Saudi schoolbooks: What does it take to recontextualize Islam?
By James M. Dorsey
Two decades of snail pace revisions of Saudi schoolbooks aimed at removing supremacist references to Jews, Christians, and Shiites suggest a willingness to delete offensive language while keeping in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.
In a break with the past, Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported for the first time in two decades of post-9/11 pressure on Saudi Arabia that the kingdom had made significant progress in revising textbooks.
The reports focussed on explicit references to other religions but noted that further revisions were needed to eliminate language that disparages practices associated with religious minorities, particularly Shiite Muslims and Sufis, sects viewed as heretic by ultra-conservatives.
“As long as the texts continue to disparage religious beliefs and practices of minority groups, including those of fellow Saudi citizens, it will contribute to the culture of discrimination that these groups face,” said Michael Page, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director.
“They removed some of the more offensive stuff like pictures of Shiite shrines that were called shirk (polytheistic) and they removed some offensive language, but the kernel is still there... They are trying to make the language less offensive but the whole idea is offensive,” added Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle.
Implicit in the two reports’ conclusions, but at best only summarily mentioned, was the fact that the ultra-conservative interpretation of basic religious concepts as promoted by Saudi Arabia until the rise of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, remain unaltered in the schoolbooks.
These interpretations relate to the ban on bida’a or religious innovation and shirk or polytheism as well as the rejection of supplication, a thinly veiled reference to the Shia practice of intercession.
Critics, including prominent Muslim scholars, argue that Saudi Arabia’s failure to address problematic concepts of Islam, that constitute the basis for ultra-conservative rejection of religious pluralism and supremacist and intolerant interpretations of the faith, call into question the kingdom’s projection of itself as a paragon of religious moderation and leader of the Islamic world.
The critics assert that the significant progress reported by Human Rights Watch and Impact-se constitutes part of Saudi Arabia’s effort to pre-empt pressure from the Biden administration as it recalibrates its relationship with the kingdom.
They also charge that the progress is designed to make Saudi Arabia, whose image has been tarnished by human rights abuse and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, palatable to foreign direct investors as well as boost pressure on international companies to shift their regional operations from Dubai to the kingdom.
Scholars in Saudi Arabia took issue with the Human Rights Watch report. “I do not know why the world is so busy with us. Although their countries are full of things that need attention, revision, arrangement, and organization,” said political sociologist Widad al-Jarwan, adding that “even their curricula in the West are full of mistakes against” Muslims.
Indonesian Muslim scholars argue that the Saudi interpretation of ibadah, the rules governing worship, constitute an innovation by defining aspects of worship practised by a majority of Muslims in ways that are viewed by ultra-conservatives as beyond the pale.
“What matters is how the Saudis interpret the teachings related to how Muslims should treat anybody of a different sect or faith. The problem is how they believe the other should be treated. It doesn’t matter what they call me. It doesn’t matter if they call me a kafir, an infidel, as long as they truly believe that I should be treated equally. The problem is that the Saudis don’t really want to change their established system of beliefs,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, a prominent Islamic scholar and secretary-general of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement.
Mr. Staquf was one of the major forces behind Nahdlatul Ulama’s charter of Humanitarian Islam that embraces the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and calls for reform of problematic or obsolete religious legal concepts that negate equal rights for all.
Ali al-Ahmad, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs that has long highlighted problems with Saudi textbooks, contended that “when it comes to bida’a and shirk, the Wahhabis are more guilty than other Muslims. Saudi Arabia will not be able to move forward with Wahhabism as its state religion. The concept of a state religion must be abolished before the country can move into the modern age.
Mr. Al-Ahmed’s comment goes to the core of the debate about religious reform in the Muslim world and whether states like Saudi Arabia without the lead and buy-in of civil society can achieve real and lasting change.
“There’s no civil society. There’s no dialogue. Zero,” Mr. Coogle said.
Significant social reforms in recent years were primarily designed to cater to youth aspirations, enable economic diversification, attract foreign direct investment, and shore up the country’s tarnished image while ensuring state-control on the principle of absolute obedience to the ruler. They were not rooted in a recognition that the kingdom’s ultra-conservative mores were problematic in and of themselves.
Discussing the textbook revisions, Mr. Coogle noted that “it’s not like the Saudis looked at their textbooks and saw a problem. Other people didn’t like it and the Saudis are trying to quell those concerns.”
The stepped-up Saudi revision of schoolbooks was in part spurred by a draft bill in the US Congress that would require the Secretary of State to report annually “on religious intolerance in Saudi Arabian educational materials.” The draft was initially introduced in 2017 by a Republican sponsor who has since retired and reintroduced in 2019.
The Human Rights Watch report noted that although the revised schoolbooks no longer contain explicit references to Shia Islam, they still included harsh criticism of Shia practices and traditions, labelling them evidence of polytheism that threatens the existence of Islam.
A schoolbook for 4th-grade nine-year olds advised that adherence to such practices would lead to the cancellation of a person’s good deeds, God’s rejection of their repentance, and eternal damnation.
The practices include praying to saints and visiting tombs and shrines of prominent religious figures that are rejected by Wahhabism as a form of idolatry. They also involve the Shiite supplication to God via intermediaries as well as kneeling to anyone other than God, building mosques and shrines on top of graves, and wailing over the dead.
“Any Saudi who reads this will understand what it means,” Mr. Coogle said.
Saudi Shiites noted that all Muslim students, including Shiites, were required to use these textbooks even if they were perceived as offensive.
“The textbooks are written under the close supervision of leading Wahhabi clerics led by Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan,” one of Saudi Arabia’s most senior ultra-conservative clerics, Mr. Al-Ahmad said.
Mr. Al-Fawzan “views Islam as a Wahhabi-only religion. This vision is what is reflected in Saudi textbooks and other religious literature. This means that Shia Muslims, Sufis, other Sunni Muslims –are polytheists and deviants,” Mr. Al-Ahmad added.
Mr. Page cautioned that “as long as disparaging references to religious minorities remain in the text it will continue to stoke controversy and condemnation.”
By the same token, Saudi Arabia’s failure to address ultra-conservative interpretations of religious concepts that justify a rejection of pluralism and religious tolerance challenge the kingdom’s claim to be a leading voice of moderation – a pillar of the country’s quest to be recognized as a, if not the leader of the Muslim world in a new world order.
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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.