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AL-AZHAR . Literally al-Azhar means "most luminous" (an allusion to the prophet Muammad's daughter Fāima, nicknamed al-Zahrāʾ, the eponymous ancestor of the Fāimids). Al-Azhar is the world's oldest mosque-university and Sunnī Islam's foremost seat of learning. Following his conquest of Egypt, Jawhar, the Sicilian commander of the army sent by the Fāimid caliph-imām al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh (r. 953975 ce) from North Africa, founded this mosque on Saturday, 24 Jumādā I 359/April 4, 970 ce, after having laid the foundations of a new capital, Cairo (al-Qāhira, meaning "the victorious"). Al-Azhar, situated near the royal palace at the southeast corner, was intended to serve as the official congregation mosque of the new dynasty, which was competing with the ʿAbbāsid caliphs of Baghdad for control of the Muslim world. The first Friday prayer in the mosque was inaugurated during Ramaān 972 ce. In addition to being a house of worship and a sanctuary like most major mosques, it soon became a place of learning. Except for the eighty-year rule of the Ayyūbids (11711252), who supplanted the Fāimids, al-Azhar has remained throughout the centuries a focal point of Islamic religious and cultural life not only for Egypt but also for the entire Muslim world.

During the early period of Islamic history, memorization of the Qurʾān, the study of adīth (traditions of the Prophet), and the science of jurisprudence (fiqh ) were conducted in the mosque. The mosque was therefore the first stage in the development of the college in Islam. Al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820 ce), for example, taught various subjects in the mosque of ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀ. Most of those mosque-based institutions of learning became extinct over a period of time. Al-Azhar, however, continued to flourish, developed into a college, and became a university.

Historical Development

Information about the curriculum in the early years of the Fāimids and the Mamlūks is fragmentary. However, from the available sources one could infer that ShīʿīIsmāʿīlī law was regularly taught there. Al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442), a noted historian who had access to earlier sources and contemporary documents that are no longer extant, stated that the chief judge and chief missionary ʿAlī, the son of al-Qāī al-Nuʿmān, the founder of Ismāʿīlī jurisprudence, sat in al-Azhar and lectured his audience on Ismāʿīlī law. Lecturing soon became dictation when the students began to write down what was said. Subsequently ʿAlī dictated his father's Kitāb al-Iqtiār, an abridged version of Ismāʿīlī law, to a large gathering. Ibn Killis, the vizier of the Fāimid caliph-imām al-ʿAzīz (r. 975996 ce), was the first to establish al-Azhar as a regular institution of learning where Ismāʿīlī law was taught. The vizier, who was known for his patronage of scholars, poets, and jurists, obtained a royal decree to build a large house near the mosque to provide living quarters for thirty-five jurists in addition to their salaries. On Fridays, between the midday and afternoon prayers, those jurists sat in the mosque surrounded by circles of listeners and instructed them in matters of religion and law. Describing the Fāimid palaces where "the sessions of wisdom" (majālis al-ikma ) were held, al-Maqrīzī stated that separate sessions of wisdom for women were held in al-Azhar. In Ramaān 1010 the caliph-imām al-ākim provided large endowments for the maintenance of this mosque. Al-Maqrīzī preserved the official decree with all the details. Besides endowments, rich individuals, princes, and princesses made gifts and bequests. Thus one can conclude that during the Fāimid rule al-Azhar had already become an important mosque and madrasah, a college of higher studies.

The Sunnī Ayyūbids who terminated Fāimid rule not only neglected al-Azhar but supplanted it by creating Sunnī madrasah s under their patronage to stamp out all traces of Shīʿī Fāimid influence. During the Mamlūk period al-Azhar regained its central place. Al-Malik al-āhir Baybars (r. 12601277) repaired the mosque, and the Friday sermon was resumed 1266. Amīr Bīlbak al-Khāzindār provided funds to support a group of jurists to teach Shāfiʿī law, a muaddith to instruct the people about proper conduct based on the traditions of the Prophet and about the spiritual doctrines of Islam, seven Qurʾān reciters (according to the seven authorized methods of recitation) to recite and teach the Qurʾān, and a mudarris (professor of law) for overall supervision. Women were permitted to study in the mosque.

In 13591360 a Qurʾanic school for orphans and a course on anafī law were initiated. Al-Maqrīzī stated that in 14151416 the number of indigent students, both provincial and foreign, residing in quarters around the mosque and grouped according to their provinces and nationalities (riwāq s), was 750. Subjects taught included the art of reciting the Qurʾān, jurisprudence of the four Sunnī schools of law, the traditions of the Prophet, exegesis of the Qurʾān, Arabic language and grammar, and preaching. At times dhikr sessions (literally "remembering God," a religious service common to all the mystical fraternities) were also held. The famous historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) taught at al-Azhar when he arrived in Cairo in 1383. Generous endowments and gifts from notables provided the funds for these activities.

Although the center of gravity during the Ottoman period (15171805) shifted to Istanbul, al-Azhar remained the preeminent seat of Arabic and Islamic learning. Probably toward the end of the seventeenth century the position of Shaykh al-Azhar (rector or grand imām ) was created to preside over the affairs of al-Azhar. The position was generally filled by a leading member of the ʿulamāʾ. Shaykh Muammad ʿAbd Allāh al-Khurashī (d. 1690), a Mālikī jurist, was the first to hold this office. Al-Azhar had neither formal procedures for admissions nor grade levels, it had no required courses and no written examinations, and it did not grant official diplomas. However, a student could obtain a certificate (ijāza ) of proficiency from his or her teacher upon completion of a prescribed course of study. Professors lectured at different corners of the mosque, and the students gathered around them. Memorization played an important part. The curriculum, in addition to Arabic language and grammar, consisted mainly of theology and law. Priorities were given to the above-mentioned religious sciences, the acquisition of which would guarantee one's success in the hereafter. Although the rational sciences were not rejected, they were neglected. Many Azharīs were also active ūfīs. For them pursuing rational sciences was not conducive to cultivating a pious spiritual life. Learning and teaching therefore remained traditional.

As legal and religious authorities, Azharī scholars were greatly respected by the people, hence they exerted immense influence over the masses. At times they championed the rights of the Egyptian exploited classes and acted as mediators between the rulers and the ruled. During the French occupation of Egypt (17981801) al-Azhar not only acted as an intermediary between the Egyptian masses and the foreign occupiers but also became a rallying point for revolt against the French. As a result it was bombarded, occupied, and desecrated. Al-Jabartī (d. c. 1825) left a vivid description of those events.

Al-Azhar between Reform and Resistance

The long campaign to subordinate al-Azhar to the state began with the rise of Muammad ʿAlī to power (18051848). He confiscated many of its endowments, fixed government stipends, and chose the rectors himself. His reforms, particularly the founding of numerous secular schools and technical institutions and the sending of missions to Europe for higher study, woke al-Azhar from its deep slumber. Government interference with the affairs of al-Azhar continued under the subsequent Khedive rulers. In 1872 Khedive Ismāʿīl installed the first non-Shāfiʿī rector in over a century and instituted a rigorous oral examination in various subjects for candidates who wished to teach at al-Azhar. In 1876 al-Azhar had 361 teachers and 10,780 students. Among the four Sunnī schools of law, Shāfiʿīs represented the largest number, followed by Mālikīs and anafīs, whereas the anbalīs were poorly represented. In 1885 a formal system of registration of students in each residential quarter was instituted. New students who had not completed certain requirements during two years of study were not eligible to receive their ration of food. Attendance was accurately recorded. During the 1890s a central library was founded with a rich collection of manuscripts, a salary scale for teachers was established, and a countrywide network of preparatory religious institutions under the care of al-Azhar was established.

During the 1930s al-Azhar became a modern university with the College of Theology, the College of Law, and the College of Arabic Language, each with a state-appointed dean. Soon all three colleges were moved to new buildings behind the mosque. The curriculum was clearly described. Postgraduate work of two to three years was established for specializations in Islamic law, preaching, and guidance. A student was required to pass written and oral examinations and present a thesis for the postgraduate degree. For the title of "professor" (ustādh ), an equivalent of a Ph.D., more graduate work, a passing grade on a difficult examination, and a substantial thesis were required. The diploma granted at the end of four years of undergraduate study was called shahādat al-dirāsa al-ʿāliya, the certificate of specialization was called al-shahāda al-ʿālimīya maʿ al-ijāza, and the highest diploma, similar to that of a doctorate, was called al-shahāda al-ʿālimīya maʿ darajat ustādh.

In 1930 al-Azhar acquired its own press and started publishing a journal, the Light of Islam ; a few years later the title was changed to Journal of al-Azhar. The university's Preaching and Guidance section dispatched preachers and lecturers throughout Egypt. More reforms were carried out under the reign of Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāir. The Islamic Research Academy, the Department of Cultural and Islamic Missions, and the Supreme Council under the shaykh al-Azhar were established. The curriculum of all the colleges was revised; for example, non-sharīʿa law and Shīʿī-Imāmī law (called fiqh Jaʿfarī, after Imām Jaʿfar al-ādiq) were added to the College of Law, and courses on social sciences and Western languages were added to the College of Theology. In addition to establishing the women's colleges, al-Azhar university's legislation of 1961 created new colleges of engineering, medicine, commerce, science, agriculture, and education. These new colleges were not duplicates of their counterparts in secular universities; rather they combined both the empirical as well as the religious sciences. A new campus was built in the suburb of Madīnat al-Nar, away from the mosque. Besides its main campus in Cairo, al-Azhar also operates several campuses throughout Egypt. Admission is open to all Muslim students who wish to study a particular academic discipline or to further and deepen their knowledge of Islam.

Outside of Egypt al-Azhar is known as a champion of Sunnī Islam and the Arabic language. Azharī professors and preachers are in demand throughout the Islamic world. The number of foreign students at al-Azhar in 1955 reached more than four thousand, while in 1990 that number peaked at six thousand, representing seventy-five countries.

Because al-Azhar shunned Islamist activists like Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Muammad ʿAbduh, and Rashīd Riā, some people consider it a conservative institution, whereas many Islamists disparage it as subservient to the state. On the other hand, Islamists approve of al-Azhar's condemnation of controversial books. In the 1920s it stripped ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq of his Azharī degree for reinterpreting the Islamic caliphate as a secular institution. āhā usayn was forced to withdraw his provocative book on pre-Islamic poetry. A number of other books were banned or condemned. Shaykh Muammad Sayyid anāwī (b. 1928) assumed the leadership position on March 27, 1996. Prior to this appointment he served as muftī of Egypt from 1986 to 1996. He is known for his courage in airing his frank views on various issues confronting the Muslim world. His statement in support of the right of the French government to prohibit Muslim women from wearing the ijāb (head covering) in public schools provoked strong opposition.


Taqī al-Dīn Ahmad al-Maqrīzī is the main source of information from al-Azhar's foundation to the Mamlūk period. Shihāb al-Dīn Ahmad al-Qalqshandī (d. 1418), a secretary in the chancery of the Mamlūk administration, citing the earlier authority Amīr Mukhtār Muammad al-Muabbiī (d. 1030), a court chronicler of the Fāimid caliph al-ākim, confirms al-Maqrīzī's reports. Life at al-Azhar during the nineteenth century is vividly described by ʿAlī al-Mubārak in Arabic and by Stanley Lane-Poole and Edward Lane in English. ʿAbd al-Rahmān Jabartī, ʿAlī al-Mubārak, and later authors give a complete list of the officeholders of shaykh al-Azhar. ʿAbd al-Mutʿāl al-aʿīdī, who was an Azharī shaykh and taught in the College of Arabic Language, gives the most interesting account of reforms until 1950. An extensive bibliography of these older sources as well as new studies is provided by J. Jomier, "Al-Azhar," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960). Al-Maqrīzī's Ittiʿ ā al-unafāʾ bi-akhbār al-aʾimma ʾl-Fāimiyyīn al-khulafāʾ, edited by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Shayyāl and Muammad ilmī (Cairo, 19671973); and George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh, 1981), should be consulted. For the modern period and a selected bibliography, mostly in English, see Donald M. Reid, "Al-Azhar," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, edited by John L. Esposito (New York, 1995).

Ismail K. Poonawala (2005)