Al-Azhar mosque: A Muslim centre of soft power
Cairo - There is continuing debate over the role which Al-Azhar mosque, built more than 1,000 years ago, could be playing inside and outside Egypt.
Al-Azhar university — believed to be the oldest Islamic one in the world — hosts thousands of foreign students and is at the forefront of a drive to defend moderate Islam against an international wave of extremism.
“Al-Azhar has been a centre of knowledge for hundreds of millions of Muslims through the years and throughout the world,” said Azmi Megahid, a professor of Islamic civilisation at al-Azhar university. “Now, as extremists kill people in the name of Islam, al-Azhar is moving to show that Islam has nothing to do with extremism and that it came to spread peace and love in the world.”
Inside Egypt, the mosque, which was probably named after Fatimah al-Zahra, one of Prophet Mohammad’s daughters, was at the heart of political, religious and social action for hundreds of years.
Its scholars renewed Islamic thought, advised Muslims on day-to-day affairs, travelled across Egypt to illuminate believers on the tolerant nature of the Islamic religion and acted to defy despots who sometimes ruled the country.
Al-Azhar’s influence weakened in the decades before Egypt’s 2011 revolution but after the uprising it again came to the forefront of events. Its imam sanctioned the ouster of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in 2013. The mosque sends clerics to stop occasional flare-ups of sectarian strife in Egypt. It also legally acts to silence critics, although much to the chagrin of free speech campaigners.
Al-Azhar was built in two years, starting from 971, the year when the city of Cairo began to be constructed. The mosque is inseparable from its university, which was established as a school of theology in 988. The school started as an Ismaili Shia one but later became a Sunni school and remains so.
It is considered by the vast majority of Sunni Muslims as the most prestigious school of Islamic law. Al-Azhar, which maintains a committee of certified scholars to judge individual Islamic questions, a press for printing the Quran, trains preachers to speak about Islam.
“This mosque was built to be a change-maker in the life of the people of this country,” said Sheikh Hassan Mustafa, a scholar at al- Azhar. “It first oversaw the change of faith of the people from Shia to Sunni and now it seeks to drive the people away from radicalism to moderation, which is at the heart of Islam as a religion.”
The mosque is a grand structure that houses centuries of architectural styles. Its entrance is through the 15th-century Barber’s Gate, where students used to have their heads shaved and which leads into a courtyard that dates to the tenth century. It is overlooked by three stately minarets.
The latticework-screened residential quarters of the schools on the right side date to the Mamluk period.
Al-Azhar university’s library, which was consolidated in 1897, is said to include 99,062 books and 595,668 volumes of precious manuscripts, some as old as the eighth century. About 100,000 students, including foreign ones, study at al- Azhar university.
The style of education at the university remained relatively informal for much of its early history. At the beginning, there were no entrance requirements, no formal curriculum and no degrees. The basic programme of studies was — and still is — Islamic law, theology and the Arabic language.
The university teaches a full curriculum of modern courses, such as medicine, languages, pharmacology, engineering, sciences, media and agriculture.
Al-Azhar mosque has undergone many renovations, restorations and additions but most of those are said to have destroyed much of the mosque’s original character.
The oldest part of the mosque is said to be its original prayer hall, which is made of five aisles parallel to the old Qibla wall with the central nave cutting through them in the middle, running from the court in the west to the wall in the east.
Wael al-Roubi, a 33-year-old lawyer from the northern coastal city of Alexandria, travelled to Cairo to pray at al-Azhar.
“It is really worth the pains of the journey,” Roubi said. “It is a wonderful place where history and faith are intertwined in a unique manner.”