Circuits of Faith
Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission
Michael Farquhar



This book came into being via a roundabout route. When I first started thinking about the research project which would eventually give rise to this volume, my concerns were initially quite theoretical in nature; I was interested in exploring the ways in which pietist forms of Islamic da‘wa, or religious mission, may perform fundamentally political work like shaping the public sphere, forging subjectivity and carving out spaces for the exercise of agency. Early on, I had the idea of considering these questions as they applied in Egypt. Yet the more I worked to develop my knowledge of the religious sphere in Egypt in the last decades of the twentieth century, the more I was drawn time and again to a powerful but elusive narrative of growing Saudi influence from the 1970s onwards. The same pattern was also to be found in the wider literature on Islamic da‘wa and particularly in the growing body of work on modern Salafism; nods to the alleged impact of Saudi petrodollars were widespread but there were few places that one might turn to learn more about how that impact was supposed to have played out in practice. It was that convergence—between a set of theoretical concerns about pietist da‘wa and social and political power, on the one hand, and an empirical story that seemed profoundly important but largely unwritten, on the other—that would eventually set me on the path to writing this book and which would shape the account that emerges in its chapters.

The resulting work is a history of how the Saudi political and religious establishments sought to extend Wahhabi influence into Muslim communities around the world from the mid-twentieth century. It tells a story of some of the institutions and individuals involved, and it situates that story in relation to political, cultural and social transformations tracing back to the late Ottoman period. But it is also an effort to think through what it means for actors in a given national sphere to “export” a particular religious framework, how material wealth may figure in these kinds of processes, and the power relations, forms of agency, and social and political struggles which may emerge from and shape these processes.

From the start, it was clear that there were many practical reasons for the relative absence of detailed studies on this topic. The politicization of the question of Saudi state-backed missionary work and other forms of Salafi proselytizing, particularly since 9/11, has heightened the sensitivity of many of those who fund such initiatives or who otherwise move in these circles. As a result, questions inevitably arise about the motivations of a researcher seeking to understand this history. In some circumstances, such suspicions may dovetail with the fact that the Wahhabi and broader Salafi traditions are often characterized by an exclusivist stance in relation to those perceived as outsiders, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. A separate challenge derives from the sheer scale of the historical dynamics at stake here; exploring processes which stretch across countless national borders is unavoidably a complex and time-consuming undertaking. Moreover, Saudi research visas are relatively difficult to come by, and some key sites, including the campus of the Islamic University of Medina (IUM)—the institution which is the focus of this book and which is located within the city limits of Medina—are closed to non-Muslim researchers like myself.

Yet as I committed to pursuing this line of research, the project gradually began to open up. The vast geographical extension of the processes that I hoped to understand presented opportunities as well as challenges. Through the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, I was able to spend two months undertaking fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, and that time was invaluable. But I was also able to interview former students and staff members of the IUM during seven months in Egypt and over an extended period in the United Kingdom. (Most IUM graduates and students interviewed for this project are identified in the endnotes only by letters, in order to respect their privacy.) Along the way, I came to meet a very diverse range of people, many of whom were only too happy to tell their stories. At the same time, while the English-language coverage of Saudi state-funded da‘wa is quite limited, often impressionistic and sometimes inaccurate, Arabic-language searches proved fruitful. Libraries in Riyadh, Jidda and Cairo yielded authorized histories of the IUM, prospectuses, staff lists and other kinds of promotional literature. I was also able to access issues of the university journal going back to the late 1960s, and to gather memoirs, local press coverage, encyclopedic biography collections written by and about individuals who had been involved in the IUM project, YouTube videos of former students describing their experiences in Medina, and many other kinds of materials besides. Together, they form a rich corpus, providing for an account which not only traces key events, personalities and institutional frameworks but which also makes room for the perspectives and experiences of participants themselves.

While the chapters that make up this volume are bound together by an overarching historical narrative, each is intended to open a window on a distinct dimension of the book’s subject matter—from transformations in the educational sphere in the late Ottoman and early Saudi periods, to the political context of the founding of the IUM and to the make-up of its faculty, the styles and content of instruction that took shape on its campus, and the trajectories of its students. Readers seeking a route into some of these issues without working through the entire book are advised to make time for the introduction, which sets out the analytical framework employed throughout and provides a road map for the chapters. After that, individual chapters are sufficiently self-contained that it should be possible to jump ahead to those that appeal most.

This book has been more than six years in the making. For all its limitations, I hope that this time has at least been sufficient to bring to it a firm empirical grounding, a historical perspective, and a degree of nuance that is sometimes lacking in public discourse on the matters that it seeks to address.