Al-Azhar was one of the first universities in the world, created in 972 in Cairo by Gawhar al-Sekelly, even before the Fatimid Empire gained power in Egypt in 969. In the modern period, al-Azhar remains a major center of Islamic learning and also engages in non-religious education through the teaching of modern sciences and philosophy. The Islamic religious establishment in Egypt is closely linked to Al-Azhar, and has been powerful in creating a conservative religious atmosphere, particularly since the1970s. Despite its co-option by the Egyptian government since the time of Nasser, religious edicts from al-Azhar still hold high credibility across the Muslim world. The broader influence of al-Azhar stems from its long history of erudite scholars, as well as from the sheer number of students who come from all over the world. Al-Azhar students are reported to number one million at present, studying in some eight thousand Azhar institutes at various educational levels (Brown, 2006). The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar is at the top of Al-Azhar’s organization structure responsible for all religious matters, students and scholars of religious sciences, and all studies of Arabic and Islam in Al-Azhar and its institutions. The Grand Sheikh is supported by the Deputy of Al-Azhar and various offices and departments.
Since the end of the parliamentary session of 2010 and the dissolution of the People’s Assembly after the ouster of Mubarak, al-Azhar curricula and the content and institutional structure of Sharia instruction will be areas of contention for the future parliament. The outcomes will likely depend on the numbers of Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Wasta Party members, in addition to other parties formed by former militant groups, mainly al-Jihad and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. The relationship between such parties in the Parliament to al-Azhar will be one determining factor on the curricula and political orientations of Al-Azhar in the future.