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Fatima Al-Fihri: The Woman Who Founded World’s First University – OpEd


“The colours of the universe are there because of the existence of womankind.” — Sir Muhammad Iqbal


Did you know the first university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman? Of course you didn’t.

In recent years, on account of sustained negative stereotyping across the media, the phrase “Muslim woman” might conjure an image of a demure and powerless woman oppressed by antiquated customs. Yet this image is not what our history records or what our present reflects.

Muslim men may fret that they lose when their women win, but history tells us that when women advance, humanity advances. The al-Qarawiyyin university and its founder Fatima al Fihri (c. 800 – 880), a wealthy Arab woman, are crown jewels and powerful symbols of female aspirations in Islamic culture which has a long history of valuing education, innovation and knowledge. This should not come as a surprise because The first revealed word of the Qur’an commanded the believers to “Read!” And this commandment did not distinguish between male and female believers. The Prophet Muhammad praised the women of Madinah for their pursuit of knowledge: “How splendid were the women of, the Ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith.”

Set up in 859 and nestled in the old medina (ancient part) of Fez, Morocco’s University of al-Qarawiyyin is acknowledged in the Guinness Book of World Records as also by UNESCO as the oldest institution in the world operating as a continually operating academic degree-granting university.

It has a fairly extraordinary history – Al-Azhar had not yet been born. Flanked by the dense warren of cobbled streets and the hallowed aura in which it sits, the older parts of the university are steeped in charming history. With its academic reputation, venerable traditions and a rich and glittering alumni line-up, it attracts student form far parts of the Muslim world.


Located within the compounds of a mosque that would expand to become the largest enclosed mosque in the continent of Africa in the coming centuries – with a capacity of 22,000– the university attracted scholars from all over the world to the magnificent city of Fes.

In the world of Islam, higher education together with religious and literary sciences was practiced in Masjids (mosques) and sometimes in the houses of the “mudarris” (professors), in accordance with medieval tradition.

Starting from the ninth century A.D., separate madrasahs began to be established next to masjids. These madrasas were called “mosques”, which means “gatherer” in Arabic. In Europe, the Latin word “Universitatis” was used as the equivalent of the word “mosque”. Universities were divided into kulliyahs (faculties) and each kulliyah offered education in a different field of science.

Fatima’s family was part of a community called the “Qarawiyyin” (the ones from Qayrawan) whose two thousand families migrated from Qayrawan in Tunisia, to Fez in Morocco which was then under the rule of Idris II, a respected and devout ruler. After the community was banned by the local ruler. The caravan included Fatima’s father Muhammad bin Abdullah Al-Fihri, and sister Mariam.

Fez — for many, the cultural and spiritual centre of Morocco — is now one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world. the entry to the walled city is through the Blue Gate, one of 13 mighty gates which punctuate its vast sandstone fortifications. The medina (enclosed space) is humongous where 270,000 inhabitants live cheek by jowl. At times the streets are so narrow that you have to press yourself against the shops to avoid being crushed by donkeys laden down with wood, carpets, hides and spices. The city lives in an old world charm. However, the heart of Fez beats in al-Qarawiyyin the grand university and an abiding symbol of a lady’s spiritual quest for learning and knowledge. The institution is only 30 years younger than city itself.

That it would benefit us all to build a world where every girl has the opportunity and security to obtain an education. , with ornate carved cedar facades and distinctive stucco and tilework (or zellij) shoemakers who were hand-stitching yellow leather slippers Fassis (people of Fez). In a remarkable feat of personal success, she adroitly shed the image, daunting.

Time seems to have stopped in Fez Seems suspended in an ancient century . Life plays out in the ancient medina – the “new” part of which dates back to the 13th century – much as it has since medieval times are still pleasant (in the mid-teens) and the enchanting alleys are relatively crowded, with visions of vendors hawking everything from argon oil to spools of colorful three ornate wood craftsmanship carving combs, necklaces and trinkets from cattle horns the cultural and intellectual heart of Morocco. I lost count of the number of people who told me proudly that Fes is how a knife grinder spins his stone wheel, a spoon is carved out of cedar wood, a bobbin shuttles across a loom and yarn is dyed in local mordents.

Fatima was well versed in classical Islamic learning such as fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith (Islamic traditions based on Prophet’s life). She inherited a large fortune from her merchant father which she used to build the university. Mariam, Fatima’s sister, was the sponsor of the Al Andalus mosque, also in Fez. Today the university has moved to a new location, but the mosque — which shares an emerald-green tile roof with the library — still stands.

Fatima was a pious woman with a visionary and architectural acumen who was gifted with a magnanimous heart and a perspicacious mind. Far from reveling in wealthy pursuits, she used the resources very frugally to set up a mosque, university and library -the highest trinity of Islamic piety.

She personally supervised the entire gigantic enterprise, from putting up the foundation to the functionalising of these institutions. When she embarked on her mission, she had lost her father, husband, and brother – all primary sources of support and protection for a woman. Any other woman would have retreated to the backwaters of domestic life. But Fatima appears to have been an extraordinarily inspired and determined woman with steely grooves. All her great achievements came during periods of loneliness and in circumstances when women normally shun the world and seek the company of the home.

Having already become in 918 the official mosque in which the sultan attended the Friday prayers, the al-Qarawiyyin mosque was taken over by the State. From Idrisi in the 9th century to the Alaouites in the present, it was enlarged and embellished by successive dynasties. But it attained its present grandeur under the Almoravid Sultan ‘Ali ibn Yusuf (1106-1 145).

The design of the mosque is austere. The columns and arches are plain white; the floors are covered in reed mats, not lush carpets. Yet the seemingly endless forest of arches creates a sense of infinite majesty and intimate privacy, while the simplicity of the design complements the finely decorated niches, pulpit and outer courtyard, with its superb tiles, plasterwork, woodcarvings and paintings.

The present form of the mosque is the result of a long historical evolution over the course of more than 1,000 years. Originally the mosque was about 30 meters long with a courtyard and four transverse aisles. The first expansion was undertaken in 956, by Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, Abd-ar-Rahman III. The prayer hall was extended and the minaret was relocated, taking on a square form that served as a model for countless North African minarets.

The most extensive reconstruction was carried out in 1135 under the patronage of the Almoravid ruler sultan Ali Ibn Yusuf who ordered the extension of the mosque from 18 to 21 aisles, expanding the structure to more than 3,000 square meters. The mosque acquired its present appearance at this time, featuring horseshoe arches and frames decorated with beautiful geometrical and floral Andalusian art, bordered with Kufic calligraphy.

The golden era of the al-Qarawiyyin was i the 12th 15th centuries, that is, under the Almovades and the reign of the Merinids who were devoted patrons of learning and builders of some of the city’s most exquisite architectural monuments.

At its peak it offered an enormous number of subjects -grammar, rhetoric, medicine, mathematics logic, astronomy, chemistry, geography history, and music — drawing scholars and students from all over the world.

When Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, Al-Qarawiyyin witnessed a decline as a center of learning. However, it had retained some significance as an educational venue for the sultan’s administration. The student body was rigidly divided along social strata; ethnicity (Arab or Berber), social status, personal wealth and the geographic background (rural or urban) determined the group membership of the students who were segregated on the teaching facility as well as in their personal quarters. The French administration implemented a number of structural reforms between 1914 and 1947, but did not modernize the contents of teaching likewise which were still dominated by the traditional worldviews of the ulema. At the same time, the student numbers at Al-Qarawiyyin dwindled to a total of 300 in 1922 as the Moroccan elite began to send its children instead to the new-found Western-style colleges and institutes elsewhere in the country.

In 1947, Al-Qarawiyyin was integrated into the state educational system, but it was only by royal decree after independence, in 1963, that the madrasa was finally transformed into a university under the supervision of the ministry of education. The old mosque school was shut down and the new campus established at former French Army barracks. While the dean took its seat at Fez, four faculties were founded in and outside the city: a faculty of Islamic law in Fez, a faculty of Arab studies in Marrakech and a faculty of theology in Tétouan, plus one near Agadir in 1979. Modern curricula and textbooks were introduced and the professional training of the teachers improved. Following the reforms,al-Qarawiyyin was officially renamed “University of al-Qarawiyyin” in 1965.

In 1975, the General Studies were transferred to the newly founded Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University; al-Qarawiyyin kept the Islamic and theological courses of studies.

In 1988, after a hiatus of almost three decades, the teaching of traditional Islamic education at the madrasa of al-Qarawiyyin was resumed by king Hassan II .According to Yahya Pallavicini, the university model did not spread in Europe until the 12th century, and was found throughout the Muslim world from the founding of al-Qarawiyyin in the 9th century until at least European colonialist.

It counted several distinguished personalities among its visitors and alumni. They included Ibn Rushayd al-Sabti (d. 1321), Mohammed Ibn al-Hajj al-Abdari al-Fasi (d. 1336), Abu Imran al-Fasi (d. 1015), a leading theorist of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, Leo Africanus, a renowned traveler and writer. Pioneer scholars such as Al-Idrissi (d.1166 AD), Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240 AD), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 AD), Ibn al-Khatib, Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius)and Ibn Hirzihim were the Belgian Nicolas Cleynaerts and the Dutchman Golius.

The astronomer Al-Bitruji (Alpetragius), Abu Madhab Al-Fasi who who was a pioneer scholar of the Maliki school of thought, Ibn Maymun (Maimonids, (1135-1204) who was taught by Abdul Arab Ibn Muwashah. The famous astronomer Al-Idrissi (d.1166 CE) is said to have settled in Fes for considerable time suggesting that he must have worked or studied at Al-Qarawiyyin. Sources also list a number of peers such as Ibn Al-‘Arabi (1165-1240 CE), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395 CE), Ibn Al-Khatib, Alpetragius, Al-Bitruji, Ibn Harazim, and Ibn Wazzan. Some historical accounts also mention Ibn Zuhr (d.1131 CE) spending a great deal of time travelling between Andalusia, Fes, and Marrakech. The cartographer Mohammed al-Idrisi (d. 1166), whose maps aided European exploration in the Renaissance lived in Fes for some time, suggesting that he may have worked or studied at Al-Qarawiyyin.

Gerbert of Auvergne (930-1003,) later Pope Sylvester II — studied there, and was credited with the introduction of Arabic numbers and the concept of zero to Europe, Among other Christian students, the Belgian scholar Nichola Louvain settled in Fez in 1540 and studied Arabic to be followed later by the Deutch Golius who also studied Arabic there.

The university boasts of one of world’s greatest libraries, which is nestled in a labyrinth of streets. The Qarawiyyin library is home to priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy and medicine. Founded by Fatima, the library as it appears today, was built in 1349 by Sultan Abu Inan, and totally restructured under King Mohammed V, the grandfather of Morocco’s current monarch.”A house of science and wisdom,” was how the inspired Fatima loved to describe it.

Over the centuries, sultans, noblemen, princesses and wise men have contributed works to its shelves. Under an imposing ceiling of wooden arabesques and a huge copper chandelier, the main reading room sits next an area that contains some 20,000 books. “A wise man without a book is like a workman with no tools.” So goes an old Moroccan proverb .For centuries, scholars from far corners of the world flocked to this treasure house of knowledge.
Though the library is but a pale shadow of what it must have been at the time when Merinid Sultan Abii Inan stocked it with thousands of manuscripts that formed part of the booty won from the Christian King of Seville, some of its possessions are still rare specimens. It houses 5,600 titles, more than half of which include multiple copies.

One example is a treatise on medicine by philosopher and physician Ibn Tufayl from the 12th century. “From baldness to corn on the foot, all ailments of the body are listed — in verse to make them easier to learn. The word “diabetes,” which is of Greek origin, already features written in Arabic script. The library counted 30,000 manuscripts when it was founded under Abu Inan. But many were destroyed, stolen or plundered over the years. A wooden diploma of Fatima is also on display.

The collection also includes volumes from the Sirat Ibn Ishaq, the first official biography of Prophet Muhammad the original copy of the Muqaddimah a 14th-century historical treatise by the renowned scholar Ibn Khaldun (previously displayed by the Louvre in Paris), the earliest collection of Khaldun’s “Book of Lessons “which has been signed by the thinker himself, the famous Al-Muwatta (collection of Prophet Muhammad’s legal instructions) of Imam Malik written on gazelle parchment. There is a treatise on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence written by the grandfather of the Arab philosopher Ibn Rochd, also known as Averroes. Its 200 pages of gazelle leather are inscribed with tiny immaculate calligraphy dotted with embellishments in gold ink.

Another precious possession is a ninth-century version of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic (the oldest form of Arabic calligraphy) on camel skin. it was given to the university by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur Al-Dhahabi in 1602 .There is also a 12th-century manuscript – a treatise in astronomy by philosopher Al-Farabi –which shows the course of the planet Jupiter, complete with drawings of astonishing precision. There is also a rare 12th century copy of the Gospel of Mark in Arabic. It was translated “in all likelihood by a Christian man of letters from Andalusia who had come to Qarawiyyin to learn Arabic

The University of Al Qarawiyyin is still considered a leading religious and education institution in the Muslim world. The university has moved away to another part of Fez, but the mosque and the library remain at the ancient complex.
What’s important about Fatima al-Fihiri’s story is that she creates not only a sense of pride for a younger girl but also a sense of possibility. They can see the story of women’s resilience and vision in her. She did more than just make an endowment for the construction of the university. Throughout the entire period of construction (11 years according to some sources,18 according to others), she fasted and actively participated in the entire endeavour. We are talking about a woman who lived over 1,200 years ago. What we can understand from this is that at that time, not only were Muslim women far from oppressed, but the Islamic social system allowed them to claim their space, make their mark and pursue their dreams and ideals. Fatima’s honorific title: Oum al Banine, or “Mother of the Children.”

We all know this: every human life has the same worth, and deserves the same chance in life. And more than anything else, education, even at its most basic, is the best chance anyone can have to make a good life—for themselves, and for the rest of us. Education is also the best defense we know against poverty and violence. Your gender doesn’t preclude you from leading an active career.

Moin Qazi

Moin Qazi began his early career as a development journalist. While still at college he began writing on Issues relating to the plight of child labourers. He did his post graduation in English and English with distinction from Nagpur University in 1980 and obtained his PhD in English from Los Altos University in 1989 and in Economics from Nagpur University in 2012. An accomplished poet, he has contributed to Indian Pen, The Independent, The Illustrated Weekly of India, Kavya Bharati, The Muse etc. His poems have also been set to music by Hollywood companies. He received Hon D Litt at the World Congress of Poets held at Istanbul in 1989. He has contributed articles to Indian and foreign publications including The Times of India, Statesman, Indian Express, The Economic Times, Financial Express, The Hindustan Times, Business Standard, The Hindu, Mainstream, Asian Age, Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek (Hong Kong) Daily Sabah (Turkey), Moroccan Times, Chicago Monitor, Sudan Vision and Times of Malta.He has authored several books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts.

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