Book review: New book examines life of Sheikh who turned Al-Azhar into a modern university

Mahmoud El-Wardni, Monday 19 Sep 2011

Politics and Al-Azhar examines the life of Sheikh Mohamed Al-Zawahri, an important figure in the transformation of Al-Azhar in the modern age


Sheikh Mohamed Al-Zawahri (1878-1944) wasn't just one of the learned men who led Al-Azhar institution; he is credited with turning it into a modern University. The Sheikh dedicated himself to the project and had to resign as soon as it was completed due to illness. This is an unusual occurrence at Al-Azhar where Sheikhs very rarely step down.

Politics and Al-Azhar, published recently by Al-Shorouk, carries a subtitle indicating it is the memoires of Al-Zawahri.

This was surely intended to capture the reader's attention, and we all know that autobiographies of important figures sell well, yet in reality the book was written by his son, Fakhreddine Al-Ahmady, who indicates in the introduction that his father's health didn't allow him to record his own memoires. He left the task to one of his students, permitting access to the necessary papers and documents.

However, the Sheikh didn't live long enough to finish his testimony, passing away before his student held the needed sessions for dictation, thus ending the project of writing his autobiography.

Al-Zawahri's project at Al-Azhar was supported by King Fouad, who took great care to remove any barriers and attended the opening of each phase, and led eventually to the transformation of Al-Azhar into a modern university with three faculties, offering degrees in the fundamentals of religion, Sharia law, and the Arabic language. This wasn't an easy transformation, for the institution was still focused on subjects and teachings from centuries before, and therefore the change meant new teachers, buildings and regulations.

The project of recording the vast history of this project was completed by Fakhreddine who is a medical doctor. He admits he didn't have the appropriate methodology of a historian, yet still insisted on carrying out the task himself. The misleading title can be forgiven since all these details are written on the first page of the book.

The book covers a very broad historical era, extending from the times of Khedive Abbas, passing through Sultan Hussein Kamel, and ending with King Fouad; recording important events like British involvement in the choice of Al-Azhar Sheikhs, the appointment of Sheikh Al-Maraghy and the eventual conditions for replacing him with Al-Zawahri.

The writing also focuses on the role played by Al-Azhar in promoting the idea of an Islamic Caliphate to King Fouad after the end of the Turkish Empire in Istanbul. An Al-Azhar Sheikh, Aly Abdelrazzek, published a book, Islam and the Fundamentals of Ruling, opposing the whole idea of a Caliphate according to Sharia law, which lead to the imprisonment of the Sheikh and his banishment from Al-Azhar.

The book was published by the Centre for Historical Studies, established by the late historian, Younan Labib Rizk and currently headed by Latifa Mohamed Salem and including figures such as Mohamed Afifi, Hamada Mahmoud Ismail and other reputable historians. Hence it's difficult to understand why the book is devoid of proper documentation or footnotes.

Even the introduction by Hamada Ismail indicates the extent to which the writing is lacking, yet there was no clear reason for not trying to do the task properly in light of the centre's experience with such critical historical works. 

Al-Seyasa wa Al-Azhar (Politics and Al-Azhar) by Dr. Fakhreddine Al-Ahmady Al-Zawahri, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2011. Pp. 324

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