view: Jewel on the Nile —Muqtedar Khan
I left Al Azhar inspired by its resurgence and armed with an understanding to develop a new partnership between Al Azhar and the University of Delaware to foster moderation and religious tolerance
On my recent visit to Cairo, I visited the most prestigious of Islamic universities — Al Azhar — and interacted with many of its scholars. Al Azhar is the world’s second oldest, existing and continuously degree granting university. It is named after Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet of Islam PBUH, who was known as Al Zahra, the brilliant one.
The three oldest existing universities of the world are all in the Muslim world. The University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, established in 859 AD, is the oldest, followed by Al Azhar (965 AD) and Al-Nizamiyyah, established in Baghdad and Isfahan (1065 AD). Oxford University was established over two hundred years after Al Azhar in 1096 AD.
The US embassy in Cairo had arranged a lecture by me to a large group of imams and jurists (fuqaha), most of whom were faculty members and some graduate students of Al Azhar. I spoke to them about the contributions that American Muslim scholars were making to Islamic thought, in Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence; especially on the issues of interfaith relations and gender justice.
I went anticipating a tidal wave of intellectual resistance if not downright hostility. I was pleasantly surprised. I learnt that nearly all of them were broadly familiar with the topics and the scholars I was discussing. Many of them expressed their support for American Muslim research, others wanted to know more, and some were sadly dismissive and unmoved by American Muslim thought.
I was very happy to discover that they were aware of my work and a few of them even used it in their classrooms. This was encouraging because there is scepticism in Muslim circles about the potential impact of Islamic scholarship produced in the West. While our work is respected and followed in East Asia, in Europe and South Asia, it is not clear how much of it is followed in the Arab world.
After the lecture at the embassy, I went to Al Azhar and met with Dr Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the current president of the university and a former Mufti (grand jurist). Also present was Dr Hassan Wagih, a prominent Egyptian public intellectual and professor at Al Azhar.
We live in a world that is profoundly interconnected. Dr Al-Tayeb informed me that a just week before my visit, my teacher, Dr John Esposito of Georgetown University was sitting in that very chair and Dr Wagih, like me, was a PhD from Georgetown. And just like that, I felt at home.
I spent over an hour with the president, discussing the intellectual and political challenges that Muslims face today, including the rise of Islamophobia in the West. To my surprise and pleasure, he was candid and forthcoming on all issues including on the rise of extremism in the Muslim world. He acknowledged that radicalism and extremism existed in the Muslim world and was thriving by using Islam as its vehicle. He insisted that the extremists were very few in number but unfortunately their voice was much louder and perhaps even more influential than the voice of moderate Muslims and traditional Muslim institutions like Al Azhar.
I took this as a cue to quickly fish into my satchel and pull out my last book, Debating Moderate Islam, and presented it to him. This was my nonverbal way of saying, “I am doing my bit, what about you?”
Dr Al-Tayeb explained that Al Azhar acknowledges that it has a leading role to play in combating the rise of extremism and in bringing the true, moderate and traditional understanding of Islam to those currently misled by radicals. Towards this end, he had instituted several initiatives to encourage Azhari scholars to go out and speak about the values of peace and tolerance so fundamental to Islam. Al Azhar’s graduates are spread all over the world and they are being mobilised to speak up against radicalism and to preach moderation. Special initiatives have been launched to pursue this goal; such as the conference ‘Al Azhar and the West’ and the partnership with the Indonesian and some Western governments.
I left Al Azhar inspired by its resurgence and armed with an understanding to develop a new partnership between Al Azhar and the University of Delaware to foster moderation and religious tolerance.
Dr Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding