I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress.

Woe is me! After all Tawfiq Pasha’s attempts at modernizing al-Azhar, there goes Obama in his speech branding it as “tradition” and harmonizing it with progress. The Pasha must be rolling in his British-ridden grave. Which reminds me of a fascinating fatwa issued in 1888 by Shaykh Muhammad al-Inbabi, Shafi`i mufti and head of al-Azhar mosque. Responding to the problematic of how al-Azhar graduates were to function in a European-molded world, the fatwa adapts its understanding of religion and reshapes the curriculum by grounding its arguments in practicality and tradition. Enjoy:

It is permissible to study the mathematical subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, and geography, because nothing in them contradicts religious matters. Indeed, it is our duty to learn what [these subjects] contribute to the benefit of religion or worldly affairs on behalf of the community, just as we are obliged to learn the science of medicine, as al-Ghazali advised us in the passages of The Revival [Ihya´`ilm al-din]. Furthermore, it is beneficial to teach those subjects that increase one’s ability to undertake this duty. But, one must not undertake the study of astronomy, seeking out the shapes of stars, planets, and their orbits for the purpose of astrology, seeking to infer from celestial movements the events of the netherworlds. This is forbidden, as al-Ghazali mentioned […]

[..] The study of natural sciences [is permitted], that is, the description of bodies and their characteristics and how they transform and change, as in The Revival, in the second chaper of the “Book of Knowledge.” If the research is done according to the method of the legal specialists, there is no prohibition of it. Likewise, the learned Shihab al-Din Ahmad bin Hajar al-Haythami advised us in a part of his book, Fatawa al-jami`, of several important issues at the time, such as familiarity with the characteristics of metals and plants for use in medicine, and knowing the workings of tools that may benefit the welfare of the worshipers. But, if it is done according to the methods of the philosophers, it is forbidden, because it leads to falling into doctrines that contradict the shari`a […]

[…] There is no harm in teaching the mathematical subjects as the instrumental subjects are taught, and the same is so for natural sciences and the science of composition of parts [chemistry], as long as they are taught in a manner that cannot be immediately understood to oppose the legal tradition, as with the remaining rational studies, such as logic, discursive theology, and argumentation. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to know these three subjects to the extent required to defend religious doctrines.

1 Dhu al-Hijja 1305 H

Muhammad al-Inbabi, Servant of Knowledge and the Poor, at al-Azhar. May he be forgiven.

(Source: The Modern Middle East: A Sourcebook for History, eds. C. M. Amin, B. C. Fortna, & E. Frierson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 480-481)

Seventeen days later, the Hanafi mufti Shaykh Muhmmad al-Banna’ issued a fatwa of his own agreeing with al-Inbabi’s. The subjects of study discussed were incorporated into al-Azhar’s curriculum in 1896.