Al Azhar University - 1000 Years of Scholarship

by: Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation.

Al-Azhar is today the most important religious university in the Muslim world with as many as 90,000 students studying there at any one time. It is arguably the oldest university in the worldRata Penuh

When Jawhar the Sicilian, commander of the troops sent by the Fatimid Caliph Almuiz to conquer Egypt, founded Cairo in 358 AH / 969 AD he built Al-Azhar originally as a mosque. The mosque was completed within two years and opened for it's first prayers on 7th Ramadan 361 A.H/ June 22, 972 AD. Historians differ as to how the mosque got its name. Some hold that it is called as such because it was surrounded by flourishing mansions at the time when Cairo was founded. Others believe that it was named after "Fatima Al-Zahraa" the daughter of Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessing be upon him) to glorify her name. This last explanation sounds the most likely as the Fatimids named themselves after her.

Al-Azhar University is a natural expansion of the great mosque of Al-Azhar. It is the oldest and most celebrated of all Islamic academic institutions and Universities all over the world without exception. For over one thousand years Al-Azhar has produced thousands of eminent scholars, distinguished educationalists, preserving Islamic heritage and strengthening Islamic identity.

During the Fatimid times (972 - 1171), Al-Azhar was a miniature University whose objective was to spread the Ismaili-Shiite teachings in Egypt. Its position was thus important to the ruling Fatimid dynasty, but had little importance to the rest of the Muslim world who had its eyes focused on Baghdad as the center of Islamic knoweldge. Through the schools of Baghdad Muslims got to know scholars of the calibre of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Abu Ishaq al-Isfara'ini, Al-Juwaini and Abu-Bakr Al-Baqilani. For the majority of Muslims Al-Azhar was not as famous as the schools of Baghdad. In addition, the Fatimids were looked upon by the majority of Muslims as rulers belonging to a heretic sect. This view is obvious through the declaration made in Baghdad by many Muslim scholars denouncing the Fatimids. The declaration included prominent Sunni scholars like Abu Ishaq al-Isfara'ini in addition to prominent Shii scholars like al-Sharif al-Murtada. This stand regarding the Fatimids hampered Al-Azhar from taking a prominent position in the Islamic world during the time of the Fatimids.
When the Ayyubids assumed power, Al-Azhar was converted to the Sunni (mainstream) Islamic teachings. But with the establishment of the Ayyubid schools in Egypt Al-Azhar's position in the Islamic world became of little importance. It was considered just another school among the many schools in Egypt, Baghdad, Syria and Andalusia.

During the reign of the Mameluke sultan Baybars and at the hands of prime minister Izz al-Din Aydmer, Al-Azhar witnessed its rebirth that elevated it to become the highest ranking institution of Islami c education. Aydmer lived in a palace neighboring Al-Azhar. He proposed to Baybars a plan to renew the mosque. The sultan welcomed the idea and provided the funds necessary for refurbishing the mosque. Aydmer was aided by many Mameluke princes who offered their money for the mosque. After that Aydmer went futher and proposed another step when he rallied for performing the main Friday prayer in Al-Azhar. After he overcame the opposition to this step, he encouraged the scholars to use the mosque as their main educational institution. The support that Aydmer gave to Al-Azhar and the influx of Muslim scholars to Egypt made the Mameluke era, Al-Azhar's golden age.

The Islamic caliphate was looked upon as the symbol of Muslim unity in the Islamic world. After the defeat of the Mongols in Ayn Jalut, Sultan Baybars invited the Abbasid family, of the Caliphate which was destroyed earlier by the Mongols, to resume their office in Cairo. With this move, many of the Islamic scholars of the east migrated to Egypt (and in some cases to Syria) fleeing from the Mongol yoke. This immigration of Islamic scholars to Egypt was paralleled by another flux, but from the west. Many Islamic emirates in Andalusia (Spain) were overrun by the Christian armies between 1236 and 1261 and the famous Islamic schools in Qurtuba (Cordoba), Qartaja (Cartagena), Ishbiliyya (Seville) and Balansiyya (Valencia) were destoyed. Since the Mameluke sutlanate was the most powerful state in the Muslim world at the time, Egypt became the pole of attraction for western flux of scholars.

During the Mameluke period, most of the prominent Mulsim scholars of the time taught in Al-Azhar, or at least visited the institution for a brief period of time. The great care that was given to Al-Azhar by the Mameluke princes put the mosque in a top position that was unparalleled by any other Cairean mosque. At the same time Al-Azhar had a curriculum of subjects that were regularily taught in it.

Some of the famous scholars who taught in Al-Azhar in the Mameluke period include:

* Abu al-`Abbas al-Qalqashandi

* Taqqi al-Din Ahmad al-Maqrizi

* Ibn-Hajjar al-`Asqalani

* Badr al-Din al-`Ayni

* Siraj al-Din al-Balqini

* Sharaf al-Din al-Munawi

* Abu-al-Mahasin ibn-Taghribirdi

* Shams al-Din al-Sakhawi

* Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti

* Muhammad ibn-Ahmad ibn-Iyas

* Muhammad Taqqi al-Din al-Fasi

* Taqqi al-Din ibn-Khaldun

Al-Azhar today continues to pride itself with teaching, Qur'anic Siences (`Ulum al-Qur'an), Prophetic Traditions (al-Hadith), Theology (`Ilm al-Kalam), Jurisprudence (al-Fiqh), Fundamentals (al-Usul), Arabic Grammar (al-Nahu), Conjugation (al-Sarf), al-Balagha, Arabic Literature (al-Adab), History (al-Tarikh), Medicine, Philosophy and Logic.

Recent Significance of Al-Azhar
This article stopped short of the role Al-Azhar played in the Ottoman, Khadive, Napoleonic, British Colonial and modern periods. A dedicated article on these is sought.

by: FSTC Limited

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