Building of al-Azhar Mosque

The al-Azhar mosque was the first mosque constructed in the Islamic Fāṭimid Dynasty’s capital city of Cairo. Soon after it was built the mosque also became a center for teaching and continued for more than one thousand years as an educational institution devoted to the study, preservation, and dissemination of Egyptian, Arabic, and Islamic culture.

Summary of Event

The al-Azhar mosque was built as the first congregational mosque for the city of Cairo, the capital of the Fāṭimid Fāṭimids[Fatimids] Empire. The city was established by the Fāṭimids in 969 to assert their control over conquered Egypt, and the mosque, completed in 972, offered a visible monumental sign of Fāṭimid power in the new city. The name al-Azhar, which translates as “radiant” or “splendid,” may have been derived from the name of the daughter of the Prophet Muḥammad, Fāṭimah, to whom the Fāṭimids trace their ancestry. [kw]Building of al-Azhar Mosque (972)
[kw]al-Azhar Mosque, Building of (972)
[kw]Azhar Mosque, Building of al (972)
[kw]Mosque, Building of al-Azhar (972)
Al-Azhar mosque[Al Azhar mosque]
Egypt;972: Building of al-Azhar Mosque[1280]
Architecture;972: Building of al-Azhar Mosque[1280]
Education;972: Building of al-Azhar Mosque[1280]
Engineering;972: Building of al-Azhar Mosque[1280]
Religion;972: Building of al-Azhar Mosque[1280]

In the four centuries after the death of the Prophet, the faith of Islam had spread rapidly through the Mediterranean world by virtue of the brilliant successes of Islamic armies. Two ruling dynasties dominated the Islamic world in these centuries: the Umayyads (661-750, until 1031 in Spain) and the ՙAbbāsids (750-1258). The province of Egypt was unusual in that it was often controlled by semi-independent local dynasties who merely offered allegiance to the ruling Umayyads or ՙAbbāsids, such as the Aghlabids Aghlabids (800-909) and Ikhshidids Ikhshidids (935-969). The Fāṭimids ruled Egypt from 969-1171; they had built an empire beginning in the early tenth century in North Africa with a capital at Mahdia (now in Tunisia).

The Fāṭimid conquest of Egypt Egypt;Fāṭimid conquest of[Fatimid conquest of] came about through the efforts of the capable general Jawhar Jawhar who, after subduing the Ikhshidid defenses at Al-Fusṭā (now near Cairo) on the Nile delta in 969, settled with his troops just north of the city. The Fāṭimids had long maneuvered to conquer Egypt. The wealthy province was highly desired throughout the ancient and medieval eras because of its geographically strategic location at the crossroads of travel between the Near East and North Africa and its ready access to the prosperous Mediterranean trade routes. Jawhar’s conquest came at the behest of the fourth Fāṭimid caliph al-Mu՚izz Mu՚izz, al- , who almost immediately moved his court to Jawhar’s new city, which he called Al-Qāhirah (city of victory; now Cairo).

As the principal mosque of Cairo, al-Azhar grew exponentially in size and influence as it participated in the ever-increasing prosperity and fame of the city. It enjoyed a special relationship to the Fāṭimid caliphs, who endowed it with gifts and special patronage. The original mosque (it has been much altered and received additions over the centuries) had a traditional rectangular plan, with a large hypostyle hall to accommodate the rows of the faithful who prostrated themselves in prayer toward Mecca. Al-Azhar had other components typical of medieval mosque construction, including a central arcaded courtyard and an elaborately decorated mihrab, or niche, placed in the qibla wall (the qibla is the direction of Mecca, toward which one should pray). At al-Azhar, the mihrab bay is topped by a dome, recalling the design of the mosque in the former Fāṭimid capital of Mahdia.

The decoration of the mosque is typical of Islamic architectural Architecture;Muslim decoration in its use of purely epigraphic and natural (trees and other vegetal) ornamentation. The representation of humans or animals is nearly nonexistent in Islamic architectural decoration. Early Islamic artists were wary of representing living beings in mosques because they wanted to avoid possible connections with idol worship or with the sacred role of the divine in creating life. However, Islamic art in mosques is appropriately described as aniconic rather than iconoclastic; artists simply avoided the representation of living beings. The epigraphs at al-Azhar glorify the Fāṭimid Dynasty, and the vegetal decoration may have referred to Paradise beyond the present life promised to believers.

Al-Azhar never had a purely religious function. Prayer in a mosque specifically is not required for Muslims; for prayer it is only necessary that a space be reserved sufficient for prostration and orientation toward Mecca. Mosques were built to accommodate large numbers of the faithful, especially for the Friday congregational prayer, but also as community gathering places with political and social functions. One of these additional roles at al-Azhar was that of an educational institution. The first class was taught at the mosque in 975 and it became an official school with thirty-seven scholars teaching Islamic jurisprudence in 988-989. Institutions like al-Azhar eventually gave rise to madrasas Madrasas , or religious schools, which were founded around mosques to accommodate the demand for religious instruction.

The Fāṭimid caliphate reached its pinnacle of wealth and power in the century following the foundation of Cairo, with an empire extending to Algeria in the west and to Arabia in the east. By the middle of the eleventh century, the Fāṭimid caliphate was severely weakened by military setbacks and famine in Egypt, and in 1171, the last Fāṭimid was suppressed by the first ruler of the new Ayyūbid Dynasty Ayyūbid Dynasty[Ayyubid Dynasty] (1169-1250), Saladin Saladin (r. 1174-1193); by 1174, he was sultan. Al-Azhar suffered under the Ayyūbid caliphs, who ruled Egypt until 1252. The Ayyūbids were Sunni Muslims who transferred caliphal patronage away from Shīՙite institutions such as al-Azhar to traditionally Sunni establishments such as the al-Ḥākim mosque in Cairo. Al-Azhar enjoyed a resurgence as a center for education under Sultan Baybars I Baybars I in the thirteenth century and during the Ottoman rule of Egypt al-Azhar had such great fame that students were drawn to it from all over the empire.


Al-Azhar remained one of the premier educational institutions in the Islamic world. In the modern age it expanded from a mosque with a number of associated religious schools to a modern university teaching all subjects. It has also developed a network of educational institutions, including a system of primary and secondary schools. Many schools outside of this network as well as beyond Egypt also are staffed by al-Azhar graduates, extending even further the educational philosophy of the mosque-school. Education;Muslim

Al-Azhar participates in the tradition of great medieval universities, of centers of education established because students flocked to these cities to study under famous masters. Other such historic educational institutions are Oxford University in England and the University of Paris. These universities are sources of great nationalistic pride because of their long teaching traditions and their connections to their country’s history and identity. Al-Azhar intellectuals are extremely influential in Egyptian public life and in the greater Islamic world because they represent the authority of the past; they place the imprimatur of tradition on their decisions.

The long tradition of al-Azhar as a religious and educational center has established it as a repository of the history of the city of Cairo, of the Fāṭimid Dynasty that built it, and as a symbol of Egyptian, Arab, and Islamic identities.

Further Reading

  • Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1989. Analyzes the artistic style of Islamic monuments in Cairo, with a chapter on the early history of the city as well as a detailed description of its Fāṭimid era architecture.
  • Berkey, Jonathan Porter. The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social History of Islamic Education. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Investigates the Islamic educational system under the medieval Mamlūk Dynasty, including the rise in importance of madrasas, the subjects studied, and the system for training teachers. The al-Azhar mosque is discussed briefly as one of the early Fāṭimid congregational mosques.
  • Ettinghausen, Richard, and Oleg Grabar. Islamic Art and Architecture, 650-1250. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987, 2001. A survey of Islamic art and architecture from the Umayyad Dynasty through the end of the ՙAbbāsid period. The authors also examine the origins of Islamic art and architecture after the death of Muḥammad and study the dissemination and revision of these early styles as the Umayyad and ՙAbbāsid empires expanded.
  • Halm, Heinz. The Fāṭimids and Their Traditions of Learning. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997. A small volume that describes the system of religious teaching and learning during the Fāṭimid rule of Egypt.