Originally Published in Art Asia Pacfic
I am an advocate of the philosophy that education is not about learning facts, but about cultivating ways of thinking. In this piece, I look at the way we think about education in Saudi Arabia and how it dictates and affects society.
Many mistakenly think our religion is one school or one movement, but it is diverse and constantly evolving. What started as one thing is now a very complex Salafi and Wahhabi movement based on Tawheed—the concept of monotheism—originating from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792). The country, and Islam as a whole, is now punctured with factions and sub-factions. Even if you are close to the subject, it is hard to follow. The main thing to bear in mind is that each of these strands is founded on a human interpretation of the Holy Qu’ran. There are endless possibilities for interpretation of this book, and each is subject to inconsistencies and subjectivities because, as humans, we bring our own experiences to the reading. There is also so much potential for deviation from the origins of Islam within this complex structure, inevitably leading to resentment and enmity between factions and sects, which in turn generate unrest and a landscape of misshapen identities within which I, and my contemporaries, create our work.
In Saudi, our minds are trained from a very young age on how to think religiously. This religious thinking dominates our society, curriculums and often involves renouncing cultural knowledge. There is, in fact, little room at this stage to talk about art education in Saudi, as it is almost nonexistent. Why this is the case, and how one might imagine the possibilities for introducing a different approach, are interesting matters to consider. One illustrative example is a work by Saudi artist Mahdi al-Jeraibi of old wooden desks he salvaged from a school. Where in other nations, the scratching and markings of students might involve drawings, here only texts can be found—the primal instinct of communicating through drawing is schooled out of us from a very young age.
A key aspect of the Saudi education system is the religious summer camp, an important part of what is perceived as a “rounded” educational experience. These camps are divided into groups and each group has a leader. They all traditionally start with fun team activities such as sports and games with the intent of enticing the young within a secure and enjoyable environment. Campers scavenge for food, eat simply and live with nature. After prayer and when it gets dark, the sheikh (“leader”) will start to tell old stories. The tales will usually be about jihadism and the current situation in the Muslim world, encouraging the younger community to feel empowered. There is some simple singing without musical accompaniment, and on occasion the students are told to break instruments in front of each other as a kind of statement against music, for the pursuit of music is perceived as stealing time that could otherwise be spent praying. The singing, or chanting, is hypnotic. It draws one in, making one believe in things that are removed from reality. Like a strong drug or drink, the high-inducing experience taps into one’s deepest imagination. The lead singers put a filter on the microphone, with the intention of the voice sounding more “godly” or divine. Growing up, I was often sent to these camps, which are active across the country.
Another big part of our education is Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca). The mosques act as schools, and this is their most important teaching. Approximately two million people visit Makkah during the Hajj. Using social media, pilgrims broadcast the values, ideas and teachings of this place to the world’s Muslim community. The sheikhs, imams or muftis are the foremost teachers in our society, more important than school teachers or university lecturers and professors. The midday Friday Jummah prayer is the most important educational activity and is valued over school education.
The official academic curriculum in Saudi is not based on imported knowledge, as it is in some parts of the region, for example in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar where American and European systems are popular. I believe having a homegrown education system is a good thing because it allows for a middle ground between imported and community knowledge without imposing foreign methods or thought. However, our system has not yet found this middle ground. In fact, the Gulf as a whole has focused on business and rapid urban development and has ignored education, and particularly art education, at its peril. As a result, there is no progress toward an education system that can stand independently and on a par with international standards and models. What we truly need is a neutral, protected learning space that is not pushing any one particular agenda, as well as an understanding that an education system can implement a wide range of approaches without necessarily negating religion.
Around 60 percent of the population in Saudi is under 30. Each strand of Islam is fighting for people’s allegiance and there are very few nonreligious alternatives for the youth to align themselves with or groups to find kinship within. As a result, the religious education of Saudi Arabia ends up being exported, taking on many mutated forms across the globe, contributing, in my mind, to this current moment of great instability.
There is also a serious ideological battle underway in our own society about what is acceptable social conduct, especially when it comes to art. The Wahhabi say art is something that steals your time away from prayer. If you ask clerics, they say, “From our understanding, this is haram [“sinful”]. Art makes you more philosophical and makes you ask about many things beyond [the Qu’ran].” By taking this line, they are not only stunting current growth and development of innovation and progress but they are also denying history and heritage. Encouraging and maintaining an ideology based on one single viewpoint is impossible in–and perhaps harmful to–any diverse society. They are singing, but denying the existence of music.
I live in Saudi Arabia’s most liberal city, Jeddah. The late King Abdullah attempted to open closed Saudi Salafi minds and I am a big supporter of this. However, when the mosques were confronted with a mandate to dialogue with people of other religions, the clerics responded with sermons across Jeddah prohibiting the call to communicate on the grounds that it put Islam on equal footing with “false religions.” It was a slippery slope to freedom, democracy and gender equality, they argued—corrupt practices of the infidel West.
Textbooks in Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities even teach this brand of Islam. For example, the University of Medina recruits students from around the world, trains them in Salafism and sends them to Muslim communities abroad in places such as the Balkans, Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Egypt, where these Saudi-trained hard-liners work to eradicate the local, harmonious forms of Islam. What is religious extremism but this aim to apply Shariah, a code of law derived from the Holy Qu’ran, as overarching state law? This is exactly what ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham) is attempting to do with its caliphate. Unless we challenge this un-Islamic, impractical and flawed concept of trying to govern by a rigid interpretation of Shariah, no amount of work by a United Nations agency can unravel Islamist terrorism.
And so, against this background, I look to the resources available in the region to slowly and organically introduce change, to gently bend the tides in new directions. Rather than dwell in frustration over the current state of art education, I choose instead to respond with positive action. I opened Pharan Studios and started to run an independent art education program within that framework. I hope to complement and enhance the efforts of small individual initiatives that see education as a big part of their roles and consider the existing talent in Saudi as a resource: these include al-Meftaha Arts Village, Edge of Arabia, Athr Gallery, Art Jameel, Telfaz 11, 2139 (the art week that has an education element), Shara and Faisal Tamer and Ibn Aseer. These entities are very important to a community in which higher education in the arts or more experimental and progressive studies are limited to few institutions, such as KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) and Dar al-Hekma University.
Although many in Saudi regard art education as a luxury, I see it as a necessity. Learning to create and appreciate conceptual, collective, social and visual representation, interpretation and understanding may be more important than ever to the development of the next generation. Art also has the potential to inform all areas of society. Feeding into every profession and cutting across racial, cultural, social, educational and economic barriers, it can foster true understanding, open thought where fear has no place and, as a result, promote a culture of awareness and acceptance.