Al Azhar institution is the biggest in the Islamic world and the second oldest surviving university in the known world after the Moroccan University of The University of al-Karaouine which was established in 859 AD . Al Azhar Established in 970 AD during the Fatimid Dynasty as enlightenment University (Madrassa) and as centre of Islamic learning, its students studied the Qur’an and Islamic law in detail, along with logic and grammar. Also Al Azhar became a Grand Mosque in Egypt which has affected the course of history in Egypt and the Middle East multiple times during its 1044 years in existence. Throughout the past millennium almost all the Islamic clerics from Egypt and many around the Middle East were Azhar graduates or at least studied Al Azhar at some point in their lives and careers. Al Azhar receives thousands of students from all over the known world to Study Islamic studies, theology as well as other sciences like literature, Medicine and Engineering.
Al Azhar was established during an era of great enlightenment in the Arab and Islamic world. Cities like Cairo, Baghdad and Andalucía (Spain&Portugal under Arab Rule) when the Muslims and Arabs had the upper hand in the sciences of the medieval era, were beacons of enlightment and knowledge to the entire world with vast universities and libraries during the middle ages. During that period the Arabs and Muslims invented sciences like Algorithms and Algebra and developed many others like Medicine, Chemistry and Engineering as well other human sciences like Philosophy , Music and art.
Throughout its glorious history Al Ahzar institution has always been a bastion of moderation in Islam and has always battled most forms of extremism and terrorism that has emerged in the Egyptian society especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s noteworthy that some of Al Azhar graduates have strayed from its path of moderation and modernity. These clerics were mostly weeded out and uprooted from its administration as soon as they prove to propagate extremism.
Al Azhar historically has been a trophy for most Egyptian leaders due to it influence within the Egyptian society and many Egyptian leaders of Egypt usually attempted to ascertain that the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar is on their side as the blessings of that Grand Sheikh means that he is usually beloved by the populace.
Al Azhar Grand Sheikh is the religious authority for the Sunni Muslim and equivalent to that of the Pope of the Vatican. At least till the early 20th century the word of the Al Azhar carried the weight of a law to be abided with by all Muslims. A declaration of Jihad against invaders in the early medieval times or even during Napoleonic France invasion of Egypt would mean that even able bodied Muslim would have to join the Jihad efforts to repel any foreign invaders on Egypt or any other predominantly Muslim Country.
Moreover, Al Azhar has been a bastion for Egypt and its leadership has always rallied Egyptians to save their country from foreign invasions like the European Crusades on the Middle East (1095-1250 AD) The last crusade which was met by an incredible resistance that led to the hug defeat of the French Army and the capture of the French Emperor Louis IX after the Battle of Mansoura in 1250. Throughout these crusades Al Azhar always encouraged Egyptians and other Middle Easterns whether Muslim, Christians or Jews to defend their homelands and countries from European invasions and were successful eventually.
A similar role was done in the late 18th century and early 19th during the French Invasion of Egypt by Napoleon when the French legendary general attempted to persuade Al Azhar clerics that his intentions is to free Egypt’s from the Ottoman occupation and he is a Muslim who he is in Egypt to defend Islam. Once the Azhar Clerics figured out that he is lying to seek their approval, they called upon all Egyptians to fight this invasion and 2 revolts took place in Cairo afterwards to repel the French invastoin. By 1801 the French after their fleet was sank in the Mediterranean by the British fleet and as a result of the continuous revolutions and uprisings against them led by Al Azhar they were forced to withdraw from Egypt as a result of these defeats. Similar to Hitler , the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s ambitions started in Egypt and ended in Russia.
“Long Live the Crescent and the Cross” A slogan that was spread during the 1919 revolution against the British occupation of Egypt uniting both Christians and Muslims against the British occupation which started at that time to sow discord and sectarianism in the Egyptian society but failed miserably. Al Azhar coordinated its efforts with the Egyptian Coptic church and other Christian churches and also historically hosted a Christian Orthodox Bishop Sergious to take the stand in Al Azhar mosque and preach Muslims a motivate them to stand their ground against British Occupation and insist on the revolution demands of full independence of Egypt. This unity between Christians, Muslims and Jews in Egypt resulted in the success of the 1919 revolution and the declaration of independence in 1922.
Due to the historical patriotic role of Al Azhar, it has been a target for attacks most of the Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist and terrorist groups. They have always propagated in their literature that the moderation of Al Azhar is false and that claimed that its clerics have deviated from what they propagate the righteous faith of Islam. As known to all observers that Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist don’t believe in the National state and believe in a more imperial entity which is the Islamic Caliphate. Their attacks against Al Azhar may stem from the fact that it remains one of the impenetrable Egyptian institutions like the Egyptian Army or the Egyptian judicial system.
Unfortunately, some of the alumni and clerics of Al Azhar became a weapon against the same Egyptian Islamic institution. Some of these graduates of Al Azhar have launched huge propaganda campaigns on Al Azhar and its clerics from other countries trying to bash the status of the great institution. For the past 6 decades the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist have been trying to infiltrate and control Al Azhar like Egyptian born Qatari nationalist Yusuf Al Qardawi who has been waging a propaganda war against Al Azhar in service of the Muslim Brotherhood which he is a member of . Other Salafist who follow the Wahabbi doctrine and wish to spread it from within the most influential Islamic institution have been doing the same. Their attempts do sometimes work as a result of the great financing that Salafist groups receive and they have managed to infiltrate Al Ahzar though never completely managed to sway it towards Wahhabism and its Egyptian version labeled as Salafism.
These attempts had many of the younger clerics preaching more conservative and extremist views in Mosques all over the country and Azhar institution have not managed to curb on this phenomena but attempts in that direction are taking place systematically in coordination with the Ministry of Awkaf which handles religious affairs in Egypt.
Ironically the most famous all Sunni Muslims institutions was originally founded to spread the Shia’a doctrine in Egypt. The success of converting the majority of Egyptians to Shia’a doctrine was minimal and the majority remained loyal to the Sunni doctrine. Famous Sultan Saladin of the Ayyubid house has ordered the shutdown of Al Azhar for 2 years in order for it be shifted in preaching the Sunnia doctrine of the majority. And since that date it has been doing that while continuing to teach the Shia’a doctorine in its university as part of the many doctrines and ideologies of Islam and has never denounced it like Wahhabis and Salafist did . Thus still maintaining the moderation they propagated for over a millennium and setting example for other Muslims and Islamic institutions to follow.
Al Azhar role post June 30th revolution is more important than ever, not by intervening in politics which it should refrain from at all costs but actually a social role in curbing on the extremists ideologies by Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood. The latter ideologies has infected the Egyptian society for decades. This will a very long road to go for Al Azhar but time has proven that they are capable of making changes to the better.