curricula – a decision interpreted as proof that the first committee had failed at its task. [25]

In statements about the new committee, Minister Al-Hamad said: "The ministry will take the recommendations extremely seriously. If it turns out that any paragraph of the curricula needs to be changed, the ministry will not hesitate to do so... Some think that there are controversial issues in the curricula, and we hope that these things do not exist. From my knowledge of the reports by the Department of Curricula, I am confident that our curricula are good and that they do not preach things that do not comply with the nature of Kuwaiti society." [26]

Senior Education Officials: We Will Not Permit Jihad to Be Removed from the Curricula

Senior Education Ministry officials did not consider the study of Jihad to be extremism, and rejected the possibility of removing it through curricular reform. Deputy Education Minister Dr. Hamoud Al-Sa'adoun said, in response to a question on terms such as Jihad, fighting the infidels, and others that appear in the curricula: "Yes, they are still there. They are considered fundamental principles that cannot be harmed." He said the topic of Jihad "will remain [in the curricula] for years to come, because it is a principle part of our belief. But [we are talking about] Jihad in its proper sense, not about Jihad as some people think. If you talk of Jihad as it appears in the Hadiths of the Prophet, you will find it in the curricula…

"It is difficult to talk about Islamic education study material without mentioning the concept of Jihad. Jihad is a principle part of the material. But we must present this concept in its proper form, by talking about Jihad of the soul and Jihad against Satan." [27]

Senior ministry official Khaled Al-Qattan said: "The Islamic curricula will be developed, and in all the textbooks there will be essential changes. But this does not mean that a new book will not include a discussion of the concept of Jihad and questions about it." He said the question about Jihad in the fourth-grade textbook is "routine," and "there is nothing in it." [28]

Education Experts: Essential Change to the Curricula is Impossible

These positions by high-ranking Education Ministry officials led some commentators to believe that curricular reform would be all but impossible. Dr. Hamoud Al-Hattab claimed that Education Minister Al-Hamad "will change nothing in education" because "he is incapable of making decisions." [29] Similarly, MP Yousef Al-Zalzala pointed out that although "there is a program for reform that began within the [Education] Ministry, it is moving ahead by turtle steps." [30]

Shamlan Yousef Al-'Issa made similar statements in Al-Siyassa, in which he cited his personal attempt at devising curricula: "The question is whether the education minister can change the curricula. Who will carry out the change, and how [will he do it]? And, most important, who will teach the new material that is to be developed?… In my opinion, the current situation in the Education Ministry does not make it possible to carry out essential changes, because [the Education Ministry] is controlled by the Islamic parties…

"I remember that in the early 1990's I was summoned to the Education Ministry to devise new nationalism education curricula. During the first meeting, I was surprised to discover that most of the people appointed by the ministry were [members of] political Islamic groups… A dispute sprang up between myself and them regarding the nature of the new curricula. They insisted that [Islamic] spiritual education should be part of this material, and I insisted that such material [already] existed in the religious [curricula], and that therefore there was no need for it [in the nationalism education curricula]. The new material came out defective and boring, and had no connection with education to nationalism.

"What we are trying to say is simply that change in our society will not be easy as long as these groups control education, and as long as the government does not take a serious approach to the necessary reforms…" [31]

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Ra'i Al-'Aam (Kuwait), April 20, 2005.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 22, 2005.

[3] Al-Ittihad (UAE), January 16, 2005.

[4] Al-Tali'a (Kuwait), February 23, 2005.

[5] Al-Tali'a (Kuwait), March 16, 2005.

[6] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), February 13, 2005.

[7] A-Ra'i Al-'Aam (Kuwait), March 19, 2005.

[8] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 25, 2005.

[9] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 26, 2005.

[10] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 23, 2005.

[11] Al-Ra'i Al-'Aam (Kuwait), December 11, 2004.

[12] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 22, 2005.

[13] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 26, 2005.

[14] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 24, 2005.

[15] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 25, 2005.

[16] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 23, 2005.

[17] Al-Tali'a (Kuwait), February 23, 2005.

[18] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 22, 2005.

[19] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 27, 2005.

[20] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 26, 2005.

[21] Al-Furqan (Kuwait), March 21, 2005.

[22] Al-Ra'i Al-'Aam (Kuwait), March 20, 2005. Similar statements were made by Deputy Education Minister Dr. Hamoud Al-Sa'adoun in an interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan: "When we examined the curricula [taught] for many years, we found no call to disrespect other opinions, or to hate someone who does not [believe] in your religion. Our curricula are devoid of any type of extremism or hatred of the other." Al-Watan (Kuwait), October 24, 2004.

[23] Al-Ra'i Al-'Aam (Kuwait), February 8, 2005.

[24] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), March 30, 2005.

[25] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), March 30, 2005.

[26] Al-Watan (Kuwait), March 31, 2005.

[27] Al-Watan (Kuwait) October 24, 2004.

[28] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), December 20, 2004.

[29] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), January 22, 2005.

[30], April 5, 2005.

[31] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), October 28, 2004.

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