What is the Current State of Religious Extremism in the Saudi Education System?

Saudi Arabia is one of the nations affected by the issue of global extremism and terrorism. Radical ideologies have always been an important part of society due to various institutions, including religion and education (Borum, 2011). Al Nafjan (2012) elucidates that religious extremism and fanaticism have historically been a part of human society. Although they have been evident in the region for centuries, fanaticism and extremism have reached an unprecedented level in recent years, leading to extreme damage to property and loss of life. However, Saudi Arabia has implemented measures to address the global problem and improve its image through an aggressive counterterrorism campaign (Chirot, 2017). Gambetta and Hertog (2017) observe that the major efforts were implemented following the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. Regardless of the efforts made by various researchers to investigate the relationship between extremism and Islamic curriculum in the country and the Arab region and to reveal the extent and remedy of this issue, questions persist as to whether the state can effectively eradicate extremism connected to the Islamic curriculum.

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How Religious Extremism and Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Curriculum are Connected

Major terrorist attacks in various parts of the world have motivated questions regarding the kind of education being taught in Islamic societies such as Saudi Arabia. The challenge also relates to the role of the Islamic religion in influencing Muslim attitudes toward non-Muslims. The existence of militant extremism has been considered restricted to a few people who were taught fanaticism and currently teaching in madrasas in “remote outposts.” However, researchers such as Chirot (2017) have revealed that the problem is prevalent across the country, including in mainstream education, especially in Islamic religious studies. Regardless of the complexity of the debate on Islam in Muslim education, evidence exists regarding the effect of education on developing extremists and terrorists. The prevalence of this problem has led to the need for Muslim politicians to consider the implications of those philosophies propagated by instructors teaching hatred and violence.

The Concept of Extremism is connected to the Islamic Curriculum in Saudi Arabia. Any attempts to improve the image of Saudi Arabia and enhance the country’s relationship with other nations such as the United States should confront the idea of extremism and religious hate. Gambetta and Hertog (2017) reveal that Islamist extremist terror should be addressed to achieve real change in Saudi Arabia. Scholars in the United States and Saudi Arabia revisited the Saudi education system following the 9/11 attack (Borum, 2011; Gambetta & Hertog, 2017). According to Al Nafjan (2012), it is imperative to explain the reason that about 79% of the terrorists who attacked the United States, including their leader came from Saudi Arabia. The education system in the country was brought into question in an attempt to find answers to the fundamental questions relating to the most heinous attack on American soil. Bradley (2015) adds that the answers potentially lie in the Kingdom’s interpretation of Islam. Religion is at the core of the country’s education system. It is possible that educators are responsible for instigating hate and violence against the West.

Scholars in the United States, including American Muslims, have analyzed the Kingdom’s education system to establish a potential connection with the concept of extremism. Bradley (2015) is among the scholars who have collected, translated, and analyzed Saudi textbooks to establish the relationship between the Saudi religious curriculum and religious extremism. Al Nafjan (2012) is one of the scholars who has collected, interpreted, and analyzed Saudi textbooks to investigate the association between education and religious extremism. Besides, in 2003, Saudi King Abdullah commissioned a scholarly panel to evaluate middle and high school religion. The panel studied three main subjects relating to “Hadith (tradition), Wahhabi Islam – Fiqh (law), and Tawhid (beliefs about monotheism)” (Borum, 2011). Findings from different circles reveal the reality that the Saudi Kingdom’s religious studies curriculum instigates extremism, hate, and violence against other religions. It misleads the young people that they should safeguard their religion by violently repressing and even physically eliminating others.

The Saudi education system is mostly about being hateful or violent against those considered the enemy of the Islamic religion. It teaches an ideology of violence and hatred towards Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, such as Shiites, Sufis and Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahais, sorcerers, animists, and “infidels” (Gereluk, 2012). A majority of the offensive passages are evident in religious textbooks for upper grades. The Kingdom’s government called for reforms for the early grades. The religious books for the early grades, such as English and math, are not mainly problematic. Nonetheless, generally, critical thinking and thoughts conflicting with government-approved ideas are prohibited (Ihsanoglu, 2010). Therefore, the education system in the country remains largely unchanged, especially concerning the teaching of the Islamic religion in schools.

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The Genesis of the Need for a Shift in the Islamic Curriculum

Islamic school knowledge in recent years, especially since the turn of the 21st century, has been under increasing criticism. Stakeholders in the country and internationally have aired their views regarding the implications of Islamic studies in the Saudi education system (Gereluk, 2012). According to Al-Saud (2009), the system is perceived as being problematic, in non-Muslim and even Muslim contexts. Within the political context, studies highlight the implications of educating students through the extremist lens. The increase in the rate of terrorist activities across the world has increased demands for governments in Islamic countries to revisit their education systems. In Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Islamic world, the issue has been the use of education as an indoctrination process for young children (Blanchard, 2010). Global terrorist incidents have motivated the need to modify the Saudi education system to change the image of the country as a breeding ground for terrorists.

Saudi Arabia’s leadership has a huge interest in the education system. Although the Saudi government, just as in other countries has always passed educational reforms, the major shift in the Islamic curriculum in the country started after the 9/11 attack (Casptack, 2015). Following the attack and the role played by Saudi Arabian extremists, the government committed to helping in the fight against extremism and terrorism. Major educational reforms were introduced over the decade after the attack. The changes focused on the school system as well as various components such as the curriculum. For example, King Abdullah Al-Saud introduced a comprehensive reform in 2005 to be completed in four phases. According to Al-Saud (2009), the reforms were aimed at improving the content of the curriculum. Hence, one of the subjects affected by this initiative was Islamic studies.

The Saudi government, and pressure from other countries such as the United States, launched changes it the curriculum to improve the country’s global image of Saudi Arabia. In fact, following the terrorist attack on the United States, the Saudi government launched major reforms in the education system, mostly targeting the curriculum (Blanchard, 2010). The government realized that one of the main causes of extremism and terrorism was the monopolization of the creation of the curriculum in the country. For example, only a single group of people, with religious ideals, made the curriculum in the country. Thus, Casptack (2015) elucidates that in 2005, King Abdullah implemented a plan for “education development” that would result in major changes in the Islamic Studies curriculum in the country.

The Extent of Recent Curriculum Changes for Students in Saudi Arabia

Major reforms in the Saudi curriculum affected various education levels. For example, Blanchard (2010) reveals that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education published new editions targeting grades 1 through 12. Gendron (2010) notes that the new editions of religious texts and teaching resources may reflect changes in content, wording, and placement. However, over the last decade, the content has remained the same, containing violent directives and passages. The subject of Islam remains the most critical part of the Saudi education curriculum. Khalil and Karim (2016) reveal that in the education system, especially in private schools, religion is still taught under various subjects, including Islamiyyat, al-tarbiyya al-islamiyya (Islamic Education), talimat-e dini (Religious Instruction), or Islamic Studies. Therefore, regardless of the said changes in the education curriculum, the country maintains the religious forms as they have been for many decades.

Regardless of the changes introduced by King Abdullah Al-Saud, the Saudi curriculum remains largely the same, with religion being at the core of teaching and learning. Furthermore, religious studies in the country and region are based fundamentally on the teachings of the scriptures (Labidi, 2010). Furthermore, Khalil and Karim (2016) add that major changes to the Saudi curriculum have been largely opposed by clerics and other interest groups composed of scholars, judges, and professors. Given that the curriculum is based on Islam, they suggest that major changes might affect the religious ideals of education. According to Clary and Karlin (2011), religious leaders argue that distorting or deleting content from textbooks written by imams and Islamic scholars might contradict the state’s allegiance founded on faith. Therefore, efforts by King Abdullah Al-Saud have not attracted major changes in the Saudi curriculum.

Reformers in government targeted changes in the curriculum to change the interpretation of religious texts and adapt to global demands to reform the Saudi education system. However, reformers have encountered resistance, especially relating to changes in textbooks. Labidi (2010) suggests that they have managed to change some sections of textbooks on jihad and Muslims’ relationship with non-Muslims. They focus on changing the extreme views taught in Saudi classrooms. However, Clary and Karlin (2011) posit that the current change is not enough to create an education system that is completely free from extremist principles. Regardless of the reforms in the wake of the 21st century, Khalil and Karim (2016) conclude that the textbooks used in the Saudi curriculum still lay the ideological foundations of extremists and terrorists. The problem relates to the conservative interpretation and the narrow understanding of Islam.

Changes in Teacher Training Materials, Curriculum Guides, and other Teacher Support Documentation

Education policy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recognizes the importance of the curriculum in teaching. According to Article 206 of the education policy in the country, the curriculum is considered by the state as one of the critical elements of education and teaching practice (Labidi, 2010). Therefore, any change in the curriculum affects the teaching practice, including teacher training materials, curriculum guides, and other teacher support documentation. Nonetheless, some of the changes in the teaching practice should be made in line with reforms in the curriculum. For example, the reforms should be accompanied by the implementation of a new teacher training curriculum. Whether such changes have occurred in Saudi Arabia alongside the recent reforms remains problematic in research and practice.

Teachers are responsible for implementing curriculum changes in Saudi Arabia. Educators at the class levels are expected to define the Islamic goal in all lessons, as directed by the Ministry of Education. Clary and Karlin (2011) reveal that successful reforms in education will change the process and the concept of teaching in Saudi classrooms. Curriculum changes should rephrase some principles depicted in the country’s educational materials, including textbooks. For instance, the changes will permit moderate interpretations of the learning resources. According to Niyozov and Memon (2011), although some individuals in the country, such as teachers maintain extremist views in Islam, the reforms aim at changing the curriculum content and class texts to create a more realistic view of the religion as a hospitable way of living. However, it remains questionable as to whether Saudi teachers would embrace a different interpretation, from the conservative one, of religious teachings in the classroom.

Although the government mandated major changes in the curriculum, including textbook content, it has not implemented significant changes in the teaching practice. Davies (2016) argues that effective changes to address extremism should target the curriculum and its implementers, such as teachers. However, the government has not instigated any concerted efforts affecting teacher training and practice in the country. Consequently, teachers retain their conservative ideals and interpretation of the Islamic religion. Most educators retain allegiance to faith and teach according to their conservative understanding of the religion. They uphold the view of teaching the fundamental and religious sciences based on the Islamic religion (Saada, 2013). Therefore, effective changes should affect the conventional beliefs relating to religion and education; otherwise, teachers will continue to use religious ideals in other subjects introduced into the Saudi curriculum such as languages.

The reforms may have achieved changes in the curriculum, including moderating it and replacing textbooks, but the teaching practice remains largely unchanged. The same teachers who have held conservative views of Islamic religious education remain in schools and teach children according to their beliefs. Therefore, policymakers in government and other supporters of the change concur that teachers need to be trained and taught how to accept and implement the reforms. Saada (2013) recommends the need to have periodical and deliberate changes to address opposition and resistance, especially among scholars and educators. The change must occur in phases since sudden transformations can have detrimental effects on the education system and society in general. It is important to recognize that the country is addressing serious ideologies and fundamental ideas, which cannot change overnight. Society needs time and patience to change and accept the new curriculum and education system.

The New Changes in the Curriculum as the Only Way to Counter Extremism

Changes in education are necessary to support systematic adjustment to address the issue of extremism in Saudi Arabia. However, they are not effective in challenging a problem that has affected society for a very long time. Niyozov and Memon (2011) elucidate that the problem is not inherent in the curriculum or the textbooks. The issue relates to the conservative interpretation and the narrow understanding of religion. Koranic verses require careful interpretation to ensure that they do not promote hatred and violence. For example, some verses such as on the concept of jihad, or holy war tend to be misinterpreted to perpetuate hatred towards the non-Muslim community (Ramady, 2010). Therefore, major changes in the curriculum will be effective in addressing the problem that is entrenched fundamentally in Islamic society.

Extremism in Saudi society extends beyond the classroom. For example, various other teaching avenues for children are evident within the Saudi community, such as in mosques. Therefore, Gray (2014) suggests that changes in the curriculum will not affect teachings that occur informally outside the classroom. Potentially, Saudi students might still learn about extremist and religious intolerance in other settings. Critics of educational reforms in the country are concerned about the extent of religious materials in the country evident in various subjects taught in the country as well as in other settings outside the formal classroom arrangement (Yaacob, (2018). Therefore, although the changes in the Saudi curriculum might affect the attempt to deal with extremism, they are not adequate to solve the problem effectively.

Although the government initiated major changes in the curriculum after the September 11 attacks on the United States, the reforms have faced considerable resistance from various avenues in society, including religion and education sectors. Gereluk (2012) notes the emergence of influential clerics and their supporters who oppose the changes, arguing that they are influenced by Western political ideologies and should not be accepted in Saudi Arabia. They view educational changes as being unjust to Islam, which is the fundamental religion and a way of life. Gray (2014) argues that Islam is not simply faith, but the fundamental principles of how Muslims must live and behave. As a result, efforts to deal with extremism in society should go beyond targeting the classroom.


The literature review focuses on the prevalence of extremism teaching in the Saudi curriculum and the recent attempts to reform the education system to change the image of the country, which is regarded as a breeding ground for extremists and terrorists. Historically, the Saudi education system is founded on the Islamic religion. In addition, the religious materials inherent in school textbooks are accused of having content that instigates hatred and violence. Since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Saudi government has committed to changing the education system, including the curriculum. The state initiated major changes since the incident, but their effect on transforming the education sector remains controversial. Besides, the country has experienced resistance and criticism of such reforms. Overall, education reforms are insufficient in dealing with extremism in Saudi Arabia. Major changes are necessary, which should transform the entire society to achieve significant changes since extremism permeates all aspects of Saudi society because religion is considered a way of life.



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Al-Saud, N. B. A. (2009). Saudi Arabia’s strategy to combat terrorism: An insider’s perspective. The RUSI Journal, 154(6), 74-80.

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Borum, R. (2011). Radicalization into violent extremism II: A review of conceptual models and empirical research. Journal of Strategic Security, 4(4), 37-62.

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