The Rich History and Influence of Al-Azhar University

Established in 970 AD by the Fatimid Dynasty, Al-Azhar University has a rich history and has played a significant role in Islamic education and scholarship. Originally founded as a palace mosque, it quickly evolved into a center of learning and intellectual thought, attracting scholars and students from around the Islamic world.

The name “Al-Azhar” is said to commemorate Fatimah, the youngest daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, who was known as Az-Zahra’, meaning the Radiant. It is also linked to the nearby palace complex of the caliph, Al-Qushur Az-Zahirah (the Radiant Palaces).

Under the patronage of Caliph Al-‘Aziz Billah, Al-Azhar became a leading educational institution, intended to rival the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. It initially focused on Islamic law, creed, Arabic language, philosophy, logic, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. Teaching was conducted in halaqahs, or circle groups, after Friday prayers.

Over time, Al-Azhar expanded its curriculum to include classes open to the public, known as Majalis al-Hikmah (Councils of Wisdom). These classes covered Quranic studies, creeds, and Islamic law and were later complemented by formal classes taught by government officials.

The institution’s facilities were renowned for their comfort and hospitality. Visitors were provided with special mats for summer and carpets for winter, as well as writing materials and free drinking water. The library housed a collection of 200,000 books, which were made available to the public.

Al-Azhar’s influence extended beyond Egypt, attracting scholars from various disciplines and regions. Notable scholars who worked or studied there include Muhammad bin Yusuf al-Kindi, Ibnu Salama al-Quda’i, and Ibnu al-Haitsam, among others.

However, with the fall of the Fatimid Dynasty, Al-Azhar’s activities came to a halt as Salahuddin al-Ayyubi sought to neutralize the influence of the Ismaili Shia in Egypt. The institution’s library suffered losses, with some books being sold and others destroyed.

Despite changes in leadership and political regimes, Al-Azhar’s role remained significant. It faced challenges from rulers seeking to manipulate its influence for political gain, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. Under Nasser, Al-Azhar was used to legitimize government policies, while under Mubarak, it was instrumentalized to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In recent years, under the leadership of Ahmed al-Tayeb, Al-Azhar has sought to maintain its independence and promote moderate Islamic views. Al-Tayeb has focused on strengthening ties with Al-Azhar alumni and enhancing the institution’s reputation both domestically and internationally.

Today, Al-Azhar University stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of Islamic scholarship and education. Its rich history and influence continue to shape the intellectual landscape of the Islamic world, making it a beacon of knowledge and enlightenment for generations to come.