Islamic Studies Al-Azhar
Malika C. Zeghal, Mary Elston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0011


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 or 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 therefore playing an important role in shaping them), 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.

General Overviews

The following are general works pertaining to al-Azhar’s history as a mosque (its buildings and religious functions) and an institution of learning and teaching. They most often deal with institutional, religious, pedagogical, and political aspects of al-Azhar, whereas the less recent works, such as ʿInan 1958 and Dodge 1961, analyze its history in terms of political and intellectual influence, including its decline in relation to changes in political power.

  • Dodge, Bayard. Al-Azhar: A Millennium of Muslim Learning. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1961.

    The first history of al-Azhar in English. Particularly useful for late Ottoman times to the mid-20th century.

  • ʿInan, Muhammad ʿAbd Allah. Tārīkh al-jāmiʿ al-Azhar. 2d ed. Cairo, Egypt: Muʾassasat al-Khanji, 1958.

    A general history of al-Azhar from the Fatimids up to modern times. A few statistics of the student body and faculty in the 19th and early 20th century are presented at the end of the book, with budgets of al-Azhar. First edition published in 1942.

  • Jomier, Jacques. “Al-Azhar (al-Dj̲āmiʿ al-Azhar).” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by H. A. R. Gibb, et al. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1960.

    Provides a broad introduction to the history of al-Azhar, from its foundation to the mid-1950s.

  • Khafaji, Muhammad ʿAbd al-Munʿim. Al-Azhar fī alf ʿām. 3 vols. Cairo, Egypt: Al-Matbaʿa al-Muniriyah, 1954.

    Volume 1 presents a broad history of al-Azhar from its foundation to the revolution of 1952. Volumes 2 and 3 present biographies of the grand imams of al-Azhar and other significant Azharite intellectual figures, as well as laws of reforms and the general evolution of its bureaucracy.

  • al-Shinnawi, ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Muhammad. Al-Azhar jāmiʿan wa jāmiʿatan. 2 vols. Cairo, Egypt: Maktabat al-Anjlū al-Misriyah, 1983–1984.

    The history of al-Azhar from its foundation to the reign of Muhammad Ali. Argues against the idea that al-Azhar weakened under the Ottomans and reconsiders ʿInan’s negative evaluations of Muhammad ʿAli’s policies toward al-Azhar (see ʿInan 1958).

  • Skovgaard-Petersen, Jakob. “Al-Azhar, Modern Period.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam Three. Part 3. Edited by Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2007.

    A succinct update to Jomier 1960, with an emphasis on the period of the 1980s and 1990s and the changes prompted by the emergence of Islamist movements.

  • Vollers, K. “Azhar.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam: A Dictionary of the Geography, Ethnography and Biography of the Muhammadan Peoples. Vol. 1. Edited by M. Th. Houtsma, T. W. Arnold, R. Basset, and R. Hartmann, 532–539. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1913.

    A comprehensive summary of the history of al-Azhar’s buildings and endowments since its foundation, its internal organization and student life, the type and content of the knowledge transmitted, as well as its textbooks, classified by madhhab, and the attempts at reform in the modern period up to the first part of the 20th century.

  • Al-Zayātī, Sulaymān Raṣad al-Ḥanafī. Kanz al-Jawhar fī Tārīkh al-Azhar. Cairo, Egypt: Maktabat wa Matbaʿat al-Ghad, 1999.

    An overview of the history of al-Azhar from the Fatimid era to the close of the 19th century. It provides information on the architectural development of al-Azhar mosque, the rectors of al-Azhar, the content of Azharite education, and late-19th-century reform efforts. This work draws heavily from the chronicles of al-Maqrizi and al-Jabarti. It was published for the first time around the year 1900 (precise date of publication is unknown).

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