Facing a Credibility Crisis,
in 1971 (20th Century), the Muslim world celebrated the millennial anniversary of one of the oldest institutions on the face of the Earth; Al-Azhar. Interestingly as well as paradoxically, Al Azhar’s reputation is far greater elsewhere in the Muslim world than in its native Egypt. We will come to learn more about this later on in this brief essay.
To the western world, Al Azhar is an unknown name; at least in the past several hundred years. Yet it is the foundation on whose model, the rest of the world has built its concept of the process of learning and enlightenment.
The crusaders came back home to Europe from their barbaric campaigns in the East with two great human concepts, Chivalry and Enlightenment … Saladin taught them an invaluable lesson in chivalry, valor, humility, and magnanimity upon victory, and Al Azhar taught them that the enlightened mind of a learned man is an indomitable weapon in the face of wanton, barbaric and dark souls.
Unlike Christianity, Islam does not have, nor recognize, an ecclesiastical institution to mediate between man and deity. The concept of the church as the medium that facilitates this relationship is alien to both Islam and Judaism, and by the general consensus of historians, it was never a conceptual or doctrinal axiom in the early teaching of Judeo-Christianity, only became so in ancient Rome and Alexandria.
Despite this clear distinction, Al Azhar is the closest thing you can come up with to fill in the guiding role only of an ecclesiastic body within the Muslim masses who look up to it for guidance and Fatwa; a form of jurisprudential rulings in matters of interpretation of the Sharia Law and Islamic traditions.
Established in 971 as a place of worship and a center for learning, it was not the first institution of its kind; Al Quraweyin in Morocco had predated it by quite a few years. Yet Al Quraweyin had never achieved its status as a place of worship nor its caliber as a center for learning.
Following Al Quraweyin, Al Azhar became the second oldest university on Earth; full 400 years before Oxford University, and 600 years before Cambridge University. It was the first institution in the history of higher learning to grant an academic Learned Scholar degree, and the first university in history to establish the concept of post-graduate advanced learning philosophies for which advanced postgraduate degrees were granted to Higher Learned Scholars who, had successfully established original research and developed new and personal philosophy tracks in their respective disciplines.
This means, it was the second University in history to grant a Bachelor’s Degree and the first to grant Master’s and Ph.D. degrees, first in Arabic, Theology, History and Jurisprudence, then quickly thereafter, in Medicine, Pharmacology, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and the Humanities.
But more importantly, and perhaps the most catalytic role it has played across its eclectic record is that it has maintained an intricate balance between faith and reason over a history that has spanned a full Millennium covering turbulent civilizational rise and fall.
Its brilliant role as a center for enlightenment enabled it to provide the cool, levelheadedness required to maintain this balance while acting as a light house to cast a shining ray of guidance for the safe procession and transition in the various stages of the turbulent history of its creed.
Al Azhar has not achieved this brilliant track record either out of abyss of knowledge or by being a tool in the hands of clashing competing geo-political titans, but rather by being an independent institution whose role was to guide rather than clash, construct rather than demolish and rejuvenate rather than revolutionize.
Along this rich history of monumental enlightenment, Al Azhar never ran out of great minds, and has trained an equal number for the same role to bear the beacon of wisdom and take it to the far corners of the great Islamic nation state.
It is precisely because of this vital role, and this stupendous track and achievement record, and precisely because almost 1.5 billion followers of the faith look up to it for guidance, The BBC compared its status to "Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, The US Congress, The Library of Congress, and the US Supreme Court" combined, and added "We might not even come close to it in spectrum and scope, in order to give it due credit or value."
Looking at the state of Al Azhar, now, that it has been usurped of its independence, and has been entered into the service and employ of corrupt, despondent and despotic regimes that has used it to maintain its dictatorial grip on power in Egypt, it is no wonder that it is offering us a caliber of Muslim scholars so pathetic that its Great reputation and vital role are now facing a grave crisis of credibility.