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Oldest Arab Universities Founded 1000 Years Ago | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Al-Azhar University in Cairo. REUTERS/Staff

London- When it comes to classifying Arab universities based on their dates of establishment, views may differ. Some say that the Cairo University is the oldest, as it was founded in 1908. Others refer to the American University of Beirut (AUB) which was established since the 19th century in 1866, followed by the Saint Joseph University (USJ), and University La Sagesse in 1872 and 1975 consecutively. Yet, the major argument over these universities is that they are not the oldest, especially that some of them are foreign institutions built on Arab lands.

However, opposing opinions agree on the foundation of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which was established in 970 AD during the Fatimid Era in Egypt before many other renowned universities around the world. Al- Azhar’s students studied the Qur’an and Islamic law in detail, along with logic, grammar, rhetoric, and how to calculate the phases of the moon. It was one of the first universities in the world, and the only one in the Arabic world to survive as a modern university including secular subjects in the curriculum. Today it is the chief center of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world, as it receives 65,000 foreign students yearly. It is also one of the biggest universities and the total of its students reaches 319,000 taught by 20,000 teachers.

In 1961 additional non-religious subjects were added to its curriculum. The education at Al-Azhar University has had some difficult aspects, as students are obliged to study their major’s materials in addition to religious materials imposed by the university’s curriculum, which causes additional burdens for Al-Azhar students.

AL-Azhar Institution is responsible of supervising a chain of schools comprising around two million students. Also, more than 4000 academic institutions in Egypt work in cooperation with Al-Azhar, which provides Fatwa consultancy and trains all preachers dispatched by the Egyptian Government worldwide.

Al-Azhar’s library is considered the second most important library following the Egyptian Book and Documentation authority Services. A project of digital documentation to preserve and publish Al-Azhar’s historic archive on the internet was accomplished in cooperation with Dubai Center of Information and Technology. Al-Azhar University ranks at 35, and 701 among the world’s universities.

The only university that competes with Al-Azhar is the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, which is one of the oldest academic institutions in the world, according to the UNESCO’s classifications. For well over twelve hundred years Al-Qarawiyyin has been one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim World. It was founded in 859 C.E., it was a mosque with a small attached school. With time, the mosque was transformed into a spiritual destination and a historic educational center in the Islamic world.

This university adopts modern concepts and teaches different majors like languages and digital techniques, in addition to Quran and Islamic studies. The University of al-Qarawiyyin attracts students from all across the Maghreb region and Western Africa, and many Muslim students from Spain and other countries.

Below, we will showcase a number of the oldest and finest Arab universities:

* Cairo University

Cairo University is Egypt’s premier public university. Its main campus is in Giza, immediately across the Nile from Cairo. It was founded on 21 December 1908, however, after being housed in various parts of Cairo, its faculties, beginning with the Faculty of Arts, were established on its current main campus in Giza in October 1929. It is the second oldest institution of higher education in Egypt after Al-Azhar University, notwithstanding the pre-existing higher professional schools that later became constituent colleges of the university.

*University of Algiers

This university is located in Algiers, Algeria. It was founded in 1909 and organized into seven faculties. The university was founded during the French colonialism, therefore, it is considered the 16th university in France. The University of Algiers is considered the second oldest university in Africa after the Cairo University. Since its establishment, the university has awarded PHD certificates. Most of its students were Europeans residing in North Africa, while Algerian students didn’t exceed 30 out of 500 till 1914. During the French occupations, the university’s library was burned and more than 300,000 books were destroyed. Today, the library includes 800,000 references and includes most important schools of law, medicine, and Islamic sciences. Among the most renowned graduates were the Philosopher Albert Camus and the Diplomat Al-Akhdar al-Ibrahimi.

*The University of Damascus

It is the largest and oldest university in Syria, located in the capital Damascus and has campuses in other Syrian cities. It was founded in 1923 through the merger of the School of Medicine (established 1903) and the Institute of Law (established 1913). Until 1958 it was named the Syrian University, but the name changed after the founding of the University of Aleppo. The university’s level deteriorated during the rule of Hafez Al-Assad and dropped to rank 114 in the Arab world.

*University of Baghdad

It is the largest university in Iraq and the second largest Arab university, behind the University of Cairo. The building is constructed by an Indian based construction company NBCC. It was established under a royal decree in 1956 and kicked off its academic activity in 1958. Among its renowned graduates was Jalal Talabani, former Iraqi president.