A Journey Into Islam’s Head And Heart In Islam’s Oldest University, al-Azhar–Quickflight

by bria4123 on March 16, 2012


One of my favorite experiences in Cairo was my walk through the world’s oldest Islamic university, al-Azhar.

Exploring the place took me into Islam’s head and heart.

Al-Azhar means The Radiant, and it was named after Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima. It was a fitting name for more than one reason.

Egypt was taken over by the Fatimids in 969. They had broken from the caliph in Baghdad, and they were Shi’ites–they believed that they were descendants of the Prophet through his daughter and her husband, Ali. So, the name al-Azhar had spiritual and political overtones.

When the Sunnis re-conquered Egypt in the 12th century, they turned al-Azhar into the center of Islamic orthodoxy. To this day, it’s the most prestigious institution for the study of Islamic thought. In the late 20th century, many secular subjects were added, including engineering, business and medicine. People come from all over the Islamic world to learn. Walking through al-Azhar was humbling at first.

I had never seen a large group of people studying harder. The mosque (pictured above–the columns are from Fatimid times) was full of students with their noses buried in a book.

More folks paced the courtyard, alternating between reading and looking into the sky and reciting. More students were engrossed in their studies in the corridor around the courtyard.

Then the 3 guys in the first shot invited me to sit with them. They couldn’t speak English. That’s unusual in Egyptian universities, so they were probably international students–maybe Lebanese, Syrian or Iraqi. But they exuded all of the warmth and freshness of college students all over the world. I felt a lot of affinity with the people around me, and a whole lot of respect for them.

That was in 2007, four years before the Arab Spring. All those diligent and sincere young people were working so hard to enter the working world under political regimes that did much more to line their own pockets than develop their economies and create jobs. No wonder why the Arab Spring emerged in so many countries at the same time.

Wherever these great people are now, I wish them a radiant future.

You can see some of their heritage in mosque architecture.

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