Based in the city of the Prophet, the Islamic University of Madinah (IUM or al-Jami‘a al-islamiyya bi-l-Madina al-munawwara) is a major institution of contemporary Sunni learning.
Part of the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education, Al-Medina was founded by royal decree in 1961. It is one of three Islamic universities established by the Saudi government, along with Umm al-Qura University in Mecca (1949) and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh (1953). Under the leadership of Shaykh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh (d. 1970), Al-Medina was established primarily for foreign students and with the express goal of spreading Saudi religious influence globally. Today, almost 75% of the student body comes from overseas, their study financially supported by government scholarships and grants.
The university began offering instruction in Islamic law (sharia) shortly after its foundation, and today it has five faculties focusing on sharia, Quran, hadith, Arabic and the call to faith and principles of religion (da‘wa and usul al-din). The university also hosts research centres supporting hadith scholarship and the revival of Islamic heritage. With some 22,000 students at both undergraduate and graduate level, the sole language of instruction is Arabic; intensive language classes are offered to non-Arabic speakers.
Instruction at Al-Medina reflects the Saudi religious establishment’s Hanbali-Wahhabi orientation, based on the thought of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Most textbooks are by classical Hanbali authors, although the university plays down affiliation to any one school of thought (madhhab). It promotes instead a hadith-centric approach, often called traditionism, which is considered to be broadly ‘Sunni’ in orientation (that is, aligning in theory with all four madhhabs), while also being anti-Sufi and anti-kalam. Such an approach shares many similarities with Salafism, and a number of prominent Salafi scholars have been affiliated with the university.
Al-Medina’s intellectual orientation and focus on foreign students has made it one of the primary global centres of Salafism and Islamism. The South Asian Islamist thinker Abu al-‘Ala al-Mawdudi had a significant influence on the university’s establishment, and it became a home in exile for several members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, Al-Medina’s graduates can be found around the world.