King Abdullah slaps down Saudi cleric criticial of co-ed university

October 5, 2009


(Photo: Visitors view model of KAUST campus at opening, 23 Sept 2009/Susan Baaghil)

Well, that didn’t take long.

Last week, a senior Saudi Islamic cleric criticised the country’s first mixed-gender university, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), and suggested an Islamic committee to make sure it followed Islamic principled and didn’t teach “alien ideologies” such as evolution.

Late on Sunday, the state news agency SPA reported that King Abdullah had removed Sheikh Saad Al-Shithri from a top council of religious scholars.

okazAl-Shithri’s comments sparked angry reactions from liberals who saw the new university as a beacon for research that will eventually produce Saudi scientists, spearheading modernity in the conservative Islamic State. For those of you who read Arabic, here’s a sample of several op-ed pieces that ran in the daily Okaz.

“This is a strategy for the conservatives to control the university. Or at least to have a major say in it. This is the old trick for them to have the upper hand to sabotage reforms,” said Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of Alwatan daily newspaper, about the clerics comments on the university.

Saudi Arabia follows an austere version of Islam and religious police patrol the streets ensuring that the country’s strict segregation laws are implemented. Clerics like Al-Shitri have a major influence on school curricula as well as the judicial system and some have issued fatwas against co-education (here in Arabic).

Since coming to power in 2005, King Abdullah has reshuffled the cabinet, replacing some hardline clerics with more moderate ones, and promised the overhaul of the education system with an aim of focusing more on sciences rather than religion. He has also pledge to reform the judicial system.

abdullahThis university has become a reality, and it is for the good of the nation as the King had wanted it to be.  It is not a cake that the two ideological streams [liberals and conservatives] can compete over,wrote columnist Khaled Alsulaiman in Okaz after the controversial statements placed KAUST in the centre of the battle between liberals and conservatives.

“This university is not a project for Westernization, as some hope it would be while others fear it might be. It is a genuine scientific project that came at a sensitive and crucial time in this nation’s age,” he added.

(Photo: King Abdullah at KAUST ground-breaking ceremony, 21 Oct 2007/Ali jarekji)

KAUST is located near the Red Sea village of Thuwal, north of Jeddah, away from the prying eyes of the religious police. The government has promised academic freedom for the university but diplomats predicted — and Shithri has demonstrated — that clerics would try to obstruct the project.

Follow FaithWorld on Twitter at RTRFaithWorld


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The author writes: “Saudi Arabia follows an austere version of Islam…” But, this is wrong. There is no such thing as an “austere” version of Islam or a ‘Non-austere” version of Islam. The belief system of Islam has no “versions”, unless you consider Sunnis and Shiites to be following different “versions” of Islam. All of Islam is based on the Koran and the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad)which do not change. What we are dealing with is a stricter or a looser adherence to the Koran and the Hadith in practice. Islam as a belief system does not vary. But, the practice of Islam varies, not because of different “versions” or “interpretations” but because many Moslems just cannot tolerate strict adherence to Islamic law.

Posted by Abdulameer | Report as abusive

Abdulameer, if large numbers of Muslims in a country like Saudi Arabia practice Islam one way and large numbers in another country like Indonesia practice it somewhat differently, then there are different versions of Islam as it is applied in real life. This does not mean different versions of the Koran and Hadith — they remain unchanged. But you cannot deny there are different ways to live this out and some are so distinctive that one can identify variations among them.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Tom, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing of God be upon him) did not teach more than one variations of Islam. He only taught ONE Islam. Islam is a complete religion that does not require amendments/additions/deletions. The variations are actually in culture of these different countries, which are in fact, not even part of the religion. For example, the difference in foods, clothing, language, etc are not contradictory to the unicity of Islam, as they are not part of the religion, they are mundane matters. Islam in fact encourages innovation in worldly/mundane/non-religious matters and censures innovations only in the religion. This makes sense, because revelation from God, does not require changing.

Posted by Abu Yunus | Report as abusive

Mr. Tom is correct. I’m a Qatari and we are good Muslim’s in Qatar. We co-exist with Westerners in Qatar with no problem. In Saudi, I feel bad for them, they have a hard life with a religious police that controls them. In Islam we follow the Quran because our heat wants to follow the teachings of God as revealed by the Prophet Mohammed (pease be upone him). The true followers of Islam don’t need a religious police to force them to follow the Quran. If you have police that force you it is not in your heart it is from fear of police. I think austere is the right word for what form of Islam is practiced there. Good for the King to have a modern university that will teach about science with experts to teach the people. It is about time and Al Hemdullah for a good King Abdulla the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques.

Posted by Mohammed Al Kuwari | Report as abusive

Abu Yunus, Mohammad taught one Islam, just as Jesus taught one Christianity. But their followers have developed several variations of those teachings. Just look at the Sunnis, Shia, Ismailis and others in Islam or the Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and others in Christianity. These many versions of the same faith have common cores but diverge enough that followers of one school of thought disagree with followers of another on certain points. And they not only disagree, but sometimes go so far as to compete with each other and even kill each other in the name of their belief. All the while, they say they are good Muslims or good Christians. Such disagreements are so consistent through the history of the two religions — and reflected to varying extents in many other faiths as well — that one cannot say that religious dogma and its application in practice have nothing to do with each other. They are intertwined in complex ways that we don’t always understand and denying this only creates more rather than less confusion.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Tom You are mixing up between Christianity & Islam. Christians dont have schools of thought, They have entirely different religiuons, none that is close to the true teachings of Jesus. Anyway this argument takes us away from the core issue & i dont want to digress. The issue is that King Abdullah, the dictator has flexed his muscles to remove an Islamic cleric that is against wester values (not western civilisation, may i add). The western values have demolished & demoralised entire societies & civilisations (japan for example. It shocks you to see how a country of eastern values & such history have become so americanised). Lets be honest the western values & Islam as a total concept are not homogenous, Rather there are parts of west that fit into the islamic criteria & parts that dont. The cleric was siumply highlighting that following the west blindly will lead us no where. The Kind has embarked on a dangerous path & the reigns of power are slipping away from his clutch. This removal of Al-Shitri is an ACT of desperation. I totally agree when the cleric mentions we dont want evolution taught in our schools. Problem is Liberals in Saudi are in the pockets of the west. They have this inferiority complex & look up to their masters. Furthermore the concept of segregation is a positive one. Even parts of the so called western world have seen improved academic results with segregating educational system. West has Learned all their knowledge from Islam, BUT CAN WE?

Posted by Abu Fasih | Report as abusive

The reason why Indonesians generally follow a slightly different version of Islam – is because it is Islam with the old animist elements in it.

With the recent earth quakes – it is widely believed that PM /leader is bad luck !! And that is the reason the earth shook and earlier the reason for the tsunami.

What the Saudis have been doing is spending large amounts of money – to bring Indonesia in line with its Wahaabist tradition – hence we have the bombings and the calls for flogging and stoning to be introduced. As well as Sharia law in half the provinces.

I believe there is no moderate Islam – there are only emphasis placed on one verse or another – that is what causes Christianity to be divided into different groups.

Compared to Muhammad Jesus was pretty mild [a saint], he was against stoning – he more than honoured women he predicted that they would one day be equals [the word is for all] – this is very different from Muhammad’s teachings – which left women at a disadvantage – they and their word are worth half – in the Islamic world.

Muslims are going to have to look for those Koran verses which allow them to coincide with the modern world.

I think Muslims should pull together themselves – without bothering everyone else – with what the Koran does or does not say. Muslims need to get their act together. And part of that is accepting – others don’t want to be Muslim.

Posted by Rebecca | Report as abusive

Free-gathering of males and
females is not allowed in Islam.

in that case co-education is not permitted in Islam.
Al-shithri being an Islamic Scholar,was right to apeak against this uni.

ofcourse this uni has its positive aspects in that it will provide oppurtunities for the advancement of science and technology in the country.

but i believe, co-education is not important to maintain an excellent education system.

Posted by Anam Ahmed | Report as abusive

Abu Fasih, you’re simply wrong about Christianity. The different versions of Christianity are not different religions, they are different denominations of the Christian faith. The churches show this by accepting baptism in one denomination as baptism into Christianity. When people baptised in one Christian church switch to another, they do not have to be baptised again. But a non-Christian converting to Christianity does have to be baptised. Calling these denominations different religions is like saying Sunni Islam and Shia Islam are two different religions. They are different variations of Islam (denominations?) but followers of both say the shahada and that makes them Muslims.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

[…] Source:  /10/05/king-abdullah-slaps-down-saudi-c leric-criticial-of-co… […]

Posted by King Abdullah slaps down Saudi cleric critical of Co-ed University « Islam: Human Rights, Spiritualism, Rethinking Islam, Jihad… | Report as abusive

[…] King Abdullah slaps down Saudi cleric critical of co-ed university – Reuters […]

Posted by SUSRIS Saudi Arabia United States Reform KAUST | Report as abusive

University of California, Berkeley is a major partner with the KAUST project. Amazes me why every story never focuses on this fact. March 4, 2008 was the date of the announcement. Without the participation of UC Berkeley, or other internationally recognized university, KAUST would not have materialized. KAUST will provide UC Berkeley’s Mechanical Engineering Department with $28 million over five years. These funds will pay for fellowships for the department’s graduate students, help support its research projects, fund joint-research with KAUST, provide additional lab equipment at Berkeley, and cover administrative costs. In addition, the Mechanical Engineering Department will allocate part of the funds to increase its efforts to recruit and retain women faculty and students

.The issue of women on campus: The agreement with UC Berkeley’s Mechanical Engineering Department makes it clear that women are encouraged to attend the new university and are to receive the same education and in the same manner as their male counterparts. Women faculty also are to be treated equally. UC Berkeley would not have entered into the agreement if that were not the case, said campus officials.

Article 2 of KAUST bylaws states “The admission of students, the appointment, promotion and retention of faculty and staff, and all of the educational, administrative and other activities of the University shall be conducted without regard to race, color, religion or gender. Discrimination, on any such basis, is strictly forbidden.”

For some reason, the agreement prohibits either university from using a name or trademark of the other party in any advertisement or publicity unless it has the written consent of the other.

(some above text taken from UC Berkeley “News”)

Posted by MKL | Report as abusive