Al-Azhar University in Cairo is the foremost Sunni Islamic educational institution.
The university attracts 30,000 students a year from over 100 different countries. Al-Azhar began as a mosque built in 970 AD during the Fatmid era, and became a Sunni institution after the conquest by Saladin in 1171. With the abolition of the caliphate and the office of Shaykh al-Islam (seyhul Islam) in Istanbul in 1924, al-Azhar became the paramount Islamic institution. There is no clear consensus as to when al-Azhar became a centre of learning. Al-Azhar is inclusive of the four major Sunni schools of law, the Ashari and Maturidi schools of theology, and seven major Sufi orders.
Al-Azhar has been through several stages of reform: in the nineteenth century it was transformed from madrasa to university, with the Azhar Organisation Laws of 1896 and 1911 creating a centralised bureaucracy that allowed the institution’s head, the Grand Sheikh, to oversee its general administration. In 1961, under Law 103, the state of Egypt turned al-Azhar into a state-owned university. The same law decreed that the President of the Republic should control the appointment of the Grand Sheikh. This was intended to modernise al-Azhar and to introduce an up-to-date curriculum, which included subjects such as medicine, engineering and economics. In 2012, the Egyptian constitution was reformed to include the requirement that lawmakers should consult al-Azhar on matters pertaining to Islamic law, although this was reversed in 2014.
Al-Azhar works with the state to develop a normative Islam, taking a stance against what they consider to be extremist thought; defending ‘Islam the middle way’; and critiquing political-Islam and Salafi thought. Al-Azhar also provides religious education at the primary and secondary level. Many religious families send their children to these schools, and some students choose to continue their education at al-Azhar University. For the lower classes these institutions offer social mobility.