Saudi Arabia is a nation blessed with abundant resources. It has vast reserves of oil, natural gas and minerals. Yet to the Kingdom, the nation's most valuable resource is its people, and one of its principal tasks has been to build a quality educational system to enable citizens to develop their capabilities to their fullest and to contribute to the country's continued development. Since its founding in 1932, Saudi Arabia has established eight universities that offer undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in Islamic studies, sciences and the arts.
The universities are Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, King Abdul Aziz University, King Saud University, the Islamic University of Madinah, Umm Al-Qura University, King Faisal University and the newest, King Khalid University. Starting with this issue, these universities will be profiled in a series of articles with a view to outlining their specialties, activities and contributions to Saudi society and its higher education system.
The Riyadh-based Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University is one of the oldest institutes of higher education in Saudi Arabia. Its roots go back more than half-a-century, to when the General Presidency of Colleges and Educational Institutes was established by the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud. In 1947, the statutes of the university were formulated and the first steps were taken to set up a modern university. Established in 1950, the Scientific Institute of Riyadh formed the core of what in 1974 became the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University. The new university brought together under one umbrella the activities of a number of colleges and institutes of higher education in Riyadh.
Over the years, the university introduced a modern educational system in its Riyadh campus and established five faculties: the Higher Judiciary Institute, the College of Islamic Law, the College of Arabic, the College of Da'wa (Call) and Information, and the College of Theology. By 1975, some 4,000 students were enrolled at the university, studying Islamic, Arabic and social sciences.
As enrollment grew, reaching 12,000 in the mid-1980s and more than 15,000 a decade later, the existing faculties were expanded and additional fields of study introduced. Initially, the student body was largely made up of young people from the Riyadh area. As the number of applicants from other parts of the country increased, the university moved to establish colleges outside Riyadh. Presently, there are two colleges in Abha, two in Buraidah, one in Al-Hasa and one in Madinah. The various colleges in Riyadh and other cities offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in 23 disciplines.
In addition to providing quality education to young Saudis, the university's other principal objectives as outlined in its charter include the promotion of a better understanding of Islamic sciences and Arabic language and culture outside the Kingdom. The university has sought to realize these objectives through establishing close working relationships with other institutes of higher learning throughout the world, conducting research and exchanging information.
The number of non-Saudi students enrolled at Saudi institutes of higher education has been increasing over the years due to the high quality of education and the affiliations Saudi universities have established with counterparts in other regions of the world. The Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University has welcomed this trend as a means of promoting advanced study of Islamic and Arabic sciences in other countries.
In addition to accepting foreign students at its faculties in Saudi Arabia, the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University has established six institutes of higher education outside the Kingdom to enable a larger number of non-Saudis to study Islamic and Arabic sciences. The first of these was set up in Ras Al- Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates in 1968 and offers high school and college degrees. In 1978, another was established in Jakarta, Indonesia, which in addition to Islamic and Arabic sciences offers degrees in education.
This was followed by the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences opened in Mauritania in west Africa in 1979, which also runs a high school and a college. In 1981, an Islamic institute was established in Djibouti, where it operates an elementary and a high school. In 1983, the university established the Arabic and Islamic Institute in Tokyo. The only one of its kind in Japan, the institute has departments of Arabic language and culture, and Islamic science and research.
The university's sixth educational facility outside the Kingdom was established in Fairfax, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and was officially opened in 1993.
The large Muslim community in the Greater Washington Area in particular, and the United States in general, had petitioned for years for the establishment of an educational facility affiliated with a Saudi university. The opening of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America was in response to these requests. The organization's main aim is to provide opportunities for higher education in Islamic sciences and Arabic language and culture, conducting research in these fields and publishing its findings. It also aims at introducing Islamic and Arabic culture to American society as a means of promoting understanding between communities.
The institute's administrative and teaching staff is divided into six departments, each tackling a specific aspect of the organization's responsibilities. The Department of Islamic Sciences has set up two programs in Islamic principles and law, a 64-credit diploma program and a 126-credit bachelors' program. Upon completion of these courses, students receive degrees issued by the internationally accredited Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University.
In its first year of operation, more than 500 students, both male and female, enrolled in these courses, and the number has been growing ever since. Graduates have moved on to careers in Islamic studies departments at American colleges and universities, as well as Islamic centers throughout North America.
The institute's Arabic Language Department offers courses ranging from intermediate to advanced for non-Arabic speakers. Relying on an educational staff of native Arabic teachers and using modern audio-visual equipment and computers, the department offers a high-quality language program that enrolls some 600 students annually. The department is currently working with counterparts at American universities to establish a graduate program in teaching Arabic as a second language.
Enrollment in the courses offered by both the Department of Islamic Sciences and the Arabic Language Department is free of charge to students who meet the institute's qualification requirements.
The institute has an extensive research department, where researchers conduct studies and collect information related to Islam and Islamic studies. They compile and translate information which is used to publish books in Arabic and English, thousands of copies of which are sent free-of-charge to libraries, educational institutions and Islamic centers throughout North America and the Islamic world. The department also produces a newsletter, called Manar As-Sabeel, in Arabic and English.
The Department of Information Services provides computers used in the teaching programs as well as for the institute's other activities. It also designs and develops educational and scientific software for use in learning and teaching Islam and Arabic.
The institute also has a large reference library that is open to students, visitors and researchers. It holds more than 20,000 books and thousands of publications on Islam and the Arabic language, social sciences, geography, history and biography.
The Department of Seminars and Activities organizes specialized courses and functions, such as seminars and conferences, in the fields of Islamic and Arabic sciences. These events are open to the Muslim and Arab communities of North and South America and Europe. It also organizes special activities for students at the institute and for Muslim youth in the community.
In June 1998, the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America held a special ceremony for its first group of graduates from its bachelor program in Islamic studies. The diplomas were presented by Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan Ibn Abdul Aziz, who is president of the institute's board of trustees, as the Rector of Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University Dr. Abdullah Al-Shibl proudly looked on. During that same ceremony, certificates were presented to a group of lay leaders from the U.S. armed forces for completing a seminar on Islamic studies. An American graduate of the Arabic language program delivered the commencement speech in fluent Arabic.
Noting that the graduates receiving their diplomas and certificates represented the fruit of the efforts of the institute's various departments, Director Dr. Sulaiman Al-Jarallah stated: "The objectives of this institute...emanate from the ideals of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself to serve the worldwide Islamic nation in particular and humanity in general."