Al Azhar: A Beacon of Islamic Scholarship

The Establishment of Al Azhar

Established in the heart of Cairo, Egypt, Al Azhar Mosque has stood as a beacon of Islamic scholarship for over a millennium. The history of this mosque begins with the Fatimid Caliphate, a political and religious dynasty that ruled over Egypt and much of North Africa from the tenth to the twelfth centuries.

The Fatimid Caliph, Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, had a vision to build a city that would serve as the capital of his caliphate. This new city, named Al-Qahira (Cairo), was founded in the year 969 by the Fatimid conqueror Jawhar Al Siqilly.

Within this city, the first mosque to be constructed was none other than Al Azhar, a name meaning “the most blooming” in Arabic, in honor of Fatima Al-Zahraa, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

The original structure of Al Azhar was relatively modest compared to the grandeur it would later acquire. It was initially established as a congregational mosque for Friday prayers, with a simple prayer hall, a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, and a minaret from which the call to prayer was made.

The Evolution of Al Azhar Under the Fatimid Caliphate

Under the reign of the Fatimid Caliph Al Aziz Billah, Al Azhar began to evolve. The mosque was expanded, with the addition of new mihrabs, minarets, and a larger prayer hall.

The most significant change, however, was the establishment of a madrasa, or Islamic school, within the mosque’s precincts. This marked the beginning of Al Azhar’s journey as a center of learning in the Muslim world.

The decision to include a madrasa was a strategic one. The Fatimids, who adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, sought to disseminate their doctrines throughout the empire. Al Azhar, with its burgeoning scholarly community, was the perfect platform to achieve this goal.

The rule of the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim bi-Amr Allah saw further enhancements to Al Azhar. The mosque’s architecture was enriched with the addition of a new courtyard, arcades, and the distinctive keel-shaped arches.

The mihrab was beautified, and a new minaret was constructed, featuring a double finial, a unique feature in the architectural landscape of Cairo at the time.

Al Azhar under the Ayyubid Dynasty

The Ayyubid dynasty, which succeeded the Fatimids, brought about another significant chapter in Al Azhar’s history. Sultan Salah ad-Din, known to the Western world as Saladin, was a Sunni Muslim who sought to bring Egypt back to Sunni orthodoxy. As part of this mission, he transformed Al Azhar into a center for the propagation of Sunni doctrine.

During the Ayyubid rule, the mosque was further expanded and beautified. The prayer hall was enlarged, and the courtyard was adorned with arcades on all four sides. The Ayyubids also established more madrasas within Al Azhar, each dedicated to a specific branch of Islamic law.

The reign of the Ayyubid sultans also saw Al Azhar becoming a hub for scholars from across the Arab world. These scholars, or sheikhs, were invited to teach at the mosque’s madrasas, thereby enhancing its academic reputation. The teachings and scholarly records preserved from this era continue to serve as a rich resource for advanced research in Islamic studies.

The French Occupation and Al Azhar

Al Azhar’s history took a dramatic turn during the French occupation of Egypt in the late eighteenth century.

The mosque was turned into a barracks for French soldiers, a move that was met with widespread resistance from the Egyptian populace.

This period of conflict ended with the departure of the French, and Al Azhar was once again restored to its religious and academic functions.

Al Azhar in the Modern Era

In the modern era, Al Azhar has continued to evolve, adapting to the changing needs of the Muslim world.

The mosque has expanded its academic offerings beyond religious studies, now offering courses in modern sciences, languages, and other disciplines. It has also embraced digital technologies, with many of its registered trademarks, teachings, and scholarly records now accessible online.

The mosque’s architectural grandeur has also been preserved and enhanced. The site now features a library, a research center, and several colleges. The mosque itself boasts a stunning array of architectural features, including the original mihrab, the dome, the minarets, and the arches.

The mosque’s outer arch, framed by a rectangular outer frame, is a notable feature, as are the double finial minaret and the keel-shaped arches.

Al Azhar continues to hold a special place in the hearts of Egyptians and Muslims worldwide. As the site of the first mosque in the new city of Cairo, it has been a constant presence throughout Egypt’s history.

Its role as a center of learning has also made it a significant player in the Muslim world, shaping the Sunni doctrine and producing generations of scholars.

The Architectural Grandeur of Al Azhar

The architecture of Al Azhar is a testament to the various historical eras it has witnessed. The mosque’s original structure, built under the Fatimid Caliphate, featured a simple prayer hall, a mihrab, and a single minaret. However, over the centuries, successive rulers have added to and enhanced this original structure, resulting in the architectural marvel we see today.

The mosque’s mihrab, a niche in the qibla wall indicating the direction of Mecca, is a stunning example of Islamic architectural design. The mosque also boasts multiple minarets, each a towering testament to the architectural prowess of the periods in which they were constructed. The double finial minaret, in particular, is a unique feature that sets Al Azhar apart from other mosques in Cairo.

The mosque’s prayer hall is a vast space, filled with rows of arches that create a sense of grandeur and depth. The keel-shaped arches, a distinctive feature of Fatimid architecture, are a sight to behold. The outer arch, framed by a rectangular outer frame, adds to the overall aesthetic appeal of the mosque.

The mosque’s courtyard, or sahn, is another architectural highlight. The sahn is surrounded by arcades on all four sides, providing a shaded area for worshippers and scholars. The courtyard is also home to a central ablution fountain, a common feature in Islamic architecture.

Al Azhar University: A Beacon of Learning

Al Azhar is not just a mosque; it is also a university, one of the oldest in the world. Established under the Fatimid Caliphate, the university started as a madrasa within the mosque’s precincts. Over the centuries, it has grown into a full-fledged university, offering a wide range of academic disciplines.

The university has been a center of learning for the Sunni doctrine, attracting scholars from across the Muslim world. Its curriculum includes traditional Islamic sciences such as Hadith, Fiqh (Islamic law), and Tafsir (Quranic exegesis), as well as modern subjects like medicine, engineering, and languages.

Al Azhar University has also played a crucial role in preserving and advancing research in Islamic studies. Its library houses a vast collection of manuscripts, books, and scholarly records, many of which are now accessible through digital technologies. The university’s academic community is actively involved in research, contributing to the scholarly discourse on various aspects of Islam and the Arab world.

Al Azhar: A Living Legacy

Al Azhar’s significance extends beyond its architectural grandeur and academic contributions. The mosque has been a witness to Egypt’s history, from the reign of the Fatimid Caliphs to the French occupation and beyond. It has been a sanctuary for scholars, a hub for intellectual discourse, and a beacon of peace and spirituality.

The mosque has also played a significant role in shaping the socio-political landscape of Egypt and the wider Muslim world. Throughout its history, Al Azhar has been a platform for dialogue and debate, a place where scholars and students alike could engage in critical discussions on religion, law, and society.

In the contemporary era, Al Azhar continues to be a leading voice in the Muslim world, providing guidance on religious matters and promoting a message of peace and tolerance. Its scholars are often called upon to provide religious rulings (fatwas) on a range of issues, from personal matters to global affairs.

Moreover, Al Azhar has been proactive in embracing sustainable ways of preserving its legacy. Its use of digital technologies to make its teachings and scholarly records accessible to a wider audience is a testament to its commitment to adapt and evolve with the times.

In conclusion, Al Azhar is more than just a mosque or a university. It is a living legacy of Islamic civilization, a testament to Egypt’s rich history, and a beacon of knowledge and spirituality.

As we walk through its arches, pray under its dome, or delve into the scholarly records preserved within its library, we are not just engaging with a physical site but a vibrant, enduring symbol of Islamic heritage.

FAQ about Al Azhar Mosque

What makes Al Azhar Mosque unique?

Al Azhar Mosque, established in Cairo, Egypt, is unique due to its historical significance and architectural grandeur. It was the first mosque built in Cairo and remains the oldest Fatimid monument in Egypt. The first Friday prayer was conducted in it in 972 CE, marking a key milestone in its history.

What are the prominent features of Al Azhar Mosque?

Al Azhar Mosque boasts five majestic minarets, a large prayer area, and a stunning marble central court. It also houses various religious and non-religious schools, making it a significant center of learning. Its role in the opposition against French forces in the late 18th century further adds to its historical importance.

Does Al-Azhar follow Sunni or Shia Islam?

Al-Azhar Mosque, originally established during the Fatimid Caliphate, which followed Shia Islam, has predominantly been a center of Sunni learning since the time of the Ayyubid dynasty. It is now considered a leading institution in Sunni Islam.

What are the common architectural features in mosques?

Mosques often feature a large central dome, smaller domes throughout the structure, and a minaret from where the call to prayer is announced. These architectural elements are influenced by Byzantine architecture and are prevalent in Al Azhar Mosque.

Why is Al-Azhar significant?

Al-Azhar holds immense political significance as it provides teachings on Sharia or Islamic law, as well as a wide range of arts and sciences. This includes literature, grammar, rhetoric, theology, law, medicine, and philosophy, making it a crucial center of learning in the Muslim world.

What is Al-Azhar renowned for?

Al-Azhar is globally renowned as the world’s oldest mosque-university and is considered the foremost seat of learning in Sunni Islam.

Can you provide a brief history of Al Azhar Mosque?

Al Azhar Mosque was built between 970 and 972 during the Fatimid Caliphate, which dominated North Africa. As the new capital, Al-Qahirah, was under construction, a large mosque for prayer and training was required, leading to the establishment of Al Azhar.

What is the significance of Al Azhar Mosque?

Al Azhar Mosque was established to spread the Shiite Doctrine when Egypt was conquered by Jawhar Aṣ-Ṣiqilli, the army leader of Al-Mu‛izzulidīn Allah, the first Fatimid Caliph in Egypt. It has been a mosque and a university for over a thousand years, shaping generations of scholars and influencing Islamic scholarship.

What are the key characteristics of a mosque?

A mosque typically features an open courtyard (sahn) designed to accommodate a large population, and a fountain used for ritual cleansing. The minaret, a tower from which the call to prayer is announced, is another key feature and a visual reminder of the presence of Islam.

Why was the Al Azhar Mosque constructed?

Al Azhar Mosque was constructed to serve as the congregational mosque of Fatimid Cairo, specifically for the Shia congregation, avoiding clashes with the Sunni populace in Egypt. It was under the reign of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi that the mosque began to propagate Sunni doctrines.

What is one of the most notable architectural features of the mosque?

The minaret is one of the most notable architectural features of a mosque. It is a tower adjacent or attached to a mosque, from which the call to prayer is announced. Al Azhar Mosque is particularly notable for its five majestic minarets, each reflecting the architectural styles of their respective periods.

Why is Al-Azhar Mosque of great importance?

Al Azhar Mosque holds great importance as it was a key center of learning in the new capital of the Fatimid Caliphate, Al-Qahirah. To this day, it remains the oldest functioning Islamic university in the world, making it a significant center of Islamic scholarship.

What are the four key features of a mosque?

The four key features of a mosque include the sahn (courtyard), the mihrab (niche), the minaret (tower), and the qubba (dome). Additional furnishings and architectural elements may vary based on regional traditions and the time when the mosque was built.

Why is Al Azhar Mosque of great importance?

Al Azhar Mosque is of great importance as it was a central hub for prayer and training in the new capital of the Fatimid Caliphate, Al-Qahirah. Today, it remains the oldest functioning Islamic university in the world, underlining its enduring significance in Islamic scholarship.

What makes Al-Azhar Mosque special?

Al-Azhar Mosque holds a special place in Islamic history as it was the first mosque to be established in the city of Cairo. It was here that the first Friday prayer was conducted after the founding of Cairo, marking it as a significant Fatimid monument in Egypt.

Is Egypt predominantly Sunni or Shia?

The majority of Egyptians practice Islam, with most being Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school of jurisprudence. Shia Muslims constitute a small minority in Egypt.