Suddenly and without warning, talk emerged about the risks and dangers from the Saudi Foreign Scholarship program. This is in reference to the historic program that Saudi Arabia has undertake to send it’s students to study abroad in order to enable them to benefit from the sciences, civilizations, and cultures of other countries. This program drew unprecedented public praise and approval, and Saudi Arabia now dispatches its students abroad to the same extent that it exports oil. The Foreign Scholarship program covers a wide range of disciplines and fields, and diverse countries, in order to expose its society to diversity and productivity.
However, today some voices have emerged questioning the merits of this program, and warning that the returning scholarship students pose a risk to Saudi society. They warn that Saudi students studying abroad may assimilate the cultures or juristic beliefs of minorities abroad and spread this to Saudi society upon their return. We are talking about juristic beliefs that call for women to cover their faces and hands, for example, or different perspectives on the issue of gender mixing, however it would be better if we did not involve religion in issues such as this. It would be much better if we merely looked at this issue from the viewpoint of customs and traditions, for example, or social heritage. The history of early Islam and the biography of early Islam’s important figures attest to the inaccuracy of such views [on women covering their faces and hands, or on the issue of gender mixing], as women took part in all aspects of life without exception, and they took part in trade, wars, nursing, teaching, and counseling.
It is well known that Imam al-Shafi’i received part of his education from Sayyida Nafisa, may God be pleased with her. While the history of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca shows that more than a hundred years ago a woman of Mecca used to give lectures on Islamic jurisprudence there. Before all of this, we were instructed by the Prophet (pbuh) to take half of our religious ordinance from the Lady Aisha, may God be pleased with her. Traveling across the world in search of knowledge is a sunnah of the Prophet [pbuh] and something that the Prophet advised his Companions to do on more than one occasion. Therefore, dividing the world into one camp of believers and another camp of non-believers results in giving rise to misguided ideas and notions such as this, which causes fatwas and religious opinions to be issued warning against mixing wit foreigners. Fatwas such as this are completely devoid of any prophetic traditions and beliefs, as the Prophet [pbuh] never called for anything like this, and so this represents the height of impertinence!
The Foreign Scholarship program is without a doubt one of the most important achievements made by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. This is something that Saudi Arabia will benefit from for years to come, therefore attacking it in the name of religion and fatwas and outdated views is cheap and unfeasible. All of the issues that they are warning against and raising the alarm about are contentions issues that bear a diverse range of juristic opinions. This is something that the entire Muslim world can attest to, as can the huge number of Islamic websites. Nobody has the sole or exclusive right to speak on behalf of Islam; however there are some who believe that change threatens their position and influence, while others fear that the public might discover the existence of different fatwas that interpret and explain religion in a simple and open fashion, away from the single template [that they preach] which is not suited to all times and places.
It is everybody’s responsibility to encourage the Foreign Scholarship program in order to reap its rewards, and build on its success, rather than being suspicious of it and warning against it in an immature manner.