• Category Category: A
  • View View: 3251
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

AL-AZHAR.  Situated in the heart of premodern Cairo, al-Azhar is the greatest mosque-university in the world today. Reluctantly adjusting to modern times over the last century, the millennium-old Azhar remains a focal point of Islamic religious and cultural life for Egypt and the entire Islamic world.

The First Nine Centuries (to 1872). Jawhar al-Sidilli conquered Egypt for the Fatimid caliph al-Mu’izz in 969, founded Cairo as the new capital, and in 97o began constructing al-Azhar as the official assembly mosque. Al-Azhar has been enlarged and much remodeled since.Organized instruction began there in 978. The mosque’s name, “the brilliant,” may allude to the prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah “al-Zahra’,” the eponymous ancestor of the Fatimids. Al-Azhar became one of several Cairene missionary centers for the Fatimids, Isma’ili Shi’is who claimed to be the true imams.

Salah al-Din and his Ayyubid heirs downgraded al-Azhar when they restored Egypt to Sunni Islam in 1171. Sultans and emirs of the Mamluk dynasty (1250-1517) patronized and restored the now Sunni mosque, but it was as yet only one among many seats of Islamic learning in Cairo. Cairo’s situation on the Nile, the road to Syria, and Maghribi pilgrimage routes to Mecca made it a natural cultural hub. The Mongol sack of Baghdad (1258) and the loss of Islamic Spain enhanced Cairo’s religious and cultural centrality.

The Ottoman conquest of 1517 diverted power and patronage to Istanbul, but al-Azhar weathered the storm and emerged as the preeminent seat of Arabic-Islamic learning. It also provided a vital link between the Arabic-speaking population and the Turkish-speaking military elite. By the late seventeenth century, the shaykhs of the mosque were choosing their own head-the shaykh al-Azhar. Shaykhs of the Shafi’i school of law, predominant in Cairo and the Delta, monopolized the post from 1725 to 1870. This suggests considerable autonomy, for the Ottomans themselves were Hanafis.

During the French occupation (1798-1801), Azhari shaykhs continued as intermediaries between the people and foreign military rulers, but al-Azhar also became a rallying point for revolt against the French, who bombarded, occupied, and desecrated the mosque. In 1805, the Azhari `Mama’ sanctioned the ouster of Egypt’s Istanbul-appointed governor by Muhammad ‘Ali and his Al-banian troops. But Muhammad `Ali soon felt strong enough to begin the long campaign to subordinate alAzhar to the state. He ignored the ruler’s obligation to consult the `Mama’, chose the shaykhs al-Azhar himself, played Sufi leaders off against the shaykh al-Azhar, and confiscated many religious endowments.

As usual in premodern Islamic schools, al-Azhar had no formal admissions procedures, classrooms, desks, grade-levels, academic departments, required courses, written examinations, grades, or degrees. Professors lectured from a favorite pillar of the mosque, the students gathering at their feet. Memorization and commentary, often on epitomes and commentaries rather than on the original classics, were the means of instruction. Qur’anic exegesis, hadith, and jurisprudence were taught in the morning; grammar, rhetoric, and other “auxiliary sciences” after the noon prayer; and various nonessential subjects after the sunset prayer. Many Azharis were active Sufis as well as `Mama’.

Students from outside Cairo joined groupings called riwaqs, which were supported by religious endowments. Each riwdq had its shaykh and bread allowance, and larger ones had libraries, lavatories, and living quarters. Around 1900, there were three riwaqs for Lower Egyptian students and one each for students from the Fayyum, central Egypt, and Upper Egypt. There were riwaqs for Kurds and Berbers, and for students from Java, India, Afghanistan, Iran, the Sudan, Chad, Bornu, Somalia, the Hejaz, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The Upper Egyptian and Maghribi riwaqs were fiercely Maliki, the Lower Egyptian ones Shafi’i, and the Syrians Hanafi. The few Hanbalis had a riwdq of their own, and several riwaqs were open to all. In 1876, al-Azhar had 5,651 Shafi`i students with 147 shaykhs, 3,926 Malikis with 99 shaykhs, 1,27o Hanafis with 76 shaykhs, and 25 Hanbalis with 3 shaykhs.

Resistance and Reform from Isma’il to Nasser, 1872-1952. State reformers found it easiest to bypass al-Azhar in founding schools, a printing press, an official journal, and Western-inspired courts. The departure of progressive Azharis like Rifa’ah Rafi` al-Tahtawi, Muhammad `Abduh, and Sa’d Zaghlul to work for the state reinforced al-Azharis conservatism. Beginning in 1872, state reformers tried to overhaul al-Azhar despite conservative resistance. Eventually the necessity of competing with state school graduates for government jobs fostered a reformist minority within al-Azhar itself.

Khedive Isma’il prepared the ground for reform by installing the first non-Shafi’i in 145 years as shaykh al-Azhar. Muhammad al-`Abbasi al-Mahdi, a Hanafi, also served concurrently as grand mufti of Egypt. In 1872, Ismail instituted an oral examination (the `alimiyah) as a prerequisite for teaching at al-Azhar. When the `Urabi revolt of 1881-1882 broke out, al-Azhar was a rallying point for national resistance to European interference. A Shafi`i shaykh al-Azhar replaced al-Mahdi, who was identified with the palace and the Turkish elite. With the arrival of the British army of occupation, al-Mahdi reclaimed his post.

Cooperation between `Abbas II and the great Islamic modernist Muhammad `Abduh, then a Shari`ah Court judge, ushered in another reform attempt in the 1890s. `Abbas installed a Hanafi shaykh al-Azhar and named `Abduh to a new supervisory council for al-Azhar. Innovations included the establishment of a central library, a standardized salary scale, and a nationwide network of preparatory religious “institutes” under al-Azhar. The reforms bogged down when `Abbas and `Abduh quarreled. `Abbas then installed a conservative shaykh al-Azhar, and, shortly before his death in 19o5, `Abduh resigned in frustration from the Azhar council.

In 1908, a sweeping decree added new subjects, required yearly examinations, and regularized a primary secondary ladder in the institutes, but student and faculty protests forced the cancellation of these measures. In 1911, a cautious substitute decree shrewdly exempted a Council of Senior `Ulama’ (today’s Academy of Islamic Research) from reformist regulations imposed on other professors.

Isma’il had opened a School of Law (originally Administration and Languages) and the Dar al-`Ulum teachers’ college to by pass al-Azhar. The opening of the School for Qadis (1907) and the state-run Egyptian University (1925) dealt a further blow to job prospects for the un specialized Azhari graduates. The two elderly Maliki shaykhs al-Azhar between 19o9 and 1927 responded not with reform but with pressure on the state to hire Azharis. King Fu’ad agreed to do so, for he needed Azhari endorsement of his caliphal ambitions and a counterweight to Sa’d Zaghlul’s and the Wafd Party’s following among secondary and Egyptian University students.

The Wafdist-Liberal Constitutionalists cabinets of 1926-1928 canceled the state’s commitment to hire Azharis, seized the prerogative of naming the shaykh al-Azhar, and brushed aside the king’s candidate, Muhammad al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri, in favor of Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi. But King Fu’ad soon turned the tables on al-Maraghi, a Hanafi and an admirer of `Abduh. Fu’ad suspended the constitution, reclaimed the prerogative of appointing the shaykh al-Azhar, and put in Zawahiri.

Never the less, the Azhar decree of 193o and followup decrees in 1933 and 1936 implemented much of al-Maraghi’s program. Al-Azhar was pressed more firmly into the Western-inspired mold of the Egyptian University and the state schools. It became a university (jami`ah) as well as a mosque jami’), with colleges of theology, shad `ah, and the Arabic language, each with a state-appointed dean. The three colleges occupied temporary quarters until moving in the 1950s to a new quadrangle behind the mosque. Only public lectures were still given in the mosque itself.

Fu’ad’s bid for autocracy failed, and al-Maraghi returned as shaykh al-Azhar in 1935. He sent Azharis to study in Europe and encouraged dialogue with Shi’is, but his exile had taught him caution. He took care to cultivate young King Faruq. Mustafa `Abd al-Raziq accomplished little as shaykh al-Azhar (1945-1947) for Azharis distrusted him as a disciple of `Abduh, a graduate of the Sorbonne, and a professor of philosophy from the Egyptian University.

New Directions under Nasser. Disappointed in Shaykh al-Azhar `Abd al-Rahman Taj’s (1954-1958) conservatism despite his Sorbonne education, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser found the reformist shaykh he wanted in Mahmud Shaltut (1958-1963). Disappointed by his master al-Maraghi’s latter-day royalism and conservatism, Shaltut immediately had welcomed the 1952 revolution. In June 1961 Nasser had Speaker Anwar el-Sadat ram a bill for radical al-Azhar reform through a surprised parliament in a single night. A withering press attack on the `ulama’ followed.

The Azhar law of 1961 provided for a Supreme Council under the shaykh al-Azhar, an Islamic Research Academy, a Department of Cultural and Islamic Mission, al-Azhar University, and the precollegiate institutes. The existing colleges of theology, shari `ah, and the Arabic language (renamed Arabic Studies) were further reformed. The College of Arabic Studies drifted farthest from its old moorings; in 1974, 93 percent of its contact hours were in “secular” subjects. The College of Shari`ah added Qanun (non-shari`ah law) to its name and curriculum, and even the College of Theology now requires social sciences and a Western language. Opening the College of Islamic Women (literally “Girls”) was a radical step, as was the addition of colleges of engineering, medicine, commerce, science, agriculture, and education. Azhari old-timers resented the newcomers, and students in such subjects as medicine and engineering grumbled about the extra preparatory year of religious studies required of them. The location of the new colleges in the suburb of Madinat Nasr separated them psychologically as well as physically from al-Azhar.

Students from poor, provincial, rural, and illiterate families had long mingled at al-Azhar with those from privileged urban backgrounds. But from the late nineteenth century onward, privileged families deserted al-Azhar for state or private schools and better career opportunities. A survey of seniors at al-Azhar and Cairo universities in 1962 shows that Azharis were generally poorer, more provincial, more rural, and from less educated families than their Cairo University counterparts. They were also far more conservative on such issues as coeducation and family planning.

Al-Azhar in Contemporary Perspective. The balance of numbers shifted away from the Azhar system and toward the state schools as the twentieth century wore on. By 1970-1971 only 1 percent of Egyptian primary school students, 2 percent of secondary students, and 5 percent (al-Azhar’s three original colleges) of college students were in religious schools. Al-Azhar’s 1,263 university students in 1935 paled beside the Egyptian University’s 7,021. By 1960 al-Azhar had grown to 6,145 students, but Cairo (formerly the Egyptian) University had 27,973 students, and there were three new state universities as well. By expanding its range of subjects and opening branch campuses, al-Azhar had 160,000 university students taking year-end examinations in 1990 compared to 600,000 in the state universities. Standards in both systems plunged in the face of inadequate support and overwhelming numbers of students.

Al-Azhar’s Preaching and Guidance section sent preachers and lecturers throughout Egypt. Al-Azhar acquired its own press. Its Majallat al-Azhar (Journal of al-Azhar, originally Nur al-Islam, Light of Islam) was established in 1930, its Voice of al-Azhar radio program in 1959, and Azhari preachers increasingly saturate Egyptian radio and television airwaves.

Outside Egypt, al-Azhar is prized as a champion of Sunni Islam and the Arabic language. Students returning from studies at al-Azhar and Azhari professors and preachers on mission abroad are in demand throughout the Islamic world. Everywhere they have helped establish and improve Islamic schools and communal institutions.

Al-Azhar had 639 foreign students enrolled in 1903, and 999 in 1948. Foreign student enrollments at both al-Azhar and the state universities increased rapidly under Nasser, reflecting his ambitions in the Arab, African, and Islamic worlds. Al-Azhar’s foreign student enrollments in the Nasser era peaked at 4,291 in 1955, then tapered off to 2,500 in 1972 just after his death. In 1990, al-Azhar campuses hosted about 6,000 foreign students from seventy-five countries. The Institute of Islamic Missions offered foreign students, who were often poorly prepared, a less rigorous program.

Arabs from east of Egypt (particularly Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians) came in substantial numbers throughout the twentieth century. With 1,534 students in 1972, they comprised 61 percent of all foreign students. Nearly a third of these were Palestinians. The once substantial Maghribi contingent declined in the 1960s because of independence and educational expansion at home. Only modest numbers of Sudanese came before mid century (214 in 1948), but by 1955 there were 2,441, 57 percent of all foreign students. By 1972 the figure had dwindled to 124. Students from elsewhere in Africa, barely noticeable in 1903, reached 1,300 in 1964 but fell to 400 in 1972.
Stereotypes of al-Azhar as a rigid institution frozen in time persist among its secularist detractors, but Muhammad `Abduh or his feminist disciple Qasim Amin would not recognize it today. Al-Azhar takes the education of women, albeit in a separate college, for granted and offers such areas of concentration as commerce and engineering. The Assembly Hall even bears `Abduh’s name. Al-Azhar requires a Western language, often adds an English section to its, journal, and has had shaykhs al-Azhar who hold French and German degrees. Western experts and a Ford Foundation grant helped it establish an Institute of Languages and Translation.

Nevertheless, al-Azhar is indeed conservative. It held Islamist activists at arm’s length, from Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad `Abduh, and Muhammad Rashid Rida, to Muslim Brotherhood leaders Hasan al-Banna’ and Sayyid Qutb. It is significant that Banna’ and Qutb were products of Dar al-`Ulum, not al-Azhar, and that in Egypt most leaders of today’s “Islamic groups” are not Azharis. Azhari shaykhs may dismiss radical Islamists as extremists only superficially familiar with Islam, and many Islamists disparage Azharis as “official `ulama’,” cravenly subservient to the state which pays them. [All of the figures named in this paragraph are the subject of independent entries.]

Islamists generally approve, however, of the condemnation of controversial books by al-Azharis Islamic Research Academy, which sees itself as guardian of true Islam. In the 1920s, al-Azhar stripped ‘Ali `Abd al-Raziq of his degree and drove him from his judgeship for reinterpreting the caliphate in secular fashion, and it hounded Taha Husayn for his provocative book On Pre-Islamic Poetry. Certain books by Nobel Prize-winner Najib Mahfuz (Naguib Mahfouz) and literary critic Louis `Awad are banned in Egypt, and al-Azhar has condemned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and works by outspoken secularist Said `Ashmawi. Not a few Azharis privately agree with Shaykh `Abd al-Hamid Kishk, the blind Azhari graduate whose radical, populist sermons drew an enthusiastic Islamist following in the 1970s and 1980s. Kishk chided his alma mater for accepting Western-educated shaykhs al-Azhar, demanded elections to fill that office, and called for the elimination of the colleges added since 1961. [See the biographies of `Abd al-Raziq, Husayn, and Kishk.]

For a decade, President Hosni Mubarak and Shaykh al-Azhar Jad al-Hagq ‘Ali Jad al-Hagq have maintained the uneasy state-Azhar symbiosis. Al-Azhar walks a tightrope between provoking another state assault like Nasser’s and discrediting itself in popular eyes through subservience to the state. Azhari authorities issued fatwas endorsing family planning, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and Egypt’s participation in the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Jad al-Hagq condemned terrorism by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iranian partisans. Yet he refused to sanction the payment of interest on funds invested for national development, as the government wanted. The balancing act goes on.

(See also Education; Egypt; Universities; and the biographies of `Abduh, Mardghi, Shaltut, and Nasser.]


Creswell, K.A.C. The Muslim Architecture of Egypt. 2 vols. Oxford, 1940-1959. See volume i, pages 36-64.

Delanoue, Gilbert. Moralistes et politiques musulmans daps l’Egypte du XIXe siecle, 1798-1882. 2 vols. Cairo, 1982. Painstaking and profound study of intellectual life in nineteenth-century Egypt. Nothing remotely comparable in English exists.

Dodge, Bayard. Al-Azhar: A Millennium of Muslim Learning. Washington, D.C., 1974. Readable if pedestrian account, ending on the eve of the 1961 reform.

Eccel, A. Chris. Egypt, Islam, and Social Change: Al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation. Berlin, 1984. A mine of information and stimulating interpretation. Despite organizational problems and excessive sociological jargon, the fundamental work in English on alAzhar.

Gran, Peter. Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760-1840. Austin, 1979. Biographical study of Shaykh al-Azhar Hasan al-`Attar, with a controversial interpretation of the relationship of culture to society and the economy.

Heyworth-Dunne, James. An Introduction to the History of Education in ModernEgypt.London, 1968. Fundamental work in English on nineteenth-century Egyptian education.

Hussein, Taha (Husayn, Taha). The Stream of Days: A Student at the Azhar. Translated by Hilary Wayment.London, 1948. Highly personal reminiscences of student days at al-Azhar in the early twentieth century by one of Egypt’s leading writers.

Jomier, Jacques. “Al-Azhar.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. I, pp. 813-821.Leiden, 1960-.

Reid, Donald Malcolm.Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt.Cambridge, 1990. Views al-Azhar’s evolution as background to the development of Cairo University and the state school system. Shafshak, Mahmoud. “The Role of the University in Egyptian Elite Recruitment: A Comparative Study of al-Azhar and Cairo University.” Ph.D. diss.,University of Chicago, 1964. Valuable social background and attitudinal data, unavailable elsewhere, from a 1962 survey of students.

Vollers, Karl. “Azhar.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 1, pp- 532-539.Leiden, 1913


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/al-azhar/

  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
  • livePublished articles: 768

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Translate »