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The Falah School in Jeddah: Civic Engagement for Future Generations?

Beginning in 1869, the Ottoman state attempted to build a state education system, largely in reaction to the establishment of foreign missionary schools throughout the empire. During this period, education also became a prominent field of civic engagement, understood as ways in which citizens participate in shaping community life.[1] Local initiatives like the Falah school in Jeddah—largely financed through the time-honored tradition of religious endowment or waqf, itself a form civic engagement—developed in different parts of Ottoman territory. Al-Falah was remarkable as a collective and decidedly civic initiative by people who might be called the "sons of the burghers of Jeddah," and as an attempt to combine religious and modern education. Furthermore, the school became an important hub for student cultural and sporting activities in a society that had little room for such pursuits. These factors instilled a strong loyalty among the school’s students and created lasting bonds of friendship among many graduates. The school thus helped foster an urban civic spirit among the sons of the Jeddawi elites, many of whom rose to leading government positions due to their educational background, and thus contributed significantly to the institutional development of Saudi Arabia.

Founding a Local School

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the educational scene in Jeddah was very limited. Wealthy merchants organized local instruction for their children, while individual scholars and notables ran and financed a number of private Quranic schools. Some notables pressed the Ottoman government to establish a middle school or rüşdiyye with local financial support. This school started to teach, mostly in Ottoman Turkish, by 1876. It therefore attracted the children of Ottoman officials posted in Jeddah and the town’s Ottomanized elites, without reducing the popularity of the aforementioned Quranic schools.[2] In 1900, a British report noted that the rüşdiyye had only twenty-two students and one teacher.[3] In fact, according to the son of a notable merchant family, the teaching in Ottoman Turkish spurred local notables to establish educational institutions in Arabic.[4]

According to a widely circulating story, Muhammad Ali Zaynal Ali Reza (died 1969), son of one of Jeddah’s foremost merchant families, once observed a camel driver in the souqs of Jeddah. He could not find anyone to read him the paper containing the destination of the goods he transported. Driven by pity, Muhammad Ali set up a small school.[5] While most accounts describe this as a personal initiative, local historian Muhammad Trabulsi emphasizes that Muhammad Ali collaborated with friends even in the early phases of this venture.[6] The Ottoman government initially withheld the official license required to found the school, so the young men secretly taught boys in several different private homes. Their teachers were paid through contributions from the students, suggesting that the boys were probably from elite families.[7]

After eventually obtaining the license in 1905, the young men collected funds to establish a proper schoolhouse. They acquired a building near the Mecca Gate, next to the school's current premises, where regular instruction began in the newly named al-Falah School—the name referring to a good deed in religious terms. Initially, the founders had difficulty convincing parents to send their sons to the school, and sometimes they paid the students stipends to compensate for lost income. Many, like Muhammad Ali's own parents, considered practical training more important to their children's future success, and may have also objected to the loss of their sons' labor for part of the day.[8] This attitude persisted for quite a while, hence the school imposed fines for students who did not complete the study cycles (primary, intermediate, secondary) for which they were enrolled.[9]

Like in earlier Quranic schools, teaching at al-Falah, which was held in Arabic, initially comprised Qur'an, reading, writing, and basic mathematics. This primary section only integrated other subjects after 1937. The intermediary cycle added history, geography, geometry, and accounting. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a new secondary level included the teaching of English, sciences, hygiene, and social education.[10] By 1935, the school taught "civic instruction" (something like "national education")—long before the Saudi state established its own school system or introduced such a subject.[11] The aforementioned student contract explicitly stated that the school’s aim was to teach both religious and worldly subjects, as long as the latter did not contradict religious principles.[12] Although the school and its curriculum expanded and changed constantly, it retained its focus on religious instruction. Hasan Kutubi—a former student, delegation member to India, and later a teacher at the school's Mecca branch—complained about the conservative orientation of the school, which did not prepare students sufficiently for modern life.[13] From 1953, students had the chance to study for a statewide secondary examination which would allow them to study at universities abroad, beyond al-Azhar in Cairo.

This religious orientation was very much in line with the founder's objectives. In later life, Muhammad Ali noted that though Islam originated in the peninsula, the region contained few capable Islamic scholars. "The world is threatened by the Western civilization which combats Islamic teachings. Therefore we need to maintain the Falah schools to prepare a learned generation which carries the torch of faithfulness and spreads it, and contains the tyrannical European tendencies."[14] It is unclear if he included Ottoman schools among these "Europeans"—possibly in an inversion of Ottoman suspicions against what they reportedly considered to be a (proto)nationalist project.[15] Ottoman opposition to a decidedly Arab school was not unprecedented, as shown by Turkification efforts targeting the Damascene Maktab ‘Anbar.[16]

The Falah school’s conservative approach to modern education should not distract from its importance in the overall introduction of modern education in the Hijaz.[17] Sheikh Hafiz Wahba, Saudi Minister of Education in the 1930s, stated that "nearly all educated young Hejazis went to school there," something which is confirmed by a British report from about the same time.[18] Over the years, the school produced an impressive list of graduates, including future ministers, leading government officials, teachers, literary men, and successful entrepreneurs, who were involved in the political developments of early-twentieth-century Hijaz.[19]

In order to support the school, Muhammad Ali joined the branch of his family’s business in Bombay and traded in diamonds, gold, and pearls, the latter imported from Dubai, Kuwait, and Bahrain. This success allowed him to replicate the Jeddawi educational model elsewhere.  He founded new Falah schools in Mecca in 1912, in Dubai in 1928-29, in Bahrain in 1930, and in Bombay (for Arab students) in 1931.[20] In addition, he organized for a number of students from the Hijaz to study in Bombay, bringing religious instructors from different Arab countries, and providing food and housing.[21] He also gave scholarships to al-Falah graduates to attend college in Egypt and Lebanon.[22] Only the Hijazi schools survived the economic downturn of the late 1920s, once again because the local merchant community agreed among itself (and then convinced King Abdulaziz) to levy a special tax on imports to support the schools. Eventually, the Saudi state took over the cost of running the schools, although significant private support for the schools continues to this day, both through endowments and regular subsidies by the Zaynal family.

A Place of Social Activities and Civic Engagement?

The Falah school was the product of young Jeddawi notables’ civic desire to spread and modernize Islamic education in their city. Are there any indications that the school itself provided a space for new types of social interaction and/or civic engagement to emerge? Elsewhere, schools served as nodal points for the emergence of youth activism in the first part of the twentieth century. Culturally and politically interested students met in Maktab ʿAnbar in Damascus as well as in various Hadhrami schools. They started wall newspapers, participated in the scouts movement, and formed political or cultural associations, often under the influence of particularly charismatic teachers or older students.[23] Thus, schools played a crucial role in shaping youth culture and identity in various Middle Eastern contexts.[24]

The Falah schools of Mecca and Jeddah certainly offered a space for new types of sociability, given the manifold activities offered by the schools. Thus, they were among the absolute pioneers in offering formal sports education, including football, netball, basketball, table tennis, fencing, and wrestling. In the late 1950s, the Falah school also organized the first bicycle race in Jeddah.[25] Before this formal instruction, children had played traditional games and sports mostly in the squares of the old city. Young Indonesian pilgrims introduced football to Mecca during the Hajj, and the newfound enthusiasm for the sport then spread to Jeddah in the late 1920s.[26] Soon thereafter, young men from elite classes formed the first team in Jeddah. Football enthusiasm in organized clubs quickly became associated with early hooliganism and was regarded as a potential threat to public order, resulting in a ban on the game in 1934. However, it was played at the Falah school in the context of physical education.[27] In later years, the school supplied the major Jeddawi football teams with players.[28] The school’s role in sports suggests a link between the curriculum and the development of a new type of sociability. Once reinstated, the football clubs also became centers of cultural activity. Thus, the journalist ʿAbdallah Manaʿ gave a lecture about four international intellectuals in al-Ittihad club in Jeddah some time in the 1960s, which was attended by many writers and intellectuals.[29] Al-Falah also pioneered in other fields of social activity, for example by establishing the first boy scouts group in the kingdom.

The school thus seems to have catered for an existing need for youth activity in Jeddah. This need was expressed both in the press discussions of football as a potentially useful pastime for young men as well as in discussions about a need for cultural youth clubs in 1940.[30] The opening of the new secondary school building was accompanied by a theater play in 1953. By the 1960s, Ṭrabulsi recalls lectures, a school radio, school competitions as well as wall newspapers. Many similar activities are documented for an unspecified later period for the Meccan school. Such endeavors, which also included school trips, certainly created lasting bonds of friendship between the students, to an extent that al-Falah graduates of the earlier generations have taken to organizing regular meetings since about the 1970s.[31]

Given the politicized environment of the 1940s to 1960s, former students also recall their participation in officially sanctioned political activities like collecting contributions for the Palestinian and Algerian struggles. There is only one instance, however, in which the students seem to have initiated a political activity which, although in support of the state, was not sanctioned. During the Buraimi crisis in the early 1950s, students went out to demonstrate for recognition of Saudi sovereignty over the oasis, which was also claimed by Abu Dhabi. Although this was in line with official policies, the authorities made sure that this demonstration remained a one-off event. It is said that such political restraint was also in the interest of the founder. He preferred to keep a low profile, on the one hand because of modesty, on the other hand in order to avert the school from becoming embroiled in political disputes. Given the educationally progressive approach of the schools and their at the time unconventional activities, as well as the implicit tensions between Hijaz and Najd, this might well have been a wise choice.

In conclusion, I would argue that al-Falah was a space created by civic engagement—namely by the founder and his supporters of different generations and in different periods of time. Following Carapico, this in itself can be considered to be both a civic as well as a political act. I would furthermore argue that it provided an important and novel space for youth activity and sociability, although both government control as well as restraint by the schools' main sponsor prevented outright political activism. Given that many of the intellectual elites of the Hijaz passed through the Falah schools, and that the graduates formed a network that went beyond individual friendships, the school clearly contributed to the formation of an intellectual hub in the young Saudi state and beyond.[32]

[Exterior of the oldest parts of the Falah school in Jeddah today (the cupola formerly housed the school library). 
Photo by Ulrike Freitag.]

[The courtyard of the Falah school in Jeddah today.  Photo by Ulrike Freitag.]


[I would like to thank different members of the Ali Reza family, Bakr Basfur and Maher Hasan for their help in finding materials and providing much of the information on which this article is based. I am grateful to Sarah Jurkiewicz, Claudia Ghrawi, the editors and reviewers for their comments and suggestions, and to Christian Kübler for his help in tracing literature.]


[1] R. P. Adler and Judy Goggin, "What do we Mean by 'Civic Engagement'?" Journal of Transformative Education 3 (2005), 236–253.
[2] S. Sabban (ed.), Nusus ‘uthmaniyya ‘an al-awda al-thaqafiyya fi 'l-Hijaz. al-Awqaf, al-madaris, al-maktabat. Riyadh 1422/2001.1422/2001, 154f.
[3] Public Record Office (PRO), Foreign Office (FO) 195/2083, Devey to O'Connor, 12.4.1900.
[4] M. [al-]ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Fadl, "Madrasat al-Najah qabla Madrasat al-Falah fi Jidda," al-Manhal, (1980), 365.
[5] M. ʿA. al-Maghrabi, A‘lam al-Hijaz, vol.1: 2nd. ed. 1985, 318f.
[6] M. Trabulsi, Jidda. Hikayat madina, Riyadh 2nd rev. ed. 1429/2008, 448.
[7] Madaris al-Falah, al-Hadara wa-l-turath (hectographed collection of papers given at a symposium by al-ʿUkaz newspaper), n.d., 74.
[8] M. Trabulsi, Jidda 1429/2008, 449.
[9] Conditions of Acceptance, dated 26 Muḥarram 1341 (18.9.1922), copy in the school as well as in M.  Ridwan, Qalu ‘an Muhammad ‘Ali Zaynal (hectographed collection of articles and interviews), n.d., 167.
[10] B. Sh. Amin, al-Haraka al-adabiyya fi 'l-mamlaka al-‘arabiyya al-su‘udiyya, Beirut 1392/1972, p.149f. It is not very clear to what period this refers to exactly. A. al-Ansari, Tarikh madinat. Jidda. 2nd enlarged ed. Jeddah 1980, p.196, for the following ibid.,196-207.
[11] Copy of a report from the Mecca school, dated 29 Dhu al-Qaʿida 1353 (March 5, 1935), provided by Bakr Basfur, 22.2.2015, who stresses the importance of such early socio-political education.
[12] Conditions of Acceptance, dated 26 Muharram 1341 (18.9.1922), copy in the school as well as in M. Ridwan, Qalu ‘an Muhammad ‘Ali Zaynal n.d., 167.
[13] H. M. Kutubi, Hadhihi hayati. Cairo 1376/1956, 56f.
[14] Amin, al-Haraka al-adabiyya, 148.
[15] W. Kabili, al-Hirafiyyun fi madinat Jidda. (fi 'l-qarn al-rabi‘ ‘ashar al-hijri). 3rd ed 1425/2004, 76.
[16] Y. Suleiman, Yasir, The Arabic language and national identity. A study in ideology. Edinburgh 2003, p. 85. See also the striking similarity with the Arabist and Islamic attitude put forward by Rawdat al-ma‘arif in Palestine, E. Greenberg, "Majallat Rawdat al-ma‘arif: Constructing Identities within a Boys' School Journal in Mandatory Palestine," British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 35:1 (2008), 79–95.
[17] Kabili, al-Hirafiyyun, 55-57 for a critique of educational practice in the Meccan school.
[18] H. Wahba, Arabian days. London 1964, p. 48, India Office Records (IOR), R/L/PS/12/2085  8 Aug 1931-17 May 1945, Saudi Arabia Annual Report, 1933, Sir A. Ryan to Sir John Simon, April 28, 1934.
[19] Madaris al-Falaḥ, 23f., R. Bsheer, Making History, Remaking Place: Archives and Historical Geographies in Saudi Arabia (Columbia University, NY: unpublished PhD thesis,2014) 7f.
[20] A. Ba 'l-Khayr, ‘Abdallah Bā 'l-Khayr yatadhakkar. With collaboration of Khalid Muhammad Ba Matrafi. Jeddah1998, p. 26-31, 38.
[21] Written communication, Bakr Basfur, 22.2.2015.
[22] Bsheer, Making History, 7.
[23] For Syria: D. Commins, Islamic Reform. Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria (New York, 1990) 95f, and R. Deguilhem-Schoem, "Idées françaises et enseignement Ottoman. L'école secondaire Maktab Anbar à Damas," REMM 52:1 (1989), 199–206, here p. 204. For Hadhramaut: U. Freitag,  Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut. Reforming the Homeland. (Leiden, Boston 2003), 289-297. In more general terms: B. Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (London, New York: 1991), p. 113-140, and D. Massey, For Space, (London, 2005), 40-151.
[24] Greenberg, "Majallat Rawdat al-Ma‘arif," 81.
[25] Trabulsi, Jidda, 1429/2008, 465. Madāris al-Falah, 41.
[26] Umm al-Qura 387, 13.5.1932, 4.
[27] IOR/L/PS/12/2073, Jedda Report July 1934, March 1935.
[28] Madaris al-Falaḥ, 41. Trabulsi, Jidda, 1429/2008, 465. al-Ansari, Tarikh Madinat Jidda, 269.
[29] A. Mana‘, Ba‘d al-Ayyam Ba‘d al-Layali. Atraf min Qissat Hayat, 2nd ed. Jeddah 2009, 190-192.
[30] Sawt al-Hijaz. 493, 29.7.1940/22 Jumada al-thaniyya 1359, 1,4.
[31] Trabulsi, Jidda, 458-60, 465, 466. And Madaris al-Falah, p. 98, 107, 112.
[32] In this context, the observations of Leila Dakhli, Une génération d'intellectuels arabes. Syrie et Liban, 1908-1940. (Paris, 2009), 250f. about the role of even less public spaces such as salons for the transmission of ideas, in comparison to schools, universities and other more public institutions, in Damascus during the mandatory period might be even more pertinent in the Hijazi context.

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