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'al-Azhar' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article describes the mosque-university of Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, as background for G. Willow Wilson's The Butterfly Mosque. The article is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Situated in the heart of premodern Cairo, al-Azhar is the greatest mosque-university in the world today. Reluctantly adjusting to modern times over the last century, the millennium-old Azhar remains a focal point of Islamic religious and cultural life for Egypt and the entire Islamic world.

The First Nine Centuries (to 1872)

Al-Jawhar al-Ṣiqillī conquered Egypt for the Fāṭimid caliph al-Muʿizz in 969, founded Cairo as the new capital, and in 970 began constructing al-Azhar as the official assembly mosque. Al-Azhar has been enlarged and much remodeled since. Organized instruction began there in 978. The mosque's name, “the brilliant,” may allude to the prophet Muḥammad's daughter Fāṭimah (the eponymous ancestor of the Fāṭimids) who was called al-Zahrāʿ. Al-Azhar became one of several Cairene missionary centers for the Fāṭimids, Ismāʿīlī Shīʿīs who claimed to be the true imams.

Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn and his Ayyūbid heirs downgraded al-Azhar when they restored Egypt to Sunnī Islam in 1171. Sultans and emirs of the Mamlūk dynasty (1250–1517) patronized and restored the now Sunnī mosque, but it was as yet only one among many seats of Islamic learning in Cairo. Cairo's situation on the Nile, the road to Syria, and Maghribī pilgrimage routes to Mecca made it a natural cultural hub. The Mongol sack of Baghdad (1258) and the loss of Islamic Spain enhanced Cairo's religious and cultural centrality.

The Ottoman conquest of 1517 diverted power and patronage to Istanbul, but al-Azhar weathered the storm and emerged as the preeminent seat of Arabic-Islamic learning. It also provided a vital link between the Arabic-speaking population and the Turkish-speaking military elite. By the late seventeenth century, the shaykhs of the mosque were choosing their own head—the shaykh al-Azhar. Shaykhs of the Shāfiʿī school of law, predominant in Cairo and the Nile Delta, monopolized the post from 1725 to 1870. This suggests considerable autonomy, for the Ottomans themselves were Ḥanafīs.

During the French occupation (1798–1801), Azharī shaykhs continued as intermediaries between the people and foreign military rulers, but al-Azhar also became a rallying point for revolt against the French, who bombarded, occupied, and desecrated the mosque. In 1805, the Azharī ʿulamāʿ sanctioned the ouster of Egypt's Istanbul-appointed governor by Muḥammad ʿAlī and his Albanian troops, but Muḥammad ʿAlī soon felt strong enough to begin the long campaign to subordinate al-Azhar to the state. He ignored the rulerʾs obligation to consult the ʿulamāʿ, chose the shaykhs al-Azhar himself, played Ṣufī leaders off against the shaykh al-Azhar, and confiscated many religious endowments.

As usual in premodern Islamic schools, al-Azhar had no formal admissions procedures, classrooms, desks, grade-levels, academic departments, required courses, written examinations, grades, or degrees. Professors lectured from a favorite pillar of the mosque, the students gathering at their feet. Memorization and commentary, often on epitomes and commentaries rather than on the original classics, were the means of instruction. Qurʿānic exegesis, ḥadīth, and jurisprudence were taught in the morning; grammar, rhetoric, and other “auxiliary sciences” after the noon prayer; and various nonessential subjects after the sunset prayer. Many Azharīs were active Ṣūfīs as well as ʿulamāʿ.

Students from outside Cairo joined groups called riwāqs, which were supported by religious endowments. Each riwāq had its shaykh and bread allowance, and larger ones had libraries, lavatories, and living quarters. Around 1900, there were three riwāqs for Lower Egyptian students and one each for students from El Faiyûm, central Egypt, and Upper Egypt. There were riwāqs for Kurds and Berbers, and for students from Java, India, Afghanistan, Iran, the Sudan, Chad, Bornu, Somalia, the Hejaz, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. The Upper Egyptian and Maghribī riwāqs were fiercely Mālikī, the Lower Egyptian ones Shāfiʿī, and the Syrians Ḥanafī. The few Ḥanbalīs had a riwāq of their own, and several riwāqs were open to all. In 1876, al-Azhar had 5,651 Shāfiʿī students with 147 shaykhs, 3,926 Mālikīs with ninety-nine shaykhs, 1,270 Ḥanafīs with seventy-six shaykhs, and twenty-five Ḥanbalīs with three shaykhs.

Resistance and Reform from Ismāʿīl to Nasser, 1872–1952

State reformers found it easiest to bypass al-Azhar in founding schools, a printing press, an official journal, and Western-inspired courts. The departure of progressive Azharīs like Rifāʿah Rāfiʿ al-Ṭahṭāwī, Muḥammad ʿAbduh, and Saʿd Zaghlūl to work for the state reinforced al-Azharʾs conservatism. Beginning in 1872, state reformers tried to overhaul al-Azhar despite resistance from the conservatives. Eventually the necessity of competing with state-school graduates for government jobs fostered a reformist minority within al-Azhar itself.

Khedive Ismāʿīl prepared the ground for reform by installing the first non-Shāfiʿī in 145 years as shaykh al-Azhar. Muḥammad al-ʿAbbāsī al-Mahdī, a Ḥanafī, served concurrently as grand muftī of Egypt. In 1872, Ismāʿīl instituted an oral examination (the ʿālimīyah) as a prerequisite for teaching at al-Azhar. When the ʿUrābī revolt of 1881–1882 broke out, al-Azhar was a rallying point for national resistance to European interference. A Shāfiʿī shaykh al-Azhar replaced al-Mahdī, who was identified with the palace and the Turkish elite. With the arrival of the British army of occupation, al-Mahdī reclaimed his post.

Cooperation between ʿAbbās II and the great Islamic modernist Muḥammad ʿAbduh, then a Sharīʿah Court judge, ushered in another reform attempt in the 1890s. ʿAbbās installed a Ḥanafī shaykh al-Azhar and named ʿAbduh to a new supervisory council for al-Azhar. Innovations included the establishment of a central library, a standardized salary scale, and a nationwide network of preparatory religious “institutes” under al-Azhar. The reforms bogged down when ʿAbbās and ʿAbduh quarreled. ʿAbbās then installed a conservative shaykh al-Azhar, and, shortly before his death in 1905, ʿAbduh resigned in frustration from the Azhar council.

In 1908, a sweeping decree added new subjects, required yearly examinations, and regularized a primary-secondary ladder in the institutes, but student and faculty protests forced the cancellation of these measures. In 1911, a cautious substitute decree shrewdly exempted a Council of Senior ʿUlamāʿ (today's Academy of Islamic Research) from reformist regulations imposed on other professors.

Ismāʿīl had opened a School of Law (originally Administration and Languages) and the Dār al-ʿUlūm teachers’ college to bypass al-Azhar. The opening of the School for Qāḍīs (1907) and the state-run Egyptian University (1925) dealt a further blow to job prospects for the unspecialized Azharī graduates. The two elderly Mālikī shaykhs al-Azhar between 1909 and 1927 responded not with reform but with pressure on the state to hire Azharīs. King Fuʿād agreed to do so, for he needed Azharī endorsement of his caliphal ambitions and a counterweight to Saʿd Zaghlūl's and the Wafd Party's following among secondary and Egyptian University students.

The Wafdist-Liberal Constitutionalist cabinets of 1926–1928 canceled the state's commitment to hire Azharīs, seized the prerogative of naming the shaykh al-Azhar, and brushed aside the king's candidate, Muḥammad al-Aḥmadī al-Zawāhirī, in favor of Muḥammad Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī. But King Fuʿād soon turned the tables on al- Marāghī, a Ḥanafī and an admirer of ʿAbduh. Fuʿād suspended the constitution, reclaimed the prerogative of appointing the shaykh al-Azhar, and put in Zawāhirī.

Nevertheless, the Azhar decree of 1930 and follow- up decrees in 1933 and 1936 implemented much of al-Marāghī 's program. Al-Azhar was pressed more firmly into the Western-inspired mold of the Egyptian University and the state schools. It became a university (jāmiʿah) as well as a mosque (jāmiʿ), with colleges of theology, sharīʿah, and the Arabic language, each with a state-appointed dean. The three colleges occupied temporary quarters until moving in the 1950s to a new quadrangle behind the mosque. Only public lectures were still given in the mosque itself.

Fuʿād's bid for autocracy failed, and al-Marāghī returned as shaykh al-Azhar in 1935. He sent Azharīs to study in Europe and encouraged dialogue with Shīʿīs, but his exile had taught him caution. He took care to cultivate young King Fārūq. Muṣṭafā ʿAbd al-Rāziq accomplished little as shaykh al-Azhar (1945–1947), for Azharīs distrusted him as a disciple of ʿAbduh, a graduate of the Sorbonne, and a professor of philosophy from the Egyptian University.

New Directions Under Nasser

Disappointed in Shaykh al-Azhar ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Tāj's (1954–1958) conservatism despite his Sorbonne education, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser found the reformist shaykh he wanted in Maḥmūd Shaltūt (1958–1963). Disappointed by his master al-Marāghī's latter-day royalism and conservatism, Shaltūt had welcomed the 1952 revolution. In June 1961 Nasser had Speaker Anwar el-Sadat ram a bill for radical al-Azhar reform through a surprised parliament in a single night. A withering press attack on the ʿulamāʿ followed.

The Azhar law of 1961 provided for a Supreme Council under the shaykh al-Azhar, an Islamic Research Academy, a Department of Cultural and Islamic Mission, al-Azhar University, and the precollegiate institutes. The existing colleges of theology, sharīʿah, and the Arabic language (renamed Arabic Studies) were further reformed. The College of Arabic Studies drifted farthest from its old moorings; in 1974, 93 percent of its contact hours were in “secular” subjects. The College of Sharīʿah added Qānūn (secular law) to its name and curriculum, and even the College of Theology now requires social sciences and a Western language. Opening the College of Islamic Women (literally “Girls”) was a radical step, as was the addition of colleges of engineering, medicine, commerce, science, agriculture, and education. Azharī old-timers resented the newcomers, and students in such subjects as medicine and engineering grumbled about the extra preparatory year of religious studies required of them. The location of the new colleges in the suburb of Madīnat Naṣr separated them psychologically as well as physically from al-Azhar.

Students from poor, provincial, rural, and illiterate families had long mingled at al-Azhar with those from privileged urban backgrounds. But from the late nineteenth century onward, privileged families deserted al-Azhar for state or private schools and better career opportunities. A survey of seniors at al-Azhar and Cairo universities in 1962 shows that Azharīs were generally poorer, more provincial, more rural, and from less educated families than their Cairo University counterparts. They were also far more conservative on such issues as coeducation and family planning.

Al-Azhar in Contemporary Perspective

The balance of numbers shifted away from the Azhar system and toward the state schools as the twentieth century wore on. By 1970–1971 only 1 percent of Egyptian primary school students, 2 percent of secondary students, and 5 percent (al-Azhar's three original colleges) of college students were in religious schools. Al-Azhar's 1,263 university students in 1935 paled beside the Egyptian University's 7,021. By 1960 al-Azhar had grown to 6,145 students, but Cairo (formerly the Egyptian) University had 27,973 students, and there were three new state universities as well. By expanding its range of subjects and opening branch campuses, al-Azhar had 160,000 university students taking year-end examinations in 1990 compared with 600,000 in the state universities. Standards in both systems plunged in the face of inadequate support and overwhelming student enrollments.

Al-Azhar's Preaching and Guidance section sent preachers and lecturers throughout Egypt. Al-Azhar acquired its own press. Its Majallat al-Azhar (Journal of al-Azhar, originally Nūr al-Islām, Light of Islam) was established in 1930 and its Voice of al-Azhar radio program in 1959, and Azharī preachers increasingly saturate Egyptian radio and television airwaves.

Outside Egypt, al-Azhar is prized as a champion of Sunnī Islam and the Arabic language. Students returning from studies at al-Azhar and Azharī professors and preachers on mission abroad are in demand throughout the Islamic world. Everywhere they have helped establish and improve Islamic schools and communal institutions.

Al-Azhar had 639 foreign students enrolled in 1903, and 999 in 1948. Foreign student enrollments at both al-Azhar and the state universities increased rapidly under Nasser, reflecting his ambitions in the Arab, African, and Islamic worlds. Al-Azhar's foreign student enrollments in the Nasser era peaked at 4,291 in 1955, then tapered off to 2,500 in 1972 just after his death. In 1990, al-Azhar campuses hosted about 6,000 foreign students from seventy-five countries. The Institute of Islamic Missions offered foreign students, who were often poorly prepared, a less rigorous program.

Arabs from east of Egypt (particularly Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians) came in substantial numbers throughout the twentieth century. With 1,534 students in 1972, they comprised 61 percent of all foreign students, nearly a third of whom were Palestinians. The once substantial Maghribi contingent declined in the 1960s because of independence and educational expansion at home. Only modest numbers of Sudanese came before midcentury (214 in 1948), but by 1955 there were 2,441, 57 percent of all foreign students. By 1972 the figure had dwindled to 124. Students from elsewhere in Africa, barely noticeable in 1903, reached 1,300 in 1964 but fell to 400 in 1972.

Stereotypes of al-Azhar as a rigid institution frozen in time persist among its secularist detractors, but Muḥammad ʿAbduh or his feminist disciple Qāsim Amīn would not recognize it today. Al-Azhar takes the education of women—albeit in a separate college—for granted and offers such areas of concentration as commerce and engineering. The Assembly Hall even bears ʿAbduh's name. Al-Azhar requires a Western language, often adds an English section to its journal, and has had shaykhs al-Azhar who hold French and German degrees. Western experts and a Ford Foundation grant helped it establish an Institute of Languages and Translation.

Nevertheless, al-Azhar is indeed conservative. It held Islamist activists at arm's length, from Jamāl al-Dīn al- Afghānī, Muḥammad ʿAbduh, and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, to Muslim Brotherhood leaders Ḥasan al-Bannā and Sayyid Quṭb. It is significant that al-Bannā and Quṭb were products of Dār al-ʿUlūm, not al-Azhar, and that in Egypt most leaders of today's “Islamic groups” are not Azharīs. Azharī shaykhs sometimes dismiss radical Islamists as extremists only superficially familiar with Islam, and many Islamists disparage Azharīs as “official ʿulamāʿ,” cravenly subservient to the state which pays them. 

Islamists generally approve, however, of the condemnation of controversial books by al-Azharʾs Islamic Research Academy, which sees itself as guardian of true Islam. In the 1920s, al-Azhar stripped ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq of his degree and drove him from his judgeship for reinterpreting the caliphate in secular terms, and it hounded Ṭāhā Ḥusayn for his provocative book On Pre-Islamic Poetry. Certain books by Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz (Najīb Maḥfūz) and literary critic Louis Awad are banned in Egypt, and al-Azhar has condemned Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and works by outspoken secularist Saʿīd ʿAshmāwī. Not a few Azharīs privately agree with Shaykh ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Kishk, the blind Azharī graduate whose radical, populist sermons drew an enthusiastic Islamist following in the 1970s and 1980s. Kishk chided his alma mater for accepting Western-educated shaykhs al-Azhar, demanded elections to fill that office, and called for the elimination of the colleges added since 1961.

For a decade, President Hosni Mubarak and Shaykh al-Azhar ʿJād al-Ḥaqq ʿAlī Jād al-Ḥaqq have maintained the uneasy symbiosis between al-Azhar and the state. Al-Azhar walks a tightrope between provoking another state assault like Nasser's and discrediting itself in the eyes of the people through subservience to the state. Azharī authorities issued fatwās endorsing family planning, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and Egyptʾs participation in the Gulf War of 1990–1991. Jād al-Ḥaqq condemned terrorism by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiniʾs Iranian partisans, yet he refused to sanction the payment of interest on funds invested for national development, as the government wanted. The balancing act goes on. 


  • Badrawi, Malak. Al-Azhar and the Arab World: Moulding the Political and Ideological Consciousness. London, forthcoming.
  • Creswell, K. A. C. The Muslim Architecture of Egypt. 2 vols.Oxford, 1952–1959. See volume 1, pages 36–64.
  • Delanoue, Gilbert. Moralistes et politiques musulmans dans l’Egypte du XIXe siècle. 2 vols.Cairo, 1982. Painstaking and profound study of intellectual life in nineteenth-century Egypt. Nothing comparable exists in English.
  • Dodge, Bayard. Al-Azhar: A Millennium of Muslim Learning. Memorial edition. Washington, D.C., 1974. Readable if pedestrian account, originally published in 1961 and ending on the eve of the reform of that year.
  • Eccel, A. Chris. Egypt, Islam, and Social Change: Al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation. Berlin, 1984. A mine of information and stimulating interpretation. Despite organizational problems and excessive sociological jargon, the fundamental work in English on al-Azhar.
  • Gran, Peter. Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760–1840. Austin, Texas, 1979. Biographical study of Shaykh al-Azhar Ḥasan al-ʿAṭṭār, with a controversial interpretation of the relationship of culture to society and the economy.
  • Hefner, Robert W., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Schooling Islam: Modern Muslim Education. Princeton, N.J., 2006.
  • Heyworth-Dunne, James. An Introduction to the History of Education in Modern Egypt. London, 1968. Fundamental work in English on nineteenth-century Egyptian education.
  • Husain, Taha (Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā). The Stream of Days: A Student at the Azhar. 2d ed.Translated by Hilary Wayment. London, 1948. Highly personal reminiscences of student days at al-Azhar in the early twentieth century by one of Egypt's leading writers.
  • Jomier, Jacques. “Al-Azhar.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed., vol. 1, pp. 813–821. Leiden, 1960–.
  • Reid, Donald Malcolm. Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt. Cambridge, 1990. Views al-Azhar's evolution as background to the development of Cairo University and the state school system.
  • Shafshak, Mahmoud. “The Role of the University in Egyptian Elite Recruitment: A Comparative Study of al-Azhar and Cairo University.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1964. Valuable social background and attitudinal data, unavailable elsewhere, from a 1962 survey of students.
  • Vollers, Karl. “Azhar.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1st ed., vol. 1, pp. 532–539. Leiden, 1913–.
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, N.J., 2007. First published 2002.


Reid, Donald Malcolm. "Azhar, al-." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #181: 'al-Azhar' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 20, 2024