Fatima al-Fihri: Founder of Oldest University in the World
Fatima al-Fihri, a remarkable woman of her time, left an indelible mark on history by establishing the oldest university in the world. Born in the 9th century in present-day Tunisia, she dedicated her life to education and philanthropy, becoming a symbol of women’s empowerment and intellectual pursuit. She is also referred to as “Mother of the Children” or al-Banīn. Around 880 AD, Al-Fihri passed away. Ibn Abi Zar, who died between 1310 and 1320, describes her as the mosque’s creator in The Garden of Pages (Rawd al-Qirtas). This article delves into the extraordinary life of Fatima al-Fihri and explores the founding of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, a renowned institution that continues to thrive to this day.
Early Life and Education:
Fatima al-Fihri was born in 800 CE into a prominent family in the city of Kairouan, located in present-day Tunisia. Raised in an environment that valued knowledge and learning, Fatima received an excellent education from an early age. She was well-versed in various subjects, including theology, mathematics, linguistics, and natural sciences.
After the family moved to Fez, Morocco, following political unrest in Kairouan, Fatima al-Fihri inherited a substantial fortune from her father. Inspired by her deep-rooted belief in the transformative power of education, she decided to dedicate her wealth to the establishment of a university.
Founding of the University of al-Qarawiyyin:
In 859 CE, Fatima al-Fihri laid the foundation for the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. Initially, the institution primarily focused on religious studies and Quranic teachings. However, it soon expanded its curriculum to encompass a wide range of disciplines, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, law, and humanities.
The university quickly gained a reputation for its academic excellence and attracted renowned scholars from different parts of the world. It became a prominent center of learning during the Islamic Golden Age and played a significant role in preserving and advancing knowledge.
Fatima al-Fihri’s vision for the university extended beyond its curriculum. She also ensured that the university provided housing and stipends for students, establishing a system that supported their pursuit of education. Additionally, she allocated funds for the construction of the university’s impressive library, which became a renowned repository of manuscripts and rare books.
Why did Fatima al-Fihri build the al-Qarawiyyin mosque?
Fatima had a firm faith. When her father and her husband both passed away, she received a sizable sum of money. She made the decision to utilize it to construct a mosque in Fez that would be large enough to accommodate the city’s ever-increasing Muslim population.
Fatima began her construction project around the beginning of the month of Ramadan of year 254 of Hegira, that is, 859 A.D., after purchasing land from a man of the “Hawaara” clan.
The renowned mosque of al-Qarawiyyin, which dates back to the 10th century, was North Africa’s earliest and largest Arab university. Numerous students and well-known scientists were drawn to it.
Read about the Top 10 Oldest Mosques in the World here.
Why is the University of Al-Qarawiyyin so well-known?
Prior to the earliest institutions in Europe, the University of Al-Qarawyyin is regarded as the oldest university still in existence. UNESCO and Guinness World Records support this. The year al-Qarawiyyin was established as a mosque is used as the date of reference, indicating that the institution has always included an educational component. In this regard, it predates both the University of Bologna (1088 A.D.) and the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu by more than two centuries each.
Numerous poets, Faqîhs (Muslim jurists), astronomers, and mathematicians from across the region are among its alumni.
Historical figure Abdurahman Ibn Khaldun, physician and philosopher Abu Walid Ibn Rushd, Andalusian doctor Musa Ibn Maimonou, and Gerbert of Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II, are all well-known individuals.
Legacy and Influence:
Fatima al-Fihri’s vision and dedication left an enduring legacy. The University of al-Qarawiyyin continues to operate to this day and is recognized as the oldest existing degree-granting university in the world, according to UNESCO and the Guinness World Records.
Throughout the centuries, the university has undergone numerous expansions and renovations. The original building, which Fatima al-Fihri herself commissioned, remains an integral part of the institution. Its architectural splendor combines both Andalusian and Moroccan styles, showcasing the rich cultural heritage of the region.
Beyond its historical significance, the University of al-Qarawiyyin has made significant contributions to the fields of science, arts, and philosophy. It served as a meeting point for scholars, fostering intellectual dialogue and the exchange of ideas.
Fatima al-Fihri’s establishment of the university also highlights her commitment to philanthropy. A significant portion of her inheritance was allocated to support the university’s ongoing operations and maintenance. Her dedication to education and the pursuit of knowledge set an example for future generations and played a vital role in empowering women in a predominantly patriarchal society.
Fatima al-Fihri’s unwavering commitment to education and her pioneering efforts in establishing the University of al-Qarawiyyin have had an immeasurable impact on the world. Her vision continues to inspire generations of scholars and serves as a reminder of the transformative power of education.
The University of al-Qarawiyyin stands as a testament to Fatima al-Fihri’s enduring legacy and the enduring importance of education as a means of fostering progress and understanding. As we reflect on her life and achievements, we honor her contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the empowerment of women.