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

Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2017, 288 pages
Philippe Pétriat
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Circuits of Faith: Migration, Education and the Wahhabi Mission / Michael Farquhar.‑ Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017.‑ 288 p.‑ (Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures), ISBN 978‑0‑8047‑9835‑8.

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1Using the concept of what he calls a “transnational religious economy” centered on the Islamic University of Medina (IUM), Michael Farquhar’s Circuits of Faith is an important and historicized contribution to the debate over the export of Wahhabism and its role in global Salafism.

2The detailed history of the IUM is probably the main interest of this book based on an array of IUM publications (syllabuses) and interviews. It deals with historicized facts and provides precise knowledge of one of the leading Saudi educative and missionary institutions. Farquhar focuses on this specific university and on some of its founders, scholars and interviewed students, in order to allow him to go beyond generalizations about Saudi proselytism.

  • 1 Abdullatif Abdullah Dohaish, “A Critical and Comparative Study of the History of Education in the H (...)

3The first two chapters of the book emphasize the old history of missionary education in the Hejaz during the Ottoman, Sharifian and Saudi periods before the foundation of the IUM in 1961. One might regret that chapter 1 deals mainly with secondary sources and focuses on Mecca rather than Medina, since Farquhar did not engage with Ottoman sources. However, studies like Dohaish’s1 allow him to stress the fact that educative institutions and ulema had been the object of state bureaucratization well before the Hejaz was included into the Saudi State during the 1920s. On the one hand, specified syllabuses, regular examinations, inspection systems and gathering information on students and scholars were continued by the newly founded Saudi Directorate of Education and the Scholastic Institute in Mecca (1926–1927). These would later be replicated and developed at the IUM (p. 116‑128), along with American and European pedagogical techniques. On the other hand, transnational student exchanges (now with scholarships) and scholars from around the Muslim world (p. 92‑99) being invited to teach at IUM as a source of spiritual authority ‑at least up to the 1990s‑ proved to be powerful factors in shaping the contents and framework of this modern institution, which needed recognition as a legitimate source of spiritual authority outside the kingdom.

4Another interesting aspect of the book lies in one of its core arguments about the existence of a “transnational religious economy” (p. 16), which implies a two‑way exchange of spiritual and material “capitals”. Such a framework gives an accurate understanding of what Michael Farquhar calls a “subtle and powerful dynamic of expansion through absorption” rather than a “unidirectional export of Wahhabism” (p. 20).

5Michael Farquhar lays strong emphasis on the way the workings of the IUM, its understanding of da‘wa (call to Islam) and its curricula have been transformed not only in line with Saudi politics and diplomacy (chapter 3), or by the evolution of the Wahhabi tradition (chapter 6), but also by the students that have brought their own spiritual capital and expectations to the IUM (chapter 7). The missionary projects of the IUM led its authorities and scholars to co‑opt persons and educative technologies along with religious references and contents from outside the Wahhabi tradition ‑although a field like tawhid (the study of God’s unicity) has remained strongly dominated by Wahhabi corpus. A detailed comparison between syllabuses of the 1960s and syllabuses of the 1990s clearly illustrates this point regarding the teaching of jurisprudence (fiqh). There, calls to engage with comparative approaches to law emerged as soon as 1961 (p. 151‑154). In keeping with the study of an “economy” where resources are exchanged but unevenly distributed, Michael Farquhar goes as far as to explain the motives of domestic and foreign students (sometimes merely to learn Arabic), as well as, for some, their disillusions and actually contesting IUM teaching and Wahhabi tenets (chapter 7).

6The reader might find some arguments about the “religious economy” repetitive, especially as these assertions are nothing surprising for a global university (e.g. p. 183). Rather than fast‑forwarding from the 1960s to the 1990s, we would have liked to know in details what happened to the IUM during the 1970s and the 1980s since the “religious economy” Farquhar is dealing with went through an important economic upheaval. It remains that Circuits of Faith is a book we have long been waiting for to assess the role of Saudi Wahhabism in global Salafism, and the latter’s role in Saudi Arabia.

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1 Abdullatif Abdullah Dohaish, “A Critical and Comparative Study of the History of Education in the Hejaz during the Periods of Ottoman and Sharifian Rules between 1869–1925”, PhD dissertation, University of Leeds, 1974.

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Philippe Pétriat, « Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Education and the Wahhabi Mission », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 8 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 mai 2017, consulté le 06 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Philippe Pétriat

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