What are the implications for teaching philosophy in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Minister of Education Ahmed al-Issa revealed a new development in secondary school curriculum for critical philosophical thinking, in addition to another for principles of law.
Tuesday 18/12/2018
Saudi Minister of Education Ahmed al-Issa during a visit to the American International School in Riyadh. (AFP)
Saudi Minister of Education Ahmed al-Issa during a visit to the American International School in Riyadh. (AFP)

Within the context of the rapid changes Saudi Arabia is experiencing at the political, social and cultural levels, Saudi Minister of Education Ahmed al-Issa revealed a new development in secondary school curriculum for critical philosophical thinking, in addition to another for principles of law.

This change in the curricula has been a fundamental demand by Saudi academics, writers and intellectuals since the educational system was developed in the kingdom but the “religious revivalism” movement of the 1960s was dead-set against it. As a consequence, Saudi students lacked critical thinking skills. They have been taught for decades that logic is “heretical” and that philosophy is “evil.”

With the nearing introduction of philosophy and law in the secondary school curricula, how do Saudi intellectuals see this step and what are their expectations from it?

Sulaiman al-Shammari, a novelist and professor of media at King Saud University, said: “Care must be taken so that this step does not become a means of settling previous scores with the religious orientation. Rather, it should be looked at as an effort to increase the margin of freedom of expression in all fields. Freedom is the spinal cord of culture in any society.

“When freedom is gone, criticism, innovation, expression and education die out, too.”

“The important thing this time is to appreciate the importance of freedom of expression to the development of philosophy. Philosophy today has gone beyond the search for truth and has stepped into the world of aesthetics, logic and triumphant good and it is staying away from the absurd,” Shammari said.

Saudi intellectuals acknowledge there is a legacy to overcome. Novelist Rehab Abu Zaid stressed the need to make up for the lost decades.

“Philosophy was dubbed the mother of all sciences because it intersects with all branches of natural sciences as well as thought and the arts,” she said. “I think philosophy has been absent for decades from our educational system for reasons known to everyone and realising its importance now is a very positive and vital step for bringing about new generations intellectually independent and free of indoctrination and useless cramming.”

Abu Zaid suggested: “Philosophical approaches [should] be extended to all other school subjects. Philosophy cannot be isolated from the rest of the curriculum, just as it should not be offered during the last stages of study when learners have reached the last stages of shaping their thinking based on using a limited extent of their mental capacities.

“It would be better to include philosophy at the early stages when the learners’ minds are flexible and sharp. They would be able to sift through ideas without relying on rote learning, which was the despicable method used by the Revivalist current to ensure its grip on society.”

Saudi writer Hassan Mashhour pointed out the serious impact of the past legacy on Saudi soceity and its youth, in particular. He said:  “The conservatism inherent in radical theology has been present for decades in the Saudi social scene. This gave birth to a generation of religious fanatics who sought to translate their ideology into practice whether through the events of September 11 or the subsequent bloody terrorist attacks. Their evil even spread inside Saudi Arabia during the period from 2003 to 2007, until the Saudi security forces were able to win the war against those rogue terrorists.

“After investigating the causes of the takfiri currents inside Saudi Arabia, it was found that the culprit was the structure of the Saudi mind, which was hijacked by fundamentalist radicalism and embodied by generations of graduates who fit the label of ‘pseudo-scholars’ coined by the great Arab philosopher Zaki Naguib Mahmud,” Mashhour added.

Novelist Maha al-Juhani said that “philosophy does not necessarily change the views of learners but it provides them with an opportunity to think about ideas and the meaning of life at their original sources.” She said it is an “urgently needed step” in Saudi education so new generations “can study the world around them, stay abreast with the global changes around us and create free human beings capable of analysis, confrontation and innovation.”

Juhani said she hopes the programme “succeeds in our schools” and helps “develop diversity in thinking among our students, in a free environment and sets them free from the pattern of indoctrination and rote learning.”

Writer Ali Saeed said he considers the inclusion of philosophy in Saudi education curricula an event worthy of celebration, “not only because it is a positive response to a longstanding demand by intellectuals in the country, but also because it is a clear sign of educational development in the country. Education is being modernised and strengthened.”

Saeed said he sees the move in the context of the major cultural and social transformations taking place in Saudi Arabia and in line with the values of openness and modernity promoted by Saudi Vision 2030.

He stressed the need to create a supportive environment for philosophy courses inside educational institutions. “Teaching philosophy requires freedom of thought and support of open rational dialogue between teacher and students to reach the ultimate goal of philosophy, which is to generate creative ideas and the birthing of a new philosopher,” he said.

Beyond well-deserved celebration of the move, Saeed believes there are a number or caveats: “We must remember that the teaching of philosophy in school does not mean just to ‘cut and paste’ the names of philosophers from Socrates to Ibn Rushd or to review the history of the development of ideas and philosophical doctrines.

“It means sailing with the mind and imagination of the learner towards broader intellectual horizons that will allow the emergence of new generations of citizens capable of innovating and reflecting freely and in depth.”

Saeed said the philosophy course “is going to constitute a strange presence. This kind of reaction is expected after decades of fencing education with an anti-philosophical discourse but we will understand the matter once we realise that any cultural change requires time and is not just a matter of pressing a button.”

Mashhour summed up the expectations of the country’s intellectuals: “The decision by the Saudi Ministry of Education is a good step towards forming a generation of young Saudis who will be able to exercise their logical minds in many issues and controversies. This will instil young minds with critical and creative thinking and lead them to be open to opposing views but above all never surrender their minds to others.”