Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Azhar — Mosque, history and debate

Dina Ezzat and photographer Sherif Sonbol visit the almost fully renovated Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo before its reopening


It is time for evening prayers at the Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo during the holy month of Ramadan. Cairo residents who were only allowed limited access to pray at Al-Azhar last year are set to have all the prayer floors opened for them this year on the first night of the Muslim holy month after the mosque’s full-scale renovation.

Last week, the antiquities authorities and those of Al-Azhar went through the renovation work that has been conducted since 2015 using a large Saudi grant. They checked the ceilings with their massive woodwork, plain brown in the original Fatimid parts and intensely coloured in the later Mamluke and Ottoman parts.

They inspected the newly made lanterns that are designed in Fatimid and Ottoman styles, the restored frescoes and windows, the steam-cleaned floors covered with new carpets, and the reworked tiles of the mosque that are fabricated in a way that dispels the heat of Cairo’s long summers.

This is perhaps the most extensive restoration work that the mosque has seen in contemporary times. Previously it was restored, but not as thoroughly, under former president Hosni Mubarak in the 1980s and prior to that under former king Farouk in the 1940s.

This week, the mosque will be open fully once again, even though work is still under way on the roofs and some second-floor rooms used as dormitories for students who come to Cairo from all over the country and from other Muslim countries to study at this grand mosque that was constructed and opened for the first prayers in 972 CE in Ramadan.

“The mosque was opened under the name of the first Fatimid ruler of Egypt, Al-Muizz li-Din Allah, whose name is still associated with the main road running through Islamic Cairo, even though at that time it was just his army chief Gawhar Al-Siqilli who was handling city affairs, having taken it over three years earlier on the fall of the Ikshidid Dynasty amid the spread of poverty, hunger and illness and the dramatic decline in the River Nile,” said historian Youssef Osama.

For over a year, Osama has been organising walks through Islamic Cairo. By July this year, he will have done 60 in a city that has long since opened up from its original royal quarters that were built to the northeast of Al-Qataei, the previous capital, to include all three previous Arab capitals built since the Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century CE.

He had included Al-Azhar only once on walks that today include the neighbourhoods of Misr Al-Qadima, Al-Sayeda Zeinab, Al-Khalifa, Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and Al-Gammaliya. “In today’s plan of the capital, Al-Azhar falls in the zone of the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district,” he explained. However, Osama added, even when he does not take his group to Al-Azhar, it is likely he will pass by it or talk about it.

“Ultimately, Cairo is the most significant of all the capitals built since the seventh century on the site. Indeed, it was kept as the capital, even after the decline of the Fatimids and until today when the new administrative capital is being built, always along the same pattern, to the northeast of Cairo,” he said.

In the original plan of the once-upon-a-time imperial city, Al-Azhar, “the main mosque — gamie as opposed to smaller mosques called masjid — was built to the south-east of the city. It was constructed close to Bab Zuweila that was used by those who had no reason to live in the city, then a secluded zone for the ruler, his army and aides, to enter through the walls of the city,” Osama said.

“The idea was that those who wished to come to Al-Azhar, either to pray or to study in one of its schools allocated to teach the principles of Ismailia Shiism, the faith of the new Fatimid ruler, would not have to venture far into the city. They would just walk along the main road for a while,” he added.

This main road — “or rather great street” — of Cairo, Al-Muizz li-Din Allah, is the only surviving one of any of the leading cities built by the Arab-Muslim conquerors. The idea of this main road (al-sharie al-azam) was to connect the palace of the ruler with the main mosque.

As a result, to the north of Al-Azhar, on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street, there was originally the eastern palace allocated for the ruler himself, and opposite it was the western palace allocated to his top aides. The area is the setting for Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s famous novel Bayn Al-Qasrayn, literally “between the two palaces” and translated as “Palace Walk”.

Mameluke pulpit

LATER HISTORY: Unlike the main mosques built for previous Muslim capitals of Egypt, Al-Azhar had a defined name.

It was not simply called the Mosque of Cairo, as previous mosques had been, having been given the names of the mosques of Al-Fustat, of Al-Askar and of Al-Qataei, the former Muslim capitals.

It is sometimes thought that the name derives from the name of the daughter of the Prophet Mohamed Fatemah Al-Zahraa, given the association of the Shias with her and with her husband Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohamed whose dramatic death took place in one of the first political wars in the early history of Islam.

This is not a narrative that Osama is willing to embrace. “The Fatimids had a tradition of using the superlative adjective to name the places they built, and of course there is the Mosque of Al-Aqmar further down the main road, which was built by the second Fatimid ruler of Egypt,” he argued. The superlative in Arabic is formed by adding the article and changing the order of the letters, giving kibir, akbar, and al-akbar, for example (or big, bigger, biggest).

Throughout the centuries that followed, Osama said, many changes occurred in the original scheme of Cairo, “but one of the few things that remained intact and was changed only to be enlarged was the Al-Azhar Mosque.”

The original design was a simple square designed into three lots with great columns across them. In the main part of the mosque there was a pulpit and a prayer niche. Over the centuries, the subsequent rulers of Egypt, mostly of the Sunni faith, built three other niches. In today’s Al-Azhar Mosque, the four features are still there, perfectly restored and distributed across the buildings.

The changes that Al-Azhar saw throughout the decades that followed its construction meant that it was the leading Shia school in the country and then in the Fatimid Caliphate that extended eastwards to the Levant and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It was the second of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt, Al-Aziz, who started this mission, for which he summoned leading Shia scholars from the original seat of the Fatimids further to the west in North Africa.

“Al-Aziz was keen on this expansionary mission, and he spent very generously on it, but it was not an easy task for Al-Azhar to attract many Egyptians to the Shia faith. Most historians say that for the most part Egyptians did not find the Shia faith easy to digest,” Osama said, stressing that most of them remained Sunnis.

He added that Fatimid rulers subsequent to Al-Aziz were not capable of convincing the population that they lived up to the Shia portrayal of the ruler as “a God-selected ruler who can be of benefit to those who follow him and looks down on those who do not succumb to his will”.

“This was perhaps due to the fact that for the most part those who followed Al-Aziz as rulers of Egypt all reigned at a very young age, with some of them being practically children,” Osama said. This was particularly the case with the rule of Al-Mustansir, who ruled in the 11th century when the country was hit by famine and plague.

“Al-Mustansir came to power at the age of seven, and he was unable, even a few years later, to assume the role of the caliph in leading the prayers at Al-Azhar, essentially because he never managed to memorise the Quran as he would have to have done as the Muslim ruler at the time,” Osama said. To resolve the matter, the aides of the caliph wrote a few Quranic verses on the curtains at Al-Azhar so he could read them when he headed the prayers.

For the most part, Al-Azhar saw no major architectural changes during the rule of the Fatimids. In fact, having at first thought Al-Azhar too small, Al-Aziz had initiated the construction of another mosque, much larger, outside the walls of Cairo, but he died before it was finished and it was his son, Al-Hakim, the third Fatimid caliph, who finished it as the Al-Hakim Mosque where it stands today at the end of Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street. A few decades down the road, Al-Amer, the next ruler also built his own mosque on the same Street.

However, Al-Amer also decided to add a new pulpit, beautifully engraved, to Al-Azhar. This is now displayed at the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo. It was the successor of Al-Amer, Al-Hafez, who ordered the enlargement of the interior space of Al-Azhar. The originally U-shaped area was squared with a fourth colonnade added.

“Yet, by this time Fatimid rule was getting weaker and weaker with a series of very young rulers whose capacity to run the caliphate was minimal and with their ministers and aides gaining more power. The end of the Fatimids came when Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi, or Saladin, one of the ministers, took over and started his own dynasty,” Osama said.

Osama would not go along with some of the harsh accounts that historians have put forward of the consequences of the firm aversion that the first Ayoubid caliph, a devout Sunni with strong anti-Shia sentiments, had towards Al-Azhar. Instead, he said that while Saladin had acted to eradicate the Shia faith and build schools to re-promote the Sunni faith, especially in Cairo, he did not cause any “deliberate harm” to Al-Azhar. “He just closed it and rendered it useless,” he said.

“It was not just about Al-Azhar, but it was also about the Dar Al-Hikma, a central school that the Fatimids had also built on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street to provide Shia learning. This too was closed down by Saladin, who built 27 schools (madrasas), including 24 in Cairo, to re-promote the Sunni faith,” Osama said.

Abbasid pulpit

NEW DAWN: With the subsequent rule of the Mamelukes, two dynasties down the road from the Fatimids, Al-Azhar saw a new dawn, “this time as a beacon of the Sunni faith”.

In the 13th century, Al-Dhahir Baybars, one of the most prominent of the Mameluke rulers of Egypt, ordered the renovation of Al-Azhar and its relaunch as a leading Sunni mosque and school. “Baybars wanted to launch a wave of education, and he thought Al-Azhar could serve to promote learning,” Osama said.

A few decades later in the 14th century under the rule of Al-Nasser Mohamed bin Qalawoun, another Mameluke sultan, nearby land was taken over to build the Al-Madrasa Al-Taybarssiya, a school constructed by Qalawoun’s leading general Alaaeddin Al-Taybarssi, and the Al-Madrasa Al-Akbaghawiya, a school built by Abdel-Wahid Akboghah, a leading aide of Qalawoun.

“What led Qalawoun to seek the help of his aides was the very practical fact that the mosque had lost a minaret and suffered serious cracks after the city was hit by an earthquake. The reconstruction was done, and with it came new minarets and new domes for Al-Azhar,” Osama said.

Further expansion was in order in the following centuries with the construction of the Al-Madrasa Al-Gawhariya in the 15th century and the expansion of the mosque and the increase in the number of its minarets in the 16th century before the fall of the Mamelukes with the Ottoman invasion in 1516.

 Later, as Cairo was no longer the seat of the caliphate as it had been lost to the Ottomans, Al-Azhar lost some of its intellectual prominence, but it remained subject to the attention of some of the walis (rulers) of Egypt and their aides, and these introduced new expansions.

The shape of Al-Azhar as it stands today was formulated under the rule of the khedive Abbas Helmi II in the 19th century, who built the Abbasi colonnade next to the Al-Madrasa Al-Taybarssiya and fixed the eight doors allocated for the entrance of students coming to pursue learning at the mosque from all over the Muslim world.

Finally, king Fouad in the 20th century built the annexed buildings, including what is today the seat of the grand imam of Al-Azhar across from the mosque itself.

“At the end of the day, Al-Azhar is not as big in terms of space as the Ibn Toulon Mosque, which is the largest by far in Cairo,” Osama said. He argued that the comparison should not include what is known today as the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, which carries the name of the Arab conqueror of Egypt, because this was originally a much smaller mosque that originally did not bear the name of the man who brought Islam and the Arabic language to Egypt.

However, he insists that with its relatively large area and five minarets, none of which is an original square-shaped Fatimid minaret, and six domes, Al-Azhar is still the main mosque of the city. This is not just because of its central location at the heart of the capital, but also because of its historic associations. And these were not just about the transformation from Shia to Sunni beliefs, but also about the change of ruling schools — with the sheikhs of Al-Azhar following the Maliki School of Islam established in the Arab Maghreb before turning to the Shafai School established first in Iraq and then in Egypt.

“It is equally important to acknowledge the political role played by Al-Azhar,” Osama noted.

Fatimid pulpit

THE MODERN AGE: During the French invasion of Egypt at the end of the 18th century, French general Napoleon Bonaparte tried to rein in Al-Azhar by assigning a council of its prominent sheikhs to administer the city, and this later helped in mediation between the French occupying forces and the residents of Cairo after the revolt that took place in 1799.

 With the ascent of Mohamed Ali to power in the early 19th century, the idea was to reduce the influence of the sheikhs of Al-Azhar, with Mohamed Ali appointing aides who had not studied at Al-Azhar.

According to historian Hossam Ismail, no ruler of Egypt has ever reduced the influence of Al-Azhar as much as former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s.

“Al-Azhar was always a destination for residents of the city to reveal grievances or to coordinate against invaders, and this happened with the French Expedition and also with the British occupation, for example. However, under Gamal Abdel-Nasser more than under Mohamed Ali or any other ruler, Al-Azhar was reduced to being almost part of the government,” Ismail said.

He added that this was not just about the limitations imposed on the role of Al-Azhar, but also about the “declining status of its grand imam in the executive hierarchy”. In 1961, Nasser granted the head of the government the right to appoint the grand imam. In 2012, following the 25 January Revolution, Al-Azhar gained more independence from the state, at least in the administrative sense.

However, according to Islam Barakat, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an NGO, Al-Azhar has not regained intellectual independence from the government. “In the final analysis, it remains part of the executive even if we see some disagreements between the grand imam and the president every once in a while,” he said.

“Neither the president nor the grand imam goes very far from one another. This means that the president cannot go too far, at least publicly, in disagreeing with the grand imam, and the grand imam has to accommodate the preferences of the president,” Barakat said. He noted that this has been true since the establishment of the republic in 1953.

This sort of mutual accommodation, according to Barakat, was the basis on which the state and Al-Azhar decided to launch what is known today as “moderate Islam” (Al-Islam Al-Wassati). According to Barakat, the term is loose and poorly defined, especially since some of the leading sheikhs of Al-Azhar embrace at least elements of the Wahhabi School of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, which has close political relations with Egypt and has provided financial support for Al-Azhar.

“Many of those who have been accused, at least intellectually, of subscribing to rigid readings of Islam have been graduates of Al-Azhar, so there is a paradox here,” he said. Barakat added that Al-Islam Al-Wassati was also not the only “convoluted” concept that Al-Azhar has been associated with. He argued that present calls for the “reform of Islamic discourse” are sometimes no less convoluted. “What does this really mean? And how could it be executed,” he asked.

Mahmoud Mehanna, a member of the Higher Committee of Scholars (ulamas) of Al-Azhar, argues the opposite, however. Al-Azhar and the former vice president of Al-Azhar University were engaged in promoting a new Islamic discourse for Muslims all over the world, he said. “We are not touching the basics of our religion. We are just cleaning up all the unauthenticated additions that have been added from [non-Muslim sources] to the turath [heritage]. This is being done through higher studies that examine such imposed ideas that are not compatible with the text of the Quran or with the concepts of the Sunna [the traditions of the Prophet Mohamed],” he said.

This is not a small task “especially since it is designed for the benefit not just of all Muslims around the world, but also for all Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority societies that will benefit from an accurate understanding of Islam as a religion that calls for peaceful coexistence.” Mehanna said that some people might not accept his arguments. “It is up to the state to reflect the serious efforts that Al-Azhar has taken in this respect,” he said.

According to Mehanna, Al-Azhar is assuming exactly the responsibility it was designed for over 1,000 years ago: to be a beacon of Islam. However, according to Barakat, the fact remains that over 1,000 years ago Al-Azhar was established as a beacon for the Islam that the state condones, and hence the many transformations it has gone through.

Historically speaking, Osama said, it could not be argued that Al-Azhar has ever been independent from the state. “It was dependent on the ruler upon its inauguration, and even before Al-Muizz had come to Egypt from his previous residence in Tunis the imam of Al-Azhar included Al-Muizz in his prayers. Throughout the rule of the Fatimids, the rise and fall of every caliph was indicated by whether his name was included in the prayers, especially the Friday prayers,” Osama said.

However, it would be a mistake to overlook the wish of every ruler to have Al-Azhar follow his political lines. Even Mohamed Ali, who started the process of the reduction of the influence of Al-Azhar, knew that he could not rush it, even as he introduced a new elite that was not very accommodating to the ulamas of Al-Azhar. “After all, from its foundation onwards, Al-Azhar has always managed to stand as a symbol of religion, meaning state-condoned religion,” Osama said.

The space for progressive thinking or the lack thereof was always there in the work of the ulamas of Al-Azhar, he said. “This is why we have seen different schools being added. But of course there was also the question of how prosperous the state and the caliph were and how far they wished to advance or were hijacked by political intrigue, as has been clear throughout the ages and ever since the day Al-Azhar was built under the Fatimids,” Osama concluded.

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