Al-Azhar Al-Sharif was founded in Cairo, Egypt in 970 AD and despite not gaining university status until 1961, it is still technically among the world’s oldest universities.
For over a millennium, it has been a hugely respected centre of Islamic learning and began as a "madrasa," teaching students from primary to tertiary level. Named after the mosque in Cairo’s medieval quarter, it was founded by the Shi’ite Fatimid Dynasty in 970 AD and was formally organised by 988 AD.
Al-Azhar’s educational format remained relatively informal during much of its early history: there were no entrance requirements, no formal curriculum and no degrees. Students studied Islamic law and the Qur’an in detail, as well as theology, the Arabic language, logic, grammar and how to calculate the phases of the moon.
Through its time, Al-Azhar has experienced much political instability, most notably in the 12th century, when a new dynasty took power and destroyed 100,000 texts.
In the late 19th century, admission requirements, examinations and a number of modern subjects were introduced.
In the early 1960s, Al-Azhar was nationalised and underwent substantial reforms, resulting in the addition of the faculty of medicine and the faculty of engineering. Women also began to be admitted to study in 1962.
It is the only ancient university in the Arabic world to survive as a modern university by including secular subjects in the curriculum. It now offers programmes in business, economics, science, medicine, engineering and agriculture, as well as its prestigious Islamic teachings.
Its library is considered to be the second most important in Egypt, after the Egyptian National Library and Archives.