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memri
February 7, 2007 No.
325

Saudis Criticize Their School Curricula – Again

By: Y. Admon*

Roughly every six months since 2003, Saudi Arabia has held a "National Dialogue" conference to discuss major issues in education; the conferences are sponsored by the KingAbdulazizCenter for National Dialogue. The latest conference focused, for the second time, on "Education: Reality and Ways of Development," with the participation of leading officials of educational institutions, educators, intellectuals, and clerics. [1]

Unexpectedly, no actual operative decisions emerged from the conference, and Saudi columnists expressed their disappointment at this outcome and continued their criticism of the Saudi curricula - particularly of the official educational goal of "preparing students, physically and mentally, for jihad for the sake of Allah."

This document reviews the issues discussed at the conference, and recent criticism of the Saudi curricula in the Saudi media.

Disagreement Emerges at Conference Over Whether There is Extremism in the Saudi Curricula

The "Education: Reality and Ways of Development" dialogue, held November 28 through 30, 2006, addressed the need to develop different educational strategies. The topics discussed included: adapting the curricula to the demands of the labor market and of society; the importance of development of expression of opinions and development in education; the need for equal treatment of Saudi society's different religious communities; the problem of violence in the schools; emphasizing cultural topics in education, and the arts in education.

During the dialogue, disagreement emerged about whether there was extremism in the Saudi curricula, after Hamza Qublan Al-Mozainy, a columnist and former lecturer at King Saud University, stated that "a few teachers rely on [the framework of] education in order to spread some extremist ideas about jihad." In contrast, clerics participating in the conference rejected Al-Mozainy's statements, arguing that the curricula did not encourage extremism. Dr. Muhammad bin Saleh Al-Fawzan, a lecturer at the Riyadh Teachers' College, said that "accusing the curricula of [encouraging] extremism is an echo of what has been said in the West... Curricular change in the religious topics will ultimately lead to a demand for textual change in the Koran."

Muhammad Al-Najimi, member of The Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA), said that "some of the calls for [curricular] change harm national principles, and this threatens national identity. There are those who argue that our curricula contain takfir [accusations of apostasy against other Muslims], as there is an religious spirit to some of the content, but the truth is that there is not a single word calling for takfir in the curricula, and the curricula adhere to Islam and not to any particular religious group." [2]

The conference's concluding statement set no actual operative proposals, and stated that a decision had been made "...to continue to reexamine the curricula and the study material, and for development," and "...to reexamine the educational reality and to adopt a joint national strategy for developing higher education, general education, and arts education, including all its elements and factors, that will focus on economic, social, and policy development." The statement also said that "Islam, which is our overall way of life, is the point of reference for the educational system with regard to policy, method, and practice," and that "education is the fundamental central pillar and collective element in economic, state, and social development." [3]

Columnists Write of Their Disappointment at the Conference Results

There was considerable criticism in the Saudi papers at the conference's inefficacy, due to the lack of unequivocal recommendations emerging from it. In an article titled "Education Dialogue Without a Dialogue," columnist Abd Al-'Aziz Jarallah Al-Jarallah wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "The participants in the dialogue are the same faces that appear on television - Shura Council members and former senior officials in the education sector, whose ethical code obliges them not to protest [against statements by] their new colleagues. At the end of the discussions, we release such statements as 'support,' 'handling,' 'training,' and 'reexamination,' and the subject of education is summed up in much the same way as are pages of discussion and recommendations on many other issues...

"[The conferees] came not to make decisions, but to present opinions and exchange ideas. No one aspired to move anyone [else] from his stance. But it is essential for us to have a clear opinion on the more sensitive issues, such as the education sector, which we criticize in secret and in private meetings. The participants in the dialogue could not expose the mistakes, the failed attempts, and the obstacles connected to the areas of responsibility of those [in charge].

"In practice, the employees of the education sector came to Al-Jouf [the conference site] only to talk amongst themselves, to exchange words of praise and commendation, to enjoy the hospitality, to renew connections, and to update phone numbers. Concern for education was missing, even from the back corridors of the conference dialogue. The administrative efforts and the funds invested in this conference are regrettable, as is the way in which our problems are handled... This leads us to open a bigger gate, and to reexamine the national dialogue itself by examining the value and benefit of this kind of dialogue." [4]

Criticism of the Saudi Educational Goal of "Preparing Students for Jihad"

Around the time of the preparatory meetings for the conference and of the conference itself, the Saudi media published criticism of Saudi education policy, of the goals of education as set out by the Saudi Education Ministry, and particularly of the stated educational goal of preparing students for jihad. A Saudi Education Ministry document titled "Educational Policy" stated that one of the educational goals was "to prepare students physically and mentally for jihad for the sake of Allah" (Goal No. 104). Another goal was "to arouse the spirit of Islamic jihad in order to fight our enemies, to restore our rights and our glory, and to fulfill the mission of Islam" (Goal No. 60). [5]

One of the conferees, columnist Abd Al-Rahman Al-Habib, wrote in an article titled "A Reformulation of the Educational Goals" in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "After a brief examination of the educational goals of the high schools, we discover [that this chapter of the document] sets out 14 goals... Goal No. 11 [No. 104 in the document] states: 'preparing the students physically and mentally for jihad for the sake of Allah.' This goal demands a sober reexamination, as it is suitable for studies at a military or war institution, or at an armed forces academy - [but is] inappropriate for high-school education, particularly when some of the Islamic religious goals mentioned [in the document] have the same meaning...

"If we look again at the goals, we find that some of them need to be changed, and some of them need to be omitted, along with adding new goals that will be compatible with the period in which we are living. Such a reexamination will be important and helpful for senior education system officials, for educators, for students, and for their parents..." [6]

Columnist Saud Al-Balawi wrote in a similar vein, also in Al-Watan: "Perhaps the flaw that we are witnessing today in the study and educational process is one of the results of the cessation of major development activity in [the Saudi] education [system].... The students are serving as a tool of the ideological extremism that exists in one form or another in a few schools, and the [ultimate] victim [of this extremism] is society.

"Perhaps we as a society are to blame [for this] to some extent, and we are to some extent partners in the creation of this ideology, which is developing in the incubator of the schools by means of the 'teacher' and the 'curriculum.' Some [of the curricula] provide fertile ground for teachers with extremist ideological tendencies to spread their views officially...

"Thus, for example, when 'jihad' constitutes one of the main sections [in the Saudi Education Ministry document titled] 'Educational Policy,' there is serious justification for relying on [this section] to recruit ambitious young people to restore the glory of the [Islamic] nation...

"The document points out the importance of jihad as a valid commandment, and notes openly that preparing students physically and mentally for jihad for the sake of Allah is one of the essential goals of education. This means that those who are fighting us and trying to undermine state security are basing themselves on this in one way or another - and this causes great confusion. [Can it be that] preparing mujahideen to go to Afghanistan and Iraq is still part of our country's educational goals?...

"We need these young people who are being misled [by extremist perceptions] for building the homeland. But we must do this by directing the students in the educational institutions, and by correcting their ideological deviations..." [7]

Criticism of the Saudi Focus on Religious Studies at the Expense of Other Subjects

In an article in Al-Watan, columnist Abd Al-Rahman Al-Habib wrote: "The most noticeable thing today in the curricula is the increase in theoretical material [i.e. humanities and religious studies], at the expense of scientific and practical material. The religious study material alone constitutes a third of the total study material at the elementary level, and a quarter [of the study material] at the middle school level. This percentage is appropriate for religious schools like the schools for Koran memorization... but in the general education schools... the increase in the religious study material... will affect the graduate's ability and skills, and the demands of the labor market...

"Other theoretical material, such as literature, history, psychology, sociology, and management, are usually [presented in the Saudi education system in a way that is] characteristically narrow-minded, obtuse, and denigrates other cultures and the history of other nations, and also disregards the political aspect. This leaves [us with] students who know nothing about ideological, political, literary, and artistic pluralism in the world, and ultimately creates students who are culturally ignorant and completely devoid of ideological and political awareness." [8]

Top Saudi Officials: Curricular Development is "Ongoing"

In response to this criticism in the press, officials in the kingdom argued that the curricular development process was ongoing, and that even now steps towards change were being taken. Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abd Al-'Aziz said: "The curricula are undergoing a process of [re]examination... The change began over a month ago. [It involves] many curricula and teaching methods, in a way appropriate to our beliefs and to the interests of our people and the high level of our youth. Curricular development is ongoing." [9]

Likewise, the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that the Saudi Interior Ministry was intending to fight terrorist thought by means of lectures and conferences at schools and universities, with the aim of spreading moderate Islamic thought that is distant from extremism and takfir. [10]

In the same context, the Saudi daily 'Okaz reported that Saudi Education Ministry was preparing an Islamic curriculum for all stages of education, with the aim of arriving at a middle path for students and teachers, and of encouraging thought and creativity. According to the newspaper, a 50-member working group had been appointed for this purpose; 25 of them would be preparing curricula for the elementary- and middle-school level, while the other 25 would prepare curricula for the high schools. The paper reported that the new curriculum, which is to be completed early in the next coming academic year, will be compatible with the spirit of the times and will tackle religious legal issues that are under discussion today without harming the principles of religious law. [11]

*Y. Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Another National Dialogue conference on education was held in December 2003, and focused on the connection between Saudi Arabia's curricula and terrorism. See MEMRI A Saudi National Dialogue on Women's Rights and Obligations 195, "Saudi Study Offers Critical Analysis of the Kingdom's Religious Curricula," November 9, 2004,

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

For information on the June 2004 National Dialogue, see MEMRI A Saudi National Dialogue on Women's Rights and Obligations, "A Saudi National Dialogue on Women's Rights and Obligations," June 23, 2004, A Saudi National Dialogue on Women's Rights and Obligations.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 29, 2006.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 1, 2006.

[4] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 2, 2006.

[5] The goals are posted on the website of the Saudi Education Ministry: http://www.moe.gov.sa/openshare/moe/index.htm.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 9, 2006.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 17, 2006.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 16, 2006.

[9] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), October 12, 2006.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 21, 2006.

[11] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 8, 2006.