- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

CAIRO — The Fatimids — Shi’ite Muslims who invaded Egypt from Tunisia — founded what would become the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning.

Al Azhar mosque was completed in 972, just three years after the invasion, as Fatimid army commander Jawhar the Sicilian built the city of Cairo.

The mosque, which most scholars believe was named for the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima al-Zahraa, and the city flourished during a golden age in the early years of Fatimid rule.

The mosque drew scholars from across the Muslim world and grew into a university, predating similar developments at Oxford University in England by more than a century.

Al Azhar’s Fatimid heart, a hall supported by 76 alabaster columns, still stands, surrounded by additions and improvements made over the centuries.

Egypt remained Shi’ite until the 12th century, when the orthodox Sunni Muslim Saladin consolidated control over the country. Today, al Azhar, Egypt and most of the Muslim world are Sunni.

Al Azhar has a history of resisting the new.

Ibn Khaldun was a celebrated medieval historian and a researcher on the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad who lectured at al Azhar. But for 500 years, until the 1920s, al Azhar banned his masterpiece, a tome in which he cast a skeptical and scientific eye on world history as it was known in his time.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars frustrated at what they saw as al Azhar’s sterility and its failure to engage creatively with the West founded a rival, the Egyptian University, which would become Cairo University.

Taha Hussein, one of Egypt’s most celebrated writers and intellectuals, complained in his memoirs of having to learn by rote “what the sheiks repeated” at al Azhar before escaping to the Egyptian University in its early years and discovering “a new relish for life.”

He went on to shock the sheiks, who accused him of blasphemy for suggesting scientific skepticism should be brought to bear in understanding the Koran.

Al Azhar was brought — some say dragged — into the 20th century by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who nationalized a host of Egyptian institutions after toppling the monarchy in a 1952 military coup. Before long, Azharis were proclaiming Nasserite socialism was Islamic.

Al Azhar first admitted female students in 1961, albeit in separate classes. That was eight years before Harvard University did, though that venerable American institution had had an affiliated women’s college, Radcliffe, since 1879.

Also in 1961, subjects in engineering and medicine were added to classes on Islamic law, philosophy, the Koran and the intricacies of Arabic language deemed necessary to a true understanding of Islam. Al Azhar’s ancient status as a leader in science and mathematics had long since faded.

Where scholarly critics see stubborn opposition to innovation and intellectual bankruptcy, others see comforting constancy. Mr. Hussein, the writer, summed up the reverence in which many Egyptians still hold al Azhar early in his memoirs, when he described himself as a village boy entering hallowed ground.

“The fresh breeze that blew across the courtyard of al Azhar at the hour of the morning prayer met him with a welcome and inspired him with a sense of security.”

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