Participants at a Riyadh conference dedicated to enhancing Saudi youth learning and leadership wal
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Saudi educators have started preparations to introduce the study of philosophy in the kingdom’s schools. Working in conjunction with British experts, they have started training 200 instructors who will teach high-school students a subject that was previously banned from the curriculum for decades.
Saudi Education Minister Ahmad al-Issa announced the initiative earlier this month at an international conference held in the ultra-conservative Sunni-Muslim nation.
“High school curricula will be reformulated and the new developments will be announced soon. They will include critical thinking as this is an attempt to include philosophical principles in high school. This is in addition to courses on the principles of law that will be launched soon,” Issa said during the event.
The move is being billed as part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2030 Vision, an ambitious reform package that aims to decrease the country’s dependence on oil revenues through upgrades to its economy and public service sectors such as education, health, infrastructure and tourism.
Some observers have lauded the inclusion of philosophy in Saudi Arabia’s classrooms, an addition they contend compliments bin Salman’s educational retool that is heavily focused on digital education and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Others, however, are skeptical about what exactly “philosophy” or “critical thinking” entails. One concern is that philosophical thinking will be taught in ways that reinforce prevailing religious doctrines.
Dhari Salman, a Kuwaiti educator, said that the kingdom has taken a big leap forward by introducing philosophy. “But the Saudis would be mistaken to ignore the big elephant in the room that is the religious perspective of the subject,” he said. “It has been common among conservative elders to view philosophy as the devil’s tool instead of a free-thinking process.”
Students, Salman said, should be taught two crucial elements of philosophy: namely logic and critical thinking. “They need to learn to establish the truth of statements relying on reason. Criticism is a tool that has helped the greatest minds think outside of the box. Most of them had the right skills and teaching to do so, and schools should pave the way for students in this regard.”
The problem, however, is that “theology is the primary concern in the everyday life of Saudi citizens from the moment they are born. And if they encounter criticisms of Islamic views of politics and society in class there are likely to be heated disputes.”
Starting in the 1960s, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz bin Baz and other highly revered Saudi religious scholars issued several “fatwas” (Islamic rulings) prohibiting the teaching of philosophy in schools. They viewed the subject as “heretical” and “evil”—a threat to the pillars of society.
Edward Flood, an American educator who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for over 30 years, said that the kingdom’s “‘philosophical system’—if you want to call it that—is based on the Koran and teachings of Wahhabi Islam.
“The system is not one that encourages free or critical thought. Instead it inculcates obedience to a set of rules that are well-known and well-enforced by, at one time, the religious police, which has now been made almost powerless by MbS (bin Salman) but still exerts a strong social force as far as behavior is concerned.
“I have read that courses,” Flood elaborated, “will be given to instructors, but who will teach them and, most importantly, who will select the educators? Someone or some group will have a great deal of power when it comes to ‘molding’ Saudi minds. And speaking as a hard-core cynic, I have known of many such ideas which were welcomed with great fanfare, but then came to naught for all sorts of reasons.”
Flood concluded that if the philosophy is taught in a way that a Westerner might imagine, it has the potential to transform both Saudi education and society. “But it will inevitably lead to questioning the government and the way things are done in the kingdom, a dangerous proposition for the royal family.”
Fatima al-Matar, a law professor at Kuwait University, also conveyed doubts over teaching philosophy in the Muslim world, in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular.
“In a region where the Koran is considered absolute truth, the ultimate law, and the only guide to a righteous way of life, what significance can philosophy have?,” she said.
“Living in Kuwait, a country with a social, political and educational system very similar to that of Saudi Arabia, I was offended when I read in my 12-year-old daughter’s Islam textbook that a Muslim does not have the freedom to read whatever he or she wants.”
Indeed, when it comes to Westernized thinking, culture or customs, al-Matar noted, Arab Muslims are often fearful of these new ideas which can lead to a loss of their identities.
“This discourages them from looking beyond what they already believe. And if philosophy is anything, it is—in my opinion—the courage to go beyond what one already knows.”