On October 19, 2016, Mohammad Alyahya, a political analyst focusing on the Gulf region, published an opinion piece in the New York Times exhorting his readers to resist the hasty association of Wahhabism with terrorism. “Don’t play the blame game,” you can almost hear Alyahya pleading with his readership from the title of his essay; he states early on: “blaming Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia for Islamist radicalism is a dangerous red herring. This single-cause explanation distracts from the complex political, economic and psychological reasons people join terrorist groups.” While Wahhabism’s relation to “Islamist radicalism” is not the subject of this review, some of the same presuppositions are recognizable in the way scholarship has traditionally engaged Wahhabism; that is, as an object given in advance, unified by a homogenous history, and generalizable in its social and political goals.
Michael Farquhar’s well-researched monograph, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission, pushes beyond stale generalizations about Wahhabism, which is often considered a subset of other reformist tendencies such as Salafism and Islamism, or is simply reduced to the international impact of Saudi petro dollars. While Farquhar touches on these concerns, he frames the introduction to his book within a new problematic: “exporting Wahhabism” (1-2). The question might be posed as such: how did Wahhabism go from being a provincial theological movement beginning with its namesake, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, in eighteenth century Najd to a global phenomenon with far reaching religious and political implications still perceptible today? The emphasis here is on “exportation,” rather than on Wahhabism as a term and its possible connotations. This is not to say that definitions are immaterial to Farquhar’s analysis, but rather it is the material aspects of Wahhabism’s spread that are under investigation in Circuits of Faith. Exportation brings to mind notions of movement, transport, and trade – all of which evoke a sense of mobility in addition to notions of materiality, that is, something other than ideas and ideology.
“Exportation brings to mind notions of movement, transport, and trade – all of which evoke a sense of mobility in addition to notions of materiality, that is, something other than ideas and ideology.”
Over seven chapters with an introduction and conclusion, Circuits of Faith takes the reader beyond definitions in order to consider the relations that make up and give form to Wahhabi discourse. Instead of asking what analysts mean by “exporting Wahhabism,” Farquhar shows that inquiring into the material conditions of religious concepts and practices can also be a fruitful area of study. In addition to Wahhabism’s proliferation and spread, he considers questions such as: Is Wahhabism a unified theological movement? If so, what unifies it? What institutions promote it? What diverse array of actors populate these institutions and contribute to the reproduction of Wahhabi discourse? What forms of power and authority do they legitimate? Moreover, what are the social technologies and migration patterns that make possible the movement and spread of Wahhabi ideas?
Farquhar draws on a rich theoretical vocabulary to discuss these issues. Terms such as “material flows”, “spiritual capital”, and “social technologies” punctuate this compelling study. Attention to the materiality of social and religious practices as it concerns Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula brings the problem Farquhar is addressing into stark relief. His analysis is all the more refreshing because of his close attention to language as a social and cultural practice invested not only in contestation over meaning, but also wrapped up in power. Moving past concerns about what Wahhabism means, one is able to ask the question of how it is made; that is, what institutional and ideological processes sustain Wahhabism as a discursive practice. It is here that Farquhar’s sharp analysis contributes something new to the field of Middle Eastern studies and Islamic studies alike, and the discipline of history more broadly.
“Moving past concerns about what Wahhabism means, one is able to ask the question of how it is made; that is, what institutional and ideological processes sustain Wahhabism as a discursive practice.”
Institutions and Global Effects
Circuits of Faith, however, is not a book about Wahhabism, but rather about educational institutions in Saudi Arabia and the global actors that helped make Wahhabism a transnational phenomenon in the twentieth century. Taking the Islamic University of Medina (IUM) as its focus, the book gives a detailed genealogy of the university and the debates that surrounded its founding. The story begins earlier with the late Ottoman Hijaz. Farquhar paints a vivid picture of this period drawing heavily from first-hand accounts of religious education in Mecca and Medina, such as those compiled by the Dutch scholar-spy-Orientalist, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, in addition to Arabic historical sources on mosques study circles, madrasa curricula, and prominent Sufi orders. Writing against an implicit anti-Ottoman bias in later nationalist historical reconstructions of the period, Farquhar demonstrates how the Ottoman context proves crucial for understanding the development of increasingly bureaucratized institutions. Starting with the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II, continuing until the Arab Revolt in 1916, and even up to the formation of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Farquhar gives an account that focuses on continuities within institutions in light of quickly changing political events on the ground (42). Even with the fragmentation of official Ottoman institutions in the peninsula, informal networks of scholars and funds continued in the Hijaz region. Ottoman precedents in matters of legal schools (the Hanafi madhhab alongside Shafiʿis, Malikis, and Hanbalis as well) and creed (Ashʿari and Maturidi aqida) constituted the norm in Mecca and Medina up to the first quarter of the twentieth century. Circuits of Faith documents both the official and the unofficial forms of scholarship that continued until the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance that eventually took control of the Hijaz, transforming its institutions and theological orientations.
“By attending to the debates and disagreements particular to Saudi Arabia, Farquhar is able to push past generalizable trends in order to engage what is unique about the Saudi context.”
As stated above, Wahhabism’s origins as an alternative approach to engaging the Qurʿan and sunna of the Prophet lie in eighteenth century Najd, yet come to prominence in the twentieth century as a global, conservative theological tradition often singularly associated with Saudi Arabia. Frequently conflated with Salafism, a creedal position that seeks to purify the Islamic tradition of “foreign” influence and innovation in order to more faithfully imitate the “salaf al-salih,” or pious forbearers, Wahhabism certainly shares elements with other modern reform movements. Areas of overlap include concerns about God’s unicity (tawhid), the proper approach to scriptural interpretation, and the rejection of imitation (taqlid) in substantive legal and theological issues. These concerns bring them into close proximity with their Salafi and Islamist counterparts; however, there are important differences, which Farquhar engages in their specificity. By attending to the debates and disagreements particular to Saudi Arabia, he is able to push past generalizable trends in order to engage what is unique about the Saudi context. Yet these debates are never abstracted from their real material manifestations: in competition over funding and the right to appoint individuals to positions of influence in the scholarly apparatus. At the time of the Cold War, for example, the university became a microcosm of state politics in which different factions (one supporting Kind Saʿud and the other Prince Faisal) competed over the support and backing of the ulama, or highest ranking religious scholars (73). Such disagreements demonstrate that “spiritual capital” was a desirable resource to the Saudi monarchy and proximity to the institutions of the scholarly class was not only sought after, but also necessary.
“Circuits of Faith, however, is not a book about Wahhabism, but rather about educational institutions in Saudi Arabia and the global actors that helped make Wahhabism a transnational phenomenon in the twentieth century.”
The 1930s, 40s, and 50s saw experimentation in Wahhabi institution building as both scholars and the state attempted to gain “spiritual capital” by normalizing some of their reformist positions. Proscription on long-standing practices such as Sufi rituals, affiliation with Sufi orders, and celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday, or mawlid, were increasingly common, even though these practices sometimes continued in private settings (47). The move from Najd to Mecca was also an important element in Wahhabism’s growth. No longer just a regional force based out of Najd, Wahhabi scholars directed their attention the heart of Muslim ritual life – the city of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth and the location of the Kaʿba. Upon creating the Directorate of Education in 1926 in Mecca, other new institutions began to appear: The Saudi Scholastic Institute (“Maʿhad al-ʿIlmi al-Suʿudi”) in 1926-27, the College of Shariʿa in 1949, and the Teacher Training College in 1952. These institutions were an attempt to move away from sending students to study abroad at places such as al-Azhar in Egypt. Meanwhile, the Wahhabi ʿulamaʾ sought to strengthen their status as authoritative interpreters of the Islamic discursive tradition by gaining adherents. These new institutions set the conditions for the IUM’s emergence in 1961 and began the process of Wahhabi daʿwa, or “religious mission” in the Hijaz and eventually beyond (48-49).
Circuits and Flows
Circuits of Faith expands the horizon of scholarship on Wahhabism, which often remains bounded by the nation-state in scope. The Islamic University of Medina attempted to bolster its claims to interpretive legitimacy through an international cadre of scholars that made up the planning committees, advisory boards, teaching staff, and eventually its students. Notable Muslim intellectuals from South Asia such as Abul ʿAla Mawdudi and Abul Hasan ʿAli Nadwi make an appearance in the story of the IUM, alongside the Albanian scholar Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani. This is in addition to members of other Islamist or Salafi-inspired organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, Ahl-i Hadith, and Jamaat-i Islami, all of which had members who were involved in teaching or administration at the IUM over the course of its history (87-93).
“Circuits of Faith expands the horizon of scholarship on Wahhabism, which often remains bounded by the nation-state in scope.”
The presence of international scholars was incredibly important for lending legitimacy to the IUM and its state-sanctioned Wahhabi mission at a time when Wahhabism was viewed with skepticism. During Wahhabism’s early years, before it started to project itself as a unified tradition of religious reasoning, creedal positions across Muslim societies were still espoused according to the principles of the Ashʿari school and legal positions were often derived from one of the four equally-acceptable Sunni madhhabs despite growing reformist criticisms of both (89-90). These traditions were frequently taught through decentralized educational practices in homes and through shaykhs, parents, or other family members. The process of centralizing the curriculum to address theological as well as non-theological subjects from the perspective of one creedal or legal position alone was a new addition to Muslim educational practices. University-wide curricula not only established continuity in the subjects taught, but also increased the ability of the state and other governing bodies to assert a level of control over students attending the university. Centralization was a mechanism of power in addition to being a boost for prestige and an apparatus for marginalizing dissent in matters of theological interpretation. Wahhabi scholars needed spiritual capital in the form of globally-recognized scholarly production in addition to material capital to fund their ventures and present themselves as a coherent body of thought and practice. The 1970s brought an increase in both. The 1973 oil embargo and rising oil prices boosted the Saudi state’s budget; which in turn led to the Saudi establishment more than quadrupling the IUM’s operational budget (82). This allowed for the university to grow and increase the amount of funds dedicated to funding students and teaching positions, which were given to Saudi and non-Saudi nationals alike. For example, students came from Indonesia, Somalia, Ethiopia, the U.S., and Pakistan to attend IUM, which was often made possible through merit-based scholarships.
“The 1973 oil embargo and rising oil prices boosted the Saudi state’s budget; which in turn led to the Saudi establishment more than quadrupling the IUM’s operational budget.”
Some of these students and teachers stayed in Saudi Arabia after their tenure at the university, while others returned home. Yet some found themselves engaged in daʿwa across Africa, Asia, and Europe on behalf of Saudi institutions such as the Dar al-Iftaʾ (169). While the education received at IUM was centralized through a state and religious-ideological apparatus, the networks that emerged and proliferated were often singular and informal (170). Despite the range of careers graduates chose to pursue after completing their studies, degrees from the IUM generally conferred a level of intangible spiritual authority on the student once they returned to their home countries. In this sense, Farquhar shows that the Saudi state achieved a degree of success in its attempt to establish Wahhabism as a powerful and persuasive discourse vying for authority within the Islamic tradition.
Michael Farquhar’s Circuits of Faith intersects with and builds on two bodies of scholarly literature simultaneously. First, it engages the broader literature on Islamic reform in the Arabian Peninsula and the development of Wahhabi thought in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this way, Farquhar places himself in conversation with the recent work of Bernard Haykel, Henri Lauzière, and Frank Griffel on the question of Salafism’s origins as a concept, and with Madawi al-Rasheed, Natana J. Delong-Bas, and Laurent Bonnefoy on religious and political movements in the Arabian Peninsula and their Wahhabi connections. Second, it engages a growing body of anthropological work on the modern state, embodied religious practice, and contestation over power and authority represented by the work of Talal Asad, Charles Hirschkind, Saba Mahmood, and others. Building on their work, Farquhar adds an anthropologically-infused historical approach to the question of institutions and their formal and informal relations that give color and shape to religious discourses through material flows of bodies and other resources. Addressing the material factors that go into the workings of Islam as a global “discursive tradition” is a welcome contribution. However, more engagement with the literature on global and transnational networks in Muslim societies as done by scholars such as Cemil Aydin and Isa Blumi would have only strengthened Farquhar’s analysis.
“Instead of asking what Wahhabism is, Farquhar focuses his analysis on the intellectual relations that compose Wahhabism as a discursive practice (by no means singular or unified in its approach) and the material migrations that make possible its spread.”
In the process of posing the question of Wahhabism’s material conditions, Farquhar transforms the possible answers that might be given. Instead of asking what Wahhabism is, he focuses his analysis on the intellectual relations that compose Wahhabism as a discursive practice (by no means singular or unified in its approach) and the material migrations that make possible its spread. This focus on actors, networks, institutions, and the forms of interaction that connect them allows for more nuanced engagement with such a complex historical phenomenon. In this way, Michael Farquhar’s Circuits of Faith is a most welcome contribution to the field.