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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan

1/19/18, 11'02 AM

[Book Review] Michael


Farquhar, Circuits of Faith:
Migration, Education, and the
Wahhabi Mission (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 2017)
by Micah Hughes
By Micah A. Hughes // June 14, 2017

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,
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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

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 Over seven chapters with an


introduction and conclusion,

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

mind notions of Circuits of Faith takes the reader


beyond definitions in order to
movement, transport, consider the relations that make
and trade – all of which up and give form to Wahhabi
evoke a sense of mobility discourse. Instead of asking what
analysts mean by “exporting
in addition to notions of Wahhabism,” Farquhar shows that
materiality, that is, inquiring into the material
something other than conditions of religious concepts
and practices can also be a fruitful
ideas and ideology.” 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

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

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

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

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 As stated above, Wahhabism’s


origins as an alternative approach
debates and to engaging the Qurʿan and sunna
disagreements of the Prophet lie in eighteenth
particular to Saudi century Najd, yet come to
prominence in the twentieth
Arabia, Farquhar is able century as a global, conservative
to push past theological tradition often
generalizable trends in singularly associated with Saudi
Arabia. Frequently conflated with
order to engage what is Salafism, a creedal position that
unique about the Saudi seeks to purify the Islamic
context.” 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

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

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

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

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).

The presence of international “Circuits of Faith


scholars was incredibly important
for lending legitimacy to the IUM
expands the horizon of
and its state-sanctioned Wahhabi scholarship on
mission at a time when Wahhabism, which
Wahhabism was viewed with

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

skepticism. During Wahhabism’s often remains bounded


early years, before it started to
project itself as a unified tradition
by the nation-state in
of religious reasoning, creedal scope.”
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,

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

students came from Indonesia, Somalia, Ethiopia, the U.S., and Pakistan to
attend IUM, which was often made possible through merit-based
scholarships.

Some of these students and “The 1973 oil embargo


teachers stayed in Saudi Arabia
after their tenure at the university,
and rising oil prices
while others returned home. Yet boosted the Saudi state’s
some found themselves engaged in budget; which in turn
daʿwa across Africa, Asia, and
Europe on behalf of Saudi
led to the Saudi
institutions such as the Dar al-Iftaʾ establishment more
(169). While the education than quadrupling the
received at IUM was centralized
through a state and religious-
IUM’s operational
ideological apparatus, the budget.”
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.

Conclusion

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

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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

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 In the process of posing the


question of Wahhabism’s material
Wahhabism is, conditions, Farquhar transforms
Farquhar focuses his the possible answers that might be
analysis on the given. Instead of asking what
Wahhabism is, he focuses his
intellectual relations analysis on the intellectual
that compose relations that compose
Wahhabism as a Wahhabism as a discursive
practice (by no means singular or
discursive practice (by unified in its approach) and the
no means singular or material migrations that make
unified in its approach) possible its spread. This focus on
actors, networks, institutions, and
and the material
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[Book Review] Michael Farquhar, Circuits of Faith: Migration, Educat…(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) by Micah Hughes - Maydan 1/19/18, 11'02 AM

migrations that make the forms of interaction that


connect them allows for more
possible its spread.” 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.

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