The name Fatima Al-Fihri crowns the annals of history with the distinction of having established the world’s very first university. Yes, it was a Muslim woman who pioneered a model of higher learning coupled with the issuance of degrees of various levels.
Fatima Al-Fihri migrated with her family in the early ninth century from Qayrawan in present-day Tunisia to the city of Fez in Morocco. This was during the rule of Idrees II, an extraordinary ruler and devout Muslim. Fez at that time was a bustling metropolis of the “Muslim West” (known as al-Maghrib), and held the promise in the people’s imaginations of fortune and felicity. Having become one of the most influential Muslim cities, Fez boasted a rich combination of religion and culture, both traditional and cosmopolitan. This was the city, on the left bank of the River Fez, where Fatima’s family settled and she eventually married.
After much toil and struggle in humble beginnings, the family of Fatima was eventually blessed with prosperity. Her father, Mohammad bin Abdullah Al-Fihri, had become a hugely successful businessman. After the deaths of Fatima’s husband, father, and brother in short succession, Fatima and her only other sibling, Mariam, received a sizable inheritance which assured their financial independence. It was in this latter period of their lives that they distinguished themselves. Having received a good education, the sisters in turn hastened to dedicate all of their wealth to benefitting their community. Observing that the local mosques in Fez could not accommodate the growing population of worshippers, many of whom were refugees from Islamic Spain, Mariam built the breathtaking and grand Andalusian Mosque in 245AH/859CE. And Fatima founded Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University, considered by many historians as the oldest, continually operating, degree-granting university in the world. Historical references note that she directly oversaw and guided the construction process in great detail, certainly a testament to her great dedication as she had no expertise in the field!
Fatima had grand aspirations, and early on began buying property adjacent to the initial land, thereby significantly increasing the size of the mosque. She diligently spent all that was required of time and money to see the project to completion. She was also extremely pious and devout in worship and made a religious vow to fast daily from the first day of construction in Ramadan 245 AH/859 CE until the project was completed some two years later, whereupon she offered prayers of gratitude in the very mosque she had so tirelessly worked to build.
Masjid Al-Qarawiyyin, one of the largest mosques in North Africa, housed the university which was to become a major center of advanced learning in medieval times in the Mediterranean. Al-Qarawiyyin University is credited with producing many distinguished Muslim thinkers including Abul-Abbas, the jurist Muhammad al-Fasi, and Leo Africanus, the famous author and traveler. Other prominent names associated with the institution include the Maliki jurist Ibn al-Arabi (d. 543AH/1148CE), the historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 808AH/1406CE), and the astronomer al-Bitruji (Alpetragius) (d. 1204CE).
Non-Muslims were welcome to matriculate. In fact, the University’s outstanding caliber attracted Gerber of Auvergne who later became Pope Sylvester II and went on to introduce Arabic numerals and the concept of zero to medieval Europe. One of the university’s most famous students was a Jewish physician and philosopher, Maimonides. He was born in Andalusia in 1138 while it was flourishing as an intellectual and cultural hub under Muslim rule. His family moved to Fez, Morocco in 1160 where he was heavily influenced by Islamic thought. A distinguished theologian, he was the first to introduce articles of faith to Judaism; he considered it mandatory for every Jew to believe in the absolute unity of God, in His exclusive right to be worshipped, in revelation through prophets, resurrection, and Divine punishment and reward.
By the 14th century, the university housed the Al-Qarawiyyin Library which remains one of the oldest in the world, preserving some of Islam’s most valuable manuscripts. These include volumes from the Muwatta of Imam Malik inscribed on gazelle parchment, the Seerah of Ibn Ishaq, the premier transcript of Ibn Khaldun’s Al-‘Ibar, and a copy of the Qur’an gifted to the institution in 1602 by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur.
Fatima Al-Fihri’s Legacy
Almost 1200 years have passed since the founding of the University of Al-Qarawiyin in 859, and it continues to this day to graduate students in the various religious and physical sciences. This esteemed institution, which already had 8,000 students by the 14th century, is central to the legacy of Fatima Al-Fihri. Her story is one of timeless dedication to the Islamic tradition of learning and academic study, as well as personal devotion to pleasing Allah SWT by serving as a genuine benefactor to humanity. The world is richer as a result.