Politics & Policy

Inside The Saudi Classroom

Seeking reform.

On December 19, 2002, the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. issued a press release titled “Saudi Arabia Increasing Spending on Schools and Curriculum — Books and Study Guides to Be Removed of Intolerant Teachings” that quoted Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal: “There is no room in our schools for hatred, for intolerance or for anti-Western thinking. . . .” The press release announced, “An audit conducted by the Foreign Ministry determined that about five percent of the school’s books and curriculum contained possibly offensive language. A program is now in place to eliminate such material from schools.” This statement was in response to a report issued hours earlier by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which focused on the connection between Saudi Arabia’s education system and the events of September 11.

The Saudi embassy’s press release is but one reflection of the debate that began a few months ago in Saudi Arabia over reforming its education system. The statement is a positive development, but the embassy’s involvement in the decision-making process regarding education is limited. There have been many more recent statements from high-ranking Saudi government officials explaining in Arabic that they have no intention of changing their curriculum. Prince Sultan Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, the Saudi defense minister and the father of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., was quoted in the Arabic version of the website Al-Bawaba on October 26, 2002: “We will never change our education policy. . . . Our country has . . . above all religious curricula that must never be harmed. Any demand by another country in the world that Saudi Arabia change its curricula is unacceptable interference in [Saudi] sovereignty.”

In an interview on October 22, 2002 with the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, Saudi deputy education minister Dr. Khaled Al-Awad stated that meetings between U.S. and Saudi officials on the Saudi education system resulted in an understanding that “Saudi curriculum is fine and does not encourage or boost terrorism and hatred of a member of another religion or faith. This follows attacks on the Saudi curriculum, according to which it was claimed that the curricula nourished the [ideas] of terrorism in the souls of the pupils following the events of September 11. . . . These meetings yielded positive results, and since most of those present realized that the Saudi curricula were fine, they retracted their baseless accusations.”

On the first anniversary of September 11, the Saudi minister of the interior, Prince Naif Ibn Abd Al-Aziz, gave an interview to the Saudi-owned London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and spoke about his views on those who call for changing the Saudi curricula, especially on subjects relating to Jihad: “We strongly believe in the correctness of our education system and its objectives. We don’t change our systems on the demands of others.”

The onslaught of statements in Arabic by Saudi officials in support of the current education system has been followed by some positive statements in English acknowledging problems. On January 7, the Saudi embassy issued another press release that quoted Dr. Muhammad Al-Rasheed, the minister of education, admitting that the Saudi education system has “several defects” that his ministry would address. Having given no specifics of what these defects are, and based on official Saudi government policy, one can assume they pertain to the non-religious courses. As a report by the Saudi Cultural Mission to the U.S. on education explained, “Textbooks are updated periodically to reflect developments in different subjects. The textbooks used in Islamic studies, for example, which primarily cover the traditional religious texts and their interpretation, change very little over the years. Textbook materials in fields such as mathematics, science, and social studies, however, are reevaluated regularly.”

In a document published by the Saudi Higher Committee for Education, it is explained that 236 principles make up the structure of education in Saudi Arabia. Spreading Islam throughout the world is emphasized on numerous occasions in this document. Students are taught that “preaching of Islam throughout the world . . . is the duty of the state and its citizens” and that Islam must be propagated “in all areas of our globe, with wisdom and sound preaching.”

On March 1, 2002, Ayn-Al-Yaqeen, a news magazine published by Saudi princes, detailed the efforts of the royal family to spread Islam throughout the world. The article states, “The cost of King Fahd’s efforts in this field has been astronomical, amounting to many billions of Saudi riyals. In terms of Islamic institutions, the result is some 210 Islamic centers wholly or partly financed by Saudi Arabia, more than 1,500 mosques and 202 colleges and almost 2,000 schools for educating Muslim children in non-Islamic countries in Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Asia.”

The creation of Saudi-funded schools throughout the world has brought attention to both the content of school books and the government’s involvement in designing the curriculum. As the Saudi Cultural Mission document detailed, “The government shall be concerned with the control of all books coming into the Kingdom from abroad or going out of the Kingdom to the outside world. No books shall be allowed for use unless they are consistent with Islam, the intellectual trends and educational aims of the Kingdom.”

In fact much of the criticism of the Saudi education system is based on their role in educating Muslim students for two decades who are now waging jihad against the West. The Saudi document on education explains that educating students in “the spirit of Islamic struggle” is a pervasive theme in the Saudi education system, as the following principles indicate: “Striving and fighting for the sake of Allah is a prescribed duty, a followed tradition and an existing necessity.” This is done by “awakening the spirit of Islamic struggle to resist our enemies, restore our rights and glories, and perform our duties towards the Islamic message.”

In Saudi schools students are taught from an early age about “Jihad for the Sake of Allah” (Al-Jihad fi sabil Allah). A textbook for eighth-grade students introduces a hadith about a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who asked the Prophet: “What labor is most favored by Allah? He [the Prophet] answered: Prayers on time; he then asked: what next? The Prophet answered: love thy parents. He then asked: what else? The Prophet answered: Jihad for the sake of Allah.” The textbook interprets the conversation between the Prophet and his companion as follows: The most important activity is jihad for the sake of Allah and the convocation of Allah’s religion on this earth.

In a textbook titled “Pictures from the Lives of the Companions,” the students are told that following the battle of Badr (the first victory of Muslims over the disbelievers) a new chapter of the Koran descended on the Prophet that raised, in the eyes of Allah, the status of the mujahedeen (jihad warrior) and gave preference over those who sit still.

Another aspect of the Saudi education system has been the teaching of hatred of Jews and Christians. A textbook for eighth graders explains why Jews and Christians were cursed by Allah and turned into apes and pigs. Quoting Surat Al-Maida, Verse 60, the lesson explains that Jews and Christians have sinned by accepting polytheism and therefore have incurred Allah’s wrath. To punish them, Allah has turned them into apes and pigs.

A schoolbook for fifth graders instructs the students:

The religions which people follow on this earth are many, but the only true religion is the religion of Islam. As for the other religions, they are false as mentioned in the Koran (the Sura of Aal Umran Verse 85): “And whoever follows a religion that is not Islam, it will not be accepted from him and in the Hereafter he will be of the losers.” The religion of Islam we know from the Koran and the Hadiths about the Prophet. The whole world should convert to Islam and leave its false religions lest their fate will be hell. As mentioned in the Koran (the Sura of Al-Nihal Verse 125): “[I swear] by Him who holds Muhammad’s soul in his hand that not one Jew or Christian who had heard me and did not believe in the message that I was sent with shall die without being one of those whose fate is hell.”

The students are then asked to respond “yes” or “no” to the question of whether the Islamic religion is the only road to heaven and whether other religions bestow eternal damnation on their adherents.

Incitement to violence against non-Muslims also appears in textbooks. A ninth-grade schoolbook on Hadith introduces a famous narration, “The Promise of the Stone and the Tree.” It tells a story about Abu Hurayra, one of the Prophet’s companions who quoted the Prophet as saying: “The hour [the Day of Judgment] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. A Jew will [then] hide behind a rock or a tree, and the rock or tree will call upon the Muslim: ‘O Muslim, O slave of Allah! there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!’ — except for the gharqad tree, for it is one of the trees of the Jews.”

The Hadith is accompanied by a number of statements: 1) “It is Allah’s wisdom that the struggle between Muslims and Jews shall continue until the Day of Judgment”; 2) “The Hadith brings forth the glad tidings about the ultimate victory, with Allah’s help, of Muslims over Jews”; and 3)”The Jews and the Christians are the enemies of the believers. They will not be favorably disposed toward Muslims and it is necessary to be cautious [in dealing with them].” The book asks questions for class discussion: 1) “Who will be victorious in the Day of Judgment?” 2) “With what types of weapons should Muslims arm themselves against the Jews?” 3) “Name four factors leading to the victory of Muslims over their enemies.”

MEMRI’s report has identified the main characteristics of Saudi Arabia’s education system, raising many questions for the Saudi government to answer. Their initial response is commendable for its acknowledgement of the need to reform the Saudi education system. But for the most part these statements have been presented to the Western world in English, not to the Saudi people, and certainly not to the larger Arab-Muslim world. At the same time, however, statements in Arabic by Saudi government officials have consistently defended the religious teachings associated with jihad and hatred of Jews and Christians which have been a cornerstone of the Saudi education system and the controversy surrounding it.

— Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.


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