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When Jawhar the Sicilian, commander of the Fatimid troops sent by the Fatimid Caliph Almuiz to conquer Egypt, founded Cairo in 358 AH / 969 CE 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 CE. 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 so because it was surrounded by flourishing mansions at the time when Cairo was founded. Others believe that it was named so because it was believed that the mosque was going to attain high status due to the studies which were being conducted inside the mosque. A third group believe that it was named after "Fatima al-Zahraa" the daughter of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) to glorify her name. The last explanation appears to be the most likely as the Fatimids themselves were named after her.

 

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 CE) 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 Abu Hanifa Al-Nu'man as a reference on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). This happened in the presence of a large audience whose names were recorded in memorial of the occasion. Abu Al-Hassan was the first to be given the title chief Justice (qadhi). This was the first Seminar to be held at Al-Azhar which was followed by many others.

 

Although these seminars were religious, 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'. 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.

 

Although Al-Azhar ceased to function either as a university or as a mosque for nearly a century during the Ayyubid reign, studies were still conducted, albeit mainly religious and linguistic in nature. During the period of Mamluks 648-922 A.H/ 1250-1517 C.E, Al-Azhar assumed new responsibilities 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 a high status during the eighth and ninth centuries A.H (14th and 15th centuries A.D).

 

It should also be 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 due in thanks to endowments (waqfs) which enabled scholars to freely choose their fields of study and study materials. It is also noteworthy to mention that the Ottomans never appointed one of them as Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. This high position entirely left for the Egyptians.

 

When Napoleon attacked Egypt in (1213 A.H / July 1789 C.E) he looked upon Al-Azhar, and is said to have recognized Al-Azhar in his time as the most well-known university in the whole Islamic world. During his exile at St. Helena, he wrote in his dairy that Al-Azhar was the counterpart of Sorbonne in Paris. He looked highly upon Al-Azhar scholars as the elite of the educated class and 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 scholars under the chairmanship of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Sharkawi, the grand Imam of Al-Azhar at the time.

 

Al-Azhar was also 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 other scholars 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.

 

During Mohammad Ali's rule of Egypt in 1220 A.H 1805 A.D, he aimed to set up a modern state. To achieve his aim, Al-Azhar played a significant role; 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 scholars and Christian priests in the porticos of Al-Azhar addressing people from the pulpit of Al-Azhar.

 

 

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