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Volume 13, Number 3March 1962

In This Issue

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Student Life At The First University

A look back almost a thousand years into the life and times of student Ali Hussain.

Miles to the east, through the haze that joined a cloudless sky to the sandy expanses of Egypt, the white minarets of Cairo appeared. To Ali Hussain, a tall, dark-eyed youth, the sight was both exciting and disturbing. His arrival meant journey's end of a grueling 2,000-mile trek from Marrakech in western North Africa. Even in the company of a caravan, such a trip in the year 1100 held few pleasures. Relieved to have the miles behind him, Ali Hussain rode on, fretting over the strange life and experiences that awaited him as a new student at al-Azhar university. He asked himself the same questions that freshmen of all ages ask. What was the school like? Would he find friends? Were the teachers stern, the studies demanding?

With his bundle of clothing tied to his donkey and his purse jingling with coins his father had pressed into his hand when he left home, Ali Hussain entered Cairo. He knew the name of the professor to whom he should present himself as candidate for matriculation. And he recalled his father's well-intentioned advice about avoiding the numerous snares of the big city.

What a spectacle the metropolis presented to an 18-year-old lad from the hinterlands! Ali Hussain gazed about, bewildered and fascinated by the crowds and the houses and the scurrying traffic on the streets. Cairo, splendid capital of the Fatimid Empire, boasted a population of half a million. Its private homes numbered more than 20,000, many of them reaching five stories, some even higher. The public buildings were numerous, and the palace of Caliph al-Musta'li was magnificent beyond belief.

Ali Hussain's father had explained to him that two factors made Cairo great—its wealth and its culture, and both were gifts of geographical position. At the center of the trade routes running east to Damascus and Constantinople, west along the African coast to Spain, and south to Nubia and Ethiopia, Cairo became the emporium into which wealth flowed endlessly. With gold came the cultural influences of Baghdad and Cordova, from the old Greek science of Mesopotamia to the new literature of Spanish Islam.

News, as well as gold, poured into the city. Merchants in the commercial center talked anxiously of the serious drought in Ethiopia, and Ali Hussain heard soldier and citizen alike discussing the import of the Crusader assault on Jerusalem the previous year. It was just four years since Pope Urban II, seated on a throne in a broad meadow, had issued a passionate appeal that sent 1,200 knights and 12,000 soldiers off on the First Crusade.

Like any Muslim city, medieval Cairo was studded with ornate mosques. One of the most impressive was al-Azhar. Founded in 970, al-Azhar became an educational foundation 18 years later when Caliph al-'Aziz added learned studies to pious teachings by providing for the intellectual training of 35 students.

The first university in the world proved to be one of the most durable experiments in the history of education. Al-Azhar prospered so astonishingly that by the time Ali Hussain arrived in 1100, more than 5,000 students were being instructed by hundreds of professors. As the fame of the university spread, officials and merchants of various nations vied with one another to improve living quarters, beautify the mosque and enlarge the vast library.

The young student, aided by directions from passers-by, found his way to the institution that would be his home. The main gate of al-Azhar led into a broad courtyard in which rose minarets and columns of bleached stone. The air was sweet with the flowers of many lands, and the enclosing walls housed cloisters filled with students in eager discussion. Dozens of doorways gave access to a labyrinth of corridors and rooms, each lighted with oil lamps hung from the ceiling. Ali Hussain noted that many of his classmates had also made long journeys—from great cities like Damascus and Baghdad, from Moorish Spain and the Mediterranean coast, from the ancient cities of Persia and the Arabian Peninsula.

Just now the courtyard was a beehive of students and professors getting acquainted and deciding on courses for the coming year. Al-Azhar offered studies in Islamic law and Arabic language and literature, as well as instruction in medicine, music, logic, mathematics and astronomy.

Ali Hussain found his professor, identified himself, and an hour's discussion settled the fact that the young student wished to specialize in language and literature and eventually to return to his native city to teach in the elementary schools. At the end of the discussion, his professor repeated a warm welcome to al-Azhar and advised him to begin his career of learning by moving into his riwaq, or dormitory.

The Arab boy's path now took him upstairs and along echoing corridors until he reached the large room known as the "North African Riwaq," next to the "Damascus Riwaq" and opposite the "Iberian Riwaq." The housing of students by nations was an innovation at al-Azhar. Adopted by Islamic foundations from Cordova to Bokhara, rediscovered by those of the West, the idea has become popular among universities everywhere.

Then, as now, undergraduate friendships were quickly formed. A few minutes after entering the North African dorm, Ali Hussain had a half-dozen companions eager to learn about distant Marrakech and the adventurous journey to Cairo. They told him that their dorm, built in 988, had already served generations of scholars.

Ali Hussain stowed his belongings in a small, carved box and placed it on top of others against the wall. When his sleeping pallet was unrolled, he was ready for his student's life to begin. Al-Azhar provided no frills: the all-purpose floor would serve as table, desk, chair and bed.

His small supply of gold coins was his to spend on personal needs, for the university charged no fees. Bed, board and tuition were free, paid for from scholarships and bequests from wealthy merchants and government officials. Nor was there any expense for textbooks, since everything necessary could be borrowed from the 100,000-volume library.

On his first day of classes, Ali Hussain joined a circle of students gathered in one of the cloisters. Each wore an imamah (turban) and kakoulah (long gown). The professor sat on a low, wide stool placed at the foot of a pillar, lecturing on the principles of grammar and pausing occasionally to read illustrative material. His pupils, seated around him on mats, listened quietly or took notes. The lecture would be short, followed by a period of informal discussion during which students might ask questions.

When Ali Hussain glanced around, he saw similar groups scattered around the courtyard. The intimate professor-pupil relationship at al-Azhar, analogue of the seminar system in the West, helped to raise the repute of Islamic scholars to the high level they enjoyed throughout the civilized world. They graduated hundreds of influential personalities who had known them as mentors and who remembered them with respect and admiration.

Supervised by a scholar called a mushrif, faculty members, like those they taught, came from all parts of the Arabic world. Places at al-Azhar were filled by university

graduates and were avidly sought by learned men from the Pyrenees to the Oxus. Al-Azhar was to Islam what the Sorbonne or Oxford was to Europe—the institution where a professor could make his reputation as nowhere else.

The similarity did not end there. Paris specialized in theological studies, contrasting with Cambridge for science and Bologna for law. Al-Azhar excelled in theology, vying with Baghdad for science, Cordova for philosophy.

AH Hussain's basic textbooks were the Koran and a heavy volume of Islamic jurisprudence. The professor to whom he was attached expounded literary principles from Muslim scriptures, explaining exactly how the laws and precepts of the Prophet were cast into appropriate rhetorical form so that they might appear more forceful to the listener or reader. Later Ali Hussain learned from other experts how to draw from the same source the principles of law, ethics and revealed theology. Even poetry and medicine were discussed within the framework of religious philosophy.

Everyone at al-Azhar said the daily prayers and kept the yearly fasts. But apart from formal studies and religious observances, the students enjoyed considerable freedom. Ali Hussain and his companions spent their time conversing, joking, singing and idling in the time-honored tradition of undergraduates everywhere. Sometimes they complained to each other about the amount of study required, and, like all students, they questioned the necessity of committing seemingly endless dates and names to memory. On days that were free of classes and study, they strolled through al-Azhar, poking into its odd corners, remarking on its antiquity, analyzing its merits and shortcomings. On other days they organized expeditions to downtown Cairo.

As time passed, newcomers like Ali Hussain would become old hands. He in turn would give sage tips to incoming undergraduates. His studies would become more and more difficult as he specialized further in the light of his abilities and plans for the future. For Ali Hussain and his friends, the time would come when the last courses were finished. In those days, the curriculum lasted no prescribed number of years. Students were given a license to teach by the professors under whom they had studied, at the teacher's discretion. The license was prized, for it certified that the pupil had studied with diligence and proficiency.

The last week would be a flurry of packing, sentimental farewells and final respects to professors. Ali Hussain would then begin the long trip back home where he would become an esteemed teacher, one who had studied at al-Azhar.

Behind him he would leave another generation of undergraduates hard at work. University life at al-Azhar would go on across the centuries. There would be interruptions at times. In 1302 a severe earthquake would level part of the mosque, and in 1789 Napoleon's bombardment of the school would turn the central halls into stables for cavalry. But the interruptions would be only temporary.

In time, al-Azhar would expand beyond the walls of the old mosque. Old structures would be torn down or reconstructed, new facilities built. Great teachers would continue to come to al-Azhar as they had in the past. Ibn Khaldun, for example, would earn part of his reputation as the greatest Arab historian as a teacher at al-Azhar in the 1300's.

Education at al-Azhar still goes on today, and students like Ali Hussain of Marrakech still come from all parts of the Islamic world to study there. The mosque-college is moving toward its thousandth birthday in 1970—a venerable patriarch among universities.

This article appeared on pages 21-23 of the March 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March 1962 images.