The spread of Wahhabism through Saudi educational institutions

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Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith. Migration, Education, and the Wahhabi Mission, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2017       


It is widely held that Salafism would not have achieved its extraordinary dissemination without the resources made available by Saudi Arabia. The mechanisms through which oil-generated “material capital” has been able to turn into “spiritual capital” are less known, however. In order to investigate this relationship, Michael Farquhar (lecturer in Middle East Politics at King’s College, London) has analysed the origins and development of the Saudi centres of religious teaching in his excellent Circuits of Faith, focusing, in particular, on one of the main vehicles of Wahhabism’s propagation worldwide: the Islamic University of Medina. Founded in 1961 as part of a religious policy directed at increasing the monarchy’s legitimation and international influence, this institution saw its budget increase fivefold in the mid-1970s, thanks to the oil boom. Nevertheless, the history of Salafism’s dissemination cannot be reduced to the black gold’s price charts. Indeed, Mecca and Medina have historically been privileged destinations not only for pilgrims but also for scholars wishing to increase their religious knowledge. Thus, when in the 1920s the founder of today’s Saudi Arabia seized the Hijaz (the region bordering the Red Sea in which the two cities are situated), Wahhabism was offered the opportunity to extend its influence from the isolated Najd region to this spiritual crossroads. It was no easy operation, however, because in precisely this region, “Wahhabi tradition not only had little foothold but it had in fact long been widely considered anathema” (p. 47). Work to Salafize the teaching institutions therefore began. It was able to play both on the bureaucratization that had already got under way during the Ottoman era and on the contribution made by scholars and intellectuals coming from the great hubs of modern Islamic reformism (India and Egypt, in particular).


The marriage between Wahhabism and the other reformist currents was to become a feature of the Islamic University of Medina and was to serve the Saudi monarchy (sponsor of this academic institution) by enabling it to reward the loyalty of the local clerics and, at the same time, give the project a universal breadth capable of attracting students from every part of the world. These two elements are reflected, in their turn, in the syllabuses, which aim to spread the rigorism and exclusivism of Wahhabi theology, but in terms that are also acceptable to those who do not come from this discursive tradition. The purpose of this training is to “extend the authority and influence of the Saudi religious establishment far beyond the kingdom’s borders” (p. 157), preparing an army of missionaries capable of passing on, in their places of origin, what they have learned during their studies at Medina. In order to achieve this objective, the students are subjected to an extremely rigid regime that is based on a method combining “the ethos and organizing principles of the market” (p. 126) with the construction of an exemplary Islamic individual identity: a method that can include an almost police-like surveillance on personal morality and piety.


Not everyone can stand this system. Farquhar—who gathered and analysed a remarkably wide range of both written and oral sources during his investigation (textbooks, syllabuses, University journals etc., as well as interviews with students and ex-students)—notes the high dropout rate amongst those enrolled at the University. A dropout rate caused either by the obligations imposed by the institution or by the syllabuses’ hostility towards the forms of Islam with which students identify, such as Sufism and the traditional schools of theology and law. Those who complete their studies, on the other hand, invest the “capital” acquired in Medina in various contexts, which can range from religious leadership to a career in either an Islamic or a secular university. Many will perform the task of propagating the Wahhabism for which the University of Medina was thought up, whilst others will follow different trajectories. But even where Salafism fails to prevail over other Islamic traditions, it turns into one of their toughened competitors, thus creating a tension capable of conditioning Muslim communities in many parts of the world.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “The University that Wants to Train an Army of Preachers”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 130-1.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “The University that Wants to Train an Army of Preachers”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/the-university-that-wants-to-train-preachers