How Saudi religious education has dynamically expanded the influence of Wahhabism.
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 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.
What exactly is the “export version of Wahhabism” and through what channels has it been disseminated to the wider world in recent decades?
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. A 2012 article from France 24, quoting an expert on the region as explaining that Salafism is an “export version of Wahhabism” and that “the Saudis have been financing [Wahhabism] around the world,” is emblematic of this line of thinking. Elsewhere, Saudi religious sway has similarly been identified as a source of social conflict across the Global South, from Indonesia to Kashmir. 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.”
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” and through what channels has it been disseminated to the wider world in recent decades?
Wahhabism can be understood as a sub-tradition of Salafism, which in turn is itself a sub-tradition of Islam. 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. These include an emphasis on emulating the beliefs and praxis of the early Muslim community, the “pious ancestors” (Salaf al-Salih), and a particular commitment to rooting out illegitimate innovations (bida‘) understood to have corrupted Muslims’ engagement with their religion over the course of history. Operating within this framework, Wahhabism affords particular importance to the works of the eighteenth-century reformer Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab and a line of scholars from the Arabian Peninsula influenced by his writings.
Wahhabism can be understood as a sub-tradition of Salafism, which in turn is itself a sub-tradition of Islam.
Education has served as a tool for promoting Wahhabism ever since the inception of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s revivalist mission in the central Arabian region of Najd in the eighteenth century. However, this project underwent a pivotal transformation in the 1920s, with the assembling of a bureaucratized education system directly funded and administered by the Saudi state. As part of ongoing processes of state- and nation-building from that time onwards, material investment in this apparatus was employed as a means for systematically advancing Wahhabi influence across and ultimately beyond the Arabian Peninsula.
Within this new framework, certain state-funded Islamic educational institutions founded in Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century 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. Building on that legacy, the Islamic University of Medina (IUM), 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, or missionaries.
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. Many of these alumni have become prominent religious figureheads in locations across the globe. 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).
State-funded Islamic educational institutions founded in Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century came to sit at the heart of cross-border circuits of students and scholars from all over the world
And yet the economic metaphor of common parlance—that Wahhabism is “exported” by the Saudi state—fails to capture the nuances of the picture. It suggests the straightforward transposition of a pristine set of ideas and practices from one location to another, distracting attention from the complexity at stake in the ways in which projects like the IUM came into being and also in the ways in which audiences—in this case, migrant students—have engaged with them.
It is certainly true that the missionary project institutionalized in the IUM may legitimately be described as Wahhabi, insofar as it was from the start managed by figures from the heart of the Wahhabi establishment and in that its syllabuses have long been rooted in principles in keeping with the Wahhabi tradition. However, in the face of a shortage of qualified Saudis in the early decades of the university’s existence, staff were recruited from across the Middle East and beyond. They included people with links to 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.
It is also important to allow for the fact that students from a diversity of social and religious backgrounds have arrived at the IUM not merely as vectors of religious doctrine, but as creative agents with their own values, interests, and ambitions. The articulation of this range of actors into the IUM’s missionary project over time had the effect of transforming it into something quite unlike the traditional, relatively parochial Wahhabi study circles of Najd in the preceding period. If one were to reach for a metaphor to describe what is going on here, the idea of expansion would be more apt than that of export—this metaphor makes room for the fact that hegemonic expansion of the Wahhabi mission is a complex and multivalent process.
Moreover, what emerges from studying the history of projects like the IUM with an eye to such dynamics is not a realist picture of a unitary state seamlessly extending its power outwards over an ever-increasing array of actors, according to some coherent grand design reflective of national interests. But neither is it a case of religious ideas and practices simply diffusing across borders through grassroots circulations of migrants and texts, at a remove from questions of state power.
Rather, in order to understand the nature of the IUM project, of Saudi state-funded religious mission writ large, it is necessary to forge a path between these two opposing styles of analysis. Non-state actors, including non-Saudi IUM graduates, have also had a certain amount of room for maneuver, in some instances even using resources acquired within these government-backed educational networks as foundations for vocal criticism of the Saudi state itself. By injecting new reserves of capital into a transnational religious economy, Saudi state actors have been able to exert influence within the territories of other states around the world, this is true; but, contrary to popular perception, that influence has not necessarily constituted control.
This post has been adapted from Circuits of Faith by Michael Farquhar.