With the Ministry of Education’s announcement establishing a curriculum for teaching philosophy and critical thinking, a long sojourn of institutional neglect of philosophy has come to an end. Saudi authorities have turned a page by recognizing philosophy as a legitimate field for study and instruction in high schools and universities.
Philosophy has long been the subject of institutional attack due to its historical legacy. Philosophy’s flaws are always discussed especially when researching matters of religious faith. This is because many issues concerning Divine attributes, or perceptions of good and evil, have constantly oscillated between two areas. The first is passive faith, with the fusion of evidence and sufficient mental reasoning. The second is purely rational and has been represented in previous eras by the writings of the Mu’tazila.
Philosophy has faced many opponents over the ages, but the confrontation took vivid shape in the offensive waged by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali–who lived in a state of existential anxiety and anguish in search of absolute truth. This comes through clearly in his book, ‘The Savior From Error.’ The booklet’s fervent search for truth lent it a Sufti cast and an aesthetic dimension, despite its anti-philosophical conclusion that stands in sharp contrast to the more cutting style of al-Ghazali’s ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers.’ Schools opposed to philosophy adopted ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers’, fashioning an impenetrable fortress out of it and leaning on its superior insight into philosophers’ logic and intentions.
Philosophical books remained available in Saudi Arabia,, however, and the philosophical disposition strong, but kept outside the walls of key institutions. In public libraries throughout the Kingdom, one would find the books of Aristotle, Plato, Heraclitus, Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and even those of more modern philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, and Edgar Morin.
That was the case until young students attempted in central, east, and west Saudi Arabia to establish a specialty in philosophy within literary clubs. Eventually, the Ministry of Information officially recognized them and authorized philosophy. This turned what had been clandestine discussions held in salons and private homes into something promoted by the cultural institutions themselves, bearing the imprimatur of official, formalized approval.
Philosophy was not neglected in institutions in an absolute sense, but it was presented along with other intersecting fields. It was taught in language departments when discussing the development of language, derivative syntax, or structural grammar. It was also taught alongside poetry, as befit that subject’s overlapping relationship with philosophy ever since the days of Plato and running through to Heidegger. Philosophical concepts are discussed in literature, critical thinking, and other theoretical subjects.
This was the case in Shari’ah Universities where the bases of Islamic law are explained through the principles of formal logic. For example, Aristotle’s name appears in discussions of syllogistic logic, Aristotelian logic, and doctrinal questions. All these and more draw on philosophical foundations and distinct writings. However, for the most part, they were often invoked in order to negate the substance philosophy, without the desire to understand it or engage its most prominent content.
Philosophy was not systematically prohibited in Saudi Arabia, nor was there any official system forbidding the circulation of philosophers’ books. One cannot claim that philosophy is technically banned. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that it was never truly established, and that the objective material conditions never existed before now, principally as regards social and economic development. In my opinion, establishing philosophical instruction is a fundamental condition of development and investment in human capital. Accordingly, philosophy has an exceptional role in being “the antidote to ideology.” Once an individual adopts the philosophical approach, their mind will become more capable of intellectual exercise, engaging in logic by human reason alone, and a host of other intellectual arenas.
Saudi Arabia has currently sanctioned the teaching of philosophy officially. This owes no small part to inspiration from the experiences of other nations the world over, many of which have secured a role for philosophy in building and honing the intellect of the individual. Some believe that the goal of teaching philosophy is to graduate millions of philosophers, but this of course is impossible. The true goal is to graduate the best possible minds, so that they are capable of functioning in the realms of aviation, military institutions, medicine, industry and agriculture. Teaching philosophy enables a person to become more capable of grasping various subjects, and more capable of confronting any challenges likely to arise. Moreover, philosophy can contribute to raising the individual’s level of awareness.
In short, the teaching of philosophy is necessary to hone an individual’s mind in order to become more capable in their community, in their own existence, their social surroundings, and in their relationships.