Ever walked down the halls of your campus and wondered whose brilliant idea it must have been to these hubs of learning?
Well, thanks to Fatima al-Fihri that universities around the world exist today. Having created the world’s first known university, the University of al-Qarawiyyin, a centre of higher education, it ultimately paved the way for modern universities around the globe.
A Tunisian Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri founded the first known university more than 1,000 years ago: the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. It is acknowledged as the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world by Guinness World Records. One other issue most people miss with the story of Fatima al-Fihri is that the establishment falls under the Waqf system of Islam.
Much about al-Fihri’s early life is lost to time, but it is known that she was born into a wealthy merchant family who prized education – even for women. Fatima and her sister, Mariam, were devoutly religious and well-schooled. In the early 9th century, the al-Fihri family left Tunisia and relocated to Fez –a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis by the standards of the time. Fatima inherited her fathers’ fortune on his death and together with her sister decided to invest the money to benefit their local community.
In AD859, al-Fihri began overseeing the construction of a building – 30 metres long with a courtyard, prayer hall, library and schoolrooms. She had decided that a place of higher learning was much needed in the city and founded the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University, naming it after her hometown.
At first, the educational institute of al-Qarawiyyin offered courses in religious instruction and the Qur’an, but its curriculum was gradually expanded to include Arabic grammar, mathematics, music, medicine and astronomy. The university quickly gained a reputation as a famous spiritual and educational centre, regularly visited by scholars and intellectuals from all over the world.
Al-Fihri became a trailblazer having established the concept of a university as we know it today. Her idea for an educational centre providing opportunities for advanced learning spread throughout the world in the Middle Ages, resulting in the founding of Europe’s oldest institutions in the following centuries, including the University of Bologna, founded 1088 and the University of Oxford, founded around 1096.
The institution continued to be extended after her death with the mosque becoming the largest in Africa, with a capacity of 22,000. In the very modern 21st century, the Al-Qarawiyyin University is still going strong – alumni include Fatima al- Kabbaj, one of its first female students, who later became the sole female member of the Moroccan Supreme Council of Religious Knowledge.