I Wish I’d Been There
By Heena Jiwani
The founders of Cairo and its economic, cultural, and academic progress, the Fatimids are considered to be the inclusive and pluralistic empire under which the lands under its dominion flourished. The economic transformation the Fatimids made from barter trading to monetary reliance shaped the trade system not only in the Muslim world, but influenced also that of the Crusaders, who imitated the gold dinars of the Fatimids. The Fatimids allowed for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, to live under one empire on one land. The cultural tolerance they showed to the medieval world was one to be modeled after: regardless of religion and culture, individuals were encouraged to express opinions, develop innovations, and help mankind. The divide between different cultures was bridged by the well encouraged idea of individual interpretation and thinking.
The focus this empire had on education and its preservation from antiquity brought about libraries and schools that the Muslim world had never seen before. Teachings on religion, mathematics, sciences, grammar, and history were seen together in these libraries and the first ever university, Al-Azhar University. This university was first founded as a mosque under Caliph-Imam Mui’iz and later, when Caliph-Imam ‘Aziz saw the need for an intellectual space, converted into a university.
I Wish I’d Been There when Al-Azhar University was under Fatimid rule. The teachings of academia, religion, and life to both genders, male and female, would have been a sight to see in the Islamic world. I would have had so much school spirit, learning from what is now one of the oldest universities in the world. To have been there when the main focus of a school was intellectual teachings, and not of jurisprudence or religious ordeals would be so contradictory to what it is known for today. Though the university has come a long way since its time, as solely a madrasa after its transformation under the rule of the Ayyubids, it still has defied what to me was the purpose of the initial Al-Azhar University. And even today, the area is surrounded by men, with few women to be spotted; ironic, seeing as how the university most likely received its name from the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima az-Zahra, as she is sometimes referred to.
We are blessed to have the Fatimid Empire be a part of our 1400 year long history, and its ideas and methods that were encouraged throughout the Muslim world. As an Isma’ili student, I am reminded everyday of the contributions our Imams have made towards education. Even today, our Imam reminds us of the importance of education and the role of the intellect in Shia Islam from the time of Hazrat Ali (as). He also tells us to strive for a balance between the spiritual (din) and the material (duniya). It is our responsibility to bring the Isma’ili reputation back to its peak as was during the Fatimid times by continuing to seek out the best education possible.
About the writer: Heena Jiwani is currently a 3rd year student at Goizueta Business School of Emory University double majoring in Religious Studies, and minor in Arabic. She resides in Dallas, Texas, and loves to travel around the world and get a feel of different cultures.
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