The Al-Azhar, a major mosque and institution of learning founded in Cairo by the Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz, was inaugurated on June 22, 972 CE. Named after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima al-Zahra (‘the luminous’) through whom they trace their genealogy to the Prophet, the Fatimids established their empire in 909 in North Africa when Imam al-Mahdi was proclaimed Caliph. Imams al-Mahdi (r. 909-934), al-Qa’im (r. 934-946), and al-Mansur (r. 946-953), al-Mu’izz (r. 953-975) reigned from North Africa, before the capital was transferred to Egypt.
In 969, the Fatimid General, Jawhar, began to build the city of Cairo based on the plans drawn by Imam al-Mu’izz, which included the Al-Azhar mosque. Imam al-Mu’izz had supervised the the construction of the Egyptian city, originally naming it Mansuriyya after its North African prototype. The new city was renamed al-Qahira al-Mu’izziyya (‘the Victorious One of al-Mu’izz’) , al-Qahira for short, today known as Cairo.
In 973, Imam al-Mu’izz transferred the seat of the Fatimid Caliphate to Cairo.
During the Fatimid period (909-1171), Al-Azhar developed into a centre for higher learning and was richly endowed to support students, teachers. The curriculum was diverse; among the sessions offered were classes for women on topics including law and Qur’anic studies, and special sessions devoted to advanced religious interpretations in the Ismaili intellectual contexts.
Although Imam al-Mu’izz’s ruled in his new capital for only two years, the reforms that he introduced “laid the foundation for Egypt’s economic recovery and the attainment of a level of prosperity unprecedented since the advent of Islam. It also led to the rise of an empire which promoted the development of a brilliant civilsation which reached its full flowering on the banks of the Nile.” 1
The Fatimids established a network of trade routes through the Red Sea, eventually gaining control of all international trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, thereby increasing revenues and contributing to the economy. A flourishing agriculture sector and domestically produced goods added to the state revenues. Additionally, “items of high quality and artistic value produced in workshops and establishments throughout Fatimid Egypt, including woollen fabrics, linen, ceramics and items of glassware, retained permanent export markets in medieval Europe.”2
The Fatimids “founded major libraries in Cairo, and, through their efforts, the Fatimid capital became a flourishing centre of Islamic scholarship, sciences, art and culture, in addition to playing a prominent role in international trade and commerce. All in all, the Fatimid period marked not only a glorious age in Ismaili history, but also one of the greatest eras in Egyptian and Islamic histories; and as such, a milestone in the development of Islamic civilisation.” 2
1Towards a Shi’i Mediterranean Empire, Fatimid Egypt and the Founding of Cairo, Translated by Shainool Jiwa, I.B Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2009
2Farhad Daftary, A Short History of Ismailis, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
An Ancient Centre of Learning, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed June 2017)
Professor Azim Nanji, Al-Azhar, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed June 2017)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji