Download The Al-Azhar University in Cairo is the world’s second centre of learning.
For more than a millennium Muslims from all over the Asia have been coming there to study.
There are at least four thousand students from Indonesia, and at least ten thousand from Malaysia.
They study sharia, theology and for many it’s a life-changing experience.
Julia Simon takes us on a tour of Al-Azhar.
That’s Aceng. A 27-year-old Indonesian translator and teacher, for the past four years he’s been studying Islam at Al-Azhar. He’s showing me around the grounds of the old campus.
We pass a group of three Malaysian students walking to the Al-Azhar mosque. We decide to join them. Aceng immediately makes conversation.
Aceng says that foreigners are a critical part of Al-Azhar’s identity and history dating back to the founding of the mosque in the late tenth century.
“You know, the founder of Al-Azhar was not Arab but Italian. Jawhar issiquili it means Jawhar from Sicily but Sicilia in that time was under the Fatimids.”
Aceng points out that the Fatimid dynasty, that founded Al-Azhar, also wasn’t Egyptian.
“Fatimid originally they from Tunisia and then they move to Egypt and built the Cairo city.”
We arrive at the Al Azhar mosque.
Inside the narrow stone passageway opens up to a large white marble courtyard. All around us are students of Islam, studying, talking, and learning with Sheikhs. We see a Saudi Arabian man who Aceng recognizes.
“Ahmad! Eh akhbar?”
All around the courtyard are small classrooms where sheikhs teach classes on sharia and the Koran.
Aceng and I go into a class with women on one side and men on the other. The men are Somalian, Tunisian, Egyptian but almost all the women are Asian – mainly Malaysian.
Anyone can come and sit at these free classes at the mosque, taught by Al-Azhar’s renowned sheikhs.
“This is the center of sunni traditional Muslim thinking.”
Al Azhar has a wide variety of departments - from medicine to the humanities – but it specializes in Islamic jurisprudence, Sharia, Theology, and religious Arabic literature.
Outside the classroom on the other side of the atrium we see a group of male students, sitting on the floor, talking quietly with Arabic grammar books open on their laps.
“They are Indonesian.”
We approach them. They are from all over Indonesia.
“Dari Jawa, Sumatra, Bantan, Jawa Timor, Jawa Tengah. Aceng is quick to make friends, but not everyone is friendly here. As I’m speaking with the Indonesian students an Egyptian man comes up to Aceng."
Q. What just happened?
"The Egyptian man is reprimanding Aceng for bringing me here. Aceng and I move away."
“I don’t understand that Egyptian man. That one. I don’t know but he said “please respect” as if we didn’t respect this place. Of course we respect this place! I know about the Islam and the sharia.”
Aceng said in Indonesian that he is “terkejut” by the man’s behaivior. Shocked.
“Really terkejut. Terkejut. Because he said: Your brain very small. My heart’s broken.”
Aceng decides that we should go speak to one of the sheikhs about the man.
I love Indonesia, the sheikh says. Aceng tells him what we have been doing and how the man acted cruelly.
The Sheikh tells Aceng he’s a good man. He apologizes for the Egyptian man saying he might not know how to treat Indonesian people, and then he kisses Aceng on the head. We go back out to the courtyard.
“I said why is he so mean: is he right? But the sheikh said no he isn’t right. He said maybe he didn’t know tolerance, how to act with the others."
Q. So when stuff like that happens how does it make you feel about Al-Azhar?
"Generally good but the problem just one person, just two person. You know, everywhere in every country there is good people and not good people but I think in Al-Azhar the good people aktar.”
The good people at Al-Azhar are more in number he says.
“As you saw there is teacher, there is student. We like a family. If you read many book about Al-Azhar there is many tolerant view and at Al Azhar tolerance is important so we can live in harmony.”
Just before we leave Al-Azhar we hear the call to prayer begin.
“You know every time I hear the call to prayer I think of my village because the sound is very “sangat mendamaikan.”
An Indonesian expression that means “very peaceful”.
Someday Aceng hopes to return to Indonesia and found a school for poor Indonesian youth. He already knows a key lesson of Al-Azhar he will teach the students, a lesson that he says is critical for Indonesia today: tolerance.
3)cruelly: dengan kejam
4)life-changing experience: pengalaman yang mengubah hidup
5)conversation: pembicaraan, percakapan
8)passageway: jalan sempit
9)courtyard: halaman yang dikelilingi tembok
10) marble floor: lantai yang terbuat dari marmer
1) Where is the world's second center for learning and how old is it?
2) Who founded the school and which countries do the students come from?
3) What kinds of things do they study there and what is the teacher student relations like?
4) How many Indonesians are studying there and which parts of the country are they from?
5) What are Aceng's hopes for the future?