Sound barrier

Saudi Arabia turns down mosques volume and introduces education reforms

Saudi Arabia will restrict the use of external loudspeakers by mosques as the influence of conservatives continues to wane in the kingdom.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs ordered that external loudspeakers be limited to athan (the first call for prayer) and iqamah (the shorter second call signalling the beginning of prayer), and not to broadcast full prayers or sermons.

The ministry also said that volume must not exceed one-third of the full volume of these loudspeakers, and that those who fail to follow the new guidelines would face disciplinary measures.

Explaining the rationale behind this move, the ministry said the excessive use of external loudspeakers “harms the ill, the elderly, and children in homes near mosques, and the interference between the voices of imams can lead to the confusion of worshippers in both mosques and homes.”

Saudi Gazette elaborates further:

This is in implementation of the jurisprudential (Fiqhi) principle, “Do not harm others, nor should others harm you.”

The reason is that the imam’s voice during prayer must be heard by all inside the mosque, and there is no need, according to the Shariah for the imam’s voice to be heard in the neighboring houses outside.

Moreover, there is disrespect for the Holy Qur’an when it is recited loudly using external loudspeakers, while no one is listening to and pondering on its verses.

The latest official figures show that there are more than 98,000 mosques in Saudi Arabia, and it is not uncommon to see three or four mosques within the same residential neighbourhood in major cities, all within walking distance from each other. The public debate around their use of loudspeakers is an old and recurring one.

We saw that debate play out two years ago without reaching a resolution at the time.

Those who support limiting the use of loudspeakers cited fatwas by prominent clerics such as the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Othaimeen and Sheikh Saleh al-Fozan, a member of the Senior Scholars Authority. The opponents of such a move say the sounds of prayers and the Quran give them peace, and that such sounds should not be silenced at a time when the government is organising concerts and music is becoming more common in restaurants and other public venues.

Humoud Abutalib, a columnist for the Jeddah-based Okaz daily, has welcomed the decision but said the ministry has repeatedly failed in the past enforce such policies on imams and muezzins because they were seen as “appeals” and not direct orders:

After the decision was announced, old fatwas suddenly by respected senior scholars suddenly resurfaced, pointing out that it is not necessary to use loudspeakers except to notify people of the call to prayer and iqamah. These fatwas are not new and known to all those in charge of mosques, but they do not want to abide by them, and no one has forced them to do so. Out of paranoia, they turned something originally meant for the common good to into a weapon to attack the ministry and its supporters.

The clear interest of the people supported by the objectives of Sharia in any matter is not achieved by surrendering to the persistence of those who oppose it, but rather by imposing the authority of law and order on them. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs deserve thanks for this “decision” and not “appeal”.

The decision should help with reducing noise pollution, but some critics see it as the latest sign of the kingdom shedding yet another piece of its Islamic identity. The shrinking margin for freedom of expression means we are unlikely to see major public pushback against it except probably for some tweets from anonymous accounts.

Saudi Arabia to introduce 3-semester academic year

Saudi Arabia has announced a series of reforms to its education system, including a revamp of the academic year calendar and the introduction of new subjects, as the kingdom prepares for the return of in-person schooling this autumn.

The reforms aim to “meet and compete with the best international practices, achieve the goals of human development and Vision 2030,” Minister of Education Hamad al-Alsheikh said Wednesday.

Under the reforms, the academic year would be divided into three semesters instead of two, and English language classes would start at first grade instead of fourth. New subjects introduced include critical thinking, digital literacy, self-defence, and life and family skills.

Alsheikh said the reforms come after two years of careful studies at the ministry which concluded that “the current education system needs true and deep development.” He added that the kingdom’s results in international tests are low and that challenges facing the system can’t be addressed with the old inefficient tools.

The Saudi education system has come under heavy criticism in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That criticism mainly focused on the content of textbooks which American officials said promoted hatred of other religions and pushed young Saudis into extremism.

The kingdom has worked slowly over the last two decades to overhaul these textbooks and recently reduced the amount of religious studies at schools. An Israel-based group that conducted a review of Saudi textbooks said earlier this year that anti-Semitic and misogynistic passages had been scrubbed from them.

Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia has taken important steps to purge its school religion textbooks of hateful and intolerant language, but some still feature disparaging references to religious minorities such as Shia and Sufis.

“Saudi Arabia’s glacial progress on textbook reform appears to have finally picked up steam in recent years,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said in a statement. “But as long as the texts continue to disparage religious beliefs and practices of minority groups, including those of fellow Saudi citizens, it will contribute to the culture of discrimination that these groups face.”

While they are happy to point to progress made, Saudi officials are probably less concerned about outside scrutiny than they are with ensuring that the education system can produce graduates with the right skills and work ethic to take jobs at a private sector that has long complained about the quality of young entrants to the labour market.

Alsheikh has urged teachers and other school staffers to take at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine before the start of August to protect themselves and others. He also warned that those who do not receive the vaccine would not be allowed to enter schools or other educational facilities.