November 9, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 195

Saudi Study Offers Critical Analysis of the Kingdom's Religious Curricula

November 9, 2004 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 195

The Second Forum for National Dialogue, held in Saudi Arabia in late December 2003 under the patronage of Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah Ibn Abd Al-'Aziz, was attended by 60 intellectuals, researchers, clerics, and public figures, among them 10 women. The forum, which focused on religious extremism and moderation, ended with recommendations for: accelerating political reform and expanding popular political participation; renewing the religious discourse in compliance with modernity; establishing a culture of dialogue in Saudi society; allowing responsible freedom of expression; strengthening women's status in all areas; setting out a strategy to help keep Saudi youth away from religious extremism; and improving the Saudi school curricula so that they spread a spirit of tolerance and moderation. [1]

One of the major studies presented at the forum was a study of the religious curricula in boys' schools in the Saudi state school system. The study, conducted by former Saudi judge Sheikh Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Qassem and Saudi author and journalist Ibrahim Al-Sakran, was based on an examination and critical analysis of three curricula for Saudi middle and high schools – Al-Hadith, a general curriculum on Islamic traditions; Al-Fiqh, a curriculum on matters of religious law and ritual, and Al-Tawhid, a curriculum on matters of belief. [2]

The researchers found extremely grave defects in the curricula, particularly with regard to attitude toward the "other" – that is, toward anyone whose views are not in line with the Wahhabi Islam that is dominant in the kingdom. Although the researchers note that the curricula denigrate and show hatred toward and incitement against non-Muslims, the main body of findings shows no less intolerance to non-Wahhabi Muslims.

Instead of strengthening pupils' understanding of disputes and disagreement as a natural and legitimate part of human life, and instead of inculcating a culture of dialogue and pluralism in Muslim society, the Saudi curricula that the researchers examined actually encouraged denigration of, hatred of, and incitement against Muslims whose customs and views differ from those of Wahhabi Islam. The curricula teach that non-Wahhabi Muslims are unbelievers who are introducing forbidden innovations into Islam and collaborating with the colonialist foreigners. This approach, the researchers concluded, encourages violence toward others, and misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the "other."

The researchers found that the curricula they examined make sweeping accusations of unbelief [Takfir], and permit the killing and taking of the property of "polytheists" [Mushrikun]. The derogatory term "polytheists" harks back to early Islam, when the monotheistic Muslims fought to the death against Arabs who believed in many gods alongside Allah. In the Saudi schoolbooks the term ' Mushrikun 'is used for all non-Wahhabi Muslims – and applied so broadly that even statements such as "Development programs will eliminate poverty and ignorance" and "Medical progress will eliminate disease" are also considered polytheism – because they attribute results to causes other than Allah. Similarly, using names for Allah that are not the accepted ones is considered unbelief.

The Saudi curricula that they examined, which were compiled in the context of intellectual debate and religious and political struggle, drag pupils into ideological conflicts that should not be their concern at this stage. The researchers also state that these teachings fill the pupils with constant fear that they may fail and fall into polytheism by presenting the religious deviation as a danger lying in wait for everyone, at any time, any place. The researchers warn that presenting issues in this way makes pupils extremely anxious about society, and diminishes their social involvement.

There are also extremely serious defects in the curricula's approach to reality, and the curricula do little to prepare pupils for active integration into and involvement in society. Quite the opposite – the curricula were found to exaggerate society's deviation from religion, focus on descriptions of society's atrophy, stress how polytheism is spreading in the Muslim world, emphasize how the Muslim world is being flooded with forbidden innovations, and focus on society's moral disintegration. Such overstatement, say the researchers, undermines the pupils' sense of belonging to their environment, causes social alienation, and pushes the pupils toward isolation from and conflict with their own society.

The researchers stated that instead of encouraging positive civic activity, the curricula limit the individual's public participation only to religious charities and to organizations that protect public morality. Thus, the pupil either seeks other, illegitimate avenues to express himself, or despairs of the situation and sinks into indifference.

Regarding the curricula's attitude toward modern culture, the researchers found that there was no attempt to inculcate in the pupils any legitimacy for civil values such as human rights and political awareness, and that there was much less discussion of social issues and civil values than of religious matters. The curricula refer only to clerics as "scholars," and object to using the same term with regard to civil sciences experts. The curricula create a sense of conflict between religion and culture; they denigrate other cultures' achievements and teach that these other cultures and societies are materialistic, devoid of faith, and lacking in the essential foundations of happiness.

The researchers stated that the curricula confuse non-Muslim religious customs with the social and civil activities of daily life and public affairs, and teach that all such customs and activities are unbelief. Even when modern ideas such as nationalism, communism, secularism, and capitalism arise in the curricula, it is argued that their only aim is to fight Islam and that they are a form of unbelief. Such attitudes, warn the researchers, prevent Muslim society from developing and from benefiting from the work and achievements of other cultures.

Seeking legitimacy for their findings, the researchers argue:

1) The need for curricular reform is an internal need emanating from Saudi acknowledgment of the flaws in the curricula, and has nothing to do with international pressure on Saudi Arabia to reform its curricula.

2) They are not seeking to abolish religious education, but rather to show that in its present form Saudi religious education is unbalanced and inaccurate, makes misleading generalizations, and in no way reflects all attitudes existing in Islam. They show that the Saudi schoolbooks tend to accentuate a particular aspect of the religious scriptures and neglect other aspects – thus leading pupils to act according to one interpretation. The teaching material does not show the pupils – who lack appropriate background and knowledge – all the minute details of Islamic religious law, and thus causes misperception of Islam and Islamic precepts. Further, the curricula examined do not encourage the concept of Ijtihad – that is, using independent judgment in legal or theological matters in Islam – and do not emphasize that any effort to reach the truth, even a failed effort, is welcome.

It should be emphasized that the researchers' basic starting point is religious. Their fundamental assumption is that Islam includes a variety of views, opinions, and customs, and that there is no need to adhere only to the Wahhabi interpretation – on the contrary; more moderate approaches are preferable. According to them, a moderate interpretation of Islam will make it possible to live a religious life that does not stand in contradiction with modern culture and does not reject the importance of civil values.

Thus, at the conclusion of their study, the researchers recommend balance and moderation in religious discourse. While remaining within the framework of Islam, and without calling for secularism, they recommend eliminating accusations of unbelief against other Muslims and instead emphasizing acknowledging their lives and property as worthy of protection. Similarly, they recommend increasing the pupils' understanding of human rights that already exists in Shari'a law; adopting a balanced religious view of non-Muslim cultures that will allow learning and benefiting from these other cultures; adopting a balanced religious view regarding behavior toward non-Muslims; and increasing pupils' awareness of their social and civic obligations and of the importance of their active integration into society.

The following are the main points of the research:


The authors begin by presenting the questions that guided their research:

1) To what extent do the Saudi curricula examined in the study include a variety of religious texts, particularly on issues concerning attitudes toward the "other," so as not to show bias toward a particular extreme interpretation of Shari'a while ignoring other, more moderate interpretations?

2) To what extent do the Saudi curricula maintain the right order of importance in matters of religious law so as to prevent the situation in which the exceptional cases create confusion with regards to the fundamental rights set out by Shari'a ?

3) To what extent do these curricula set out principles of justice, particularly with regard to other Muslims as well as "the people of the book" (Jews and Christians)?

4) To what extent do these curricula inculcate tolerance toward other cultures and sciences so as to enable the endorsement of these cultures and sciences that do not harm the foundations of Shari'a ?

5) To what extent do these curricula support pupil participation in civic life, in a way that encourages self-expression in peaceful ways rather than in separatist ways outside society's legitimate channels?

6) To what extent do these curricula maintain a balance between the achievement of goals through civic means and their achievement through various means of confrontation?

The researchers clarified that, in light of "Western media attacks on our country" it would be "exaggerated to place the blame for the armed [Islamic] violence against the West on the [Saudi] religious curricula, and they [the curricula] are certainly not the main reason for [the violence]. [This is because] the flaws in the curricula do more to damage intra-Muslim relations than to cause incitement against non-Muslims."

For this reason, they stated that amending the Saudi curricula is more in the Arab and Muslim interest than as a response to external demands – and that such amendment should not be avoided just because Westerners) demand it.

Part One: The Attitudes toward Muslim Opponents

In their analysis, the researchers stated that what is needed in order to create stability in Muslim society are religious curricula that responsibly teach and support Shari'a principles regarding dealing with the existence of disagreement between people and the way to deal with it. They recommend first of all that the curricula acknowledge that there is such a thing as human disagreement and disputes among people. They also recommend that the curricula give stronger support to pluralism and to its consideration as legitimate within Islam; that the curricula relinquish the [Wahhabi] attitude of superiority toward the other Islamic schools of thought; that they establish the values of coexistence, love, and friendship found in Shari'a law; that they set out how to behave fairly toward "other" Muslims; and that they uphold the principle of Ijtihad. [3]

They concluded that the curricula examined in the study "did not succeed in presenting a coherent position on these issues, and that they are dominated by inconsistency and contradiction. Sometimes, and particularly on the theoretical level, these curricula discuss in detail the supreme Islamic customs and moral behavior between man and his fellow man. However, on the practical level, when discussing attitudes toward those who are different, the curricula reiterate contradictory and misleading positions. These inconsistencies place the pupil in a crisis that makes it difficult for him to shape a clear religious position in coherence with the principles of Shari'a law. As a result, the pupil is confused in shaping his moral world regarding [Muslims] who are different…"

The researchers presented theoretical examples of moral and behavioral rules mentioned in the curricula: "Intra-Muslim relations must be strengthened;" [4] "A pleasant expression and a smile are good deeds on which the Muslim must not skimp in relations with his Muslim brothers;" [5] "The sanctity of Muslim blood and honor [must be respected];" [6] "A Muslim must not be called an unbeliever for no reason;" [7] and "[When a Muslim thinks that his brother] is harming the religion, he must counsel him [how to act] instead of hastening to vilify him as an unbeliever." [8]

At the same time, however, they found that the curricula included other concepts that contradicted these principals. Instead of emphasizing the strong interrelationships among Muslims and the general rights of all Muslims, and instead of setting out the principles of Ijtihad and teaching patterns of dialogue, the curricula include texts that incite the children against "other" Muslims. Thus, for example, the curricula state that "other [Muslim] groups, such as the [rationalist] Jahamiyya, Mu'tazila, Ashariyya, and [the mystical] Sufis, [9] were deceived, and have deviated from the right path because they followed teachers who deviated from the right path." [10] Such statements, say the researchers, reduce the complex elements of these ideological differences into a single statement – blaming these Muslim groups of following teachers who deviated from the right path. Such statements also lump together groups that have nothing in common, and label all of them religious deviants.

In addition, the researchers noted that the curricula accuse of unbelief all who deny Allah's own description of Himself or the Prophet Muhammad's description of Allah. [11] They say that texts like these attack Muslim clerics and their pupils: "What does the young pupil have to do with the fine points of the precepts [of Muslim law] regarding accusations of unbelief? Don't such texts denigrate the strict guidelines regarding accusing [another Muslim] of unbelief?"

In their analysis, the researchers also stated that the curricula present exaggerated and misleading statements about the customs of various Muslim groups. This, they say, confuses the pupils as they try to understand how to maintain proper relations with Muslims different from themselves. For example, in their discussion of the popular custom of celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the curricula state: "Celebrating the birth of the Prophet is an act of imitating Christians. This day is celebrated by ignorant Muslims, or by clerics who incite [their followers] from the right path. This celebration is attended by a large crowd of rabble; [further, this celebration] is not free of deeds that are considered polytheism and of deeds that are forbidden. Sometimes there is mixing of men and women – a mixing that causes temptation and loathsome deeds. Therefore, this [celebration] is bid'a [an innovation forbidden in Islam] that was brought into Islam by worthless people…" [12]

The researchers said: "After the curricula label 'others' as [belonging to] the camp of bid'a without giving details and without accuracy, they present rules for treating the people who commit bid'a – [rules which] contradict the principles of Shari'a by stating that 'it is forbidden to visit with or spend time in the company of anyone who commits bid'a." [13]

Encouraging Violence Against "Other" Muslims

In their study, the researchers stated: "The curricula inculcate aggressive, negative, and inappropriate interpretations of the behavior of 'different' Muslims – including a premise that there is a conspiratorial link between [this 'different' Muslim] and the colonialist. The curricula state: 'It is the [Muslim's] obligation to know that the infidel countries encourage those who commit bid'a to disseminate their bid'a,and aid them in a variety of ways in doing so.' [14]

"This approach of casting doubts upon the 'different' Muslim," they stated, "plays a role in weakening the pupil's morality, and undermines in him [all] positive thought regarding ['different'] Muslims… In spreading the language of segregation, in misguiding, and in doubting [others] endangers the shaping of a balanced pupil. Worse still is presenting the history of disputes in Islam in a way that can be understood by the pupil understands from as legitimizing the violent repression of the 'other' and even his physical elimination because of his views on disputed issues… These things may create a misapprehension that violent treatment of the 'other' is a task in which the pupil is obliged to take an interest."

The researchers presented a number of examples permitting violence toward the "other." One schoolbook states: "The more time passes since the [beginning of] the Prophet's mission, the more religious deviation has proliferated. The prophetic customs have disappeared and many forbidden innovations have been created… The Companions of the Prophet Sahaba and their disciples Tabi'un determinedly faced these developments [armed] with knowledge. Nothing escaped them; rather, they repressed [these developments]. They clarified truth and removed doubt… No bid'a appears without Allah decreeing that someone will refute it and reveal its flaws, such that the Sunna [i.e. the way of the Prophet] will prevail… When Ghilan Al-Dimashqi declared [the institution of] a bid'a, the Tabi'un rose up against this bid'a … and when he persisted in his bid'a, he was killed by Hisham bin Abd Al-Malek… The same happened every time the gangs committing bid'a proliferated: The armies of the Sunna rose up against them…" [15]

They stated: "Making these statements, which praise violent behavior toward the 'other,' is very dangerous to the psychology of the pupils … and may bring about the collapse of the [values of] the sanctity of life and soul in the internal consciousness of the youth, and they may become contemptuous of life and think that murder and bloodshed are legitimate – particularly when these means are presented to the pupils as pillars of observance and preservation of his faith."

The researchers wrote that the schoolbooks they examined teach that "deepening the Islamic identity is done by means of punishment," and they quoted: "The interest of the religion is above any other interest. Allah in His mercy has permitted many ways for preserving the faith, including the directive to maintain distance from and punish disobedience of Allah's law; [the directive] to fight the phenomenon of bid'a and to punish those who commit it, as well as sorcerers and their ilk; [the directive] to kill unbelievers murtadun and infidels zanadiqa; and [the directive] of Jihad." [16]

They further explained: "This text portrays the religion in a way that misleads the pupil into thinking that the preservation of the faith must be carried out by means of a series of punishments. The text ignores the fact that the fundamental defense of the faith is based on evidence … on justice, on the Shura [i.e. the people's council], and on the quality of mercy. According to Shari'a, punishments are carried out in accordance with special instruction, and the pupil, who lacks knowledge [in this matter], should not be introduced to this large compilation of minute regulations. Without this knowledge, an image that reduces treatment of ['other'] people to a chain of violent punishments and deeds creep into [the pupil's] understanding [of how the religion is to be preserved]."

The researchers added: "The curricula call to deepen hatred toward Muslims who are lax [in their observance] – while [in fact] love and friendship should be spread [among all Muslims]." An example of this is the curricula's instruction to hate for the sake of religion. The curricula say: "Hate for the sake of Allah, that is, hate the others who oppose the commandments of the proper religion." [17] The researchers state, "A declaration of enmity against those of his Companions who were lax [in their religious observance] is not among the traits of the Prophet – who [actually] was quick to forgive."

Sweeping Accusations of Unbelief Takfir in the Curriculum

While the curricula examined by the researchers focus the pupil's attention on the dangers of making accusations of unbelief, in some instances these same curricula act rashly by depicting unbelief as rampant in the Muslim world. For example, the curricula say: "The Muslim nation has been infiltrated by the beliefs of polytheism, destructive principles, and deviant groups that resulted in many leaving the fold of Islam – even though they say [the Shehada, i.e.] that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger." [18]

"Along with misleading images that include sweeping accusations of unbelief, the curricula present many phrases permitting bloodshed and the expropriation of property, and these [phrases] are scattered within [the curricula] in disorder. [There are phrases] such as: 'The blood and property of the polytheists are permitted.' [19] The curricula stated that even when the polytheist is an ignorant Muslim, his life and property may be taken: '[Regarding] those who say, There is no God but Allah, yet do not abandon the cult of the dead and visiting tombs [of the great sages], there is no prohibition on spilling their blood and expropriation their property.' [20] Moreover, the curricula state that it is permitted to enslave the family members of the 'others' – and, in statements bordering on incitement, they say that Allah 'has permitted to the monotheistic believers the blood, property, and family members of [those who have sinned by polytheism], and they may take them as slaves…'" [21]

According to the researchers, these statements, and others like them, indicate lack of judgment regarding important religious precepts – which must be presented with great legal accuracy, and adapted to the pupils' level.

The researchers pointed out that the inconsistency in the curricula increased several times over when the subject addressed was modern trends of thought. This recklessness was evident in accusations of unbelief levied with the aim of winning the pupils over to an anti-modern stance. As an example, the researchers point out the curricula's attitude toward the idea of national Arab unity and to the institutions, such as the Arab League, that emanated from this idea. The curricula calls promoting pan-Arabism "atheist calls from the Jahiliyya [pre-Islamic] era aimed at fighting Islam and freeing [Muslims] from its precepts and commandments," and state further that "national pan-Arab thought strips the religion of its importance, and sees religion as an obstacle on the path to nationalism." Based on this approach, the curricula determine that "there is no doubt that the idea of [Arab] nationalism is a return to Jahiliyya." [22]

The researchers asked, "How can the pupil digest these extreme contradictions between the principle stating that making accusations of unbelief is a grave matter and between making such reckless accusations of unbelief? Furthermore, the extremism in regard to Arab nationalism goes so far as to depict the idea of pan-Arabism as the punishment of every society that left the Muslim faith. The curricula state: 'After Europe invaded the Muslim world politically and culturally, the Muslim world sunk into fanaticism based on blood, citizenship, and nationality, and it must be known that these divisions are Allah's punishment for all who deviated from His laws and denied His religion.' [23]

"The curricula present an extreme approach also with regard to modern scientific theories in the areas of economics, politics, and law." For example, the curricula state that "Belonging to atheistic streams such as communism, secularism, capitalism, and other streams of unbelief is apostasy. When anyone who belongs to these streams claims to be a Muslim, it is the greatest of hypocrisies, since the hypocrites are considered to be [only] outwardly part of Islam while they in fact belong to the infidels." [24]

The researchers further found that the curricula attempt to limit the types of relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, to highlight aspects of enmity toward non-Muslims, and to refrain from underlining aspects of Shari'a that hold for all humanity. Thus, for example, the curricula state, "It is forbidden for believers to love the polytheists and to form relationships with them – even if they are their relatives." [25] To refute this approach, the researchers presented examples from the scriptures on Muslim-polytheist relations during Islam's formative period, and state that Shari'a never said that every polytheist and unbeliever must indeed be treated with total enmity, but rather that aggressors must be treated with enmity but peace-seekers must be treated well.

The Researchers' Conclusions for the First Chapter

At the end of the first part of the study, the researchers concluded the following:

1) The curricula that they examined do not teach that disagreement and dispute are the way of the world, and therefore there is no conceptual system that can eliminate human disagreement, unite trends of human thought, and require the individual to follow one single path.

2) The curricula do not deepen belief in pluralism.

3) The curricula do not cultivate intellectual humility and do not renounce the arrogance characterizing the various Muslim schools of thought.

4) The curricula do not emphasize values of coexistence; instead, they strengthen the legitimacy of repressing [Muslims] who are different.

5) The curricula do not refrain from denigrating the 'other' and do not acknowledge areas in which 'others' are correct.

6) The curricula do not cultivate the principle of exerting efforts to investigate in the search for truth; nor do they teach that all effort is welcome even if the attempt fails.

Part Two: The Curricula's Approach to Reality

In their discussion of the role played by the curricula in preparing the pupils for integration into society and for preserving society's institutions, the researchers noted positive examples from the curricula promoting this integration along with inconsistency and overstatement in describing society's deviance and atrophy. This, state the researchers, "upsets the pupil's emotional balance," causes the younger generation to become alienated from society, and pushes young people toward isolation and conflict with society.

The curricula go to great lengths to depict how polytheism is spreading, how the Muslim world is being flooded with forbidden innovations bida', and how society is suffering from moral disintegration. Some examples are the following statements: "Most Muslims imitate the infidels in forbidden innovation and polytheism;" [26] "Polytheism, destructive principles, and deviant cults have spread throughout the [Muslim] nation, and they have caused many people to leave the fold of Islam, although they recite [the Shehada]: 'There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger;'" [27] "Unfortunately many Muslims today denigrate adherence to their faith, the glory [of their faith], and calling to join it. Their morals have become lax; grievous sin is rampant among them; and they tend to follow their lusts." [28]

According to the researchers, "such excess in describing the deviation in society undermines the pupil's sense of belonging to his Muslim world and may rend the pupil's sense of a spiritual connection with the Muslim world – because limiting the depictions of society to a few negative phenomena abolishes all meaning in [social] belonging and participation."

The researchers said that the curricula sometimes attack Saudi educational institutions for not allocating enough time and attention to religious subjects, and add that they also attack the media, excessively describing their flaws. The curricula state that "the media have become in most cases a tool of destruction and heresy, or focus on material matters and entertainment, and take no interest in anything that strengths morality, inculcates the proper faith, and struggles against deviant trends." [29] The curricula also determine that "we should not listen to nor believe the news … particularly those published by the deviant foreign media, newspapers, and magazines or by the news agencies that are filled with hatred [of Islam.]" [30]

Further, they pointed out in brief that "the curricula set dangerous rules for the pupils about accusing regimes and governments of unbelief." To support this finding they cite the following example from the curricula: "If [a government or regime] makes a general ruling regarding Islam and claims that some of its laws are oppressing and humiliating, this is unbelief, which removes a Muslim from the fold of the [Muslim] community – even if they [later recant], saying 'We have erred and [admit] that the ruling of Shari'a is right more than [secular law]." [31] The researchers brought another example how the curricula cast doubts even on states that apply the Shari'a partially. The curricula demand full implementation of the Shari'a and state: "Allah's commandment should be obeyed… not only with regard to personal status, as is done in several countries that affiliate themselves with Islam." [32]

The researchers stated: "It is dangerous to exaggerate society's weak points and reality's flaws, because the [resulting] grim picture affects the pupil's vitality … and makes him think that it is useless to try to change the situation, and that the best means of preserving the religion is to quit [society] into insular groups." Similarly, they explained that the Prophet Muhammad himself had warned against intensifying the individual's sense of fear and doubt regarding society, because this increases social deviance. Accordingly, they conclude that "it is not in the best interests of Muslim society to widen the gaps between society and its youth and to fill them with a sense of alienation and lack of common ground – to the point where some enjoy breaking the law…"

Part Three: Frightening Pupils Regarding Religious Deviance

Tranquility is a fundamental human need, and it motivates the individual to good deeds and creative activity. In contrast, a desperate person contributes nothing to society. Thus, the researchers explain, Shari'a law stresses "the fine balance between hope and fear." Moderate religious discourse is vital in giving the individual a sense of self-confidence along with an essential measure of calm – because excessive anxiety gives rise to unbalanced behavior and religious confusion. Excessive anxiety causes the individual to isolate himself and to fear that sinking into day-to-day concerns may distract him from his religious practice. Fearing that the shadow of religious deviance lies in wait for everyone promotes in the individual a tendency to oppose change and be apprehensive about anything new. Thus, an increase in an individual's tension about his religion means a decrease in his social involvement.

"One of the worst things religious preaching can do," the researchers stated, "is to shatter the individual's emotional tranquility by frightening him about the risk of falling into polytheism, excessively intimidating him about [introducing] innovations that are forbidden [in the religion], and overemphasizing the trap of hypocrisy. This does not mean that the dangers do not exist – but they also do not surround the individual every moment of the day and are not lying in wait for him around every corner, in a way that does not permit him to trust his ability to overcome them."

They explained that the Saudi curricula are constantly trying to instill in the pupil a sense that he is in danger of forbidden innovations ( bida' ), of apostasy ( ridda ), of hypocrisy ( nifaq ), and of polytheism ( shirk ). The curricula state, for example, that "human beings may fall into polytheism without (even) knowing it." [33] The researchers comment, "How can the pupil feel tranquility when he senses that he may trip and fall into polytheism at any time, and that he is an ignoramus who knows nothing and will be among those whose fate is to dwell forever in Hell? How can the pupil trust his ability to resist when he feels that it is not possible to be saved from polytheism?" It is important to show pupils the dangers, the researchers state. However, religious deviance must not be presented as an immutable force.

Part Four: The Curricula's View on Modern Culture

In their discussion of the curricula's view on modern culture, the researchers arrived at the following conclusions:

The curricula do not attempt to discern the fundamental elements of modern culture and the connection between modern culture and Shari'a law. The curricula also do not attempt to deepen civic values such as social involvement, human rights, political awareness, dialogue, obeying the law, coexisting with others who are different, valuing scientific research, preserving the independence of the judicial system, and so on. Instead, the position of the curricula on these and other issues is inconsistent and hesitant. Sometimes they emphasize the importance of civic values and the need to benefit from the experience of other peoples, and in other times they ignore others' positive achievements and go overboard in defaming and denigrating them.

For example, the curricula state that "imitating the infidels in matters that are not unique to them but are common [to all human beings] such as studying useful subjects … is not considered [negative] imitation…" [34] But in other instances, the curricula present an impassioned condemnation of the achievements of others, restricting themselves to describing in detail only the negative features of the 'other,' and confuse the pupil rather than giving him a whole and balanced outlook.

The researchers stated that the curricula they studied refrain from regarding scholars in the fields of the humanities and technology as such, and instead instruct that such people must be considered ignorant. According to the curricula, only the religiously observant may be called "scholar" a'lim. With regard to modern scientists, the curricula say, "Even if they are experts in invention and in the industries, they are ignoramuses unworthy of the title of 'scholars,' because their knowledge does not go beyond that which is seen in the life of this world – and this is incomplete knowledge whose owners are unworthy of the respectable title of 'scholars.' This title should be given only to people who know and fear Allah." [35]

The researchers commented: "This kind of denigration, which detracts from the value of civilian scientific experts, causes us to miss out on a lot. We lose the ability to instill the scientific method in the pupils' consciousness, implanting instead traits of scientific arrogance. Similarly, we lose the possibility of developing Muslim society through benefiting from the work of the advanced nations, because of the contempt [toward them] and the calls to isolate ourselves from them."

They further stated: "We must separate the civil progress that modern culture has attained from the issue of belief, and to acknowledge the ability and excellence that modern culture has attained in building civil society. We must call on pupils to respect this aspect, and to sense its value, and not to view it as a kind of ignorance. At the same time, we must clarify to the pupil modern culture's [religious] neglect and its going astray… The Koran recognized that a non-Muslim may have knowledge in the sciences of this world but rejected [the possibility] that he might have knowledge in the sciences of the world to come."

The researchers said that the curricula are inculcating misperceptions in the pupils regarding the developed world and modern culture with such statements as: "Muslims of weak faith look in admiration at the infidel countries and their industrial and economic advancement, without noticing their unbelief and the bitter fate that awaits them. This mistaken view glorifies the unbelievers in the eyes of these Muslims, and they treat the [infidels] with respect." [36] Sometimes the curricula describe modern culture as a pen of beasts: "Society without faith is a bestial society that is lacking in all the foundations of happiness – even if it has at its disposal the foundations of material life that often lead to destruction, as happened with the Jahiliyya societies." [37] The curricula also state: "Material power has become a means of destruction and deterioration, as we see today in the infidel materialistic countries that are lacking in the true faith." [38]

The researchers said: "These exaggerations sow confusion in pupils more than they deepen their faith – because in reality they learn that the superpowers' capabilities give them more stability and opportunities to be influential, and not the opposite – as the curricula mislead them to believe."

Incitement Against Other Peoples

One of the most dangerous aspects of religious escalation, explained the researchers, is the stage of incitement against others with whom a society maintains good relations and relations based on trust – and such incitement is present in the Saudi curricula. When the curricula discuss traveling to non-Muslim countries for study, commerce, medical treatment, or to spread Islam, they set out conditions for staying there: "It is permitted to stay [in a non-Muslim country] provided … the stay includes hidden hostility toward and hatred of the infidels." [39]

The researchers asked, "What Islamic values are the curricula teaching? That we may go [to non-Muslim countries,] learn from them, receive medical treatment from them, sign agreements with them, or invite them to join our religion while bearing enmity toward them." They added that the Prophet Muhammad had actually adopted other cultures' and countries' customs and methods and had seen no problem in working together with non-Muslims toward a common interest if doing so advanced the development of Muslim society. For example, in one battle he used the Persian military technique of digging a defensive trench. He also adopted some of the correspondence customs of the leaders of neighboring countries, and honored international norms and agreements – even if he was not a signatory to them. The researchers state that there is much evidence that in the Prophet's time Muslims did not hold themselves aloof from other cultures and other languages. Moreover, the Prophet even used non-Arab expressions sometimes.

The researchers found additional proof of the curricula's negative view of modern culture in the fact that there is much less discussion of civic issues and values than of religious matters. In their examination of issues in the Al-Hadith curriculum, which does not focus solely on religious law and ritual and matters of belief like the other curricula do, they found that even the Al-Hadith curriculum gave priority to religious matters. According to their findings, 41% of its study material deals with matters of ritual observance; 35% concerns morality; 16% concerns matters of faith; and 7% concerns civic affairs. They commented: "Thus, instead of this curriculum reinforcing the legitimacy of social involvement and general life issues, the curriculum reiterates matters of ritual and faith – which [already] have separate dedicated curricula."

The researchers added that the curricula express a negative view of the life of this world, claiming that this materialist culture causes deviation from the faith and creates a sense of clash between religion and culture.

Part Five: Curricular Excess and Exaggeration

The researchers stated that very often the curricula go into great detail on various issues they examine, and discuss fine distinctions in various matters. Yet at other times the curricula show confusion and lapse into generalization, sometimes even disregarding Muslim law. For example, the curricula state that referring to a bearded man by saying that "religion is not in the hair" is denigration of the Sunna, and that someone who says this has become an unbeliever and has left the fold of Islam – although in most cases the speaker does not intend to denigrate Muslim tradition but merely to clarify that piety is not determined by external appearance alone. The researchers say that the curricula mistakenly hold that the only meaning of this statement is the obvious one, and fail to discuss its other, deeper meaning. [40]

Similarly, the curricula depict people who disapprove of the Saudi religious police as unbelievers who have left the fold of Islam. For example, they state that when a man sees members of the religious police and says mockingly, "Here come the clerics," he leaves the fold of believers and is considered an unbeliever and apostate murtad. [41] The researchers presented other examples: the curricula refer to some educational activities such as National Tree Week and National Road Safety Week as disobedience and sin: "Dedicating particular days and weeks to various activities and adopting national holidays", the curricula state, "are a form of forbidden activity and deviation from the straight path." [42]

The curricula also confuse non-Muslim religious customs with the non-Muslims' social and civic activity of daily life, and calls all non-Muslim customs "unbelief." As the researchers explain, while the religious customs of non-Muslims are indeed forbidden to Muslims, adopting their civic customs is permissible if they meet three conditions: they are in the Muslims' interest; there is nothing in Shari'a prohibiting their adoption, and they are not being adopted with the aim of imitating non-Muslims.

Many of the statements in which the curricula fall into confusion emanate from fear for the Muslim faith, but are exaggerated, stated the researchers. Thus, the curricula see a statement such as "Development plans will eliminate poverty and ignorance" as an expression of polytheism and a great sin, because it attributes results to factors other than Allah. "Can it be that a Muslim who says this intends to express polytheism?" the researchers wondered. Similarly, the curricula say that making a statement such as "Medical progress will eliminate disease" is an act of polytheism – without examining whether the speaker actually intended to impugn Allah's capabilities. A man saying he reached his destination safely because of his driver's abilities or because the weather was good … without realizing that everything depends on Allah [is also] considered by the curricula [as saying] expressions of polytheism that must be atoned for. [43]

The researchers also found that the curricula focused overmuch on the importance of random expressions, such as when someone calls Allah "the Great Engineer" or "the Absolute Power" instead of by one of the commonly accepted names of Allah. The curricula calls such expressions polytheism and unbelief. [44]

The Researchers' Summary and Recommendations


In summarizing their findings, the researchers pointed out that the current curricula were compiled during a time of intellectual debate and religious and political struggles, and that they drag the pupils into the fray of ideological struggles that should not be of their concern at this stage. At the same time, the curricula do not address questions arising from the reality of today such as fundamental human rights or the freedoms set out in Shari'a. The curricula were found to do a poor job of preparing pupils for active integration into society and create a situation in which the pupil either seeks other, illegitimate channels for self-expression, or gives up and sinks into helplessness and despair. Instead of encouraging positive civic activity, the curricula limit their discussion of individual public participation to religious charities and to organizations that protect public morality.


The researchers recommended eliminating from the curricula the influence of political and ideological struggles, including statements that particular Muslims no longer belong to the fold of believers. Instead, they say, the curricula must stress that the lives, property, and honor of all Muslims are worthy of protection. The curricula must increase and deepen pupils' understanding of the human rights set out in the Shari'a ; they must determine rules of behavior toward Muslims who have different opinions – including rules of justice, mercy, and persuasion by means of presenting evidence. Balance must be restored to the curricula so that they meet the pupils' needs.

The researchers state further that the curricula must adopt a balanced religious outlook regarding other cultures and regarding various areas of knowledge, such that will enable the pupils to benefit from them. The curricula must adopt a balanced religious outlook regarding the "other" in various situations – peace, aggression, and agreements – and teach it in a general fashion without getting into great detail. In addition, the researchers recommend that the curricula should increase the pupils' awareness of their social obligations and their obligation to participate in popular and political activities.

* Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 4, 2004.

[2] The study was published in January 2004 on several websites. See for example, January 15, 2004.

[3] Ijtihad, or using individual judgment, was suspended in the 10th century by a consensus of ulema (Islamic clerics), and its resumption has not been permitted since. The research approaches the concept of Ijtihad with great caution, because the implementation of Ijtihad is a highly sensitive matter, as it opens the door to reform and to the introduction of innovations in Islam. The researchers suggest educating the younger generation in implementing the principle of using independent judgment in matters of religious law.

[4] Al-Hadith curriculum, second year middle school, p. 92.

[5] Al-Hadith curriculum, second year middle school, p. 103.

[6] Al-Hadith curriculum, first year middle school, p. 82.

[7] Al-Hadith curriculum, first year middle school, p. 83.

[8] Al-Hadith curriculum, first year middle school, p. 84.

[9] These four theological approaches in Islam are perceived by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islam as deviations from the true Islam. Jahamiyya is a rationalist theological school of thought that emerged in the late Umayyad period (mid-eighth century) in Khorasan, Iran; its followers believe in predestination, rejected anthropomorphism in describing Allah, and supported the right to rise up against an unjust ruler. The Mu'tazila, a theoretical rationalistic stream of the ninth and 10th centuries, sought to set out the principles of religious faith in logical and rational formulae. Unlike the Jahamiyya, the Mu'tazila believed in free choice. Ashariyya,also founded in the early centuries of Islam, developed as a compromise stream between extreme orthodoxy and rationalism, while Sufism, known as the mystic stream of Islam, is in existence to this day.

[10] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, p. 12.

[11] Al-Tawhid curriculum, second year high school, p. 38.

[12] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 126.

[13] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 130.

[14] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 130.

[15] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, pp. 15-17.

[16] Al-Fiqh curriculum, first year high school, p. 10.

[17] Al-Tawhid curriculum, second year middle school, p. 105

[18] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 18.

[19] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 12.

[20] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 18.

[21] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 13.

[22] Al-Hadith curriculum, second year high school, p. 206.

[23] Al-Tawhid, curriculum, third year high school, p. 74.

[24] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 73.

[25] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 15.

[26] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 121.

[27] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 18.

[28] Al-Tafsir curriculum, third year high school, p. 139.

[29] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, p. 13.

[30] Al-Tafsir curriculum, first year high school, p. 96.

[31] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 72.

[32] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 70.

[33] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year middle school, p. 65.

[34] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, p. 97.

[35] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 77.

[36] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 77.

[37] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, p. 10.

[38] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, p. 10.

[39] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, p. 93.

[40] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 67.

[41] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 6 7.

[42] Al-Tawhid curriculum, first year high school, p. 96.

[43] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year high school, p. 50.

[44] Al-Tawhid curriculum, third year middle school, p. 83.

Share this Report: