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Volume 20, Number 6November/December 1969

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Steeped In Glory

Out of the tradition of the Prophet himself, a university…

Written by Leslie Farmer
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Acquire knowledge. It enables its possessor to know right from wrong; it lights the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless; it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament among friends, and an armour against enemies.

There are two faces to Egypt's Al-Azhar University. One is new, barely 10 years old; the other is nearly as old as Islamic civilization. Between them stand 1,000 years of history.

The new face can be seen in a Cairo suburb where, amid the new faculties of Al-Azhar, members of Egypt's college generation study, gossip, scrutinize medical specimens or the growth of a new strain of plant. The old, the parent faculty, is a few miles away, in the heart of medieval Cairo, where crescent-topped domes, colonnaded courtyards and a mosque with delicately carved and patterned minarets suggest what it may well be in 1969: an embattled citadel of a traditional way of learning, now gone stale, but steeped in glories 10 centuries old.

Long before Muhammad, Greek and Roman learning had already penetrated the Eastern Mediterranean. The Museum of Alexandria was perhaps the world's first great academic institution and the school of law in Alexandria, where sixth-century jurists helped complete Justinian's code of laws, was famous around the world.

But such schools could not long outlast the empires that had supported them—and in any case their influence had never been able to reach very far into the forbidding desert hinterland. Thus, in the seventh century, in the Arabia into which the Prophet Muhammad was born, an educated man was considered to be one who could express himself well in prose and poetry and had mastered archery and horsemanship. Education, as defined today, did not exist.

Muhammad soon changed that. He set up a school—Islam's first—to teach the Koran, and reading and writing, the skills necessary to sustain and pass on religious learning. The school was an enclosure connected directly with the Prophet's small mosque in Medina. There some of Muhammad's companions taught men, women and children.

It was a simple pattern—the inextricable linking of learning and religion—but in many parts of the Arab world it continued well into this century.

At first, and until the middle of the eighth century, those desiring an education simply went to the nearest mosque, where classes centering on the Koran and the Hadith (the traditional sayings of Muhammad) provided the basics of literacy as well as moral instruction. Then, about the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty, a more formal system began to crystallize, which in some ways resembled the Calvinist schools of puritan America.

A child began his education at about the age of eight, in a school run either in connection with the mosque or in the mosque itself. The curriculum of such a school centered on the Koran, the child's reading primer. Writing, penmanship, stories about the Prophet and his companions, grammar, arithmetic and poems were also taught, with great stress on memorization, and an application of the rod to the soles of the feet. Girls attended school along with their brothers, but were not encouraged to take in much more than basic religious training.

The first real academy of higher education in Islam, apart from a mosque, was Al-Nizamiyah, founded in Baghdad in 1065 (about 100 years before the University of Paris) by Nizam al-Mulk, the Persian vizier of two Seljuk sultans. The Nizamiyah had as its backbone the Koran and Arabic poetic classics. Many of its students held scholarships—a contribution to such institutions being considered a meritorious act—and all were boarders. The Nizamiyah type of school, the madrasah (literally, "a place for study"), spread throughout the East, as far as Samarkand and to the West as far as Morocco, and certain organizational features were, supposedly, adopted by the early European universities.

Meanwhile, the mosque continued to serve most communities as a free education center, often, as in the case of Al-Azhar in Cairo, Zaituna in Tunis and Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, becoming the nucleus of a university.

The mosque of Al-Azhar was founded in Cairo in 970, only one year after the city itself, by the Fatimid general, Gawhar. Eighteen years later, the Caliph Al-.Aziz made it an academy and by the time another 18 years had passed Al-Azhar boasted nearly 5,000 students from all parts of the Muslim world, and several hundred professors. Its specialty then was theology, as Cordova's came to be philosophy and Baghdad's science, but it also offered such diverse courses as Islamic law, Arabic language and literature and occasionally medicine, music, mathematics, logic and astronomy.

Students at Al-Azhar, for whom not only tuition but bed and board were free, were lodged according to national groupings. Scholarships and bequests from the rich and pious made such support possible—and helped assemble a large library long before the invention of the press during the 15th century made books available in such quantities in Europe.

Teachers, for whom a position at Al-Azhar was the equivalent of one at Oxford today—the great Ibn Khaldun, considered to be the founder of sociology, gained part of his reputation lecturing there—sat on low stools or on the floors of the different courts or halls and lectured. Students sat around on mats taking notes. After the lecture, there would be an informal period of discussion and questions.

There were no prescribed courses of study or time limits for a student's stay at Al-Azhar or at other universities like it. Entirely at the teacher's discretion a student was himself given a license to teach what he had learned from his master. Prodigious memory work and the use of the Koran as a base for studies of many kinds continued to be notable features of this system.

The contributions to civilization made by the scholars of Islam—some, like Ibn Khaldun, connected with the universities, some not—were numerous. The poet Umar al-Khayyam, a gifted mathematician, helped produce a calendar almost as accurate as the Gregorian one in use today throughout the West. The oldest works on arithmetic and algebra were written in Arabic. Arab geographers kept alive the idea that the world was round and thus contributed to the discovery of the New World. But long before Columbus sailed, the tide of Islamic education—indeed of most aspects of Islamic civilization—had ebbed, as, increasingly, a reverence for the past stifled its critical and scientific spirit. Arab sciences, whose history after the Abbasids was one of stagnation and then decline, were followed not long after by philosophy and literature. By the 13th century the decline was well underway, and the great university-mosques such as Al-Azhar had begun to retreat to an increasingly elaborate theology which they would teach with little change for the next five centuries.

In the 19th century, however, Arab intellectualism began to waken, as Muhammad Ali imported European ideas and methods into Egypt and opened up Lebanon and Syria even more to the influence of western missionary schools. It was a slow awakening but against the often more dramatic background of great political and military events it continued to pick up momentum. Political independence, after World War II, spurred development even further.

All this while in Cairo, almost untouched, secure within its cloistered courtyard, Al-Azhar maintained the traditions of early Islamic instruction introducing no serious changes in either content or method until the 1930's. Then, in 1961, the U.A.R. government took a radical step: it created secular faculties at Al-Azhar and updated the religious faculties. This move left special areas of concentration in Islamic and Arabic studies undisturbed but added instruction in business administration, agriculture, medicine, industry, pedagogy and languages. Thus the grip of the ages on Al-Azhar was broken at last, but without, one hopes, crushing the spirit which in their golden age raised Islam's schools to a pinnacle of learning epitomized in the injuction of Islam's Prophet and the founder of Islam's first school: "Go in quest of knowledge even unto China."

Leslie Farmer is a frequent contributor to Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the November/December 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1969 images.