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Article: A Jewish Scholar in Al-Azhar College

מאמין בין מאמינים

A Jewish Scholar in Al-Azhar College

Samuel Thrope 

In January 1874, a young scholar of Islam, Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), met with Shaykh ʻAbbasi, the rector of Al-Azhar, Cairo’s illustrious university. Goldziher’s goal was to convince ʻAbbasi to admit him as the first-ever non-Muslim student.

When Abbasi asked Goldziher to state his religion, the latter replied in fluent Arabic with a clever deflection: “My name is Ignaz al-Majari, I was born among the ahl al-kitab, and I believe that I shall be resurrected with the confessors of oneness.” 

Rather than confessing his true identity as an observant Jew, Goldziher called himself first a Hungarian (majari), then one of the Islamically sanctioned “people of the book,” and finally a believer in divine unity. Goldziher went on to demonstrate his erudition in Islamic law and was successfully admitted to the university.

Despite his outstanding scholarship and rare first-hand familiarity with Islam, Goldziher was not awarded a university position upon returning to Budapest. Largely because of his refusal to convert to Christianity, he spent most of his professional life as the secretary of the Jewish community. Nonetheless, by the time of his death in 1921, he was renowned as Europe’s preeminent authority on Islam.

In that same year, the Zionist Executive was discussing the establishment of the Hebrew University and saw Goldziher’s collection of 6,000 books and manuscripts as central to the project. The Goldziher Library, which arrived in Jerusalem in 1924, remains the core of the National Library’s Islam and Middle East Collection today.