Diaries of a Jewish orientalist in Al-Azhar


One of the most famous orientalists in the modern era is the Hungarian orientalist Ignas Goldziher, known as “Goldziher”. In German or English:

  1. Al-Dhahiriya.. Their Doctrine and History, published in 1884.
  2. Creed and Sharia in Islam, published in 1910.
  3. Doctrines of Islamic Interpretation, published in 1920.

His last two books were published, translated into Arabic, before his first book, and his book on Al-Dhahiriya was published in Arabic in 2021, and he has other books, but they have not been translated yet.

Since the translation of his last two books, the discussion and debate about the two books and their author has continued, between a supporter of the man’s thought, a critic of it, or a fierce attacker, questioning his intentions and intentions, as is the view of many of the Oriental schools.

Diaries not published until after his death

Among Goldziher’s recent publications are his diaries, which are more like his personal diaries, and were not written in the conventionally known form of diaries. He did not start writing them until after he reached the age of forty, and he recommended that they not be published until after his death. He left them as a trust with his son, and his son published them years after his death.

He wrote it for those close to him, as he said in its beginnings: “Today I start writing a summary of my life’s biography, according to what I wrote of old writings, and what I remember. I wrote this to my wife, children, and all my close friends, on the condition that these narratives remain far from others as long as I live. And if anyone knows them – and this would be an unexpected coincidence – I ask him for a word of honor not to publish what is in the following papers, and to keep their existence secret.”

Goldziher’s diaries represent an important source of information about him, whether about his scientific journey, or his position on personalities he met in the Islamic world, or his evaluation of religious schools such as Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ulum, as well as the religious situation in the Islamic world from which he visited Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, and compared the status of these Countries in terms of Westernization, and the influence of the Western model, and which societies were more conservative, and compared to that at the level of the elite, and at the level of the public.

After joining Al-Azhar, he used to mix with his students for a long time, until they got to know him and loved him quickly, and he praised this, and the simplicity of Al-Azhar students, and their love for every student of knowledge, even if he was a non-Muslim foreigner

His motto in life are two texts from the Torah and the Qur’an

We are not here for the purpose of exposing all of his diaries. Rather, we discuss here his journey in seeking knowledge in Egypt, specifically in Al-Azhar, and then we present the noticeable contradiction between his position on Islam in the books he published and wrote, and his diaries, which are the last things his son deposited for publication after his death.

The first thing that surprises you in Goldziher’s diaries is this paragraph that you stand in front of for a long time, as he says:

My life since my youth has been governed by two mottos:

  • The first: A well-known prophetic saying that imprinted in my soul on the day of my baptism: Oh man, you have reached what is the truth, and what your desires demand from you, and it is nothing but that you follow justice, have mercy on others, and be humble before your Lord.
  • The second: a verse from the Holy Qur’an: “So patience is beautiful, and God is the One who seeks help over what you describe” (Yusuf: 18).

Two important visits to Egypt

Visiting Egypt to seek knowledge, especially in Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, was a great wish for Goldziher. He wished it would be fulfilled, and it has already been fulfilled. He visited Egypt twice: the first time in 1874, and stayed there for four months, and was forced to return to his homeland, where his father fell ill and then died. He visited it again in 1896, and he compared in his diaries between the two visits, in terms of the level of education in Al-Azhar, and on his second visit he visited the House of Sciences.

The wish of studying at Al-Azhar is being fulfilled

Goldziher’s greatest wish was to study in Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, and he faced an obstacle that he was not a Muslim, and that the study of non-Muslims in Al-Azhar was a rare thing that had not happened before, so one of the officials in the Ministry of Education accompanied him to the Minister of Education, Mustafa Riyad Pasha, as a strange European man in his culture and breadth of knowledge. The Minister of Education wanted to speak to him in French, but he refused goldziher, He begged him to speak to him in his Arabic language, admired his personality, and invited him to visit him weekly. Riyad Pasha offered him to help him in any service he requested, so Goldziher asked to help him study at Al-Azhar, and he replied that it was difficult.

Goldziher said: “The Pasha explained to me the difficulty of achieving this, and that no non-Muslim person had studied at Al-Azhar, but I was not convinced, and I declared that I was not asking for anything other than that, and that he could consider me a Muslim as he told me because of my strong love for studying Islam, so he said: But the Mufti will not accept So, I cannot force him to accept you. So I said: Write me a recommendation for that, and I will go with the hope of acceptance.” Indeed, Riad Pasha wrote a letter of recommendation to the Mufti.

A meeting in the house of Abbasi Mahdi, the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar

Goldziher went with a letter of recommendation from Riyad Pasha, and went to the Saray of the Abbasid Mufti al-Mahdi, and the Mufti’s grandfather was a Christian and converted to Islam. Goldziher says: “When I entered the hall, I found the mufti heading a group of scholars, discussing with them a problem related to the distribution of inheritance, so I listened to the dialogue carefully and calmly, until the great sheikh noticed my presence, so he asked me if I was the man recommended by his friend the minister? And he asked me what religion I owe. I told him. I am the one whom Riyad Pasha bestowed upon him with his grace. My name is Ignas Al-Majri, I was born among the People of the Book, and I was raised to believe in Monotheism.” I had prepared this answer before entering the hall. The Mufti asked me if I understood anything from their conversation about Islamic legislation, so I took out from my bag the tables of inheritance distribution according to the inheritance law, and signs of astonishment and exclamation appeared on the faces of the scholars who gathered in the session.

Then the Mufti asked him about the conscience of the believer in monotheism, and whether Goldziher wanted to ridicule what was happening in the mosque and what was said about it. He assured him of his faith in monotheism, and that since his youth he dreamed of learning from the sheikhs and receiving knowledge from them. The attending sheikhs spoke of what would help Goldziher in his request.

A letter from the Sheikh of Al-Azhar enables him to study

Sheikh Al-Abbasi Al-Mahdi was convinced to help the Hungarian student to study at Al-Azhar, so he wrote this decree, imprinting his name and position:

To the sheikhs, students and custodians of Al-Azhar Mosque.

A letter of warm recommendation was presented to us from our great friend Riyad Pasha, the Hungarian student Ignace, who is one of the People of the Book, expressing his longing to deepen his knowledge of Islam under the auspices of the sheikhs and scholars of Al-Azhar Mosque. He tasted salty drops of it, and he swore to me that his nostalgia was not driven by mere living among you. He has declared that he is far from any desire to ridicule you. And it is God’s will that this young man joins our mosque, Al-Azhar, and there is no God’s will. I will place Aeginas under my protection as long as he deserves it, and he will present himself first to the Ashmouni elder.”

Sciences that Goldziher received at Al-Azhar

By virtue of the fact that he became a neighbor in Al-Azhar, he received several sciences, he talked about them, and his great benefit from them, so he studied under Sheikh Al-Ashmouni the sciences of hadith, and he was an elderly sheikh of nearly a hundred years, and he received from him the principles of Hanafi and Maliki jurisprudence, and he was embraced by one of the sheikhs of North Africa – and his name is Sheikh Mahfouz – and he was praised a lot in his diaries, as well as Sheikh Al-Sakka, and they were the most famous scholars of Egypt at the time, as he says, and he listened to other sheikhs.

Rather, he wrote about what he learned in Al-Azhar: “I was very happy, because I learned a lot, and it became clear that the lessons I learned and what I got from them will suffice me for more than fifteen years, despite the obstacles that I will encounter in the future.”

His daily schedule in Cairo

Goldziher filled his day with business, from early morning until he fell asleep. He used to wake up at the dawn call to prayer, then go out after that, wander around Cairo, and spend more than two hours a day in the Egyptian House of Books now, which was called at the time: the Khedive Book House. , or to the university upon his return, which represented a huge wealth of books for him, which remained a source and reference for his writings throughout his later life.

He roamed the streets of Cairo, mixing with sellers and people, picking up from them the Egyptian colloquial language, especially the language of the people of Cairo. He listened to the songs of the youth, and wrote an article about that published in the German Orientalist Magazine.

After joining Al-Azhar, he used to mix with his students for a long time, until they became familiar with him and loved him quickly, and he praised this, and the simplicity of Al-Azhar students, and their love for every student of knowledge, even if he was a non-Muslim foreigner. And at night he goes to visit the open houses for discussion by the notables of Egypt, whether they are politicians, culture or literature.

Neighborhood and Friday prayers in Azhar uniforms

Goldziher stayed for four months at Al-Azhar, keen to attend lessons, and to fulfill what he promised, of his goodwill in his request for knowledge, and that he did not intend evil, or to write anything offensive to Muslims or their mosques, and he remained proud in his diaries, that he was “neighboring” in Al-Azhar, He is what is known in our custom as the student, and he wore the jubba and the Al-Azhar turban, and he sat among his students, kneeling on his knees, seeking knowledge.

Rather, he went through a strange experience that he advised not to repeat, which is his going to Friday prayers, and he wore the Al-Azhar uniform and the turban. And he says about his desire to do so: “I had an overwhelming desire to join the sheikhs in the Friday prayer, even if I was not invited to do so, because I am not a Muslim, although I sincerely wanted to bow down with thousands of believers, and to kneel and prostrate before God, and call: God Akbar, rather, to cover my face in the dust with the worshipers, in the hands of the One, the Subduer, and then I resolved to perform the Friday prayer with the Muslims.”

After his return from Friday prayers, the news of his father’s severe illness came to him, so he was forced to return to his homeland, and thus ended his first visit to Egypt, and it was a visit to seek knowledge in Al-Azhar, and the second visit was in February 1896, and it was for days, in which he also visited the Dar Al Uloom building Then he returned to his university.

In his diaries, Goldziher compared the warmth of the Muslim East, and his compassionate treatment of him as a stranger studying Islam, and the estrangement of his countrymen and his sect with him. Rather, his trip to Damascus and Cairo remained a constant subject of pride throughout his life, as he wrote in his diaries. Rather, he saw that it had the greatest credit for him in his studies, from Through living with people, learning classical and colloquial Arabic, or the huge library he returned from Cairo, and the personalities he got to know, whether political, religious or public.

But it is very useful to stand on his comparisons and reflections on the Islamic reality through two major capitals: Damascus and Cairo, and the conflict of culture, civilization and Westernization in the two capitals, as well as his evaluation of the religious and political personalities he met. During his diaries, he looks at and compares these situations, which we will single out in an upcoming article, God willing.


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Diaries of a Jewish orientalist in Al-Azhar

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