Rabat – One such figure is Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya (also known as Fatima al-Fihri) who was born from humble beginnings in A.D. 800 in modern-day Tunisia. Al-Fihri is credited with founding Al Quaraouiyine mosque, library, and university in Fez with her own money in A.D. 859, naming the ground-breaking educational institution after her hometown of Qayrawan.
The world’s first university and the first educational institution to award degrees, Al Quaraouiyine is one of the most influential and impressive in history, particularly given the state of societies in the 9th century, as well as the place of women in those societies.
For a North African Muslim woman to establish such an institution, which she opened to people of all ages, social classes, and faiths, is testament to her exceptional vision for her society and her innovative mindset for the ways in which education could be transformed.
The oldest existing and continually operating university, the University of Al Quaraouiyine predates the foundation of all of the world’s most established and impressive educational institutions, including the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Oxford (1096), the University of Salamanca (1243), and Harvard University (1636).
Moreover, terms and concepts associated with higher education are all traceable back to the practices found in Al Quaraouiyine, from obtaining degrees, to wearing tassels and academic robes, to presenting an oral defense, to fellows “reading” subjects.
Al Quaraouiyine’s library is also the oldest in the world, containing a copy of the Qur’an dating back to the 9th century A.D., written in Kufic script on the skin of a camel, as well as thousands of manuscripts from a wide range of fields. It also contains an Arabic version of the Gospel that dates back to the 12th century A.D.
As well as having a profound impact on education in the centuries following its foundation, the University of Al Quaraouiyine has drawn countless famous figures throughout history.
In addition to a number of prominent Muslim scholars, the university also attracted prominent Jewish and Christian figures.
Andalusi diplomat and geographer Hassan al Wazzan (Leo Africanus), Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), historiographer and thinker Ibn Khaldun, and Sufi poet and philosopher Ibn Hazm all studied at the university. Medical scholar Ibn Beja, grammarian Ben Ajrum, Dutch Orientalist and mathemetician Jacob van Gool, and Sufi leader Muhammad al-Jazuli, as well as Gerbert of Aurillac (who was Pope from A.D. 999 to 1003 and is credited for introducing the Arabic numerals we use to this day to Europe) were also believed to have studied at Al Quaraouiyine.
Free education, training courses, and the quality of the curriculum are some of the aspects of al-Fihri’s legacy that continue to make the University of Al Quaraouiyine a destination for philosophers, scholars, and intellectuals to this day.
The University of Al Quaraouiyine continues to contribute to and enrich scientific and intellectual debates in the fields of language and literature, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine, as well as Islamic law and jurisprudence. The university has particularly contributed to the Maliki school of thought within Islamic jurisprudence. Moreover, in more than one landmark debate, the scholars of the University of Al Quaraouiyine have found themselves on the frontline of political debates.
During a time in which medieval European societies were still in darkness, one 9th century Muslim woman had the commitment and the foresight to build a unique place of learning and intellectual advancement that has stood the test of time. The rest of the world has Fatima al-Fihri, the mother of intellectuals, to thank for the immense and far-reaching impact her university had on history.