In 1970, Egypt celebrated the 1000th year of Al-Azhar (Arabic for “splendid”), the nation’s oldest, and the Muslim world’s most renowned, Islamic university. Only al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco was founded earlier (859 AD).
Founded in Cairo as a Shia school, Al-Azhar has become the Sunni leader in the study of literature, Sharia law, Arabic grammar, Islamic astronomy, and Islamic philosophy. Saladin, the sultan who re-took Jerusalem from the Crusaders, forced it to become Sunni. When the Mongols savagely destroyed Baghdad and Spanish armies re-conquered Andalusia, Sunni scholars fled to Al-Azhar. It grew into the leading Sunni voice in the world under the Mamluk sultans (1250-1517).
In 1960, Egypt nationalised Al-Azhar and turned it into a modern university. It first admitted women in 1962. Today, its attendance has grown to more than 320,000 students, with 7,500-faculty and staff. However it ranks only 801st among world universities – 41st in the Arab world.
Al-Azhar has consistently produced the world’s top Sunni scholars known for their courage. In the 18th century, they rebelled against Saudi Arabia’s militant Wahhabi-Salafi theology and resisted Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. In the 19th century, Al-Azhar courageously welcomed their first progressive scholars, who modernized Islamic academics while preserving its classical heritage.
Al-Azhar continues to resist both militant Islam and secular ideology, while integrating modern disciplines with classical theology. Today, its tolerant conservatism attracts tens of thousands of devout Sunni students. It partners with over 4000 teaching institutions.
When the theologians of Al-Azhar speak, Sunni Muslims listen. If Islamic leaders will ever permit a relaxation of mistreatment of Christians or those converting to Christ, it will likely come from Al-Azhar. In the absence of a worldwide Muslim caliph (successor to Muhammad), Al-Azhar is the closest approximation to the theological center of gravity in the Sunni Islamic world today.