In Egypt, the world’s oldest university continues to teach—and to evolve—as it has for 1000 years.
Written by Michael E. Jansen
Photographed by John Feeney
The thousand-year anniversary of al-Azhar is a movable feast: it can be celebrated once, several times or over a period of years. Its mosque was completed one thousand and one years ago and formally dedicated just one thousand years ago, in Ramadan 973—according to our solar calendar. In 575 the first students of Muslim canon law gathered round the columns in the mosque’s sanctuary and al-Azhar became a university, now the world’s oldest. Al-Azhar itself calculated its millennium according to the Muslim lunar calendar and prepared its celebrations for 1942, but the war intervened and the festivities were transferred from one calendar to the other, from the moon to the sun, which, indeed, is more in keeping with the name al-Azhar, “The Resplendent.”
In Cairo, in the shade of the cloister at al-Azhar, a handful of canvas-slippered tourists cluster round a guide and blink incomprehensibly at the edge of the bright courtyard. Do they know where they are? No, it seems not. Al-Azhar? Isn’t that a mosque or something? Ah, a university. Can we go in? Oh, isn’t this charming! And so old, so very old . . .
For one thousand and one years the lives of the people of old Cairo have revolved round al-Azhar. Five times a day they are called to prayer from the minaret of the mosque. In the evening they go to sleep after the last call to prayer and early in the morning are awakened, to begin a new day or to doze off again comforted by the voice of the muezzin crying, “God is Great,” knowing that “all is well.” At noon the joyous shout “Allah-hu-Akhbar” soars up into the diamond-blue sky and then glides down round the minaret and the gray-golden walls, down the wide streets of the bazaars, up the narrow alleyways and into the gloom of the tentmakers’ souk. A leather-aproned man sighs and firmly pokes his needle through the edge of a vast canvas which is spread about him. A few men in the shops set aside their work and lay out their prayer rugs and mats. Some turn at once and go to the mosque, slipping off their shoes or sandals as they step through the gate. Rough porters in rags, students and clerks in jackets and trousers, artisans in stained caftans become quietly respectful as they cross the sunny courtyard to the sanctuary. Two little girls in short blue skirts and beige school tunics, their hair braided painfully tight, scamper in stockinged feet across the bright flagstones. A man sleeping on a mat in the sun sits up to watch.
Inside the sanctuary, professors in gray kaftans and red felt caps wound with a broad white linen band conclude their lectures. Each teacher sits with his back to a pillar and his students at his feet, cross-legged on great red carpets. There is a quiet hum of voices. One by one the classes rise and the students, shoes and books in hand, drift out of the cool dimness into the golden courtyard. For one thousand years but two, students have clustered round these pillars to learn Islamic theology and law and Arabic grammar and literature at this, the oldest university in the world.
A small girl, about seven or eight, shyly proffers paper cones of sunflower seeds. She is a small representative of the sellers of food and sweetmeats who have, for 10 centuries, hawked their wares to the inhabitants of the courtyard and loggias of al-Azhar. The mosque has provided a home for the poor of Cairo, a place where travelers could stay, and lodging for its students, who also received a daily bread ration until 1929, when it became an annual stipend. One of the first additions to the original sanctuary and walled courtyard was a kitchen for the poor, which gave the name “The Soup Gate” to one of the entrances to the mosque compound.
The influence of al-Azhar, of course, extends far beyond the streets of Cairo. For most of the 600,000,000 people of the Muslim world al-Azhar is comparable, if one were to speak in British terms, to the Synod of Canterbury, Oxford University, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Piccadilly Circus, all rolled into one. For al-Azhar is a nodal center of a worldwide faith, with its own synod of shaikhs, an ancient and distinguished seat of learning, an institution studying and defining secular law, a focus of Egyptian national feeling and the center of a throbbing commercial area. And more than all this—it is a Holy Place.
If Mecca is the heart of Islam, then al-Azhar is its head. Just across the street, in the rose-colored stone building, the rector, whose title is Shaikh al-Azhar, and his council of Muslim jurists and theologians hand down both religious and secular decisions which not only concern the Muslim world as a whole, but also influence the daily lives of nearly every believer wherever he might be. For example, the shaikhs of al-Azhar broke Koranic tradition and in a momentous decision authorized the translation of the Koran into Chinese, English, Turkish and all the other languages Muslims speak. It was at al-Azhar that the decision permitting Muslims to drink coffee was taken. Thus, the writ of al-Azhar, influencing the public and private lives of Muslims, runs from Indonesia in the east to Morocco in the west, south into Africa, north into the Soviet Union and west into the United States and Canada.
The tourists cross the golden courtyard to the sanctuary. The guide dutifully shows them the ancient prayer niche and tells them about the history of al-Azhar. But he neglects its holiness.
The Arabs call the peculiar quality of grace al-Azhar possesses baraka. Perhaps al-Azhar’s original measure of baraka came from its being the first place of worship built in the new city of Cairo by the North African conquerors of Egypt. A second measure of its baraka may be the association of the name “al-Azhar” with the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, who was called “al-Zahra,” “she of the shining countenance.” Al-Azhar’s original and accumulated baraka has preserved the mosque from destruction by fire, earthquake and artillery bombardment as well as from gradual decline that overtook many other collegiate mosques in the Arab world. And, it is this baraka that has kept the people of Cairo faithful to al-Azhar for one thousand and one years.
At times of natural calamity, of earthquake and plague, and of man-made disaster, fire and political upheaval, the inhabitants of Old Cairo have sought refuge within the massive walls of the mosque. Though minarets and columns were toppled by earthquakes in the 11th and 14th centuries the golden walls stood firm and damage was always made good again.
For 980 years Egypt was ruled by foreigners: by North Africans and Mameluke Turks, by Napoleon Bonaparte, by the family of the Kurd Saladin, by the dynasty founded by the Albanian Muhammad Ali, and finally by the British. And for all of those 1,000 years but 20 the shaikhs of al-Azhar, themselves Egyptians, mediated between the foreign rulers and the Egyptian people. For nearly 10 centuries al-Azhar was the only Egyptian national institution where Egyptians could rise to positions of dignity and power and from which they could make their influence felt. Al-Azhar was often the center of popular agitation against oppressive rule. It also provided a safe sanctuary for political plotters who were usually given safe conduct from the mosque into exile. The only ruler of Egypt who burst through the sanctity of al-Azhar, who hanged Azharite conspirators and bombarded and desecrated the mosque, was Napoleon Bonaparte. At first he anxiously courted the shaikhs of al-Azhar, finally declaring that he was even ready to become a Muslim to win their support. But when leaders from al-Azhar sparked an uprising that killed two of Bonaparte’s generals and 300 French soldiers, Napoleon turned his artillery on the mosque and sent in his troops. On June 1, 1801, al-Azhar closed its door on an Egypt occupied by the French and exactly a year and a day later, June 2, 1802, reopened for the Friday service, the Ottoman Grand Vizier in attendance, thus reestablishing the Caliph’s sovereignty over Egypt.
In the sanctuary the tourists find one or two professors still holding their students. Are these shaikhs spellbinding or just long-winded?
They could be either, since al-Azhar has known decline as intimately as glory. One authority gathered about his chair a circle of students stretching round 17 columns. In the 11th century, al-Azhar was a world center in astronomy, physics and optics. An Azharite, known in Europe as Alhazen, first formulated the correct theory of optics, and Ibn Khaldun, the father of modern social sciences, taught at al-Azhar in the 14th century. But with the gradual decline of the Arab and later the Ottoman Empires, science slipped backwards and all education became provincial and introverted.
At the end of the 19th century, Shaikh Muhammad Abduh, an Azharite himself, tried to restore al-Azhar as the center of progressive Muslim thought and up-to-date scientific teaching. But until the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, reforms came slowly. Then, on a new campus built in a suburb of Cairo, faculties of Commerce, Agriculture, Engineering and Architecture, Medicine and Education were added to the faculties of Theology, Jurisprudence and Arabic. The Institute for Foreign Languages and the Women’s College were also inaugurated. Al-Azhar, which had 35 students in its first classes, now enrolls 40,000 students from 60 nations. And yet, al-Azhar remains al-Azhar after all: during his or her first year an Azharite must study the Muslim humanities—Islamic law, theology and Arabic. Shaikh Flassan al-Baqouri, a former rector, who implemented many of the reforms, calls the university’s “reorganization” a return to its “original religious and scientific task.” But this should not mean an end to the old Azhar, he warns: “There was no teaching in the mosque for five years, from 1959 to 1964: the mosque was reserved for worship. But I put the students back where they belong. Al-Azhar is a place for people and for life. If it is cut off from the life of the people, al-Azhar will die.” And, to this end al-Azhar is helping to tackle one of the greatest and most controversial problems now confronting mankind by accepting a grant from UNICEF for studies in population control.
The strangers have had their tour of the historic site. Moreover, it is time for the noon prayer. Leaving the sanctuary, they thread their way among the devout Cairenes in the courtyard. A student artist has stationed himself in a corner and begun work on a sketch of the famous double minaret. The tourists return their canvas slippers to the gatekeepers. “Thank you . . . thank you,” each says in turn. “Go in peace” is the reply. And, they are shepherded out into the clamoring street. Round the corner is a new, freshly built golden stone wall, an abrupt contrast to the gray-golden expanse of the old walls. “Oh,” someone remarks to the guide, “they are rebuilding.” “Yes,” he answers, “Al-Azhar is always rebuilding. That is its secret.”
Michael Elin Jansen lives in a mountain village near Beirut and has written several books and many articles on Middle East affairs.