Historic Universities of Islam: Al-Azhar University

Tower of Al-Azhar university and minaret of Al-Hussein mosque
Imam Mohammed abdou Amphitheatre of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. © Leonid Andronov | Dreamstime.com

No one has a single same vision of what is best to study, each emerged into their own reality with their own visualisations and expectations. Nevertheless, there are some things which unite even the most different among Muslims – our faith in Allah.

You might be wondering where best to apply for university studies, or where would be most optimal to send your child after school. Often enough, though it might not necessarily be in the goal of pursuing theological studies, you might still desire for your child to follow an Islamic values program. Thus, whether it be for the reason of applying or just seeking knowledge regarding your culture, we shall begin our journey with some enticing history elements on Egypt’s Al-Azhar university.

Across the terrestrial reaches, this is one of the most ancient still operating universities, second in age only to the Fatima al-Fihri university in Morocco. It was originally founded as a mosque in year 970CE by order of the fourth Caliph of the Fatimid dynasty. Throughout the flow of time it had incorporated several scholarly additions and adjustments by the following Caliphs who often incited intellectuals and those who studied Fiqh (Islamic law) to proceed with their meetings within the mosque.

Thus, relatively soon the mosque began accommodating crowds of learners and scholars, making it clear that a library was necessary for the study groups. Five years later the mosque made a grand reopening as a university, beginning with the teaching of studies such as Fiqh, Arabic calligraphy, jurisprudence, Islamic astronomy, Islamic philosophy and logic.

At the time, most of the concomitant nations to the Fatimid empire didn’t stress the importance of philosophy, mostly matching it to heresy. In spite of this, the Fatimid Caliphs venerated culture and learning, gathering the most refined knowledge in the Al-Azhar university from erudite knowledge-seekers who travelled the lands.

From the mid 13th century, Al-Azhar had been resuscitated as a centre of religious learning under the Mamlūks (1250-1517), and had henceforth continued its existence as such. After surviving some earthquakes in the 14th and 15th centuries, it came under the rule of the Ottoman empire, prevailing still as one of the most prestigious educational centres of Egypt.

Towards the end of the 18th century the gathered opposition to the French quickly turned into an uprising at the university, followed in 1798 by a bombarding of the university by the French.

In more modern history, some 60 years ago, the university had for the first time integrated secular subjects such as economics, engineering, business, agriculture, medicine, science and pharmacy with the addition of an Islamic women’s faculty. Until 1961, it wasn’t really considered a university by the Encyclopaedia of Islam, more of a madrasa in that sense.

To this day it remains one of the most reputable universities in the Islamic world, and indeed, it has a lot to show for all its long and prodigious history. If you get the time, it will definitely be an exciting experience walking around the campus of the second oldest degree-granting institution in the world.