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The Muslim Cultural Expansion (Al-Azhar University)

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to imagine that actual missionary propaganda played only a minor role in these developments. During its initial period of bloom, Islam developed a high level of intellectual life. It is well known how the Arabs were the pioneers of scholarship and science in much of Asia, Africa and even in Europe for four centuries. Islam wanted to rule all of life, not only the religious but also the social, juridical and political aspects. The more Muslims wanted to dominate a cultural sector, the stronger the impulse to work out the consequences of Islam. Every principle of the Qur’an in all its consequences and applications had to be thought through theologically, politically and juridically. In this process, various differences of opinion cropped up that had to be solved by way of debate and dialogue. Schools of thought arose, one after the other, each offering its own perspective on life. Greek philosophy was translated and called in to help, so that it once again became accessible, even for Europe. This access stimulated interest in studying. First rate brilliant minds competed with each other for the highest laurels. So it happened that, while Christian Europe hardly bestirred itself at the level of scholarship, in the land of Islam a high level of scholarship prevailed century after century, that even today demands the highest respect and assured its domination over the minds of the peoples of Asia and Africa. The public opinion of the ruling classes, who by their higher development controlled the spirit of the populace, leaned increasingly on Islam, while Christians, bereft of their schools, sunk into obscurity and hung on to a tradition that was no longer understood and thus marginalized.

The Muslim tradition, as much as it was able, constantly tried to attach schools to mosques. From the beginning it was bent on spreading knowledge. Our pedagogy is different from theirs. That of Islam concentrates on memory and on imprinting strong conviction more than on developing your own thinking. The influence of these primary schools and, especially, of their madrasah or higher schools was most profound. Every degree of skepticism was excluded. Incised deeply, the mind received the imprint of the Islamic spirit so that, because of the very strong development of the memory, what was received in school stayed with them throughout life and controlled thought decisively. Muslims therefore were never at a loss when they confronted other opinions. They were saturated with what they advocated; their strong memory never disappointed them when it came to arguing their convictions. Furthermore, that conviction was simple in content. Over against Christians they always had the argument ready at hand that the former actually placed a second god next to Allah and thus by their own confession of Christ did violence to the purity of Monotheism. They did not reject Jesus. In fact, they honoured Him above Moses, but they did so in a manner purer and better than Christians, for Islam freed their picture of Christ from all the dogmatic reconstructions with which the falsification of the original Gospel had surrounded Him. This actually was the same type of argument that causes so many people today to forsake their confession of Christ. This was the thrust of the dominant public propaganda that pulled public opinion with it in its wake and over against which Christians were helpless.

But there was more to it. Especially the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo played an important pioneering role. This grand institution at its zenith had up to 20,000 registered students and, even though it suffered a period of decline, is currently once again the spiritual and scholarly centre for Islam. It was founded in 975 AD by Djawhar al-Katib al-Sikilli in the city of Cairo that itself had only recently been established by the Fatimids.3030Gibb and Kramers associate Djawhar with founding the Al-Azhar Mosque with which the university is associated, not the university as such, p. 50. The Fatimid Khalifs, who rebelled against the Khalifs of Baghdad, were originally Shi’ites and as such honoured Ali. They followed the rites of the Shafites, not those of the school of the Hanifites. There was tension between the Baghdad schools and them. In fact, the Khalifs of Baghdad pronounced them heretics. This created the need for the Fatimids to establish their own centre for scholarship. The University of Al-Azhar can trace its beginning to this need. The Fatimids did all they could to lure the most famous Arab scholars with high salaries and high prestige. It did not take long for the new school to achieve a high reputation. Students from all over the Muslim world came to Cairo to follow the lectures. In the endless disputes between Baghdad and Cairo that continued for two centuries, Cairo usually had the last word.

The first to put an end to all this disunity in the bosom of Islam was Salah al-Din, more commonly known as Saladin, after he conquered Egypt. He began by restoring recognition of the authority of the Khalifs of Baghdad and joining the Sunnis. However, not wanting the Egyptian scholars to oppose him, he decided that the Shafites could stay, but that from that point on, the other recognized Sunni schools of thought, namely the Hanifites, Malakites and Hanbalites, should also be represented on the faculty, each enjoying complete freedom to teach theology and jurisprudence in their own way. This only served to increase the reputation of Al-Azhar. Now scholars from all the schools came to curry the favour of the Egyptian ruler. And so it happened that from the time of Saladin, Al-Azhar became the great centre of Islamic scholarship. Lectures were offered in literature, theology and jurisprudence; sometimes also in astronomy, mathematics and science.

The Turkish capture of Egypt closed the University’s first blossoming chapter. They were characterized by a different spirit. In addition, their entry into Egypt coincided with a natural turn of the tide in Arabic scholarship. This scholarship had as good as reached its goals completely. In spite of much struggle and in-fighting, the grammatical studies, as well as those in theology and jurisprudence, had matured, resulting in research having come to a close. This stage of scholarship was completed. Differences of opinion had disappeared. In each area a kind of common mind had been achieved so that from now on there was no need for any further study, except to defend that which had already been established or agreed upon. This snapped the resilience of Islamic scholarship in the middle of the 16th century and left her with nothing but a bare, conservative character that it has retained till this day. But as the authority of this conservative tradition preserved Islamic scholarship, so does the Al-Azhar of today [1907] serve as a significant agent for the preservation of Islam, more even than it did during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,

The very expansive building in which the lectures are presented is very close to the graves of the Khalifs and borders on one of the first mosques of Cairo. If the weather is suitable, and that is almost always the case in Cairo, the lectures are held out in the open in an outside courtyard surrounded by a porch with pillars. You will find no trace here of stiff scholastic forms. Every lecturer surrounds himself in this open air space with whoever wants to listen, while the students contribute to their own education by fielding questions and comments. If they do not approve of the lecturer’s line of reasoning, they will interrupt him so that he has to explain himself further. Each of the four schools has at its head a sheikh or doctor, while the entire school has a rector as head sheikh. During the days of Muhammad Ali, this head sheikh would position himself as the Sheikh-ul-Islam to compete with the Khalif of Constantinople in prestige. This rector is practically always of the Shafite school, as a continuation of the old Fatimid tradition. Only once, during the 19th century, did a Hanifite by the name El-Mahdin El-Abassi occupy the position, but in 1887 he was again succeeded by a Shafite.

The rector, sheiks and lecturers are all chosen by the entire academic corps. Only the Hanifite who interrupted the line of Shafites was appointed by Viceroy Ishmael Pacha. Foreigners are often given preference, because they will draw students from their own country and thus help Al-Azhar to develop a more international Islamic character. There is no entrance exam; anyone may follow the lectures. I even found little boys there and, what I had expected even less, there were even a few little girls. These children learned reading, writing and Arabic grammar and with that they are taught to memorize some of the easier chapters of the Qur’an. This study, or, rather, memorization, and the ability to write Qur’anic passages, continues throughout the entire initial period. After that, they move on to the study of commentaries, logic, rhetoric, dialectic and of the art of poetry. During the final period, time is devoted to the higher studies of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. An average student requires fifteen to sixteen years for this entire course of studies. If someone begins at age six, he will have completed all these lower and higher studies at twenty-two. Even then there are no final examinations, nor is there any official declaration of graduation, but, on basis of all the courses he followed, the graduate can claim the title “Sheikh.” By far the greatest number break off their studies after they have completed the lower phase, usually around age fourteen. Only those who have given evidence of superior intelligence continue their studies at the higher level.

It should be noted that most foreigners enroll at a much later age. You find people there thirty years of age and older. For example, I found a number of adult Javanese, whom I invited to my hotel and with whom I had an interesting discussion with the help of our consul as interpreter. They had gone to Mecca and from there were sent on to Cairo, because of their special religious zeal and their great intelligence. They had taken on prestigious names like Muhammad and Omar and appeared rather pleased with themselves.

The University has a boarding facility that has rooms large enough for up to 40 students to live together, usually from the same area. Each student has a locker. Once a year, needy students are given a free outfit. They can also avail themselves of free, simple meals of dry bread and vegetables cooked in water. There are always water carriers with their leather bags, walking around for the thirsty. Order is preserved by security guards, burly men with respect-inducing clubs. I observed a little rascal teasing a nearly-blind female lecturer. (In Egypt some people are almost completely blinded by an indigenous eye disease.) This lady had so memorized the Qur’an that she could continue her teaching of the Qur’an. The only problem she had was to point to the correct words with her fingers on the printed page. Now this rascal thought it fun to push the page upward without her noticing it, so that she pointed to the wrong line that said something else, while the boy laughingly observed her. But it did not take long for a security man to notice. He gave him a sharp blow and immediately ended this ignoble scene.

The numerous needy young men studying at Al-Azhar live off gifts and small earnings. The old system of “bettelstudent” or beggar student still operates here. Quite a few students even work during the day as doorkeeper, load carrier, peddler or clerk. During the evening they ask other students to inform them about the day’s lectures.

Students have vacation for three months, during which time they return home to raise money, engage in small business and, wherever possible, spread knowledge about the Qur’an or lead unbelievers to Islam. Thus it is that Islam, not just recently but through the centuries, constantly, without letup and bit by bit, proceeds with its mission work. To be sure, there are more wealthy Muslims who devote their wealth to send missionaries to isolated regions, but this is not where the great influence of Islamic mission is to be found. That influence comes mostly through ordinary students, who during their travels and wanderings ply their trades but quietly and unobtrusively win unbelievers for Islam, especially in Pagan areas. The same process is at work in the Dutch Indonesian Archipelago, where most people are slowly won for Islam by the same method. These former students of Al-Azhar remain zealots for their faith throughout their lives and, totally on their own without any stipend, conduct their propaganda in a quiet manner.3131Most scholars of the spread of Islam, including Westerners, attribute the spread of Islam more to traders than to students.

In addition, most khadis and imams graduate from Al-Azhar, as well as the fakirs, a class of poor and often ascetic mendicants and dervishes, who are generally hired by wealthy Muslims as governors or nannies to teach the children and to lead in daily family prayers. By this arrangement the influence of this University spread throughout the land and far beyond, while the sheikhs serve governments with advice in all things religious. For example, recently they published an extensive public declaration condemning the Mahdi in Sudan. Thanks to this prestigious religious authority of Al-Azhar, every itinerant teacher-pupil who engages in mission comes with a letter of recommendation in hand.


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