musings travel

Fatima Al-Fihriya, the Woman who Founded the Oldest Continually Operating University in the World

My trip to Morocco was a great opportunity to know more about the Maghrebi people and their legacy.

One of the most impressive stories I’ve heard was about Fatima al-Fihriya, founder of al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, in Fez, Morocco, which would later become the University of Quaraouiyine,  also written as al-Qarawiyyin or Al-Karaouine, the oldest existing, continually operating and the first academic degree-awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records.

Fez, one of the most influential cities of the Muslim world, has been recognized for centuries as a religious and cultural hub, and its position was greatly reinforced by the presence of the University of Quaraouiyine.

Let’s dive into the story of its founder of the 9th century!

Fatima, or Um al-Banin, is from Kairouan in Tunisia. She emigrated very young with her family to Fez, in northern Morocco, during the reign of Idris II. Her father was a wealthy merchant and after his death, Fatima and her sister Maryam decided to use the inherited fortune in the service of their community, to honor the memory of their late father.

Thus, in 859 AD, Maryam led the construction of a mosque in the district of Al-Andalus, while Fatima began to renovate and expand a mosque in the district of al-Qarawiyyin. They first acquired the neighboring lands to allow the extension of the mosque, which would be the largest in North Africa.

The Qarawiyyin Mosque, which would later become the first university in history, produced great thinkers such as Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Abu Madhab al-Fasi, a great theoretician of the Maliki school, and Leo Africanus, the famous traveler and writer. Historical sources also speak of luminaries such as the philosopher Ibn al-‘Arabi, the historian Ibn al-Khaldoun, or the Andalusian astronomer Alpetragius (Al-Bitruji) who taught the students of al-Quaraouiyine.

The university played a leading role in cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe. A famous Jewish philosopher and theologian, Ibn Maimoun (Maimonides) studied in this institution. Gerbert d’Aurillac, who is none other than Pope Sylvester II and the one who introduced the zero figure in Europe, was also a steadfast student.

In fact, the university not only taught religious but also secular and scientific subjects such as grammar, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography, and even music! Gradually, a wide range of subjects was introduced such as natural sciences, physics, and foreign languages. This versatility made it an institution of knowledge in its own right, attracting scholars and students from all over the world, and from all faiths. A Maghrebi Sorbonne!

Today, the mosque includes one of the largest libraries in Morocco, founded in 1349 by Sultan Abu ‘Anan al-Marini. It contains thousands of rare works and manuscripts, such as the Muwatta of Imam Malik and the Sirah of Ibn Ishaq.

The generosity and intelligence of this woman allowed the emergence of an architectural and intellectual jewel of international influence.

The library of the University has been closed for centuries and was recently restored and opened to the public. It was another woman, the Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni who led the restorations, a work that took 4 years to be completed.

If you are visiting Fez, do not hesitate to go and contemplate this marvel of the Islamic civilization!

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