Only a few days after the events of 11 September 2001, I distinctly remember a man explaining on CNN that the deeper problem behind the attacks—in which fifteen Saudis were involved out of a total of nineteen hijackers—was not so much Islam, but Wahhabism, the ideology that supposedly inspired the terrorists. Similar accusations have been expressed many times since then, with a seemingly increasing number of people believing there to be a clear link between Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism or Salafism, on the one hand, and radicalization and terrorism, on the other. While many scholars of Islam have pointed out that the relation between these is not as clearcut as some think, it has always been difficult to put one’s finger on exactly how Wahhabism ‘travels’ from Saudi Arabia to other places. Michael Farquhar, in his excellent book Circuits of Faith, goes a long way toward explaining these and many other issues. In the introduction, Farquhar wonders: ‘What exactly is the “export version of Wahhabism” that is supposedly at work here and what is its relationship with the diverse strands of Salafi religiosity that have proliferated around the world in recent decades?’ (p. 2) Taking the Islamic University of Medina (IUM) as his focal point, Farquhar points out that ‘Wahhabi expansion, as reflected in the history of the IUM, is better thought of as a series of unequal transactions occurring within the terms of a transnational religious economy. The latter is understood here as consisting in the circulation—both within and across borders—of religious migrants, social technologies, and material and symbolic forms of capital’ (pp. 4–5). The latter term is explained by Farquhar by pointing out that Saudi Arabia’s material capital poured into the IUM results in ‘particular forms of spiritual capital possessed by the students’, like ‘knowledge, skills and qualifications’ (p. 16). On the basis of these insights, the author goes on to deal with education in Saudi Arabia and its attraction to Muslims from across the globe in seven chapters. The first focuses on education in the Ottoman-ruled Hijaz. Farquhar shows how mosques, religious schools (madrasas) and Sufi lodges were used as places of learning by a fairly international group of people who visited or lived in the Arabian Peninsula. He also points out that, from the 1870s onward, the Ottomans increasingly bureaucratized the education system of the Hijaz, leading to—for example—annual exams taken by all students rather than certificates of permission to teach a certain book (ijāzas) given by individual scholars to individual students. It was this bureaucratized system of education that the current Saudi state inherited from the Ottomans. In ch. 2, Farquhar shows how the Saudi-Wahhabi take-over of the Arabian Peninsula—and especially the western Hijaz region—influenced the country’s education system. The author shows that the Wahhabi religious establishment in the central-Arabian Najd region took over the country (sometimes forcefully) by demolishing shrines, prohibiting things like tobacco and limiting Sufi activities. While this clashed with existing norms, the Wahhabis did so on the basis of the education system put in place by the Ottomans. As such, the Directorate of Education set up by Saudi Arabia—and eventually replaced by the Saudi Ministry of Education in 1953—was both a break with and a continuation of the past. This was expressed most clearly in the Saudi Scholastic Institute, which offered ‘secondary-level instruction to an all-male student body in both religious and secular subjects’ and was founded in Makka in 1926 or 1927 (p. 50). The IUM, which was founded in 1961, replaced the Saudi Scholastic Institute and constitutes the subject of chs. 3–7. The author is careful to note that the IUM was more than a mere educational institute, however. He points to the internal political reasons the Saudi regime had to set up an Islamic university to shore up its own credentials among the Wahhabi religious scholars, on the one hand, and to counter the socialist, republican propaganda coming from Egypt under President Gamāl ‘Abd al-Nāṣir (r. 1954-1970), on the other. ‘The hope,’ Farquhar writes, ‘was that such an institution might compete with al-Azhar as a center of religious learning […] to counter “Egyptian nationalism, in its present expansionist state” ’ (p. 72). It is therefore not surprising that the IUM has remained in control of Wahhabi scholars loyal to the Saudi state from the start. Chapter 4 deals with how the IUM, by hiring personnel, attracting students, asking scholars to sit on its advisory council and establishing contacts with other Arab and Muslim countries, forged a transnational community. Although this provided the IUM with accessibility to students who were not necessarily comfortable with Wahhabism and more at ease with scholars from different Muslim backgrounds, foreign staff also led to problems, as perceived by Saudi authorities, such as the supposedly Muslim Brotherhood-inspired political dissent in the early 1990s. As the author points out, this dissent may well have contributed to the Saudi effort to domesticate the IUM, meaning that virtually all staff at the university were Saudi nationals at the end of the 1990s. The fifth and sixth chapters treat what the IUM actually teaches its students and how this has changed. Chapter 6 is particularly interesting since it not only deals with the subjects taught at the IUM, it also specifically mentions the books used during classes. While ideology and theology are not central to the book, Farquhar generally deals with these very well and answers questions that he could easily have left to others but nevertheless decided to tackle. One of these concerns the frequent use of Abū Jāʿfar al-Ṭaḥāwī’s al-ʿAqīda al-Ṭaḥāwiyya. Given al-Ṭaḥāwī’s Hanafi background, it is not immediately clear why this text is used so often among Salafis, including at the IUM, but Farquhar explains this admirably. Although the author is less certain about another one of these issues—the shift from the tendency among Wahhabis to practice blind emulation (taqlīd) of the Hanbali school of Islamic law to their direct interpretation of the sources (ijtihād), as noticed by Frank Vogel, Stéphane Lacroix and others—his speculation about this is informed and quite interesting. The final chapter of the book deals with the IUM’s legacy among its students once they have left the university. Farquhar shows that while the education enjoyed in Madina certainly had an impact on people’s lives, this does not translate into uniform lifestyles and ideas after their stay at the university. The author shows that some, including Jihadi-Salafis, have been quite critical of the IUM, while others have become disillusioned with the university or with Salafism altogether. The diverse ways in which alumni deal with what they were taught at IUM shows that Saudi-Wahhabi influence is far more nuanced than merely ‘expanding’ or ‘exporting’ Wahhabism abroad. Farquhar rightly points out that ‘Saudi state actors have been able to exert influence within the territories of other states around the world; but that influence has not necessarily constituted control’ (p. 193). Michael Farquhar has done an excellent job researching and writing this book. Its highly diverse sources—ranging from university curricula and information about salaries to books about theology—make this a great contribution to the literature on Saudi Arabia. It fills a gap in our understanding of the dissemination of Wahhabism and nicely complements the great work already done by scholars such as Madawi al-Rasheed. As mentioned, it also provides empirical detail and nuance to the debate on Saudi influence abroad that keeps rearing its head. Although the book contains minor mistakes—such as the references to the theological views of the Murjiʾa (pp. 135, 177)—this is clearly a great publication that deserves to be read widely. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 25, 2017
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