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Education in the Arabian Peninsula during the first half of the Twentieth Century

Competition in the Mid-20th Century Saudi Education System

Nadav Samin


La formation, au milieu du XXe siècle, du système éducatif saoudien, avec ses autorités religieuses et modernisatrices construites parallèlement les unes aux autres représente une forme de gestation institutionnelle bien distincte de celle des principaux modèles de l’enseignement au Moyen-Orient. En Arabie saoudite, contrairement à ce qui s’est passé ailleurs dans le monde arabe postcolonial, une idéologie religieuse (le wahhabisme) est devenue une pièce maîtresse de l'entreprise de construction de la nation. Cet article examine ce processus de construction à travers le prisme de la concurrence entre les autorités modernisatrices du ministère de l'éducation (Wizârat al-Ma'ârif), qui contrôlaient la majeure partie des nouveaux établissements d'enseignement du royaume, et le personnel religieux wahhabite, qui a pris en charge, de manière autonome, des lycées, des universités religieuses et des écoles primaires pour filles. Cet article analyse les stratégies opposées des modernisateurs et des oulémas qui ont, chacun de leur côté, oeuvré à imposer leurs priorités au secteur de l'éducation. L’auteur examine de près leurs rivalités autour de l'enseignement professionnel, de l'allocation des ressources, du pouvoir, et des créations d’écoles religieuses privées, montrant quelques aspects fondamentaux de l'institutionnalisation des oulémas et de l'autorité technocratique dans la sphère de l'éducation saoudienne. Il met en exergue que leur concurrence sur la construction du système éducatif a été à l’origine d'une pollinisation croisée des établissements d'enseignement religieux et des établissements modernistes, et qu’elle contribue à expliquer la nature particulière du système éducatif saoudien moderne.

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1This article explores the tension in mid-20th century Saudi Arabia between three concepts of education: education as a contested object of courtly patronage, as an institutional project for molding productive citizens of the modern kingdom, and as a vehicle for spreading the Wahhābī da‘wa or missionizing creed. As the final arbiters of politics in Saudi Arabia, the Āl Sa‘ūd monarchs had ultimate authority over the tenor and substance of educational development in the kingdom. Alongside their traditional imperatives — promoting and protecting religion in its local manifestation of Wahhābī Islam, and providing materially (directly or indirectly) for their subjects — the royals were confronted with a new requirement in the era of modern nation-states: the need to acculturate masses of citizens into a novel, dynamically emerging concept of Saudi nationhood. The singular means by which to achieve this outcome in a largely preliterate society was mass education.

  • 1 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 601.

2The Najdī ulama, the community of central Arabian Muslim religious scholars who were, and remain, in certain respects the dominant intellectual authorities in Saudi Arabia, understood too well the connection between mass education and the formation of national consciousness. For those scholars and their leading figure, Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm Āl al-Shaykh (d. 1969), nationhood was an alien concept acceded to only grudgingly as part of a broader strategy of adaptation and survival. According to Ibn Ibrāhīm, education’s purpose could only be to ‘[instill] the correct creed based on tawīd (monotheism) and its spread.’1 Wedded to a new concept of national identity and power, Ibn Ibrāhīm’s vision became part of a Wahhābī mission civilisatrice, one embodied in the spread, via courtly patronage and bureaucratic expansion, of central Arabia’s distinctive religious creed far beyond the bounds of that region.

  • 2 Samin, 2015, p. 19–52.

3For the cautiously modernizing advocates of education who also surrounded the court, figures such as ‘Abd al-Quddūs al-Anṣārī of Ḥijāz and Ḥamad al-Jāsir of Najd, the purpose of education was not exclusively a religious one. Al-Anṣari, al-Jāsir, and their small but distinctive cohort of non-clerical opinion makers played a significant role in defining the parameters of discussion and debate in the emergent Saudi national culture.2 Taking a cue from their predecessors in Egypt and Lebanon, these modernists viewed education as a multifaceted endeavor, whose purpose was to produce Saudi citizens familiar with the basic thrust of post-Enlightenment non-sacral knowledge, yet who were capable of fruitfully reconciling the best aspects of both religious and secular frames of thought. By the middle of the twentieth century, new economic pressures were being brought to bear by the kingdom’s major commercial partner, Aramco (the Arabian American Oil Company), which joined with the US government and the Saudi court to promote vocational training as a central facet of Saudi education, since it fitted with the company’s commercial and development goals for the kingdom.

4The semi-humanistic, technocratic model for education that was molded by Saudi Arabia’s modernizing intellectuals, administrators, and consultants formed the basis for a distinctive vision of Saudi national identity, one that existed in competition with the Wahhābī ulama and their conservative supporters’ vision. Both interest groups or coalitions found sources of patronage at the court, which had to mediate these conflicting orientations.

5To understand better the nature of educational competition in that era, this article plots the emergence of the kingdom’s parallel religious and modernizing education administrations, with some attention to the dialogue, spoken or unspoken, between them. In addition, I look closely at two specific educational initiatives — vocational schooling, and private religious schooling in the kingdom’s south — to demonstrate how the contest over the nature and direction of educational development in post-war Saudi Arabia took shape.

  • 3 Lacroix, 2011.

6In his influential study Awakening Islam, Stéphane Lacroix argues convincingly that the Saudi state-building process resulted in the creation of a highly siloed or vertically sectorized model of governance, whereby institutions such as the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and others formed their own networks of patronage and embodied distinctive worldviews that were largely exclusive from one another.3 When we consider the history of modern education in the kingdom within the framework of competition and contest, however, we see a great deal of cross-pollination, interaction, and direct disputation between otherwise disparate ulama and modernizing actors. Such a framing allows us to see that the coalescence of key state institutions in the early post-war period was not a neat nor a deliberate process but instead almost a tit-for-tat outcome of sociological rivalry between pietists and technocrats.

  • 4 Yizraeli, 2012.
  • 5 Vitalis, 2007; Jones, 2010.

7The subject of educational competition in mid-twentieth century Saudi Arabia has been addressed by Yizraeli and considered in passing by other scholars.4 Yet the sources for this present study are largely unexamined, and can thus shed further light on the nature of state-building in that relatively understudied period of modern Saudi history. Thanks to the works of Vitalis, Jones, and others, we now know what the State Department, Aramco, and Ibn Saud and his advisers were thinking in the post-war period.5 Yet we have had less insight into the worldviews and machinations of the other key stakeholders in the struggle over educational development during that period. By focusing attention on both the published and non-public writings of the Najdī ulama and the educational modernizers in and around the Ministry of Education, this study hopes to fill in some of those of gaps, and thus better inform our understanding of the shaping of Saudi national institutions at the moment of their inception.

Early Modernizers

  • 6 Al-Manhal, November 1948, p. 33.

8The beginnings of a modernist discourse on education and development can be discerned in the pages of the Ḥijāzī cultural gazette al-Manhal. Founded in 1937 by the Jeddah historian ‘Abd al-Quddūs al-Anṣārī (1906–1983), al-Manhal was an important platform for publicizing the programs of the modernizing Directorate of Education, which was founded in 1926 and was the precursor to the Ministry of Education. The challenge of reconciling old and new worldviews and practices emerges clearly in al-Manhal’s editorial columns and articles on developments within the Directorate. For example, in the 1948 Directorate annual report that was reprinted in the journal, two resolutions, countervailing in their import, are juxtaposed: ‘Number 12: Resolution to forbid young Saudi students from entering foreign students’ playgrounds, substituting for these Muslim children’s playgrounds; Number 13: Resolution to include English [language instruction] in the Saudi Scholastic Institute [i.e., the government secondary school in Mecca].’6 The essential question of how to deal with non-native knowledge, foreign persons, and the links between them posed a strong and at times disorienting challenge to both education modernizers and ulama figures.

  • 7 Al-Anārī, 1950, p. 236.
  • 8 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 846.

9For the kingdom’s cautiously modernizing intellectuals, who were inclined toward progress within the Saudi-Ḥijāzi framing of that notion, the challenge posed by secular and Western forms of knowledge was relatively manageable. Reflecting at mid-century on the first two decades of Saudi intellectual life, al-Anṣārī sounded an optimist’s note: ‘finally we have awakened to the exacting demands of dynamic modern life, which no nation can hope to address unless armed with the weapons of knowledge.’7 At or around the time of writing, al-Anṣārī was appointed to a five-member advisory council for the Directorate of Education.8 A proud Jiddawī of West African extraction, for which the nisba al-Anṣārī (i.e., Supporter of the Prophet in Yathrib/Medina) provided useful camouflage in the genealogically invested Arabian Peninsula, ‘Abd al-Quddūs credited the Saudi Ḥijāz and its relatively early intellectual bloom for gifting studiousness and wisdom to the people of Najd. Writing seven years later, al-Anṣārī expressed his tremendous excitement about vocational education in the kingdom, and what he characterized as the kingdom’s technical progress into the ranks of the advanced nations. As a Ḥijāzī printer-journalist in a country increasingly dominated by Najdīs, and as an advocate for modernizing and vocational education within an Islamic framework, al-Anṣārī might be considered a ‘creole pioneer’ of Saudi nationhood, to adapt Anderson’s term, whose work deserves further scrutiny.

10Early modernizers like al-Anṣārī and Ḥamad al-Jāsir were decidedly less self-conscious than their post-1979 successors about the promotion of secular knowledge and its implications for reorienting the fundamental sociocultural framework of the kingdom. This was, in fact, their aim, to push the boundaries of legitimate knowledge beyond the parameters dictated and policed by the Wahhābī clergy, though without abandoning the religious epistemological anchoring that underpinned Najdī and Ḥijāzī society. By contrast, the Najdī ulama were quick, in fact too quick, to grasp the rupturing influence that secular or non-canonical frames of thought would have on their adherents. At stake was not simply epistemology and ethics, but sources of patronage, influence, and institutional authority.

The Innocence of Vocational Education

  • 9 Vitalis, 2007, p. 111.
  • 10 Childs, 1985b.
  • 11 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 10.
  • 12 Vitalis, 2006.

11Of all forms of educational reform, the expansion of vocational training seemed the least controversial. Technical education did not threaten the hegemony of the revealed disciplines (theology and Islamic law) in the same way that more humanistic pursuits did, and also fitted neatly with the kingdom’s labor market needs. Recounting a 1946 conversation between King ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. Sa‘ūd and U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia William Eddy, an American official noted the king’s ‘skepticism …of the value of an elaborate system of schools for his people,’9 favoring instead the establishment of trade schools. This inclination was echoed by other modernizers surrounding the court. In a 1950 news article, for example, an Egyptian adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Finance advocated for the establishment of technical junior high schools that would cater to the burgeoning requirements for skilled manpower in the developing state.10 This sentiment was echoed more emphatically in a 1955 report by former Egyptian minister of education Ismā‘īl al-Qabbānī that was commissioned by Saudi education minister Fahd b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz and is discussed below.11 As Robert Vitalis documents in America’s Kingdom, the attitude of the king and his advisers toward vocational education found a welcome ear in the corporate offices of Aramco, which in the post-War period served as the kingdom’s de facto development agency,12 especially in the Eastern Province. Aramco oversaw an expansion in Saudi schooling that, for a period, surpassed the country’s own efforts in that region. The tensions between education as da‘wa and education as nation-building materialized vividly in the fight over vocational training at Aramco’s Jebel school.

121945 marked the beginning of Aramco’s active planning for education in Saudi Arabia. The company, which at that stage was an entirely American-led enterprise, was interested in developing a trained Saudi workforce to staff its expanding operations within the kingdom, and decided to finance and build a set of schools for that purpose. As part of its deal with the Saudi government, Aramco facilitated a program of religious education for the Saudi children of its employees who were enrolled in the company’s new trade preparatory schools, with teachers to be assigned by the Directorate of Education.

  • 13 Trial and Winder, 1950, p. 122.

13In the spring of 1948, three-fourths of the students at Aramco’s signature Jebel school ceased attending classes. The Saudi ulama, viewing elementary education as one of their core prerogatives, had objected to the enrollment of boys under fifteen years of age in the school, and the government had ordered their removal.13 Saudi historian Ḥamad al-Jāsir, who had been nominated by the Wahhābī leadership to be the Jebel school’s Arabic teacher, was an eyewitness to the controversy. One source of contention, he noted, was the priority given to spoken English over Arabic and religious instruction, with students being first taught to transcribe and intone a limited set of work-specific English words and phrases intended to ease their interactions with Aramco’s American managers. While foreign language study was a popular cause for Saudi modernizers, its privileging over basic Arabic grammar and religious instruction seemed fatal to the carefully wrought consensus over educational priorities in the kingdom.

  • 14 Childs, 1985a. Owen complained further of the teachers’ disregard for ‘the well-planned schedules (...)
  • 15 Interview with Ya‘qūb Rushayd, 2011.

14From the American perspective, the Jebel school walkout was precipitated by ‘arguments between lay and religious teachers as to their respective jurisdiction,’ or what Aramco executive Garry Owen termed, in a letter to Saudi Finance Minister ‘Abdallāh Sulaymān, ‘a misunderstanding of the purpose of the school by the Government teachers assigned to teach religion’.14 With vocational training here tied to the corporate concerns of a foreign company, the whiff of colonialism was sufficient to put off both Saudi humanists and Wahhābī conservatives, even if both depended for jobs or technology on the new arrivals from Aramco.15

  • 16 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 10.
  • 17 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 8.

15For the consultants brought in to help plan education policy in the kingdom, vocational education remained a key priority. When former Egyptian minister of education Ismā‘īl al-Qabbānī toured Saudi Arabia in 1955 at the invitation of his Saudi royal counterpart he advocated strongly for increased investment in vocational training, while discouraging aspirational spending on the expansion of secondary and higher education. The country was in great need of skilled vocational laborers, he argued, and not specially trained college graduates.16 Al-Qabbānī was concerned that Saudi Arabia not repeat the experiences of other Arab countries, in which graduates of secondary school looked down at manual work, and saw government jobs as their birthright, creating a social (and political) problem when such positions ran out.17

  • 18 Al-Qabbānī, 1955b, p. 50.

16Touring the Kuwaiti education system that same year, al-Qabbānī registered his fears that if the Kuwaiti government placed too great an emphasis on high school and higher education while ignoring vocational schooling, then it would create for itself a more intense form of the problem that existed in many other Arab countries — the presence of large numbers of educated unemployed.18

Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm and Ulama Education Policy

  • 19 Āl al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 50.
  • 20 Al-Washmī, 2009, n. 1, p. 68.

17A focus on vocational training did little to alleviate ulama concerns about the shift in the nature and purpose of education in the Wahhābī kingdom, particularly in the central Arabian (Najdī) heartland. Cracking open the door for non-religious disciplines proved a severe challenge, one that laid bare the contradictions at the heart of the new education system. Together with ulama pressures, parental resistance to modern schooling would ensure a slow pace of growth for public education in central Arabia. A quarter century separated the founding of the first Saudi public secondary school in Riyadh from that in the Ḥijāz.19 Upon the opening of the Dār al-Tawḥīd teacher training school in the town of Ṭā’if (1944), one Najdī mother is said to have hidden her son in the oven to evade the pedagogical authorities.20

  • 21 In pre-modern Najd, schooling occurred in either study circles (alaqāt) or small Koranic schools (...)
  • 22 Al-Washmī, 2009, 49, 68.

18The education ministry offered the Najdī populace new madāris (sing. madrasa), a novel term in that sociocultural milieu,21 and one that became synonymous with the uprooting of youth from traditional Koranic schools and study circles for compulsory enrollment in impersonal government schools situated often at distant remove from their families.22 For many Najdīs of the mid-20th century, the madrasa connoted the alien and the modern, the rupture with the past.

19The driving force behind ulama and conservative competition in Saudi public education was Wahhabism’s foremost 20th-century figure, Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm Āl al-Shaykh. A sixth-generation descendant of the Najdī revivalist Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, Ibn Ibrāhīm was born in 1893 in a Riyadh ruled by Āl Sa‘ūd rivals and died in 1969 on the cusp of the Saudi oil boom. He thus was witness to, and had an often decisive hand in, the formation of the modern kingdom, the history of which can be mapped, by one measure, in his transition from teacher and sermonizer in Riyadh to principal administrator of a variety of modern Saudi institutions ranging from courts to schools to presses.

  • 23 Al-Rashīd, 1999.

20The contested nature of the Saudi public sphere, as well as its sectorized quality, are reflected in the competing attitudes toward Ibn Ibrāhīm and his legacy. Lauded by his many biographers,23 Ibn Ibrāhīm is discussed with less reverence in informal settings by some Saudi intellectuals and former court officials (in the presence of this author), whether for his obscurantist views regarding technology and modern culture, or his obeisance before the will of the monarchy. These dueling legacies reflect a complex personality who was socialized into conceptions of authority that were discordant with the instruments of the modern state, yet who functioned effectively within its structures through adaptation, alliance building, and appeals to tradition.

  • 24 Al-Salmān, 1999, p. 205.
  • 25 Samin, 2018.

21In 1955, Ibn Ibrāhīm helped found the Idārat al-Kulliyyāt wa-l-Ma‘āhid (Administration of Colleges and Scholastic Institutes), an institution established to oversee the kingdom’s new religious schools, that was separate and apart from the larger Ministry of Education system,24 which ran the kingdom’s general education public schools. Ibn Ibrāhīm’s schools were created to train religious functionaries who would go on to staff the kingdom’s new sharia courts, mosques, and religious schools. Yet primary education, as well as the majority of the kingdom’s intermediate and high schools, remained under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, and Ibn Ibrāhīm would be engaged throughout the final two decades of his life in efforts to influence personnel decisions and curriculum policies in that ministry.25

22Before the founding of the Administration of Colleges and Scholastic Institutes, Ibn Ibrāhīm was a pedagogical authority who lacked institutional power. As a consequence, the scholar worked to leverage his religious authority to shape outcomes at the Directorate and later Ministry of Education. In 1952, he sent an angry letter to King ‘Abd al-‘Azīz concerning developments within the Directorate that had been reported to him by one of his students, in which he is quoted as saying:

  • 26 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 186.

‘I read about the [control of the Directorate] by individuals who have no interest in religion, who have the authority to appoint officials and select textbooks. … We advise that … you seize control of your affairs, and that you come to distinguish the identities of those who are loyal to Islam from those who know only subversion, and make an effort to eliminate them.’26

  • 27 Ibid., p. 193-194.

23This language of purges would recur in other communications and orders by the scholar,27 but nowhere more boldly than in the above missive to the Saudi king.

  • 28 The letter thanked a senior advisor to then-crown prince Sa‘ūd for agreeing to forward Ibn Ibrāhīm (...)
  • 29 Samin, 2018.

24The Saudi court appears to have supported or at least acquiesced to Ibn Ibrāhīm’s broader spiritual policing efforts. A 1952 letter from the scholar to the royal court, for example, showed him successfully leveraging his influence with the royals to intervene in Directorate of Education policy.28 The court’s cooperation with Ibn Ibrāhīm’s aspirations for authority over the education modernizers’ dominion was due in no small measure to his effective pressure tactics. Yet there was more to this triangular relationship than antagonism and pressure. The court saw Wahhabism as a normalizing ideology that was necessary for bringing disparate sociological groups (i.e., Bedouin and sedentary) and regional cultures into alignment with central Arabian norms.29 It also relied on religious scholars for its continuing legitimacy. The Directorate’s solicitousness toward Ibn Ibrāhīm was therefore necessary for maintaining its favorable influence with the court.

  • 30 Al-Dīwān al-Malakī, Institute of Public Administration (IPA), 1953.
  • 31 The lineage of Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhāb.
  • 32 Ministry of Education Telegraph, IPA, 1954.
  • 33 In the words of the former court official Ya‘qūb Rushayd, ‘‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdallāh would not qu (...)
  • 34 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 847.
  • 35 Al-Ghāmidī, 2011, p. 21.

25Conciliatory gestures by education modernizers toward Ibn Ibrāhīm often fell short of their mark, however. In December 1953, several months after the death of the kingdom’s founder, the Directorate of Education was converted to a ministry. Its upgrade in status was confirmed by the appointment of prince Fahd to its leadership.30 Fahd was the new King Sa‘ūd’s half-brother, and was considered a proponent of modern education. Perhaps to alleviate the concerns of the religious establishment concerning Fahd’s leanings, a member of the Āl al-Shaykh lineage,31 ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdallāh, was appointed to be Fahd’s deputy.32 ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdallāh, a distant relative of Ibn Ibrāhīm, served as deputy minister of education (1953–1960) and then minister of education (1960–1963), and was in frequent contact with Ibn Ibrāhīm over education policy. Though he possessed more formal authority than Ibn Ibrāhīm in most matters of public education, Ibn ‘Abdallāh was often compelled to defer to the scholar due to the latter’s seniority both in the religious hierarchy (Ibn Ibrāhīm was his teacher) and within the Āl al-Shaykh family.33 In 1955, for instance, Ibn Ibrāhīm was invited to sit at the head of a Ministry council that had been tasked with reforming the education program for central Arabia.34 The scholar rejected this invitation, no doubt for many reasons, though one may have been the most compelling — to accept would have meant subordinating himself to a junior member of his family (and an al-Azhar trained one at that).35

  • 36 Āl al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 145, 149.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 149.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 145.

26In his memoirs, Ibn ‘Abdallāh portrayed his relations with Ibn Ibrāhīm as a study in harmony.36 He recounted efforts by opponents of public education to interfere with the ministry’s hiring processes and secure the appointment of religious scholars to teach religious subjects in ministry schools. According to him, Ibn Ibrāhīm objected unequivocally to this outside pressure on the ministry.37 He praised the scholar for ceding the benefit of the doubt to the ministry whenever accusations were hurled its way.38

  • 39 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 192.

27Yet after 1955 and the creation of the Administration of Colleges and Scholastic Institutes, the leaders of these two competing institutional bodies had reason to disagree. Ibn ‘Abdallāh described a letter-writing campaign by the ministry’s conservative critics, through which they would alert Ibn Ibrāhīm to objectionable practices within the public school system. A 1958 letter from the Wahhābī leader to a ministry principal in the province of al-Qaṣīm, in which the scholar registered ‘delight’ at his correspondent’s angry denunciations of ministry reforms (described as having produced ‘deficiencies in religious studies’) shows this campaign in action.39

  • 40 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 11.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 11, 18.

28The letter-writing campaign pointed to an unspoken rivalry between the two education systems, one that is grounded in other documentary sources as well. While observing the new Saudi schools in the field, the Egyptian consultant al-Qabbānī explicitly criticized the competition between the kingdom’s parallel education administrations. He observed that students in Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm’s religious high schools received a monthly stipend of 300 riyals. By contrast, students in the Ministry of Education’s teacher training secondary schools received only 65 riyals.40 The implications of this disparity did not go unnoticed by the Egyptian visitor: ‘[A] student enrolled in secondary schools that are located near religious institutes receives 150 riyals per month, so as to resist the competition of these institutes. It goes without saying that such competition between government schools is not commendable.’41

  • 42 For this and other entreaties and related decrees, see: Royal Order, IPA, 1957; Presidency of the (...)

29The sense of rivalry between the kingdom’s distinct educational systems can be discerned as well in Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm’s administrative correspondence. Letters and documents from the 1950s and 1960s concerning budgetary and regulatory matters reveal the scholar’s consistently urgent concern for achieving parity with the Ministry of Education. This urge for parity can be observed, for example, in Ibn Ibrāhīm’s efforts to equalize the wages of test examiners in his administration with their counterparts in the education ministry.42 While motivated by a desire for greater resources and authorities, the scholar’s repeated entreaties of this nature over the years also reflect a need to win equal recognition for the value of ulama-led education within a newly diversified institutional landscape.

Educational Competition and the Wahhābī mission civilisatrice

  • 43 Al-Zahrānī, 2006, p. 270.
  • 44 Al-Qar‘āwī, 1948, p. 188–9; Mouline, 2014, p. 116.
  • 45 Crown prince Sa‘ūd sponsored al-Qar‘āwī’s initiative with almost 4.5 million riyals. Al-Zahrānī, 2 (...)
  • 46 Mouline, 2014, p. 116.

30Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm and his ulama cohort’s determined response to the growing influence of the education ministry gave religious scholars a larger stake in the shaping of the kingdom’s education system. Yet in circumstances where their direct oversight was blocked, as was the case with primary education, they were compelled to seek alternative avenues of authority and patronage. One such avenue entailed promoting private religious education initiatives that were beyond the education ministry’s jurisdiction. An example is the network of schools established in the kingdom’s south by Ibn Ibrāhīm’s student ‘Abdallāh al-Qar‘āwī (1898–1969). Al-Qar‘āwī was an orphan from the Najdī town of ‘Unayza who had studied with religious scholars in central Arabia and South Asia before commencing his Wahhābī missionary activism in the kingdom’s southern ‘Asīr region. Initially, al-Qar‘āwī financed his primary schools with his own wealth earned as long-distance trader.43 By 1946, the year in which his efforts attracted Saudi court patronage, al-Qar‘āwī had established 26 schools for 1200 students.44 With the financial backing of the court,45 75,000 ‘Asīrī children were educated in al-Qar‘āwī’s schools during his lifetime.46

  • 47 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 151–3.
  • 48 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 599.
  • 49 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 151–3.

31Opinions were mixed about the merits of al-Qar‘āwī’s project, however. The former minister of education ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdallāh Āl al-Shaykh asserted that al-Qar‘āwī had worked hard to forestall the integration of his ‘so-called madrasas’ into the public school system and their normalization to ministry standards, even warning parents against enrolling their children in government schools.47 The historian Ḥamad al-Jāsir, who was sympathetic to the challenges of social and educational development in mid-century Saudi Arabia, had a more favorable impression of al-Qar‘āwī’s project. He argued that al-Qar‘āwī’s schools were a stepping stone permitting the ultimate integration of the region’s people into the kingdom’s public education system, and that without his schools they would have continued resisting the ministry’s efforts.48 The parallel education projects in the country’s south persisted until 1959, when then-King Sa‘ūd withdrew royal patronage from al-Qar‘āwī’s enterprise for its substandard practices.49

32Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm was al-Qar‘āwī’s primary advocate before the Saudi court, especially after the future of the latter’s schools was placed in jeopardy. It can be argued that Ibn Ibrāhīm saw al-Qar‘āwī and his enterprise as a means of advancing a kind of Wahhābī mission civilisatrice within the densely populated yet marginal regions of the kingdom’s south, a late-stage missionary enterprise in the shadow of the modernizing state. In a system of competing ideologies and parallel bureaucracies, Ibn Ibrāhīm’s effort to maintain al-Qar‘āwī’s administrative autonomy achieved two important objectives: it allowed him to assert a strong position, through an entrepreneurial disciple, in the politics of patronage and development financing in the kingdom, and it enabled him to promote and expand the Wahhabi da‘wa.

33Ibn Ibrāhīm’s support for al-Qarʿāwī should be understood in light of his broader orientation toward non-Wahhābī communities in general and his attitude toward the religious beliefs of the southern Saudi peoples in particular. In his well-known 1961 polemic against positive law, Risālat Takīm al-Qawānīn al-Wa‘iyya (Epistle on the Rule of Man-Made Laws), the scholar delineated the forms of unbelief that inhibited the proper understanding and implementation of God’s law. While the focus of Ibn Ibrāhīm’s epistle is arguably the fifth form of unbelief — the hegemony of profane legal codes throughout the world — it is the sixth form, tribal unbelief, that has bearing on the al-Qar‘āwī schools initiative. The sixth form of unbelief is, according to Ibn Ibrāhīm:

  • 50 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 12, pp. 290–1.

that which many tribal chiefs and tribes govern by, as well as Bedouin tribes and their likes — stories from their fathers and grandfathers, and their customs which they call their ‘sulūm,’ which they inherit from them, which they govern by, and to which they resort for arbitration when disagreements arise. They do so adhering to jāhiliyya rulings, while shunning God and his Messenger’s rule…50

34In his exasperation with Arabia’s Bedouin and tribal populations, Ibn Ibrāhīm echoed the sentiments of his more famous forebear, Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhāb. Yet while Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb had trained his disapproving gaze on the Bedouin of Najd, Ibn Ibrāhīm’s concern was the people of the kingdom’s south, for whom al-Qar‘āwī’s Wahhabizing work seemed the ideal remedy.

  • 51 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 188–9.

35After an apparently failed plea to the court to maintain al-Qar‘āwī’s autonomy and capacity to advance his missionary education work,51 the scholar turned to a different tactic, emphasizing Wahhabism’s civilizing powers vis-à-vis the morally wayward south. Ibn Ibrāhīm identified a direct link between the incomplete penetration of Wahhābī values in the kingdom’s south and the persistence of criminality and moral turpitude there. In 1962, the scholar addressed his broader concerns about the region to King Sa‘ūd:

  • 52 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 185–6.

The obligation of the state to the citizens with respect to disseminating knowledge among them, reforming their religious and material circumstances, and guiding them toward that which will bring them satisfaction and tranquility, is not concealed from your generous majesty’s sight. It is without question that keeping them [i.e., the people of ‘Asīr] in this contemptible state, with ignorance spreading among them, and leaving them without schools, imams, or religious guides, is inexcusable, and may have unpraiseworthy consequences, including the spread of obscenities, reprehensible behaviors, and crimes, among other things. … It is not in the state’s interest that some of its citizens should live in absolute ignorance and complete blindness…52

  • 53 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 184–5.
  • 54 Cook, 2015, p. 176.

36In an undated letter, Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm also urged Najdī judges to set aside time to recite Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s Kitāb al-Tawīd (Treatise on Monotheism) in Saudi markets and explain its meaning to market visitors in lay terms.53 With this order, the senior Wahhābī jurist was echoing the practices of his ulama predecessors, who publicized the Wahhābī creed as a set of simple points to be memorized and internalized by popular audiences throughout the Arabian Peninsula.54 Ibn Ibrāhīm’s vigorous advocacy for al-Qar‘āwī’s schools can be viewed as an extension of this missionary work, and in an era in which institutional forces were proving increasingly hostile to such purist, old-world enterprises.

  • 55 Farquhar, 2016.
  • 56 Ho, 2006, p. 316; in a 1961 letter to future Saudi Grand Mufti ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. Bāz urging support (...)

37Two events turned the tide in favor of the religious establishment. First, the oil boom unleashed vast wealth into the coffers of the ulama, enabling them to expand their influence both at home and abroad. Second, the Juhaymān crisis of 1979, in which a band of millenarian zealots seized the Great Mosque of Mecca and declared the absolute corruption of the ruling Āl Saud, pushed the Saudi regime into a newly hyper-conservative posture. These developments served to reverse the dynamic of waning religious fervor, giving Wahhābī missionizing activities renewed life as well as robust new manifestations, none more so than the Islamic University of Medina, an institution elegantly examined by Michael Farquhar.55 By considering al-Qar‘āwī’s education project as a kind of prehistory for this era of new wealth and renewed religious vigor, we can observe the compounding effects of Wahhabism’s chronologically staggered southward march from Najd to ‘Asīr to northern Yemen and, by the end of the 20th century, south Yemen.56


38Competition over the production of legitimate and useful knowledge in mid-20th century Saudi Arabia, indeed over its very definition, was endemic to the kingdom’s system of governance. The modernizing state demanded innovation, and yet was constitutionally inclined to repulse any hint of threat posed by novelty in the heretical religious sense (bid‘a). Only the royal court had the power to bring the conflicting dreams of its cautiously modernizing technocrats and missionizing ulama to fruition. Its education policy was forged through alternating patterns of innovation, concession, and improvisation with these rival pedagogical factions, producing the patchwork of institutions and practices that together form the origins of the modern Saudi education system.

39The sectorized nature of the Saudi political economy, with each institution encompassing its own networks of patronage and like-minded personnel, renders it difficult to observe instances of cross-pollination, dialogue, or conflict between the organs of the state at the granular level. When the archival and published records of influential Saudi ulama, civil servants, and printer-journalists are studied with attention to this cross-institutional interaction, however, the picture of modern Saudi history and its relation to the present changes somewhat.

40Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm and ‘Abdallāh al-Qar‘āwī remain revered figures within the Wahhābī scholarly and missionary community, while ‘Abd al-Quddūs al-Anṣārī and Ḥamad al-Jāsir are today celebrated by more secular-minded Saudi intellectuals. Their dialogue, both direct and indirect, over the future of Saudi education constitutes an important window into our understanding of a poorly mapped period of modern Saudi history. In the competition between their respective intellectual communities, for example, we can observe the seeds of the illiberal capitalist model that came to pervade the kingdom. Faced with complex and contradictory religious and secularizing imperatives in the era of modern statebuilding, the Saudi dynasty resolved to cultivate pietistic and technocratic (economic) forms of knowledge in parallel, circumventing the general unease of the ulama regarding even that concession. The status of literature, philosophy, and the arts in Saudi Arabia, that is, of the purely humanistic forms of knowledge (or at least their popular derivatives), is only now being reconsidered by the Saudi state, though it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of the present cultural rebalancing.

  • 57 Lacroix, 2015, p. 169–172.

41When we consider, moreover, ulama actions as part of a larger picture of institutional rivalry, we begin to understand how religious ideas and personnel came to be implanted in the modern Saudi education system. Too often we find the story of cross-pollination of religious and modernizing influences in the modern Saudi education system reduced to a narrative of Muslim Brotherhood teachers cultivating the Weltanschauung of future jihadists. For the period under consideration in this article, however, the arrival of Brotherhood cadre in the kingdom was a relatively late development.57 Moreover, one might notice that the institutional consolidation and competition I have detailed here does not afford a prominent role for foreign teachers or personnel. Whatever their future influence on the course of the kingdom’s intellectual life as media professionals or educators, Muslim Brotherhood teachers in mid-century Saudi Arabia were in effect white collar guest workers who possessed limited power and influence over the Saudi education system at the policy, organizational, or administrative level.

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1 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 601.

2 Samin, 2015, p. 19–52.

3 Lacroix, 2011.

4 Yizraeli, 2012.

5 Vitalis, 2007; Jones, 2010.

6 Al-Manhal, November 1948, p. 33.

7 Al-Anārī, 1950, p. 236.

8 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 846.

9 Vitalis, 2007, p. 111.

10 Childs, 1985b.

11 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 10.

12 Vitalis, 2006.

13 Trial and Winder, 1950, p. 122.

14 Childs, 1985a. Owen complained further of the teachers’ disregard for ‘the well-planned schedules set up for the teaching of the various courses, so that the efforts of the Company teachers to instil punctuality and regularity in the students has broken down’.

15 Interview with Ya‘qūb Rushayd, 2011.

16 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 10.

17 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 8.

18 Al-Qabbānī, 1955b, p. 50.

19 Āl al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 50.

20 Al-Washmī, 2009, n. 1, p. 68.

21 In pre-modern Najd, schooling occurred in either study circles (alaqāt) or small Koranic schools (katātīb). The term madrasa was therefore a neologism with respect to colloquial usage.

22 Al-Washmī, 2009, 49, 68.

23 Al-Rashīd, 1999.

24 Al-Salmān, 1999, p. 205.

25 Samin, 2018.

26 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 186.

27 Ibid., p. 193-194.

28 The letter thanked a senior advisor to then-crown prince Sa‘ūd for agreeing to forward Ibn Ibrāhīm’s recommendations to the Directorate with the crown prince’s seal affixed, and asked that the crown prince order the Directorate manager to send all of its curricular and administrative documents to him for review. Ibid., p. 187.

29 Samin, 2018.

30 Al-Dīwān al-Malakī, Institute of Public Administration (IPA), 1953.

31 The lineage of Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhāb.

32 Ministry of Education Telegraph, IPA, 1954.

33 In the words of the former court official Ya‘qūb Rushayd, ‘‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdallāh would not quarrel with Shaykh Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm … because of the family’. Interview with Ya‘qūb Rushayd, 2011.

34 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 847.

35 Al-Ghāmidī, 2011, p. 21.

36 Āl al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 145, 149.

37 Ibid., p. 149.

38 Ibid., p. 145.

39 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 192.

40 Al-Qabbānī, 1955a, p. 11.

41 Ibid., p. 11, 18.

42 For this and other entreaties and related decrees, see: Royal Order, IPA, 1957; Presidency of the Council of Ministers Decision, IPA, 1967; al-Dīwān al-Malakī, IPA, 1965; Presidency of the Council of Ministers Decision, IPA, 1968.

43 Al-Zahrānī, 2006, p. 270.

44 Al-Qar‘āwī, 1948, p. 188–9; Mouline, 2014, p. 116.

45 Crown prince Sa‘ūd sponsored al-Qar‘āwī’s initiative with almost 4.5 million riyals. Al-Zahrānī, 2006, p. 271.

46 Mouline, 2014, p. 116.

47 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 151–3.

48 Al-Jāsir, 2006, p. 599.

49 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1991, p. 151–3.

50 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 12, pp. 290–1.

51 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 188–9.

52 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 185–6.

53 Āl Al-Shaykh, 1978, 13, p. 184–5.

54 Cook, 2015, p. 176.

55 Farquhar, 2016.

56 Ho, 2006, p. 316; in a 1961 letter to future Saudi Grand Mufti ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. Bāz urging support for his proselytizing efforts, ‘Abdallāh al-Qar‘āwī noted that the people of neighboring Yemen were ‘all desirous and appreciative of this da‘wa.’ Bin Bāz, 2007, p. 55.

57 Lacroix, 2015, p. 169–172.

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Nadav Samin, « Competition in the Mid-20th Century Saudi Education System », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 12 | 2019, mis en ligne le 12 mars 2020, consulté le 21 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Nadav Samin

Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore

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