Al-Azhar University in Cairo is one of the oldest operating universities in the world. The Islamic university is connected to the beautiful and historic Al-Azhar Mosque.
The mosque and university are named in honor of Fatima Az-Zahraa, the daughter of Muhammad, from whom the Fatimid Dynasty claimed descent.
The mosque was built in two years beginning in 971 AD. The school of theology (madrassa) connected with it was founded in 988 as an Ismaili Shia school, but it later became a Sunni school, which it remains to this day. It claims to be the oldest Islamic university in the world, but this is disputed by the
Kairaouine Mosque in Fes, Morocco.
The core academic life of Al-Azhar has remained much the same for over a millenium: its students study the Qur'an and Islamic law in detail, along with logic, grammar, rhetoric, and how to calculate the lunar phases of the moon. Most of this learning is done by listening in a circle (halqa) at the feet of a sheikh and rote memorization. As students advance, they may engage in Socratic dialogue with their teachers or instruct their juniors.
Al-Azhar does not admit students who are not practicing Muslims but provides training in secular professions; it is thus a unique combination of a theological seminary and regular university, with faculties of medicine and engineering established in 1961.
Al-Azhar is considered by most Sunni Muslims to be the most prestigious school of Islamic law, and its scholars are seen as the highest scholars in the Muslim world. Its stated objectives remain the propagation of Islamic culture and the Arabic language.
To that end, it maintains a committee of ulemas to judge on individual Islamic questions, a printing establishment for printing the Qur'an, and trains preachers trained in da'wa and the propagation of religious publicity. Al-Azhar is run by a Supreme Council forming general policy, headed by a Grand Imam, styled the "Sheikh Al-Azhar."
Since 1929 Al-Azhar has published a magazine (now monthly) whose stated purpose is to promulgate religious rules, subjects related to the propagating of Islamic literature, and basic jurisprudence (sharia), including sections on history, biographies, translated texts and news concerning the Muslim world.
The current Imam of Al-Azhar has declared that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and suicide bombers are heretics who are not following the true path of Islam. In a recent conference in Indonesia, he asked all "true believers" to deny speakers of violently heretical Islam places to speak in the mosque, thus preventing the spread of violent ideologies.
What to see
The Al-Azhar Mosque is a grand structure that reflects many centuries of styles. Entrance is through the 15th-century Barber's Gate, where students traditionally had their heads shaved. This leads into a great courtyard (sahn), which dates from the 10th century and is overlooked by three stately minarets. The courtyard's white facade, accented by rosettes and keel-arched panels, is mostly from the Fatimid period.
The latticework-screened residential quarters of the madrassas on the right side date from the Mamluke period. These are rarely open to visitors, but tourists may enter the prayer hall, which is warmly carpeted and supported by alabaster pillars.
The university's library, which was consolidated in 1897, is considered second in range and importance only to Dar Al-kotob Al-Masriah in Egypt, as far as the number of Islamic books and manuscripts are concerned. The library comprises of 99,062 books consist of 595,668 volumes of the most precious manuscripts and rare books, some as old as the 8th century.
Map Below is a location map and aerial view of
Al-Azhar Mosque. Using the buttons on the left, zoom in for a closer look or zoom out to get your bearings. Click and drag the map to move around. For a larger view, see our Cairo Map or get our free Google Earth download