The world’s oldest university and Sunni Islam’s foremost seat of learning.
Al-Azhar university concerns itself with the religious syllabus, which pays special attention to the Quranic sciences and traditions of the prophet, on the one hand, while on the other, university teaches all the modern scientific fields of science . Thus, the university has not only fulfilled its obligations in these two fields of study but also fulfilled its obligations towards the Arabic language which is the language of the Holy Quran. In 1961, according to Al-Azhar university’s legislatory law No. 103 new colleges of applied sciences, such as the faculties of Medicine and engineering, were introduced to Al-Azhar university. These newly introduced faculties are not duplicates of their counter- parts in other universities since they combine both the empirical as well as the religious sciences.
Alongside the Egyptian students who are studying at Al-Azhar university, there are many other students from the various Islamic and European countries. These foreign Moslem brothers have exactly the same rights as the Egyptian students.
Al-Azhar University Educational policy
Al-Azhar University is a natural expansion of the great mosque of Al-Azhar, the oldest and most celebrated of all Islamic academic institutes and Universities all over the world without exception. For over one thousand year Al-Azhar was venerated cultural centre for all Muslims in the East and West. Al-Azhar’s educational policy is governed and oriented by the following basic guide lines and principles : The University of Al-Azhar is opened for all Muslim students who wish to study a particular academic discipline or to further and deepen their knowledge of Islamic Religion. The University of Al-Azhar is always attempting to create a kind of intellectual unity between Muslims everywhere in the Islamic world, it also works hard to cement and strengthen their relationship and sharpen their loyalty to the Islamic faith. In all its curriculum and scholarly activities the University is concerned with everything that can strengthen the spiritual ties of Islam, and revive the national sense of pride among its people. The University is also keen to remain a guiding light for Islam and stronghold for the Arab nation, inculcating the Islamic teaching in the hearts and minds of Muslims, safeguarding its language, serving its objectives and aims, reforming its cultural heritage, and illuminating it for the benefit of mankind. Thus the University can perform the great task that Al-Azhar took upon itself throughout the ages, and likewise it keeps Egypt in its leading and pioneering position among Muslims. The University of Al-Azhar aims to provide Egypt and the Arabic and Islamic world with scholars and experts, well equipped with Islamic culture and moral, and well prepared to serve their societies, and play their role in building up their countries on faith and scientific basis . To prepare a stock of leading and highly qualified academicians and scientists for the coming generation in all branches of knowledge and experience required for life in its spiritual and material sides. To achieve this goal the university supports the higher studies, creating a new area of different specializations, providing scholarships in various walks of life to have the best experiences for the interest of Egypt and all Muslims in the entire Muslim world. To keep an open eye on the scientific activities and benefit from them, and to contribute towards scientific progress and development through establishing and enforcing academic relations between AL-AZHAR University and the Universities of the entire world. It is also required to have such relations with research foundations and all other academic and scientific centres and to exchange academic visits with other universities, inviting the best of scholars in their fields to deliver lectures, conduct research in all different specializations. The university of Al-Azhar sends some of its members of staff from time to time, to catch up with the most recent, and up to date discoveries and developments in all the different scientific and academic fields and various research activities.
When Jawhar the Sicilian, commander of the Fatimid troops sent by the Fatimid Caliph Almuiz to conquer Egypt, founded Cairo in 358 AH / 969 SD he built Al-Azhar mosque. The mosque was completed in nearly two years. It was first opened for prayers on 7th of Ramadan 361 A.H/ June 22, 972 AD. Since then it has become the most well-known mosque in the whole Muslim World, and the oldest university ever for both religious and secular studies.
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 by then considered as a good omen of the high status which the mosque was going to attain as a result of the flourishing studies being conducted in the mosque. A third group believe that it was named after “Fatima al-Zahraa” the daughter of Prophet Mohamed (peace and blessing be upon him) to glorify her name. This last explanation sounds the most likely as Fatimids themselves were called after her.
The Beginning of the Scholarly activities at Al-Azhar: Three and half years after its establishment, Al-Azhar began to acquire its academic and scholastic nature. It was in Ramadan, 365 AH (October 975 AD) during the reign of Al-Muiz when chief justice Abu El-Hassan Ali ibn Al-Nu’man El-Kairawany sat in the court of Al-Azhar and read “El-ikhtisar” a book written by his father Abu Hanifa Al-Nu’man as a reference on Shi’ite law (fiqh). This happened in the presence of a large audience whose names were recorded in memorial of the occasion. Abu El-Hassan was the first to be given the title chief Justice. This was the first Seminar to be held at Al-Azhar which was followed by many others. Those seminars were religious, however they had political overtones. At the beginning of the reign of Al-Aziz Billah, Al-Azhar made great strides towards real academic studies. Jacob ibn Killis, the minister of Al-Mu’eiz and later of Al-Aziz read his ‘Al-Risalah Al-Azizyah’ on Shi’ite law. He later developed studies at Al-Azhar when he appointed thirty seven Jurists. He gave them monthly salaries and build them houses near Al-Azhar. During the Fatimid period, Al-Azhar was an essential part of the intellectual life. Beside the usual seminars, moral education sessions were held for women. Al-Azhar was also the official seat of judges on certain days and the accountant or chief tax collector “Muhtasib” for nearly two centuries. Since the collapse of Islamic Cultural Centres in Baghdad and Andalusia at the greatest centre for Arabic and Islamic studies all over the world.
Right from the beginning, the seminars held at Al-Azhar were of purely academic nature. They were inherently characterized by free scientific discussions and scholarships. There was also the system of instructors and visiting professors. Such activities worked later as the foundations of the University academic system, which became known later in both East and west. Hence, Al-Azhar has duly come to be known as the oldest religious university all over the world.
Although Al-Azhar ceased to function either as a university or as a mosque for nearly a century, during the Ayyubid reign studies were conducted in the same way as they were during the Fatimid period. However, they were mainly religious and linguistic. During the Mamluks period 648-922 A.H/ 1250-1517 A.D, Al-Azhar assumed new responsibilities towards the Muslim world.
As a result of Mughul attacks on central Asia and the shrinkage of Muslim rule in Andalusia, Al-Azhar became the only shelter for the scholars who were forced out of their homeland. Those scholars helped Al-Azhar to reach the apex of its glory during the eighth and ninth centuries A.H (14th and 15th centuries A.D). It should be mentioned here that Al-Azhar played an important role in the development of natural sciences. Some of Al-Azhar scholars studied medicine, mathematics, Astronomy, geography and history. They put much effort to advance these sciences even in times of political and intellectual deterioration and stagnation.
Under the Ottomans, Al-Azhar was financially independent because of the Waqfs (endowments), the scholars were free to choose their fields of study and the text books. Thus Al-Azhar had its own free identity and became a leading Islamic and Arabic centre.
It attracted many teachers as well as many students from all over the Islamic world. It is worth mentioning that the Ottomans never appointed one of them as Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. This high position entirely left for the Egyptians. When Bonaparte attacked Egypt in (1213 A.H / July 1789 A.D) he looked upon Al-Azhar as the most well-known university in the whole Islamic world. During his exile at Saint. Helena he wrote in his dairy that Al-Azhar was the counterpart of Sorbonne in Paris. He looked highly upon Al-Azhar Ulama as the elite of the educated class and as the leaders of the people. When he first set foot in Cairo he formed a special council (diwan) to govern the capital. That council consisted of nine eminent Sheikhs under the chairmanship of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Sharkawi, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar at that time. The formation of this council stands as an evidences of the importance of Al-Azhar and the high status of its Ulama .
However, Al-Azhar was the meeting place for the opponents of the French occupation and the seat of the revolution. A special revolutionary committee was formed under the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed El-Sadat. When the revolution broke out against the French, the grand Imam and the Ulama Decided that it was impossible to carry on their studies, so they closed the mosque.
This has been the only time for Al-Azhar to be closed over its long history. When the French evacuated three years later, Al-Azhar resumed its normal activities and received its teachers and students. When Mohammad Ali took over the rule of Egypt in 1220 A.H 1805 A.D he planned to set up a modern state. To achieve his aim he greatly depended on Al-Azhar. He sent scholarships from among the students of Al-Azhar to Europe. These students were the pioneers who raised high the banner of the modern renaissance in Egypt. Most of the leading figures including the leader of the Orabi revolution were graduates of Al-Azhar. This also applied to the leader of 1919 revolution, Saad Zaghloul as well as many other leading personalities, Mohamed Abdu and El-Manfaloty for example completed their studies at Al-Azhar. The most significant incident was the meeting of both Muslim Ulama and Christian priests in the porticos of Al-Azhar addressing people from the pulpit of Al-Azhar .
When the 1952 revolution took place, Al-Azhar was one of the society that has been modernized and developed so that it can effectively carry out its illuminating role for the welfare not only of Egypt, but also of the Arab and whole Islamic world.