Location: Cairo, Egypt
Era: 972 CE
The Al-Azhar complex in Cairo is known worldwide as the centre of Islamic Jurisprudence. The mosque itself was established around 972 CE, over a thousand years ago, once Cairo had been established as the capital of the new Fatimid Caliphate. It was the first of many new mosques to be established in the city and would earn the city the nickname ‘the city of a thousand minarets’.
The Muslim world faced a lot of turbulence across dynasties and caliphates at the time when Al-Azhar was being established, and as Cairo was emerging as a new capital. Forty years earlier, Ka’bah in Makkah was attacked, with many worshippers killed and the Black Stone was taken away for a few years, before it was returned to Makkah. In the Mediterranean region, Muslims were clashing with Byzantine Christians. Al-Andalus in Spain was about to face turbulence after the death of Abdul Rahman III, who had ruled and developed the Spanish Caliphate for almost fifty years from 912-961 CE.
The mosque was commissioned by Jawhar al-Siqilli, who had led military campaigns for the Fatimid dynasty across northern Africa. As the Muslim population of Cairo grew, the mosque was expanded many times to its current size. The construction materials reflected the many empires that had ruled Egypt over the preceding two thousand years.
Most mosques have consistent minarets built at the same time. Al-Azhar is unusual in having a long history, and the different minarets are all of different styles reflecting changes in Islamic dynasties and influence over the centuries. The Minaret of Qaytbay dates from the late 15th century CE. The minaret of al-Ghuri dates from the 16th century CE. Much later, the Ottomans of Turkey added huge extensions and their own Turkish-style minarets. The modern Al-Azhar Mosque still has five minarets reflecting that history and has a capacity of 20,000 in a mosque and university complex covering 15,600m2.
Having established the mosque after two years of construction, very soon, a number of Muslim scholars were hired to set up a university and a centre for the study of Sharia Law. Initially, the mosque was under the influence of Ismaili Shia Islam from North Africa, but in recent centuries, it has been a beacon for Sunni Muslims worldwide. In the years after the opening of the mosque and university, thousands of manuscripts were sent there to set up a library for the scholars and students. It is one of the longest-running universities in the world, and it is thought that aspects of university culture, such as the wearing of black gowns and the split between undergraduate and graduate faculties, emanated from Al-Azhar and became adopted by universities in Europe and elsewhere.
M. Frishman, & H. Khan, The Mosque – History, Architectural Development & Regional Diversity London, UK: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1994).
C. Glasse, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam (London, UK: Harper Collins Publications, 1999), 60.
H. U. Rahman, A Chronology of Islamic History 570-1000 CE (London, UK: Ta-Ha Publishers Limited, (1995).