Nestled in Cairo’s medieval quarter, the centuries’ old al-Azhar mosque is set to be renovated following pledges this month by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to fund the restoration works.
The mosque is often described as a “beacon of moderate Islam” and Azhar University is sometimes referred to as the center of Islamic teaching and one of the oldest higher-education institutions in the world.
The beginning of the institution that today combines the mosque and the university is starkly different from its modern-day form.
In 988 AD, the first call to prayer echoed from the new Al-Azhar mosque, believed to have been called after the Prophet Mohamed’s daughter Fatima al-Zahraa (Fatima the luminous), according to the website Muslim Heritage.
Commissioned and completed by the Fatimid dynasty, the mosque was built to spread the Ismaili Shiite school of thought adopted by Egypt’s rulers at the time, said Dr Muhammed al-Nujaimi of the Islamic Jurisprudence Assembly.
After the fall of the Fatimids, Al-Azhar went through a series of transformations that led to the institution that it is today.
Following Saladin al-Ayubi’s takeover of Egypt, the Muslim leader redirected the teachings of the mosque to align with Sunni Islam.
He “transformed it into a beacon for all Muslims, especially for Sunnis,” Nujaimi said, adding that Ayubi’s aim was that Al-Azhar “would spread knowledge and science across the Islamic world.”
Between the early and mid-1200s, Muslim scholars from centuries-old Islamic schools in Andalusia went to Al-Azhar, fleeing the final battles that ended Muslim rule in Spain.
Meanwhile, from the east, Muslims scholars fleeing the Mongol invasion also flocked to Al-Azhar, adding to its prominence.
“From the period of [Egyptian Sultan] Mohamed Ali Pasha to modern times, it underwent a drastic modernization and no longer remains merely a center for the study of traditional Islamic sciences, but a modern university,” said Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad, professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Cairo.
From rings to colleges
Today, Al-Azhar comprises the mosque and the university. “Rings” of studies on Islamic jurisprudence held in the mosque’s courtyard would later grow into colleges, which would become the university.
“Those rings were the beginning of Al-Azhar university in its old form, not its civil modern form,” Soad Saleh, professor of comparative jurisprudence at the university, told Al Arabiya News.
“When it was first established, the university had three colleges: the college of sharia and law, the college of Islamic studies, and the college of Arabic studies,” said Saleh, who is also a member of the International Union of Islamic Scholars.
In 1961, under the auspices of Egypt’s then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the university took its modern form with the introduction of non-religious colleges that taught medicine, engineering, sciences and translation, Saleh said, adding that 1961 also witnessed the first female students admitted into the university.
She attributed the university’s modern form and prestige in particular to Abdel Fattah al-Sheikh, president of the university in the early 1990s.
“He appointed the first woman dean to one of the girls’ colleges… He believed there was no difference between men and women in this field,” said Saleh, a 1967 graduate.
For decades, students from Africa to South East Asia have flocked to Al-Azhar University to learn Arabic and attend the other non-religious programs offered by the institution.
“I’ve personally supervised dissertations written by students from the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand,” Saleh said.
While Al-Azhar has maintained a close relationship with the state throughout its existence, Nujaimi said Egyptian leaders were “always keen on maintaining the place of Al-Azhar in the Islamic world.”
Asked whether this relationship may have affected the university’s reputation among Muslims worldwide, he replied: “Not very much. Al-Azhar is a great beacon that must be taken care of, and an independence that would help it spread its Islamic message must be preserved.”
He said the institution is about to enter its “golden age,” as under a clause in the constitution drafted under ousted President Mohamed Mursi and maintained by current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the university president will now be elected by the Council of Higher Scholars rather than by presidential decree.
Nujaimi said this will “restore Al-Azhar to its former glory.”
However, Ahmad said no institution can claim to be the leading authority in Islam: “There simply is no notion of a central, Vatican-like authority in Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite.”