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Azhar, al-

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Azhar, al-

    Established in about 970 C.E. , al-Azhar is the greatest mosque-university in the world. After Jawhar al-Siqilli conquered Egypt for the Fatimid caliph in 969 , Cairo became the new capital and construction began on al-Azhar, which was intended to serve as the city's official mosque. Al-Azhar was probably named for Fatimah “al-Zahra” (meaning “the brilliant”), daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and ancestor of the Fatimid dynasty.

    When Egypt was restored to Sunni Islam in 1171 , al-Azhar lost some of its prestige and became one of many Islamic learning centers in Cairo. Even when the Ottoman conquest of the region in 1517 transferred world power to Istanbul, Cairo remained a major cultural center—and al-Azhar regained some of its importance as the center of Arabic-Islamic learning. It also became a vital link between the Arabic-speaking population and the Turkish-speaking military elite.

    Similar to other Islamic schools at the time, al-Azhar had no formal admissions procedures, academic departments, required courses, written exams, or even classrooms. Professors lectured from a favorite pillar in the mosque, with students gathered at their feet. Lectures included the Qur'an and law in the morning; grammar, rhetoric, and science after noon prayer; and various “nonessential” subjects after sunset.

    The influence of al-Azhar spread throughout Egypt and beyond, attracting students from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Chad, Somalia, Afghanistan, India, and other countries in the region. Students entering the school from outside Cairo joined learning groups called riwaqs. Some of these groups were supported by religious endowments that paid for food, and sometimes for libraries and living quarters.

    From the early years, students from poor, rural families with little previous education mingled with students from wealthy urban backgrounds. But in the late 1800s, privileged families began to send their sons to private and state-run schools, where the training they received prepared them for more prestigious careers.

    Efforts to modernize al-Azhar met with resistance from conservatives in the university. State reformers bypassed Azhari shaykhs who headed the school and founded specialty institutions, such as the School of Law (called Administration and Languages), the Dar al-Ulum teacher's college, and the state-run Egyptian University. Students at these schools successfully competed for jobs with the unspecialized graduates of al-Azhar. In 1902 new subjects and required examinations were introduced, but they were subsequently cancelled after protests from students and faculty.

    A law passed in 1961 greatly changed al-Azhar by establishing new departments and programs. Among these were the Islamic Research Academy, the Department of Cultural and Islamic Mission, and the College of Islamic Women. The new curriculum included engineering, commerce, agriculture, medicine, science, and education. The location of the new colleges in the suburbs of Cairo further separated the conservative and progressive factions.

    Al-Azhar has always attracted students from outside Egypt. In 1903 more than 630 students were enrolled. By 1990 foreign student enrollment at al-Azhar campuses had reached about 6,000 students from 75 countries. That number continues to grow. Outside Egypt, al-Azhar remains the foundation of learning of Sunni Islam and the Arabic language, although study of a Western language is now a requirement. Graduates and professors from al-Azhar are in demand throughout the Islamic world to help establish and improve local Islamic institutions. Meanwhile al-Azhar remains true to its conservative origins. School officials have regarded Islamic activists with disfavor in the past, and battles to change their ways will likely continue. See also Education, Egypt, Universities.

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