Malika C. Zeghal

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online December 2009 | | DOI:

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The university-mosque of al-Azhar, situated in Cairo, Egypt, is the foremost center of Sunni religious learning in the Muslim world and plays a significant religious, intellectual, and political role in Egypt and beyond. From its inception, its history was tightly linked to the ebb and flow of Egyptian politics and to the attention (or lack thereof) given to it by Egypt’s political rulers and private patrons. Al-Azhar was built in 970 as a mosque in the beginning of the Fatimid era in Cairo, and it became a Sunni institution after Saladin’s 1171 conquest. It subsequently fell out of favor and regained its prominence between the end of the 13th century and the 14th century. However, there is no consensus among historians on when al-Azhar became a preeminent institution and when al-Azhar’s ulama, in addition to being important judicial and religious authorities, gained the role of mediators between the populace and the political elite. Some argue that this change took place under the Mamluk military state, while others say it occurred in the early Ottoman period. Historians of 19th- and 20th-century Egypt have studied al-Azhar’s history through the lenses of imperial domination, modernization, and secularization, generally assuming that the institution was bound to decline both politically and intellectually. The emergence of Political Islam in the 20th century also led students of Islam to view al-Azhar as an institution submitted to the Egyptian regime and unable to innovate intellectually and ideologically. However, a renewed interest regarding al-Azhar on the part of historians and political scientists began in the 1990s. As a result, al-Azhar is now viewed as an internally diverse religious institution helping the state regulate the expressions of Islam, and as a diverse group of ulama whose function is to articulate the normative aspects of Islam through daʿwah, the production of fatwas, and education. Writings in this recent period underline the significance of the religious institution and the normative and public role of its ulama in preserving and reconfiguring the tradition of Islam, as well as its transnational reach.

Article.  3079 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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