Al-Azhar al-Sharif is regarded by many as the center of Sunni religious learning in the Muslim world. The university-mosque plays a significant role in promoting the concept of wasatiyyah (moderation), which acts as a core principle in portraying Islam as the religion of peace and tolerance. Due to its prominence in the Muslim world, it bears the title of saut al-ummah (the voice of the Muslims). Established in 970 during the Fatimid era and later turned into a Sunni institution by Salahuddin al-Ayubi in 1171, Al-Azhar maintains its continuity despite being confronted by the burgeoning waves of modernity, secularisation, and many more. In this article, we will take a look at one of the many factors that contribute to Al-Azhar’s continuity and credibility as the mecca of Sunni teachings: al-Manhaj al-Azhariy, or Al-Azhar’s methodology.
What is Manhaj?
Before delving straight into al-Manhaj al-Azhariy, let’s first understand what is meant by the term manhaj.
The Arabic word manhaj derives from the root word of na-ha-ja, which denotes the act of following or pursuing a certain way. Hence, the term manhaj is often used to describe a clear and systematic methodology for acquiring knowledge. It represents the universal and holistic principles that prevent any flaws in perceiving knowledge itself. The importance of manhaj comes in the form of a navigation system; it ensures that the student knows where he is heading and what the correct routes are.
From here, we can understand that the term al-Manhaj al-Azhariy was coined to illustrate Al-Azhar’s systematic approach to knowledge. It is the pedagogy that has been relied upon at Al-Azhar for centuries. A detailed exposition of its key concepts and elements will be discussed later in this article.
The Objective of Al-Manhaj Al-Azhariy
After grasping the importance of manhaj in general, let’s then focus on the main objective of al-Manhaj al-Azhariy specifically.
Its primary objective, as outlined by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Toyyib, is to empower and equip Muslims with the worldview of Islam through the correct understanding of turath islamiy (Islamic intellectual heritage) from its three dimensions: naqliyyah (scriptural), aqliyyah (rational), and zawqiyyah (spiritual).
By mastering these three aspects of Islam, an Azhariy will then be able to contribute to three main areas: al-ilm (knowledge), al-ibadah (servitude), and al-dakwah (preaching).
This illustrates the universality of Al-Azhar’s methodology, which benefits both the individual and community.
 Ahmad al-Toyyib, Fi al-Manhaj al-Azhariy.
 Ahmad Nabawi al-Azhariy, Jamharah al-Azhariyyin al-Wusta.
Al-Manhaj Al-Azhariy: Its Essentials
As mentioned earlier, al-Manhaj al-Azhariy plays a crucial role in the continuity of Al-Azhar. Although the term was never used explicitly in the works of the scholars of Al-Azhar itself, its essence is deeply embedded in their hearts and minds. The explication of al-Manhaj al-Azhariy can be attributed to Sheikh Usama al-Azhariy, a prominent figure of Al-Azhar today. He meticulously studied and analysed the pedagogy manifested in the works and teachings of scholars of Al-Azhar over the course of hundreds of years. It is important to note here that despite originating from Al-Azhar, al-Manhaj al-Azhariy is also employed in institutions elsewhere, including Zaytuna in Tunisia, al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, and others. This means that it is not biassed towards only a certain place or time. One who pursues this manhaj can also be regarded as an Azhariy, even if he is not physically present at Al-Azhar.
There are eight main components constituting al-Manhaj al-Azhariy, as highlighted by Sheikh Usama al-Azhariy:
1) To have a continuous and unbroken sanad (chain) of narration, understanding, and spiritual purification.
This element suggests that a student of knowledge must be under the guidance of a credible sheikh or teacher. The transmission must include both riwayah (narration) and dirayah (understanding) of the narrations. This process is also known as al-Suhbah (companionship) with the scholars.
2) To give care and attention to the mastery of ulum al-alat (prerequisite sciences)
Ulum al-alat are sciences that one needs to master in order to embark on another branch of study. They include Lughah (language), Usul al-Fiqh (principles of jurisprudence), Ulum al-Hadith (sciences of Prophetic tradition), and others. This process ensures one is well-equipped with the basic sciences before specialising in a particular field.
3) Acquaintance with and having a comprehensive understanding of maqasid al-Shari’a (the higher objectives of the Shari’a)
This means that one must be aware of the objectives revolving around shari’a, including serving Allah s.w.t, purification of the soul, reviving the world, giving guidance to people, building civilizations, and more.
4) Correct appropriation of the Holy Qur’an
After fully understanding the objectives of the shari’a, one needs to comprehend the contexts of the Quranic verses to ensure that the messages of the Qur’an are rightly conveyed.
5) To give importance to the affair of al-ummah al-muhammadiyyah (followers of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w)
By knowing the importance of the ummah, one will not spread hatred and enmity towards other Muslims, as they are on the same mission: providing guidance to mankind.
6) To carry the concern of al-Hidayah al-‘Ammah (general guidance)
This incorporates elements of tolerance and compassion when conveying the message of Islam to the general audience.
7) The wholeness of the elements of knowledge
There are three main elements of knowledge: al-Adillah (sources), al-Manhaj (methodology), and al-malakah (mastery). Only through the combination of these three will a correct conception of knowledge be achieved.
8) To derive the benefit from turath al-ummah (the tradition of the Ummah), opening oneself up to it, maintaining contact with it, and building on it
In the Islamic scholarship, it is important to develop a methodology to interact with our rich intellectual heritage. More importantly, turath plays an important role in providing the basis for today’s issues and challenges in different aspects.
In its actual sense, al-Manhaj al-Azhariy is the manifestation of al-Manhaj al-Nabawi (the prophetic methodology). Therefore, when one follows the manhaj of Al-Azhar, he is essentially embracing the core teachings of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. With this conception in mind, it is conceivable that the message of Al-Azhar represents all Muslims globally, and not only those in Egypt. In addition, Al-Azhar has been at the forefront of dealing with global issues like extremism, interfaith relations, climate change, and more.
Reza Idani Zainal Abidin,
Undergraduate of Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt