Millions turned out in Cairo today to demonstrate against the Muslim Brotherhood’s unpopular President Morsi. In all the turmoil gripping Egypt, it is forgotten that the centre of Sunni Islamic religious scholarship was once the ‘moderate’ Al-Azhar university, now eclipsed by the Islamists and Salafists. Also forgotten is that this respected institution was founded by a 10th century Jew, Yaqub Ibn Killis, who was born in Baghdad. (With thanks: Desi)
“al-Azhar University, Arabic Jāmiʿat al-Azhar, chief centre of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world, centred on the mosque of that name in the medieval quarter of Cairo, Egypt. It was founded by the Shīʿite (specifically, the Ismāʿīlī sect) Fāṭimids in 970 ce and was formally organized by 988. Its name may allude to Fāṭimah, the Prophet’s
daughter, known as “al-Zahrāʾ” (“the Luminous”), from whom the Fāṭimid
dynasty derives its name. The format of education at al-Azhar remained
relatively informal for much of its early history: initially there were
no entrance requirements, no formal curriculum, and no degrees. The
basic program of studies was—and still is—Islamic law, theology, and the Arabic language.
“An Ismāʿīlī centre of learning, al-Azhar fell into decline after Egypt’s conquest by Saladin, founder of the Ayyūbid dynasty and a Sunni, in the second half of the 12th century. It was revived under the Mamlūks
(1250–1517), however, and continued to thrive thereafter as a centre of
Sunni scholarship. It was damaged in an earthquake in the early 1300s
and subsequently repaired, and additions, alterations, and renovations
to its structures were undertaken at various points throughout the 14th
and 15th centuries, particularly in the later Mamlūk period, when it
came under direct patronage.
“Fatimid Wazir, Abu al-Farj Yaqub bin Yusuf known as Ibn Killis, was
born of an honorable family of Baghdad. By birth he was a Jew, born in
318 A.H./930 C.E. At the young age he came with his father to Egypt
where he started his political life at the court of Kafur. He was very
intelligent, hard working and honest. Very soon he secured an important
position in the Court of Kafur as an expert in economics. In 356
A.H./967 C.E., he embraced Islam by which Kafur was highly pleased and
appointed him as his courtier. By this promotion of Yaqub, Wazir Ibn
Furat of the court of Kafur got excited with jealousy and was searching for a
cause to bring him down.
“Incidentally in 357 A.H./967 C.E. Kafur died and Wazir Ibn Furat
arrested all his companions including Yaqub bin Killis. It is said that
Yaqub bribed the jailer and absconded to the West where the Fatimid
Caliph Mu’izz was in power on the throne of Imamat and Caliphate. (..)
During his tenure as vizier, Yaqub bin Killis established various
new departments for the administration of the state – promoted
agriculture, reformed trade and stabilised currency. The country
began to flourish and revenue from the provinces increased. In this period the Central Exchequer was so wealthy that neither before
nor since had such wealth ever accrued. In 373 A.H. he fell
from office and it is said that Imam Aziz penalised him with a fine of 200,000 dinars. The actual cause of his removal is not
Dr. Zahid Ali assumes that because Ibn Killis had treated badly one
of the court prisoners of al-Aziz to whom the Imam had promised all honours, Ibn Killis had to pay a fine. All the same within a few months, in 374 A.H., he was reinstated in office and forgiven.
It is said that Yaqub bin Killis fell seriously ill on the 21st of
Shawwal 380 A.H. The Caliph Aziz visited him and said: “O Yaqub! If your
recovery is to be gained through spending wealth then I am prepared to
give away the whole wealth of the state. And if your life is saved by
sacrificing any life, I am ready to sacrifice my own son”. By this it is
understood what position Yaqub bin Killis held with the Caliph Aziz.
The sickness of Yaqub began to worsen day by day and on the 4th of
Dhul-Hijja 380A.H./991 C.E. he succumbed to death.
His death was mourned throughout Egypt. His shroud was decorated with
50 pieces of clothes of which 30 were embroidered with gold thread.
According to Ibn Khallikan, 100 poets composed lamentations and every
poet earned his reward from the Caliph. In Cairo a place was named the
Vizier’s Quarter in his honour.