Liberal Arts and the Islamic Tradition: General Education at Saudi Arabia’s First Women’s University
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Liberal Arts and the Islamic Tradition

General education at Saudi Arabia’s first women’s university

By Ben Dedman

April 1, 2020

When Effat College opened in 1999 as the first women’s college in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), “it was difficult in the beginning” because of restrictions placed on women, said Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail, president of what is now Effat University. “The brochure or catalog couldn’t even put a picture of a woman.”

Historically, women were privately educated, usually within affluent families. In 1955, Queen Effat Al-Thunayyan founded the country’s first school for girls. Forty-five years later, she founded Effat College next door.

At first, the college offered just two majors, computer science and early childhood education, adding information systems, psychology, and English and translation programs the second year.

In 2004, when a royal decree allowed women to major in any discipline, “we grabbed that opportunity and started the architecture program,” the first of its kind for women in KSA, Al-Lail said.

Families were reluctant to send daughters to a program outside of traditional roles, so the university started scholarship programs to entice students. When graduates found it hard to find a company willing to hire them, faculty intervened.

“We had to knock on doors and pave the way for them,” Al-Lail said. She visited architecture firms, helping them to develop facilities—sometimes with separate workspaces—for new female employees.

Effat has been “the thin end of the wedge that started this opening up of career possibilities and educational possibilities for women,” said Lisa Zuppé, lecturer and executive director of international affairs at Effat.

Now, thirty women have been appointed to the kingdom’s Shura Council (an advisory council to the king, like a parliament), and women are CEOs of major banks and corporations. “Women started driving. Women know their rights,” Al-Lail said. “With the kind of change that happened recently, I’m not afraid anymore. The sky is the limit for the women.”

Read! Merging the Liberal Arts and Islamic Philosophy

Throughout the Islamic Golden Age (from the eighth to fourteenth centuries), education took a humanistic, interdisciplinary approach to developing the whole person, very similar to Western liberal arts traditions.

“Islam placed a great significance on acquiring knowledge, as it paves the way for one to attain the ultimate truth of life and creation,” said Omar Kitanneh, associate professor and director of the natural science, math, and tech unit at Effat.

This focus on learning goes back to Islam’s earliest teachings. In Muhammad’s first revelation, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a cave and commanded, “Iqra!”—“Read!”

At Effat, the idea of IQRA is present through four core values embedded within every course and program:

  • Ibhath (research)
  • Qiyam (ethical and moral values)
  • Riyada (responsible leadership)
  • Al-Tawasul (effective communication).

Table 1.


Table 1 originally published in Khadija Kaj-Itani and Mohammad Khalid, “General Education at Effat University: A Value‑Based Liberal Arts Teaching Model,” in Tradition Shaping Change: General Education in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Maha Al-Hendawi, Abdelhamid Ahmed, and Susan Albertine (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities), 37–49.

Ibhath (Research)

Students complete a research-based project in every course. In introductory courses, faculty guide students as research projects are divided into several parts. As sophomores or juniors, students take a general education course in research methodology, which prepares them to carry out systematic research in future courses.

Many courses use problem-based learning, with students working together to solve real-world problems. As part of a UNESCO program supporting Islamic heritage, STEM faculty members incorporated related projects within multiple math courses. Students participated in forums and competitions as they completed projects exploring Islamic mathematicians such as Al-Khwārizmī, Al-Kāshī, and Al-Bīrunī and topics such as “Mathematicians of the Golden Age,” “Development of Modern Numerals and Numeral Systems,” and “How Medieval Mathematicians Made Trigonometric Tables.”

“The general objective of this initiative is to help students in rediscovering the scholarly contributions of early Muslim scientists and enable them to connect these discoveries with their recent learning in mathematics, through courses in algebra and trigonometry,” said Tayeb Brahimi, assistant professor in the natural science, math, and tech unit at Effat.

Qiyam (Ethical and Moral Values)

Effat’s courses and cocurricular activities promote respect for diversity, dignity, responsibility, loyalty, and teamwork. The university has a deep commitment to resources sustainability, and students take workshops on the importance of environmental stewardship.

“It’s not really so different here to anywhere else in the world,” Zuppé said. “In the United States, many traditional liberal arts colleges actually came out of the Quaker tradition, so they were also operating within a moral, ethical framework or paradigm that steered and guided their thinking—not just in terms of subjects to learn but in developing a moral and ethical personality.”

Several general education courses focus on community engagement, with students “planning projects and activities to help the less fortunate in the community,” said Khadija Kaj-Itani, assistant professor and chair of Effat’s general education program. Many students volunteer or give donations for community organizations, or arrange entertainment activities for autistic children, the elderly, or other vulnerable populations.

Riyada (Responsible Leadership)

With opportunities expanding for women in KSA, Effat is serious about its responsibility to prepare graduates to be leaders in their careers and communities.

“We are ever so zealous to provide plenty of opportunities for the young women of our community to acquire quality education, gain confidence in themselves, and build a better future for themselves and their country,” said Mohammad Khalid, assistant professor in the general education program and director of the E-Arabization Center at Effat.

Outside the classroom, Effat students grow as leaders through the Ambassadors Program, a cocurricular program with its own transcript. Each semester, students earn credit hours (a total of ninety-nine over four years) by participating in training sessions, assignments, and experiential learning activities. The program ensures students are “fully developed holistically, socially, physically, and spiritually, and are equipped with all the necessary soft skills,” Zuppé said.

As students progress through the Ambassadors Program, they design, research, implement, and communicate a project focused on the IQRA values.

“If the student has an idea, and she really wants to put it in place with her colleagues in the classroom, or in the whole university, she can really do it there,” Zuppé said.

Al-Tawasul (Effective Communication)

Through research, term papers, presentations, and discussions, every course at Effat develops students’ oral or written communication skills.

English is the language of instruction, and students take general education courses in a “second” language. Students already speaking Arabic as their first language really learn a third language like French or Spanish.

In 2014, before cinemas were legal in KSA, Effat started a cinematic arts program in visual and digital production to prepare students for emerging careers.

“How can you teach something that doesn’t exist?” Zuppé asked. “But we did.”

In one course, students produced a mock-documentary about the start of the nuclear industry in KSA. They interviewed students, parents, and faculty, who related concerns about possible disasters like those at Fukushima or Chernobyl. In the video, students dressed as characters affected by those disasters provide information about their fictional experiences and the problems Saudi Arabia could face.

“It was truly a very creative way of showing their concerns and thoughts on a very real emerging situation in KSA,” said Imtiaz Ahmad, assistant professor in the natural science, math, and tech unit at Effat.

Teaching and Assessing the IQRA Philosophy

Since being redesigned in 2012, Effat’s general education has offered ninety-three courses in four categories: (1) literacy: scientific, cultural, and global; (2) skills development; (3) cultivating a positive disposition; and (4) interdisciplinary research.

Students and faculty are expected to use their general education to achieve and model the IQRA values and four related characteristics: (1) itqan, excellence; (2) ihsan, ethical values; (3) ra’iya, stewardship, and (4) safira, ambassadorship (see table 1).

“We view both Islamic values and liberal arts education as advocating two important developments: the individual’s intellectual capacities and the individual’s whole development, including social and emotional,” Kaj-Itani said.

In general education courses and introductory courses in the major, 60 percent of class sessions focus on low-level activities (similar to skills on Bloom’s taxonomy such as remembering, understanding, or applying), and 40 percent focus on high-level thinking activities (like analyzing, evaluating, and creating). In upper-level courses, the ratio flips, with 60 percent or more of course time focusing on higher-level skills.

The university’s robust assessment strategy includes market research, surveys of employers and graduates, and direct assessment of student performance on learning outcomes (see figure 1). Each general education course is mapped with at least one IQRA value and is given an expected level of student achievement. Faculty collect and score student learning products, and data are aggregated for each IQRA value at the course, program, and university levels.

Because of the university’s small size (about a thousand students), faculty and administrators can closely monitor students’ success. If students face challenges, or if their grades fall below 80 percent, they are placed in a learning community with students facing similar challenges. They take courses together and receive mentorship and support from faculty and peers.

“This specific, personal kind of a plan helped a lot with the communication between students themselves,” Al-Lail said. “They started really mentoring and tutoring each other.”

Figure 1. Effat University Assessment Framework


Figure 1 originally published in Haifa Jamal Al-Lail and Houria Oudghiri, Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes Based on Institutional Core Values (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, 2016).

Developing International and Islamic Partnerships

When planning for Effat College began in 1998, the college’s leaders partnered with liberal arts colleges around the world—particularly the Seven Sisters women’s colleges in the United States—to learn about structuring majors and liberal arts like the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and languages.

Effat has continued to build international partnerships, coteaching courses or building alliances with more than forty institutions, including Tokai University in Japan and Syracuse University, the University of Southern California, and Georgetown University in the United States.

Effat has earned a reputation for excellence within the kingdom and internationally, with accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

In March, Effat’s College of Engineering hosted a robotics competition with participants from across the Gulf Coast region. The competition focused on different robotic abilities, such as walking on sand or operating underwater. In June 2017, Effat students took home two awards in an international robotics competition in Long Beach, California.

The competition “is part of their learning, but at the same time, it’s engaging the whole community,” Al-Lail said.


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.