Sunday,21 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Sunday,21 April, 2019
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The lighthouse of Africans

Al-Ahram Weekly sheds light on the role Al-Azhar plays across the African continent

The lighthouse  of Africans
The lighthouse of Africans

The Al-Azhar Mosque and University in Cairo is one of the oldest universities in the world, established in the fourth century after the Hijra (AH), the journey of the Prophet Mohamed from Mecca to Medina, or, according to the Western calendar, in the 10th century CE. Its modernisation took off in the late 19th century when in 1872 a decree was issued allowing students to take degrees in a range of defined subject areas. In 1961, faculties of science were established at Al-Azhar.

“I learnt the Holy Quran as well as the sciences of the hadith [the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed] at Al-Azhar. Otherwise, the most important things I learnt from being a student at Al-Azhar were how to be a good citizen, how to be patriotic, and how to treat other people. I also learnt what befits me as a student seeking knowledge and what befits the nation,” said Mohamed Kabir, a third-year Nigerian student studying at the Faculty of Religious Sciences at Al-Azhar.

Kabir is one of 40,000 students from 115 countries now studying at Al-Azhar, known to all as the “Lighthouse of Islam”.

Student Dean at the Faculty of Religious Sciences Abdel-Moneim Fouad said that the position of dean of students with special responsibility for foreign students was established seven years ago as the personal project of Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb. “What distinguishes the curriculum for these students is that it combines authenticity and modernity, joining the study of Sharia law to modern views,” Fouad said.

“The students come to Al-Azhar to learn the sciences of the Sharia as well as secular sciences. For example, we have medical students who study the Sharia and modern medicine at the same time, as well as students enrolled in the faculties of engineering, commerce and agriculture and the islamic sciences.”

“Many prefer to go to the Faculty of Medicine or Engineering at Al-Azhar as they love the university and would like to learn the correct teachings of Islam alongside their scientific studies. There are also many other incoming students from African countries enrolled in other faculties,” Fouad said.

Among the countries sending significant numbers of students to study at Al-Azhar are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, China, and Russia. Most African countries, among them Senegal, Nigeria, and Cameroon, also send students to Al-Azhar, and the university is able to provide a number of them with scholarships, especially the most worthy. “Al-Azhar has built special accommodation for such students, named the City of Islamic Educational Missions, and it plans to build more,” Fouad commented.

When the students go back to their countries after studying at Al-Azhar, in many cases they are promoted to senior positions, becoming heads of state, ministers, muftis and ambassadors. “When the grand imam went to Indonesia recently, he found that all 17 cabinet ministers he met were Al-Azhar graduates,” Fouad said.

“There are few African countries, or other countries, without graduates from Al-Azhar. There is also a scientific mission in Russia financially supported by Al-Azhar and under the umbrella of the Islamic Research Centre in Cairo. The members of such educational missions, now present in most countries around the world, usually live in Dar Al-Fatwa [fatwa, or Islamic legal rulings, establishments] and educational institutes,” he added.

Despite these successes, Fouad also stressed some of the problems the university faces today. “We are engaged in the fight against extremism, which is an international phenomenon whether in the African countries or in the West. Al-Azhar exports its moderate approach and calls for peace and stability worldwide. The grand imam himself has travelled to Germany, the Vatican, East Asia, Russia, and many African nations for the purpose of correcting misconceptions about Islam. We want to free Islam from those who have an extremist approach that falsifies Islam’s true identity as a religion of peace,” Fouad said, adding that the university hoped to increase the number of the scholarships it is able to offer to African students.

Professor of Sharia law Ahmed Karima said that “Africans have always trusted Al-Azhar to spread Islam in Africa. This is partly due to geographical location, as Egypt, as well as being an Arab or Islamic state, is also an African state. Africans are proud that Al-Azhar is located in Africa.” Moreover, moderate religious teachings including Sufi thought and correct Sunni doctrine are taught at Al-Azhar, corresponding to African conceptions of Islam.

“Africa is inclined to Sufism, and many religious institutions there are Sufi institutions even if there are Salafi-Wahabi and Shia intrusions. Africans are not usually attracted to Wahabi doctrine, and they are not ready to become Shia. They are attracted to the culture and teachings of Al-Azhar, which explains why incoming students are so often Africans,” he said.


AL-AZHAR’S REACH: Karima said that many Al-Azhar graduates from Africa have gone on to play important roles in their own countries, including Mohamed ibn Ali Al-Sunousi in Libya, Al-Gazaeri in Algeria, Abdel-Karim Al-Khattabi in Morocco and Ahmed Bambo in Senegal.

“Whether they are from Sudan or from other African states, Al-Azhar is extremely popular. The only question is whether Al-Azhar can take all these students, given the very high demand. Al-Azhar has its own financial resources, and it can give scholarships, but there is always a need for further financing, and I hope that the state and those who give sadaka [charity] can finance the extra students from Africa as their numbers increase.”

“The spread of jihadi thought and beliefs in Africa has in some cases given rise to violence, as in the case of the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria and the Al-Shabab movement in Somalia. These things must be combated, and Africans given the benefit of studying at Al-Azhar. However, in order for them to do so more financial resources are needed. There should be an Islamic waqf [fund] for scholarships for African nations, for example, so that the efforts made by Al-Azhar in Africa can be increased.”

“Our message is clear. It is a message of clarification, not of compulsion. God described the Prophet Mohamed in the Holy Quran as ‘mercy’ — ‘We sent you as mercy to the universe,’ He says — spreading the message of Islam. Al-Azhar’s role today is to deliver this message as the inheritor of the prophets,” Karima said, adding that Al-Azhar has been carrying out this role for more than 1,000 years. “This is why parents send their children to learn at Al-Azhar. A graduate of Al-Azhar comes out into the world open-minded and ready to fight extremism wherever it might be.”

There are problems, of course, and Fouad does not shy away from describing them. “Every message is faced by barriers like ignorance. The ministries of education in Egypt and other countries should increase the religious content of school syllabi and work closely with religious scholars. The media should open its doors. Campaigns against religion and its scholars should be stopped. There have been people criticising important religious scholars who cannot even pronounce their names correctly or name a single book by them. They attack for the sake of attacking and don’t work to find out the facts,” he commented.  

“It is important that we live with others in peace despite differences in religion, as this is what our religion teaches us,” Fouad added, emphasising that Islam was a religion of tolerance.

“Hitler, who killed millions, was not a Muslim. The Americans who imprisoned people in Abou Ghraib Prison in Iraq were not Muslims. Those who killed in Bosnia and Herzegovina were not Muslims. The most representative figures of Islam are the scholars who call for tolerance and peace around the world. This is because our message is a message of peace, as is represented in the Islamic greeting al-salam alaykum [peace be upon you],” Fouad said.

“Most Africans do not want to see extremism on the African continent, and they are concerned by the money that is being spent to spread Salafi or Wahabi beliefs that are designed to disrupt it. The state needs to play a role here, as there is a danger that the Islam that has been built by Al-Azhar could be unbuilt by the Salafis. Only Al-Azhar should work in the field of Islamic daawa [preaching)] in Africa, for example,” Karima said.

“Shia thought could be contained if a consensus is reached on Islamic doctrines without this clashing with Sunni beliefs. Shia beliefs are spreading in North and West Africa, which is why properly scientific preaching should be increased there. Al-Azhar should have a greater presence there in order to serve the true spirit of Islam and for the sake of security both in Egypt and in the African countries,” he added.

For Kabir, the problem is often financial, as there are “many people who would love to study at Al-Azhar in my country, but there are not enough scholarships.” Fouad does not underestimate this problem, but says that Al-Azhar is trying to increase its educational missions and scholarships.

“Lectures are open to anyone interested to find out more about Islam in the African countries and in Egypt. We invite anyone to dialogue with us provided they abide by the rules of dialogue. We are opening our doors to any person from any religion who would like to learn more about Islam. We ask them to come and engage in discussion with us, and they will find the answers they need,” Fouad concluded.

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