King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is building a university from the ground up. It is to be much less conservative than other Saudi institutions, but is explicitly based in Muslim values. This opens some very exciting possibilities. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) will be a graduate research university, and as its name suggests, primarily oriented toward science and technology, at least at first. It is clear from the words of the king that he intends it to revitalize the Saudi economy, and the ripples will reach much of the Muslim world. Yet it is sure also to be a major engine for social development. Women will study and work alongside men, and will be allowed freedoms they would enjoy in the West, within the university community. KAUST will greatly expand the opportunities of a substantially Muslim student body, and serve as an example to Muslim societies of constructive engagement with global culture. The Arab News describes it as “a bridge between cultures and nations”. The work of the university will be organized in innovative fashion, not by academic disciplines, but by interdisciplinary Research Institutes. The first four Institutes are rather technically oriented, but even the Institute for Resources, Energy and Environment will raise interesting human questions. Before long I would expect a business school, and even explicitly political and social topics may be taken up.
Universities in the West have become almost completely secular. KAUST represents a major addition to a small cadre of universities that retain a strong religious character. Of these, Notre Dame is struggling to maintain its Catholic identity. BYU has only begun to do Mormon Studies. Baylor remains divided over recent efforts to renew its religious character. KAUST hasn’t exactly announced an Institute for Muslim Faith and Society. But KAUST, an hour from Mecca, would be as natural a place for it as can be. The need for such a place is immense, and King Abdullah seems to be starting things off right.