The Woman Who Founded the World’s First University

The story of an immigrant woman who changed the world

It was in the spring of her youth that Fatima al-Fihri came to an awful realisation: her beloved hometown did not want her there anymore. The city of Qairawan, her birthplace, was chasing her — and a thousand others like her — away with its unbearable taxes.

Fatima al-Fihri (800–880 AD) was the daughter of Abdellah Mohammed ibn Abdellah al-Fihri. Growing up in a family that gave priority to education, Fatima and her sister Maryam soon came to be known for their intelligence, wisdom and generosity. Fatima was attached to her birthplace, the city of Qairawan (or Kairouan) in Tunisia, and she did not want to leave.

Little did Fatima know that her migration would lead her to create something that would literally change the world.

It was in the year 824 AD that a rebellion against the regime in Qairawan began, leaving thousands of families stranded within the city. Fatima’s family, too, was caught up in the uprising, unable to envision a future in the midst of all that turmoil. The majestic city of Qairawan, with its beautiful palaces, glittering fountains and its temples of knowledge — could no longer be her home.

The al-Fihris, along with a vast majority of Qairawan, fled their beloved city and traveled nearly 1600 km, braving the harsh climates of the deserts of Africa, to reach Fez (now Morocco). Fez was the cultural, intellectual and spiritual epicenter of the then Islamic world. But it could only provide facilities to so many people, running out of basic necessities.

Fatima was a woman of intelligence and empathy. When her community despaired, she strengthened her resolve. She would give her people the facilities they were deprived of, the facilities they need. She would give her people hope.

But a dream, more often than not, remains forever a dream.

With continued hard work and undying faith in God, Fatima’s family dragged themselves out of poverty and despair. Her father’s businesses soon flourished and he became a highly successful businessman in Fez.

Just when things were looking up, tragedy struck Fatima’s family when her beloved husband died. Her father and brother, too, followed her husband in quick succession, leaving her to share her grief with her sister, Maryam.

It was at a time like this — when her family was torn apart and her sorrow weighing her down — that Fatima decided to renew her faded dreams: her dreams of uplifting the lives of her people. The majority of the family’s wealth was inherited by these two strong women, and their ambition was greater even than the city.

Amid uncertainties and half-formed ideas, the two sisters — with single-minded intent, fiery passion, and undying faith — set out to change the world.

While Maryam built the Al-Andalus Mosque of Fez in 859 to accommodate the refugees pouring in to Fez from Islamic Spain, Fatima was determined to construct a place for people to gain education without hindrance. She did not know it then, but the madrasa (as it was called then) she built in 859 would go on to become the very first university in the world, preceding even the University of Bologna by more than two centuries.

Fatima was a devout Muslim, actively engaging in charity and community service, and strongly believing in the value of education. She named the madrasa after her beloved hometown: Al-Qarawiyyin.

Amid uncertainties and half-formed ideas, the two sisters — with single-minded intent, fiery passion, and undying faith — set out to change the world.

Older even than the oldest European universities — older than the University of Bologna (1088 AD), older than the University of Oxford (1096 AD) — the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, according to UNESCO and the Guinness World Records, holds the title as the oldest existing, continually operating, first degree-awarding university in the world.

The University of Al-Qarawiyyin (also Al-Karaouine), which was then just called a madrasa (an institute of religious learning), was 30 m long, with a courtyard, a large library, and several schoolrooms. Although initially only the Qur’an and related religious lessons were taught, many other courses of study, like mathematics, medicine, Arabic grammar, history, geography, astronomy, chemistry, music and logic were soon introduced. Fatima studied there herself, along with her students, and awarded them degrees once they successfully completed the courses: a degree that was chiselled onto a wooden board, which is now displayed in the university’s library. She also conducted debates and symposiums periodically for her students, producing politically-aware individuals.

With these innovative ideas, Fatima al-Fihri had not merely founded the first university, but had introduced the concept of awarding degrees that is now an essential part of modern higher education.

As the university’s fame began reaching far and wide through the tales of the travelers, it drew renowned scholars and eager students from across the world. Rich nobles donated priceless volumes of historical texts to its library. Through its body of European students and visiting scholars, and through the translation of valuable texts from Arabic to Latin and Spanish, the exchange of ideas from Al-Qarawiyyin to Europe helped to increase the rate of scientific progress in later years.

In fact, the university produced a number of celebrated intellectuals and historians who are still known to this day: the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes); Andalusi diplomat and geographer, Hassan al-Wazzan (Leo Africanus); and historian and thinker, ibn Khaldun; and even the famous Jewish philosopher, Moses ben Maimon, aka Maimonides. The Christian scholar, Gerbert of Aurillac (946–1003), who later became Pope Sylvester II, is believed to have visited the university several times. His visits helped him introduce Arabic numerals and the concept of zero to Europe.

The library of Al-Qarawiyyin now includes more than 4000 rare manuscripts from ancient historians, such as a copy of the Qur’an from the 9th century, which is written in Kufic script on the skin of a camel and gifted by a sultan; an Arabic version of the Gospel from the 12th century; the 14th century text Muqaddimah by ibn Khaldun; and a volume from the Muwatta of Imam Malik, inscribed on a gazelle parchment.

The university played such a profound role in our concepts of higher education that many practices introduced within its premises are still in use in modern universities: awarding degrees, wearing academic robes and tassels, presenting an oral defense, etc.

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Courtyard of the University/Madrasa (Image by Abdel Hassouni)

Through the intervening centuries, as Fez started to lose its importance as the cultural and intellectual hub of the world, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, too, began to see its decline. There were sultans who believed in twisted versions of religion, whose faith was steeped in self-made notions of patriarchy. There were sultans who selfishly guarded the reservoirs of knowledge in this prestigious university for themselves. And by about the 15th century, with the advent of the Merinid reign, the university was no longer the intellectual paradise that it once was.

But in the 20th century, the university was renovated, and steps were taken to preserve its priceless collection of texts. Female students were once more given their right to study within its grounds, a right they were deprived of during the dark years. The library, too, was reopened for all to explore, and not merely for researchers and nobility.

Amid uncertainties and half-formed ideas, the two sisters — with single-minded intent, fiery passion, and undying faith — set out to change the world.

Older even than the oldest European universities — older than the University of Bologna (1088 AD), older than the University of Oxford (1096 AD) — the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, according to UNESCO and the Guinness World Records, holds the title as the oldest existing, continually operating, first degree-awarding university in the world.

This reputed university operates to this day, with its students still seated around their instructors (professors) in a semicircle, called a halqa. But now it offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs, and publishes several periodicals annually.

Outwardly, things are much like how they used to be back when Fatima al-Fihri tread upon its mosaic floors, inspecting the proceedings, listening in to the lectures even during her old age, smiling at the earnest faces and offering small words of encouragement. But the partially destroyed documents and the evidence of lost manuscripts are a scarring reminder that the University had seen some of the darkest times in history, but had still managed to remain resilient throughout the ages — as determined to serve the people as Fatima al-Fihri herself.

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