Daily Archives: 11 June 2020

Al-Azhar’s Shia Legacy

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 270-271:

Geopolitics had clearly obliterated all sense of history in Egypt. No one even mentioned Al-Azhar’s own Shia past. The religious institution dated back to the Fatimids, the fourth Islamic caliphate and a Shia dynasty that ruled from the tenth to the twelfth century over a territory extending from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. They were the descendants of Fatima, daughter of the prophet and wife of Ali. This was the only and last time since Ali’s own brief rule in 656 that direct descendants of the prophet had ruled as an Islamic caliphate, and therefore the only time that the caliph and the religious leadership had been one. One of the first universities in the world, Al-Azhar was first built as a center of Shia learning and named in honor of Fatima, who was known as al-Zahraa’, the brilliant. Cairo itself had been built by the Fatimids as their new capital in 970. The Fatimid reign was one of flourishing arts and abundant scholarly works. There were no forced conversions to Shiism, but a tolerance for minorities that left a lasting pluralistic legacy. When Saladin defeated the Fatimids in 1170, Al-Azhar was shut down for over a century and Sunni Islam became the state religion once again. Centuries later, in the land of the pharaohs, Islam still stood at the intersection of Sunnism and Shiism; on a popular level, for centuries, and until the very recent past, there had been no divide between them. But for a few decades now, just as in Pakistan, there had been efforts to curb the mawleds in Egypt, the colorful, exuberant celebrations of the birthdays of saints and the prophet. Some of this was the result of state-led efforts to organize the chaotic festivities, or even of Sufi-led reforms, but many Egyptians attributed the changes to the influence of Saudi puritanism.

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