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I may not be publishing a new blog for the next two weeks. I will be in Egypt studying their post-secondary educational system and specifically one of its institutions, Al-Azhar University, a religious university founded in 970 AD, which makes it the second oldest degree-granting university in the world.

Al Azhar University

Al-Azhar University was founded as a madrasa, (a religious school). Most universities around the world, which are 200 years old or more, were also founded as religious schools. Today it is the global center of Arabic literature and formal Sunni Islamic learning. It is also charged with a mission that includes the propagation of Islamic religion and culture. To this end, its Islamic scholars (ulamas) render edicts (fatwas), which provide religious guidance to the Islamic faithful worldwide.  Recently a fatwa was issued which provided a clarification of, and thus a prohibition against, female circumcision.

Within its commitment to tradition and Sariah law, Al-Azhar seems in some aspects modern and forward looking. One example is that Al-Azhar has taken one of its unique assets, its library, considered the best in the world of its kind and put it on the web. A major contention of Shaikh Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, (a cleric who recently issued a 600-page fatwa against terrorism joined by over 400 clerics around the world), is that a lack of knowledge and information about Islam leads young people to buy into terrorism as a means to fight their enemies. Is providing access to its knowledge on the web Al-Azahr’s way of offering, information or enlightenment to the world public?

Al-Azhar has always attracted Islamic scholars and students from all over the world, but recently has begun to send hundreds of its students to Western and Asian countries to complete their education. How does that fit into the Al-Azhar strategy?

I am curious to know about this place, its vision, and plans for the future. I also want to learn how an educational institution survives 1,200 years. Getting an answer to this question may take longer than 10 days.

Al-Azhar is one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the Middle East and in the secular world, its scholars are revered not just in the ranks of the ulamas — but the physicists, the historians, the medical doctors who teach there as well. How was this prestige captured and how is it maintained?

I want to know if Al-Azhar thinks it is facing any threats. The Egyptian press points to the near future, looking toward a transition from the ageing and ailing 82 year old Hosni Mubarak who has run Egypt for 30 years, to a new leader and point out that the government has been tightening its grip over universities and the practice of Islam trying to wrest control before the change of guard.

At this time Al-Azahr seems to be moving toward a more independent future. Last March university governors appointed a Sorbonne-educated cleric to take the helm. His name is Ahmed el-Tayeb, and he holds a PhD in Islamic philosophy. He faces an old question — how to preserve Al Azhar’s independence and influence.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that “Al Azhar today is suffering from a perceived lack of credibility in the face of pressure from the Egyptian government and a loss of popularity amid the rising influence of TV preachers and Internet imams. That has created a crisis of legitimacy for an institution whose influence once stretched from Morocco to Indonesia.”

Columns of Learning

I want to sit at the foot of one of the marbled columns where the faculty used to gather the students for their lectures. There is a column for medicine, another for law, another for engineering; and maybe, I’ll find a column for economics.

I want to ask everyone I meet, how does something as organic as a university survive for so long and I hope to find a scholar or two who would like to attempt an answer. Maybe there are some clues there, that can be applied to principles of institutional survival here. Inshallah.

I’ll let you know what I learn after I get back.