AZHARITES IN KABUL: On the afternoon of 24 August, Al-Azhar University teacher Shawki Abu Zeid landed on a military plane in Cairo after having been evicted from Kabul in the wake of the Taliban takeover of the capital of Afghanistan.
The trip from Kabul to Cairo came after over two years that Abu Zeid had spent in the Afghan capital as head of the Al-Azhar Institute in Kabul — an educational institute that provides school education for close to 800 Afghan students, all boys, who come from several Afghan regions.
Abu Zeid was grateful to have been brought back home with 23 other Egyptian teachers who had been posted by Al-Azhar to Kabul. However, as he also said in comments to Al-Ahram Weekly, he lamented the abrupt end of the mission of an institute that “was really helping to provide knowledge to some very keen and brilliant students who really cared to learn.”
It was in May 2019 that this graduate of the Al-Azhar Faculty of Pedagogy in Cairo was sent on his first overseas posting to Kabul. Having passed the exams, interviews, and training for this job, Abu Zeid, then in his late 40s, was possibly hoping for an easier post in a country not as marred by political uncertainty as Afghanistan. Certainly, he said, his family had been apprehensive about the move, but he nevertheless decided to head to Kabul.
“When I arrived, it all looked very different but quite nice. My apprehension about the country did not last long because the name of Al-Azhar is a trusted pass to the hearts and minds of the people there,” he said.
With the warm support he found from some of his coworkers and from an exceptionally kind Afghan group of associates, Abu Zeid started to slowly but surely find his way around and learned to appreciate the beauty and norms of the place and even to cope with the sometimes exceptionally cold weather.
“The most heartwarming part was the look on the faces of the students who attended the primary, elementary, and secondary classes of the institute that reflected huge keenness and much gratitude for being able to learn in classes organised by Al-Azhar,” he said.
In addition to managing the institute, Abu Zeid was often engaged in other activities that allowed him to give lectures at public gatherings and to share his thoughts in programmes on national TV.
Wherever he went, Abu Zeid said, he only saw welcoming faces. “Before I went, I learned from colleagues who had already served there that the Al-Azhar Institute is never involved in any political issues and never gets into any controversy. This made perfect sense because we have a very specific mission, and our mandate requires that we steer clear from politics and just be engaged with knowledge,” he said.
“We conveyed the ideas of tolerance, compassion, and piety that we carry as Azharites. We taught the Arabic language, linguistics, and literature,” he added.
Prior to the abrupt end of his mission in Kabul, Abu Zeid started working with the Afghan Ministry of Education to start an additional Al-Azhar Institute for girls. “There was an agreement and work in progress, and we were not very far from concluding it, but unfortunately with the recent developments things came to a sudden stop,” he lamented.
“Girls are not made to be kept at home and are not meant to be deprived of knowledge and learning. Girls deserve every opportunity to learn, and we had hoped that Al-Azhar would be able to contribute to this in Afghanistan,” he said.
Today, Abu Zeid is not sure about the fate of this project that he has invested so much in. Nor is he sure whether the Al-Azhar Institute in Kabul will re-open its doors for its few hundred students.
The decision, he said, is in the hands of the state and Al-Azhar. “It is not clear yet whether our work would still be welcomed and when it could be safe for teachers to be there again. These are matters for high-level decisions,” he said.
However, he added, “if asked to go back and continue my work in Afghanistan, I would certainly be part of the mission again.”
“It was in 2009 that Al-Azhar opened its Institute in Kabul, and the kind of respect that all those who worked there received shows the respect an Azharite has in this city and from this people. We were hoping to reach out to Afghan people all over the country, but this was not what was meant to be,” he stated.
REACHING OUT: Secretary-general of the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Centre in Cairo Nazir Ayyad explained that the centre has been committed to delivering religious knowledge for some 60 years.
It was in the first week of January 1961 that Al-Azhar opened its first overseas institute in Somalia. Sixty years down the road, Al-Azhar is claiming both dedication and success in its operations to establish learning centres that teach the Quran, Islamic theology, and Arabic across many countries that have larger or smaller Muslim populations.
According to Ayyad, “Al-Azhar is keen on putting across knowledge that reflects the true precepts of Islam that are at odds with all forms of radicalism.
“Our message is one of tolerance and compassion. This is the commitment that the grand imam of Al-Azhar has made. It is a commitment that the establishment of Al-Azhar subscribes to,” he stated.
Over the past six decades, Ayyad said, Al-Azhar has been having institutes built and operated in many African countries, “particularly those around the Nile Basin” and also in Asian states with large Muslim communities. However, Ayyad added, there have been institutes too in other countries, among them Romania.
Overall, Ayyad said, Al-Azhar has 30 institutes and centres that fall directly within its central operation. Those, he explained, are divided among 16 countries.
The management of these is conducted in partnership with the host countries, Ayyad said. Al-Azhar, he explained, sends out teachers and takes care of their salaries, while the host states provide for local administration staff that help with communication with the population of their countries.
The teachers sent overseas, Ayyad said, are selected through a very thorough process that guarantees that they are the best suited to teach foreign students in a foreign country. “They have to pass several tests to be accredited as overseas teachers, and we don’t keep any teachers for more than three years in any one overseas post,” he said.
Most recently, Ayyad added, Al-Azhar has opted to expand the profile of its overseas teachers by incorporating some of the foreign students who come to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar University. Once they are eligible for accreditation, Ayyad explained, they go through the necessary tests to qualify as Al-Azhar teachers in their home countries. This new mechanism, he added, has also proved to be a success.
The foreign students who come to study at Al-Azhar are usually graduates of Al-Azhar institutes overseas. Some are on scholarships that are granted either by Al-Azhar or by their national governments. Some are enrolled as full-tuition students.
Ultimately, Ayyad said, everyone studies the same curriculum of Arabic and Islamic theology. “There is no difference between, for example, the curriculum that is offered to students in Afghanistan and that to students in Somalia,” he said.
The predominance of a particular school of theology in any particular country, he said, is naturally accommodated. “We teach all schools of Islamic thinking and regulations. This applies to everyone everywhere, in Egypt or overseas. Obviously, we don’t interfere in the personal choices of anyone, and they can choose whichever school they wish to follow,” he added.
However, more attention is accorded to the predominant school in the different countries. “For example, the Institute in Kabul catered for the Hanafi madhab (school), while the one in Somalia catered more to Shafei teachings,” he said. “In all cases, students receive the same books sent from Cairo through the facilities of the Foreign Ministry,” he added.
Currently, Ayyad said, Al-Azhar is working on upgrading and revising the curricula it teaches to students overseas. Part of this new plan is to digitise the learning material. There is also a plan, he added, to increase the number of institutes, given the interest that many are showing to join them.
A JOURNEY OF LOVE AND LEARNING: Asian and African students who attend Al-Azhar University in Cairo to study Islamic theology, Arabic literature, and medicine often talk about their rewarding experiences.
In 2013, Othman, an Afghan student, graduated from his high school in Kabul where he learned Arabic and Islamic studies. His wish was to come to Egypt, “the land of Al-Azhar, a minaret of learning,” to pursue a university degree in Islamic theology. He applied for a scholarship and was accepted.
In 2014, Othman arrived in Cairo for the first time, and since then with the exception of two trips home, he has been in the city where he secured his degree and is now pursuing post-graduate studies.
According to Othman, being in Cairo was never anything other than easy. Having been accepted in the dorms of the university, he got a good introduction to the city as he slowly but surely upgraded his Arabic and communication skills.
Like most other students who come to study at Al-Azhar, Othman had to do an intensive language course before fully engaging with his academic studies.
His hope is to stay on until he gets a PhD degree, which should get him a good job back home. “One would always love to stay on at Al-Azhar because it is not just a matter of learning, but also a matter of love. We love Al-Azhar, and we don’t just think of it as a place of learning,” he said.
Othman is one of around 100 students that come to study at Al-Azhar on scholarships every year. The beginning was with 50 students a year in 2010, only one year after Al-Azhar opened its institute in Kabul.
During the past four years, these scholarships have been doubled in number to meet the growing demand of students to attend Al-Azhar. This, he said, was unlikely to change with the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. “The wish to join Al-Azhar will not disappear, but I am not sure about the practicalities,” he added.
“I know that Egypt has other universities, but for us Al-Azhar means something different. We always like to think of Jamaleddin Al-Afghani as being an important historical connection between Afghanistan and Al-Azhar,” Othman said.
Al-Afghani was a 19th-scholar who came to study in Egypt from an area between Afghanistan and Iran. He lived in the country during the Mohamed Ali period and was one of the names then associated with the expansion of learning.
The association between Afghanistan and Al-Azhar did not stop in the 19th century, however, Othman added. Many prominent figures from modern and contemporary Afghanistan studied at Al-Azhar, he said.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are other countries that send a considerable number of students every year to attend Al-Azhar, mostly to study Islamic theology but also to study the Arabic language.
Khedr, Aisha, and Soheimi have come from these three countries to study at Al-Azhar during different points of the past five years. Like Othman, they all had a good basis to their subjects in their home countries and all shared his dream to be Azharites.
None of them was willing to contemplate the argument that what Al-Azhar offers in terms of knowledge is “archaic” or “outdated”.
“What we learn in the classes on Islamic studies is all about moderation, compassion, and peace. This is not just what our teachers preach, but actually what they practise — at least in dealing with students,” Khedr said.
Having been a student at Al-Azhar for the past eight years, Khedr said that he was proud of everything he had learned and that the ultimate lesson put across in the curriculum was about co-existence.
The wish to join Al-Azhar had made Soheimi do extra Arabic lessons in a private school in Bangkok in his native Thailand to secure a good place in what he says was “a very tough competition among hundreds of students dreaming to do Islamic studies at Al-Azhar in Cairo.”
It was that same wish that made the parents of Aisha come with her to Cairo a few years ago to launch her in her studies at the Al-Azhar Faculty of Arabic and on life in Egypt.
Through the student union, where the three met along with Othman, these young Azharites have found a new community that they call a home away from home. Together, some of them have gone on trips to attend the moulids (birth festivals) of Sufi figures in Tanta and Desouq. They have also attended events hosted by Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, whom Aisha called “Abul-Wafedin” — the “father of foreign students”.
Theirs is also not a strictly Asian community, in fact “not at all”, said Othman. There are several African friends who are, “like us, on a journey of love and learning”.
FROM AFRICA: Saleh is a student from Chad who is part of the Othman group of friends at Al-Azhar in Cairo.
With his friends, Saleh has often enjoyed attending lectures where there is discussion at times in colloquial Egyptian Arabic that he can now follow quite comfortably.
Away from the classroom, other African students, whose command of colloquial is advanced, have ventured into attending lectures that independent preachers offer at Al-Azhar Mosque.
When they go back home, like fellow student Mohamed did when he went back home to Nigeria, it is always a new phase in their relationship with Al-Azhar. “This is a strong bond that can never be broken,” Mohamed said.
“When I went back home, I wanted to teach everything that I had learnt at Al-Azhar. I wanted to convey the knowledge that would bring all good Muslims closer to Allah and to one another and to be able to answer questions on Islam from those who do not subscribe to the faith,” Mohamed said.
Speaking from the school where he is teaching the Quran and Arabic to children in Lagos in Nigeria, Mohamed said that he was convinced that the knowledge offered by Al-Azhar was one of the best ways to stop the expansion of the ideas of radical groups like Boko Haram in his country.
“The more scholars Al-Azhar is able to send to Muslim communities all over the world and the more scholarships that keen students can get to study at Al-Azhar, the smaller the space there will be for those who hold radical ideas like Boko Haram and others,” he said.
“These are groups of people whose knowledge of Islam is confused, which makes them basically ignorant. They believe in hatred, and they use poverty to spread fear,” he said. “One cannot fight Boko Haram with arms; one fights hatred with tolerance and knowledge. This is why Al-Azhar’s role is more valuable than ever,” he added.
But for foreign students who come on often enough long and challenging journeys to study at Al-Azhar, Arabic and Islamic studies are not the only objective. Some come to attend other faculties as well.
Sogo and Khawlatalemtiaz came from Guinea-Bissau and Indonesia to study medicine at Al-Azhar University. For both, this was a perfect opportunity to see two wishes come true: to improve their knowledge of Arabic, the language of the Quran, and to graduate as medical doctors as they both hope to do.
“Studying at any university other than Al-Azhar would not have allowed these two things to happen at the same time,” Sogo said.
According to Khawlatalemtiaz, with a degree in medicine and a good command of Arabic, she will be well positioned to get good jobs in several places. However, she added, “the best part really is about being part of this grand university. It’s about the journey and not just about the destination.”
It was in the 10th century CE that the Fatimid rulers of Egypt established Al-Azhar as a venue for worship and the learning of the Muslim Shia faith that was then dominant in Egypt. With the fall of the Fatimids, it did not take long for Al-Azhar to be converted to the Sunni faith of the new rulers.
Over the centuries, Al-Azhar has had its ups and downs, and its teaching of Islam has continued to be the subject of debate between those who think it is falling short of catching up with modernity and those who think that it remains a cornerstone of promoting the proper understanding of Islam.
Under the rule of Mohamed Ali in the 19th century, Al-Azhar saw many reforms and became part of the modernisation schemes that the ruler of the country was adopting.
In the 1930s, Al-Azhar started to teach its students the basics of science, and in the early 1960s under the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser it successively opened faculties of commerce, law, engineering and agriculture. Faculties teaching other scientific and literary disciplines followed. However, for all students of Al-Azhar there is a mandatory introductory curriculum of basic Islamic studies and Arabic language.
In his autobiography Al-Ayyam (The Days, published between 1929 and 1967), the Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, sometimes called the “dean of Arabic literature,” offers a gloomy picture of a young blind child, as he then was, humiliated by the unsympathetic sheikhs teaching the Quran and Islamic studies at Al-Azhar.
A famous quotation from one unkind sheikh is his calling on Taha Hussein to “read, you blind child.”
Al-Ayyam is also a diary of the lack of intelligence that Hussein faced at this old and for him outmoded establishment of education when he attended it at the beginning of the last century.
However, such accounts do not register with today’s foreign students whose pride in being Azharites cannot be overstated. For each and every one of them, Al-Azhar is the ultimate learning experience.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly