Al-Azhar Al-Sharif is one of the oldest and most prestigious Islamic academic institutions in the world. It is historically the third oldest Islamic university after Zaytouna and Al-Qarawiyyin, and has continued to produce leading Muslim figures for centuries through its educational system until today. Its prominence is particularly due to its rich heritage of Islamic scholarship and learning, as it embraces the various eras and dynasties throughout history. In this article, we will briefly explore Al-Azhar’s progressive growth as an educational institution from a mosque to university-mosque, all while fiercely protecting its unrivalled tradition of Islamic academic excellence.
Contrary to popular belief, Al-Azhar was first established in 970 CE as a mosque in the Fatimid era by Jawhar Aṣ-Ṣiqilliy, the commander of the troops sent by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mu’izz. Its initial purpose was to spread Shiite teachings in Egypt, but eventually converted into a Sunni institution of Ash’ari theological thought and Syafi’e code of jurisprudence in 1171 when Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi founded the Ayyubid dynasty.
However, Al-Azhar’s scholarship fell into stagnation during this period, as the Ayyubid sultans placed more importance on the establishment of the Ayyubid schools around Egypt. This caused Al-Azhar’s reputation as an educational institution to be of little significance compared to other Islamic schools in Egypt, Baghdad, Syria and Andalusia.
Al-Azhar then experienced its rejuvenation during the reign of the Mamluk era (1260 – 1516), specifically under Sultan Baybars and at the hands of Prime Minister Izz al-Din Aydmer. Aydmer had proposed to Sultan Baybars the refurbishment of the mosque and received financial aid from the sultan himself and many other princes. This manifested into the rise of Al-Azhar towards its golden age, coupled with the influx of Muslim scholars moving to Egypt.
With the fall of the Mongols in Ayn Jalut, Sultan Baybars invited the Abbasid family to Cairo to resume their office, which led to the immigration of Islamic scholars from the East to Egypt. Subsequently, another influx of Muslim scholars migrating from the West followed due to the destruction of famous Islamic schools in Qurtuba (Cordoba), Ishbiliyya (Seville) and Balansiyya (Valencia). This union of Eastern and Western Muslim scholars in Egypt generated the rebirth of Al-Azhar’s most illustrious period as the chief centre of learning in the Islamic world.
As such, Al-Azhar had the privilege of hosting many prominent Muslim scholars of the time. Some of them assumed the role of teaching in Al-Azhar while others would visit for a brief period of time. Amongst those luminaries were Abu al-‘Abbas al-Qalqashandi, Taqi al-Din Ahmad al-Maqrizi, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Badr al-Din al-‘Ayni, Siraj al-Din al-Bulqini, Sharaf al-Din al-Manawi, Abu al-Mahasin ibn Taghribirdi, Shams al-Din al-Sakhawi, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Iyas, Muhammad Taqi al-Din al-Fasi, ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun and other renowned figures.
Al-Azhar continued to be a beacon of learning and knowledge in the Islamic world when the Mamluks were defeated in 1517. Under Ottoman rule, its significance was still transcendent amongst Egyptian institutions of learning, although it did suffer a decline in its scientific preservation and expansion of knowledge and arts.
It was not until the nineteenth century that a modern reform was proposed for Al-Azhar by a number of individuals, notably Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. The reform, which aimed to modernise Al-Azhar as a standard educational entity, included a number of regulations such as employment, admission requirements, examination systems and certification. By early 1960s, Al-Azhar was nationalised and underwent further reforms such as the establishment of the faculties of medicine and engineering, women’s colleges, regional facilities and others.
 Al-Azhar University, Tiba Al-Arabya
In the university-mosque’s early years, the format of education in the Al-Azhar Mosque took the traditional form of educational rings wherein the teacher would give lectures at designated spots in the mosque, while the students sat around him listening attentively and asking questions directly when they had doubts. This format is called talaqqi and it is conducted at multiple ruwaq situated within the mosque.
These ruwaq are traditional classrooms, similar to fraternities, whereby students are segregated according to their ethnicity. Knowledge seekers from around the world are allowed to reside in these ruwaq, and are free to choose whichever teacher they wish to learn from.
This talaqqi method of teaching allows the student to holistically extract knowledge from his teacher with contextual awareness and perception of its complexities. The teacher is also able to directly monitor his students based on their varying levels of understanding and comprehension.
This traditional method also cultivates dutiful behaviour and conduct, as it intimately nurtures the student to respect and pay great reverence to the knowledge he is acquiring, the scholar he is receiving from and also the book he is studying from. The basic range of studies taught during these early years was Islamic law, theology and Arabic language.
The esteemed mosque naturally expanded into a university as it continued to grow as a prestigious Islamic academic institution. The study gradually expanded to include other sciences such as astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, architecture, geology, history and other social sciences.
In 1961, Al-Azhar was officially re-established as a university under the government of Egypt’s second President Gamal Abdel Nasser. This transition towards formal education indicated the implementation of formal curriculum and establishment of colleges. This meant that Al-Azhar would set out to conduct lectures, admission requirements and general administration like a standard modern university.
As such, students are mandated to study a certain combination of subjects based on their faculties. They will have to attend lectures at the university and take examinations for two semesters, before they can advance to the next academic year. Once they have completed all four years of study, they are officially granted their degree certification.
True to its essence of being a mosque-university, Al-Azhar uniquely blends its modern method of learning with the traditional, and this is clearly evident in the everyday learning landscapes of Al-Azhar University students. They will attend their lectures in the university to thoroughly study their respective fields by understanding classical texts and keeping up with contemporary issues.
The students will also attend durus (classes) outside of the university to learn from masyaikhs (scholars) using the talaqqi method. They usually read a classical book from the Islamic tradition weekly for a period of time ranging from months to years. They will critically dissect every word of the text, ensuring that the students fully comprehend the fundamentals and intricacies of every problem mentioned in it. These durus are conducted every day in the Al-Azhar Mosque and other organisations in its vicinity that are specifically established to serve knowledge seekers such as madyafahs (hostels).
A large part of Al-Azhar’s prominence as an Islamic institution of learning is its strong sense of preserving its Islamic heritage whilst navigating the increasingly modern and secular world. It believes in the importance of keeping abreast with contemporary standards whilst promoting wasatiyyah (moderation). All of these aspirations are clearly represented in its unique model of learning and scholarship, along with its eminent brand of figures and graduates. May Allah protect and preserve Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and its masyaikhs.
Labiba Nur Hasna,
Graduand of Islamic Jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt