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


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 world 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 history records.

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 are crown jewels and powerful symbols of female aspirations and creative leadershiip in Muslim history.

Set up in 859 (almost a hundred years before the foundation of Al Azhar in Cairo) and nestled in the old medina of Fez, Morocco’s University of al-Qarawiyyin is acknowledged in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest institution in the world operating as an academic degree-granting university.

Located within the compounds of a mosque that would in the coming centuries expand to become the largest enclosed mosque in the continent of Africa – capacity 22,000 – the university attracted scholars from all over the world to the magnificently influential city of Fes. Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus are some of the leading thinkers, theorists, and writers produced by Al-Fihri’s university. Renowned mapmakers, astronomers, and historians attended as students. Al-Fihri’s sister, Mariam built the Al-Andalus mosque.

From about 700 to 1700, many of history’s greatest achievers were to be found in the Muslim world. In Christian Europe the light of scientific inquiry had largely been extinguished with the collapse of the Roman Empire. But it survived, and indeed blazed brightly, elsewhere.

From Moorish Spain across North Africa to Damascus, Baghdad, Persia and all the way to India, scientists in the Muslim world were at the forefront of developments in medicine, astronomy, engineering, hydraulics, mathematics, chemistry, map-making and exploration.

Fatima al-Fihri migrated with her father Mohamed al-Fihri and sister Mariam from al-Kairouan (al-Qayrawan) in Tunisia, to Fez in Morocco. She was well versed in classical Islamic learning such as fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith (Islamic traditions based on Prophet’s life) Fatima inherited a large fortune from her father whom she used to build a mosque and university. Mariam, Fatima’s sister, was the sponsor of the Al-Andalus mosque, also in Fes.

Fatima was undoubtedly a pious woman with a visionary and architectural acumen who was guided by a magnanimous heart and a perspicacious mind. She was endowed with a fortune bequeathed by her father. 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, form putting up the foundation through to the functionalizing of these institutions. When she embarked on her mission, she had lost her father, husband and brother – all primary source of support and protection for a women. Any other Muslim 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 situations when women normally shun the world and seek company with the home.

The 18th and 19th centuries and to its occupation by France, from 1912 to 1956, Morocco remained practically unknown to the rest of the world. Even the professional Arabist knew far less about it than he did about the Near East. Thus it is seldom realized that Morocco was the first western country to produce a university that has functioned uninterruptedly to the present day.

Having already in 918 become the official mosque in which the sultan attended the Friday prayers, the Karaouine was taken over by the State. From the Idrisi in the 9th century to the Alaouites in the present, the Karaouine was being enlarged and embellished by successive dynasties. But it attained its present size already under the Almoravid Sultan ‘Ali ibn Yiisuf (1106-1 145). The largest mosque in Africa — it accommodated 22,000 worshipers — the Karaouine soon also became the chief centre of Muslim scholasticism in Africa, and one of the leading ones in Islam in general. While architecturally less distinguished than some of the other mosques at Fez, it impresses by size and dignity, and in its two arched pavilions it possesses specimens of Moorish architecture whose grace and beauty are unsurpassed by anything in the Alhambra at Granada.

Though the library of the Karaouine is today but a pale shadow of what it must have been at the time when the 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 still give the visitor a genuine thrill: for example, a volume of Ibn Khaldiin’s History in which the author had annotated in his own hand that this was a genuine copy, a working copy of Ibn Rushd and an Ms. written entirely by Ibn Khgtimah, not to speak of some magnificent copies of Al-Bukhsri’s Hadith. (That these treasures are in a pitiful state and that the Moroccan Government is too poor to house them in conditions that would more effectively assure their future, is a matter for regret.)

The golden era of the Karaouine was in the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, that is, under the Almohades and throughout the reign of the Merinids, those eager patrons of learning and builders of some of the city’s most exquisite architectural monuments. In those days the university attracted students not only from Africa and the Muslim world beyond, but even from Europe. Due to the seclusion in which it had chosen to live through most of the 18th and 19th centuries and to its occupation by France, from
1912 to 1956, Morocco remained practically unknown to the rest of the world. Even the professional Arabist knew far less about it than he did about the Near East, Thus it is seldom realized that Morocco was the first western country to produce a university that has functioned uninterruptedly to the present day.

In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, George Makdisi has demonstrated how terms such as having “fellows” holding a “chair,” or students “reading” a subject and obtaining “degrees,” as well as practices such as inaugural lectures, the oral defense, even mortar boards, tassels, and academic robes, can all be traced back to the practices of madrasas.

The initial curriculum focused on the religious sciences and later covered other disciplines such as grammar, geography, history, mathematics, medicine, chemistry and astronomy. The university played a leading role in the cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe. 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.

The prestigious academic reputation transcended religious divisions. Popular tradition suggests that Gerbert of Auvergne (930-1003), who would become Pope Sylvester II who is credited with introducing Arabic numerals to Europe, was once a student at al-Qarawiyyin.

The university served as a bridge of knowledge between Africa and between the Middle East and Europe. When Muslims were expelled from Spain in the 13th century, many of them came to Fèz and to Qarawwīyīn. They brought with them their learning of European and Moorish arts and sciences.

The most efflorescent period for the institution spanned between 12th and 15th centuries when it was lavishly patronized by Almohades and Merinids.

Al-Qarawiyyin, produced a number of high profile scholars who exercised a strong influence in the academic realms in the Muslim world. Among the great names, the list include Abu Abullah Al-Sati, Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Ibn Rashid Al-Sabti (d.721 AH/1321 CE), Ibn Al-Haj Al-Fasi (d.737 AH/1336 CE) and Abu Madhab Al-Fasi who led his generation in studies of the Maliki school of thought.

On the world stage, Al-Qarawiyyin played, in medieval times, a leading role in the cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge between the Muslims and Europeans. Pioneer scholars include Ibn Maymun (Maimonids, (1135-1204) who was taught at Al-Qarawiyyin by Abdul Arab Ibn Muwashah. The famous 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 are said to have all taught in Al-Qarawiyyin. Some historical accounts also spoke of Ibn Zuhr (d.1131 CE) spending a great deal of time travelling between Andalusia, Fes, and Marrakech.

Besides Pope Sylvester II, other Christian students include the Belgian scholar Nichola Louvain settled in Fes in 1540 and studied Arabic at Al-Qarawayyin, to be followed later by Golius who also studied Arabic there.

A special room with strict security and temperature and humidity controls houses the several ancient works. The library’s collection of over 4000 manuscripts t include volumes from the Sirat Ibn Ishaq, the earliest collection of biographicaal accounts of the Prophet and the famous Muwatta of Imam Malik written on gazelle parchment, There is a treatise on the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence. Its 200 pages of gazelle leather are inscribed with tiny immaculate calligraphy dotted with embellishments in gold ink. There is also a 12th-century copy of the Gospel of Mark in Arabic.

Another precious possession is a ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin given to the university by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur Al-Dhahabi in 1602.The library has the original handwritten and signed copy of historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s Al-‘Ibar. “Book of Lessons.” “Praise be to God, what is written belongs to me,” reads a line in Ibn Khaldun’s elegant handwriting and an original copy of Muqaddimah. It also has 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. There is also a 12th-century manuscript – a treatise in astronomy by philosopher Al-Farabi – shows the course of the planet Jupiter, complete with drawings of astonishing precision.

History show that early Muslim women reformers were authentic exemplars of modern economic and social philosophies. More important the early role models were altruistic whereas many of their present day peers are driven more by populist impulses.

What’s important about Fatima al-Fahiri’s story is that she creates not only a sense of pride for younger girls, but also a sense of possibility. In her they can see the story of women’s resilience and vision.

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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