Egypt's famed Al-Azhar University, which has turned out top Islamic scholars around the world including Singapore's Mufti Fatris Bakaram, is opening a branch in Malaysia.
The campus will be located in Nilai town in Negeri Sembilan, about an hour south of Kuala Lumpur and close to the city's international airport. It will take in students from September next year, Second Education Minister Idris Jusoh said on Tuesday.
It will be called Universiti Al-Azhar Tuanku Muhriz Campus, after the Negeri Sembilan ruler, Tuanku Muhriz Tuanku Munawir.
The moderate Al-Azhar, founded around the year 970 in Cairo, is the most prestigious centre of Islamic and Arabic learning, with hundreds of Islamic teachers in Singapore among its alumni, including Mr Fatris and former mufti Syed Isa Semait.
Datuk Seri Idris said it would be Al-Azhar's first international branch. He was speaking at the airport after arriving home from Cairo, where he had received a letter of agreement from the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Professor Ahmed al-Tayeb, Malaysian media reported.
"The agreement is an endorsement for Malaysia and will make it easy for Muslims in the Asian region who want to continue their studies in the university," said Mr Idris, who was in Cairo to help evacuate 277 Malaysian students.
He did not say if the setting up of the campus is related to Egypt's political turmoil, only that negotiations had gone on for some time. Nor did he say if fees at the Malaysian campus would be higher or lower than in Cairo.
Malaysia has so far brought home 1,305 students from Egypt. Many are studying at Al-Azhar, with the rest at Egypt's medical universities. Another 1,056 students have chosen to remain in Egypt for now. In Malaysia, a degree from Al-Azhar is widely seen as a basic requirement to be classified as an ustaz (Islamic teacher) or ulama (cleric).
Several past Malaysian ministers in charge of Islamic affairs and most of the state muftis studied at Al-Azhar, as did the spiritual leader of Parti Islam SeMalaysia Nik Aziz Nik Mat, and the party's president Abdul Hadi Awang.
Mr Idris said the Malaysian campus will be built on 80.8ha in Nilai. For starters, it will begin recruiting students in Islamic law, Islamic tenets and Arabic language.
A Singaporean who graduated from Al-Azhar in 1996, mosque preacher Firdaus Yahya, 41, said that while bringing the university nearer home is good for regional students, "they will miss out on being immersed in an Arabic-speaking environment and culture". They will also miss interacting with visiting professors and elder clerics, he said.
Mr Rashidi Hassan, a Malaysian whose son is a student of Islamic law, said studying in Egypt is cheap.
With the ringgit about double the value of the Egyptian pound, he sends his son about RM1,000 (S$390) to cover fees and living expenses a month, and another RM1,900 to fly home once a year. He prefers that his son continues studying there when the political turmoil has subsided.
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