- Circuits of Faith: Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission by Michael Farquhar
A broad current within Sunni Islam known as Salafism has gained increasing attention from scholars and journalists alike.1 Critics have described this current as rigid, intolerant, exclusivist, misogynist, and generally anti-modern. They have also called it an “export version of Wahhabism” (p. 1), the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent Qatar. The terms Salafism and Wahhabism have been used interchangeably by many authors, although the former has been applied more often to global contexts and the latter to the Arabian Peninsula. Michael Farquhar explores the connection between Salafism and Wahhabism through a detailed history of the Islamic University of Madinah (IUM), a Saudi institution in the Islamic holy city of Medina that has turned students from across the Muslim world into missionaries.
Farquhar argues against understandings of Salafism as a simple “export” similar to other commodities from Saudi Arabia, such as oil. He still uses economic metaphors, but constructs a more complex model. He mainly builds on an article about “Spiritual Capital” by historian Bradford Verter (who, in turn, draws on Pierre Bourdieu).2 Farquhar describes Wahhabi expansion through IUM as a “series of unequal transactions occurring within the terms of a transnational religious economy” (p. 5). This economy, the “circuits of faith” in the book’s title, is based on an exchange of scholars and students, of technologies as well as material and symbolic forms for capital. However, the author is critical of conceptions of religious markets as the aggregate of free, rational choices with the aim of profit maximization. In contrast to the more liberal model of religious competition developed by historian Nile Green,3 Farquhar is more sensitive [End Page 331] to relative deprivation and privilege. He thus emphasizes the ability of foreign students and employees at IUM to make choices, but also their dependence on their Saudi sponsors.
The introduction of Farquhar’s book explains his approach to religious economies. In addition, he delineates Wahhabism as a “distinguishable sub-tradition within the broader Salafi tradition” (p. 7). In the first two chapters, the author narrates the expansion of this sub-tradition from its heartlands in central Arabia to Hijaz. Chapter 3 situates the establishment of IUM in 1961 and its subsequent development in the context of the Arab and global Cold War as well as Saudi domestic politics. The following chapter analyzes the recruitment of foreign faculty members who legitimated the missionary institution by exchanging their credentials for the Saudi state’s material resources. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the arrangements and contents of instruction. Farquhar argues here that the IUM used modern forms of assessing students’ learning and regulating their behavior even while trying to resist the Western “intellectual invasion” (p. 110). On campus, the power of the Saudi state constrained students’ choices and forced Wahhabi norms upon them. However, after “leaving Medina,” as chapter 7 is titled, the students became freer to express different religious opinions and to employ the spiritual capital they had acquired through their studies. Depending on the efforts of these missionaries and the local authorities they faced, Saudi religious influence thus played out differently across the world.
Based on extensive research, Farquhar has produced a very sophisticated and nuanced account of Saudi religious expansion to expand upon his earlier argument that petrodollars alone do not explain the growth of Salafism.4 However, Farquhar argues persuasively that Saudi material investments still played important roles in the proliferation of the broader Salafi tradition and its Wahhabi sub-tradition. His arguments rely on an impressive range of Arabic texts, including much grey literature. In addition, Farquhar conducted interviews with former IUM students and employees in Egypt and the United Kingdom. He also undertook two months of fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, but as a non-Muslim could not visit the university. Nevertheless, he perhaps could have situated the IUM more fully within the political economy of Saudi higher education. Farquhar’s conclusion ends with an...