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



In the last decades of the twentieth century, many Muslim communities around the world witnessed the growing influence of Salafism, a style of Islamic religiosity characterized by a distinctive set of creedal and legal principles which are understood by its adherents to reflect the authentic beliefs and practices of the earliest generations of Muslims. The rise of Salafism, with its perceived rigidity, antimodernism and exclusivism, has been the cause of considerable anxiety on the part of Muslim and non-Muslim observers alike. Seen as an alien intrusion in many of the communities within which it has gained a foothold, it has come to be associated in the popular imagination with atavistic brutality, misogyny, sectarianism, anti-Semitism and political violence. In the clamor to understand the nature of this phenomenon and to explain how it has achieved such seemingly unprecedented momentum, it has become common to invoke a form of cultural imperialism emanating from Saudi Arabia. An article published by the news agency France 24 in 2012 is emblematic of this line of thinking. The piece opens with a pen portrait of black “Salafi” banners hanging over anti-American protests from Sanaa to Benghazi, along with Salafis destroying traditional religious shrines in Libya and Mali, demolishing supposedly heretical works of art in Tunisia, and taking up arms in Syria. The author goes on to quote an expert on the region, who explains that the religious doctrine at stake in such cases is basically an “export version of Wahhabism,” the conservative form of Sunni Islam which predominates in Saudi Arabia. Since the oil boom of the 1970s, he argues, “the Saudis have been financing [Wahhabism] around the world.”1 Elsewhere, Saudi religious sway has similarly been identified as a source of social conflict across the Global South, from Indonesia to Kashmir.2 Meanwhile, alleged creeping Wahhabism in Muslim communities in Europe and the United States has time and again been condemned as “a Saudi export we could do without.”3

On the face of it, efforts to explain the worldwide rise of Salafism in these terms, as the product of an extension of Wahhabi influence made possible by Saudi oil money, appear to offer an appealingly neat and compelling narrative. Yet on closer inspection, this narrative raises as many questions as it initially seems to answer. 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? Through what channels and frameworks have these processes occurred? Who are the Saudis involved in these dynamics and what are their motivations? And how have their target audiences responded? Claims about the export of Wahhabism also raise problems of a more theoretical kind. It is not immediately obvious what precisely it means to speak of exporting a particular religious or cultural framework, or what circumstances might facilitate movements of religious migrants, ideas, practices and institutions across borders. There is surely a need for attention to the ways in which these things may in fact undergo changes as they are translated into new geographical, social, cultural and political contexts, and the factors which might contribute to shaping the outcome of these transformations. Moreover, there are vexing questions to be asked about how exactly it is that objective material capital—the oft-noted “petrodollars”—may feed into subjective processes of cultural change. If it is indeed possible to identify a relationship between flows of material capital and cultural transformation, then one must surely consider how human agency figures in this picture and what power relations are established which might variously constrain or facilitate such agency.

It is with a view to delving into such questions that this book develops a historical account of one particularly important mode of Saudi “religious expansion.”4 In order to get a handle on this vast and diffuse phenomenon, I focus on influential new Islamic educational institutions, founded in Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century, which came to sit at the heart of cross-border circuits of students and scholars from all over the world. Migrants have for centuries traveled long distances in order to perform the hajj and to teach and undertake religious studies in the holy cities of the Hijaz, on what is now the western seaboard of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This book explores the ways in which the operation of these cross-border circuits, and the cultural, social and political influence that they have long exerted in locations far beyond the Arabian Peninsula, was impacted by the rise of the modern Saudi state, the access of state actors to material resources made available in part from oil rents, and the investment of those resources in educational projects geared towards da‘wa—which may be loosely translated in this context as religious mission—with global reach.

While non-Saudi students and scholars have taught and undertaken religious studies in an array of settings in the kingdom since the early twentieth century, at the heart of the account offered here is the Islamic University of Medina (IUM), which was launched by the Saudi state in 1961 as an explicitly missionary venture. Since that time, the IUM has been distinguished from the kingdom’s other Islamic universities by its goal of offering fully funded religious instruction primarily to young, non-Saudi men, who from the start made up over 80 percent of its student body. The expectation was that, after graduation, they would return to their communities of origin or travel on elsewhere as du‘āt (sing. dā‘iya), or missionaries. Although they were certainly expected to preach to non-Muslims, the focus was on offering guidance to Muslim communities seen as having deviated from orthodox belief and practice. By 2001, nearly 11,600 non-Saudi students, hailing from virtually every country around the world, had secured undergraduate qualifications from the IUM, and a decade later its president declared that the university could boast over 30,000 graduates.5 Many of these alumni have become prominent Salafi figureheads in locations across the globe. For the first decades of its existence, the IUM also recruited large numbers of staff from beyond the kingdom. As a result, its faculty came to accommodate an extraordinarily diverse range of luminaries—from ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Baz, later appointed Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, to Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani, the Albanian-born scholar who is undoubtedly the most important Salafi hadith specialist of the modern period. Such figures have worked at the IUM alongside affiliates of Islamist movements like the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and the Pakistani Jamaat-i Islami, and Salafi movements including the Egyptian Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya and the South Asian Ahl-i Hadith. A missionary project on this scale has been made possible by substantial state funding. Rough calculations based on data published by the IUM itself suggest that even by the late 1990s, the university’s total running costs since the time of its founding had racked up to an amount equivalent to over 1,400 million US dollars at today’s exchange rates.6

The cross-border circuits which grew up around this one institution have previously been identified as a key framework through which Saudi actors have sought to extend their religious influence beyond the kingdom’s borders, with the IUM singled out by one commentator as being “at the centre of the global Wahhabi mission.”7 Yet, like much public discourse on the broader phenomenon of Wahhabi expansion, discussion of the IUM and its efforts to promote Salafism worldwide has frequently been characterized by basic inaccuracies and a sometimes staggering degree of obfuscation. To give just one example, Dore Gold’s polemic work Hatred’s Kingdom uncritically quotes Hajj Salih Brandt, Chechnya’s special envoy to Europe, as asserting:

The whole political agenda of Wahhabi Fundamentalism (what the West now calls Islamism) . . . [is] a deviation of Islam taught in Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, sponsored by the Saudi government and exported from there. . . . Out of it have come Hamas, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the FIS [Islamic Salvation Front], Sudan, and now the gangs roaming Chechnya and Daghestan.8

It is left to the reader to puzzle over the sense in which “Wahhabi Fundamentalism” might usefully be considered as equivalent to “Islamism,” or how any of these individuals and movements—let alone Sudan—are products of Wahhabism as taught at the IUM.

With its historicized focus on one very specific aspect of the far broader set of issues that fall under the rubric of Saudi religious expansion, this book seeks to move past loose, speculative generalizations. By pulling on a single empirical thread—a particular nexus between migration, education and religious mission—vague abstractions like “Salafization” and “Wahhabization” can be made to give way to concrete institutional frameworks, and the biographies and memories of identifiable students and scholars. Moreover, this historicized approach makes it possible to achieve a richer understanding of recent dynamics of Wahhabi expansion by situating them in relation to long-standing processes of migration, religious transformation, and state- and nation-building.

In telling the story of the IUM, I develop an analytical framework with broader application for understanding the ways in which material capital possessed by certain Saudi actors has provided for the exercise of power and influence in the religious sphere abroad. The hope is that this framework will make it possible to get beyond talk of the “export” of Wahhabism, a metaphor which is as ubiquitous as it is problematic. Instead, I argue 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.

This conceptualization offers new ways of understanding how material resources have contributed to granting certain Saudi actors privileged status within extensive cross-border processes involving a diversity of persons and institutions, and an array of local and national contexts. It provides for an understanding of migrants involved in these dynamics not merely as vectors of religious doctrine but as creative agents with their own values, interests and ambitions. Equally importantly, it serves to underline the extent to which the progress of Saudi state-funded da‘wa has been bound up with transformations in the very Wahhabi institutions and practices which lay at its heart, partly as a result of the assimilation of new elements from outside the historical Wahhabi tradition. This approach thereby provides tools for thinking about some of the dynamics at stake in the evolution of the Wahhabi tradition itself within Saudi Arabia’s borders since the early twentieth century. It also offers a basis for interrogating the commonplace intuition that Wahhabi expansion has amounted in some sense to an extension of Saudi political hegemony or soft power.9 Before sketching the contours of this historiography, it is necessary to briefly consider two key labels—Salafism and Wahhabism—which are unavoidable in a study of this nature and yet are so ambiguous and contested as to require some dedicated discussion.

Islamic, Salafi and Wahhabi Traditions

The terms Salafism and Wahhabism may be usefully understood with reference to Talal Asad’s conception of Islam itself as a dynamic and heterogeneous “discursive tradition.”10 Tradition in this view does not denote an ossified set of beliefs and practices, endlessly reproduced across space and time. Rather, as elaborated by Samira Haj, Islam in this understanding consists in an overarching “framework of inquiry” within which Muslims bring a particular body of texts, practices and styles of reasoning to bear in diverse ways upon the array of new circumstances and problems that present themselves in different social and historical contexts.11 In the same vein, Salafism may in turn be conceived as a “tradition within a tradition.” Where the overarching Islamic tradition is lent coherence by such broad elements as belief in the oneness of God and the mobilization of arguments legitimated with reference to the Qur’an, the Salafi tradition is further distinguished by a more specific overlapping set of methodological principles, texts and practices.

The term Salafism is notoriously slippery, used by various commentators at various times to label a plethora of different phenomena.12 However, Bernard Haykel has offered a useful definition of the Salafi tradition as being characterized primarily by several interconnected features. The first of these is an emphasis on emulating the beliefs and praxis of the Salaf al-Salih, or the “pious ancestors,” often taken to denote members of the Muslim community who lived in the period from the time of the revelation of the Qur’an until the death of the jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal in 855. The second is a distinctive conception of tawīd, or the unicity of God, which in turn tends to give rise to the view that many traditional Islamic practices constitute shirk, or polytheism. The third key feature is a stress on combating perceived unbelief, particularly any attitudes or practices understood as amounting to shirk. The fourth is an insistence that the Qur’an, the sunna and “the consensus of the Prophet’s companions” are the only legitimate bases of religious authority. The fifth is an emphasis on purging illegitimate innovations (bida‘, sing. bid‘a) understood to have corrupted Islamic belief and praxis over the centuries since the time of the Salaf al-Salih. The final feature described by Haykel is a commitment to the view that the Qur’an and the sunna are clear in meaning, and that a “strict constructionist interpretation” of these texts is “sufficient to guide Muslims for all time and through all contingencies.”13

Salafism as defined here is an exclusively Sunni phenomenon, the sunna which is so central to this mode of religiosity consisting in the corpus of traditions recorded in the canonical Sunni hadith collections.14 It is also worth noting that, as Haykel underlines, Salafism thus defined does not encompass late nineteenth-century reformists like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani or Muhammad ‘Abduh. While al-Afghani and ‘Abduh have often been depicted as representatives of a particular brand of modernist Salafism, their theology differed from that outlined above. Moreover, their ecumenism contrasted with the exclusivist attitudes towards non-Salafi Muslims which many contemporary Salafis derive from this theology.15

As with the broader Islamic tradition of which it is a part, the Salafi tradition is again by no means either homogeneous or fixed across time and space. Rather, Salafis draw on this tradition as a basis for engaging with whatever issues present themselves in the particular contexts in which they live their lives. The conclusions that they reach about appropriate ways of responding to any given matter can and frequently do strongly conflict. Contemporary Salafis dispute one another fiercely over such issues as the legitimacy of political activism and the permissibility of violent action as a means for effecting political change under current conditions. Yet their sharply divergent views and the heated debates in which they engage are a matter of disputation within a common framework of inquiry.16

While the term Salafi may have positive connotations, evoking the historical and religious authenticity of the Salaf al-Salih, the label Wahhabi is an exonym generally considered derogatory by those to whom it is applied.17 It is used here for lack of a better alternative and because of the importance of distinguishing the Wahhabi tradition from the broader Salafi tradition of which it, in turn, is part. While Wahhabism displays all of the features of Salafism outlined above, it has certain further characteristics which justify treating it as a distinguishable sub-tradition within the broader Salafi tradition. These features include the central place given within it to works authored by the eighteenth-century reformer Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, from the region of Najd in Central Arabia, and certain of his descendants. Another feature of the Wahhabi tradition is a distinctive approach to jurisprudence. In principle, Wahhabism shares with many other modes of Salafism a commitment to rejecting blind emulation of the rulings of any of the conventionally recognized schools of Islamic law. The view within the Salafi tradition that the meaning of the Qur’an and the sunna is quite transparent and that these, along with the consensus of the Companions of the Prophet, are unrivalled as sources of religious guidance tends to give rise to an emphasis on deriving legal rulings with direct reference to these sources rather than relying on secondary works authored by jurists associated with the established law schools. However, in practice Wahhabism has historically been very closely associated with the Hanbali jurisprudential tradition.

Once again, it is worth emphasizing that Wahhabism has always been marked by diversity, both over time and at any given point in time. The views expressed by Wahhabis have varied on a whole range of issues—including, for example, the question of how to manage relations with non-Muslims and non-Salafi Muslims.18 As with any other discursive tradition, the texts, principles, practices and other elements which make up the Wahhabi framework of inquiry have proved amenable to diverse interpretations and applications.19


1. Daou, “How Saudi Petrodollars Fuel Rise of Salafism.”

2. Mir, “Purifying Kashmir”; Indira and Vltchek, “Wahhabi War Waged on Indonesia’s Shi‘ites.”

3. Schwartz, “Wahhabis in America.” For another indicative example, see Vallely, “Wahhabism.”

4. The phrase “religious expansion” is borrowed from Al-Rasheed, “Introduction: An Assessment of Saudi Political, Religious and Media Expansion.” For examples of existing work considering the question of whether and, if so, how Saudi actors have exerted religious influence beyond the kingdom’s borders, see Birt, “Wahhabism in the United Kingdom”; Al-Rasheed, “Saudi Religious Transnationalism in London”; Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft; Sikand, “Stoking the Flames”; Hasan, “The Failure of the Wahhabi Campaign”; and several chapters in Al-Rasheed, Kingdom Without Borders.

5. al-Maghamisi, “Juhud Khadim al-Haramayn.”

6. al-Ghamidi, al-Kitab al-Watha’iqi, 281.

7. Birt, “Wahhabism in the United Kingdom,” 170–71.

8. Quoted in Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom, 4–5.

9. See, e.g., Madawi Al-Rasheed’s remark that

[f]rom the very beginning, Saudi Arabia pursued an expansionist religious policy, the main purpose of which was to protect the Saudi realm and promote its interests, in both adjacent and far-flung territories. Islam became an important means for the Saudi state to enhance its legitimacy with a hesitant Muslim population worldwide. (Al-Rasheed, Kingdom Without Borders, 2)

10. Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.

11. Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition, 4–5.

12. For one account of the history of Salafism and its cognates, as a concept and a label, see Lauzière, “The Construction of Salafiyya.”

13. Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” 38–39.

14. Ibid., 39.

15. Ibid., 39, 45–47.

16. For examples of the growing literature on modern Salafism, see Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement”; Lauzière, “The Evolution of the Salafiyya”; Meijer, Global Salafism; Lauzière, “The Construction of Salafiyya”; Gauvain, “Salafism in Modern Egypt”; Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen; Østebø, Localising Salafism; Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi; Gauvain, Salafi Ritual Purity; Pall, Lebanese Salafis Between the Gulf and Europe; Gauvain, “Egyptian Salafism as a Problematic for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.”

17. Though see Nabil Mouline’s interesting discussion of certain circumstances in which Wahhabi scholars and their supporters have embraced the term, or at least “accepted it as a fait accompli” (Mouline, The Clerics of Islam, 8–9).

18. Al-Fahad, “From Exclusivism to Accommodation”; Wagemakers, “The Enduring Legacy of the Second Saudi State.”

19. For further examples of recent works on Wahhabism, see DeLong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam; Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia; Al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State; Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia; Lacroix, Awakening Islam.